I was born in Schenectady, New York, an old Dutch city about 125 miles north of New York City. Schenectady was a company town and the company was General Electric. Down at the end of Erie Boulevard, a wide street, Schenectady's equivalent of the Champs Elysee, was an enormous GE logo, a circular structure with iron work script towered 100 feet above a brown industrial structure. It was visible from most anywhere in town. Even at the age of four, I was impressed with this corporate icon, and recognized that it represented something bigger than the people around me, bigger than the town, something unapproachable. My mother worked for GE, a fact that made her quite unavailable to me during the day and caused me to be entrusted me to the care of various benevolent personages in my years of infancy. Today Schenectady is part of the industrial rust belt, drab as a whole, but in the mid nineteen forties, it was still full of corporate energy as the war economy adapted to peacetime prosperity.
For some reason I was well acquainted with the fact that I was born in Ellis Hospital. This is where people were born, I knew, since my sister Anne, who was quite grown up, was also born there. I don't think that I even knew exactly where it was, but I felt comfort in its presence since it was where everything began. I was often reminded that as a baby, I was rushed to Ellis hospital with a serious ear infection. This was my great claim to notoriety as a child and I often asked my Mother to tell me again about being in Ellis Hospital.
I was born at noon, my mother told me, since the company noontime whistles were blowing as I entered the world. My mother, Lesley, must have played a major role in my infancy, but I have only a few memories of us together. She was thirty five years old when I was born. I was the second child of a largely dysfunctional marriage, an accidental conception during a period of reconciliation, I am told. This fact bothered me not at all since I always felt well-loved and well cared for in spite of my unplanned beginnings.
My mother was petit, exactly five feet tall. But she had a tall sense of family worth, inherited apparently from her English ancestors the Fairchilds and passed down as a sense of being better than average. I always sensed that she felt she was of a better class than my father whose family were mere Midwest farmers. I often received signals from my mother that so-in-so wasn't quite up to the family values.
My mother died in 1963 of multiple sclerosis after years of gradual decline. Apparently the first symptoms appeared the year before I was born as a brief period of blindness. I have often wondered if my mother realized that she was seriously ill during my early years and, if so, how much did it affect our relationship.
I spent a lot of time with Mrs. "Crow Foot" who took care of me while my mother was at work. She provided a benign stability in my life and I felt quite comfortable with her in her little house on Upper Union Street. She had an amazing collection of Catholic artifacts in her bedroom, a veritable shrine, and I recall wondering what grownups did with all these interesting toys.
Crossing the Mohawk River between the city of Schenectady and the town of Scotia was a steel bridge with metal grill work as the roadway. Any car crossing the bridge made a high rhythmic whine. I loved this phenomenon and called it the "Singing Bridge".
Not far from our house, where Union Street crossed Erie Boulevard, was the train depot, called (in common with hundreds of other similar edifices in the nation) Union Station. This loft brick and glass structure was where the New York Central Railroad mainline from New York to Chicago cut through the heart of our city. I loved the spectacle of the railroad, particular the steam engines that were so perfectly enormous, loud, spewing steam and black smoke. Whuuuuump, whuuump, whuump, I can hear the sounds today.
We lived at 223 Union Street. This section of Schenectady dates to the earliest Colonial period and is known as the "Stockade" for whatever reason. It is the nucleus of the old Dutch settlement and many of the original houses exist today, a perfectly charming neighborhood in contrast to much of the industrial functionality of the city. The numbers 2-2-3 are sacred to me to this day and are used regularly on lottery tickets and luggage locks. "223" was a sandstone facade apartment building of three stories with six apartments. We lived on the first floor in the rear. Our apartment seemed vast from my perspective, but it was, in reality, probably quite small. The entry way faced a small kitchen and the living room. The principal feature of the living room was a large floor to ceiling bookcase in which my mother placed both books and valued objects and crockery. Behind the living room was my parents bedroom with a white tiled bathroom off to one side. To the very rear of the apartment, off my parents bedroom, was an large enclosed porch where my sister and I slept, she in her bed and I in my crib. The porch had lots of glass windows and overlooked the back yard, my private playground.
Our house had one villain, Mr. Sobienski, the superintendent. This man, in my mind's eye, was just like Mr. MacGregor and was just as likely to put small children who misbehaved into a rabbit pie. Why Mr. Sobienski was considered in such low esteem, I do not know, but it might have had something to do with rent that wasn't paid on time, or the like.
If there was a neutral influence in my childhood, it was my father, Gordon. I have virtually no memories of him during my early years which suggests that he often was not at home. As an adult, I have become well acquainted with his personality and his life story, but while an infant, he does not seemed to have entered my region of awareness. It has been said by those who knew him, that Gordie would have made a great river boat gambler. My father's major problem, in my opinion today, was an illustrious career as a star athlete at a mid western university. Having achieved this measure of success at age twenty one, the balance of his life could not compare. I gather he was an indifferent provider, much taken with golfing and playing bridge. I sensed that my mother was the real underpinnings of our family.
