Archive for March, 2010

Mother also brought cultural baggage to the marriage. She had idolized her father as much as papa had idealized his. And Opa had been in rebellion against his self-made Burgher grandfather and his dandy of an army officer aristocrat and had opted for a Bohemian cultural expression that led to perhaps a more Bohemian lifestyle than he had wanted. Mother, too, wanted to be “different,” as shown by her childish challenges to God in front of her friends, all daughters of Burghers with whom she was locked in a secret sorority. That she had ambitions to perform in the role of intellectual is indicated by her going to college, though I never heard her speak of any ambition and her actual performance ended with a couple of articles in the Alcalde, the alumni publication of Texas U., the import of which I do not remember. The first years of the marriage might well have been quite seductive, with the accoutrements of elegance, including a gardener cum butler and the luxury of a second honeymoon to Mexico. Then began the children, and from family stories, Thea was a delight with her imaginary Die Lila Lady. After that came the fall, its full impact staved off by Fredericksburg, where her intellectual talents could be put to practical use while the Burgher demands were lost in the realities of the peasant surroundings.

By the time mother appeared on my radar she had given up all pretence at following intellectual pursuits, but had not given up on being intellectual. She shared her interest in poetry with Thea in high school, she read to all of us from books that reflected her dissidence, and socialized with new librarian friends more than with her LUC cronies. It is clear that she had settled for getting her sense of self from the performance of her sons. The good side of this is that she put a lot of her time and energy into relating to us. Sometimes it was to her advantage, too, as when she responded to a neighbor who said what a wonderful garden could be made of the large yard where we played and she countered that she would rather use it for the cultivation of her children. Saves money, saves time, and is unassailable. But there is a downside to parents’ getting their kicks from the accomplishments of their children: the reinforcement of sibling rivalry. I believe sibling rivalry is a phenomenon that is built into social life – not as an inherited trait but as the result of the structure of the situation of infancy, most particularly where children are spaced close together. It rests on the fact that the younger displaces the older from his monopoly on the major source of affect, the mother. (For detail, see Bridge.) But the rivalry can be exacerbated or ameliorated by other culture traits, and maternal investment in children can be an exacerbating one.

This leads to an examination of Buntz, whose behavior I have always seen as being the most formative influence on me. He was the one who was displaced by me and my robust health must have threatened his sovereignty of the nursery. I have no doubt that his incessant teasing was a calculated campaign to lessen my powers and reduce my self esteem, forcing me to enact what he was accusing me of. He had a way of putting me down, as in his contemptuous response to my having been made editor in junior high school. His later behavior as big brother can be seen as the second phase of his hegemony, reinforcing his dominant role by being patron to my peasantry. It is not surprising that I wanted no more of this relationship and only that I had the wit and courage to turn it down. The public awareness of this invidious comparison was made by Miss Johnson when she returned my “Many Mansions” paper. That, at least, had the virtue of showing that I was not just paranoid.  I grew up being envious of his superior skills and of his success and when he bought a house in Georgetown (which did not have the panache that it has now, to be sure) and mother told me it had three bathrooms, I was green with envy. I avoided asking him for favors, though I always stayed at his apartment when I was in New York. But once he said that I should have told him beforehand that I was going to Puerto Rico, saying that he was a good friend of the governor. So when I was going to Iran (where he had spent a year while at the U.N to get a sense of local conditions for programs he was initiating wt the U.N.), I told him, and it was clearly to my advantage. I was duly impressed with the degree to which his name opened doors. When I thanked him he said that in Iranian culture it is more important to be a brother than oneself. Of course, for my part, I always sent him copies of my books to show my progress. When the attack on Margaret Mead hit the press, Tex phoned me and teased that perhaps somebody would find I’d faked the Arvin/Dinuba data. My riposte was instant and gratifying, “Tex, with brothers like you, who needs friends?”

