Saturday, February 25, 2012

TOO LITTLE TOO EARLY

I wrote the following post a few months ago and revisited it yesterday.  After visiting with my first memoir coach Ana, she pointed out that my essays should have double spacing and be easier to read. When reading it again, I realized it needed more development as well. As I worked at it, I began making more connections and the story took a better shape. I have found that with practice, my thoughts develop more and I see my weaknesses better. I remember reading that Ernest Hemingway rewrote one of his works at least a hundred times.                              
                            

      Edith Wharton said she had little memory of books or stimulation that stretched

 her mind, in her early years. Sounds unbelievable because she published so 

many works of literature, and supported herself  well on earnings from 

her writings. 

     My attention to literature developed at a snail’s pace, as well. There is little 

memory of books with any flavor that stretched my thinking.

      Sunday school and Bible classes in summer stirred my curiosity of stories from

 the Old Testament,  supplemented with maps of exotic faraway places of Egypt 

with the Nile and pyramids. At Christmas, the kings and wise men riding on camels 

and somewhere a story of Persia and flying carpets carried me to magic places.

     Elementary school readings are not memorable except,   “Dick and Jane”, 

and then “Heidi”, who lived in the Alps with a grandparent. The Alps were difficult 

to imagine when I was surrounded by the flat lands Of Oklahoma. The largest  

elevation of earth was the Arbuckles in the south part of the state. Okies called

them “Mountains”. But they did not know better. The Alps were very far away. 

In the third grade “Nancy Drew”, captured my attention because she was young

and drove a roadster through the hills and country, looking for mysteries to solve.

 I guess I found her at the library.

     But I do remember I found a college prep text. A previous tenant left it behind

 at my girlfriend’s house in her basement, where we sometimes played. Betty Lou 

said I could take it home. I glanced at the stories from time to time. It was filled 

with short stories and poems. I tried to read a few, but realized they were pretty 

advanced for me.

      I used the literature text to store my movie star pictures I cut from magazines 

and catalogued according to importance and then placed them between the pages. 

Viola, my first scrap book. My star pictures were of Bing Crosby, Gloria DeHaven, 

Peter Lawford, Betty Grabel, Clark Gabel, Mona Freeman, Lois Butler, Bill Holden, 

Joan Crawford, Dick Haymes, and Van Heflin. The names are barely visible, written 

on the blank pages in front. They are barely familiar, as well.

     I’ve kept the book since the third grade and now it sits on a shelf with 

hundreds of others. Over time, the pictures slipped out and were lost.

     The  old book was  published in 1933 and I have finally read my favorite stories. 

They include" A Ballad Rime Ancient Mariner,"  'Annabel Lee", and "The Finding of 

Livingston". When picking up the faded blue book in more recent times, I’ve

started the old legend, "Treasure Island," savoring each word. I was intrigued

 by "Gone With the Wind" a year later,   when I moved in with my aunty and 

cousin. I didn’t read it.  However, my cousin Helen, who was my age, read 

it for thirty minutes every day, while indulging in her morning constitution.  

We were only in the fourth grade and she was a better reader than I.
    
     I inherited this same book my great aunts, Aunt Mary and Aunt Opal said, 

after they read it, vividly described Atlanta,   as their grandmother, who was  

my great, great grandmother,  described to them. 

     She told of the horrors that she had seen and experienced during and after 

the Civil War. They were little girls when Grandmother Cornelia talked often 

of that time. But, they were so impressed they could  remember some of her 

stories.  They said she spent much of her time reading the big family Bible. 

She talked about the War and the Bible many times.

     Grandmother Cornelia’s home was on a plantation outside Athens, near 

Atlanta, Georgia. Her father owned numerous farms and plantations around 

the state. But after The War Between the States, as she called it, their property 

was pretty much left in shambles and much of their wealth was gone.

      The men in the family had been gone most of the time. When they returned, 

after the War, their Confederate money was worthless. But they struggled through 

their situation  for several years.

