Image of Shattuck School
I don’t remember kindergarten as distinct from first grade. They blend together, probably because they were both at Shattuck School in Portland, and it was another grim time for me, another bad fit, but in the larger social sense. Self-conscious to the point of dysfunctional from the frequent “What are you doing?” questions at home, I was inept at simply being and doing, while in the company of others. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. It seemed that I was expected to become a man by age four. Maybe five. Surely by six all spontaneity should have been expunged, every word, every upcoming action should be thought out first and evaluated against the gold standards: Is it true, is it kind, is it necessary? But whose truth, when people violently disagree, even kill each other. Kind to whom? Should kindness to myself be subordinate to my kindness to others when in conflict? And what is really necessary? Is it even necessary to live another day?
It was necessary that Mom take me by the hand each gloomy gray weekday morning, cross our little rural part of Twelfth Avenue, and walk south a couple of blocks to meet the bus that would take me to school. It was a city bus; there was no school district bus. There were always a few other kids catching the bus too, the moms waiting the few minutes until it came, chatting and keeping their little ones in line. The driver was a nice fellow and knew us. He never had to deal with behavioral issues, so he was friendly. Mom dropped a few coins in the hopper for my round trip, I took a seat and off we went. Sometimes the driver whistled softly as we went the mile and a half down Terwilliger Blvd. and over to Park Avenue.
One morning I was the only kid getting on the bus. Mom commented that it was strange, but off I went as usual. When I arrived, I was struck by the lack of hustle and bustle: no cars, no students, no grownups. It was a nice surprise, the most comfortable arrival I’d ever experienced at that big, red brick building. No cliques for whom I was an outsider, no one to be self-conscious for. It was raining very lightly, more like a descending mist, but I was dressed for it and warm with my hands in my jacket pockets. I walked up the steps to the big door and pulled. Locked. I peered through the window. No movement to be seen inside. Maybe I was late and everyone was already in their classrooms. With rising embarrassment about an impending tardy entrance being the focus of everyone’s attention, I went around and looked into the classroom windows, where all I could see from ground level was the ceilings. Dark in there. My mind chewed on the puzzle as I walked over to the door of the multi-purpose room, tunneled my hands to block reflections and looked in the window. Dark, except for the daydream in which I saw kids dancing, as I had seen through that same window during a lunch hour some weeks before, girls and boys having fun together, moving to record player music that I liked and have always associated with the moment: “Glow Worm.” It was a happy-sad memory. I had no clue how to become a dancer and experience that kind of happiness with other kids, especially girls.
As I turned away, a suspicion crept upon me, and my hand reached for a pocket I rarely used on the inside of my jacket. I pulled out a piece of paper.
I was not a good reader at that age. The activity had not caught my interest, in fact I was put off by it. Maybe it was the boring story at school about Dick and Jane and their dog Spot. I didn’t like dogs. Maybe it was the ultra-urgent importance Mom and Dad placed on attaining this new skill. They had always read to me, and I had memorized “The Night Before Christmas” word-for-word two years before, following numerous bedtime readings of it. (I even pretend to read that poem while reciting it to Tommy in one of our old home movies.) But more likely, my impatience could not tolerate the crawling pace of my progress. I could sound out words one-by-one quite well. But fluent reading was a very different process, more intuitive, dependent on trusting yourself with a good guess and not feeling bad if you missed it. Way out of my reach on all counts. No one told me that reading is like musical improvising, that it is a creative process, not just following the dots, but predicting the dots and course-correcting all the time. No one demonstrated how much fun it could be!
Speaking was different; I had a very good vocabulary. So it didn’t take me long to figure out that I should have given this note to my mom when I got home the previous day: it said that the school would be closed today.
On my own in Portland town as never before! On foot. “…unfettered and alive,” as Joni Mitchell sang years later about her friend and agent, David Geffen, visiting Paris. Best of all, my mom wasn’t worried; she was safe in a misconception about my whereabouts for the time being. I ran a few yards; the magic of the moment held. But the slight rain was more chilling on my face. I considered walking the two or three blocks up to my grandparents’ house on Tenth Avenue. But the prospects there were too well known, no surprise to anticipate. I was in the mood for a little adventure, a longer walk, a touch of risk. On the other hand, I would need to arrive home eventually, and every minute I delayed seemed to increase the risk of getting totally drenched if the drizzle turned into a downpour. So I walked a block and a half to Sixth Avenue and turned south, keeping to the sidewalks, stopping–looking–listening at the crossings as I’d been taught.
