Archives For Adolescence

You’re hired!

September 3, 2016 — Leave a comment

Woohoo! The 3-day weekend has arrived, bringing with it the official end of summer, family barbeques and picnics, and perhaps a parade. And it might be your last chance to go camping. It’s the last bash of the season.

But, you ask, exactly how does all of this honor the American worker? By giving all of us an extra vacation day! Since Americans work more hours than any other industrialized country, I think we’ve earned it.

This post is dedicated to the American worker – the common laborer who contributes to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country. More precisely, to this American worker and her very first foray into the world of work.

Before I was 16, I earned a little spending money by making and selling Barbie clothes. I also did babysitting occasionally, but those weren’t real jobs, where you go to a workplace and have a boss and coworkers. I’m talking about that kind of work. (My brief stint as a sewer of pockets doesn’t count.)

I had applied to college and realized should I actually got accepted, I’d need some moolah. So I got on a city bus after school one day in search of gainful employment. I headed south on Grand Avenue to this place…

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Those of you who know St. Louis, know that this establishment is iconic in the Gateway City. But I knew it as a place where a gal could pull down some serious tips as a carhop. The owner happened to be there and conducted an interview with me right on the spot. I was hired.

Mrs. Drewes knew that maintaining a stellar reputation in frozen custard world is serious business, and her tone said as much. She gruffly detailed the rules, handed me a few uniforms and aprons, and told me when to show up for my first shift. I didn’t react much until I got on the bus to head home. I was elated.

I had landed my very first job.

I was at that stand five nights a week through the rest of the summer, from about 6 p.m. to midnight. Because it was a very popular family destination, the parking lot was packed with wood paneled station wagons between suppertime and about 10:00 p.m. Cars would even circle the lot waiting for spots to open. Folks were also serious about frozen custard.

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I served too many cones to count. And sundaes and shakes and malts and floats and… banana splits! Everybody was always happy to see me headed to the driver’s window with a tray laden with frosty deliciousness. And happy dads passing out treats to happy kids meant happy tips for my apron pockets. Which was a very good thing because…

Mrs. Drewes didn’t actually pay carhops. The deal was you could work for tips. And we high schoolers were more than happy for the opportunity to beat the asphalt for six hours at a stretch to score those tips. Bona fide American workers contributing to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of South St. Louis.

When the family began clearing out, the same parking spaces were occupied by a steady stream of young people cruising around town. Young people are pretty serious about frozen custard, but not quite as serious about tipping. But the sheer volume would make up for it.

The Ted Drewes recipe consisted of four ingredients: cream, eggs, honey, and vanilla. No chocolate, no swirls. Just vanilla. But it was as delicious as it could be. And the Drewes operation produced a texture that was sheer perfection. Tips weren’t the only perk of the job.

Somewhere between 11:00 and 12:00 it would begin to slow down a bit and some of the gals might take a moment to sit on a guard rail and rest her Keds. Usually I just kept on moving, because once I stopped, I’d notice how much my feet throbbed. (Alas, no Air Jordans just yet.)

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Our uniforms were a lot like this, only white trimmed with blue.

Three memorable events occurred during the three months I worked there:

  • One of the inside workers – they were paid an hourly wage – introduced me to a new concoction. He put a squirt of strawberry topping in a drink cup, then filled it with lemonade and ice. Who knew the combination would be so yummy?
  • This dude drove off with one of my trays one night. At the end of my shift I had to pay Mrs. Drewes $1 to replace it. She had explained that particular rule at the very beginning, so it wasn’t a surprise. But I was still burned. $1 was a good-sized chunk of what I could earn in a night.
  • Service got very slow at about 10:00 p.m. on July 20th. There was a TV mounted on the wall inside the stand and we carhops lingered at the window for as long as possible. Our eyes were glued to Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. And for a moment, that was more serious than out-of-this-world frozen custard.

City buses weren’t running any longer by the time my shift ended, so my dad would always come pick me up. Then every night I would sit on my bed (with my feet up), count my loot, and roll coins. At the end of the summer I had amassed enough earnings to buy all my clothes and shoes for college, pay for a plane ticket to L. A., and had $300 to spare.

And I had become a slightly seasoned member of the American work force.

Happy Labor Day, everybody!

Established fact: I am a city girl.angus

Knowing (and even understanding) this fact has never kept me from succumbing intermittently to fantasies about country living and its imagined simplicity, or peace and quiet. But my reveries inevitably give way to the realities country living would necessarily entail, at which point I circle back to square one: I’m not particularly suited for country life. I guess I’ve spent too many years learning how to thrive while living “amongst”, rather than “dispersed”.

My two-year stint of quasi-rural life in the northern Great Plains during the mid-70’s only reinforced what I had already figured out. We lived in a town of about 10,000, which was the fourth largest town in the entire state. When you drove beyond the city limits in any direction, you had to drive at least fifteen miles before reaching the nearest town. The surrounding towns were s – m – a – double – l, as in fewer than 300 residents. To dine at a restaurant a step up from the local Country Kitchen required a sixty mile drive; a shopping mall, twice that distance. Such realities clashed with my more urban sensibilities. It seemed entirely possible that civilization could be spread too thin. I just wasn’t cut out for living in a rural context.

But living in the country and visiting the country are two very different things. I have discovered that I’m quite well suited for visiting the country.

