Down in the Valley
There’s only one thing worse than being a teacher’s kid: being the son of a preacher. If having an elementary school teacher for a mother can create some serious problems for a boy among his friends, I ought to thank my lucky stars (wherever they are in this universe) that I wasn’t the son of a Congregational minister named Pastor Pueshal. But let me explain.
Despite the awkward surname and his legacy of being the progeny of moral rectitude’s chief proponent in our small California agricultural town, the pastor’s boy (Kris) otherwise had it all going for him. He was everything I wasn’t. Being a descendant of Swedish Congregationalists, Kris was blonde and had that chiseled Nordic look without the stereotyped goofiness that was often ascribed as being a Scandinavian immigrant characteristic. To his further credit, it didn’t take Kris long to completely throw over his family’s taint of churchy goody-goodness. He was soon inducted into the ranks of the most popular bad-boy clique at Washington Elementary School.
I, on the other hand, was a future ‘orfink’ (though I didn’t know it at the time, of course) who had a hard time cultivating friends. Thinking back on things, I guess that’s partly because I never really knew my father very well. When you lose your dad early in life like that, you tend to be a bit insecure and unsure of yourself. He died (at the age of 72) when I was only 4, leaving me with no brothers and sisters, and my mother a widow who suddenly had to support both of us.
My father, who had been a drummer boy in the Spanish American War, had met my mother rather late in his life (after a first marriage failed) when a mutual friend had introduced them, back in the San Francisco area of the mid-30s. My mother, a college graduate and recently credentialed grammar school teacher from Idaho, had taken to dad immediately. He was a likeable Irishman, originally from Trenton, New Jersey, who had risen up through the ranks to eventually become a Major in the Army. Austere and possessed of a naturally commanding air of authority, dad continued his military career in the California State National Guard while simultaneously working for the San Francisco Catholic Diocese as their parochial schools athletics program director. The youngest of 10 other, older siblings, Pop's sole personal skeleton in the closet was that he had never gone beyond the 8th grade in school; my mother frequently remarked that had he gotten a high school education, he would have reached 'flag rank' (Brigadier General), at least.
Although mom and dad had been together since 1936, I didn’t become more than a gleam in dad’s eye until almost 9 months had passed, after VJ Day in 1945. Ma told me later that uncertainty over the outcome of the war put family planning on temporary hold for the duration. That gives me the questionable distinction of being on the leading edge of the so-called ‘Baby Boom’ generation (the Depends, Geritol, and AARP Generation?).
We lived on Divisidero Street in the city’s Marina District, on the second floor of an apartment building situated directly over an Italian-American family named the DiMaggios. They had a son who had shown great promise as a baseball player and when I was 3 years old, Joe presented us with a signed baseball on which all of his Yankees team mates had signed their names. I was later told (although I don’t remember it directly) that when I was playing on the small little beach at the foot of the Marina one day (aged 4), I suddenly lobbed that ball off the dock and out into the bay. I suppose you might view that as some sort of omen. Perhaps I had later career potential as a pitcher I wasn’t then aware of. Or perhaps it was an indication of how impoverished my appreciation for the value of money would be in my later adult life. Either way you interpret it, that incredibly valuable regulation hardball signed by Joe DiMaggio and his fellow Yankees plopped nicely into the bay’s salty waters and blub-blubed quickly out of sight.
When dad died unexpectedly in 1950, ma was faced with the need to leave her part-time job as an Emporium sales clerk and go back to full-time employment as a teacher. Being a smart, college educated woman, she quickly determined that the best place to find a teaching job in California would be in the state’s lower Central Valley, with its many thousands of proto-Steinbeck field laborers. Therefore, shortly after dad’s funeral, we left the San Francisco marina, packing everything up in dad’s shiny Oldsmobile, and headed off into the agricultural interior of the state. I don’t remember much about that relocation at all, except that one day we stopped in a small San Joaquin County town named Reedley (just east of Fresno) and shortly thereafter moved into some convenient veteran’s housing units that were situated behind the town’s high school tennis courts.
It was not an easy transition for my mother, I am sure, going from being the well looked-after wife of a dignified and well respected military officer to being an impoverished and poorly paid school teacher, trying to both earn a living and support a small child. Ma persevered, however, and it was a fortunate coincidence that there were a few other military widows with small children living in that same complex to help ease the process. The Reedley Elementary School District soon had a new 5th grade teacher named Mary and for the next several years we managed to settle in to the small community of 3000 without too much difficulty. Since dad had been Catholic, ma first attended the local Catholic Church, but after a bit she found the local Anglican Church a bit more to her preference. Something about not liking all that graphic imagery of bloodied bodies of Christ hanging off the crucifix and hemorrhaging sacred hearts wound up in thorny puncture vines. She also didn’t like the idea of having to pray to Jesus through the Virgin Mary, when what she really wanted most was a direct (non party) line to God.