     Some slaves stayed on the plantation after the War and Grandmother

Cornelia taught the ex-slaves’ children  to read.

      Later, after her second cousin, Captain Albert Baird returned from 

the War, they married. My mother said there were not many men around because

 of the high fatality rate of the War. After Grandmother Cornelia’s parents died,

she and Grandfather Baird traveled by covered wagon, with some of the ex-slaves, to

 Hope,  Arkansas,  to  Grandfather Baird’s family. Grandfather Baird

 bought a  mercantile store in Hope and a farm, outside of the city.

     The Civil War was a constant memory in my mother’s family. At least two 

generations talked of it often. Only remnants of the family stories, pertaining

 to the Civil War,   remain today. Mother remembered only a few.  And I

vaguely remember the stories mother told.

     It’s like trying to hang onto a very old quilt that was used often to keep us 

warm.  Over the years it became worn,  frayed, and tattered. Now, I’m

clutching a threadbare quilt that is hardly recognizable as the same quilt that  

brought comfort to those who held it.

     Over the years, the old book I inherited, “Gone With the Wind”, barely 

holds together. It is similar to the quilt. The binding came apart and the pages 

hang loose from its binding. I decided to salvage it. I taped the binding so the

pages would stay together as I now read it.

      The old book that I’m holding together, literally with duck tape, was published

 in 1938.  And similar to my first movie star scrap book that held pictures of my

 favorite stars,  it too has pictures of Clark Gable and Vivian Lee, who starred in

the movie, so long ago.

     Now, I will hold the book so carefully. And while reading it, I will reflect  on the 

stories my family told of that important time in our family’s  history. I know

 I’ll never catch up on the important books that I missed,  beginning when I was

 young. And I know there was “too little too early",  but I will try to make up for it.




   

      









