I was born in Beaumont, Texas, the youngest of four boys. I don’t remember much about this time, since I had just been born. One of my earliest memories is being accidentally shocked when my little fingers touched the plug of a lamp that I was pulling out of its socket. I remember the event vividly, though I don’t recall any of the surrounding circumstances. Somewhat later, I almost pulled our refrigerator on top of myself whilst swinging on the door. And there was another event when I consumed half a bottle of aspirin and had to go to the hospital to have my stomach pumped. Of that final event I remember very little except for waking up in the hospital.
Lest it seem that my childhood was one string of disasters after another, it’s probably the fact that it was a disaster that is the reason I remember them. I attended kindergarten at the Memorial Methodist Church on Milam. I attended Fehl Elementary School. My father was a scoutmaster in Troop 7. My older brothers were all scouts. I was in the “junior patrol,” a cadre of scoutmasters’ children who were too young to legally join the Boy Scouts, but who went on every hike and camping trip anyway. We went camping a lot: I remember a tent and bears when we were in Yellowstone National Park. I remember rescuing a family that had attempted to ride a rubber raft down the river below one of the falls in Yellowstone; the raft had turned over, and the father had struck his head on a rock. He and his two daughters were trapped on a large boulder in the middle of the roaring river, and from the overlook high above we could see the blood on the shirt that he was holding to his head. With the aid of a Swiss mountain guide who happened to be vacationing in the USA, we helped get him and the girls off the rock and to a nearby campground where an ambulance took him away. I did not participate in the rescue, being too young, but my father and my brothers did. I waited with my mother in the car, and I recall seeing the man on a gurney, his head wrapped with white bandages, being loaded into the ambulance.
It seems that my family adopted a habit of rescuing people in distress while we were on vacation. I’m sure it was nothing deliberate, but it seemed to happen every year. One time, we were camping at Lake O’ The Pines in northeast Texas when we encountered a man who had attempted to start his car by pouring gasoline directly into the carburetor. The flaming fuel, not quite as deadly as napalm, spewed out and covered him from head to toe. We covered him in blankets and carried him to the local hospital.
We lived at 3185 Gilbert St. The house there was a two-story ramshackle building with a detached garage and garage apartment behind it. It had a chain-link fence around the back yard and an oak tree with a twisted trunk that was perfect for climbing. I know this because my oldest brother, at some point before my arrival, fell out of it and broke his hip. The house was right next to the railroad tracks and sometimes, when a train was coming, we would run along behind it calling out to the conductor in the caboose. If we were lucky, he would throw us a few flares1 to play with. We would sometimes put nails on the track; the train passing over them would flatten them et voila! we had ourselves a knife. Beyond the train track was an unfinished, weedy, field2, and then the elementary school.
My mother taught me in first grade. The school was small and only had two first-grade teachers; my mother specialized in what we would today call “gifted and talented” children, while the other teacher was more focused on the “remedial” cases. When it was time for me to go to first grade, the principal was in a quandary; on the one hand, he could put me (who tested in the 99th percentile) in a remedial class; on the other hand, he could force both teachers to teach against their specialty. He agreed to put me in my mother’s class on a trial basis. All of this was unknown to me; all I recall was that I sometimes called her “Mom” and sometimes used “Mrs. Campbell.” I also recall being sent to the principal’s office for a spanking—at least five times that year. Yes, people spanked children in those days, and no one thought much about it. I am not an advocate of it myself, and I would hope that parents would try other means of discipline first, but corporal punishment did not seem to have a deleterious effect on those on whom it was used. The worst part about the spankings was a rule in our family that said whatever punishment we received at school, we got twice of at home. If the principle gave me two “licks” with his paddle, then I got four from my father. Since my mother was my teacher, there was no hiding from it.
I recall quite clearly the little library at the end of Fehl Elementary. There was a large book—an introduction to science—that I believe I checked out a dozen or more times. I learned about atoms, and the Kelvin scale, and leaf symmetry, and the land speed record. Ok, the land speed record was probably in another book, but it was very important to us. And books were very important to me: I was a voracious reader, often going through five or six books per week (by the time I was in 4th grade, I was reading at a 12th grade level). While in elementary school, I also received my first introduction to J. R. R. Tolkien—not, however, through his books. Instead, we saw a dramatic production of “The Hobbit” which made a huge impression on me. I had no notion of the author, however; that was for a later time. I do recall the names of the dwarves—Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, and Thoren Oakenshield were the most important—and I recall the round door on the hobbit hole at Bag End.
Sundays were invariably spent at the home of one or another of my grandparents, both of whom lived on Garner Road on the north side of town. My mother’s brother married my father’s sister, so I was blessed with “double-first” cousins: that is, they were first cousins on both sides of the family, and we shared the same set of grandparents. This made our extended family seem even tighter, since the same set of cousins were seen at both grandparents’ house. Indeed, our extended family was even greater than that; my mother had six siblings. A famous family photo taken in 1972 shows dozen upon dozen of children and grandchildren arranged around my grandparents’ house.
I started first grade in 1966; it was the height of the civil rights era, and Beaumont was hardly unaffected. I grew up with much regrettable sentiment, both in my family and in our social circles, and I hope that those involved have been redeemed because of their later actions3. Once the Civil Rights Act passed, Beaumont was sued by the US Government; though this event had a singular impact on my life, I have never taken it upon myself to learn all of the sordid details. The first action taken by the US Department of Justice was to require “neighborhood schools,” which meant that all students, no matter what race, would attend their nearest elementary, middle, or senior high school. While it had the effect of immediately creating integrated schools, it also caused “white flight,” with the vast majority of white families moving from one side of town to the other. Within a couple of years, schools were no longer integrated, and we had moved into a new home during the summer of 1969 a few days after Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot (or perhaps boot) on the Moon.
- or “fuzees,” about which my brother Ted says, “I was stunned to learn that that’s the actual term used in the railroad industry.” [return]
- My brother says, “and also the ‘hills’ that consisted of the dirt that had been dredged out to make the storm sewer and which was overgrown with trees and bushes. A wonderful wilderness for boys, near enough to home to hear mom yelling for dinner. Most of the time. My sense of hearing was sometimes selective.” [return]
- This is remarkably vague, but that’s deliberate. No good purpose would be served by going into details. [return]