My Life is Words
Words and ideas turn on the lights in the brain
Because I know I have a tendency to prattle on, and I know some people (perhaps most) won't want to read this to the end of what I suspect will become a somewhat lengthy post, I'm going to do the summary up front in the hope of imparting my message to those who, like me, are skimmers and/or impatient.
Summary: We are what we learn, plus a sprinkling of genetic matter. Life is, or it should be a continuous journey of learning. If you close your eyes and cover your ears at, say, the age of fifteen, or at any age, you will stop taking in the information that will help you grow and learn from experiences; you will be frozen in time. As Terry Coleman, a fine Irish gent I worked with at Boeing responded one when I asked him about a new supervisor who was joining our department, responded, "He has been here 25 years; he learned everything he knows in his first two years and has been repeating the same shit over and over for 23 years."
We only get one shot at life and we shouldn't waste it with our eyes and ears closed to new ideas and experiences. I think we have an obligation to learn and change as we grow. We should leave life a more informed person than when we started and with any luck at all, we will have added to the cumulation of knowledge and passed it on to our children and others. That is literally the definition of evolution.
My Journey To The Left
I wasn't born a liberal; I wasn't born anything other than a small pink collection of cells with the DNA of my parents and ancestors. The rest of my life, now approaching 78 years, has been a journey of learning about myself and about the other humans with whom I share this planet. That, I believe is a universal truth for us all. In my opinion, we aren't going anywhere after this. We will leave behind our ideas, our prejudices, and our love of life, art, music, and everything else that defines us, and with time, assuming we don't become famous, that will simply meld with all the other ideas and become the new normal.
I've documented my early life in a number of places so I won't go over the finite details here except where I think it might relate to my point that I am what I have learned. I have no memories of my mother and father as a child, save one visit from my father on my 4th birthday. I was living with my grandmother, his mother. As I recall the visit, I must have known who my father was because I remember being happy to see him; that would be the last time I saw or heard from him, ever. My mother was unknown to me at all; I had no memories of her and so, in my mind at least, I first met her when I was about thirteen. At fifteen I went to live with her and my stepfather, George Wagner, a great guy and a STBF (Short term best friend).
I lived with my parents as an infant; I know I did because my older brothers told me some interesting stories. Soon, however, perhaps around one year of age and presumably because my parents separated, I was off to my Aunt Bert's house, my father's sister, and shortly after that off to live with my grandmother, Minnie, until just before my fifth birthday.
Whether I was learning anything during this period, I have no idea; my memories are mostly limited to my grandmother and brothers and events and activities with them as opposed to any sort of philosophical, religious, or political indoctrination. I'm persuaded that I was learning to accept change; a lesson that would be useful later in life.
My grandmother was not well; I learned this later. She suffered from diabetes and at around age 70 simply could not raise children, that would be me and my two older brothers. It appears there was no other family to rely on so she ended up placing all three of us in a boys' home in Omaha, Nebraska; my brothers first, then me. Thus, I feel my life story, my journey really began at age five; the rest was a serious of incidents.
The Masonic Home for Boys is now called simply The Omaha Home for Boys. If one has to be raised in an institution, you would be hard-pressed to find a better one. Later in life, I've come to think of that experience, which lasted ten years until I was fifteen, as what I imagine being sent to a military school or some sort of boarding school must be like. Life, while lacking some of the more personal touches of growing up in a family and learning to love, but provided a solid foundation of rules and life lessons that would prove useful later in life.
Please do not go aww, or feel sorry for me. Yes, my life was certainly atypical, but the adventures I had at the Home could never be duplicated in a family environment. While I saw my life as rather inflexible and constraining as most young people do, I was never abused in the common context of abuse. Again, there were situations that I've described in other writings about life in the Home that were difficult, but it was a fun and exciting childhood.