I had always thought of this as my envy of him and only slowly became aware that the feeling was reciprocated, that this was all classic sibling rivalry and that I hadn’t just rolled over as anticipated, I suppose. My first realization came after I was a professor, on occasions when I visited them in New York as an established academe and one or other of his children were in college, and would corner me to ask for my advice and he would nose himself  into our conversation. This happened repeatedly, as did his recurrently telling me that he had been asked to be President of Reed College, seeing this as an up-stage, though my ambitions never took me to such “heights.” I am not even sure that it was an offer as distinct from a mere expression of interest. Whichever, I am sure Wickie would have nipped it in the bud as she was so disdainful of her father’s having been President of Case Western Reserve. Much later, in the last decade of his life when I visited him at Quadrangle, we had discussed our relationship from time to time. Once Tex said, “ashamed as I am to say it, I am glad that the first child died, for I would not have liked being a younger brother.” He also quipped in a talk at his 90th birthday that my championing the underdog came natural to me as I had always been one, whereas he had to learn of their needs.

The rivalry didn’t just happen; it was fostered by mother. I record the following sad story reluctantly, for it is not a pretty one and my own role in it makes me wince, but do so because it is a telling one. At some time – I must have been home from college – mother showed me a pair of papa’s cuff links, gold and set with rubies, and said something like, “they are to go to the first of you to do something important.” I should have protested or opted out right then, for it was sheer foolishness, invidious and oblivious to the age differential. Later, I was back in San Antonio after my As You Sow was published and its controversy had given me a public role, I suggested that it was a draw and that each of us should be given one to make into rings for our wives. I think mother was reluctant but she could hardly refuse. How could I have still been so childish? Like all good stories it ends with a sad irony. I did have a ring made and Gale never wore it, oblivious to its significance. Nothing was ever said about cuff links; I don’t even know if Tex knew about this “contest.” I made a kind of postscript to the cuff-links saga, though I had not intended it to be that. When I was included in Who’s Who, I knew that Tex would be in it too, for the instructions said that all ambassadors were listed and Tex had just been appointed one. So mother had her two sons listed for the first time in the same edition and I thought she would be so proud to see both our names on the same page that I bought a copy (for the only time, I might add) just so I could Xerox the page and send it to her to give her bragging rights. Perhaps significantly ironic again, she never said a word about it.


Read Full Post »

I have tried thus far to express my feelings of events as they were occurring and not as I see them now. But now I want to scrutinize this past in terms of my developed understanding of the dynamics of family relationships on individual motivation – matters dealt with in Bridge. When I was a child, mother was our intimate companion, she could understand the life we were living and she gave freely of her time in relating to us. We got stories of her background and felt we understood her as a person. In contrast, Papa was remote and harsh; his laconic treatment of his past gave no window into his own being. Most of what we knew about him came from mother and I now think it was often with a tinge of antipathy. In short, we were always on mother’s side, so that when I heard the disputes emanating from their bedroom, I just assumed that it was papa bullying her, never considering that there might be adequate justification. The actual content of these stormy quarrels was never available to me, either in what the voices said or in later conversations; there never were any explanations.

Earlier I said their marriage was not one made in heaven. Papa’s lack of intimacy made it impossible for me to know what his marital expectations had been, while, as I noted earlier, mother’s silence on their courtship was eloquent. The simple fact is that my parents were not shaped in the same mold. It may have worked well in the early years when they were deeply into the many involvements of reproduction and were sufficiently well off to live in the Burgher lifestyle which was natural to papa and accessible to mother, though not in her nature. By the time I became an observer of this scene, our father’s reversal of fortunes had deprived such a lifestyle of its delights and, in effect, enabled mother’s more Bohemian inclinations to come to the fore. I suspect that, whatever the immediate causus belli of any particular dispute might have been, the underlying hostility derived from this essential incompatibility.

It is idle to speculate on what life would have been like if papa’s trainload of coffee had not been lost in 1910 and if the uninsured lumber mill had not burnt down in 1913 (dates that eerily coincide with the birth of his two sons) and he would have gone on to be the prosperous Burgher that his ambitions had visualized; yet we might hazard a glimpse. Mother would have had many rewards and a rich, if somewhat dull, social life, but I doubt she would have had as much gratification as she got in the penurious conditions she sustained, little as that was. Likewise, my own youth would have been richer but less fulfilling of my needs. Mother was unsuited to the role of head of a prosperous household but would have done what was required without liking it. But this is extrapolating my own feelings –I will return to that later.

