If you are disturbed by vulgarities and crass language, feel free to skip this post, but please come back next week because I don’t make a habit of subjecting people to it.
I have a nonfiction short story out in a new anthology published by Devil’s Party Press. The theme of this collection is a bad word in the title of each story. Lest you think this is sophomoric hijinks, the writers are all over forty!
Click through the photo if you want to order a copy. My story is called “The Self-Mindf**k.” See, I can’t bring myself to spell it out in public! As for the title of the anthology, you can read the book cover above.
Seriously, though, my story is childhood memoir, about the way the fear and anxiety of living in my parents’ home over a basement bomber shelter affected my thinking—hence, the self-mindf**k. Here is a little “teaser.”
In the summer I turned six, my father dismantled his cozy basement workshop and built a secret underground bomb shelter out of cement blocks. This intrusion into our home was my first encounter with the Cold War. Television regularly put us through tests of emergency broadcasting via CONELRAD, and at school, duck-and-cover drills were weekly rituals. The goblins in our nightmares were “Commies, Reds, and Pinkos.” The anxiety this threat gave me was palpable and made even more acute because I was supervised by nervous parents. I had to wear a cumbersome lifejacket just to play in the sand at the beach. Overprotective was an adjective created for my mother and father. I don’t know if I would have been a fearful child if I had grown up in a different environment. Maybe part of it was genetic. But a fraidy cat I was–too scared to attempt cartwheels or to ride atop someone’s handlebars. Living across the street from an intimidating dog was one more frightening aspect of life in those days.
Thanks to Marie K. Bailey I discovered I could post a deal on my first poetry collection Doll God on this blog. Ten bucks covers a signed copy and postage to a U.S. address I’m so sorry that I can’t offer the same deal to my friends in other countries. However, if you are interested in shipment elsewhere, please email me and let’s try to work something out.
Years before my father built my playhouse, even a few years before he built the bomb shelter in our basement, I was constructing my own forts out of sheets. They sprouted in our living room, my bedroom, and in the neighbor’s basement.
I would drag chairs and small tables close enough to heavy furniture that sheets could be draped from one object to another to create walls and a ceiling.
In the best interests of my book I actually built myself a fort yesterday. I covered the kitchen table and chairs with sheets and crept inside with a pillow and diet Coke. What I learned is that two of my cats were curious and came inside with me, but decided to leave right away, and two of them skedaddled in terror. And I learned that my knees aren’t doing so hot.
In the days when I didn’t have those issues, my mother’s laundry provided the ability to make forts. Her hinged type clothespins held the sheets to the furniture.
Not for fort-building!
In my mother’s canvas clothespin bag, the majority of the pins were the standard version, and I had to really hunt to find enough of the hinged sort.
In those days my mother had a clothesline in our backyard, and in the summer she hung our sheets and certain articles of clothing with these pins. A few years later, she switched to a wheel-shaped pole unit from a simple clothesline. This was the new style, and my mother was upgrading for the sixties. A few years later, we moved to our final house, and my mother said she wouldn’t put up a clothesline because it was tacky.
As I worked with the sheets, they billowed up with a whoosh and, if it was summer, the outdoor scent blew off the fabric. In the winter they smelled musty from the tightly packed narrow linen closet. When I got my sheets all clipped to the furniture, I had a tent which sometimes was just one “room,” or if I was lucky enough to get hold of more sheets and had a friend to help me, might be a multi-roomed tent.
Blanket fort (Wikipedia)
Children have very little privacy. Having my own fort gave me the illusion of privacy, even if it was only to lie in there and sigh at the light filtering in through the thin percale or snicker at the muffled sound of my mother yakking on the telephone in the next room. A special treat was if my mother let me eat my grilled cheese sandwich and carrot sticks inside the tent.
It might be that children’s forts make children feel safe because they provide a feeling of control. The child cannot be seen by others, but she can peek out at will–even spy.
When I was older, at least ten, we built a fort in the empty field behind our house. The field had natural hillocks and valleys, and my friends and I chose the deepest indentation and dug it out deeper. This took hours of callous-building work with Dad’s army shovel. Then we collected scraps of old wood from the city dump on the other side of the field and fashioned a crude cover for the opening. We left a narrow space to peek one head above the surface, as if we had a human periscope.
Apparently children are still making forts out of their environment. The other day a friend ran into a charming fort on her walk through the woods.
By the time we moved to Crockett Street, it was our 4th residence, and I had just finished 4th grade.
Dad had built our previous house himself, a beautiful pink brick ranch, but the house cost too much to keep up. It must have disappointed my father to leave behind the house he had put his heart into. I don’t remember his feelings–or my mother’s–about the move, though, because I was caught up in my unhappiness. It felt to me as if every time I started to get comfortable in a new school and new neighborhood, we had to move.
