School daze: reading, writing and retching
Last week I wrote about the reliability of memory. Or more precisely, about the un-reliability of my memory.
The column revolved around my memories of an old Winter Carnival parade and one float in it. As I’d remembered it, it was Carnival ’66, and the float was Chuck’s bar’s, called the Chuckwagon. The Chuckwagon was a VW van full of beer kegs and several guys handing out cups of beer to one and all along the route.
So that’s how I remembered it … but that’s not quite how it was.
First, it was Carnival ’67, not ’66.
Second, the van was red, not blue.
And third, the guys were in the van, but the keg was on the roof.
I learned about my mistakes from a home movie of the parade that Peg Stringer Dora posted on Facebook, and from an email I got from Tony Munn.
Attached to Tony’s email was an ancienty yellowed clipping from the Enterprise. It was from Carnival ’67, and it was a photo of the Chuckwagon. And amidships in the Chuckwagon, cup in hand, was none other Tony Munn, esq.
Tony obviously knows that email corrected my memory of that event. But what he doesn’t know is he played a pivotal role in verifying another childhood memory of mine. It was a story I’d told hundreds of times over the years, and because of that, I no longer knew if it happened as I’d told it, or if it had even happened at all.
An infamous first
Tony and I go way back — to kindergarten, in fact, And it was on our first day there, in the Broadway school, that this tale took place.
The subject came up at a planning session of my high school class’s 30th reunion. A bunch of us were gathered around a table in the Boathouse Lounge, Tony on my right, as we discussed all the vital details that needed to be attended to in that great occasion of state. Where would it be held? Would we have a band or a DJ? Who’d cater it? Would there be awards? Would this, would that …? And in the midst of that, Tony turned to me.
“Ya know,” he said, “it’s funny what you remember about people.”
“Oh?” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “And you know what I remember about you?”
“No,” I said. “What?”
“That on the first day of kindergarten you were standing in the middle of the hall, puking your guts out.”
“You remembered that?” I all but shouted.
“Sure do,” he said.
“So it really happened?” I said.
“Why wouldn’t it have?”
“It’s not that it wouldn’t,” I said. “It’s just that it was so long ago and it was all so weird, I wasn’t sure it was for real, myself.”
And I think my not knowing if it was true or not made perfect sense. There are studies galore about suggested memory — people knowing absolutely things in their past that never happened, but that they were told about by someone else. Or all sorts of other confusions or fabrications that, after decades of telling, become fact — at least in the mind of the teller, if not in reality.
But of course there’s more to this tale than me tossing my cookies on my first day of school.
My earliest memories are of me wanting to go to school. And when I say “earliest,” that’s exactly what I mean. Certainly, I was no older than 2 when I realized that’s where I should be. It’s based on several factors. One was my brother was already in school, so I knew that’s where the big kids were. And of course I wanted to be a big kid, too. Another was I’d get to meet lots of other kids and make a bunch of new friends. But those were secondary reasons. The main reason I wanted to go to school was to learn how to read and write.
I didn’t know what writing was, exactly. There was some in my children’s books, but the books were mostly pictures, so the writing didn’t stand out. But where it did stand out was in the books, magazines and newspapers my parents were always reading. I sensed it had something to do with things that weren’t with us, then and there. Instead, it had something to do with stuff that was somewhere else. Although I didn’t know the word “exotic,” I think that fit my sense of what lay in those marks on the paper. And so I was determined to learn what they were.
And there was one other factor that compelled me to go to school: It would start me on my way to adulthood. Alas, what a fool I was! How was I to know that adulthood, like death, is to be deferred as long as possible (within reason, of course).
Keep in mind, the only way to learn how to read back then was in school. Prevailing educational theory had it that teaching children to read before kindergarten wasn’t good for them, that they weren’t developmentally ready, or it’d be too much strain for their little brains, or something. And that’s too bad, because one of my mother’s specialties was teaching kids to read, so she could’ve taught me to read quite easily. But it was not to be, which brings us to that fateful fall day in 1951, with me about to say goodbye to my mother and walk through the front door of the Broadway school.
This was it, the Big Time, I thought to myself as I walked into the foyer. And it was … only it was the Big Time Horror Show.
I don’t know now what I’d expected of school, but whatever it was, the reality was its polar opposite.
I guess I thought it was going to be a pleasant haven, maybe with pastel colors, sweet voices, perhaps even lilac-scented air. The reality was real kick in the knickers.
The walls were painted two institutional colors — roadkill red on the top half, and gas chamber green on the bottom.
The smells were cafeteria cooking combined with disinfectant — chipped beef on toast and Lysol, or maybe mac ‘n’ cheese and bleach.
As for sounds? It was a cacophony of manic munchkins being herded to and fro by bony, beady-eyed drill instructors in dark, shapeless dresses.
And right in the middle of all this was poor li’l Dopey boy.
I stood there, frozen, as if my feet had been glued to the floor. Everywhere I looked was a blur of people rushing every which way. The lights were harsh; the noise was harsher. And while the smells were truly mouth-watering, they were mouth-watering in all the wrong ways.
And suddenly, right there in the middle of the hall, I lost my cool and my lunch, simultaneously.
After that, I broke into piteous sobbing. And thankfully, I can’t remember what happened after that.
But I do remember my last thought before I blacked out. It was this: I had just made the biggest mistake of my entire life.
I had that same thought only one other time. It happened almost exactly 18 years later, during my first hour in boot camp.
That day is as much a blur as my first day of kindergarten, but I do know I neither barfed nor sobbed. Then again, I didn’t have those options.