Wednesday, February 15, 2012

NOT THE GULAG, BUT I TAUGHT IN A PRISON CLASSROOM



     Because I taught college courses at a male medium security prison facility for almost 20 years, I could usually figure out my students. There were those who were fat, tall, skinny, short, black, brown, white, young adults, middle-aged and old men. The latter were fewer. There were Mexican Mafia, pedophiles, ex-cops, preppy kids, ex-body guards, a Texas secessionist who tried to persist in a real cowboy and Indian shoot out, a classical pianist, one banker, city gangsters, drug dealers, pimps, transvestites, tatoo artists covered with their art, preachers and a Morman polygamist; I thought I saw it all. My job was to teach, not judge. Usually I knew the first day of class which offenders would be the best students. But,  that was not always the case.
     It was no Gulag, for sure. The offenders were not restricted in their movements and privileges, as those in heavy security facilities, scattered around the state. I taught college credit classes to students who had to qualify with tests or credentials and good behavior.  In general, the students who arrived in my class already had accumulated several college credits. Those who were in a college class for the first time, had a desire to learn and had acquired some skills in their GED classes or already had a high school diploma. The guys were normally very cooperative in class and they were there to learn. They were polite and treated me with respect. They were unlike those in the prison's general population. And that is why they were accepted for the community college work. And that is why I enjoyed teaching them.  
     The most popular course I taught was "Marriage and Family". It is funny the reaction I got from friends whom I told that to, especially men. Several told me that they would think marriage and family wouldn't be important to prisoners. Quite the contrary, I told my friends, I found that if the students hadn't been married they at least had some exposure to family along the way. Numerous students wanted to know what the course could teach them in a future marriage. And those who had been married either wanted to know what went wrong in their failure at marriage or how they could be better husbands in their present marriages or cohabited arrangements. 
     One student argued positively for the case of polygamy and when we discussed this marital custom we looked at studies that used sociological and anthropological tools. These studies show that when we look at societies through time and space, the popularity of polygamy is strong. The offender told us he knew educated and professional women who believed in their polygamous arrangements, as he noticed my concerned look. It wasn't long before we knew he had experienced this type of marital arrangement before he was arrested and convicted of the crime. He was a very gentle and sensitive man who loved to write poetry about his experiences in violent settings of other prisons.
     Students fondly discussed their families and family customs, and listened intently on subjects of domestic violence.  They loved their mothers. One confessed he shot and killed his stepfather, who physically abused his mother. Another confessed he shot and killed his daughter's rapist. This won applause from the others in the class.  One young preppy looking white guy told me he had a difficult time talking about family because his mother enrolled him in a private school when he was 12 years old. She left him at the front door and never returned for him. One black guy kept us laughing with his comical stories from his family. He said he thought he had it all figured out when he was first married. When his wife first talked back to him, he hauled off and slapped her across the face, like he saw his uncle do to his wife many times. But he said it didn't work with his wife who made a fist and hit him back so hard he went spinning across the floor. He never did that again, he said.
      I never questioned the students on details and didn't want to abuse their boundaries, but because the subjects in the class were sensitive to them they either blurted out their experiences during discussions or they wrote about them in their weekly reflections that I assigned for each chapter reading.  
     My teaching methods were those I took from my college sociology classes. My favorite university professor, Joe Feagin assigned weekly written reflections or essays that we related to our readings and lectures. Our job was to compare, and contrast, theories, and ideas to those in the text or to other sources we had read. He told us to dig deep in our papers and write in an academic manner and to reflect upon what we learned.  We discussed what we wrote in class. It was a high level assignment in which we learned to write better papers and to explore our readings in depth. I used this method in the college classes I taught.  I supplemented the readings with other sources, usually other sociological studies.
     The last two semesters I taught at the prison I had a student who took me by surprise. The first day of class he walked in with the other students, but he looked older. Later he said he was 60 years old. His appearance was sloppier than the norm. His white cotton pull -over shirt and baggy white draw- string pants were very soiled. His hair was uncombed, greasy looking and fell in his eyes.  His shoes scuffed and worn, his hands were soiled and his eyes were blood shot and seemed to roll around in their sockets, uncontrollably. He appeared to be a white Anglo and I didn't know what he was doing in my class. 
     When introduction time came, Mr. Brown said he didn't know what he was doing in the class. Some cellmates told him he should take a class and this was a good one. He said, "I haven't been in a school for a long time and this is my first college class, but I read about five novels a week."
      Oh great, I thought,  he might have a mental problem. I also thought he was there to get out of the heat and "kill" time in an air conditioned class room away from the hot cells. We discussed the syllabus and talked about the definitions of family. I told them this textbook was interesting because it didn't focus on dysfunctional marriages and families, but focused more on healthy family arrangements and the healthy socialization of children. I gave the reading and written reflection assignments, told them of the weekly quizzes and three major semester exams. I explained this was a class that they should take seriously. I had three hours to spend with these guys, once a week, and I intended to keep them busy the whole time.
      The next week at our second class, the offender students arrived with their written assignments in hand. They told me what they wrote and handed in the assignments. Mr. Brown said he didn't think he did it right. When he gave me his paper, all I saw were a few fragments of sentences that didn't connect in logic and thought and were not punctuated. I thought to myself, this is not going to work out because I didn't believe he was college material. I told him what he should have done and it was not an acceptable college paper.
     He said, "Oh, okay. Can I do it again? I've got to get me some glasses this week. I lost mine."
     I said, "Sure, but you'll also have the assignment due next week." He said he thought he could handle both and he would at least try.
      The next week, his written assignments were done right. In fact they were so good as the weeks went by that we all were surprised by his academic achievement. His appearance began to change as he cut his hair and shaved. His clothes looked cleaner and his overall appearance fit the norm, if not higher. And he wore new reading glasses. Every week his quiz scores were 100 per cent. And his major exams had the highest scores in the class. They were all A pluses.  
     As weeks went by, Mr. Brown told us that his father abused him and taught him to use drugs with him. Later when a teenager, he was adopted by  foster parents. They worked him as a farm hand and he had to do a lot of  drudgery kind of work. He later ran off and enlisted in the army.
     Over the weeks and months, Mr. Brown told us of failed marriages and grown children who wouldn't have anything to do with him. He said he wished he had known earlier what he learned from the studies in our class. He added that he had uncontrollable addictions to heavy drugs. He said he didn't know what he could do with the college classes he was taking. 
      The second semester Mr. Brown took  Social Problems from me, as well as a psychology class, and an art history class.  I confess. I encouraged him along the way, telling him that anyone with his ability to do so well in college the first year, could surely use the same ability to train his mind to look past the need for heavy drugs and misfortunes. He seemed to be interested in my praise for his stories. I encouraged him and the other students, as well, to write their memoirs. I told them how to brainstorm for different events in their lives and to take notes when remembering certain things that may have been turning points in their lives and to reflect on them and to write as often as they could.       I said to them, "It is therapeutic. It's a good way to pass your time and to escape the conditions you live under.  Your children might appreciate it someday. And who knows, a publisher may be interested, as well."
     As mentioned earlier, the prison where I taught was securely guarded and I usually felt safe. I gained respect and appreciation from the students and officers. It was not a Gulag type of prison and I learned a lot from the men with whom I shared a classroom for almost twenty years.  