The documents on papa’s history make it clear that he wanted to follow the path to success that his father had pioneered. Information that Tex gives in his oral history, shows that papa made repeated efforts to get a business going, moving back and forth between Mexico and Germany and we can presume he came to San Antonio because things were not going well in Mexico. All this suggests he did not have the talent for the career he set for himself. This was not from lack of intelligence or knowledge, because he was a smart man, but whether it was from lack of self-confidence, too literal a reading of ethics to engage in the knavish behavior that seems necessary to a business career, or to a lack of audacity, I cannot say. At any rate, he seems always to have been a loser – starting with his parents’ shipping him off to live with an aunt, his not being able to keep up intellectually with a younger brother (even worse than not keeping up with an older one, I’m sure) and then failing miserably in his efforts to fulfill the self-expectations in emulation of the model set by his idealized father.

By the time papa appears on my radar screen he is a tired, frustrated old man, still in his early fifties, eking out a living with a demeaning job of no social value, living in a modest house with a wife uncaring about those old Germanic values, and unable, as a result of his own failure,  to pour out the German wines he once imported for Burgher associates. He sees the remnants of his former elegance slowly fall to the wrecking ball of time and his wife going back to teach school to keep a fragile livelihood from slipping into true poverty. He finds himself living in an alien culture in the land to which he had come to seek his fortune and finding it far harder than the adjustment to life in Mexico had been, largely because his own wife and his growing children were part of that alien culture. Think back on that dinner when he ordered me to speak German. Here he was, listening to his own flesh and blood talking in an incomprehensible language about incomprehensible events, his wife and children listening in full comprehension, while he himself hasn’t the foggiest idea of what it is all about. This isn’t the English he knows well, but some current teen-age jargon that might as well be Hottentot. The alien off-spring he had spawned were taking over the lair. Or recall that earlier event at the same table, when Buntz pipes up shaming him by calling attention to the déclassé quality of the dessert being served in front of his self-important boss. God knows, he wanted to be one of us; how else could you explain that trip to Austin to see a football game? It is sad that I can remember nothing about that trip – how it was planned, whether we stayed overnight, if we visited anyone else, nothing but that awful moment. And I remember it now with great remorse because I realize what a defeat he suffered from his “ignorant” remark. Even now, as I tell this, tears well up in my eyes thinking about the effort he had made to participate and his inability to do so. The persistence of his inner world still rested on his German childhood, as he showed when I told him I was taking fencing at the University. “That’s good,” he said, “every young man should learn to defend himself.”

The power of the demons from his cultural background are the only explanation I can give for his last and most ferocious outburst that I encountered. I was home from college for a holiday in 34 or 35, just after Prohibition had been repealed and the three of us were having supper on that all-purpose back porch when I quite deferentially asked why he didn’t go back to importing – this time specializing in wine, as he probably knew more about German wines than anybody in San Antonio. His response was the most virulent outburst of temper I had ever experienced, totally out of keeping with the innocent and, I think, reasonable suggestion I had made. His tirade accused me of insolence and he threatened to disown me. Mother and I were aghast. She more than I, for she later told me that she was so angered that she never felt the same about him again and even gave thought to leaving him. I was more saddened than angered, for it uncovered the fantasy world that was still there — there was nothing to be disinherited from.

Read Full Post »

Living in Texas in early 20th century, the matter of what current political correctedness. calls “ethnicity” was an integral part of the social environment. Blacks suffered complete segregation and it was not possible to have a normal personal peer relationship with one. Childhood culture included a repertoire of jokes based on racial stereotypes and dialect-driven expressions that live with one throughout life. The treatment of Mexicans was little better, though the segregation was not so explicit and, as I have already said, my childhood best friend was a Mexican boy who lived two doors away in an enviable house with a three-car garage in an era when a two-car garage was a mark of opulence. I used to joke that I learned about cultural differences every time I came out to play, when after raiding our respective ice-boxes, Babe, the Irish kid from across the street came out with his peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on white bread, I with my sausage and cheese ones on rye or pumperkickel, and Rudy with his enviable Mexican precursor to the taco. Since I usually envied Rudy’s snack, I learned early that difference does not necessarily carry the better/worse dichotomy of values.