My very first visit was in early adolescence. My parents had joined a church to which several farm families also belonged. A couple of these families had girls very close to my age with whom I became friends. When summer rolled around, I was invited to spend a week at a time on their farms. This could have put me in hog heaven, but alas, they raised Angus and Holstein.

I swapped out the more typical camp experience for these wonderful visits. While I may not have slept in bunks in a cabin, learned archery/water sports/campfire songs, or pulled pranks on the counselor, thanks to my country friends, I could anticipate an annual week or two of farm festivities, right up to the time I left home. And I rather preferred the enrichment of these excursions into country life.

After all, a city girl could learn a lot on a farm. Such as:

1. Sheets hung out on the line in the country smell incredible. Our family’s laundry was regularly hung on the line to dry, but when I made the beds at night, our sheets didn’t smell nearly as good as the country sheets.

2. Though you will see lots of cats, you are unlikely to make contact with even one of them. Since my mom insisted that all things feline remain outdoors, any mice we encountered were dealt with by mousetrap. Which meant that these farm visits were my introduction to a) the idea of “cats as mousers”, b) the need to keep the rodent population at bay in barns, and c) the benefit of having a sizable cat population. (The central theme of all those Tom and Jerry cartoons must have gone right over my head.)

While I understood their personal mission statements incorporated “Devour rodents in barn”, I couldn’t get my mind around these farm cats being completely indifferent to my presence. I think I took it personally.

3. 4-H is way cool. From time to time, my visits would coincide with 4-H functions and I would get to tag along. I was always amazed by the achievements, accomplishments and accolades of my rural age peers. Since I, too, had an interest in sewing and dressmaking, some of the intricate projects these kids undertook pretty much knocked my socks off.

4. It’s imperative to watch where you’re stepping. Enough said?

5. A calf’s tongue = sandpaper. I was startled the first time one poked her head through a fence and latched onto my finger. My utter deficit of farm critter savvy meant I would mindlessly allow this scenario to occur more than once. (Get it?…utter/udder…heh heh.)

6. Putting up hay = boys. Since the farm families I knew had mostly girls (only one son among a combined total of ten children!), they hired local teenage boys to help with the mowing, baling, and storing of the hay. My friends tried to time my visits during the hay season. (Good friends, indeed.) Sometimes I got to ride shotgun on the tractor fender while one of my friends drove the Deere, other times I helped get meals ready. After a long and sweltering Midwest summer’s day spent man handling hay bales, everyone headed for the pond to cool off, which took some of the sting out of the mandatory sunburn.

7. You will never get your swimsuit looking clean again after swimming in the pond. Period.

8. Homemade ice cream is fantastic. Where had it been all my life? This farm-fresh, frozen wonderfulness was the perfect finale to a day of putting up hay. The bale-toting guys each took a turn at hand cranking the ice cream freezer until cranking the dasher reached the desired level of difficulty, at which point the contraption yielded it’s extraordinarily delicious contents.

Curious, but this was the only time the cats actually came around…

9. Having a 500-gallon gasoline tank on your property and being able to fill your car for free is great. Okay, so the gas isn’t exactly free, but that’s how it seemed to me at the time, given the absence of a commercial gas pump clicking off the gallons by tenths, along with the corresponding price in dollars. No driving out of your way to find a service station, no jockeying for an open pump, no waiting in line to pay — opulence befitting a sultan, I’d say.

10. The night sky in the country is dazzling. The ambient light of the city ruled out such splendor, but away from the city — the stars, the moonlight… amazingly brilliant against the inky blackness. Now, a girl could get used to that.

Box office blues

March 7, 2014 — 2 Comments

What kid doesn’t like going to the movies? Whether it was mom taking us downtown on the bus to see a matinee — mostly animated Disney films — or the whole family piling into the car with our picnic basket to see a family friendly show at the drive-in, I loved it.

As a young girl, I only remember going once to a theater with just friends. Toby Tyler, Disney’s hot new release, was showing and a classmate invited me to come. I cried when Mr. Stubbs got shot (Toby’s chimpanzee companion), and then became overjoyed to find out he survived. But I also remember the popcorn smelled awesome that day and the chocolate covered raisins were particularly tempting. In addition, the theater was air conditioned. In the middle of the summer? Sheer luxury.

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By the time I was junior high age and we’d moved to the South Grand area of St. Louis, there were several movie theaters within walking distance of where we lived. As I recall, the one we frequented most often was the Melvin Theater on Chippewa Street, several blocks east of Grand Avenue. This theater was popular with our family because they played second run movies and admission was only  fifty cents. This appealed to my dad, who shelled out the dough for all of us to get in. The Melvin was about ten blocks from our house, so on nice evenings the whole gang would walk there and back, stopping for Velvet Freeze ice cream cones on the way home.

ritzAnother one was the Ritz Theater on Grand at Arsenal Street. I walked past the Ritz often, on my way home from school, because it was in the same block as the Woolworth’s dime store (where my friend and her sticky fingers exited the store with that stolen notebook). I studied the movie posters in the glass cases outside the theater, but most of the time I didn’t have two nickels to rub together, so I was mostly just window shopping.

