Posts Tagged ‘San Antonio’

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.


Read Full Post »

“You haint one of them evolutionist, is you? And with all them nice children, too.’  Anonymous Texas woman

My childhood and youth were spent at the family home on Adams Street with my parents and my siblings until they each left for college. Adams was off South Alamo Street and our house was two long blocks to the south — a mile from downtown. (This reiteration of south for two streets at right angles is the kind of geography that leads San Antonians to appreciate that town planning originated in the paths laid out by cattle trails.)

The street was lined with homes built in the 80s or later of stone or brick for well-off families, mostly German, not far from the center of the German-American community, as a sort of extension of Sauerkraut Bend. Some houses might rate as mansions, but most were just nice family homes on 50 foot lots. By 1918 the once grand gardens were a bit neglected, but a middle-class aura remained and none had yet become funeral homes, to which the larger could aspire, and later some achieved. Adams Street was lined with hackberry trees that gave a rich shade and dropped seeds that cracked satisfactorily underfoot and chinaberry trees that dropped pea-shooter ammunition. The trees also housed English sparrows who fed on the horse apples that accumulated between the visits of the Mexican horse drawn street-sweepers but disappeared with the introduction of mechanized sweepers and the departure of the horse drawn ice-wagon and vegetable vendor. That vegetable wagon was a favorite, not only because we hopped rides on the back, to the dismay of the nag that pulled it, but because when mother settled the bill, we’d get a hand-out.

Most of the families were old and there were few children of my age nearby except in the big Irish family across the street with the ill-kept, old-car strewn yard and the Mexican Gonzales family, two doors from us in an elegant two-story brick house, whose youngest son was my best friend in the early years. The unpaved parallel streets to the east and west were lined with poorer wooden houses built more recently and thus provided more children for the games that tended to be on our street, the only paved one in the area, or in our own spacious yard.

We are looking at the 12 years, from 1918 to 1930 (the last three without my siblings). They were my childhood years and thus stretched out for an eternity. I have reminded myself that this is exactly the length of time my college years, from my arrival in Austin in 1930 to my doctorate in 1942. They are ten times as long in memory. They began as I emerged from infancy and led to the threshold of my manhood — the years of being shaped.

As this chapter rests on my early memory, I need to discuss this poor tool. I don’t know how other people’s memory works, but I find mine to be very episodic and lacking in detail. I already said that I have few memories of my first five (Fredericksburg) years and even afterward most are highly particular and embedded in explicit events, often without context. If you imagine my experiences over time as a vast seascape, you can picture my memories as archipelagos of little islands jutting above the waters of this lost nepenthe. These islands of remembered episodes will be the evidence with which to understand the dynamics of my life, trying to connect the dots in order to see the contours of the submerged mountain land below.

Three Fifteen, as it was called by our friends, fit this picture of run-down elegance. Its yard had the remnants of old Baldeson’s work that remained after suffering five years of tenant neglect. Large flower beds flanked the walk from curb to porch, edged with bricks set at 45 degree angles to show triangular red teeth, of which many were missing or askew. A male and female pair of then quite rare and fascinating cycads that had been a wedding gift was a decorative element on either side of these beds. (They were later traded to a landscape gardener for redesigning the front yard.)

The house was fronted with a deep porch with an elaborate banister and fretwork dropping from the peaked roof. An elegant front door led to a copious hallway flanked by two rooms of the same size. To the left was the parlor, which we called the library in honor of the books housed in the glass-fronted golden oak bookshelves; to the right was an all-purpose room with papa’s roll-top desk, at which he would type hunt-and-peck, very fast and fairly accurately. It also served as a general family room and even at times as Thea’s bedroom.

Beyond this front tier was the dining room I have described earlier and from it were doors at the north leading to what was once a butler’s pantry, but was now dark and dingy with a large closet we called das dunkele Schrank, on top of which were dusty scrapbooks of the war-atrocity propaganda that papa had kept, out of some kind of masochistic impulse, along with his now un-used top hats in their leather cases. The ice box was here with its pan of drip water that successive generations of cur-bred dogs would drink with a loud lapping, so it became known as klap-klap, and that would overflow when we forgot to empty it.

Behind this pantry was the kitchen, with its worn linoleum floor, a sink in a dark corner and the screened cabinet for dishes. Across the back was a large screened porch that extended to the opposite side to a door into the lone bathroom, which also opened to our parents’ bedroom. The front part of the house was brick but everything beyond the dining room was of wood construction. Much of our daily life was spent on the back porch in the long hot summers. It also was where I slept until Tex left, when I inherited the lean-to that had started as a maid’s room behind the kitchen.

This house was a home in the real sense of the word, and evoked our affection and pride, despite its manifest flaws and inadequacies. It was where family life took place; it was where we regularly ate and slept, where friends visited and family parties took place. I hadn’t been in San Antonio since mother died in 1971 and when Tex and I visited in the mid-nineties, we paid a sentimental visit to 315. As our picture was being taken in front of it, a pleasant young woman bounced out. After we explained ourselves she invited us in, glad to learn about its history and get advice on which walls were bearing walls, as she and her husband were planning to remove those that had been put in to divide the house into two apartments by an earlier owner. We kept up a correspondence until they moved out. The old house had been a warm and social hive that offered a safe haven though, as in most households, not all was sweetness and light. As we each grew to college age, we became eager to leave, but we always brought our sweethearts and later our spouses to visit. It was an emblem of who we were.

In Bridge, I say that each life is the protagonist in a common drama, for which others in his life are supporting cast; each in turn becoming protagonist in a drama for which the others are supporting cast. The common plot is always, in my view: Will our hero get the ego gratification he or she desires? This chapter therefore is the first and defining act of that iteration in which I am protagonist. To understand the trials and tribulations of our hero, we must appreciate the characters that have shaped his experience and the dynamic relationship between him and them. The central drama in this act is the dynamic interaction between me and Buntz, played out in relationship to our mother. I sometimes think of this as “the other eternal triangle,” because it is as old and universal as the competition for mates – and, I think, more significant in the history of human affairs. You can read in Bridge that I do not see this love triangle in Freudian terms of sexual desire, but as being a contest for the mother’s nurturant love, and thus not truly Oedipal. It is the search for maternal approval that lies at the core of human aspirations. I will, try to describe the culture at 315 as an ethnographer would, using episodes of remembered events as examples, leaving my analysis of it to the end.

Though mother had lived all her life in San Antonio and had a lot of friends, we had no relatives there except for her brother Paul and his family and I never knew any other kin until much later. I have always felt this to be a great loss, for I think the special relationship that characteristically grows up among kindred is a corrective to many of the tensions of family life; that it is no accident that kindred are important in every society I know of. I do not idealize the worth of kinsmen, but see the potentials inherent in their being there. They can be parental without having the responsibility of parents. For instance, once when we were in grammar school the circus came to town and Uncle Paul – “Unkie” — came and sprung us out of school to see the parade and go to it, under the sensible but unorthodox theory that it was more important than anything that we might learn that day. This is the kind of things that it is hard for parents to do. We were not close – I think he and mother weren’t close as children, and our life-style and values were very different, and yet it was a broadening tie with reality. I used to go to their house on weekends and play with Paul, Jr. –Sonny to us – and we remained good friends.

Sonny and his wife stayed with Karl and Mark when Gale and I went to Europe in 1958 and came to Mark’s wedding. His widow, Lucille is the only other remaining member of the family of my generation and we have visited one another on several occasions. She is a remarkable woman.

Read Full Post »

