I think I first learned to be generous from my very first childhood friend, Timmy. My parents had moved from Fairfield, Ohio to Goodman Ave in Hamilton when I was 4 years old. I lived immediately across the street from Timmy, he and I were the same age and we were in the same classes from Kindergarten through Second grades. From Tim I first learned the true meanings of loyalty, dependability, friendship and how to give. Much more about Tim in another story, but for this one I wanted to mention Tim’s giving nature. Through fourth grade until my parents moved to Prytania, we were peas and carrots. Tim treated me as a brother. Tim was a tough little fighter and he would take on anyone who attacked his friends. Timmy was his mom’s ‘little man’ and was showered with any toy he ever wanted. I would go so far as to say that he was a bit spoiled by his mom. But Tim was not stingy – he would share with everyone and especially with me, he always made it clear that I could have anything I wanted. If we went to Highland Park Dairy, (as we often did), Tim would typically have some change and that meant I would have change. My early takeaway from Tim was that if you had something and your friend did not, you shared. It was a simple lesson and it’s one I try to continue to emulate.
My dad had a good, steady job working at a cereal and dog food factory in the Cincinnati area – Ralston Purina. We were not “well off”, (evidenced by the fact that they could not afford to buy a house), but we weren’t poor either. We always had food, a decent car, a house to live in, decent clothes to wear and we always got some toys at Christmas. One of my favorite toys to play with was also an arch nemesis of the Cincinnati Children’s Burn Center. Of course I’m talking about Creepy Crawlers! Invented by Mattel in 1964 when I was in first grade.
Let me tell you about the good old days before all these damn consumer protection groups. In my day, we had toys that could maim, burn or otherwise cause irreparable bodily harm. They taught us how to be careful…or suffer the consequences – and we loved them! Creepy Crawlers was one such great toy. The idea was to “make” little rubber-like insects and reptiles. Yes, we actually made them! When you bought a Creepy Crawler ‘craft’, you received 2 bottles of colored goop, several metal molds to pour the goop into, a metal handle that was used to pick up the molds with, and a miniature child self-inflicting burn unit (aka the heater).
The process to make Creepy Crawlers was much more simple than Walter White’s recipe for cooking crystal meth. You first chose which insect you wanted to make. My favorite was the centipede. I liked all the tiny legs and the feeling of satisfaction I received when I made a perfect one. Next, you chose the colors. You could make it solid in one color or you could choose to make it multicolored. If you made it multicolored, you learned after your first attempt that it was best to place your mold in the heater empty, let it heat up a bit and then pour in your first color. Let it solidify a bit and then pour in another color in a separate area, next to your first goop. A tricky part though was any area of the mold that was narrow (like the legs of he centipede). To get the legs to form, you’d better have a sharp, thin piece of metal shaped similar to a thick needle (sadly, the dagger did not come in the kit). You’d use the tiny dagger to force some goop into the legs. Now fill in the rest of the tiny mold being careful not to overfill the mold. Overfilling would make a mess to clean up but would also create some extra edge that would have to be cut off later.
Now we finish cooking! Everything was an experiment growing up in the 60’s and this included our games. We aren’t born knowing just how damn hot those little burn units could get. I mean think about it – a little metal heating unit plugged into a home electrical socket. Two prongs, no safety handle, oh and we had a small tub of water there too. What a great toy! So after a couple of attempts we quickly learned how to recognize when the goop was all set up.
Once it was set up, you were supposed to pick it up carefully with the metal pronged handle and then carefully move it to the little tray of water where you’d get an immediate hissss of instant steam. No, you didn’t accidentally set it on your bare leg. No, you didn’t hand it to your friend and no, you didn’t pick it up with your bare hand. Also, no you didn’t pick up the mold before the goop set up completely. Oh, I almost forgot – also you didn’t put your finger in the hot goop to see if it was ready yet. These were all rules I’m sure came written very clearly on the box or in some little instruction booklet. We were only 5-8 years old though. Who reads instructions? Those were for grown ups! No, we figured out all of these important rules like we did everything else in life – from direct experience, (or in this case, from direct “contact”).
Goop in the mold, super heat the goop, remove the mold, put it in the water, remove the crawler! After a few ‘lessons’ we quickly mastered the art of making Creepy Crawlers. In first and second grade we made a lot of Creepy Crawlers. Tim and I each had a small metal storage box for our crawlers. We made them together and we made them by ourselves at our own houses (unsupervised I might add – we kids were rarely supervised during our play times). The crawlers got so popular that soon there were spillover versions like Creeple People that would fit onto a standard issue #2 pencil and I seem to recall maybe there being a GI Joe version.
I find that my most vivid memories from my child life are attached with some kind of lesson I was learning. This is hindsight of course – I didn’t know at the time that I would remember certain occurrences. One day I was talking with a little boy named Mike Tuley about Creepy Crawlers and he said he would bring his in the next day and we could trade. So the next day we both brought in our collections. At Fillmore Elementary, we were sitting on the stoop located by the door on the far left hand side of the building if you were looking straight at it. I didn’t know a thing about Mike or his parents. His parents could have been loaded, but all I could see was that he didn’t have very many Creepy Crawlers.