I also belong to an ethnic group. There was no stigma to being German and, interestingly, the Jewish stigma was not felt until I came to California, when people would ask me if I was Jewish. I had a hard time giving an answer, for I couldn’t just say no honestly and yes was even more misleading. The question was never innocent. As I said, there were no Jewish customs or artifacts at 315 and I was only dimly aware of being “partly Jewish” as a child. Once a friend invited me to go to a Boy Scout retreat with his Jewish troop and I went, being amused at the underlying sense of “ethnicity,” and bemused by the to me unexpected inversion of prejudice when they sang a verse contributed to the WW I song, “Mademoiselle of Armentiers” that went, “We are the sons of Abraham,/ eating ham for Uncle Sam.” Each of the three of us joined Greek societies in college. Only much later, when I realized that because my mother was gentile, I was not Jewish by Jewish rules, I formulated the honest answer: “yes, but only by Nazi definition.” But in a household in which both parents came from families who had denied such identification and could be said to have a “mixed marriage,” all this ethnicity had seemed to be just so much nonsense when I first learned it – evil nonsense. I grew up with the assumption of differences as being culture-based and not a matter of biological inferiority or superiority and that all peoples had their virtues and peculiarities. I was apparently drawn to thinking about cultures, for I would get children’s books that described life in different countries – “The Bobsy Twins in China” sort of thing.

But we lived in and were adapted to a racist society. Willy, our weekly “help” washed the clothes out in the back yard, boiling them in an old iron kettle like those in cartoons of cannibals cooking, over an open fire. As in many southern households, however, there was a measure of warmth as well as exploitation in this relationship. Willie was a powerfully strong, dark woman (a descendant of “field hands” and not “house slaves,” whites would say). She was uneducated but we did not confuse that with being dumb. We quoted with approval those aphorisms that we thought were expressions of a natural wisdom, such as her saying that she wasn’t going to take her malady to a doctor, “’cause he’d just give it a name,” or when she came back at my cousin when he told her not to get any of the black of her hands on the sandwich she was making, “Sonny, my hands ain’t as black as your soul.” She taught us that racial discrimination is more complex than we had realized in an expression of her own feelings. Once, mother told her that one of our neighbors wanted her for some temporary work. When mother asked her if she liked it and was going back, she replied laconically, “No’m.” “Why, did they treat you badly?” “no,” she replied,  “but those people jus’ don’ know they place” And she explained that they had told her to set three places for lunch and that when her husband came in and sat down, they told her to sit down, too. “I aint gonta eat with no white folks! As I say, them folks jus’ don’ know they place an I aint goin back there – no way!.” This was a sad, unforgettable introduction to the realization that the oppressed often adapt to their oppression.

There was nothing militant or “radical” in our attitude, just a kind of academic interest in, concern for, and support for the interests of Blacks and Mexicans, the ethnic minorities of consequence in early 20th century Texas. As is clear from the discussion of my family background, cultural differences and cultural relativism were taken for granted in our household, and while we, too, accepted discrimination as a condition of our society and even took advantage of some of its benefits, we did not condone it. There was a book in our library called !Viva Mexico!, which made fun of the culture of the quasi-colonial masters and thus expressing the universality of human foibles.