I had always had time to think and usually time to daydream, but now I savored the time to feel independent, unwatched, and to discover if I could trust my next step and the next. Portland is always green, but now it seemed extra green and vibrant. My vibrancy fit into the landscape and I relished being part of it, especially knowing that it was temporary. There was a spring in my steps and time enjoy each one. Nearly two decades prior to the Ram Das book, I was Being Here Now. I puckered my lips and tried to whistle like my dad when he was happy. No music came out, only wind, but no problem, I would be making tunes with my tongue and lips within a year or two. Life was long and good.
Sixth Avenue became Terwilliger and executed a hairpin bend before beginning to climb around the east edge of Marquam Hill. The drizzle was becoming a light rain. I kept to the left side of the road when the sidewalks gave out, facing traffic as Mom had impressed upon me, so I could jump out of the way if a car veered into a collision course, especially on the turns. My hair was getting wet enough to release the occasional rivulet down my neck, but I was still warm and happy. Walking in the rain is no torture for a Portland kid, just part of the local color. As I gained altitude I could see Ross Island in the Willamette River to my left, and the East Side was opening up beyond it. To the southeast, Mount Scott rose from the flatlands about five miles out, certainly more of a hill than a mountain, even without Mount Hood for a visible reference, hidden in the clouds. My family had been up to the Mount Scott Cemetery several times with Gramma Grace, who put flowers on the grave of Dad’s little brother Donny, dead before his first birthday in 1923, and on the 1935 grave of Grace’s dear adopted momma, Helen Delight Johnson. On this day no one knew that Grampa Herb would join them in less than two years, nor that Gramma would hold out more than 30 years longer, until 1986 before joining them in the family plot, with a space remaining that would delay the completion of the red granite plaque only three more years for Gramma’s youngest daughter, Patty, up there where the wind modulates the grass and the evergreens.
The rain gradually increased. I was going to arrive home dripping like one of the tall fir trees I was passing. But I still was not particularly cold; maybe the jacket had some wool in the fabric. Right about then I became aware of a car coming up the hill behind me on the other side of the road and slowing down. I turned and saw a yellow taxi cab in which the driver was rolling down the window. He said, “Looks like you’re getting wet. Do you want a ride?” I thought for a moment, then answered, “I don’t have any money to play you.”
In those days parents cautioned their kids about the risk of trusting strangers, but schools did not, and the issue was far from open and shut. It was a judgment call. Perhaps the times were more locally peaceful or naïve, even as they were globally catastrophic. The Korean War was just winding down and U.S. fatalities had been in the tens of thousands. It was less than a decade since incendiary bombs on Germany and atom bombs on Japan were used to put an end World War II. Senator Joseph McCarthy was busy black-listing and ruining the careers of people who cared about their less fortunate “brothers” in a society in which greed was running amuck….again. Terror of Communism was the big lever of choice for maintaining political control and would remain so until after the Viet Nam War, still a decade away for American servicemen. Alcohol abuse and domestic violence, mostly against women and children was certainly not unheard of. But the morning and evening radio news, before television became pervasive, did not amplify the atrocities in each town and county to the point where people felt vulnerable and in immanent peril from thousands of miles away. So I was normal in being open to the offer of a ride, under the circumstances, and I was not out of touch with reality in giving the hometown taxi driver a trusting nod. My chances of getting safely up the hill were very good.
I looked both ways, crossed to the cab and began to open the rear door, where I knew taxi passengers always ride. The driver said, “No, come on up here and sit in front,” as he reached over and swung door open. I got in and pulled the heavy door closed. This was fun! He had the heater blowing warm air, and we started up the hill. (Manual transmission and no seat belts in those days.) “Where do you live? You CAN tell me how to get there, right?”
“Yes,” I said, “it is up a little beyond the hospital.”
We didn’t talk much in the few minutes it took to get home. Mainly it was his question about why I was walking alone in the rain, and my brief response. But mostly we watched the scenery go by and the windshield wipers squeegee to the left and to the right, over and over in a nearly hypnotizing rhythm. When we got to the foot of the long wooden stairway from the road to our front yard I said, “Wait here and I’ll get Mom to give you some money.”
He said, “Don’t worry about the money, but get your mother so I can see you’re safely home.” So I ran up the stairway, across the yard, up the porch steps and opened the front door.
Mom was shocked and worried to see me home at that time of day, and asked what had happened. I just said, “Get some money so you can pay the taxi driver. He is waiting.” Apparently sensing that a full explanation could wait, she grabbed her purse and an umbrella and went to the top of the stairway. I watched from the porch. I couldn’t see or hear the taxi driver down below, but she waved to him, turned and came back into the house where I handed her the notice of the school closure. She was relieved and not at all angry. But she wanted to hear the whole story, so I gave her the long version. Well, not as long as this version, nor with as many detours, but in enough detail that the memory was captured holographically in my head for easy recall sixty-some years later.