That’s when Dad decided to build a house we could take with us when we moved.
In the actual photo, you can make out a double rainbow arcing down from the upper left.
It was a playhouse he erected at the rear boundary of our backyard. The eight-by-ten foot edifice was created out of old boards and roof tiles Dad re-purposed, sided with yellow siding he had scrounged from an empty lot.
Inside the playhouse, Dad built a bench on two sides and above those, up at the ceiling, the rafters formed long wooden pockets. Up there, we stored secret agent supplies like decoder rings and invisibility raincoats and private notes listing the boys we liked, but eventually those things became irretrievable as the wasps set up nests and when Dad periodically removed those, the spiders took over.
Over time we discovered that during the summer the little house was too hot. Within minutes we’d end up hauling the little table and chairs out onto the grass because we couldn’t bear to stay inside. In the winter, the air was as icy inside as it was outside, but the snow and ice couldn’t get in, so we’d sit on the benches in our snow pants and stocking caps and play Candyland. Our fingers froze as we pushed our tokens, but then we’d pull our hands back up into the sleeves of our jackets until it was our turn again.
After a while we lost interest in the playhouse and started walking up to the plaza for something to do.
The house still stood at the back lot line, a fading reminder of my childhood, until we discovered a new use for the little building. When I entered junior high, boys were no longer just names on a list or our stinky younger brothers driving their trucks through muddy dirt piles.
My friends and I loved sleepovers, but with the playhouse we had a place to sleep and entertain friends without being actually inside our own houses. Some of our first get-togethers with boys happened in that playhouse. While it was all innocent fun ;), I’m pretty sure my parents thought I was still playing board games with my girlfriends.
While we lived in that house, Dad bought a piece of lake property on the shallow weedy end of the lake. When we had to move to a new house, Dad strapped the playhouse onto a borrowed flatbed truck and hauled it out to the lake where we dubbed it “The Changing House.”
Inside we stored stretched out bathing suits, Styrofoam floaties, and boat cushions. Daddy long leg spiders set up residence in there, too, wrapping everything in webs so that when we wanted to use something we had to make sure our hands were dry enough to wipe them clean or the webs would adhere to our skin until we jumped in the lake to clean off.
One night when I came in from a moonlit row with friends and needed some mosquito repellant, I caught my twelve-year-old brother in the little house with the fourteen-year-old girl next door. The playhouse was now in the hands of the “new generation.”
I tried to do some online research about the history of playhouses, but I haven’t had a lot of luck so far. One problem is that the term “playhouse” is used so often for a theatre. There are also a lot of websites about making playhouses for children today–and that makes me happy that the playhouse is alive and well.
Playhouses are related to forts and treehouses. Somebody had built a treehouse out by the dump which was behind our house, but it wasn’t my personal space like the playhouse. Long before the playhouse came into my life, forts were important to my childhood, so I hope to write next about forts.
This post is thanks to Sarah Cedeño‘s comment on her own blog when we discussed my father’s bomb shelter.
Today’s research turned out to be particularly helpful for my book.
Reading about the space race is dull science unless you’re particularly interested in military history. But I didn’t feel that it was boring when I was a kid.
Using the Nova (PBS) space race time line available online, I thought I would see how my memories fit into the historical and political context.
My first memory was of a model rocket ship my dad “helped me” put together. We still lived on Trimble and it was before the bomb shelter, so it had to be 1961 or before. I was very young and the model was far too advanced for me. I wasn’t old enough to go to a school with a “rocket club,” where kids met and compared rocket models.
According to Nova, the space race began the month of my birth, July 1955. After WWII, the US and USSR “entered into the Cold War game of spy-versus-spy that ultimately led to the space race.” Eisenhower proposed an “Open Skies” policy so that “either nation would be allowed to fly reconnaissance aircraft over the other.” The USSR rejected the idea, and both countries began work on satellites to gather intelligence.
In October 1957, the Soviet Union launched their satellite Sputnik 1 into orbit. A month later they sent a dog into orbit in Sputnik 2. On January 31, 1958, the U.S. launched Explorer 1 and in July 1958, Eisenhower announced that NASA would be formed with the mission of exploring space.
By 1959 both countries had begun the process of missions to the moon. Pioneer (US) and Luna (USSR) were spacecrafts designed to take us to the moon. In 1960, the United States and Soviet Union continued to work on rocket and satellite technology.
These unmanned rocket ships captured the imagination of Americans. Being satisfied with this less personal involvement in space was soon to change.
On April 12, 1961, the Soviets succeeded in sending a cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, into orbit. The Soviets had put the first man into space and beaten the Americans once again.
Before our spare bedroom was turned into a nursery for my brother, I remember wearing a space man helmet in that room while my mother wrote letters. The costume had tin foil on it somewhere, but my memory exists only as an impressionistic image.