This interest in other cultures led me to be curious about what we would now call “the other.” Sometimes, on my magazine route I would stop at the Catholic cathedral and talk at some length to the priest, who was as alien to me as a foreigner and he seemed as intrigued by this curious child as I was about him. I have no memory of the content of our discussions but they were not just fatuous pleasantries. An even more enigmatic memory that, again, I cannot contextualize was a visit I made to the home of a middle-aged “middle-class” Black couple when I was in high school. There must have been some reason for the visit, for it is impossible that I just knocked on the door. I have a clear memory of my being in the neat and orderly living room of the modest house and the polite, if stilted, talk that ensued. It had a unique smell, composed largely of cleaning fluids, it seemed. But the only content of our conversation I remember was about the player piano, prominent in the parlor, which was totally new to me, and so they demonstrated it for me. I cannot understand what brought me to this social confrontation, so out of keeping with the norms of San Antonio in the twenties. Later, when I was at college and when I was on digs in rural Texas, I would go to Black churches to listen to their music, for the Negro spiritual sung by Black choirs is a beautiful experience. This, too, was against the grain of the culture, and in retrospect, I wonder how my hosts felt at these intrusions, which they had not dared to contest.

So I entered anthropology with a total acceptance of culture as the source of behavioral difference without any trace of the terrible infection of racist prejudice. Or so I thought. But the mind is a far more subtle and devious instrument than we like to think, as a terrifying experience I had some twenty years later made me realize. Let us fast forward to a sunny December noon on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley in 1943, after I had launched my career deeply rooted in this liberal anti-racist presupposition. I was a bit distracted, trying to figure out what to buy Gale for Christmas on our constricted budget when a man of uncertain age came by me in a persistent stride and struck me lightly with his hand as it swung with his walk. A thought sprung into my mind – a whole sentence appearing on the screen of my mind as they nowadays do on my computer. A nanosecond later, when its message entered my consciousness, a cold shiver ran down my spine. The sentence was: “Only niggers swing their arms like that.” There was nothing in the situation that merited such a reaction; the man wasn’t African-American nor had he more than grazed me. How could I, with a career devoted to the denial of racist causation come up with such a wording and such a thought? If this piece of shitty nonsense was lying deep within my subconscious, what other garbage was there? I tried to think how that sentence came into my head in the first place, for it appeared full-blown — all of a piece and not just cobbled together. I conjured up a scene of walking up dusty Stieren Street with Thea and Buntz on the way to Bonham School, but in this memory I did not actually hear the words being said. So I can’t say that was its origin, but it remains my best guess. It is a lesson in the subtlety of cultural indoctrination and made me forever aware that nobody ever truly frees himself of early experiences. I have told this story many times, for it is to me a morality tale, yet it troubles me still, even now as I write of it. It also piques my curiosity, for I cannot believe a thought like that could lie in my brain without having some form of materiality, and I wonder if some place inside my noggin a string of synapses had held together for a quarter of a century.

Read Full Post »

My next job taught me that work could be fun. A friend had had this job a year before, so I applied and became a stringer (I didn’t know the term then) for Brackenridge High School with the San Antonio Express, the morning daily. I was to report on social and sports events and whatever news I thought appropriate, clip what was published and be paid by the column inch. It happened that a new boy came to Brackenridge as a senior that year and we became something of a team. Charles (C.C) Convers had a Model A Ford roadster and I had passes to everything. Once we drove to Austin for some games – and it came very close to ending these memoirs right there. It was a lovely spring day and we took Lorraine Nicholson, the pretty girl in my class since kindergarten, now one of the class beauties, with us to the track meet there. I still get shivers up my spine visualizing the scene. On the ride home, Charles was driving and I was on the passenger side, with Lorraine between. (Those were the days of bench seats, much cozier on dates than the bucket seats of today.) We were going at a pretty good clip on the two-lane road and Charles thought he had time to pass a lumbering truck before an on-coming one could reach us. As he cut in front of that truck I looked at it and could swear there were no more than two inches of clearance. None of us said a word until Charles, white as a ghost, coasted into a filling station driveway and asked me to take the wheel. The event that didn’t happen was forever etched into our three minds. (Charles wrote me a note a few years ago when he saw me on TV and I looked him up and we had lunch together. He was retired from a prosperous engineering career and living in Santa Barbara. It was the first time I had ever said a word to anybody about the incident. He remembered it as clearly as I did.)

