One of my most distinct early memories of school was walking in the building first thing of a morning and smelling freshly baked bread.
My mother never baked bread. We bought Mrs. Baird’s Bread which probably smelled really good when Mrs. Baird took it out of the oven. Then she handed it over to guys who wrapped it up, put it on a truck and placed it on grocery store shelves. By the time the loaf made it to our house the smell was gone, and the taste wasn’t that good either. Smelling freshly baked bread was a new experience for me, just like going to school and learning to read. Isn’t it nice to relate education to something so delicious?
Then there was the smell of mimeographed paper. This was the 1950s, and only people with really good imaginations could conceive of copiers and personal printers. Teachers had to cut a stencil of whatever they wanted to put on the paper, a test or drawings for us to color. The stencil was attached to a drum which then turned across ink and then the paper. Needless to say it was a tedious process and teachers weren’t given bonus points for doing it. Of course, it was the ink with the distinctive odor. It wasn’t exactly a sweet smell but definitely addictive, like sniffing glue or paint. However, the unintentional high was ruined by the half dozen or so girls in class who completely overreacted by pushing the mimeographed paper up to their noses and going, “Mmmm…” It’s like when someone moans when biting into a piece of chocolate. Kinda ruins it for the rest of us.
Speaking of something revolting, no one can forget junior high gym class. Nothing is worse than the smell of teen-aged boys’ sweat on the basketball court or in the locker room. I could not wait to get out of there. Who could concentrate on push-ups, sit-ups, volleyball or dodgeball with that awful odor permeating your nostrils? Forget about becoming a professional athlete. If teen-aged boys smelled that bad can you imagine the stench of a room full of grown men after a football game?
In high school I became aware of perfume and cologne. Some of the girls smelled just like cotton candy. Then I observed the reaction of girls to English Leather cologne on boys. Remember the girls who swooned over the smell of mimeographed paper? Well, when they became teen-agers they had the same reaction to English Leather. They would look inside a classroom and wriggle their noses.
“Someone in here has on English Leather!”
I always wanted to be the guy who had the girls snuggle their noses into his neck and go, “Mmmm…”
Now if I wear English Leather my grown daughter rolls her eyes and says, “Oh Dad, that’s what old men wear.”
The smell that cinched what I was going to study in college was a teletype machine. Maybe this went back to mimeographed paper. The distinct odor of the ribbon and the lubricant oil that kept the rat-tat-tatting keys going. I had to work for newspapers. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence, but at the same time I left the newspapers they gave up on the teletype machine and started using the dreaded antiseptic computer.
This comparison of learning and smells may be more profound than I originally thought. There are good smells and bad smells in life. Some of it just stinks. But we have to put up with it so we can smell the freshly baked bread.
I cannot properly express my chagrin when I turned on the television yesterday to discover that summer was already over. School started.
Of course, I should not have been surprised. For the last few weeks the stores have been advertising school supplies on sale, and television has been scaring children into believing if they don’t buy their new jeans and shirts with the proper brand labels they were doomed to being the “unpopular” kids for the next nine months.
Half a century ago when I was young…pausing to let that phrase sink into my head…school began after Labor Day and ended before Memorial Day. I had three whole months to run barefoot on the hot asphalt street of my small Texas hometown and get callouses on my toes. It was one glorious sun-drenched day after another. I could forget my embarrassment of being chosen last for every game played during recess.
Except for that one year—was it between fourth and fifth grade or between fifth and sixth? It didn’t make any difference; it was the middle of childhood—when my brother decided it would be fun to ruin my period of freedom. I suppose I brought it upon myself. I had begun the countdown to Memorial Day right after Easter. My ecstasy was too much for him to bear.
By the end of the first week of June, he began, “Isn’t it wonderful? Only eleven weeks to school!”
After a couple of weeks he started adding in that this would be the year I would learn another level of arithmetic and have to learn harder spelling words. My teacher would probably be the same one who absolutely hated him and my other brother so she would certainly hate me too.
I couldn’t enjoy my hot dogs and watermelon on Fourth of July without his clapping of hands as he announced that now school was only eight weeks away.