Dell comics started the series Space Man in 1961. The comics were published for over ten years. They featured, as did many books and toys of the era, astronauts in “space suits.”
Notice the back of this comic is an ad for a Daisy air gun (see previous post about cowboys and guns).
In October 1962, American reconnaissance planes discovered Soviet nuclear missile sites being constructed in Cuba. This was only 90 miles from the United States. The Cuban Missile Crisis lasted two weeks. The U.S. also had bases at the Turkish-Soviet border. People were very shaken up because they believed that a nuclear war had been narrowly averted. Both countries removed their weapons, but it drove their efforts to compete more deeply underground and more deeply into the fabric of the culture at the time.
I didn’t have a clue this was going on, although not too long after the Cuban Missile Crisis we started getting Spanish teachers in the public schools, and the teachers were always Cuban.
The Manned Orbiting Laboratory plans were announced at the end of 1963. The secret mission of the lab was for the astronauts to take more detailed photos of the Soviets and their allies.
In March 1964 we moved and I no longer slept over the bomb shelter. My parents transferred me to a 3rd grade classroom in a new school that month.
The bulletin board was decked out for a reading competition which featured planets and stars. I wrote a report about all nine planets—Mercury to Pluto. At my school science fair, in 4th grade, at least half the exhibits were related to “outer space.”
In my 4th grade classroom (1964-65) we watched documentaries about the space race. One that particularly disturbed me was seeing a chimpanzee being put into the small spaceship, where I knew he would be blasted into space and imagined he would eternally die, as if his death would be an ongoing tragedy.
I looked for the video online—or at least a reasonable facsimile, but haven’t been able to find one yet. I did discover that Ham, the first chimp shot into space, survived and lived another 17 years.
After that, a new vista of space opened up for me and many other American children. The TV show Lost in Space aired on September 15, 1965 and lasted until March 6, 1968. A while back somebody posted a photo from this show on Facebook, and many people confessed to having been very absorbed by this show. I remember setting up chairs in my basement and pretending it was the “chariot” which rolls over the rocky terrains of unknown planets.
Instead of poor innocent chimps or anonymous astronauts being shot into space, here was an American family who were surviving in the hostile and exciting environments of outer space. I never knew that the costumes worn by the family were such brilliant colors as I watched the show on our black and white Zenith TV (with herringbone patterns and general fuzz overlaying the images).
I was such a fan I even got Angela Cartwright’s autographed photo.
Close on the heels of Lost in Space, Star Trek aired on September 8, 1966. The difference in quality of the two shows was astronomically 😉 different. The first was a kitschy show for children. The second was far superior in the way it was imagined and the appeal was broader. Interestingly, though, it was sort of a flop at the beginning, as if it were ahead of its time. By the time I started to watch it I was ready for this show in addition to my diet of spy shows (especially those from U.N.C.LE.).
My fickle heart switched from Lost in Space to Star Trek when I started junior high in 7th grade. That would have been the fall of 1967. So after only one year my crush on the first show was supplanted by my crush on the new show.
After watching Captain Kirk, Spock, Bones, Scotty, Sulu, Uhura, and the rest handle the denizens of outer space, what happened in 1969 wasn’t a big surprise.
As the Nova timeline indicates, “to many, the space race ended when Neil Armstrong and Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin set foot on the moon.” I didn’t need a timeline to tell me when this occurred because they landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, my fourteenth birthday. That was the summer before 9th grade. I have a very short story of this birthday on the storytelling website Cowbird.
This story describes how we watched the ship land on the moon on my parents’ 9” Sony portable TV. I was an awkward fourteen, my braces packed with corn which I’d just eaten off the cob. I remember suddenly knowing I wasn’t a kid any more.
Imagine that: the space race began and ended with my childhood. Or should I say that my childhood began and ended with the space race?
In my last post, I talked about the bomb shelter my father built in our basement. Every time I walked down the wood plank steps to our basement, I slammed right into the Cold War because the closed door to the shelter was located at the bottom of the stairs.
During this time, the majority of television shows I watched were some form of Western. Cowboy shows.
You know what that means. Guns on TV and toy guns in the neighborhood, the stores, and yes, my house.
I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the Cold War and guns went together. It seemed acceptable that the cowboys had guns to protect themselves against the bad guys who also had guns. And it seemed imperative that the homesteaders had guns to protect their families and property, just like we had the Bomb Shelter in our basement with the shotgun and . . . oops, I guess I forgot to mention that in the last post.
According to Shadows of the Past website, from the 1940s to the 1990s there were 145 different Western shows on TV. An enormous number of these were in the 50s and 60s.
Clayton Moore (Photo credit: twm1340)
My early favorite was The Lone Ranger (I suggest you read the section in this Wikipedia article about the code of conduct by Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels) which I eagerly awaited in reruns every Saturday. However, there was another show which began the same year (1949) and didn’t last as long, but had an enormous influence on early fifties culture. That was Hopalong Cassidy, a “good” cowboy who dressed all in black, giving the lie to the popular notion that only the bad guys wore black.