I remember seeing posters featuring some pretty big names: child star Haley Mills had been wildly successful in both Pollyanna and The Parent Trap in the early 60’s, and by the time I was strolling South Grand, she was releasing The Moonspinners and That Darn Cat. I can’t begin to t ell you how much I adored Haley Mills. I think if I could have waved a magic wand to change myself into her, I surely would have done it. (Fortunately, I was constrained to remain myself.)

The ever popular Elvis had some releases during that period, notably Viva Las Vegas, Fun in Acapulco and Kissin’ Cousins. Being a little too young to have caught the Elvis wave, I thought these movie posters were interesting, but not nearly as compelling as the…

Beatles’ movies! Oh my, I got lightheaded when Hard Day’s Night came to the Ritz. To say that I wanted to see that movie would be a gross understatement. But, as luck would have it, their music was verboten in our household, meaning I would not be buying a ticket to see it. Nor Help! And not Yellow Submarine, either. My dad had made a very big point of the utter uselessness of the British Invasion. Which left me to my reveries while poring over posters of the Lads from Liverpool. But even more sinister than British rock leaping across the Pond, was the…

Bond genre. By the time I was strolling by the Ritz after school, From Russia with Love and Goldfinger were mega blockbusters, raking in a whopping $78 million and $124 million, respectively, in worldwide box office receipts. Connery was 007 back in the day, and he projected an edgy, cool, swaggering playboy persona. I’m confidant I would have gotten off easier had I been caught sneaking off to see a Beatles movie than one of the Bond films. They were sooo off limits for Burns kids. Which explains why I was flabberghasted several years later when a certain brand new fiancé of mine suggested we see the hot new release…

Diamonds Are Forever.

Recently graduated from college, he had moved to Seattle six months earlier. I flew up from Southern California for a visit during the semester break. We had just walked out of the downtown store where we purchased my engagement ring and there, across the street, was a theater marquee emblazoned with the latest Bond flick.

“Hey, wanna go to a movie?”

“Which one?”

“Turn around and see.”

A Bond movie? Whoa, he’s not kidding. But I’ve never even seen one. And what would Dad think? Wait… Dad’s not here. And didn’t I just get… engaged? Perhaps I’m an… adult.

He had just slipped a solitaire on my finger, and I was loath to deny this simple request to take in a matinee. Plus giddy over being newly betrothed. Though contemplating such racy behavior felt strange, it didn’t keep me from taking his arm and sachaying across that street and into the theater.

And to my surprise, I enjoyed the movie. Now, I don’t think Bond movies will ever be my favorites — you know, the sheer number of things that get blown up, and all. But if you stop and think about it, it was kind of poetic that we sealed the deal that day with a movie entitled diamonds are forever. That ring sits on my hand even now, next to a wedding band. Barring its loss, the ring will likely outlive us both: an enduring symbol of our grand love affair — one that will transcend our finite existence in a legacy bequeathed to our children, grandchildren and beyond.

Nice flick pick, Sweetie.

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He snapped this photo of me on the sidewalk outside the store, right after we bought the rings.

The one-day wonder

February 25, 2014 — 1 Comment

They say it’s important for young people to discover activities and interests that truly engage them and encourage them to be their best — so they can “express their personalities and make unique contributions to the world.” My mom hadn’t read the research supporting this assertion* — she seemed to just understand it intuitively. The woman single-handedly introduced me to more stuff that I could get excited about than you could shake a stick at. One of those things — which I’ve mentioned before — was sewing. I learned to love sewing. (An earlier post: All Dressed Up and Somewhere to Go).

Her teaching style was sort of hands-off, for the most part, because I have no recollections of her hovering as I worked. Of course, that may have had something to do with her caring, not just for me, but for four other siblings plus a big household. All that notwithstanding, whenever I hit an impasse, she was always available to explain the procedure thoroughly and/or demonstrate it, making sure I really understood the concept. This instruction continued for several years, and I gradually increased the level of difficulty with each project, with her providing my safety net all along the way.

Then one day…

…she apparently thought I’d mastered enough skills to recommend my services to a professional. For real. She did. I was about fourteen when she announced that a local woman who did repairs and alterations for a dry cleaners had agreed to let me work for her.

Say what?!! Me?!! But I’m just a kid!

“What kinds of things will she want me to do?”

“I don’t know… maybe replace zippers, mend ripped seams, sew buttons back on, hem skirts and slacks… things like that.”

“Think I can do it?”

“I wouldn’t have told her you were available if I didn’t think so.”

A couple of days later I walked to the woman’s house after school. Her manner was polite, but not at all warm or friendly, which added to my nervousness. I guess she considered this a business relationship. She escorted me to a sewing station in a small room behind her kitchen. Then she pulled out a large stack of cut pockets that I was to sew together using a French seam. (Folks probably don’t pay a lot of attention to the insides of pockets, but you won’t find any cut edges on either the inside or the outside of the pocket on a quality pair of trousers — hence, the need for a French seam, which encases all seam allowances.) She didn’t seemed all that convinced when I indicated I could do what she was asking.

I must have put together a couple dozen full pockets and another couple dozen half pockets that afternoon — more pockets than I’d ever seen in one place at one time, that’s for sure. They would eventually find their way into men’s trousers as replacement pockets. The extent of damage or wear on the pockets would determine whether a whole pocket or a half pocket was needed.

