Archive for October, 2009

When papa got his job selling advertising novelties, he had to have a car and so we got a Model T Ford. Despite his technical limitations, papa had learned how to drive, for they had had a car in their more opulent years. He had lost an eye in a childhood accident and this, along with his unfamiliarity with all things mechanical, made him loathe driving. He encouraged us all to learn to drive. Thus I drove on a Model T before I was in my teens. I have always claimed that anyone who learned on a Model T was able to drive anything. I don’t know just how old I was, but I was still so small I had to look through the steering wheel, for I remember saying, “Hey, there’s nothing to this” when I got so I could look over it.

The first time I took the car in the evening by myself was to take a girl to a party when I graduated from Junior High in January of 1927. I was still 13. Papa was always very generous in letting us use it and so I had a car for dates when I was in high school. In Texas, in those days, this was a big boon; few students had cars and taking a date on a streetcar was just not done.  I was pleased that Mark had the opportunity to learn to drive at fifteen by dong the next best thing in this drastically changed world — in a Land Rover on the back roads of Uganda.

In the summer, first Buntz and later I would drive papa to the country towns in the hinterland, sometimes staying a night or two in local inns or boarding houses, making outings for us and giving him company. Sometimes the whole family would go as far west as San Angelo in the hill country to the west or Brownsville at the southern tip of Texas or to Houston and Galveston. For these excursions, we had a two-wheel trailer in which we stashed camping gear and stayed at municipal campgrounds, so I learned to back a two-wheel trailer before I was out of junior high school — a tricky thing to do. It must have seemed pretty primitive to the scion of middle-class Burgher opulence but papa never complained trudging off with his sample cases during the day. Sometimes we visited with some of mother’s old college friends. These outings reinforced the sense of family, despite, or perhaps because of, the hardships involved.

It also gave us a taste of a world within America that was distant from the middle-class priorities of Sauerkraut Bend. Consider this: Mother easily made contact with strangers and one day she began talking to a woman at our camp. She told mother that her husband was a swapper. “You know,” she explained, “he just traded things all the time, Sometimes he’d do real good and then maybe we’d have plenty. Sometimes he didn’t do so good, though. Once he made a deal with a doctor who couldn’t pay what he was supposed to, so he offered for us to take it out in trade. So we all got our appendixes taken out for free. But,” she went on, “I ain’t sure it was a good idea; I hain’t felt quite right ever since. I figure that the Lord put them there and didn’t mean for us to take out what he had guv us.” When mother said that no, the appendix was just something left from when we were animals and if it was bad it should be taken out, the woman wailed, “Oh my, you-all ain’t one of them evolutionists, is you? And with all them nice kids, too!”

It was at about this time that I had one of the rare treats of going to a live performance. Papa had bought tickets to see Will Rogers, who was making his tour of the country in 1925, I think, when he got a telegram announcing the death of his brother. He felt it unseemly to take in a show that was intended to make you laugh when he should be mourning his loss and so the tickets were given to Buntz and me.

Rogers’ sardonic and deliciously disrespectful  humor cast in the style of Western rural idiom was the sort of thing that fed our predilections and its being mixed in with his wonderful handling of the rope was certainly a treat for us. But I remember nothing of expressions of sympathy for the loss, In fact, I doubt if I had even been aware that papa had a brother, so detached were we from our old country background.

In my retrospective on anthropology, (2000) I started by saying that I had entered into the field to learn why a person without religion was too “good” to engage in the hanky-panky of kids, who were raised to fear hell and damnation, in the  basement of the local Methodist church. I still find it enigmatic; though I like to think “Bridge” offers at least the beginning of an answer. From early on I had a strong sense of moral propriety, an easily evoked conscience that bordered on being priggish – a quality that I abhor. These go back to my earliest memories. Obviously there were no threats of divine punishment nor of any other post mortem retribution, and of course no superstitions; nor do I remember any moralizing or preacherish talk. To be sure we were punished, but always for some specific act; papa’s beatings were more to unburden his frustrations than to express moral indignation.