We spent a few more years in Reedley, known to the rest of the county then as the ‘Raisin Capitol of the World’ (at least that’s what its city council members thought). Finally, a position opened up that offered a far better salary in a little dusty podunk of a town just north of Bakersfield, named Wasco (an Indian name, I seem to recall). When this occurred, I had just started establishing a comfortable cluster of little friends in Reedley. I had even managed to find a best buddy in Peter Peterson, who was the son of the local Methodist church’s pastor. We soon became pretty tight friends, having similarly creative senses of imagination, and were quite a bit brighter than all the other local kids, seemingly. At the time it didn’t bother me at all that I seemed to prefer hanging with preachers’ brats.
Pete was a rather thin, elfin like kid, with permanently arched eyebrows that seemed to be analyzing everything constantly. He also had absolutely no sense of style when it came to clothes and even in those days when ‘style’ was an almost unknown concept below high school level, Pete was a pretty dorky dresser (I suppose I was no better, for that matter). He had a weird way of sort of lifting off his heels when he walked that looked pretty strange to me, but for unknown reasons my mother was impressed by that strange gait he affected and asked me why I couldn’t walk as smartly myself (I never understood the logic behind that critical remark and it bothers me to this day). I recall that Pete always wore long sleeved shirts that were hand-me-downs from his older brother Wayne, and never wore them with the collar button open or the sleeves rolled up (as I did). Pete also had brown hair and disturbingly green eyes that made his analytical gaze seem even more penetrating.
While the other kids were out playing baseball and basketball, Pete and I would swipe large cardboard refrigerator cartons from the local appliance store refuse pile and construct castles, submarines, airplanes, and tanks from them to play in. They were quite complicated affairs, with wings, turrets, portholes, and torpedo tubes, and were pretty sophisticated for cardboard weapons of warfare. Unfortunately, soggy cardboard doesn’t hold up well to the rigors of mock combat when it rains and every Spring these elaborate battlements and war vessels would slowly sag into sodden lumps of shapeless brown cellulose fiber, leaving us with the need for a supply of fresh appliance cartons.
We had a million uses for cardboard, I remember, and one particularly brilliant idea was to make body armor patterned after that used by the ancient Greeks. I think this flash of genius occurred after a movie about the Trojan War had played at the local theatre, but whatever the source of the inspiration, we were soon both decked out in regulation Trojan armor (complete with cardboard helmet plumes and weapons) and ready to take on the Greeks at the least provocation. I remember having had some trouble trying to puzzle out exactly why the Greeks and Trojans wore skirts instead of pants, but Pastor Peterson reassured us that this was merely the regional custom of the ancients, who like the Highland Scots, preferred a bit of fresh circulation down below to the heated constraints of long pants.
Curiously, my buddy Peter came ready equipped with a friend named Jimmy Tomlinson. Whereas Pete was the son of well educated parents (Peter’s father was a graduate of some eastern University and his mother was also a college grad), Pete’s friend Jimmy was the product of a hard-scrabble dust-bowl family that had immigrated to California from Oklahoma. Once in the state his alcoholic father promptly died of cirrhosis, leaving his care to a mother who shortly also passed along. This left Jimmy temporarily an ‘orfink’ until he was rescued from that awful limbo by a ‘grandmother’ who may or may not have been actually related. Jimmy’s granny, who was short, squat, a bit ugly, and possessed of snaggled front teeth, was the Methodist Church’s janitor. I suppose Pete’s family had given her the job (and use of a small one-room shack located right next to the church) out of a sense of Christian charity, but whatever the reason, Jimmy at least had a home and a guardian to look after him.
Jimmy’s rough times showed up clearly in his face, where his family difficulties resulted in a permanent look of slight distrust of any and all he encountered. The skeptical affect contrasted rather badly with his babyish good looks and curly brown hair, which had a way of making the skepticism appear to be an imagined artifact in the eyes of the viewer. I remember Jimmy as being quite an earnest kid who always suspected he was being treated less well than other kids, due to his near-orfink status (and usually was).
Although Pete and Jimmy were friends, their friendship was frequently disrupted by disagreements between his granny and the Pastor’s wife. Peter’s mother seemed to have been one of those somewhat haughty blue-nose women who think they could have done better with their lives by marrying slightly higher up in the social spectrum, and consequently work out their resulting disgruntlements on those who work domestically for them. Jimmy’s granny, not without some irony, was named “Mrs. Bishop”, and she was frequently the recipient of Mrs. Peterson’s regular storms of irrational discontent. This in turn made Jimmy’s life unbearable at times and he was probably the most persistently unhappy kid I knew at that time in my early life.