When I finally finished the last one, I got up to go inform my new boss I was done. We both returned to the sewing station, and she inspected the new pockets.

“This is good work,” she commented.

“Thank you.”

Then she said that was all she had for me to do that day and she’d call me when she wanted me to come back, so I headed for home. When I got there, I filled Mom in on everything: the task I’d been given and how I’d gotten the pockets all done, that she said I’d done a nice job, etc. And it hadn’t been too difficult, after all. I had demonstrated that I was capable, which left me wondering what the woman might have me do next: shorten a hem? take in a waistline? rip out a zipper?

Several days passed. No call. Then one afternoon, I walked through the back door and Mom said she’d called. Oh, boy! But then I heard the rest of the story: turns out, she didn’t want me back. Said she couldn’t afford to pay me by the hour because I worked too slowly. But to be sure and tell me that the pockets I had sewn were the best she’d ever seen.

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At the Singer, a couple of years after my one-day job (perhaps the only picture ever taken of me while sewing, which I did a lot)

Well, color me confused. Being brand new to this employer/employee thing, I imagined that my priority should be to demonstrate I could do quality work. Why didn’t somebody tell me she would also have an interest in efficiency?

So there you have it. A classic “good news-bad news” story: the good news — and I was really proud of this — was that my work had passed muster with a professional alterations seamstress; the bad news — I wouldn’t be making any money beyond the amount she paid me for that one afternoon. In a way, though, I was relieved: she was a little too taciturn for me to relax around. But who knows? She might have warmed up over the long haul, had I proven a suitable understudy.

About ten years later, I did earn money with my sewing — I just put out a shingle and did things on my own terms. I don’t think I ever really bothered to calculate how much I earned per hour, although by then I had gotten much faster than I was as a kid of fourteen. I mostly liked the oohs and aahs that inevitably came when I presented customers with their finished garments: a skirt that was now just the perfect length, jacket sleeves that didn’t cover their knuckles, or a custom fitted dress.

Several years after that, we had begun our family, so the shingle came down. And from that point on, all the sewing I did would be for love, not money. Most recently, my daughter-in-law showed me a picture of her idea for my little grand daughter’s costume, and, once again, I did my thing.

Say hello to Bat Baby.

Bat Girl

[ * Research on this subject at: Search-Institute.org/Sparks. These guys have great ideas and resources for supporting kids and the communities they live in.]

Cone of Shame

February 20, 2014 — 2 Comments

$(KGrHqR,!m!F!!BqYVQgBQPQD2lTLw~~60_57I suppose it’s time I divulged my criminal past.

I was a fifth grader when my family was shopping at a discount grocery and I spied an island display loaded with bulk candy. There, before my very eyes, was the mother lode of Brach’s. Why, that mound was nearly as tall as me.

Pink jelly bean nougats were my absolute favorite — highly prized and much anticipated in either Easter baskets or Christmas stockings. White jelly bean nougats (pictured) were a close second. These delightful treats were several cuts above the penny candy we bought at the corner delicatessen with money from scavenged Coke bottle refunds. Man, I loved those little nougats.

In our family, special were reserved for special occasions (and in most of the families I knew, as well). Children weren’t indulged every time they turned around. I mean, my idea of a Happy Meal was simply one that did NOT include canned hominy or turnips! All of which made Mount Nougat the greatest temptation I’d ever encountered.

Wow. I can’t believe the amount of candy on that table. Nobody’d miss just a handful of them…

And so, succumbing to the overwhelming desire welling up within me, I plucked some forbidden fruit, stuffed the morsels into my little pink clutch purse, then attempted to exit the store nonchalantly. All seemed to go well enough, until we piled into the car. Before Dad turned the ignition, my mom popped a question.

“You wouldn’t have anything in your purse you want to tell me about, do you, Linda?”

What?!! She was nowhere around when I was snatching the goods. She couldn’t have seen me…

[Silence.]

I couldn’t bring myself to tell her the truth, nor could I issue a lie from the hot seat right there between my brothers. I looked at the lumpy, bulging little clutch purse in my lap. Being the ever vigilant guardian of her brood, she couldn’t have helped but notice the tiny clutch had gotten mysteriously pregnant at some point during our shopping foray. For a fleeting moment, though, I thought about jettisoning the candies onto the floor board, but concluded that plan would surely end worse than just fessing up.

I nodded my mea culpa.

“Come with me.”

As she and I made the long trek back to the scene of the crime, she explained that I would be returning each one of them to the display.

No! Oh, please, no! What if someone sees?!! Everyone will know I’m a crook. Or, God forbid, the manager will think we’re doing something fishy and come over…

Remember the scene from the movie “Up” when the dogs sentence Doug to wear the Cone of Shame? This was me, every painful step of the way back to Mount Nougat. When we finally arrived at the dreaded display, I unzipped the purse, slid the cellophane wrapped contraband back onto the table with a gazillion other little candies, and slinked back out to the parking lot.

I love my sibs for not uttering a word to me the entire way home. In fact, no one ever said another thing about the incident, for which I was very grateful. The whole ordeal had been one big, hot coal on my head. I wanted to permanently delete it from my memory.

Three years later, on the way home from school, I bopped into Woolworth’s dime store with a friend. She wanted to get a notebook. I looked at jewelry and hair accessories while she shopped for her item, then she came over and indicated she was ready to leave the store. Apparently, they didn’t have her item in stock.