Sometime in my fourth year Mrs. Crofert was replaced by a nursery school, in reality a day care facility. My memories of this drab institution are also quite unremarkable except for one event that caused within myself a significant sense of injustice. All the children were being escorted along the sidewalk from one location or another when one of the adults noticed that I was emanating a very unpleasant odor. In fact, I noticed that I had apparently stepped in some dog doo doo since I had the offending substance on my shoe and leg. The adults, with a complete lack of due process, suggested that I had been the source. When it was pointed out that there was also a sizable load in my underwear, I was truly outraged and as indignant as a four-year-old can get. I knew full well that no such thing could possibly have happened without my knowledge and complete cooperation. My mother was called and I was packed off to our home in complete disgrace.
When I was quite young Schenectady was overtaken by a major snow and ice storm. For some reason, we were driving to visit some friends of our family in the nighttime. I remember distinctly looking up from my resting place in the rear seat of the automobile and seeing telephone and power wires encased in a massive accumulation of ice, a gossamer, translucent, delicate construction lit by the lights of passing cars and given an auditory dimension by the sound of snow chains and shifting gears.
My father had close connections with the YMCA being that his father (my grandfather) was high in the management of that organization. For whatever reason, we occasionally went to the Schenectady YMCA for dinner in their cafeteria. This was, for me, the high point of any day. I was able to indulge my insatiable appetite for macaroni and cheese, crust brown on top, dripping with melted cheddar cheese in the middle. The "Y" was no doubt, the 1940's equivalent of Macdonalds but to me it was the height of epicurean excellence.
My mother owned a 1936 Ford roadster with a rumble seat. The memory of this car has always been strong and it's sporty character and general impracticality was quite evident to me. One of my strongest visions of my mother is from a visit we made to an apple farm to pick apples. The Ford had accidentally run over a high pile of horse manure which had adhered itself firmly to the tires in large clumps. My mother, laughing gaily, maneuvered the Ford back and forwards, gunning the motor and then screeching to a stop, in a generally unsuccessful attempt to dislodge the offending scat.
The back yard of "223" was an enormous jungle into which I was injected in any seasons to relieve the house of my presence, even for a little while. In actually it was no wider than the building, say 30 feet and perhaps twice as long. It was, however, entirely unkempt which made it full of things to explore. It contained at least two large elm trees. The one on the left provided an excellent hiding place, screened from view of the house. The one on the right, was covered with light brown fungus which looked quite menacing and disgusting. I gave that tree a wide berth.
The backyard was securely surrounded by a high wooden fence which isolated it from all intrusion. However, on occasions, a young girl from the house next door, would venture over to visit. We would invariably retire to the sheltered place behind the elm tree and compare those parts of our anatomy that turned out to be surprisingly different.
The backyard was not without its other inhabitants. A grey squirrel lived in the elm tree and would often visit looking for handouts. One day I grabbed for him and got a good grip on his tail. he wiggled free and I was left only with a fistful of grey fuzz. The squirrel, from that time forward, was easily identified by the large bare spot on his otherwise normal tail.
My friend from next door also introduced me to one of the true wonders of my childhood, television. In 1947, Schenectady as the headquarters city for General Electric, had one of the nations first operating television stations, WGY. I can recall Buffalo Bob and his wooden friend with great clarity.
Sometime in my third or fourth year, I was graduated from my crib to a real bed. There was a big production as my father, in one of his rare moments at home, struggled with the complexity of constructing legs for the box springs of the new and wonderful piece of furniture. I was impressed both with my great maturity and with my father's ineptitude with hand tools.
The anchor point of my existence was my older sister Anne. Being 13 years older than I, she was more of a mother figure than a sibling and was always uncommonly kind to me. I enjoyed her high school friends who treated me with amused consideration. I suppose I was an exceptionally animated doll to most of them.
One young man, however, provided me with an offering about which, even as greying adult, I marvel at the extreme generosity. It was a laboriously constructed wooden model of a sea plane, probably a Piper Cub on floats. I recall the fine craftsmanship, the brilliant yellow paint smooth as china, and the authentic decals. I also recall my distress when it disintegrated in the bathtub after numerous and wondrous takeoffs and landings. I hid the carcass in my toy chest lest my sister discover the sad fate of this fine gift.
I have wondered if this gift, which must have been a gesture to win my sister's good opinion, had the desired effect. And was this small plane the beginning of my lifelong fascination with of aviation.