Lessons on propriety were achieved by example and the houses of the neighborhood all came to embody moral judgments: the Stierens across the street were judged for excessive stinginess and penurious with the money they got by collecting rent off the poor; the Gonzaleses whose son was my best friend, were not looked down on for being Mexican (nor admired for being rich) but because their money had come from exploiting the poor Mexican peasants by controlling the milling process; the Jenuls were doing well but were “merely” construction workers; Mrs. Erler, the model of the perfect Hausfrau that papa evoked when angry with mother’s sloppy ways, never read a book in her life, while old Mrs. Abbott next door was a superstitious and ignorant peasant, but we had to respect her hour of nap before we could start our ballgame. It was the casual expressions of approval and disapproval that defined the good from the bad — but that doesn’t tell us why they became so imperative. The negativism is in the way they were expressed and not inherent in the behavior itself. One might easily take Mrs. Erler’s or the Jenul’s side, but of course I accepted the “official” formulation. I don’t mean that these people were cited to us as moral icons, but that these evaluations were made in ordinary discourse. They were our neighbors and some were friends and I did not think of them as morality figures at the time.

Honesty was the only moral issue that was discussed as such, for on this, mother was both vocal and adamant. She would not tell even a white lie in front of us and though she really wanted Tex to study law, she didn’t push it because she believed it impossible to be an honest lawyer. (I think she really hoped he would have a political career.) The compulsive quality of mother’s sentiments on this was probably in compensation for our lack of religion – a need to be as moral as others. The last time the three of us siblings were together was at Tex’s 50th wedding anniversary in 1983, and the one thing we agreed on was that this inability to lie was the great difficulty in our up-bringing. I have to make a strong effort just to say I like a present when I don’t or that she looks pretty when she doesn’t. I think my bluntness and the failure to sugarcoat negative reactions has made me cause pain and brought antagonisms and enemies that I need not have had. Tex managed this aspect of social behavior better than Thea and I have.

One childhood event shows the strength of this compulsive honesty. One evening after supper when I was about eleven, I joined two or three other boys playing in a ditch being dug for new sewers. We were being naughty: smoking cubebs (a tobacco-less medicated cigarette), telling dirty jokes and masturbating. I guiltily went directly to bed to avoid family contact, but mother, sensing something wrong, came to investigate. I confessed to the smoking but not the rest and she was satisfied. My guilt over masturbating faded rapidly, but my guilt at having misled her – of having lied to her — remained strong. I had at that early age come to recognize that to dissemble is to lie, a lesson that seems to have been lost in Washington.

Papa had a love of music derived from his German origins and a Victrola was in the living room, with a few of Caruso and other operatic arias, the humorous but now politically incorrect, “Cohen on the Telephone” and some current dance music. Mother had no interest in music whatsoever and there was none in the house; none of us children had any music lessons and none of us developed any interest in it. The same can be said for painting, though there had been some kitschy pastels of fin de siecle beauties, covered with dust and ruined by the maids’ dust cloths. Aesthetic expression was limited to the written word. Papa was well read, but I have no memory of seeing a book in his hand except, in the very early days when he was reading to mother while she was sewing.


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ch2.4 Social Events

At Christmas, the house would be redolent with the smells of anise, clove and cinnamon as mother made cookies from her old German cookbook. We celebrated Christmas with a tree, on which hung real candles and under which a farm scene replaced the crèche. Chinese glass chimes would call us to Bescherung, the exchange of gifts which in German custom took place on Christmas Eve, followed by a special dinner for the family and, when one existed, a girl friend or beaux.

There was a flaw in this Christmas Eve in the early days; we were each supposed to recite a poem or bit of prose in German before presents were distributed – a task I regularly failed at and that took fun out of the anticipation of Christmas. I wonder if this contributed to two of my outstanding failures; the inability to learn foreign languages and to recite from memory.