My young best friend Timmy had taught me well that we share with those less fortunate than ourselves. I saw the shabby Creepy Crawler collection and my young mind associated that with being much less fortunate than myself. Perhaps he had a little tear in his pants too? I seem to have that recollection, but for that detail I can’t tell if it’s real or a figment of my imagination. Regardless, I remember quite vividly that I felt sorry for Mike. It sounds strange, even to me, to be writing this today, but I can remember this sensation as if it occurred yesterday. So I decided to make some fantastic trades with Mike. I can’t recall exactly what I gave up or what I received, but I remember that I had made a seriously great trade in favor of Mike. I also remember his facial expression of disbelief and gratitude. He said – are you sure? To which I replied – sure Mike, I can make some more. I remember feeling a slight regret for my trade, but I also can still remember how good I was feeling because I thought I had done something kind.
With this little account as background, I move now to the willow trees. Weeping willow trees never fail, even today, to remind me of my Grandma. They had three or four of them in their front yard. Today I am a member at a little golf club here in California and there is a large weeping willow on the edge of the pond that is bordered by several holes. I come next to this tree as I’m pushing my cart on the path, approaching the tee on hole #16, and every time I do, I think of my grandma. It is impossible for me not to. Unfortunately, the weeping willow also carries a very painful childhood memory too.
Every single “vacation” as a child involved our driving to Vincennes, Indiana to spend time with my mom and dad’s families. We would always spend our evenings at my Grandma’s before my parents divorced. On one visit my dad’s high school friend was over at the house. I remember his name – Bill Carnahan (or something very close to that). He had a son who was my age. I don’t recall if this was before or after I got hit by a school bus in second grade, but I’m thinking it was before so I’m calling it 1965. I was seven years old. The boy told me he was hungry. I knew how to cook a can of soup on the stove so we went into Grandma’s kitchen and I saw a can of Campbell’s oyster stew sitting up in Grandma’s food pantry, (it was more like a China cabinet), on the second shelf, right side (this is a very vivid memory).
I stood on a chair and got down the soup can. I found the can opener, opened the can, poured the contents into a small pan, got out some milk and poured some into the can and then emptied the can into the pan. Then I started the fire and heated up the soup. I got down two bowls and we both ate the oyster stew and my little friend was no longer hungry. We continued to play.
Some hours later, Bill and his boy went home. I guess my dad had purchased that can of soup for himself and maybe he was looking forward to eating it because he saw it had been eaten and came and asked us boys who had eaten it. Remember, this is a grown man dealing with a seven year old. I told him I had cooked it because, (I want to call him Bobby), Bobby told me that he was hungry. My dad – “well that was my oyster stew and I was going to eat it”. He took me out front by the arm and made me stand next to him while he broke off a willow branch. He then stripped off the leaves. I remember I was wearing shorts.
The whole time this was going on, my grandma was with us, trying to talk my dad out of what was about to happen. My dad was telling my grandma that I needed to learn a lesson, that I had to ask before I took things. While my dad was preparing his switch and quickly explaining his actions to Grandma, I had made up my mind that I had done nothing wrong. I also knew though that no matter what, I was going to get a switching. I hated switches and belts.
As a kid it was always important to know how many lashes you were about to receive. You wanted to be able to foresee the end. So I asked him how many I was going to get. He said – “I haven’t decided yet”. Again I asked how many? He said “3 or 4”. I decided I was not going to cry. Think about this for a moment – a seven year old about to get whipped and knowing the difference between what felt right and what felt wrong. I “knew” that my dad was wrong here. Today I don’t know if I thought I was going to teach him a lesson or if I just wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of making me cry – probably the latter.
He had me by my left wrist with his left wrist and he began the slow switching on the back of my legs as I was moving in a counter clockwise direction, trying to lessen the severity of the strikes. Meanwhile my grandma keeps begging him to stop, saying I’ve had enough. It hurt like hell but I wasn’t crying yet. I knew the routine, I knew that if I had started crying at the second or third switch, it would be all over. For whatever reason though, I had made up my mind. He kept switching me, we kept dancing in a circle and Grandma kept begging him to stop. So finally he stops. I had not cried. I turned to him and looked up and simply said, “that was twelve”.
I don’t recall an explanation or an apology. That wasn’t my dad’s style. My dad was the boss and we were just kids. It was twelve switchings and I had not given him the satisfaction of making me cry for ‘feeding a hungry child’. I will admit to you the reader, it felt damn good to say “that was twelve”. It felt like I was getting away with calling my dad an asshole.
Today, many years after my dad’s death, (pancreatic cancer – nasty), I view my dad as one of those guys who was probably pretty fun to be around if you were one of his buddies – he did have a great sense of humor. He was also one of those guys who I don’t think understood what it meant to be a father. I’m talking about the more important aspects of being a father – being a role model, teaching your children lessons about how to be a responsible adult, what it means to be charitable and caring. I don’t think my brothers and sisters had the same experiences as I had with our dad. I’m glad for that for them. Perhaps as the oldest child, I was the Guinea pig. Or maybe I was just a different kid, I don’t know. I consider myself to be an extremely observant person. I notice most everything. I also keep most everything to myself. I work hard at trying to be non judgmental because I believe it’s important to try to see the perspectives of each of all of us. Speaking your mind and having your own opinion was not something that was necessarily encouraged though in my home under the tutelage of my dad.
Some of my best lessons in life however have come by way of logging bad memories and then trying to learn something positive from them. I do this at work in my career and at home. I like to think that I have been a good father, largely from remembering or imagining how my dad would have handled a situation…and then doing the opposite.
Postscript – None of my children are named after me like I was named after my father….and my last boy’s name is Tim