I well recall days when our submarine crew demanded the help of an extra rating on board, only to find that Jimmy was not ‘welcome’ right now, due to the ongoing warfare between Mrs. Bishop and Peter’s mother. You can imagine the fallout from all that needless angst on us kids, who had no clue at all as to what all the hoohah was about. All we knew was that we needed a deck gunner in the worst way and Petty Officer First Class Jimmy was assigned to temporary quarters duty by Mrs. Bishop’s Shore Patrol.
Ma was worried about my not having a father for a role model, having been a firm believer in Dr. Benjamin Spock’s then popular pediatric manifesto for raising children, so she launched me into the local Reedley Boy Scout troop. That was a very good thing for me, as it turned out, since I didn’t have a dad to take me out camping and at the troop meetings I got to vicariously ‘share’ some of the other dads. It was probably one of the best decisions ma every made with regard for my welfare, as I see things now. Our troop met in Reedley’s barn-like old Veterans Memorial Hall. Under its eves someone had strung up a couple of dozen old World War One German soldier ‘coal-scuttle’ helmets as suspended flower pots. It was a nice touch planting red poppies in them, now that I look back on it.
I remember that out in front of that hall was parked a vintage 155 mm artillery cannon, permanently spiked so that no slightly inebriated local patriot could use it to celebrate New Year’s Eve. The thing was absolutely huge (from my vantage as a little tyke) and the tires alone stood taller than my head. Many years of repeated paint jobs with olive-drab had caused great cracks to form on its long barrel, from its receiver all the way to the end of its plugged end. The Reedley vets apparently didn’t want anyone to forget the sacrifices they had made in the World Wars and that huge cannon certainly caught everyone’s eye to remind them as they passed by their way to the Reedley post office. Of course, back then the Second World War was still very fresh in everyone's recollections and there was scarcely any anti-war sentiment to be found anywhere. Britain's 'Uncle Bertie' Russell was still regarded as some sort of anarchistic weirdo kook, rather than the patron saint of the anti-Vietnam protests he would later become.
As the 50s began, I started getting thoroughly immersed in my Boy Scout work, but for reasons that remain unknown to me, Peter was not similarly interested. As for Jimmy, he was so poor that he couldn’t even afford the basic Scout initiation fees, let alone buy all the Scout uniforms and camping paraphernalia scouting required. Pete and I remained close friends (we are still close today), but sad little Jimmy somehow faded from our circle of confreres until one day he just seemed to vanish spontaneously. I never did find out what had happened to Jimmy, but it may be that some other long-lost relative finally took him after his granny passed away, a few years later. Or it may be that he finally reverted to orfinkhood once and for all. I’ll never know, but I still reflect back on those days and wonder what sort of life fate had in store for him.
At any rate, the Boy Scouts were a positive association for me as a kid. I enthusiastically accepted the Scout way of life and ma was happy that I was at least getting substantial training in being a good, upstanding little citizen, despite our modest (and fatherless) circumstances. It was hard earning a living and being both a mother and father to boot, so the Scouts really came along at the right time for both of us. Rising through the ranks was fairly easy for me as I quickly grasped woodcraft, merit badge skills, and the usual camp craft knowledge. I started to take an appreciable interest in what we now call ‘Native American’ culture, since the Boy Scouts were big on Indian woodcraft and survival skills. The idea of running around in a loin cloth like a savage was also peculiarly appealing, for some reason (so was the war paint), but the summers were pretty hot in the lower Central Valley, so it seemed quite natural to me. I remember the white American’s stereotyped vision of the typical Indian of that time as being pretty bare-ass nekked, anyway, and it wasn’t until much later that I learned the indians actually wore some pretty hefty layers of clothing (Buffalo robes, et al) during the winter months, while wintering out on the snowy Great Plains.
Peter’s father, Reverend Orville Peterson, was a constrained, educated, and well filled-out fellow with a barely detectable streak of sanctimonious pomposity. He had been a chaplain in the Navy during the war and I recall digging around in Pete’s attic one time and finding Orville’s old shipboard battle helmet and black rubber Mk. IV gasmask in one of the boxes. Pete and I wanted to use them on our cardboard submarine to repel any possibility of another sneaky Japanese attack, but for some reason Pete’s father had a strong attachment to those old war relics and quickly confiscated them. That was my very first encounter with a gasmask, an iconic symbol of the form of warfare that would much later (36 years later, in fact) take a substantial place in my adult concerns, as a chemical warfare defense consultant in the Middle East. Our antipathy to the Japanese foe of WWII notwithstanding, the Reedley Japanese-American Community regularly held festivals and bazaars in Reverend Peterson’s Methodist Church social hall (that’s where I first learned to love sushi, although at first it seemed rather odd to make edible stuff out of seaweed).
