The town was, and is, San Carlos, Arizona. It's an Apache reservation east of Phoenix. Geronimo lived there at one time. The little row of houses was where some of those of us who were not Indians (the term Native Americans had not yet come into use) lived. On the far side of the road that led up to that little community was a field that, in season, was stalked—uh, stocked—with wheat. [Stalks...? Forgive me. Okay—planted with wheat.] From our front porch we could look across a fence and an extension of the wheatfield to see a residential area where there were the huts they called wickiups. The women there wore what I thought then were traditional garb; they were 19th-century-style dresses, long, flared and layered, dresses with long sleeves, of patterned material. In the first thing I ever wrote that appeared in a published magazine—a letter to Jack and Jill (August 1944; see image)—I described the dresses as "puffy."
There was a tall, spreading tree in the side yard, closer to our house than the one next door, so of course I thought of it as our tree. It was a chinaberry tree, which meant that for a period of time all its branches would be tipped with these interesting-looking yellow berries. Inedible berries, I was advised, and I never tested this...though I made lots of mud pies with them. Well—more like mud coconuts. Hollow, with treasures, like grass, pebbles or, naturally, chinaberries, stashed inside. The mud was a rich dark brown.
At the rainy season, I found out why the house was built on stilts. Whether or not it had something to do with the irrigation system for the corn fields, we found ourselves flooded in, and the water level did indeed reach to a point near the top steps at the doors, front and back. I remember splashing around in it with great delight and some concern from the adults.
Our immediate neighbors were the family of a man named Adolph Murie. Like Dad, he was a biologist or naturalist of some sort, though my faulty recollection places him in more of a wildlife field, like studying the migration habits of wolves or something. He had a daughter, Gail, a couple of years older than me, and a son, Jan, who was younger by a year or two. Jan and I hit it off pretty well—he'd often come over and ask if I could come out and play (I'm sure he outgrew it eventually, but while we were there, I was "Woss").
Here is a better picture of me with my mother, father, brother Hale (apparently still in the army, which places this toward the end of our stay in Arizona), and sister Elinor.
There was only one other kid around my age in the immediate neighborhood. His name was Paul Buss. He lived at the far end, and while we initially got along, I was eventually told to stay away from him as a bad influence. It had to do with language—Elinor tells me she once had to wash my mouth out with soap, though I don't remember that—and I think it also had to do with prejudice—not against him but his against the people on whose land we were living. I specifically remember some kid, and it may well have been him, telling me that Indians stink, a phenomenon I had certainly not been aware of in my fairly few encounters with them.
Another situation related to that kind of prejudice was something I'd completely forgotten, but which Elinor told me about after reading an earlier version of these pages. Some of the white children had a habit of throwing stones at the Indian kids (and I have to assume that the reverse was also true, though she didn't specify). It gratifies me now to know that I wasn't too happy about that, and though I guess I had to be told to walk some distance behind the other kids (it must have been on the way to and from school), I didn't share in that game. I do know that I wasn't totally free of rock-throwing, though—Some kid I was friends with, though I don't remember his name, and I were throwing stones at each other, just in fun, and he got me one in the eye. There was a blood-spot in that eye—and no, I don't remember which one—for a while after that. We didn't do that any more. I guess we'd figured out it could hurt. I'd like to think maybe that's why I didn't want to throw stones at the Indian kids. I also have to acknowledge that though I don't remember, it's possible, since I wasn't a perfect kid by any means, that I had in fact been throwing stones right along with the others until that incident.
I do remember talking with one of the Apache men, standing by the fence that separated our neighborhood from the rest of the reservation. He told me he had a special gift, the "Eagle eye," that let him see things very far away. He asked me if I could see a bird in a faraway tree that he was pointing at, and I had to tell him I couldn't. In retrospect, it was only a couple of years or so before I would get my first pair of glasses for near-sightedness, but of course I didn't know that then. And very likely, even had that not been true, I might not have been able to see that bird, but whether or not he was just trying to impress this little white-eyes kid doesn't really matter at this point. Another thing I learned from Elinor in our last visit was that he was often there and apparently liked me because I refrained from joining the kids that threw rocks at his people's kids.
She told me another, sad thing about him that I don't think I'd ever known about. I had a party for my sixth birthday—that I do remember, though without details other than it was outside and there were a number of kids there, kind of unusual because I was shy—and she said that he had been there, outside the fence, waiting to have something given to him, like cake or ice cream or whatever. It was, apparently, traditional, there and in those days. But either no one at the party was aware of it, or someone who did know failed to mention it, because no one did give him anything. Elinor says Dad was furious when he learned of this. Whether this was before or after my conversation with him I don't know, though my guess is it was earlier and that the rock-throwing thing didn't start until I was in school.
My first school was a one-room school for the white children, covering first through fourth grades, about ten or fifteen minutes' walk away—possibly longer, with my penchant for dawdling. The teacher's name was Miss White (maybe Mrs., but certainly not Ms. yet), so calling it the White school had more than one connotation. (Or it just occurred to me that her last name may have been Snow; which would ruin my wordplay, but—never mind.) On the way there, one turned right after the fence and cattle guard, walked past a field where they held a rodeo once, continued past the large, stone school building where the Indian children were taught (my mother taught there for a while) through a small downtown area (I guess a post office and store, something like that) and across a bridge over the Wash (I always rather thought of it capitalized). Most of the time that was a dry, sandy arroyo or river bed, but we were warned never to go down into it because if it rained it could become a raging torrent of water—so of course I and other kids frequented it, albeit cautiously. It was full of wonderful fine sand, and even then I thought gee, if the water did start coming it would be really hard to run very fast to the bank. Beyond the bridge the road met another crosswise to it and the White school was on the far side to the right, up on an embankment.
Like most schoolyards where children play, the yard was hard-packed dirt; it contained swings and a seesaw. And like many schools, it had separate doors and exterior drinking fountains for boys and girls. I don't know if they're still built that way. I don't remember details about how the grades were separated inside, but I believe I remember blackboards on both the front and at least one side. When Ms. (heck, I'll call her that now) White (or Snow) discovered I could read (Elinor had taught me using Johnny Gruell's Raggedy Ann and Andy series, the Oz books, the Pooh books—we had all four—and the first volume or two of My Book House, among others), she bumped me to second grade. This was to have negative repercussions on my later school life, but it was a marvelous boost to my self esteem at the time.