According to Wikipedia:
The enormous success of the television series made [William] Boyd a star. . . . The series and character were so popular that Hopalong Cassidy was featured on the cover of national magazines, such as Look, Life, and Time. Boyd earned millions as Hopalong ($800,000 in 1950 alone), mostly from merchandise licensing and endorsement deals. In 1950, Hopalong Cassidy was featured on the first lunchbox to bear an image, causing sales for Aladdin Industries to jump from 50,000 units to 600,000 units in just one year. In stores, more than 100 companies in 1950 manufactured $70 million of Hopalong Cassidy products, including children’s dinnerware, pillows, roller skates, soap, wristwatches, and jackknives.
Like other children of the fifties, I had a Hopalong Cassidy costume. Mine was a cowgirl outfit, all in black with white plastic fringe. It came with a cowboy hat and a hip holster and pistol. I cannot remember if the holster was doubled sided for two guns or was only one-sided. I don’t know where the costume came from as I remember it being an important part of my play attire from my earliest memories. I regularly wore it for play until it eventually wore out.
I had a feeling that my parents were hoarding photos of me in this costume, and I was contenting myself with snooping online for other kids in their Hopalong Cassidy costumes (I found two young cowgirls), when I happened upon a photo of me in my costume. And it’s exactly the way I remembered it.
The jack o’lantern in my hands confirms that I got this costume for Halloween
I’m not cropping the above photo because I want to keep it for interior details about the period.
My friend Mark who lived next door used to play Cowboys and Indians with me. We argued over who had to be the Indian because everybody knew the Indian couldn’t be allowed to win (me being sarcastic). I had an edge because of my fringe, my brimmed hat with chin string that could be tightened, and my six-shooter.
A change that occurred . . .
Item by item, my Hopalong Cassidy outfit wore out and disappeared from my life. As it did, I grew a little older and wasn’t as fascinated by the Cowboys and Indians game as I once was. However, when I was with my cousins, who were younger, we did play. I remember by then wanting to be the Indian because I could be “different” and use a bow and arrow.
By the time I was nine, playing at being an “Indian brave”* had become an obsession, resulting in me studying my “bible,” the Grey Owl catalog of “Indian supplies,” and spending my extremely limited spending money, earned by doing chores, on beads and a purse craft kit and “oxblood” skin paint.
By then the dark and dank feel of the Cold War had become for me the shining Space Race.
* Note: yep, I’m aware of the pitfalls here of using the terms “Indian brave” and “Indian” by today’s standards. But I’m talking about 1957-1964.
When I was little, my father built a nuclear fallout shelter in the basement room which had been his workshop. My house was the only one I knew of with a Bomb Shelter, which marked us as somehow . . . um, special.
On Monday I posted about my research on birthday parties. We held them in our yard, our living room, and our basement. Once we had a Bomb Shelter downstairs, that was the end of our basement parties. For one thing, my parents didn’t want everybody knowing there was a shelter down there. How well would that work if the Bomb hit and we ran down there and were stampeded by the entire neighborhood seeking shelter?
After the bomb shelter entered my house, a dark creepy feeling settled downstairs, under our feet. When I had to go down there for something, I tried to avoid even glancing at the ominous looking door.
However, once I started researching these shelters, I discovered that it was a more common occurrence than I could have imagined. Elaine Tyler May’s Homeward Bound details “Grandma’s Pantry,” the home bomb shelter. Jean Wood Fuller, of the Federal Civil Defense Administration, enlisted “the help of the National Grocer’s Association, several pharmaceutical houses, and the American National Dietetic Association, [and] Fuller drew up guidelines for withstanding a nuclear holocaust.” May makes the case that the marketing efforts were directed toward homemakers, who were considered to be exclusively women.
While May’s theory is an interesting intellectual exercise and probably has a lot of merit to it, I will say that in my house, it was my father whose idea it was to build the shelter. Let’s face it: construction was considered to be a manly task.
The photo on the cover of May’s book depicts a serious-looking family inside their own home bomb shelter. I don’t remember ours looking so bright (well-lit) or so well-stocked.
Lucky for me, I have the actual list of supplies which my mother wrote and the specifications my father used for building it. These details will be incorporated into my book.
Here is a photo of an ideal home bomb shelter. Ours was a double walled cement block room without any “built-ins.”
My parents planned everything very carefully. There is very little evidence that they were any more paranoid than anybody else during the Cold War. But Dad was certainly proactive.
Today my father says he remembers building it to keep his family safe, but he can’t believe how naïve he was to think it would actually work to protect us or that we would have enough safe air and provisions to last for any length of time.