22281184i_01As we exited onto the sidewalk and faced the intersection at Arsenal and Grand, I said something about it being too bad they were out of what she wanted. Then she raised the corner of the sweater covering the books in her arm, revealing the very notebook she’d gone in the store to get.

“But you forgot to pay for it!!” I blurted.

“Would you be quiet!” she hissed, grabbing my arm and hustling me to the crosswalk.

And there it was, as big as life. The powerful lesson my mom had impressed on my not-yet-hardened heart. In the moment, it was enabling me to be as sure as Mt. Rushmore that I wanted nothing to do with this nonsense. My face flushed as we hurried. Had anyone seen her theft and questioned us, I didn’t think I could bear the agony of such an interrogation — I knew our parents would surely be contacted. I briefly thought about going back into the store to tell someone, but I knew she’d run. By the time we had crossed the street and walked about half way down the block, I figured she hadn’t been spotted. Exhale.

Sometime between that first instance of shop lifting, when my mom helped me realize the impact of my action: that despite the dizzying height of those candy peaks, mine wasn’t a victimless crime — there were real people connected to the purchase and display of the Brach’s candy from whom I would be stealing… and this next instance of shop lifting, when my friend filched a notebook, I realized I wanted to be trusted more than I wanted illicit things. (The lesson associated with the kitchen radio fiasco probably helped crystallize this notion for me.)

I wish I could say that I adhered to the Trustworthy Code of Conduct to which I aspired for the remainder of my adolescent years, but there would be other temptations on other days that proved more daunting than my fledgling resolve. But one thing I knew for sure: I was determined not to find myself in the company of someone who would steal ever again, if I could help it. The remainder of our walk home was pretty quiet; I think both she and I knew that exchange in front of Woolworth’s had ended our friendship.

And I was sad.

[Current estimates of Americans who shoplift are as high as 1 in 11. Shoplifting costs US retailers $15 billion a year. Retailers’ costs for prevention are also passed along to consumers: closed circuit TV’s, electronic article detection, metal detection, uniformed guards, locked merchandise, dummy cases, fitting room attendants, and test shoppers, whose purpose is to assess a store’s effectiveness in surveillance and detection. All of this takes an estimated $400 out of my pocket, your pocket each year.] 

My Tennessee valentine

February 14, 2014 — Leave a comment

Picture1gpWasn’t it fun making Valentines for your mom in elementary school? Teachers would go all out to supply froofy craft supplies so the love notes we lovingly created for our mothers would be super jazzy. And didn’t mom always seem totally pleased with these offerings? I also thought it was fun to decorate my Valentine “mailbox” and then read the messages on all the cards I got from my classmates, both during the party and then again several times after I got home from school.

But once I left elementary school I entered a valentine drought. Not a single junior high boy paid me any attention at all, that I could tell. (Might have been that whole counterproductive long jump challenge thing I was into.) Of course, there was that one older guy in the red and black letter jacket who was just messing with me when he said “Linda, Linda, will you marry me; he didn’t count. (He eventually hit valentine status, several years later.)

No, those junior high years were rather bleak. That is, until the fall of eighth grade. I met a boy from Memphis, Tennessee, at our annual denominational gathering in Texas. Our family was staying at a campground, and he took a notion to stop by our tent and invite me to go bowling with him and some of his friends. I liked to have fainted when my dad said okay. His college student brother gave us all a lift into town, and we bowled the afternoon away.

That was when I first fell in love. With folks from Tennessee, that is — the girls in the group treated me like I was their BFF, which struck me as classy. (I also fell in love with pin ball machines that afternoon, too, but that’s another subject for another post.) I think my best game was about 60, and I was hooked. In fact, the boy invited me to join the group for bowling the next couple of afternoons, and each day my game got a little stronger. As did my interest in the boy.

On the last free afternoon that week, his older brother had made arrangements for him to borrow a motorcycle and I was invited to go riding with him. While that was an appealing offer, it was such a warm day, and the lake beckoned, so I opted to join my family for a day of swimming and canoeing. Later that evening, a couple of the Tennessee girls stopped by my tent, visibly shaken. He’d had an accident while riding and was in the local hospital with a punctured lung.

The news catapulted me into a state I’d never before experienced – relief that I had not been on the motorcycle when it went out of control, yet fear and worry about his condition. All of which were compounded by some altogether new feelings aroused by him having shown interest in me. The school boys back home might not have been paying me much attention, but in less than a week, this Tennessee boy had rendered their disinterest moot.

Our family planned to return home the next day, and I was sad and nervous and wistful about his wellbeing and the prospect of not getting to say goodbye. Then my dad did something that blew me away. He offered to stop by the hospital on our way out of town so that I could see the boy, which meant the entire family would sit in the fully packed car and wait for me to visit a sweet kid from Memphis and tell him how sorry I was about his accident, and what a very nice week I’d had with him and his friends.

I walked down the hospital corridor with a quickened pulse and a lump in my throat. I wasn’t any good around blood and stuff, so I was way out of my comfort zone on several counts. The nurse showed me to his room and I just stood there. He was connected to several tubes, and bandaged up, but not looking too bad, all things considered. He was asleep.