When Brackenridge High went to play against the Brownsville champions, it was so distant that I was given a Pullman berth ticket. A complement of fans were having fun and teasing me about being a softy when I left the chair car with some reluctance at missing the camaraderie but also with some pride at being special. Our team was no match and the game was a disaster; I doubt that my dispatch was coherent, but I felt very grown up sending a long telegram.   It was small consolation that the home team was later disqualified for having ineligible players on the field.

I got no instructions at the Express, I was shown what typewriters and desks I could use, where to find paper and the like, but was otherwise on my own. It made me feel grown up, though of course I was never part of them, never went out for coffee (no beer; it was the prohibition era) or the like. Nor do I have any memory of editorial comments on what I wrote. I often had a by-line and I talked the sports editor into letting me have a by-line for a second entry with just “Wally,” in imitation of their regulars. The city desk reporters paid me no mind as I sweated out my little stories. I had to turn in my contributions and didn’t keep a scrapbook and so have never read them since. I decided I wanted to be a journalist, though I surely didn’t have the talents for it – the outgoingness, the chutzpah, the courage. I used to say that I gave up journalism because I couldn’t type with a cigarette hanging from my lips, as the veteran reporters always did. No matter how hard I tried, the smoke always got into my eyes. I did ask for a job at the end of the year — but by now it was 1930! They pointed out that they had run the whole of the list of graduates and considered this to have been a kind of bonus. Fair enough.

The summer of 1927, Buntz and I took on a task that was really beyond us: painting the front porch. Painting is easy, it is the prepping that is the problem and this meant taking the paint off the Victorian gingerbread on the banisters and dripping down from the roof that had accumulated over the half century since they were installed. The paint was as thick as cowhide in shaded areas and burnt away in the exposed ones. This involved softening the paint in the curlicues with a blow torch and scraping with putty knife, perched atop a ladder. I wonder now that we didn’t burn down the house, for we had had no instructions or supervision. The tedium of this hot task in the Texas summer was calculated to strain the tensions and one morning while I was working the blow torch my temper broke at whatever stimulus and I started chasing Buntz around the house with burning torch in m hand. I distinctly recall thinking as I was running, “what in the hell am I going to do if I should catch him with him with this; I couldn’t set him on fire, after all?”  (Remember those pulled punches in the boxing match.) At that very moment, mother came out back and yelled, “Hey, Buntz, you’ve got a telegram!”

Telegrams had a dramatic impact when they were delivered in a somnolent neighborhood, for they usually carried portentous news. – most often disastrous but always hopefully good. It was a wire from Carlos Granada, a charming, brilliant man in his thirties, I judge, son of family friends in Mexico who had been taken in by the Rochs family when he was a youth for reasons I do not know. Now he wanted to repay this old favor and drive my brother to New York. It must have been a wonderful drive in those days before highways and road maps, a dramatic way to be launched into his new persona, Buntz becoming Tex, with all the adventures of a bright young man in the Big Apple, and onward to his highly successful and gratifying career.[1] That brought a sudden end to our immediate collaboration as well as to our persistent bickering. I was left holding the bag on our project but in return got to move my bed off the all-purpose back porch, where I had slept for a decade, and take proud possession of the lean-to – my own room at last.

I was also now the only son at home and much of the burden of big brother was off my shoulder. But not all. I felt his presence in many ways when still in San Antonio; especially reading his exuberant accounts of his exploits — a constant reminder of his great capability in contrast to my pale life, sorting Joske’s mail or even being a reporter. He got a job as a runner on Wall Street and talked about the giant checks he delivered, he talked his way into Columbia with a scholarship, he was selected for a prestigious fraternity, he appeared on the front page of The New York Times as a leader in a student demonstration protesting the hardships in the West Virginia coal mines, all served up with accounts of the wonders of the Great White Way and the general excitement of the Big Apple. One year he brought home one of his professors to whom he was a protégé and on another he brought home Roger Angel, for whom Tex had been a live-in tutor/companion