There was also the problem of finding adequate presents with the limited money I had managed to save from my miserable magazine sales. The obvious thing to buy was a beautiful German harmonica, for these were dumped on the market as a means of complying with a stupid condition placed on Weimar Germany. You had first to ask yourself, “When was the last time I gave one of these?”

But the tree, which theoretically hadn’t been seen until the magic Chinese chimes were jiggled to call us in, was always a delight and the next morning the house was filled with guests to share mother’s Herringsalat, a wonderful north European dish made up of diced veal, beets, onions, boiled potatoes, parsley, apple, and the eponymous herring. It was the one party that included both the German-Americans of the early years and the newer friends. A bowl of Herringsalat was always taken to Unkie to give him a nostalgic memory of the delight in tasting one of his mother’s dishes – for his wife, Aunt Mary, though of German descent, had not brought anything Germanic to her marriage. .

We regularly had “Februarian” parties. Buntz and my birthdays were a week apart and two young friends also had birthdays in February and somebody dreamt up having a joint party that took on the aura of being a tradition. The other two were girls; one was Wilma Welles, the younger sister of Thea’s friend, Juanima, a librarian, and other was Jocarle, the daughter of Leah Johnson, the children’s librarian where Thea had been page. The Welleses were Christian Scientists and seemed very déclassé to me but the Johnsons were Unitarians. (There was a brief period when we went to the Unitarian church responsive to mother’s feeling that we should have the social life but it didn’t take.) Our party was always at 315. Each had a theme and involved a kind of roast for the four honorees. This “Little Women” sort of family activity was augmented occasionally as, for instance, the farewell part for mother before her trip to Germany in 1929.1 This was one where Thea, who played the part of mother, didn’t feel left out, as she had with the Februarian parties. I never felt particularly honored but once, years later, she expressed an understandable childish envy – and evinced a less understanding lingering resentment.

Not all was wine and roses. One Sunday dinner at that Mission Style dining table with just the family present I was telling about something of moment that had happened at school. I was excited and filled with boyish enthusiasm about whatever it was when, all of a sudden, papa’s fist hit the table, accompanied by a shouted, “Sprich Deutsch, Bengel!” German had not been the household language in my experience though it had once been and was still the ideal, so the demand came out of the blue. The outburst shocked the others; it silenced me completely. I did speak German but did not have the command of it for translating these highly American experiences and was humiliated and angry. I have used this incident to explain my inability to learn foreign languages –a dubious and self-serving bit of psychologizing.

It isn’t that papa didn’t try to be one of us. A most poignant memory from this period is of the whole family going to Austin to see a Texas Longhorns football game. Imagine how this was for him: three hours of tedious driving each way, the expense of five tickets; the long walk to the stadium on a hot afternoon, three hours on uncomfortable benches in a Texas autumn sun; watching badly choreographed helmeted men in an incomprehensible dance. I have no idea what had inspired this junket, nor anything about the trip, whether we stayed over night, if with friends or at a hotel. All that I can say is that it must have been costly for him; a great sacrifice of time, money and energy. The whole event is encapsulated for me in a 30-second bite, starting from when the Longhorns made a great passing play and we all got up and shouted and ending just as the roar abated and papa said in a loud voice, “What happened, did somebody make a homerun?”

“God,” I thought, “did any child in the whole world have such a stupid father?”

One social event that used the artifacts from the early posh days was a dinner given for an executive of the company for which papa worked and his wife. The silver was polished, linen tablecloth put on the extended Mission style table and the hand-painted plates and other elegances from the old days put to use. Wine was served. Willy, our washerwoman, brought in to do special duty as housemaid, served us. She managed this with an uncertain competence that had mother on tenterhooks. But after she had drained the glasses as they came back to the kitchen, she walked in on tiptoes with a discernable list to the left to serve the desert, a bowl of canned peaches. Willie’s insecurities were upstaged by Buntz, showing more talent for quick calculation than for social decorum, announced that “there are two for each and a little bit of the juice.” This was accepted with silence, but after the guests left Buntz got the one beating for which I actually remember the context.

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