My fathers parents, Joseph and LaVergne, lived in retirement on a small farm in neighboring Green County. The farmhouse was a big drafty affair with an enormous brick fireplace in the kitchen. I once was severely disciplined by Dee Dee (LaVergne) when she discovered that during a quiet play period I had excavated a sizable number of bricks from the hearth and was slowly and methodically dismembering the fireplace. A rather flimsy fireplace, I recall.
My strongest memory of my grandfather Joe (Pop Pop) was in Hannicroix the year before he died (1947) when I was about four. It is a scene of great tranquility and quite communication. Pop Pop is sitting on the toilet, in no great hurry to complete whatever he was doing. I am sitting at his feet looking up at his foreshortened image. We are discussing, I remember, something of great mutual importance. I recall that he had a fine batch of hair in his nostrils.
The Hannicroix farm had wondrous things to see. There was a horse and a cow and a duck pond. Pop Pop showed me how he separated the cream from the milk with a hand cranked device filled with a multitude of gleaming chrome parts. Dee Dee had the most horrifying rambunctious patch of Rhubarb with each leaf larger than an elephant's ear.
At Hannicroix, I may have discovered the value of practical advice. One of the pastures was enclosed by an electrified barb wire fence. Pop Pop showed me the gleaming white insulators on the electric strands and explained how 'ticity kept the horse inside the pasture. He warned me not to have anything to do with the electric fence. Later, when alone, I remember my small pudgy forefinger reaching out for the point of one of the barbs on the electric wire. It is like Michelangelo's creation as God's fingers reaches for Adam's. In my case, I discovered the unpleasant truth of an electrified fence, and in my hurt and outrage, I went bawling to Dee Dee for comfort, knowing deep in my heart, that I had nobody to blame.
We visited Hannicroix in all seasons. One scene I recall vividly has Anne and I out on the hill in the pasture in deep snow. Anne is trying out her skis and is swooshing around with speed and grace. The snow, however, is much too deep for my sleigh and I am greatly frustrated.
I believe I saw death for the first time in Hannecroix. Pop Pop was charged with dispatching a chicken for supper. I recall the fateful swing of the ax and watched with wonder as the headless chicken ran around the barnyard with considerable energy and enthusiasm. Later, I observed Dee Dee remove all the feathers with boiling water reducing the once proud hen to a dimpled white carcass. If I participated in the consumption of this unfortunate creature, I did not make the connection to the earlier events.
Anne was often charged with taking care of me, and, of course, had her own social agenda to fulfill. On one occasion, she took me to a matinee with several of her friends in one of the big movie theaters on State Street. In the darkened theater I recall watching a newsreel, a short subject involving monkeys, and the feature film, a shoot 'em up cowboy drama. At one point the bad guys are burning up some settler's cabin. The flames go higher and higher and the good guys were obviously in great danger. In sheer terror I plead with Anne, "Why don't the fire engines come". She led me weeping from the theater. It was years before I felt comfortable in a movie theater and able to distinguish between illusion and reality.
A big event in post-WW II Schenectady, and for that matter the entire country, was the Freedom Train. The government decided to put the documents on which our country is founded on display for the whole population. The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence traveled the breadth of the country for the ordinary people to see. My mother, Anne, and I stood on line for what seemed like hours next to the tracks as the human chain snaked into the silver cars containing the precious documents. If I ever saw them, I don't remember it, but I was aware of the importance of the occasion and the general respect that everyone around me had for these mysterious objects that we were waiting to see.
There were some good moments that defined for me what family life should be. I recall sitting at my mother's pine desk writing out a full account of my life. Being four and unable to read or write, I was forced to use a dialect of cursive writing consisting of loops and squiggles with an occasional dot and cross thrown in. It was, however, relatively disciplined and filled several sheets with horizontal iconography. My mother was in the kitchen cooking and the inviting smells of dinner were assured me that our family meal was just moments away. Anne and my father were there, busy with projects. I was most satisfied with the situation.
Down the street from our house was the Van Dyke Hotel and Restaurant, a venerable building, dating from colonial days. The proprietor was somebody name Marvin, a good friend of my father's. I was able, at nearly any time, to wander down to the Van Dyke and Marvin would offer me a dish of ice cream. I would sit in the garden out back and enjoy this special treat, truly, one of my fondest memories.
Sometime in 1949 my parents divorced. Their fragile relationship prolonged no doubt by my accidental arrival, could no longer hold itself together. Life at "223" was over. I was to stay with my widowed grandmother, not on the Hannicroix farm, now sold, but in the neighboring community of Selkirk. I waited in the springtime morning chill bundled up in my snow suit for the arrival of my father who would take me to my grandmother's. It was a very long wait since he was quite late. I did not understand at that time that this was the end of my infancy, but I did know that something was amiss. But, like all children, I had an large capacity to deal with change and to ignore misfortune. I accepted with ignorant good nature what was offered and would not, today, wish it to be different.
[Written about 1995, Salinas CA]