Our mother told him not to count down the days like that. He was ruining my summer. I did detect her tone of voice was not as severe as when he had not finished a certain chore as quickly as she had hoped. If her withering condemnation about something really important like not sweeping the back porch did not make him move faster, her soft-edged admonition to be kind to me certainly would have no effect on him.
By the time the middle of August rolled around, he was crowing about only two weeks left to buy school supplies. If you don’t have the right school supplies on the very first day, he warned me, that mean teacher would probably spank me.
Looking back on that horrible summer, I still cannot find the humor in my brother’s campaign to remove the last traces of joy in my juvenile heart. Though I now can understand it better. He spent most of his adult life in and out of the state mental hospital, which helped me to forgive him. Poor thing couldn’t help himself.
I always looked forward to hurricanes that were headed our way.
Usually my best girlfriend Louise would come over to spend the night. Her parents thought our house was better built than theirs, and they wanted their little girl to be in the safest place possible. On the other hand, they always stayed at their house because if a hurricane did hit they wanted to be there to protect their personal property.
We spent the whole night in front of the television set watching the weather updates. I sat on Daddy’s lap as the weatherman told us that the storm had made landfall south of Miami and was turning northwest, right toward our town.
A few times I got scared, but Daddy just put his arms around me and told me everything was going to be all right. “And if it does hit our house, all that means is that we’ll have to move to another house, and we’ve done that many times. You’re used to that. And if we do get killed in the hurricane, well, we won’t have to be worried about them anymore, will we?”
By the time the hurricane reached out town it was a tropical storm, and just rained a lot, which made Louise and me very sleepy and we went on to bed. When we thought Daddy and Mommy were good and asleep we’d sneak out of my bedroom and get the ice cream out of the freezer, grab two spoons and go back to bed, eating ice cream. In the morning Louise’s mom picked her up. We could tell she had been crying all night, worrying that she would never see her little girl again. She was certain they would lose everything they owned and they’d never have anything ever again for the rest of their lives.
For a moment, I thought I should tell Louise’s mom what Daddy told me, but decided she didn’t really want any advice from an eleven-year-old girl. I never told my parents how I felt about hurricanes, but I suspected they knew, the same way they knew we had raided the freezer and ate ice cream.
One day when I was planning the next adventure for Louise and me, Daddy said in a casual way, “You know, I had a best friend when I was your age. He was about two years older than me, just like Louise is two years older than you. So he became a teen-ager before I did and things changed. It’s not like we weren’t friends any more, but we were becoming different people.”
Sure enough, in a couple of years Louise became a teen-ager and our friendship was never the same as it was when she would come over and watch the hurricane news on television.
We’re both grown-up now, and I miss the late night weather watches. Not so much about Louise but—I miss sitting on Daddy’s lap, having his arms around me, hearing him whispering in my ear, “Don’t worry. Everything will be all right.”
I love to tell stories and I never let the truth get in the way of a good one. But if you want the truth, just ask a veteran for a story. My friend Ken Leach of Gainesville, Texas, has a doozy about a German prisoner of war (POW), the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and Lake Texoma.
Ken was in the Navy in 1964 and happened to be stationed in Japan at the time of the Olympic Games. He was enjoying his view from the stands when someone tapped him on the shoulder. When he turned around he saw a middle-aged man grinning at him.
“So you are from America?” the man asked in a German accent.
When Ken replied that he was, the German then asked where. After Ken told him Texas, he beamed even bigger and said, “I was a prisoner of war in Texas!”
Ken offered his new acquaintance the location of his home, Gainesville, the gentleman exclaimed, “That’s where my camp was!”
Many small towns around the United States had military installations during World War II. The town where I’m living now, Brooksville, FL, had an Army air field where B-17 bomber pilots were trained. Gainesville’s Camp Howze had training facilities and a POW camp. When I was a child my mother would drive me out to the site of Camp Howze. By then there was nothing left except concrete block foundations and an occasional set of steps leading to nowhere.