“It would be better not to disturb him,” she said.

But I’m leaving town the minute I step foot outside this building! There’ll be NO second chances here…

But at age fourteen, I wasn’t very good at speaking up in the presence of authority figures. The nurse took my name and assured me she’d tell him I’d visited, and then I turned to walk back down the corridor. My goodbye would simply have to be conveyed via the United States Postal Service.

He got back on his feet in short order, and we corresponded for several months, but the distance took a toll on our young and unseasoned relationship. Nevertheless, the impact was felt: a boy from Tennessee liked me. It was enough, and it was everything.

But I wouldn’t get on the back of a motorcycle for a long, long time.

Dial “M” for Mistake

February 7, 2014 — 5 Comments

When Super Storm Beatles tracked across the Atlantic, headed for the states, I missed the first big wave that hit our shores because I had shelter. Boy, did I have shelter.

The first hint that I would be routinely sheltered from atmospheric phenomena in the world of rock ‘n roll occurred when I was about five. Elvis Presley was performing “Hound Dog” on TV and about halfway through the song, my dad got up and changed the channel. “Don’t need any of that in this house.” Dang. Most likely was Elvis’s gyrating that did him in.

By the time the Beatles were slated to debut on the Ed Sullivan Show, our family’s hatches had been fully battened down — not a chance that even a drop of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” would seep into our living room. No, we had been sealed in our own yellow submarine when the deluge began to pummel the homeland. Protected, I was. Seriously protected.

So on that Monday, when girls ran up to me and asked, with extreme animation, “Did you watch the Beatles last night?!!!!!” my reply was a soft-spoken, “No, missed it.” Then they would proceed to describe in detail the Fab Four’s appearance in all its wonderfulness, and I felt like I’d slept through a coronation or something. (Well, in a way, I sorta did.)

But I didn’t waste any time getting up to speed. A lot of days, I walked home with Roxanne, who had a transistor radio and who frequently bought teen magazines, which were generally plastered with photographs of the mop heads.

“Who do you think is cutest?”

Is she kidding? Like there’s even any contest! 

“Oh, I dunno — who do you think?” I replied, keeping the cards very close to the vest, as if her deeming him cutest too would somehow diminish the verve of my adolescent crush on Paul. You know, Paul — as in, the one who sang “Michelle” — en français. Be still, mon coeur.

Then there was my buddy, Desiree, whose parents not only let her listen to rock ‘n roll, but let her buy the 45’s. My visits at her house included lots of record playing. She was also fond of the Beach Boys, so I became familiar with “California Girls”, “Barbara Ann”, and “Good Vibrations”, too. Oh, help me, Rhonda!

SylvaniaGoldenShield01

Meanwhile, our home was devoid of any and all Billboard Hot 100’s. The radio perched atop the refrigerator was tuned to easy listening — Robert Goulet, Tony Bennett, Eydie Gorme, et al. Once in a while, a pop performer or group would cross over: Petula Clark’s “Downtown” wended its way into our kitchen via the airwaves, as did The Fifth Dimension’s “Up, Up, and Away”. (I’d cloak my glee to avert, if at all possible, that whole channel changing scenario.) The stereo in the living room was reserved for classical music, with the occasional big band thrown in. And there’d be no watching the Monkees on TV, either. At times, I thought I’d die for want of a rock ‘n roll fix.

Then one Sunday afternoon, my parents left me to watch my three younger siblings for several hours. I instantly sized up a ripe opportunity. But I generally didn’t violate house rules. Enter: Inner Conflict. I resisted. Temptation mounted. I held out. For a while. Alas, temptation overpowered my resolve.

I reached for the radio dial and turned to the station preferred by every warm-blooded adolescent I knew. And I cranked up the volume. The fall from saint to sinner was as simple as that. But I’m here to tell you, forbidden fruit is sweet, and “She’s Got a Ticket to Ride” never sounded better.

“You’re gonna get in trouble, Linda,” came a little voice from the kitchen doorway.

“Why, you gonna tell Mom and Dad?”

“No, but we’re not supposed to listen to rock music.”

Well, fine. Way to spoil the moment.

The brief exchange succeeded in smiting my conscience, and the next song just didn’t satisfy like the first ones, so I turned off the radio. Score that: Guilt 1; Contraban 0. I decided to turn my attention to the household chores I’d been asked to do, then hung out until Mom, Dad and my older brother returned. I think it was later the same day, and I was in my bedroom, when Mom wanted a little music to cook by and turned on the radio.

Not being a very clever sneak, I failed to return the radio dial to Mom’s easy listening station. And I also forgot to reset the volume control knob. Big lapse. Herman’s Hermits came blaring through the house. For about three seconds. I froze in my tracks waiting for the shoe to drop.

I honestly don’t remember any consequences for my behavior other than the self-inflicted shame of having violated the house rules, and knowing my parents knew I’d exposed the younger kids to musical pathogens. I wanted to be trusted and responsible more than I could ever want stolen pleasure from a handful of popular songs.

And that was the last time I ever did that.

Besides, I still had Roxanne and Desiree.

Well endowed

February 4, 2014 — Leave a comment

So I mentioned there were several neat things about the K-8 school I attended when I was junior high age? And how I got the chance to learn French, and how one day a classmate ended up with a big surprise at the end of French class?

