When I was six and a quarter, in September 1951, we moved to Streator, Illinois.
After Dad got his bachelor’s degree at Knox College, we had moved away from Galesburg—away from Dale and Hado, away from warm-globed lamps on purple-bricked streets, away from iceboxes and late-night card games and the rumble of freight cars in the night—to little Dwight, a hundred miles east. Dad taught chemistry in the high school there. After two years, he threw in the towel and got a job that paid a living wage, working as an analytical chemist for the Smith-Douglass Fertilizer Company in Streator.
My sister, Cynda Jo, had been born in 1950, when we lived in Dwight. With that single exception, we left the town no richer than we came.
The house we rented in Streator was on First Street, in the shadow of the Owens-Illinois glass bottle factory. The house was small, but we were a small family.
My father was a slender twenty-nine-year-old with brownish hair, a high forehead, and wire-rimmed glasses—studious in appearance, methodical in all his doings. A scientist by nature. He was sociable, even garrulous, yet far from smooth or accomplished in social graces. He was a nice guy, might say, even if he seemed a bit bewildered. He could bore you with things you did not want to know, yet clam up about things you did want to know.
My mother was our dynamo. She was a statuesque blonde, also twenty-nine—beautiful, smart, energetic, and hard-headed. She was a flash typist and stenographer, with perfect spelling and grammar. She had the drive and determination that Dad seemed to lack. She was forthright. She would tell you what was on her mind, often in terms you could not figure out.
Cynda Jo, my little sister, was sixteen months old when we moved to Streator. She was beginning to walk and talk. Already her personality seemed, from my perspective, crabby and self-centered.
Me? I was high-spirited and inquisitive. I still thought I could decipher the world’s secret code. I was eager to start school. When I finally got there, it was a smashing success.
Our teacher, Miss Gamble, showed us a picture on a big white card. There was a boy named Dick and a girl named Jane.
“They are brother and sister,” said Miss Gamble. She pointed to words printed in big letters under Dick: “Look. Look. I can see.”
There were words under Jane also: “Look, Dick. Look. Can you see?”
The speeches were not very interesting, but I could read them. “Look” had different letters, and a different shape, from “see.” They meant the same thing but sounded different. You could tell which was which by their shapes. Other words, like “I” and “can,” had other shapes.
It was my first day of school, ever, and already I could read! This was a promising development.
I soon learned that reading was a little more involved. There was something called “phonics,” which meant you had to know the sound of each letter. The great benefit was that you could look at a word and “sound it out.” You did not have to know what a word was already. You could figure out the code on your own. This appealed to me.
Naturally, there were oddities. For example, f was sometimes spelled ph. Even so, it was a kind of system one could master.
There was also a social system, which was harder to master.
A skinny kid named Allen and his chunky cousin Donny Bill sometimes blocked my path home from school. They were well-known bullies, with a little gang of hench-kids who aided their bullying. None of them struck me, but they danced around, made fun of me, called me names—especially when I walked home hand-in-hand with a cute little girl named Mary Lou.
I knew not what to make of these kids’ rudeness. What if they went from taunts to actual hitting? How could I protect myself? The idea of counter-punching, of bravely facing them down, was nowhere in my brain.
When I confided in Mom, she told me to stand up for myself. I could not imagine what she was talking about. She said, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”
One winter day when Allen’s gang bothered me on my way home, Roger Benckendorf, my next-door neighbor, stepped in. Roger was in fourth grade and towered over my tormentors. He took Al, Donny Bill, and their friends aside. They all stood in the dirty purple snow at the side of the street.
“Look, youse kids,” said Roger in a voice that was soft yet just loud enough I could hear every word. “Larry is my friend. Youse lay off of him, see? Leave him be, if you know what’s good for youse.”
Just like that, my problem was solved.
It pays to have friends.
After Roger solved my problem, Mom kept trying to solve it, by interpreting Allen to me.
“He’s a year older,” she said. “He had rheumatic fever and was off school a year. Because of that, people spoiled him. So now he thinks he’s king of the mountain, and he hasn’t got any real friends of his own. That’s why he acts like a bully.”
She arranged a play date. Allen and his family lived up the street from us, in a two-story house. I showed up at the appointed time. Al answered the door and let me in. “You wanna go upstairs and play with my train?”
“Sure.” I followed him up to a large room. A big oval of track was laid out on the shiny hardwood floor. A couple of switches formed an inner loop. There was a Lionel diesel-style engine and a long string of passenger cars, all identical, a dozen or more.
Al worked the lever to speed the train around the track, occasionally flipping the control buttons for the switches.
It was interesting to watch these operations. Here was something I could surely master.
“Let me try,” I said.
Al’s eyes flashed. “No,” he commanded. “You watch. I run the train.”
He had invited me upstairs to play with his train. But he didn’t mean that. He meant that he would play and I would watch.
I was no longer afraid of Al. Somehow, it now seemed he was afraid of me.
Feeling embarrassed for him, I left.
I didn’t need to play with his train as much as he needed to be the only one who played with his train.
Larry F. Sommers
Your New Favorite Writer
Ah, learning about the social structures in life. Surprises at every turn when we were kids. You handled things well and your mother sounds like a “peach.”
Conflict was never my strong suit. I managed to duck it.