I’m in touch with my 6th grade classmates, more than 2/3 of the entire roster – at least 22 of us are in regular contact, if not in person, then over the internet, on Facebook, and in our own private Google Group. I started a discussion about everybody’s most vivid memory of their first year in school. For me, it was my introduction to bullying and slapstick comedy, and their interrelatedness. No fooling. Then, I discovered in reflecting, that first grade is a blank; nothing, not a day, not an occasion, not an event sticks in my mind.
As I try to recall something, I see the room as I’m sitting in it, in my chair, but nothing stands out. What I remember is discovering the joy of books. I learned to read on my own; one day when I was still a toddler – everyone else involved in the episode is dead, so I can’t get an idea of how old – my Aunt Marie and Uncle Gus were reading to me in my Mom’s living room. Suddenly, I interrupted her, telling her, “That’s not what it says”. So, she told me, “Then you read it to me and you tell me what it says.” And, I guess, I did.
But books – real books, even if at first they were schoolbooks were a revelation to me. I do remember the Mae Carden readers, the mahogany-colored covers, getting rough with age and children’s use. I instantly became an inveterate reader; I would read anything, up to and including the back of the cereal box while I ate breakfast. I started with The Wizard of Oz books. My local library had a set, and I went through them, all in a rush, apparently, because by the time I’d started comic books, I’d finished with OZ.
But this is where it becomes a little strange. The next year, in second grade, Miss DeRobertis, my favorite grade school teacher, gave me the lead role in the Valentine’s Day class play – there were only 3 roles, really; the rest of the class were our “children”. I was the King of Hearts, Laura was the Queen of Hearts.
That’s all I remember of the casting; there was the Knave, who stole the tarts and gets caught, but maybe someday the classmate who played the role will remember and remind us all. I was seven, and from that moment, I knew what I wanted to be – an actor! I wanted to be onstage more than anyplace in the world; for twenty years, that was my goal, my ambition, my hopes for success in the outside world. It never came to pass.
Suddenly, I was watching TV as an actor watching actors, marveling at their ability to move me, to interest and engage me, in ways that no one in my day-to-day life really did. They were all afraid of me, and I was afraid of their fear, although none of us understood at the time about the anxiety of having a gay schoolchild in their midst. I understood, intuitively, and all at once, about the relation of Shirley Temple the cute little girl in the old-timey musicals to Shirley Temple, the most beautiful woman on television presenting Fairy Tale Theatre. Because of my early exposure to the Wizard of OZ (if for no other reason, hehe), I became enamored of Judy Garland, both as the wondrous child performer and the troubled adult who could still deliver the most phenomenal performance, when given the opportunity to be the great performer she always was. But I still knew that the young girl was the older woman, somehow, and made that connection right from the start.
Last month, I went to Adele’s, a diner in Santa Rosa, and ran into my favorite hostess, Lisa. She was showing off a recent acquisition, a book she’d been ogling for a long time until the price dropped into her range. It was a coffee-table size trade paperback well-illustrated book about “the history of American television”, written around 1966! It was encyclopedic in its breadth and scope of that very short period from post-war to the mid-60s, with pictures of performers, shots from shows, brief biographical sketches and descriptions of some of the most obscure television show from those two decades.
That was when I noticed something: there was a moment when the memories became direct, instead of mediated by others’ contributions. And it was early. It was in the year after that momentous (for me, anyway) Valentine’s Day, in 1960. I was looking over the images and reading about the forward momentum of history and it dawned on me. I was 8.
Before 1960, I knew about these shows, from syndication and afternoon television. I’d watched TOPPER, but I’d never seen it, when it was originally broadcast. I’d watched DECEMBER BRIDE, but I saw Pete & Gladys. It was as if my awareness shifted, and my long-term memory started compiling, at age 8. Before that, a blur; after that, clear and specific memories. Sure, mostly centered around what I’d seen of television, but sharp memories nonetheless.
What I can’t retrieve is the sequence of events, I don’t remember the day-to-day, but I can revive strong sense-memories, even though a lot of what I recall are later instances of common and recurring events – like early evening or afternoon games of kickball, late-evening games of kick-the-can. The instances I recall are always the later ones (when I was older, rather than earlier occasions, for example the first time I did any of this stuff). In a way, it’s as if I came to memory only gradually, and earlier memories (like being afraid of Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West, once I’d seen her in other, less intimidating, roles) were supplanted by other, more mundane ones. I’ve always conceived of writing a memoir about memory, more than about events and circumstances. That’s what interests me, and what drove me to write this entry today.
I hope my droning on hasn’t driven you to not reading this far.