Back to learning. I don't know, and will never know if I was born with an appetite to learn, or if it was imparted in me during my time at the Home. The boys at the Home were divided by age; roughly something like this: age 5 to 10 in the Buck Building, age 11 to 13 in the Scott Building, age 12 to 14 in the Neff Building, age 13 to 15 in the Smith Building, and ages 16 to 18 in the Anderson Building. It's been a lot of years, but that's the general idea; we were divided by age groups with about 16 boys in each building and a total capacity of about 80 boys.
Life at the Home revolved around a number of things; schedule, tradition, religion, and doing chores. It was as WASPish an environment as can be imagined. There were no boys of color when I went there in 1947, and none when I left in 1956. There were no people of color on the staff. The area in and around the Home was, to my knowledge, completely white. That has all changed tremendously (sorry for the Trumpian superlative) and I would encourage you to check out the Omaha Home for Boys if you're curious. It's now full of boys and girls and kids of all colors.
What is now a Middle School, Monroe, is where I went to school. It was then a Grade School and was about a mile away, although it felt like ten miles on a freezing, snowing day walking to school and back, I enjoyed school a lot and was a good student. The school was also lily white in those days. I have no recollection of any students of color in the ten years I went there (they made it a Middle School when I was in the 8th grade, so I stayed on for the 9th)
The good news is, while I had no exposure to people of color or ethnicity, I was also not surrounded by or bombarded by racial animus The staff at the home, to my knowledge or recollection, never said one word about race, nor did teachers at school. My diversification education, as distorted as it was, came from television. Rochester on the Jack Benny Show, Willie Best (a variety of shows and roles), Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, better known by the stage name Stepin Fetchit, and Nat King Cole. They were all images on a screen as opposed to real people.
My first five years at the Home were under the tutelage of Mrs. Mable Stoft. She was a stern little woman with, at times, some strange ideas about raising boys. Still, much of who I am today probably stems from her influence on me; others will have to judge whether that is good or bad.
As I mentioned, this area of Omaha was very white. We boys went to public schools and the church of our choice in the nearby neighborhood of Benson. The churches were, to my knowledge, all Christian. There may have been a Synagogue somewhere, but not that I was aware of. There was a clutch of Protestant churches, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran, and Baptist, and maybe one Catholic church that I avoided like the plague; I did visit most of the other Christians houses of worship over time.
Mrs. Stoft was a solid and stoic Christian woman and she made a point to having us study and read from the Bible daily, along with other educational pursuits, reading, English, and math; she was supplementing what we were learning in school. We typically spent an hour or so reading and in recitation between coming home from school and going to dinner. As I mentioned, it was definitely a WASPy childhood.
Whether I had a talent for memorization, or she helped develop that in me through reading and recitation, I don't know, but I became a bit of a minor star in that regard. I memorized a number of Bible verses as well as the Gettysburg Address and was called on to recite these at special events for the Home which usually involved trying to raise money from donors. I think I became a bit of a hot dog whenever I had a chance to speak in front of an audience; I seemed to enjoy being on stage.
What I did have as a child, or again perhaps was developed in me, was the thirst for knowledge. I enjoyed reading, and had good comprehension and retention of what I had read. Mrs. Stoft also "forced" us to watch certain shows on television. These include artists like Lawrence Welk, Kate Smith, Ed Sullivan, Eddie Cantor, Milton Berle, and Nat King Cole. I think Mrs. Stoft wanted to develop an appreciation of music in us, as long as it was semi-religious. I left before rock and roll blew up; I can only imagine her angst over that. We also got to watch cowboy shows like, Roy Rogers & Dale Evans, Hopalong Cassidy, Lash LaRue, and The Cisco Kid.
I watched Nat King Cole with fascination. Mrs. Stoft, to her credit, never said a word about him being Black or anything else that I recall, but she obviously liked his music. I knew I was listening to something special, but I couldn't stop looking at the face of this Black guy. No one had said a word to me about people of color, so I just stared in wonderment The same thing happened with the Cisco Kid & Poncho. They were two of my favorite...cowboys?