My father operated an ice cream truck at Camp Howze. As a boy on the farm my dad caught a splinter in the eye because he was too close to his brother who was chopping wood. Dad didn’t pass the physical for the Army because he was blind in one eye. Not being able to serve his country in time of war bothered Dad the rest of his life, so he always bought a red plastic poppy on Memorial Day. Now you may think that wasn’t much but my father was tight with his money. One year he asked me what was the least amount of money he could give me to make me happy for Christmas. So for Dad to go out of his way and voluntarily donate to veterans was a big deal.
Every camp had work details to keep the prisoners busy during their stay here in the United States. At Camp Howze, the POWs were trucked every morning to the construction site of Lake Texoma on the Red River. Truth be told it didn’t look as pretty as it did in the John Wayne movie of the 1940s, so I think a California river played the title role. The POWs cut underbrush and hauled out debris so that after the dam was completed and the lake filled up, anyone who fell off their water skis would not be poked by an errant tree branch. When Lake Texoma was officially open, it was the fifth largest man-made reservoir in the country for about two and a half minutes. Another reservoir was built somewhere out west and passed it by.
The camp had a regular routine for their guests from Germany. First thing in the morning they were fed a large warm breakfast. Around noon, they were given a sack lunch and after the closing whistle in the afternoon, they were trucked back to camp where a large hot meal awaited them. This was a better schedule than they followed when they were taking orders from that crazy SOB Hitler.
One afternoon, however, Ken’s affable acquaintance from the Tokyo Olympics did not hear the whistle which told them to run for the truck. After chopping away at the brush a little while longer, he began to wonder when they were going to blow that whistle. When he walked to the usual loading area, he realized no one was there. He was stuck there on the banks of the Red River without a way to get back to camp and his dinner. His only alternative was to hike down to the country road which would lead back to Camp Howze. Who knew when he would be fed because the camp was more than thirty miles away. His heart raced when he heard a truck engine behind him as he trudged down the narrow highway.
Looking behind him, the POW saw an old pickup truck coming towards him driven by an old Texas farmer. Two things made the upcoming encounter a bit chancy—the German wore the striped uniform which easily identified him as a POW and this was a farmer in his pickup and he probably had a shotgun on a rack on the back of the cab. One more thing—the POW spoke very little English and you know darned well that a Texas farmer in the 1940s didn’t speak German.
Luckily, he was able to communicate to the farmer his situation and the Texan said—I’m paraphrasing here—“Why shore, hop on in, boy. I’m goin’ that way.”
The German completed his story to my friend Ken in the Tokyo Olympic stadium and grinned. “I like Gainesville, Texas.”
Like any good story, this has a moral to it, in addition to a lot more truth than I’m used to telling. We all know the United States joined together in military strength to defeat our foes in World War II. But when it came to how we treated the German prisoners of war, we joined together in heart and soul to make them friends.
Right before choir class began, the school bully came in and sat next to me. It wasn’t his usual seat. He put his arm around my shoulders.
In 1965 Texas that meant I was a homosexual, and he was my—well I don’t know what to call him since he was implying he wasn’t a homosexual, just me. When he had pulled that stunt on other guys, smaller than he, the victim was supposed to jerk away and glare at him, and he would laugh maniacally.
I didn’t do that. I just stared straight ahead, not moving a muscle. After a long moment, he patted my arm and pulled away. That wasn’t the first time he had done something. He liked to make fun of what I wore, threaten to beat me up after school and sing loud in my ear during a choir concert to throw me off key. The usual bully crap. Later one of my friends lectured me for not following the accepted custom of pulling away and glaring at him.
“Don’t you know what that means?”
Yes, I did, and I didn’t care. At that time I had a life-threatening crush on a girl half a year older than me so I knew I wasn’t a homosexual and I was convinced that if the girl didn’t like me as much as I liked her my life would be over.
By the end of the school year, the bully and I came up to the water fountain at the same time.
“You don’t like me, do you?” He looked rather pitiful at that moment.
“No, you’re okay.” I was still too infatuated with the older girl to wax righteous about whether or not he was likeable.