Mr. Peterson was not an outdoorsy type by any mean stretch of the term. I am not sure what his avocational interests were, actually, except that they didn’t focus on camping, hunting, or fishing. His wife, Hyacinth, was also not much of a physically active person, preferring to play the piano, sing, and engage in parish social events. Pete’s bigger brother, Wayne (who was a big, if somewhat smart, lummox), and his older sister Gaye, were fairly active outdoors types, by contrast. Peter, on the other hand, didn’t seem to take much interest in the Scouts, so we grew a bit further apart for that reason, while still remaining the best of friends in other interests (like science fiction). My own involvement with the Scouts took me to the usual camporees and jamborees, field trips, hikes, nature studies, and all the usual range of active Boy Scout activities. The monthly scout magazine, Boy’s Life, came to my mailbox regularly, with the same punctuality as religious bulletins from the local church, and I would have to guess that this early association with the Boy Scouts (in combination with the lack of a fatherly presence) resulted in a distinctive ‘Boy Scout’ quality I have today, as an adult. Little did I realize that the Boy Scout spin on social reality I enthusiastically absorbed was only about 50 years out of date and evolving at the speed of an overmedicated banana slug. Think of it, looking back on this, as sort of like studying ornithology in order to understand rocket science and astrophysics. The result was that I grew up as straight as a choir boy (unmolested, that is), as ashamed as I am to admit the fact that I was never at any time a bad little boy like all my peers.
Speaking of choir boys, that’s exactly what I was in the real sense. Not only was I hauled off regularly to Sunday church services, I was also pressed into service as what they call an ‘alter boy’ for the Anglican Sunday services. In the Anglican (read Episcopalian) ‘high church’ service that held sway back in the early 50s Episcopalian Church, the celebratory rituals were not always easily distinguished from those of the Roman Catholic Church. The principal visual difference between the two faiths was that the Anglican service was read in plain old English, whereas in the RC service, Latin was still used. Otherwise the vestments, cassocks, mantles, surpluses and so forth were pretty much on par with the old and traditional RC priestly accoutrements.
As an alter boy (sort of a pre-pubescent male version of the pagan Vestal Virgins, I guess—disturbing thought, actually!), we had the task of lighting the candles before the service, carrying the cross during processionals and recessionals, waiting on the priest during the offering of the communion, and generally fussing around the alter during the reading of the epistles and such. It always struck me as a bit odd, observing all the ceremonial falderal at close hand while trying to act appropriately solemn and contrite throughout. Somehow or other, throughout a period of several years, I gained a growing feeling that all the religious mumbo-jumbo was just a bunch of superstitious malarkey. I just couldn’t connect personally with the idea of there being some sort of great invisible higher presence out there that cared a fig about us human beings. Despite all the Sunday School lessons, despite undergoing all of the substantial socialisation that ends up making good little god-fearing Christians out of ignorant and immature little male savages, the end result was that I early on made a decision that life as a Christian simply wasn’t a possible option for me. In fact, the more I learned about the world we live in at school (and the vast universe it exists in), the less possible such a highly projective human faith in divine deities seemed.
My mother, who probably sorely needed a substantial spiritual shoulder to lean on, maintained an absolutely unshakable faith in her Christian God that would remain strong and (to my personal distaste) doggedly resolute until the roof of an Idaho gold mine collapsed upon her somewhat later (in the course of some geological exploring she was doing). For my money, however, Jesus, God, andf the Christian Trinity were about as substantial, according to my perceptions of reality, as the boogeyman, the tooth fairy, leprechauns, Santa Claus, and honest humanitarianism in politicians.
Fortunately for the sake of my subsequent lifelong career as an unbelieving pagan, events conspired to remove me from my status as an alter boy in the Reedley Episcopal Church forever ,when that teaching position alluded to earlier opened up a bit further down the Central Valley. My regrets were few and included mostly having to leave behind a hot little number named Candace Russell in Reedley, whom I had run into at church choir practice. Aside from that, my fairly profitable weekly lawn mowing enterprise, and the need to temporarily part company from my good friend Pete, I was not greatly remiss over departing the Raisin Capitol of the World, as we once again migrated to an entirely new communal aggregation of post ‘Dust Bowl’ Okie and Arkie expatriates.
Since ma also substituted occasionally as a teacher in some of the smaller outlying communities (Orange Cove, Lemon Cove, Dinuba, Parlier, and Sanger), I’ll never know what sort of impact losing the one link to true literacy she constituted had on their drab little cotton-picking lives, but I know ma was no sadder than I to leave them all in our dust as we headed south towards a whole new bastion of rural small-mindedness named Wasco, just off Highway 99 and north of Bakersfield.