Cisco Kid was played by Duncan Renaldo, and Poncho by Leo Carrillo. Cisco Kid was a swashbuckling Mexican dressed like a Mariachi. Leo Carrillo was actually born in Los Angeles and his character dress more like a Mexican cowboy, or Vaquero. I knew nothing about Mexicans, Mexico, or Mariachis, but I loved these two guys. The funny thing is that Renaldo was born in Romania and to my knowledge didn't have a drop of Mexican or Spanish blood in him. Carrillo, at least, came from a long line of original Californians and was of Spanish and Italian heritage. The Cisco Kid visited the home once when I was probably ten, and it was a highlight of my life then.
My point in sharing this part of my life is that I had no preconceived ideas about who any of these people were. No one had instilled in me any preconceptions, dislikes, or stereotypes for people of color. Naturally, most of the Black actors on TV and in movies were playing the stereotypical Black person so I probably assumed that was what they were like. What I enjoyed was the humor I saw in their characters without associating it with anything bad.
My life went on at the Home for another five years after I was out from under Stoft's wing, but again, with no overt racist talk or with me meeting people of color. There were a few boys who had arrived at the Home at an older age than me, say twelve-years-old, or so, who did use racial slurs, but it had no meaning to me at the time. One of the terms would stick with me and to this day I tell the story about my naïveté when I left the Home; we'll get to that in a moment.
I mentioned earlier that my mother came into my life when I was about thirteen. She and my stepfather came for a visit. I spent a series of weekends with them at their apartment in downtown Omaha, and a little before my fifteenth birthday, they plucked me out of the Home and I went to live with them.
That was initially a strange turn of events, and probably a strain on me. I had spent the last ten years, perhaps my most formative years, living in dormitories with upwards of eighty other boys and being shepherded by women who seemed to us to be ancient. I was thrust into this new home environment that was very quiet and since my two brothers, who I barely knew, were off to the Navy and other adventures, I didn't have a lot of companionship.
One thing that my early life had taught me was to adjust to the situation I found myself in, and I was pretty good at that. I tended to listen and observe the environment I was in and the people around me and adjusted, to at least survive if not thrive where I was at. That is what I did now living in a family environment, even if it was somewhat atypical.
We initially lived not far from the Home in my stepfather's parents home. That setup lasted only a few months. Shortly after I moved there, his mother died, and a fairly short time after that his father died. I guess the house, such as it was, must have been sold and what money there was divided between my stepfather and his sister. Our next move was to South Omaha.
I had often referred to South Omaha (SO) as 'Little Chicago'. That was due in part to it being one of two major stockyard operations in the country, the other being in Chicago. It also attracted a great many people looking to work in the packing houses. People from Eastern Europe (post war immigrants), and Blacks, Mexicans, and Native Americans as well as white people were all drawn to the area for good paying jobs.
Thus, my education in the world of color began.
I met people of every race, color, and religion you could imagine. Now, to be sure, I heard more than my share of racist talk in the Federal Housing Projects where we lived. Many, if not most of these folks had grown up in SO. There had been race riots, and discrimination between Black and white and Hispanic. There had been issue between white people, between native born white people and immigrants from Europe. There were old issue that came from Europe with the immigrants and those didn't just fall away because they were now in America.
But, since all that racist nonsense had not been instilled in me as a small child, at fifteen, I had developed a brain that could take in opinions and other information and form my own ideas; I hadn't been programmed to discriminate. In the interest of being real, it wasn't like I fell right in with all these diverse cultures. They were strange to me, and sometimes uncomfortable or I simply didn't understand their food, music, or banter, but no one had told me it was "bad". I made my own decisions.
I found myself rejecting the "hate speech," not because I was being coached, but simply because it was who I was. I wasn't exactly a pacifist. Growing up at the Home with upwards of eighty other boys, you have to know there was a lot of testosterone in the air. I could take it outside with the best of them if need be, but I also learned the art of negotiation and that was my preferred approach. I made and rejected friendship based on my assessment of someone as a person, not on color or nationality or any of that.