Well, another thing I really liked about going to that school was being a walker. Not that I had anything against riding school buses — it’s just that there were so many cool things to see and do between the school and my home. We lived a block and a half off South Grand Boulevard in St. Louis, which was lined with commercial establishments: dime stores, grocery stores, laundromats, a movie theater. Sprinkled throughout the neighborhood, on the corners of the residential streets, were smaller mom and pop stores: delicatessens, shoe repair shops, dry cleaners, barbers and beauty shops, etc. I especially liked the sounds and smells that emanated through open doors in nice weather: the pounding of the hammer, and the leather, machine oil, and polishes at the shoe shop; the hiss of the steam presser and fresh, clean garments at the dry cleaners; the ring of the cash register and the dill pickle barrel at the deli; or the hum of the hair dryers and the hairspray at the salon. So much entertainment for the savoring.

Those were different times indeed, when school children were rarely chauffeured by parents, but free, instead, to dally on the way home from school. There was one particular stop I made more frequently than the others, and where I probably dallied the longest: the Carpenter Branch of the St. Louis Public Library, right on Grand, about two blocks from my school.

library bookshelf books_wide-44ef18fbad7f4ef4ba0cd513d6c1f3263d7bf073-s6-c30

It had the smell of lemon oiled reference desks and reading tables. The rows and rows of shelves lined with books were absolutely tantalizing — what to read next? I mean, I could take home a new book every single day, if I wanted to, making it pretty easy to keep up with the pack in Mrs. Frenzer’s seventh grade reading contest. For the most part, I hung out in the youth section, rarely venturing into the adult stacks. My face must have become very familiar to the staff.

While they were always helpful and friendly — in a quiet sort of way — I didn’t actually give the staff much thought. Too bad for me. As it turns out, I would have done well to have become better acquainted with one of the employees. He frequently manned the desk at Carpenter Branch during the years I was a regular. But he just didn’t stand out all that much. He was, after all, a… well, a… librarian*. If I ever did know his name, I sure forgot it along the way.

George Kyle2

George Kyle

Then several years ago, an Associated Press article popped up on an internet news site about a long-time employee who left a small fortune to the Carpenter Branch Library. Say what?!! — hey, that’s my library!

Turns out this mild mannered, fairly ordinary man — whose name, I learned, was George Kyle — loved the library and its books so much that he secretly schemed to set aside enough of his modest wages from 46 years of wages from the library to leave a gift of over $350,000 when he died, at age 88. Stunned coworkers and friends suspect that he had invested quite shrewdly over the years, since he would have never brought home more than $20,000 per year during his career.

fred rogers

Fred Rogers

According to a friend, “His passion was books, and he loved to talk about what he read, everything from the big bang theory to calculus.” I instantly recognized the picture that accompanied an article about his gift in a St. Louis periodical. I think he looks pretty happy. Made me think of another modest man who left a rich legacy that will continue to give for generations.

So now every year, as a result of Mr. Kyle’s bequest, new books with plates dedicated to both his mother and his father will be added to the children and adult sections of the library using the interest from the endowment. A regenerating gift from a man of simple lifestyle and huge passion.

So there you have it. A girl who frequented a library on her way home from school. A man who worked the checkout desk regularly during that period. The girl thinking this man was just a librarian. The man stamping due dates inside her borrowed books with a quiet secret tucked away in his heart, one that surely fueled tremendous joy.

I was a kid. And I missed it.

Just goes to show you: you can’t judge a book by its cover.

[Read the full article on Mr. Kyle’s gift here.]

* DISCLAIMER: My sincerest apologies to librarians everywhere for my pin-headed, youthful stereotype of your profession. (That means you, Jacquie, and you too, Tena.) My bad. I now know you guys hang out at wild and crazy librarian conventions

Parlez-vous français?

January 31, 2014 — 2 Comments

francais2I mentioned last time that I was disappointed to arrive as a new student at a school with grades K-8 and miss out on junior high. I didn’t mention that there were redeeming aspects to this new school, one being that I would be able to study French.

Foreign language instruction typically begins in high school, but this school was piloting an enrichment program, and I slid right in on the deal. They enlisted a native speaker to teach the language au naturel: no textbooks or written materials of any kind for the first two years. This would theoretically result in a good ear for the way French should be pronounced. And that is how I ended up in Madame Medley’s classroom.

She was originally from Marseilles and was what many would consider the classic French woman: stylish, attractive, sophisticated, enigmatic, cool, and polite — but frank. Her silk stockings may have rustled softly as she strode past one’s desk, but make no mistake: Mme. Medley was definitely in control of the class.

She made use of cartoon characters on film strips projected onto a screen and reel to reel audio tapes to teach us. Week by week and month by month, we’d progress from one film strip to the next as we mastered the vocabulary introduced on each one. The main character, “Lynne”, and an adult with whom she interacted became familiar friends.

“Bonjour, Lynne.”

“Bonjour, Monsieur.”

“Comment ça va?”

“Très bien, Monsieur.”

Lynne and Monsieur walked us through numbers, colors, foods, articles of clothing, furnishings of a home, and myriad other categories, gradually incorporating verb tenses, articles, conjunctions, syntax and other components of the language into the lessons. On occasion, Mme. Medley would show us a film about France to educate us about the culture. And we were in hog heaven the day she played a 45 of the Beatles’ new release “Michelle”, with Paul McCartney singing en français!