Monday, February 6, 2012

AFTER THE SECOND ATOMIC BOMB DROPPED



  
We arrived in Clinton, Oklahoma the summer of 1945, after the war on the European front had ended, but it took two atomic bombs to bring the Japanese to the treaty table in September. One dropped on Hiroshima and another, the second one, on Nagasaki, three days later in early August. Clinton had strong ties with the military because the Clinton-Sherman Air Force Base was sixteen miles away. When the military waxed and waned, Clinton did so, as well. When we arrived it was still waxing because it took awhile to feel the effects of the final armistice.

As I look back to that year, I remember the relief people felt about the final end to the war on both sides of our continent. I never noticed much attention to the Japanese battles. It may have been that we didn’t have as much coverage on Japan because of its history of isolation. However, there was plenty of propaganda showing Japanese people with stereotyped cartoon features in our newsreels and other media. Japanese physical characteristics were easier for illustrators to ridicule and mimic in a hostile fashion, whereas, Germans looked more like “us”. I remember seeing the mushroom cloud images of the Atomic Bombs in newsreels and papers, but I don’t recall anyone's displeasure, sadness, or dissent about the hundreds of thousands of Japanese citizens that were either killed outright or injured and maimed for decades after. Over sixty years, we’ve had debates among scholars and others as to whether the massive killing by the atomic bombs was necessary.  Observing how at the end, the eastern front war was treated far differently than that in Europe, it can stimulate questions.

The military personnel and their families increased Clinton’s population to 7,000 by 1945.  We recognized the significance of the military by large numbers of people dressed in uniform and the frequency in which we saw the sky filled with aircraft above. Clinton provided accommodations for the military in terms of hotel, housing, theatres, restaurants and it seemed to be a happy place when we arrived. When the war ended, similar to other places, Clinton had an increased demand for housing. People were moving to and fro, as orders came to end their assignments. My father worked for Oklahoma Gas Company and it was his job to help provide gas utilities for the increased need for gas in homes.  Ironically, these services in high demand simultaneously provided a problem for us. We were unable to find a house because of the housing shortages. So, his company set us up in the Calmez Hotel until one became available. All of our belongings were placed in storage.

The   Hotel Calmez was a six story red brick building. It was in downtown Clinton, walking distance to movie houses, churches, cafes, dime stores, and mercantile stores.  An elementary school was three blocks away. It was a very hot summer when we moved into the hotel.  Most of the time we stayed at the hotel because my father went to work in our only vehicle, the company truck. With the central location of the hotel we walked almost anywhere when we needed something. We ran our errands in the morning and in the afternoon we stayed close by the electric fans.  After our naps, mother would go down stairs and obtain a full pitcher of ice water and Almond Joy candy bars.  To this day, when I eat this chocolate candy bar with almonds that oozes cocoanut, my memory flashes back to that very hot summer. And I remember how it tasted then and I feel the wonderful ice water that cooled our bodies.