Mother and I went one night to the Open Forum to hear a speech on Egyptian archeology, a dubious presentation that nevertheless was fascinating to a 14-year old. We were in the foyer afterwards and met mother’s friend, Mrs. Gutzeit, a Forum functionary who introduced us to Count Byron Khun de Prorock, the name the speaker went by. Saying I was a sturdy youth, he said that when he next came to San Antonio he would take me off with him for his next dig. I was young enough to be caught up in his magic and waited in vain for his return. I learned later that he was as phony as his name but he had given me the answer to that vexing question all the quasi-aunts asked, “what are you going to be when you grow up?’ namely, “I’m going to be an anthropologist.”. This stopped them cold for they had no idea what it was. Later I used it to explain why I became an anthropologist. But in fact, I did not read up on archeology or anthropology to prepare myself. I was not really preparing myself for being a scholar.

In the summer of 1929 mother visited her parents, partly so Tex would not come home, for she, like so many mothers, was unhappy with a liaison he had made the summer before with a girl she felt was beneath him, which in the more literal sense I am sure she was. It turned out to be a most fortunate visit for mother to have done, not only to see her parents after some 20 years but also for meeting some of papa’s kin for the first time, picking up family portraits, acquiring other heirlooms of value and elegance and having a much deserved holiday. It was not so good for me. She had arranged for me to spend the time at a ranch near San Angelo owned by Oscar Calloway and his wife. He was an Irish rancher and a former one-term congressman, whom she knew from college days. I was delighted. When I was about 8, we had visited a ranch in the hill country of Texas where I had spent half the day on horseback and I had images of being out with cowboys doing ranch chores. However, this was more of a dairy operation; the Calloways were sweet and considerate but there were no other young people whatsoever and they had no idea what to do with a lonely 16 years old. There were plenty of books but I didn’t want to read all day. So after about a month, Mrs. Calloway drove me back with no explanation but only some well-meant generalized moralization. I knew I had been a failure. Thea came down from Austin and we painted the house interior. We had a pleasant time and Thea must have been put out, but she never complained to me.

The insidious pervasiveness of Tex’s influence on my personality is revealed by a puzzling thing about my mind. I remembering trivial things Tex had said:  “On Coney Island you get Texas hot dogs while we here we get Coney Island ones”; “the sailors on board looked down on having college girls as being ‘charity butt’”; “Why does the sun shine on you in downtown New York when it doesn’t in sunny San Antonio? Because there are no overhangs on the front of buildings.” It is annoying to remember such trivia when I forget my own. Go figure.

Nothing can express this ghostly presence of my older brother better than a scene that took place in my senior year, some three years after Tex had left. I was pleased with the essay for an English class that I called “Many Mansions” (a title from the Bible, furnished by mother, of all people). It is the only school paper that I remember having written. Its theme was that each person went to a heaven of his own liking – an anticipation of cultural relativism, already in full bloom before I took my first anthropology course. That is not, however, why it has stuck in my memory. I have a vivid recollection of going to see Miss Johnson to pick it up. It had an A, as I had hoped and expected. But, as she handed it to me she said, “That’s very good, Wally; was it your brother’s idea?”  What can I say? What more than to note that this moment is indelibly etched in my mind.

Tex suggested that I come to Columbia and so I took the appropriate exams (whatever they were then) in my senior year. I was accepted. Tex went to see the Dean about my performance and reported that the dean said that though it hadn’t been very good, my answers “showed promise, considering the quality of Texas schools.” They offered me a partial tuition scholarship;, Tex said with a mixture of pride and envy that it was more than he had been given.

So now I was faced with a major decision: should I go to Columbia, an internationally famous university in the great metropolis or to the University of Texas, a far less prestigious and challenging place. After a good deal of agonizing I made the most consequential decision I ever made and one that I now consider the wisest of my life. It was not the fear of the challenge of Columbia or the excitement of New York that led to my decision, though they did seem a bit overwhelming. It was that I did not want again to be Tex’s little brother.

[1] This is Tex’s story and will be found in his oral history,  Arthur E. (Tex) Goldschmidt, Gerard Piel, interviewer. Columbia University Archives.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »