Grade School Daze
I didn't do really well in school in College Station, largely because I was one of those dreamers and absent-minded types—still am, I guess—and I was smart enough to often get by on tests but not enough to learn I needed to do my homework, too. I'd draw in my notebook and books in classes and study periods.
Once I made a huge error and drew a caricature of my teacher on my desk, in a class where the teacher was very strict and something of a terror to all the students. She found it there after class, and of course I had to come in and clean it off, and probably had some level of detention—I don't recall details. In retrospect, I don't think she was as much hurt by it as rather impressed by my ability, but of course that wasn't the impression she gave me at the time and I was punished for it.
Not as painfully as on another occasion when I brought a water gun into class and shot somebody across the classroom with it. In those days corporal punishment was not illegal, and I got paddled for that one. My own fault: I confessed. I'd confessed in an earlier year when I set off a stink bomb in the shop, and had to stay after class for it, but that hadn't resulted in a spanking. I guess what I learned from being spanked was not to confess to wrong-doing. Maybe that's the real reason for its prohibition in later years, not all the psychological trauma that became the basis for such legislation. Or maybe that is the psychological trauma! Hadn't thought of that angle before...
I'd made the stink bomb with material from my Gilbert chemistry set—I forget which particular ingredient, but something with sulphur in it—plus hydrochloric acid I'd bought at the drug store. The gas was hydrogen sulfide and I learned much later that it's actually supposed to be poisonous. The directions were in the chemistry set manual. I wonder if they still include that kind of info in today's versions. I haven't checked, but in a nostalgic article on them from the Nov. 2000 Today's Chemist James M. Schmidt points out that liability issues have rendered whatever is currently available disappointing in terms of content.*
It may be just a trick of perspective, but it seems likely that I learned a lot more out of school than in it, back then. I "inherited" a Lionel train set from a cousin who I suppose had outgrown it at the time—or was told he had. He's 12 years my elder, I believe, which would have put him in his early 20s then, if that; I know I wouldn't have been willing to give it up at that age—I wish I had it now!—but that's just me.
This montage evokes some of the rolling stock from my Lionel set—I only had the one engine, but it had copper wire trim and looked great. I had the coal car and the caboose and of course a boxcar or two, and I believe there was a gondola and maybe a tank car. The transformer was from an early era; it could have been one of Thomas Edision's pieces of equiment, with no pretty plastic handles—just a bare bones rotating switch that reached an arc of six or seven contact points...it may have had a bakelite knob to grasp...
My friend Jack Smith had a collection of bound volumes of a late-19th Century magazine called The Youth's Companion, in which there were all kinds of projects for the youthful inventor. Talk about liability problems—those books had plans for full-size gliders one could put together! But I remember that was where I got some of the electrical stuff, plus a project for making a microscope using a wooden spool and a piece of cardboard with a pinhole at one end, and all kinds of other intriguing ideas.
And then, of course, I was also discovering the worlds of science fiction and comic book literature.
In the mid-to-late 40's, the combination of the words comic books and literature would have been considered a bit of an oxymoron. So would science fiction and literature...a view that remains, for some, even in this otherwise enlightened age of the 21st Century.
As I've mentioned, I'd learned to read before I started school—nowadays that's fairly common, but in those days it was relatively rare—and I'd already become familiar with the Oz books and other young people's works with some emphasis on fantasy. There had been some touch of science fiction as well in at least one book that offered scientific information illustrated with some speculative sequences—I remember best a tale of visiting the sun in some ship that was made to withstand the heat, in order to describe what one might find there. I wish the book were in my collection now; I don't remember anything about it save that it had some nice Buck Rogers-ish line-drawings of the ship.
My father would return from his trips with copies of the pulp magazines like Weird Tales and Amazing Stories, Unknown and Asounding and others. However, it was some time before I would delve into these, though I did eventually become entranced with them. For some time my reading really was primarily in such books as the first couple of books in the My Book House series, and the Oz books, and others aimed at the younger set. I'm not quite sure at what point I was allowed to "discover" some of the Arthur Ransome books like "Swallows and Amazons." I had little enough in common with the daily lives of the English children portrayed, but, quite gradually, I found myself enthralled with those books of their adventures we had collected. And one year I was given a copy of The Picts and the Martyrs, the title of which filled me with dismay until I realized it was a new (to me) book of their adventures!
We also had E. Nesbit's The Five Children and It, which if I remember was in a book that also had The Phoenix and the Carpet and Tale of the Amulet—-though my memory could be faulty.
And then there were the funny books: Little Lulu, and Funny Animals, featuring Andy Panda and Mary Jane and Sniffles, Bugs Bunny and other Warners characters, and some Disney (particulary Donald Duck, whom I preferred over Mickey Mouse by a substantial margin). A bit later, I think by way of Funny Animals, came Fawcett's Captain Marvel and other members of the Marvel family. I think I was well into puberty before I really got into the other action series, with DC charactes like Superman and Batman, along with the Flash and Green Lantern, Hawkman and Atom. There were others, done by other publishers, that one never hears of any more; one in particular, though I don't remember his name, maybe Antaeus, was a statue that came to life when need arose, and he needed to be in contact with the earth to retain his powers. Something like that, anyway.
I did acquire a few of the Classics Illustrated books, though I recall that I didn't like them a whole lot. Part of that had to do with the drawing style, which I remember as pretty rough and sketchy. In other respects, they were probably trying to squeeze too much information into the short length available—though longer than later comics, still, at 24 or 32 pages or whatever it was (apparently early editions had as many as 64 pages) they didn't have a lot of room to fit in books like A Tale of Two Cities or Moby Dick or The Man in the Iron Mask. And I strongly suspect that, despite good intentions, they didn't have the skills to digest the information that were the hallmark of Readers Digest! So I only had a few over the years, and some I probably traded or gave away. I never threw anything away voluntarily, but when we moved away from Texas, in 1952, all the comics I had accumulated—not a huge collection, but a stack perhaps a couple of feet high—were left behind, to my regret, and ultimately lost. Many of them would undoubtedly fetch a good price today—but then, that's why: so many were tossed away by parents, or even by their owners, who had no way to forsee their later value. This was also to happen with the pulp magazines.
I didn't develop many of these in those days. I was forced into some sports in PE, primarily tag football, as I remember it, and sometimes I'd play work-up baseball or flies 'n grounders in the school yard in recess and lunches, though more often marble games (never "keepers") or mumbelty-peg (pocket-knives were not prohibited in those days, though there was a limit on the size blade one was allowed to possess). I was actually pretty good at the latter, able to make the knife stick in the ground or in tree-trunks pretty regularly. I wasn't so good at marbles, which is why I refused to play keepers...
For a number of years my baseball skills were generally underestimated, even by me, though as I got into puberty I developed some strength and outfielders learned to move out instead of in when I came to bat. However, I still had problems actually connecting. I did pick that up a bit better as I grew older, but it was rare in my days in Texas. I was still among the kids picked last when teams were chosen.
As to how I was perceived among my classmates— Well, here's an illustration. One spring day, in assembly, when kids were often given the opportunity to present some kind of project to the school as a whole, I was among several selected by one group to come down to the floor of the gym and told to stand at a particular point in order to participate in some kind of play. When about ten or twelve of us were so selected, the leader of the group announced, "Oh, by the way, we forget to tell you the name of the play we're presnting. It's called 'Gathering Nuts in May'." The student body laughed, and, after some hesitation as it was borne in on us that there was no play to be part of, we all returned to our places. Personally, I thought it was funny, if maybe a bit ruefully, but there were others that had been selected that were really hurt by it.