My little sister, Karen, and I had fun in the hotel. She was the pet of the waitresses and bell hops because she was younger.  We played on our Murphy bed, that folded out from a closet. After sleeping on it all night, when we awoke we made it and then pushed it back into the closet and closed the door until time to sleep that evening.  It gave us more room in our little suite.

However, my mother was not as intrigued with the hotel life as we began to adjust to it. It was due to my father’s changed behavior.

His behavior changed when we arrived in Clinton. It was tied to his new surroundings that provided plenty of entertainment. The casino and bar in the hotel were full every night. They catered to soldiers from the nearby military base and others who were working to provide the transitions for changes after the war.  And there were plenty of pretty girls for entertainment, as well. This was in a state that was dry and considered gambling illegal. My father loved it.  He was tall, dark complected, slender, and combed a full head of black hair. His blue eyes danced around as he engaged people in conversation. He read the newspaper every day and could discuss politics and sports events. He was a golfer, bowler, poker player, bridge player, and in general loved to have a good time. He went to the bar and casino every night, after being gone all day at work.  My mother said the people who ran the bar and casino were part of the “Mafia” and their intent was to take all the young men’s money. And she saw it happening to my father.

My mother was not a gambler nor did she drink. But one night my father was late in coming to our hotel suite and she broke her will. She went looking for him. He was not in the bar or casino and his truck was parked in the parking lot. She grabbed us, found some keys and said we were going to look for him. She thought he was at a roadhouse on the edge of town where my father’s friends often went. She drove his truck and on the way, she stopped and bought a bottle of Mogan David Wine. When she failed to find him, she drank the whole bottle. She vomited several times that night.  The next morning she wanted to stay in bed.  She said she alone was responsible for the way she felt that morning.  I never saw or heard of her drinking again.

Our move to Clinton was a significant turn in our lives. To say it was tied to the war ending is an over statement, but I associate the two because they stand out in my mind when many memories have faded. 

 My observations of the way Japanese were seen during the war and the way they had to experience two Atomic Bombs are partially seen through the eyes of a small child mixed with those of a mature adult. From studying history, observing newsreels and movies, and reading, I think there is still a need for discussion into the reasons Americans' opinions and treatment of the Japanese were different. There are many examples to draw from today. And by using different historical and sociological perspectives we could learn a lot more. 

The Atomic Bomb is a subject that makes me most uncomfortable. Since my early experiences in life, I have seen documentary films that exposed how the A Bombs affected the Japanese. In the middle 1970s I saw a newly released declassified film, taken by the Japanese. For years our country would not allow it to be seen and I know why. On the spot cameras right after the A Bombs dropped filmed Japanese walking around in a stupor with skin hanging from their bodies, missing limbs, burns etched into their skins, and people dead, still sitting where they were when the bomb was dropped. People jumped into radiation filled ponds of water to cool them selves. Individuals searched for loved ones. Hundreds were incinerated the closer they were to the center of where the bombs fell. What the bombs did to them is a disgrace to humanity, I thought as I watched the film. The people were going about their daily lives and out of nowhere these bombs dropped on them. I was most shaken during and after the film.

So, when I talk about how the war was connected to my family, it is ludicrous to even suggest anything so absurd when I think about others' experiences. Should the Atomic Bombs have been used to bring an end to the war? Or should the second A Bomb have been dropped? I will leave that for experts to debate that have more information than I. But I still think it was a disgrace to humanity. All wars are horrendous. They just vary in kind. We did have a strong military and government leaders who brought victory to our country, making it safe for a period of time. I am grateful for that.  The most I had to endure was parents who seemed to be going in different directions and I didn’t understand why. But it wasn’t an unusual phenomenon, since there was a particular uncertainty in many peoples’ minds as to what lay ahead when it was time for thousands of soldiers to come home from the war and experience many changes themselves.  There were many relationships that would be changing, as well.