By the end of the next school year my worst fear came true. The older girl did not like me in the same way I liked her. I went to college, and the girl and the bully went on to their own lives. I heard later he became an evangelist.
However, throughout my adult life I have found whenever another man puts his arm around my shoulders, a traditional sign of brotherly affection, I stiffen and slightly pull away, which has short-circuited some friendships. By and large, the incident did not keep me from marrying the right woman, having two wonderful children and enjoying a host of good friends in my older years.
This memory re-emerges briefly when I read in the newspaper another child who kills himself because he was bullied, or he himself becomes the killer. I see bullying become a legitimate campaign tactic. I hear people comment on the Millennial activism, “Those kids have to be given hot chocolate just because an election didn’t go their way.” That statement in itself is a form of bullying. I wonder about official school policies that state a person has to have more than one incident by the same person in order to be considered a bullying victim. Sometimes television situation comedies will show the best way to handle a bully is to be a bully right back at him.
I think about how much one minor incident affected my life and how long-term, vicious harassment can be devastating for anyone who is too skinny, too heavy, too awkward, too different. Don’t feel sorry for us. Don’t put your arm around us. Teach your children to respect everyone. Practice compassion yourself.
July Fourth brings back a time I worked for the Dallas Morning News on its editing desk. After five p.m., calls to the information center downstairs were rerouted to the editing desk. Why, I don’t know. We didn’t have the authority to reply to requests. We were on an assembly line of correcting typos and writing headlines fast so our readers would have their newspapers to skim as they ate breakfast.
One July Fourth night I got stuck with a call from a woman in tears.
“Why don’t children respect holidays anymore?”
“I don’t know, ma’am.” I kept reading for mistakes in an Associated Press story from Indonesia or some such distant location which had undergone a catastrophe.
“We always tried to make holidays special for them, but they didn’t appreciate it.”
“Nothing means anything to them anymore, except their silly fishing boats and always drinking that beer.”
My mind went back to a July Fourth long ago when I asked my mother if we could do something special for the holiday. My father was a Royal Crown Cola salesman and those grocery stores needed fresh supplies of soda pop whether it was a holiday or not. That meant the rest of us just sat home and ate hot dogs and watermelon. For entertainment my brothers lit firecrackers and threw them at me. I was only seven or eight so I screamed and ran. That’s why I was hoping this July Fourth we could do something different. If dad could take off a little early maybe we could go out to the local lake for a picnic and splashing in the water.
“We’ll have to ask your father,” she said.
“Yeah, sure, if I get done,” he said.
On July Fourth morning I was up early. I knew we couldn’t leave until dad came home, but I wanted to be ready when he did roll his truck in the yard and load us into the car for the lake. But he didn’t show up. Mom fixed the hot dogs for lunch, and we ate watermelon. In the afternoon, my brothers threw firecrackers at me and laughed when I screamed and ran.
Not only did dad not take off early, he worked extra late so he even missed supper. I didn’t say anything to mom because I didn’t want another lecture about how selfish a little boy I was for expecting dad to do anything except work hard. Here he slaved away to pay the bills and buy groceries and all I could think of was having fun.
“The children never show up for holidays,” the woman on the phone said through her tears.
“I wish I could do something to make you feel better.” I was only in my twenties. I didn’t know the right thing to say.
She sniffed. “Oh, that’s all right. Thank you for listening.”
After she hung up, I realized I was working on July Fourth, and my wife and baby boy were home alone. Some things never changed. No, I told myself. The difference was I wanted to be at home with them, and I promised myself to be there with them every holiday I could.
Then it was time to write another headline. After all, the newspaper had to come out on time.
Sometimes I catch myself trying to remember the way to the old neighborhood store to buy candy or a popsicle. First off, the street was paved, but not really. It was really just patches on top of patches surrounded by hot Texas summer dirt.
