Whatever X, Day XXVI

What was I like when I was a kid? Here are some snippets.

MARCH 7, 2006: 10 Childhood Nuggets

For the second entry in Reader Request Week 2006, Gabe, seconded by Claire, asks about my childhood. Rather than trying to bang out a coherent structure to this one, let me do a grab bag factoid nugget approach and see if it works.

* The very first memory I know I had was of being in a swimming pool when I was two. My mother tells me that when I was two I knew how to swim, but I lost that ability somewhere along the way and had to relearn it again when I was five. My second memory was of lying in bed in an apartment and watching a ghost go by the window. I suspect it was Halloween rather than it being a real ghost.

* As I think I’ve noted before here, I have no memory of not being able to read. I started reading when I was two. I was reading adult-level books by the time I was in first grade; I remember reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull and not quite getting what the fuss was about (I also read the parody, Jonathan Livingston Chicken, in which a chicken eventually joins the Israeli Air Force).

* I believe I also mentioned that when I was five and my sister Heather was six, our mother had a back operation and we were sent to live with our aunt Sharon for a year. It was a fun time; my aunt and her then-husband kept cattle and I remember carrying out a huge milk bottle for a calf who had lost its mom one way or another; the farm also abutted a Christmas tree farm in the back. One of my more vivid memories of that year was going with my uncle to slaughter a pig. He and another man had the pig in the back of a truck and they shot it, and I remember the thing falling to the bed of the truck and squealing while it bled out. I don’t remember thinking one way or another about it, although today I’m not entirely sure that’s how you’re supposed to kill a pig.

* I was a very precocious kid and like many precocious kids, could be more than a little annoying about it. There were some adults who would leave a room when I came in because they found me irritating. Looking back I couldn’t blame them although at the time I was puzzled.

* As many readers here discovered by way of the “Being Poor” entry, I was poor when I was a kid. However, it wasn’t constant poverty; we (like many people who are poor) alternated between periods of doing okay and then not. Mostly (but not always) this co-incided with when my mother was a single parent and when she was not. There were brief times when technically we were homeless — I say technically because at no time did we ever sleep in a car or a shelter, we just stayed at a friend’s place for a week (or three) — but by and large whatever our situation my mom kept us fed and with a roof over my head. It’s again one of those things where you don’t realize how much work that is for a single parent to do something like that until you become an adult yourself.

* My sister and I are eighteen months apart, which is close enough in age (particularly considering my being a precocious little twit as a kid) that we were basically in a constant state of warfare, except when we weren’t. Whether we were at war or not changed from minute to minute. It didn’t help that Heather was something of a troublemaker and I wasn’t, so I received apparently favorable treatment and she didn’t (this is a gross oversimplification of the situation, but it works for what I’ll tell you, the general public). This was a bone of contention between us until our adult years. We get along swimmingly now; carrying over your childhood issues into adulthood is generally silly.

* I could be inexplicably emotional. When Muhammad Ali lost to Leon Spinks in 1978, for example, I just about lost my mind and cried up a storm. Not exactly sure why, since I had no interest in boxing nor was a huge fan of Ali (or Spinks, for that matter). No one else could figure it out either. But weird things would set me off. At some point the emotional tripwire thing settled down, which I suspect is a good thing.

* Major childhood injuries: Seven stitches in the foot, from stepping on a piece of glass; five stitches above my eye, where my sister (accidentally) whacked me in the head with a golf club; three stitches in my head from when a rock dropped on me during a camping trip; and a broken leg, from being hit by a car. My sister also fed me Dran-O when I was a toddler, but in her defense, she was three or four at the time and didn’t know any better (at least, I hope).

* When I was 12 I learned that I had an older brother who my mother gave up for adoption when she was 16; shortly thereafter he located us. In one of those weird twists his mother and my mother were in the same club and had recently been discussing their troubles with their kids, his mom with him and my mom with my sister (I was the good kid, remember). They both remarked how similar their troubles were.

* This “good kid” thing is not to suggest I wasn’t (and couldn’t get in) trouble from time to time, and indeed like a lot of kids I went through my minor thievery phase when I was about 12. That stopped when, after stuffing a Whatchamacallit candy bar down my underwear and then sneaking out of the local Ralph’s, a huge baldheaded man walking toward the Ralph’s came up to me and told me that God watches everything I do. Yeah, I got the message.