I mentioned having learned a term at the Home from one of the boys - I don't remember a name — who had obviously been schooled in racist talk. The term was 'Jungle Bunny'. I might have been around twelve when I first hear that, and I had no clue what it meant. I've told people I actually had a mental image of a human-sized rabbit hopping along the trails in the jungle. Everyone laughed when the term was used, but I guess I was seeing a very different image than the others.
Boom! I'm in SO now. I'd made friends with another boy in the Projects, Tom Devaney. We were riding a bus to the SO shopping district one day and grab-assing on the bus the way teenage boys will. The bus was probably half full, and seventy percent of that group was Black. As Tom and I kind of wrestled around, I called him a Jungle Bunny. He froze and his already pale Irish tone went even whiter. I pulled back and noticed that everyone on the bus had turned to look at us; I had no idea why.
Tom hissed at me, "Don't say that you dumb shit!" And what did I do? "What? Jungle Bunny?" I said it nice and loud and again perhaps twenty Black faces turned in my direction. Tom pulled the cord to get off and grabbed me and hauled me off the bus. He then explained what the term mean. I didn't have a clue; that's how naive my little white upbringing had been. Needless to say, other than telling this story on myself, that term has never passed my lips again.
Over the years, I continued to learn. In the Marines, I squared off with more than one good old boy from down south over racist stuff, and I did take it outside with one of them. If a couple of guys hadn't stepped in between us, he would have cleaned my clock; he was fast. It became obvious to me that racism is learned and once learned, it is damned hard to erase.
One more anecdote and I'll move on. After the Marines, and marriage, and a couple of little pink things of my own, my first wife and I moved to San Diego with our children in 1966. Being form the Midwest we were bowlers. I used to bowl on a league for the company I worked for at the time and I would go right from work to get in a little practice before our league started at 6 pm. After practice I'd grab a bite to eat the cafe in the bowling alley. I used to sit at a horseshoe shaped counter and pound down a cheeseburger and fries.
One night, just as I'm finishing, I overhear two older guys who were WWii aged and maybe veterans. What I could hear was stuff like "dirty Japs," "yellow bastards" and at one point, the guy doing most of the talking said something like, "If my kid ever married a Jap, I'd disown the little bastard." By this point, I was seething. I looked over, and the guy must have been 70 if he was a day, and I was about 27 or 28, so I figured I probably shouldn't just go over there and knock him off the stool, so I walked over on my way to the alleys and said something like, "If there is such a thing as reincarnation, I can only hope that you come back Japanese." While he was digesting what I'd just said, I walked off to bowl.
Looking back on those first twenty-five or so years, I can now see that I was moving left and rejecting much of what my white, conservative beginnings were teaching me. My natural instincts were to reject racism, hate, and negativity in general. I attribute this to my natural inclination to question what I'm told is "just the way it is," and search for answers that are logical as opposed to the legendary or hypothetical postulations typically given. Since I definitely was not being taught to think for myself at a young age, I attribute this inclination to genetics.
Having once landed in Southern California, I met and became friends with a number of like-minded people. In those days; they were labeled either hippies or communists for challenging the status quo, but I knew that my belief system and politics belonged in the left lane and the much of what I had been taught as a boy was based in a conservative white Christian dogma that didn't work for me.
Over the years and after the late 60s, and events like Viet Nam and the Nixon and Reagan administrative lies and missteps, I moved even further to the left, and today, with the oligarchy of Trump and his band of felons bolstered by an illegitimate pseudo-news network, FOX, trying to dismantle our democracy and destroy our Constitution, I think I've moved even further left. The young man who was labeled a "commie" is one of the strongest defenders of our Constitution against the likes of Trump that you are likely to find.
I think and write and talk and then do it all over again.