At this point I should mention that in order to get to the French classroom, we would exit our homeroom on the second floor, march down two flights of stairs, pass the lunchroom, the gym, and the boiler room to arrive at a very long, narrow room that could in no way have ever been intended to function as a classroom, with its small windows near the ceiling and scant natural light. But this very feature made it easily darkened and ideal for viewing film strips and movies.

Then one morning, the exceptionally dark classroom played a key role in an awkward development.

We had been doing the standard drill for much of the class period: repetition of new phrases aloud as Mme. Medley advanced the film strip in step with the tape recording. As the hour came to a close and the lights came back on, giggles erupted in her otherwise very contained classroom. In moments, all eyes were on one of my classmates.

Throughout much of the lesson this student had been mindlessly fiddling with her ball point pen, in the same way that a girl might twirl a lock of her hair while reading a book or watching TV. So what’s the problem, you ask? She had inadvertently clicked the ball point pen open, and the dozens and dozens of lazy circles she traced around her mouth left a thick dark blue ring — an inky mustache and beard. No one had noticed before it was too late because we’d been… sitting in the dark.

Mon Dieu, c’est très drôle.

Instant in her intervention on behalf of the mortified lass, Mme. Medley, with a mere facial expression, a few gestures, and only a sentence or two, made it known to all that expressions of amusement at this girl’s expense were to cease immediately. The student was excused ahead of the class to scrub off the unwanted doodle in the Girls’ Room. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t come completely off right then — and nobody expected that it would — but, being a generally good-natured person, she took things in stride and chose not to let the gaffe spoil her day.

Sometimes I wonder whether there are grandchildren who surround her dining table nowadays who have heard tell of the day the lights went out in French class and Grandma debuted as the star of the…

“Bic Van Dyke Show.”

beards

 (Heh heh.)

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Rose Fanning Elementary School

Actually, I didn’t learn a single thing in junior high because…

I didn’t go to junior high.

We moved the year before I would have gone and the new school had kindergarten through eighth grade under one roof. I was bummed about missing out on this rite of passage.

During the years I would have been in junior high, though, I did learn a few things, to wit:

  • Landscape designers can and do err.

See those leaves framing the photo above? When I was attending that school, those trees were gingko trees, which had been planted around the entire block. For three seasons of the year, these trees seemed innocuous enough — lovely components of the overall landscape design, by all appearances.

Then in the fall, things got funky. While the leaves were turning a warm, golden color, the fruit of the female ginkgo trees were releasing their odor. Tree experts might tout that “the few weeks of unpleasant aromas are worth it for the beauty the trees add the rest of the year”, but I beg to differ.

You simply can’t justify planting gingkos near an elementary school when there exists a plethora of trees that don’t drop Stink Fruit! I could at this point describe the stench the small cherry-sized fruit released when squished underfoot by students pouring out of the school at 3:30, but it’d be pretty gross. And to make matters worse, boys sometimes thought to throw the nasty berries at each other, rendering the sidewalks a war zone, and me a scurrying refugee. So, NO GINGKO TREES NEAR SCHOOLS. PLEASE.

  • 1960’s girl’s PE uniforms were an amazing equalizer: they made everybody look bad. Everybody.gym uniform

Perhaps the worst fashion statement ever. They hit “homely” right out of the park. Only saving grace? Everyone was in the same boat.

  • By the time you get to seventh grade, there just aren’t many boys who can sing soprano any more.

The last holdout was this guy who was really smart, was a pitcher on city leagues for years, and who all the girls thought was cute. (In addition, he had very good penmanship — and you regular readers know how I respect excellence in the handwriting department). He was that kid who sort of defines “cool” in your peer group. And I’m thinking the other boys might have relished this irony.

  • Having a teacher for a parent doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll move to the head of the class.

I would have figured a kid could just know lots of stuff by osmosis if he or she lived with a real live teacher. But the classmate whose mom taught at a nearby school was just a middle-of-the-road, ordinary student. Color me surprised.

  • If you challenge the boys in your class to broad jump contests on the playground and proceed to jump further than all of them, you will get noticed, but not in the way you wanted.

(Don’t ask me why I expected it to turn out differently…)Milk-Milk-Straws

  • If you blew it with just right amount of force, you could get your straw wrapper to stick to the air intake vents on the lunchroom ceiling.

You just didn’t want to get caught in the act.

  • If you miss nearly two weeks during the first month of your eighth grade year, you might not totally figure out what’s going on in algebra the rest of the year.

Sigh. I really needed a tutor.

  • The prickly eighth grade teacher, who seemingly enjoyed intimidating students, was ill-advised to have taken issue with my reasons for being gone for nearly two weeks at the beginning of the year.

She apparently deemed travel to another region of the U.S. to attend an annual religious gathering with the family a poor excuse for my absence and hassled me about it. I mentioned this at dinner, and the very next day, my dad was at the school going head to head with her in the small unoccupied instruction room next to our classroom. (That he took off work to come to school during the day was a really big deal to me.)  I couldn’t hear the exact words spoken during their very animated discussion, but he had my back. The woman treated me right the remainder of the school year.

Praise the Lord and pass the 3-D grapher.