I went to Thomas Nelson Page Junior High School in the same old limestone buildings that mother had gone to the German-English School in the 90s. My chief remembrances of it are sitting in the far corner of the miserable grounds exchanging dirty – mostly scatological – stories with other pubescent boys and tearing open my hand on a broken drain-pipe. Whatever I might have learned in class must be stored in some part of the brain that is not accessible to me as I concentrate on my personal history.
We were to move to a newly built school for the last semester of our senior year and I recall asking to see the drawings of what it was to be like and this was met with a pleasant, somewhat surprised response for I was apparently the only student with such curiosity. I had a vague desire to be an architect. In grammar school there had been an assignment to “plan” a house, using pictures cut out of magazines. I liked doing it and I think it evoked a secret desire to be an architect. As a child I liked to drive through neighborhoods to look at new domestic styles. Among the many talents that I lack, along with limited math skill is drawing; I feel that I wanted to make houses what we now call more “user friendly,” that is, more sensitive to social uses. Whenever I passed the architecture school at Austin, I wistfully reflected on that old ambition, yet realized that for me it was a road well not taken.
A signal failure capped this last semester in the old stone school. For reasons unknown, I had been chosen to give the farewell speech to the departing class at the banquet at the Mexican restaurant. When I got up to give it, none of the words that I had so carefully memorized found their way to my tongue, reminiscent of those embarrassing silences when I was supposed to recite a poem on Christmas Eve. Finally I sat down, vowing never to memorize a speech again and now I wonder that I had the temerity to enter a profession that demands public performance. I kept that vow; fortunately extempore works for me.
I was also named editor of the school paper. When I announced this at home with some pride, Buntz laughed at the idea with a “what, you?” sort of comment, to which Thea responded with a more accepting, “Well, why not?” When school started in our new building, mother had been given a permanent appointment as a teacher there (where she spent the rest of her working life) and was assigned to supervise the paper. She and I put the little mimeographed paper together each month, but I think that it was a mistake for us to have confounded her roles as teacher and mother. At any rate, I did a lousy job that falsely presaged the future, for as you will see, I take pride in my capability as editor.
Allowances were unheard of; we didn’t even get paid for the fairly onerous chores like mowing the extensive lawn with the old hand mower and other yard work; it was simply expected. Whether this policy was based on moral or on economic grounds, I can’t say. We never even heard about the tooth fairy, who also never visited my children. We appreciated our big yard for games there, but the chores were hard and time-consuming. I used to dream up labor-saving devices (many of which have since come into being) and fantasized becoming an inventor. I think I have the imagination to be one, but the talents appropriate for engineering were not in my repertoire and this dream ultimately faded into the more generic desire to be creative – the beginning of the urge to become a scholar, a “scientist” of some kind.
There was one recurrent chore that I did feel obliged to perform. As happens in yard-side ball games, balls often find a window, so I learned at an early age to replace the glass. When Tex and I visited San Antonio about ten years ago, I looked to see if the poorly troweled putty was still there and pleased to feel it. But now I wonder that, as a teenager or younger, I was permitted to bicycle the mile to the local glaziers and back with a pane, naked save for a sheet of newspaper tied around it, under my arm. As I survived without incident, I am glad that mother had such a relaxed attitude, for I think it is a healthy one — but I couldn’t muster it when I became a parent. Of course, the traffic was lighter and slower in the twenties; still, they were not the horse and buggy days.
Dad’s middle-class German background rendered him totally unsuited to any household task beyond replacing a light bulb and couldn’t teach us anything practical. Taking high school “shop” was infra-dig for us college-bound snobs, so Buntz and I learned to do things on our own and I benefited from his pioneering efforts. Both of us have taken pride throughout our lives in our amateurish efforts to fix things around the house and my yard is now a showcase of the crooked concrete steps and brick walls as proof of my having passed that way, like my early glazing accomplishments.
This vague if-it-can-be-done-I-can-do-it attitude is a kind of watered-down version of Yankee ingenuity that has been so important to the American ethos. I think the Model T Ford did a lot to carry this essentially rural virtue into early urban life, for many of my generation of town boys took one apart and rebuilt it. I remember that Buntz helped on one that older boys were putting together in our spacious yard, but I was too young to do more than hand them tools. Three Fifteen Adams Street was a social entity that we all felt keenly and others sensed. It was an informal gathering place for our friends. Other kids would come over just to hang out – mother often among us, as she had rapport with children because she liked them.
We were expected to earn our spending money but never had to share it, as with real poverty. Thea became a page at the Carnegie Library while in high school and Tex followed suit. He turned over to me the Saturday Evening Post route he had established at some effort. I am not sure I appreciated this generosity, for it was a task that I hated and it gave Thursday a bad name in my horoscope. Its one virtue was that I learned early in life that I wanted no part in being a salesman. Every Thursday after school I picked up my load of magazines and bicycled around the city to sell them for 5¢ each. Of this, I kept 1¼¢. I netted less than fifty cents a week. I never tried to build up the route because I was too shy to ask people to buy things. On days when the magazines were thin and the weather good, it was a relatively small chore, but it gets hot, cold and rainy even in sunny San Antonio, and as Christmas ads build up the load really got heavy.
I took this as the burden of childhood, but in retrospect it seems a dangerous and uneconomic activity. I am sure that it was chock-a-block full of moral fiber, but it has left emotional scars. The one I am sure of is a strange and irrational penuriousness. It is not that I “learned the value of money,” however, for it grabs me on the little things. I still hate to use stamps and acquired an electric razor early because razor blades chafed my skin, for I always thought I should get another use out of the one I was using. And I still find it difficult to buy myself small treats, though I try, with some difficulty, not to be quite so stingy with others. After some years I had a paper route, which I found more “dignified” but not much more to my taste.
Mother didn’t have her heart in housework, but could get enthusiastic about cooking. Yet when at college, I’d tease that if I was hungry for home-cooked food I went to the delicatessen. She liked to read and was lost in Moby Dick and Magic Mountain for a long time. We had the humor magazines, Life and Judge, and the early Vanity Fair and were early subscribers to the New Yorker – to which I credit such writing skills as I have, for I have taken it throughout my adult life.
There was a time when she would read to the three of us, but it was when I was far too young to follow the fare she chose. They reflected her interests and were barely appropriate to the age of the others. She seemed to go in for social dissidents rather than utopians or radicals: Mencken, Thomas Paine, Holmes’ Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, Upton Sinclair, and Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class. I have only a vague memory of this, brought out by some comments from Tex several years ago, though I think some of Veblen stuck, for it seemed familiar when I picked it up and from time to time I have an eerie déjà vu feeling that some of the others got into my implicit memory as well.