Kids who melt lead
Whatever happened was quickly forgotten. But it triggered a new memory that hung around for a lifetime. It sent a four-year-old boy into loud and tearful rage as he curled up in his bed. His father bent over him and the boy sniffled the words, “I wish I was dead.”
The young father yanked a blanket across the child’s face, blocking his nostrils and mouth and giving him a moment of breathless terror. “That’s what it feels like to die,” said the father.
It was a teaching moment for the dad, who never gave it another thought. It was different for the boy, and I never forgot it. My dad loved me, never handed out slaps or spankings or any kind of physical punishment again. What I remember a lifetime later is not the slaps I didn’t get, but 60 seconds of tough love gone haywire.
My dad and mom had lost two children in infancy, and then an incurable disease took my adopted brother when he was five and I was three. Three children were dead, and then my dad heard his one surviving child wish he were dead.
The Great Depression was getting started. My dad had been a popular pipe organist in Jamestown, N.Y., movie houses during the silent film era. When sound pictures were invented he had to find other projects. Installing a theater sound system had taken us 104 miles from Jamestown to Coudersport. I remember deferring a few meals.
My mom was around 20 years old, having been married on her 15th birthday.
Life was pretty good, most of the time. When I was four I entered Rose Crane’s kindergarten, developing a quick crush on an older woman, age six. What I wanted most in kindergarten was to learn how to read, so I could understand what was printed in the little balloons in comic strips. My grandpa, once a farmer and then a streetcar motorman back in Jamestown, read the daily newspaper from the front page weather report to the last obit and classified ad. I knew that he knew things I would know if I could read.
Those Depression years were tough for neighbors who used to ask my grandpa whether they could pick dandelion leaves from his lawn for food, and my classmates who were seldom warm in the winter, and a woman distraught when she was caught taking a few dollars from church to buy shoes for her kids.
I think I had just turned seven when I moved in with my grandparents, then in their 70s, in Celoron, a suburb of Jamestown. It became famous for one of its 700 residents, Lucille Ball. My mom went to work as a live-in housekeeper in Jamestown and my dad sold Hammond organs in Buffalo, 60 miles away.
Parental love sometimes took form in games and toys, many of them great fun, but mightily scowled upon today. There was a toy wood burner, shaped like a soldering iron. A kid lucky enough to have one just plugged it in until the tip became hot enough to burn wood. Then the kid could burn pictures into sheets of wood. After I plugged in my lead soldier toy, a little pot of lead was heated until the lead melted. Then I poured the molten lead into tiny molds to make soldiers. The chemistry set offered truly special possibilities.
Dwight Eisenhower once said that when he was a child his family was poor, but didn’t know it. I didn’t know it. The reason I’m thinking about this today is that my 90th birthday is, like one of those silent movies, a coming attraction. My children and grandchildren and friends provide nifty energy that makes life good, and they remind me of unacknowledged and usually unknown boosts from my parents, George and Doris. My mom lived with my wife and me when she turned 90, so I know that the heart grows fonder even if it’s growing fainter.
When I was a kid attending Saturday matinees at the Palace Theatre there was often an amateur show onstage, and it seemed to me there usually was at least one female contestant singing, “Ah, sweet mystery of life…” I knew that life was mysterious even before that. It is still a mystery, and still sweet.