The Freie Presse was a daily with a circulation extending widely through the Middle West; Tex said it was the first daily newspaper ever published in San Antonio. Whether or not this is the case, it was an influential one and its editor became a prominent member of the large German community in San Antonio society despite his low pay and the poverty in which the family lived.
The German immigrant community in 19th century America was both numerically large and culturally significant. It was large and prosperous in San Antonio, as attested to by the quality of the houses in an area that is now a tourist attraction known as “the King William Street Area.”  It was also liberal, or at least free-thinking and friendly to education, and so Opa was universally addressed as “Herr Doktor,” a title then limited to members of the medical profession.  He served on both the school and library boards and was fully integrated into this affluent middle-class society. He was often asked to give funeral orations for prominent German men who were non-believers and, like my female ancestor, did not want a preacher talking over their lifeless remains. A number of the more opulent artifacts in my parents’ house (notably a locked silver casket designed for sugar that I knew as mother’s jewelry box) had come as gifts for these services.
Not only was Opa an atheist, he was also a political liberal. I suppose one could get a measure of this by looking up his editorials, but it seems too much work. One story is enough. Opa would write long editorials condemning patent medicines in issues where the back page was an advertisement for Lydia Pinkham’s, probably the most widely used such nostrum of doubtful worth at the time. Little wonder that the relationship between the editor and the publisher of die Freie Presse was not entirely cordial and that his salary remained meager. Only after some years could the family leave their house in the slum-ish La Valita area and move to a modest house on the fringe of the King William Street, still there when I was a boy.
We have had cultural amnesia about the important role the German immigrants of the 19th century and their liberal and intellectual persuasion. That intellectual role probably was eroded by the virulent anti-German propaganda during the first World War and  was disappeared entirely with the emergence of Hitler — to the extent that mother broke with many of her old high school friends in the thirties. (Mother was visiting in Mexico City when Roosevelt died and was shocked to see the large German community in Mexico celebrating at his death.) I had evidence of this change in San Antonio when I brought Gale for her first visit in 1945. I took her to meet Omi Groos, the living matriarch of the pioneers who started the Groos National Bank. She was holding court, laying luxuriously in her bed, a beautiful old woman on the eve of her hundredth birthday surrounded by well-upholstered Burghers of my mother’s generation who looked as if they had walked out of the pages of Buddenbrooks. She had been a regular customer on my Saturday Evening Post route every Thursday, a fondly remembered beacon of pleasure in that dreary enterprise, for without fail there would be a piece of cake or cookie, delicious to my 8-year-old palate despite the fact it was left over from Sunday’s dinner. But now I had just finished the Arvin-Dinuba study (of which more later) and was happy to explain the social issues of corporate farming and the plight of the small farmer. As we left, Gale and I looked at each other and laughed, for Omi Groos, two years before her death from old age, was the only one there who dug what we were saying. She knew about such problems as they had existed in Germany a century earlier. But the attitudes had been different when these now well-upholstered Burghers were my mother’s friends attending the German-American school on South Alamo Street in the same buildings – though by then no longer German-American — where I went to junior high some thirty years later.
Gretchen Rochs fit into and thrived in this social environment and her fondest remembrances seem to have been of her association with some half dozen other girls from the neighborhood who went to the same school and at some early age created a secret society called L. U. C. that lasted through their schooling and remained a cherished memory for my mother when we were children. Their children were among our friends and we addressed the parents as Onkel and Tante, in German custom. So far as I can tell, none of us quasi-cousins ever learned the meaning of those initials despite our whining efforts to elicit it when we were kids. Some of these girls belonged to the Groos household, the banker family that owned the grandest of the King William street houses. In high school, one L. U. C. son was a close friend of Tex and much later, as President of that bank, he handled my mother’s meager estate when she died.
I find significance in the fact that I never once heard mother express any sense of distress at her relative poverty, despite the wide disparity in economic condition. If she suffered any social discrimination from the poor circumstances of the Rochs family, it never appeared in any of her enthusiastic talk about her girlhood. The intellectual standing of Dr. Rochs was quite enough to give her a sense of equality. It is also of interest that, despite the poverty, my mother was the only one to go off to college. The value of education lay deep in our tradition. Things must have been pretty difficult, for mother had to drop out for a year because of a lack of funds, spending it as a teacher in the small town of Victoria, Texas, and running into trouble for singing a song, known to all German Americans as “The Dutch Company.” The blasphemy, not the nationalism, was at issue.
The sense of social equality remained for us children a generation later despite the continuing economic disparity and the fact that our social lives ran in different circles. When Onkel Franz invited friends to listen to Caruso and Teribaldi on his new Superheterodyne (as I remember the name) phonograph he would include my father and in my youth from time to time we would be sent a venison joint or a brace of quail in remembrance of papa’s help in importing wine from Germany. I don’t mean that we were unaware of the difference in our circumstances or that we were not envious of their access to certain advantages, but we never felt demeaned. I am sure that Thea must have felt the deprivation when her best friend, a Groos descendant, made her debut and participated in the prestigious Tournament of Roses parade, but if there were any tears or tantrums by the 16-year-old girl, they never reached my ears. In contrast, there were anger and tears aplenty when she could not be sent to college after high school and had to take her first years in a local Catholic community college.
`    Mother took great pleasure in recounting the terror she inspired in these friends when they were girls by challenging God to do better than so miserable a show of loud, Texas-scale thunderstorms and for similar blasphemies. She met her first (and, I suspect only) love on a streetcar outing that was one form of social life in the “Nifty Nineties.” The girls met in one another’s house, had picnics and other parties and remained friends — though gradually grew apart as their life styles changed with marriage.
Opa Rochs and his wife went back to Germany in 1909, when his brother died. I do not know whether this final departure was in response to an ultimate break with the publisher, with whom relations had always been difficult, from worsening financial straights and the desire to set claim to what remained of the Gamm fortune, (which was respectable until eaten away by the inflation that followed World War I) or out of concern for the welfare of his aging parents or all of the above. He was gone before I was born and therefore is more myth than reality, though he lived until 1931.
One more myth, the truth of which is attested to by a fine photo portrait of Herr Doktor Rochs, that gives us the sense of irony that suffuses all life stories. He was at the local Bierstube when he became discomfited by a strange man who kept staring at him. Finally the stranger apologized and introduced himself as a painter and said that he had been commissioned to do a painting of The Last Supper and would like to have Opa sit for him as he had the perfect head of Saint Peter. Opa agreed, but ultimately the artist had to leave and so he had a professional photographer take this picture. So it happens that somewhere, if it was not destroyed in the war, the image of this devout atheist is seen having dinner with Jesus Christ and the other apostles.

Read Full Post »