That’s enough childhood nuggetry for one post.

26 thoughts on “Whatever X, Day XXVI

  1. It’s amazing how far back some kid’s memories go. I remember at least one brief episode from being 3. We lived in a house with a gray wall in the back yard at that time, and I remember playing by the wall. I have sporadic memories of being 4, and a pretty consistent memory from the age of 5.

    My daughter remembers having a mirror fall down on her when she was 3. It was a huge mirror, but, luckily, she only got minor scratches from it.

    Jim says he only remembers back to being 6.

  2. No one ever believes me, but I can recall at least two brief episodes from before I was a year old. Glad I have them though, as one includes my only memory of one of my grandmothers. I also have clear memories of my first trip to Disneyland, before I was two years old.

    I also cannot remember ever not being able to read, and while I didn’t start checking books out of the adult section of the library until I was 7 (causing the library ladies a bit of consternation), I was making my way through my mother’s Reader’s Digest Condensed Books well before that.

  3. I remember being very upset about Spinks beating Ali, too, and I was also not a boxing fan. I would have been in about the fourth grade at the time. No tears were involved but I remember feeling strongly something had gone very wrong with the world. I also remember being reminded of it on a daily basis because my teacher had a copy of Sports Illustrated with Spinks’ sweaty, gap-toothed face on the cover in our classroom.

    Hadn’t thought about that in years. How very odd.

  4. Still with the missing X in the title.

    My earliest memory I must have been 2 because I was sitting on the counter in the kitchen at the Clifton Club and eating raisins while watching my grandmother make something. She was showing me how to separate eggs.
    The next thing I can actually remember is reading a book to my parents (while at a different grandparent’s house) when I was 4.
    And I am old enough to remember where I was when the news was announced that Kennedy had been shot (John, that is).

  5. My earliest memories are about age three, coincidentally the age I learned to read. (Just a year behind you.) Like you, I pretty much don’t remember a time when I couldn’t read. My sister swears up and down that she remembers being blessed in church as an infant, and that she freaked out because A) she was being held over an open space, and B) my uncle was in the blessing circle and apparently he had a terrifying mustache.

    I read Jonathon Livingston Seagull too. (age 10 or 11ish?) But I had read C.S. Lewis’s Great Divorce too, and my dad and I talked about life and death and afterlife stuff all the time, so it made sense to me in a weird sorta way. (Well, at the time it made sense. Now being something of an atheist, I think it’s a story about a precocious evangelising seagull.)

  6. My earliest memory is from when I was two and my family was moving to a new place in a different city. I remember going up the stairs to the front door with a moving box beside the door.

    John, do you ever see yourself writing your memoirs? 20-30 years from now, of course.

  7. I also can’t remember a time when I wasn’t able to read. My earliest memory, in fact, is my Mom reading me a bedtime story (“Goodnight Moon.”)

    Oh, and I fucking HATED Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

  8. Hm! I also have some vivid memories of helping to slaughter our two pigs, helping my stepdad and his friend. There’s a specific way you’re supposed to shoot the pig; you draw lines from each ear to the opposite eye, and where they cross is the thinnest part of the skull. You place your gun right on that spot and fire, and the pig is killed instantly and (supposedly) painlessly.

    This worked perfectly on our smaller sow, which just dropped to the ground stone dead after being shot this way with a .22 pistol.

    It did not work on the larger pig – the 735-pound boar – who immediately went nuts and started attacking all of us. You do not want to be on the receiving end of a 700+-pound pig’s ire. Imagine being run over by an angry full-dress Harley Davidson that’s covered with spikes and sandpaper…

    Stepdad eventually had to shoot the pig from a distance with the .30-30 Winchester, which dropped it instantly. We later found that the thinnest part of his skull was more than 3 inches thick, and the .22 hadn’t even gone halfway thru.

    Man, that was one pissed-off pig. We were lucky nobody got seriously injured.

    Damn tasty, though. Aint’ nothin’ like bacon you cure and smoke yourself.

    My earliest clear memory is of playing with Hot Wheels cars in our apartment kitchen in East Orange. Mom was on the phone. I had to have been really young because it was before I was toilet-trained.

  9. The first memory I can date is when I saw a receipt pad with
    “_____________ _____, 194___” in the corner, and wondered what they were going to do with that date field when the year turned to 1950, which it was about to do. I would have been just past my 5th birthday at that time. The earliest undated memory is that I can remember what a full diaper feels like. There is also a later memory of Uncle Cephas who to came to visit and brought a newspaper with him. He spread it out on the floor and pointed out a headline with a cane or a yardstick or something. I crawled out on it and started reading, and he started laughing. Then we did that with 2 or 3 more headlines.

    I also can’t remember not being able to read. My older cousin tells me I was reading newspapers at 4 though. I remember being incredibly frustrated at running across the word “hors d’oeuvre” and not being able to figure out how to pronounce it.

  10. [Deleted for having absolutely nothing to do with anything with the entry. Dude, if you want to spew about something, get your own damn site.]

  11. I remember Bumpass Hell.

    That’s in Lassen National Park, and is a wooden trail over mudpits. I’d thought it was a dream until I described it to my mom one day and she told me where it was. I’d apparently walked the whole trail (about one mile at the time) and fallen asleep in the car.

    I was two.

    The funny part is the associated memory, the one of the faucet sticking up out of the ground. I remember being utterly bewildered because where was the house? Did the house fall down and leave the faucet? This doesn’t make sense!

    I think it’s funny that the faucet memory is clearer, even though it’s of the same trip.

  12. I have this theory that our earliest memories only stick with us because they are somehow traumatic to our psyches. The pig slaughtering is a great example of such but the bleep if I can figure out the other, not-so-obviously-traumatising events.

    I have several memories from age 3 – one of the Taj Mahal,
    which was big and dark inside and the this muezzim started this call to prayer and the echoes freaked me OUT. Another is rescuing a stuffed toy our upstairs neighbors’ 2 year old threw down the stairs. I gave it back and she threw it down again. Kids!

  13. I find it interesting that, even though that wasn’t the main focus of this post, the comments are all about earliest memories. (All except the one from SFConsortium – wtf is that all about???) One of the fun things about this blog is that you never know which way the comments thread will go.

  14. I don’t remember not being able to read either. Does anyone remember a time before reading? Maybe that’s a thing…

    Anyway, my first memory is when I was 3 and fell head first into a cement bench in the yard. I still have the scar on my forehead. My mom tells me that I was screaming my head off while the nurse was stitching me up, during which time the doctor was just outside the room assuring her that I wasn’t in any pain.

  15. My first memory is from being 18 months old and getting on a plane from Chicago. During that flight, I got out of my seatbelt to look at the pretty lights of the city below.

    I remember a little bit about my mom teaching me to read when I was 4. I remember sounding out the word Helicopter in a newspaper headline. When I started kindergarten, they told my mom I was just making up words to the pictures. Not too much after that, they informed her that I could, in fact, read. This was in Woodridge, Illinois in 1969.

    I also remember watching the moon landing and the first steps on the moon. And how the astronauts landed in the ocean and were scooped up in a net by a helicopter.

    For years after that when my dad would go on business trips and return after I had gone to bed, I would imagine that he was being lowered into bed during the night from a helicopter in a net wearing his pajamas.

  16. I remember things that never happened. For example, I remember getting some kind of virus that temporarily paralyzed my legs, and that my older brother got it later, and that we both recovered. I distinctly remember my father carrying me into the doctor’s office because I couldn’t walk.

    This never happened. My parents, who grew up during the polio epidemic, have assured me they would absolutely have remembered any such thing.

    One thing that did happen: I was attacked by a swarm of yellow jackets when I was four. We counted 59 stings on my small-for-my-age body.

    Oh, and this “SF Consortium” bozo has pretty much been spewing this same spam everywhere; Charlie Stross deleted it from his blog, too. Just a point of information.

  17. It really fascinates me how far back some people can remember. My earliest memory is from when I was 3. We’d just moved into our new house and my dad and I were walking around the neighbourhood and I fell in front of the house that was about two doors down from ours and started crying. Their kitchen window faces the front yard so they saw and out came a lady and two kids to meet us and I met my to be best friend (until I was 10 and my family moved away and we lost touch with each other. I went to her wedding a few months ago and I remember thinking as her maid of honour was giving a toast that in some alternate universe it was me doing that) and her brother.

    I don’t remember not being able to read either, but I do remember trying to teach my sister how to read (when I was 6 and she was 4) Apparently I wasn’t a very good teacher because she didn’t really learn how to read until she was about 6. The fact that we pretty much had two modes with each other, playing or fighting like wild animals, probably didn’t help either.

  18. I don’t remember learning how to read. According to my mom, she started teaching me at about 9 months; she had this book called something like “Teach Your Baby to Read” and so she did. She says I was reading, or at least recognizing words and associating them with concepts, before I could talk, conveying this via pointing to the words she said. It really shocked me to find that there were kids who had to learn how to read in kindergarten or later.

    I don’t remember not being able to read music (well, treble and bass clef; C clefs came later), either. Dad taught me that around age 4. And apparently he was reading electronic schematics before he could read words; his mother says he didn’t want to learn how to read words because he already knew how to read schematics and what more did he need? It was only when she pointed out that there were words printed on some schematics which might be useful that he was convinced. Dad thinks her recollection might be a bit exaggerated, though.

  19. I have clear memories at 3 years old. Big white picket fence around our back yard and the corner Gas station. The old guy who ran it always had a couple of peppermints or jelly beans for me. This would have been around “61. I remember the day John Kennedy was shot very clearly as I was at home,sick, instead of at school and I was watching TV, when the special bulletins came on the air. I remember my mom running into the room and starting to cry.

    I remember not being able to read. I remember being unhappy that my older sister could do things that I couldn’t. It didn’t take long to catch up.

    My Dad was a school teacher, and he would always say the same thing when I asked him a question. “I don’t know the answer to that, but I know where to look”. He’s get one of his gazillion books down from the shelves and we’d both find out. You could find out anything in a book.

    I love books, my wife loves books, we gave the book disease to our kids and now the house has 14 big bookshelves that are full, boxes and piles of books here and there, and we actually thinned it down heavily before we moved back to Seattle. I’m going to need a bigger place so I can go back to IKEA for more shelves.

    Wow, this was a good memory lane for me. Hope I didn’t ramble to much.

    J

  20. My earliest memory (and my mother confirmed the detail so it must be true) was of the tall hedgerows around the garden of the house we were living in. She puts the date at about me being six months old and the description I gave fits the view from the old perambulator we had at the time. After that the next clear image is of Cambridge at about 2 years old. Memory is indeed a funny thing.

  21. It always amazes me how some people have such early memories. I only have one memory that might be from before I was 5.

    I don’t remember not being able to read as such, but I have a pretty clear memory of writing my name successfully and proudly showing it to my mother or my sister.

  22. Funny how many people here learned to read before going to kindergarten school. I certainly didn’t, I only learned to read when I was 5 or 6 I think.

    I still remember the book though. Very thin, something about being a mosquito (a friendly one).

    My earliest memories are when I was somewhere around two years old : sitting on my little red plastic tractor and rolling down the neighbours driveway, again and again and again.

    Also playing with something (a robot ?) with my dad sitting in the background reading his newspaper. That’s a precious memory for me, as my parents separated not long after and I never saw him again in real life. I just have this sense of this calming presence in a chair.

    Oh and one other, although of this one I’m not too sure if I constructed it from hearing about it : being in the shower with him, having these legs next to me, and reaching up and yanking on his apparatus and asking what it was for.

  23. My earliest memory is the opening ceremony of the 1956 Olympics. I was 18 months old and that was when TV was introduced into Australia so we went to my Aunt Kitty’s house to watch it. It was more the excitement over TV than the Olympics that made it stick in my memory.
    My parents didn’t actually buy a TV until I was eight.

    After that, I have no really clear memories until the day I started school at five.

    We were fairly poor from the point my father died. Never homeless, but I did often get sent to the neighbours to borrow a few dollars to buy food until the pension cheque arrived. I was always very humiliated by that, but I guess my mum was more humiliated, so sent me.
    To this day, I have never learned to save, because growing up we spent anything as soon as it came in.

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