January 3, 2023

Tales from the attic: Becoming

Sam Smith - As I approached my teens we moved from DC to Philadelp­­­hia, where my parents had come from. I had learned from my older brother and sister that my parents' idiosyncrasies were immutable. I had been born into a dysfunctional upper class family with an excess of discipline and a deficit of affection, laced with far too much certitude and booze for anybody's good. I just had to find ways to work around it.

Forced to wear English short pants, I would avoid situations in which my knees would attract attention, hugging the edge of the desk when I stood in class, and using classmates as unwitting shields on the playground. Rather than walk down Vaux Street and Warden Drive, thus exposing myself to nearly a half mile of derision, I discovered that I could shorten both the trip and the length of my visibility by taking a shortcut through the Roseneath sanitarium next door, past the white buildings and down the slope that served as part of a golf course that wound around the property. The danger of being beaned seemed considerably less than that of being embarrassed.

Besides, the attendants were friendly, especially a gangly orderly of minimal intelligence who became my dealer in comic books. Comic books were verboten in our house, as was reading the Sunday funnies. It was customary for us to head for the kitchen on Sunday afternoon and read the funny papers anyway in a large food closet, certain that my parents black cook, Rosetta, would cover for us in the event of a parental intrusion. Throughout our lives, Rosetta ran an internal underground railroad for "my children," using guile -- and prevarication if necessary -- with steadfastness and skill.

The Roseneath orderly also introduced me to golf, thus becoming the first person to show any interest in teaching me a sport. He was a voracious comic book reader and gave me his old copies, which I would sneak to the third floor and hide under my bed until it was safe to peruse them. The house, being old, was full of creaks and my room, being at the end of the hall from the stairway, was virtually impervious to silent approach. Nonetheless, innate caution led me to read much of my contraband library by flashlight after I was presumed asleep.

Unfortunately, either through carelessness on my part or by accident, both the comic books and my source of supply were discovered. My parents, outraged at my deceit, were even more concerned that the orderly might have some perverted designs on me. Since, in behavior at least, the orderly was orderly, and since I could not at that age imagine what beastly acts he might be intending -- murder was my best guess, which I discounted as unlikely on a golf course in daylight -- I simply waited until the heat was off and then resumed importing the nefarious literature, albeit with considerably more care.

I ploughed through Mifflin public school as best I could, beginning my self-education in mitigating the effects of the inexorabilities of life. I quickly discovered some of the uses of humor, how to turn away taunts with wit or a swift change of subject, how to calculate the consequences of one's moves as though each hour were a new chess game, when to say nothing, and the futility of explanations. When such stratagems didn't work, I would simply wait until I got home and then I would cry.

My teachers gave me fairly good grades although they were not above humiliation to achieve their pedagogic aims. On one occasion my report on Switzerland -- proudly including materials obtained from the Swiss Embassy and neatly pasted on colored paper -- was held up to the class as an example of how not to do a report. Today, I remember only the rebuke and not the logic behind it. On another occasion, I engaged in seminal politics by campaigning against the girl who was the inside favorite to be 5th grade class president. The teacher, who regarded campaigning as a political dirty trick, had everyone stand who had been approached by me. I watched this censure with a mixture of shame and hubris, for I had managed to canvas most of the class.

Some of the worst moments were on the playground. My parents had no interest in sports and no interest in how their children performed in them. There were no kids in the neighborhood to teach me. Thus unschooled, I would inevitably find myself last picked for the team and dispatched far into the concrete right field to await the terror of attempting to catch a high fly with bare, bumbling hands. As I stood there, I would weigh the relative merits of failing in my assignment or sustaining comparable opprobrium by trapping the ball and then being unable to throw it more than halfway to the infield. It was no small matter. As Jules Pfeiffer once said, if you can't play baseball you can't make it as a boy. My spherical dyslexia and competitive deficit disorder remained with me throughout life, and like Robert Morley, I can say that I have never willingly chased a ball.

I might have asked my parents to give me a mitt for Christmas, which would have considerably relieved the pain of catching a high fly barehanded, but I considered my athletic potential to be so dismal that it was irreparable even using mechanical aids. My only comfort was the knowledge that once at bat, I would be at least above average.

In any case, there was no guarantee that I would have gotten a glove for Christmas. My parents were obsessed with not spoiling their children. Thus written budgets, right down to 60 cents for a month's worth of snacks, were required before our minimal allowances were set. Hand-me-down clothes were standard and hand-me-down Christmas presents were not unknown -- albeit carefully wrapped as though new.


My non-athleticism led me to fail to note that I was the largest boy in the class. I illogically assumed that every other boy, should he be so inclined, could beat me up. In fact, I was rarely in fights, with the exception of being approached by several youths on Warden Drive, one of whom put a knife to my throat. The cause for this assault is no longer in my memory, but in any case the goal was apparently merely terror and not harm.

I had two havens in the house. One was the basement, where I constructed an HO gauge model railroad. It was a modest layout, clumsily laid and with rolling stock limited to what I could eke out of my small allowance. Reflecting upstairs values, however, the Pocono Valley RR had a board of directors, comprised of compliant adult relatives, and an annual report complete with figures in the low one digits. Board member Uncle Harry wrote to protest that I had passed the regulations of the railroad without board approval and cousin Henry wondered whether an audit would be forthcoming.

The other haven was my room in the southwest corner of the third floor. It was about the sunniest room in the house, at the end of a long hall from the stairs. In this room, so in contrast to the shadows and gloom elsewhere, I constructed a stage for my imagination. At times the room was the bridge of a ship, at other times the repair facility of the Pocono Valley RR, a radio studio, a writer's garret, and best of all, a place to sleep in peace beneath a wall covered with my military insignia collection.

It never occurred to me to have insomnia for it was in those precious moments before losing wakefulness that I concocted some of my most vivid experiences. Years later I would learn that James Baldwin - "curled up in the center of the stillness of the night" - also thought of the dark as his best time.

For me, it would be a new adventure every evening and I could never predict whether the wanderings of my mind would lead me to new triumphs or a tragic end. Each was equally thrilling. These tales had their roots in Jack Armstrong, Sgt. Preston of the Yukon, and the Shadow. The comic books had slowly faded as I learned that I no longer needed each thought drawn and colored in. The stories also borrowed heavily from my growing collection of books about the sea and the Arctic, in which I found men dealing with forces even more immutable than those at Schoolhouse Lane. I especially admired Horatio Hornblower, the 18th century midshipman who rose, book by book, to become at last an admiral. One of the things I liked about Hornblower was that he, just like me, was given to throwing up; even after gaining flag rank he suffered seasickness.

Later I became infatuated with the idea that I would not survive past the early twenties. My demise constantly varied and often brought tears to my eyes as I developed, under the covers, the denouement of the night. If I prayed for anything in those days, it was that I would live long enough to be an adult man able to carry out the plots I had devised for myself. Later, I gave myself an actuarial extension, in order to enjoy being a good father.

There was surprisingly little morose about this, though I knew, from my reading and radio listening, that a polar bear might attack you at any moment -- that is if you were living a truly interesting life. This would be tragic -- but in a literary sense -- a story that others would tell and weep about for years to come. It made me sad to think about it; on the other hand it would be a good story and it was, it seemed, far better and more interesting to die young by polar bear attack in the Arctic than of respectable, stultifying old age in Philadelphia.


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