A scene comes to mind from about the time I was entering puberty. We are in our parents’ bedroom, chairs and stools around the walls, the assembled family and, I vaguely remember, Unkie and Aunt Mary and perhaps their sons, Sonny and Bobby, also present. A boxing-match had been organized; it must have been one – the last, actually – of a series, for boxing gloves appeared and we were stripped to the waste and urged to go at it. The on-lookers were egging me on, for I was the underdog. I am not sure that I had become his equal in size and strength, but I came to realize that I was pulling my punches out of some subliminal feeling of deference. It seemed that his early strategy of lowering my self confidence, had worked. Once, much later, he quipped that it was then that he realized his dominance was being threatened and it was time for him to leave. I think that within a year he had, and I had entered high school.
The bane of my first two high school years was being in the ROTC; I never even got a corporal’s stripes — though I fantasized being an officer and swaggering around with saber and all. That would have undercut mother’s motive, which had nothing to do with patriotism or sympathy for the military, but was to save money on clothes. Success for me would have required more assiduous brass polishing (here in the literal sense) and the ability to wrap the leggings (putties, they were called) so they would stay up and still not cut off circulation. It was a strange mistake for mother to make; it was in itself not a healthy activity or environment and it kept me from gym classes that in retrospect, I feel made me miss some important things.
It did supply one fond memory — one so entirely out of character that it intrigues me. On my last day of the two-year stint, while on battalion parade, there was a long snafu and we ranks were held waiting on the far side of the tarmac while whatever it was got sorted out. We were set at ease but kept in place and there was the inevitable horsing around. An alien pixie entered me and I got to sparring with a truly spit-and-polish staff sergeant, during which I intentionally rubbed my hands over some of his brightly polished buttons. He started in after me with his fists up and I said, “You’d better stop; Bencke, you’ve got a lot more rank to lose than I do. ‘Okay, I’ll meet you after school.” “Sure, down near the river,” I said. When I arrived he was waiting in the middle of a crowd of kids anxious to see this match between the nerd and whatever Bencke represented, for I knew nothing else of him. Most of the kids didn’t expect me to show and so I was greeted with a surprised shout. We fought for some time and after awhile he got me in the eye. Soon the vice-principal appeared and brought the fight to a merciful end. I was the clear loser, but having showed up and stayed the course was a kind of moral victory. I remember this event with great clarity, because it was so out of character, from the silly provocation on. I felt a strange exhilaration at the very thought of my role, and that overwhelmed any fear of the consequences I might have had and this euphoria was tinged with but the thinnest taste of guilt. I was fully aware that I had been the aggressor and yet had no remorse. Though clearly Bencke had won the fight, I felt he had lost the battle. This put a new persona in my body. When I got home and mother fretted over my fighting. I just shrugged her off, saying in effect that a first fight by a high school junior does not a juvenile delinquent make. That night I went to the junior prom and felt unusually popular for the chutzpah of my going had been what we now call “cool.” Most of the kids had heard about the fight and were curious and the others wanted to know about it. I sensed a more accepting attitude and the girls seemed more ready to dance with me. This attitude accompanied me as I responded to the inevitable summons to the principal’s office. I made the expected apologies and felt that his appropriate reprimands were also pro forma. Looking back, I see myself as having briefly entered an alien culture, it was one that I had a secret desire to be a part of, but knew it was not what I was meant to be. A totally different culture was already etched into my soul and I was not free to be that kind of guy.
That culture was the culture that I had absorbed at 315 Adams Street and couldn’t be shaken with one flight of fancy. I was the third Goldschmidt to go to Brackenridge High School and felt the presence of my older siblings strongly, particularly Tex’s. Not only was he more recent and male, but also the more public and memorable figure. Thea had been an adorable and adored small child and later a good student. She had long blonde hair (that evoked a fit of papa’s anger when she had it “bobbed”), with a slight figure, good looking enough but not really pretty and, I think, essentially shy. Her forte was literature and it would be right to say she was “bookish,” and for that she had been a favorite among the English teachers. She belonged but was not a leader.
Buntz was a different matter. He was not only a good student, he was active in all sorts of things, became a champion debater and was president of the debating society, the most prestigious club on campus, as well as of his senior class. He clearly had the qualities of a leadership; made friends easily and enjoyed the social prominence he attained. When I entered in mid-year of 1927, he was finishing his senior year and while I have total amnesia for any social interactions we might have had on campus, I was very conscious of his presence. He and his best friend, editor of the school paper, Kay Miller (the nickname was so that they could ask, “well, if you see Kay . . [sniggers]. .” ) Kay and my brother were easily the most prominent intellectual (as distinct from athletic) students that year, as the numerous cartoons of Tex and Kay in their yearbook shows. I felt his presence and despaired of meeting the standard he had set, though I vainly emulated him. I, too, joined the debating society though I was no debater, and less surprised than disappointed to have been defeated for its presidency – which I should never have tried for. My grades were good enough to get me into the University of Texas, but netted me no graduation honors. In my toast at Tex and Wickie’s 50th anniversary in 1983 at their farm in upstate New York, I said that Tex had been a hard act to follow. I doubted his sincerity when he responded that Thea had been harder, politic as it was.
I was never an outstanding student; I could handle the undemanding curriculum in a Texas high school of the era – perhaps making as many Bs as As, a few Cs and no failures. I did not do extra work to show off or make a name for myself; I have never been a great reader. I never had an outstanding teacher; one I felt attached to or who took special interest in me or even that I look back on with special appreciation. There was a new teacher who taught journalism, which I took, and she had students at her house to hear Frost and Sandberg reading their poetry on records. Once she was asked to supply some extras to serve as soldiers for a one night production of Carmen at the public auditorium down town. It was a heady experience and constitutes the totality of my operatic career. She was a breath of fresh air, for most of the teachers were much older, a pleasure to have, but not an inspiration – though, under her tutelage I thought of applying to the University of Missouri, which was said to have the best journalism school in the country. As you will see in a minute, I was already a “professional journalist.”
In my second year of High School, I got a job at Joske’s Department Store as a kind of mail clerk. I had to get up at four each morning and bicycle the mile and a half to get the mail at the Post Office, then go to the store so the night watchman could let me in, take the elevator to the top floor to open and sort out the mail and then bicycle on to school. At first, there were three of us, then two, and finally just me. After some 18 months, I was asked to come to the office and was told not to return on Monday as they were discontinuing the operation. It was my first lesson in corporate culture and has never left me, but in fact it was spring of my junior year and I was glad to have the summer off and to leave that tiresome (and tiring) task.