The Big World–A Remembrance

1952

“Mom, what does Kefauver mean?”

Senator Estes Kefauver. Public Domain.

She lifts the iron from the collar of Dad’s white shirt. “Estes Kefauver is a man who wants to be president.”

“Why do they yell when they say his name?”

“That’s what politicians do at a convention.”

“So, Kefauver will be president?”

She laughs. “No. They’re going to nominate Stevenson.”

Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson in 1952. U.S. News and World Report photo by Thomas J. O’Halloran. Public Domain.

“So, Stevenson will be president?”

“I don’t think so.” She hangs the white shirt on a wire hanger, picks another one out of the basket, and sprinkles it with water out of a re-purposed Coke bottle.

#

Little fragments of the Big Picture were starting to become clear—as clear as mud. Still, I held out hope that I would eventually figure everything out.

Big things were afoot on the earth. Without beginning to understand them, I knew there was a world of people and events outside the little prairie towns of my experience.

Fulton Lewis Junior. Public Domain.

I knew this because the radio told me. Our fine old wood-bodied Philco sat on a table in the hall and was seldom silent, day or night. We heard news broadcasts by Lowell Thomas, Fulton Lewis Junior, and Edward R. Murrow—whom I thought of, phonically, as Edward “Armurro.” 

Lowell Thomas. Public Domain.

Many details of the news escaped me. What was “the House Un-American Activities Committee”? What was “French Indo-China”? All things of that nature were beyond my ken. But I knew they were out there, and someday I would figure them out.

#

The small city of Streator—population 17,500—was in those days an almost magical place, filled with new opportunities every day to reframe and re-understand the world. There was such a thing as Little League. I was only seven in the summer of 1952, but maybe I could try out. Dad explained baseball to me.  You had to hit the ball, run around three bases, and end up back at home plate. That much seemed clear. 

Grover Cleveland Alexander playing for the Phillies in 1915. Public Domain.

For the rest, Dad took me to see a movie about Grover Cleveland Alexander, a famous old-time pitcher, who by the way had gotten his start with the lowly Galesburg Boosters. In the movie, a fielder threw the ball and hit Alexander in the head, which caused big problems because it made him see double. Dad explained that hitting base runners with the ball was not the right way to put them out. But what the right way was, he did not say.

I tried out for Little League, but the grown-up men who ruled the tryouts were not impressed by my skills. I did not understand all they wanted me to do. “Force him at second!” they cried. Or, “Hurry now, tag up!” I stood there mute, not knowing the code. On the outside, looking in. 

They relegated me to something called “the Farm League.” This meant I could go play ball with other unskilled kids. Maybe I would magically improve enough to be chosen for Little League next year. Or maybe not. 

As I scuffed across the dusty diamond en route home, a pair of boys I didn’t know approached me. “Hey, kid. Give us a dime.”

I stood and stared. “I don’t have any money.”

“Oh, yeah?” The larger of the two grabbed me by my shirt and pulled me close.

“Yeah,” I said. “I really don’t have any money.” I was almost in tears.

The two boys looked at each other. 

The big one let go of my shirt. “Look, kid. Next time we see you, you’re going to have a dime for us, right?” 

I bobbed my head up and down, hoping to show abject agreement. “Right!” I said.

I shuddered inwardly on the way home. Those boys would beat me up if I didn’t give them a dime. Why did people want to beat you up? 

One thin dime. Brandon Bigheart photo, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

It was impenetrable. I never wanted to beat anybody up.

When I told Mom about the bullies’ threat, she turned into Roger Benckendorf. 

She walked with me to practice the next day.

“Do you have a dime for them, Mom?” I asked,  thinking she might not understand the requirement. “I’m really supposed to bring them a dime.”

Mom gave me a strange look. “I’ve got a dime for them, all right.” 

I spotted the boys and pointed to the other side of the baseball diamond. “There they are.” 

Mom charged across the sun-baked infield and corraled the two kids. I couldn’t quite hear what she told them, but I know she did not give them a dime, and they ran away rather fast. I never saw them again.

I puzzled over why Mom told me she was going to give them a dime when she clearly never intended to do so, but I was starting to understand that you were not supposed to give in to extortion. What the alternative was, though, I still had no clue.

#

November came.

General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower, President-elect of the United States, 1952. Photo by Fabian Bachrach. Public Domain.

The “I Like Ike” folks greatly outnumbered the “Madly for Adlai” folks, nationwide. We had a new president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, a smiling, bald-headed, grandfatherly man who talked a lot about “nucular” weapons.

Mom told me he meant “nuclear.” Nuclear meant the Atom Bomb.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

School Days–A Remembrance

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.

Dad about 1950.

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.

Mom’s 1940 graduation picture.

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, about age 3.

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 poetry of Dick and Jane. Fair use photo.

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?”

Lionel passenger cars, ca. 1950.

“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.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer