(Continued from Fresh Off the Boat)
Cleveland was not a happy place for my mother, and she was looking desperately for something — anything — else. Change came in a most unexpected way. On June 30, 1956, a United Airlines jet and a Trans World Airlines jet collided over the Grand Canyon, killing all 128 passengers and crew on both planes. It was the deadliest airline crash in history up to that time. Among the victims was the mother of a five-year old boy in a suburb of Kansas City. His grieving father placed a classified ad in an Episcopal church magazine looking for a governess for the child. My mother responded, and soon we left Cleveland and its discontents behind us.
The boy’s father, I think his name was Fred K., was an advertising executive downtown, and the house was a modest split level ranch on a curved street on a slope in a development with hundreds of similar homes in Prairie Village. My mother had her room in one wing of the house, and I had a room in the basement. Its cinderblock walls were painted a bright greenish yellow. Every morning I took the school bus to Shawnee-Mission high school in nearby Merriam.
Shawnee-Mission was the first serious, worthwhile school I had attended up to that time. I actually have classroom memories. The social studies teacher encouraged discussion and debate, and tolerated my emerging cynicism about world affairs. I remember the chem lab instructor demonstrating how to sniff unknown liquid substances. The geometry teacher let me put a proof on the blackboard demonstrating that one of the sections in the textbook was wrong. I memorized pi to 100 decimal places. (Today all I can remember is 3.14159265358979323846, a puny 20 places).
The school had an extensive vocational wing and I think it was there that I took sheetmetal shop and print shop. It was a big school, with more than 2000 kids, and it had a lot of after-school clubs. I participated in the shortwave listening club, the chess club, the debate club, and the drama club, where I had parts in the school plays.
The short wave listening (SWL) club got attention when the Sputnik went up; we had receivers — I personally built mine, an AR-3, from a Heath kit — that could get the satellite’s radio signal loud and clear. For a brief while I (along with millions of other American kids) aspired to become a rocket engineer. My nonstellar SAT score in math (646) grounded that flight of enthusiasm and steered me in the direction of the language arts (800).
The drama club was the most fun. In the play Dear Phoebe I played a gangster heavy who takes a roundhouse swing at the hero and gets flipped in a dramatic arc through the air, landing with a big thump. We rehearsed the judo move for hours and at the performance there were big gasps in the audience, and not just from my mother.
Although I was definitely a geek and not a jock, I worked out in the gym after school doing gymnastics. I could do a front flip. I had a basic routine on the parallel bars. My forte was handstands. I could press up to a handstand from sitting on the floor. I could walk on my hands the length of the gym and back. By the time I graduated, my arms were starting to look like legs.
I loved school life and I bloomed there. I got laughed at for a while because of my Eastern accent — they wanted to hear me say ” good idear” over and over — but I was totally accepted. I formed close friendships with Larry L., Jim H. and Morgan O., and the four of us — years later, we would have been called the Gang of Four — more or less ran the school. Larry and I became co-editors in chief of the school newspaper, Jim was editor of the yearbook, and Morgan was class president — or maybe Morgan was yearbook editor and Jim was class president, I don’t remember. Evenings we would play ping-pong for hours in Larry’s basement.
Larry and I became a formidable debating team and went on to the Kansas state championship in 1959; I had the honor of having the lowest (best) speaker points in the tournament. One summer we were invited to Boys’ State, a week-long summer camp for budding politicos run by the American Legion, and there I published a one-page mimeo ‘newspaper,’ was elected chairman of my party, and led my party’s candidate to victory in the mock governor’s race. I didn’t sleep for five days straight.
Somewhere I found time to be the chairman of the Teenage March of Dimes at the high school in my senior year.
The first couple of summers, I worked in the snack bar of the Prairie Village country club, flipping burgers and serving sodas and beers. I wasn’t very knowledgeable about beer at the time; I remember asking one customer whether he wanted ice in his beer cup. I took lifesaving classes and got my certificate to try to get a lifeguard job, but they didn’t have any openings. I got odd jobs during the school year mowing lawns and raking leaves.
Prairie Village had a golf club and I got a job as caddy. Toward the end of my first day, I was bending down to fix a divot when a ball hit me in the behind. I took it as a sign and never went back.
The Athletics baseball team had come to Kansas City just then from Philadelphia, and the Chamber of Commerce types were trying to drum up enthusiasm. It was an uphill battle; people who followed the American League (not me, I was a Dodgers fan) viewed the A’s with contempt as a Yankee farm team. Some local wit printed up a popular bumper sticker: “I am an Athletics Supporter.”
The summer after graduation I worked for Tom Williams, the owner of a Paddock Pools franchise, doing pool maintenance. At the start of the season, some of the pools were pretty gross. I remember one big pool where a nest of rats had settled in the skimmer basket and swam away when I lifted the lid. They paddled briskly along the side of the pool, and I had to grab them by the neck with a pair of pliers and hold them under water until they drowned, one by one. Later, the pools were pictures of sparkling elegance and the maintenance work was easy, even a little glamorous. I also got to help with pool construction and I saw the gunite process at work: a special mix of concrete blasted at high pressure onto a mesh of reinforcing steel bar. The resulting shell was so rigid that in case of earthquake or landslide it could flip over without cracking, according to photographs in the franchise catalogue. The same process was used to make ship hulls and fallout shelters. When business was slow, Tom had me design an advertising flyer and I’d walk door to door distributing them in tony neighborhoods. Tom was a great boss and gave me a glowing letter of recommendation that I saved (photo, right).
After a couple of years living in the split-level in Prairie Village, my mom couldn’t take it any longer. I got the idea that her employer was looking for more out of her than a motherly presence for his boy. He wasn’t a bad sort but he and my mom could not have been more incompatible. I mostly stayed out of the way, busy with school stuff, and I wasn’t unhappy with the setup, apart from being at the bottom of the household totem pole. But my mother didn’t have the distractions and compensations that school provided for me, and she desperately wanted out. She got a job as director (manager) of the Nettleton Home, a residence for old women on the Missouri side, and we moved to a small rented house on Newton Avenue a couple of blocks from my high school. The job required her to sleep over at the institution every other weekend, and at those times I would come in for the big Sunday noontime meal and sit at the head table where all the ladies would fuss over me.
At this time, my mother had completed her immigration residency requirement and was eligible for naturalization as a U.S. citizen. As her minor dependent, I was, too. We studied a pamphlet, took and easily passed the test, and attended a swearing-in ceremony with more than a hundred others at a downtown theater. As part of the legal process, I officially reversed the order of my first and middle names, from Albrecht Martin to Martin Albrecht. It was part of becoming American.
In high school I had my first girl friend, Nancy L. Her dad belonged to the country club. We would sit in her basement family room, watch movies, and neck. We’d go to school dances and dance to Unchained Melody, You Ain’t Nothing but a Hound Dog, Rock Around the Clock, Blue Suede Shoes, and like that. After we had been going steady for a while, we started to get quiet and drift apart. To try to get our relationship moving forward, one night while we were necking she put my hand on her breast, and that surprised, excited, and confused me in about equal measure. I was pretty slow when it came to sex, and I wasn’t ready for the transition from necking to petting. We broke up not long before the senior prom. As it happened, the girl with the most admired bosom in the school, Patti D., had just broken up with her steady. She and I found each other and went to the prom together. We behaved very properly. During the last summer, one of the “hot” girls in the school, Bea R. — she had a reputation — got hold of me, and led me into some torrid clinches, but I wasn’t ready for more, and her designs on me, if indeed she had any, were frustrated.
At this time my mother and I were both members of the local Episcopal church. My mom volunteered with various church committees, especially in the ongoing campaign to raise funds for a new and grander church building. This priest was a great organizer. At one fundraising potluck dinner in the church basement, with more than a hundred people, he went around to every table, put his hands on the shoulder of each person and said their names out loud. He could have run for mayor.
I was an altar boy. Altar boys wear red and white robes and have to learn a routine where they get the communion wine and the wafers and holy water from a sideboard and hand them to the priest at the altar in a certain order, for him to hold up and bless and pray over. You have to remember the routine and be good with your hands, switching glass containers from one hand to the other without dropping them. You also get to light and put out the candles, and you may ring bells, and in very solemn masses you swing containers of smoking incense. Altar boys stand inside the altar rail and watch the people as they line up for communion, kneel at the rail, lower their eyes, and half open their mouths with their tongues forward. It’s not a position that makes a person look their most intelligent.
Since this was the Episcopal church, not the Roman, the priest never molested any of the altar boys, to my knowledge.
As I recall, the money was raised and the new church did get built, but my mother and I quietly got off the bandwagon. We were friends with and often went to dinner at the Webbs, a family from England — he was a housepainter, she a housewife, and they had a daughter about my age — and my mother poured out to them her fatigue with the constant moneydigging. She was used to the German system, where the churches are financed with tax money from the government. Although she had seen the deadly consequences of that system, she didn’t really get it that under the constitutional separation of church and state in the U.S., the churches have to be run as businesses. They are businesses. She still went to church after that for a few years, but she was disillusioned with the spiritual dimensions and went mostly for the social connection.
Something similar happened with me. Working as an altar boy took me behind the scenes of the church service. I saw the priest put his robes on and take them off; I saw the wine poured into the chalice out of the bottle that came from the liquor store, and I saw the wafers shaken onto the silver tray out of a box that looked similar to Nabisco crackers. After the service, the priest drank down the unused communion wine, and the leftover wafers went in the trash. I came to see that they were just props, that the robes and gowns were just costumes, the priest and all his acolytes, including me, were actors in a play. Absorbing something of my mom’s disillusionment, I began to see the church as a mild kind of entertainment business. In church terms, I “lost my faith.” But it did not feel like a loss. I did not, like a character out of Dostoevsky, go through an agony of wrestling with theological principles. It was like getting eyeglasses. Before my first eyeglasses, I had seen trees as blobs of green with smooth brown stems, much like a child’s drawing. With the new lenses, I saw sharp, complex patterns of leaves and branches, and rough, textured bark. I saw the world more clearly. After high school, I went to church only for someone’s wedding or funeral, or for a civil rights meeting, or to admire the architecture.
Shawnee-Mission was a highly ranked school nationally. I had good grades there, made National Honor Society, had a packed resume of extra-curricular activities, and so I was a hot college prospect. A weekly column of three-dot journalism I wrote for the school newspaper earned me an invitation and a small scholarship to study journalism at Kansas University in nearby Lawrence. But I had better offers from Harvard and Wesleyan, with full four-year scholarships. Which one to choose? My guidance counselor told me a homely parable. You can buy the same sport coat at Brooks Brothers and at JC Penney’s, he said. Same coat, but different labels. One label has more prestige than the other. He meant for me to choose Harvard, but it was the wrong parable to use on this kid. I chose Wesleyan. Morgan, the most sociable and the least brainy among us, went to Harvard; he later became a political campaign operative and died at a young age in an airplane crash. Jim, the brightest, went to Yale, and disappeared from my radar screen. Larry went to Princeton and became a famous and controversial philosopher of science.
At high school graduation, I participated in a bit of mischief. Now that the statute of limitations has expired, I can confess my role in it. The Shawnee-Mission school district had outgrown its building and a new high school, Shawnee-Mission West, had opened up some distance away. Some of my classmates had transferred there, but we still kept in touch. Two of them, Ed and Cathy, and perhaps one or two others (memory fails) cooked up a scheme that involved a 55-gallon cardboard drum with a paper-mache top shaped and painted to look like a bright yellow beer bottle. The legend “Bye-Bye Beer” — which we thought terribly meaningful, I don’t recall why — was on the barrel in big blue letters.