By July, the bottoms of my feet had toughed up so the hot asphalt didn’t bother me. I turned right, which was generally north—all of the streets made a lot of slight turns so nothing was due north, south, east or west. Our next door neighbor was a nice old man, Mr. McDaniel who always had some relative living with him. Across the street was a young couple with two little kids who lived in a renovated Army barracks left over from World War II. Eventually they moved out to a nicer house in a nicer neighborhood. They didn’t talk to us much after that. The wife’s mother lived next to them in a regular house. I was kinda scared of her. I don’t know why.
Next to Mr. McDaniels were two houses, and I don’t think I ever met anyone who lived there. At the end of the block was a rambling old farm house with a wrap-around front porch and it needed a coat of paint. The woman who lived there ran the washateria where we took our clothes after my mother died.
Down the intersecting dirt road were a bunch of ramshackle old houses. My parents strictly forbade me to walk down that road because that’s where the black people. Except they didn’t say black people. They didn’t even use the word colored. They said a word I won’t use here. I know what it was. You know what it was. We all know what it was. No need to repeat it here.
We could see the shacks on that road from our backdoor. One morning I watched a black hearse parked out front of one of the houses. A group of men in black suits carried a coffin down the stairs. The people in the yard cried. It struck me that if black people cried in sorrow the same way we did when someone died, why did we have to be afraid of them? And if we weren’t afraid of them, why could I not walk down the street where they lived?
But I was trying to remember the way to the store, where the people on the dirt road could not shop. Beyond the intersection was a big vacant spot with lots of trees. Sometimes there was a tall pile of sand there, but I wasn’t allowed to play in it.
At the next intersection was another patched-over paved road leading to the bridge over Pecan Creek. We went that way when we were going to church or visit my mother’s relatives. If we kept going up the street my house was on, we got to the high school and downtown. On the other side of that intersection was the store. I hardly remember ever going in the older building. It was like all the country stores you’ve ever seen pictures of. I don’t know if it had a cracker barrel or not.
The owner became sick, and his wife panicked, marking up all the prices to pay for the doctor bills. All that did was make the neighbors get in their cars and drive north into town to shop at the fancy new supermarkets. They went out of business even faster. Eventually, he died and the widow moved away.
Someone then bought the land, rented the old building to an upholsterer and build a long, wide building which had a laundromat (I don’t know why this one was called a laundromat and the other one in town was called a washateria). On the other end of the building was a grocery with gas pumps outside. We’d call it a convenience store today.
I remember the owner had a huge selection of plastic flowers for sale in the back. It also had the best selection of candy and ice cream I’d ever seen. Of course, I was just a little barefoot boy in a small Texas town so what did I know?
They also had a bunch of knickknacks which I bought from time to time as birthday and Christmas presents for my parents. In particular I remember saving my nickels and dimes to buy a ceramic vase for my mother’s birthday. She often commented on how cute she thought it was when she came in the store. The surprise was ruined when my mother confronted me because the change in my pocket didn’t match what it should be since it was left over from my lunch allowance. So I had to tell her I was holding back some to buy her a gift. She felt bad, but she pulled the same thing when my brother put aside money from his part-time job to buy her a nice coat from a local woman’s clothing store.
I liked going to the store because there was always time to chat and tell jokes. The ladies working there were like aunts, except they were nicer than my real aunts. By the time I became a teen-ager, they had closed the store and moved to a new convenience store across the Pecan Creek bridge. They didn’t treat me as nice then, but I suppose it’s easier to like little kids than teen-agers.
So, yes. I do remember the way to the store. All the old neighbors are gone. All the stores are empty or torn down. I don’t think I’d like to walk down that street now that I’m old. I’d rather remember the days when I scampered barefoot without a care but with a coin to buy candy.
I am the worst person in the world about getting shots. My son is almost as bad as I am. We’d make terrible heroin addicts.
My wife and daughter are better. Why is it women are braver patients than men? Most women can give birth in the morning and plow the back forty in the afternoon. One woman in Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood had a caesarean section by Saracen sword one day and stormed the castle the next. Of course, that was a movie.
My wife said she wasn’t good about getting shots when she was a child. One time the doctor came by the house to give her an injection, and she jumped around the bed to avoid the needle. He caught her mid-bounce in the buttocks. After that she calmed down. When my daughter got her first inoculation she looked at her arm and said, “Hmph, that hurt.”
My son, on the other hand, shuddered with tears welling in his eyes, pleading with the doctor not to stick him. And that was last week. He’s thirty-eight years old and a prison guard. Just kidding. He shuddered when he was eight. He takes it like a man now. He shudders on the inside, just like me.
Back in the 1950s, the schools gave polio shots regularly to elementary school students. You had no warning. There you were, sitting in the classroom just about ready to doze off, when the next thing you knew the teacher was herding you down the hall to your doom. The needles back then were huge and dull. I could swear that they had been using the same needles that they had used on soldiers in World War II, just to save money.
Of course, getting an inoculation is nothing like having blood drawn. From the time I first discovered the fact that doctors, on a regular basis, stuck dull needles in your veins to extract copious amount of blood, I lived in fear that one day I would have to undergo such torture. When it eventually happened, I had to be placed on a gurney and my mother hovered over my face as the nurse drew the blood. And I’ll never forget her kind words.
“You’re being a big baby over this and embarrassing me to death.”
Over the years I have not gotten much better. At least my wife never told me I was a big baby nor acted like she was embarrassed when I almost passed out on the clinic floor. By the way, women faint and men pass out; at least that’s what my brother told me. He was a Marine so he should know.
Doctors actually have a name for the condition, and it is not cowardice. It’s Latin so I can’t remember it. When your nervous system thinks it’s losing volumes of its life-giving fluid, your blood pressure drops dramatically so the blood won’t flow out so fast. Not surprisingly, mostly men have it.
A few years at the hospital a male nurse couldn’t find the vein. In another aside, I think women draw blood better than men. Call me a sexist. Anyway, by the time he had thumped both arms several times and finally stuck in the needle, I was light headed. They rushed me over to the emergency room because they thought I had a seizure. Nope. It was just manly nervous Nellie disease.
I have discovered if I keep babbling on about something inconsequential the attendant can draw the blood and get me out of the building before my blood pressure drops. Once I quoted “Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
I’m memorizing the Gettysburg Address for next time.
Here I’ve reached the age of 70, and I don’t know what existentialism is.
Teachers talked about it. Those French writers Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre wrote about it. Even movies are made about existentialism. “Taxi Driver” and “Annie Hall” were about it but you couldn’t prove it by me. One was very violent, and the other was very funny.
I like to write stuff. Some of it is violent and some funny. What if I were an existentialist and didn’t even know it?
I have looked the word up in the dictionary, and what was there didn’t explain it to me. I even went to other dictionaries and they didn’t help either. You’d think that someplace on the internet someone could come up with clear definition, but no.
For a long time, like forty years, I have faked being smart. I call it the old smile and nod. No matter what the conversation is about. This is particularly helpful when the topic is religion or politics. No one can get mad at you if you give them the old smile and nod. I’m also a little deaf in both ears. In the case of not understanding what was being said, I add in the knowing chuckle with the smile and nod. I don’t know if I actually fooled anyone. Most of them had the decency not to expose my ignorance.
Once I got up the courage to ask my wife what existentialism meant. She had a master’s degree in criminal justice and spent a career observing people and writing reports to judges about whether to send someone to prison or not. That’s a very serious job so I figured she must understand existentialism.
“I don’t know, and I don’t care,” she replied and went back to one of her books about biblical archeology or the theory of the black Athena.
When you reach the age of 70 you realize that you don’t have to fake anything anymore because most of the people you were afraid of disappointing with your ignorance have probably already passed on. And who cares what the people younger than you think. They don’t write my paycheck. That’s mostly because I don’t get a paycheck anymore.
One time I asked three people who went to great effort to appear intelligent about existentialism. All of them had highly cogent observations on the condition of mankind, but none of them knew what existentialism was. It was such a relief.
Perhaps it is enough that I have made it through most of my life without inflicting major discomfort on anyone within reasonable distance of my space. If I have not made a fortune, at least I have never taken food or shelter away from anyone else. If I have not done anything to save the world, at least I have given people a smile along the way.
I don’t know what existentialism is.
It is what it is.
I am what I am.
That is enough.
My father’s idea of being cultured was to lift his leg downwind of company when he needed to pass gas.
My mother thought anyone who liked opera, ballet or Shakespeare was a pretentious snob.
So why I consider myself an esthete is really a mystery. An esthete, by the way, is a person who derives great pleasure from exposure to beautiful things, like art, music, theater, dance, literature and the list goes on. It doesn’t mean I’m a snob. It just mean that I get the same stress relief from artistic stuff that many people get from watching sports or participating in sports.
I once heard Arnold Schwarzenegger say he got more pleasure out of lifting weight than from making love. And he was elected governor of California. Go figure.
All I got out of exercise was a lot of sweat, panting and an excruciating pain in my side. And I never did see any amazing results in my body either.
Now I always did get excited when Shakespeare was going to be performed on television. I remember a production of MacBeth with Maurice Evans (he was the condescending ape in Planet of the Apes) and Judith Anderson (she played the queen of the Vulcans in a Star Trek movie). It was filmed in Scotland. I didn’t understand half of what being said but I still liked it. Then there was Hamlet with Lawrence Harvey (he was the brainwashed guy in Manchurian Candidate). I understood a little more of the dialogue and liked it even better.
Come to think of it, I don’t remember why I even was allowed to watch those plays. If there had been a western on at the same time my father would have insisted on watching that instead. Maybe he had to work late or went to bed early. Anyway, I did get to see them and felt like windows had been opened to my soul. Come to think of it, my mother did refer to me as a little snob from time to time.
Opera eluded me for years, but I always liked ballet. A touring group came to our high school for an assembly program. Afterwards a football player said, “Hey, look at me, I’m a ballerina!” He took a few goofy-looking leaps but stopped and panted. “Hey,” he said in a moment of self-revelation. “That’s kinda hard.”
My mother-in-law didn’t approve of ballet because certain features of the male anatomy were too obviously on display. I always wondered how come she could ignore the beautiful music, the costumes, the sets and the graceful movements and just concentrate on that one thing. Dirty old broad.
As I said, opera took the longest for me to appreciate. I think part of it was that the singers belt out the songs like they have to be heard in the next county. When arias are lightly tossed out to waft on the breeze they become inspiring and lift the burdens of everyday life.
The same is true for symphonic music or chorale. I’m not that great of a singer but I have been lucky enough to sing a few times in large groups performing Mozart’s Requiem and Handel’s Messiah. To be completely surrounded by such music takes me to another, better place.
I appreciate all forms of art, from the Old Masters to Jackson Pollack. Once I picked up my daughter from a birthday party at the home of a very successful lawyer. He was so successful he had a helicopter pad in the front yard in case he was needed in Miami or Nashville real fast. We were talking in the living room with my daughter’s friend, the birthday girl, when my eyes strayed to a wall where was hanging a small dark oil painting of something Polynesian. I squinted and thought I saw a very famous signature. I walked over and, sure enough, it was signed “Gaugin.” I turned to the girl, 13 or 14, and said respectfully, “May I touch it?”
She shrugged and replied, “Sure, why not?”
My daughter was, as usual, was mortified. My fingertips lightly ran across the surface, feeling the brushstrokes.
“Do you know what this is?” I said, continuing to act like a groupie backstage at a rock concert.
“I don’t know. Just something daddy picked up somewhere.”
“This is a Gaugin,” I said and proceeded to give a brief history of the French artist who palled around with Van Gogh and painted naked women in Tahiti. If anyone asked to touch a Gaugin in an art museum he would be escorted from the building and kicked down the stairs.
By this time my daughter realized her daddy wasn’t just being his usual goofy self and asked if she could touch it too. The girl thought we were nuts but let us stroke the little painting all we wanted.
So that’s why I’m an esthete. You don’t have to own the art. You don’t have to be able to create art. All you have to do is appreciate it and let it wash over you like the invigorating cold tide on a Florida beach.