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Posts Tagged ‘1950’s’

Sammy Gene Matteson, fourth Grade South Brookley School

Sammy Gene Matteson, fourth grade South Brookley School ca. 1957

Childhood is an innocent space where we become who we are. I was not a beautiful child, but, on the other hand, I was not a cruel child, as children sometimes can be. I was not a difficult child in elementary school, either. At least that’s the way I remember it. I was eager, earnest and—some might call it—“experimental.” I tried out ideas, and at the beginning, I did not think through to the end what were the implications of my impulses and inspirations. But that’s the nature of a child who is innocent of consequence.

To be sure, there were times when I sat in Mrs. Becton’s office and then waited on the broad wooden steps after school for my mother to pick me up. Whatever her actual size, “Mizrez Becton” will always seem a figure six feet tall, dressed in a black suit with white lace trim, wearing heavy-heeled, high-heeled dress shoes that sounded on the pine board floors of South Brookley Elementary School the cadence of authority. In the evening, I still imagine, the black janitress would spread rose-colored cedar sawdust on the floor—as I often saw her do after school—to sweep up the footfalls of the Principal and teachers and the thousand stumbling scuffs of children and, too, the hundreds of ideas lying there unused that were tossed about but failed, this time, to stick. Mrs. Becton was in charge. Her gait and demeanor said so to me. She was the Principal teacher, but her kind eyes were not hidden behind her tortoise shell glasses.

The Great Bathroom Experiment

Grade school is a place to begin to find out where you fit, jostling against girls and boys your own age. The jostling, for me, did not stop even in the boy’s bathroom. I wondered why they called it “bathroom” since it contained no fixture anything like a bath except an immense urinal trough. It was the fourth grade when I discovered one of the wonderful properties of the equipment with which God had blessed Adam, a urinary tract that terminates in a marvelously directional nozzle. To my boyish delight, I could urinate well up the tiled wall behind the ceramic trench. When I revealed this discovery to some admiring comrades, they responded enthusiastically to my demonstration with their own attempts. Thus, began a short-lived tournament. Who could hit the highest point? That was the goal. Unfortunately, our glee was apparently too boisterous. I heard a “clump, clump, clump,” that I recognized all too well. Surely a lady would not come into the boy’s bathroom!

I was wrong. My explanation of our “experiment” did not appear to persuade the lady in the black dress. Whether she was amused or not, I cannot tell. Although my mother could not refrain her laugh, although she tried to hide it behind her hand, when she told me that she had had a telephone call from Mrs. Becton. My embarrassment was sufficient punishment, I think; I recall no other consequence except a deep redness in my face that returns even now when the competition comes to mind.

But I was truly not a mischievous child. Whenever I was accused of transgressing the bounds of propriety, I had an explanation that seemed sound and reasonable to me. Once I was called an exhibitionist. But, honestly, I was falsely accused. It was a conspiracy of events and my Mother’s infatuation with technology and fashion. Alabama, Mobile in particular, was hot in the spring—and unbearably humid in that un-air conditioned age. On a particular day I was dressed in a nylon paisley short-sleeved shirt and an old man’s cotton undershirt.

The Hateful Nylon

The air in the classroom hung hot and damp like still wet, poorly wrung clothes on a line. No breeze stirred in the classroom, even though all the sash windows were open to their full height. The nylon shirt clung to my skin. Nylon was the new “wonder” fabric; light and sleek like silk but affordable to everyone. I looked at the paisleys swimming randomly in blue over my stomach. I loathed paisleys. The forms that swarmed over me and seemed to devour my body were neither distinctly identifiable as animal or vegetable but were, instead, the creation of some deranged imagination designed to offend the masculine sensibilities of little boys who were forced to wear them by their mothers “without another word, young man.”

It was hot. I was hot. Somehow, the paisleys amplified the stiflingly humid warmth. Then the teacher left the room for an errand. I had an inspiration! Too many layers of clothing were the reason why I was dying of heat prostration. I did not hesitate. I unbuttoned by shirt and stripped it off. I began to remove my old man cotton undershirt, wet with sweat. I intended to redress with only the hated paisley shirt when my plans were thwarted. Just as the cotton shirt came up over my head, I saw through the weave, my teacher reappear.

“Sammy Gene Matt’son! What are you doing?”

“Just, trying to get cooler, Ma’am.”

“You go directly to the bathroom and put back on your clothes. Then, report to Mrs. Becton’s office.”

I have always hated paisleys.

The Secret Code of Reading

I came to reading late. It was second grade before I made sense of the black blocks they stacked in meaningless clumps and irregular rows like some inky vegetable crop that I did not like. I did not care for Dick and Jane, either, who seemed to want to do little more than run and see their dog, Spot. I was interested in National Geographic.   I “read” the pictures of far-off places and exotic adventures: a toddler sitting in a footprint; a monkey swinging from a branch; a raft floating on the ocean.

I was in the “second circle.” When I was forced to read aloud, I stammered and stuttered with fright and mortification at my ignorance. I did the best I could, but it was a paisley shirt to me. Mrs. Vera Pounds, however, would not let me be satisfied. I thought that she stopped teaching and began mettling when she called my mother. They decided that there would be no more National Geographic until I had learned to “read it proper.”

Presented with this ultimatum, I chose to make the most of it. To my surprise, I ultimately did break the code of the black blocks. I learned, too, that there was a person standing behind the picture telling his story in lacy black print that surrounded the photographs. The child was sitting in the fossilized foot print of a giant meat-eater in the track way in the Pulaski River in Texas; the monkey was one of a newly discovered species in Madagascar; the raft was the Kon Tiki and carried adventurer Thor Heyerdahl, who proved by his voyage that Polynesia could have been peopled by ancient travelers from Ecuador.

I look at the school photograph of a child. “South Brookley, 1957” it reads. I am dressed in a polka dot knit shirt and a smile, my lips closed, my hair combed to the side. This is the same me that looks back in the mirror in a suit and tie, still smiling a closed lip smile, but with thinning hair combed straight back, now. I outgrew my paisley nylon shirt. Everyone does. We put off childish things. We become who we are. I look in the mirror and I see. I am wearing a paisley tie.

A Paisley Tie, photo credit: www.bows-n-ties.com

A Paisley Tie, photo credit: http://www.bows-n-ties.com

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Howdy Doody was Sammy Gene's favorite TV Star in the 1950's. Photo credit: Volkan Yuksel (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Howdy Doody was Sammy Gene’s favorite TV Star in the 1950’s. Photo credit: Volkan Yuksel (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D,, via Wikimedia Commons

I was born in the century when the world shrank. Television came to my home in 1954 with Howdy Doody and Edward R. Murrow, Milton Berle and the Hit Parade. Through the magic window that flickered in black and white lines, I glimpsed a wider world than I had ever known existed before. I was a faithful acolyte of the new broadcasting cult. I learned by heart the times and names of all the offerings of our one television station, channel 10, WALA, an NBC affiliate, launched only the year before. I could recite the schedule flawlessly from the test pattern at six a.m. to the closing mediation of “High Fight” at midnight even if I were not permitted to sit transfixed before the screen all day, as I surely I would have done had I had been allowed.

A Faithful Peanut Gallery Member

How I admired my fellow member of the “peanut gallery,” my schoolyard chum, Johnny Simms! He possessed a phenomenal and encyclopedic knowledge of automobiles. He even could identify them with his eyes closed as they passed by the playground on Cedar Point Road, correctly identifying the make and model, year and specifications of all the roadsters and coupes and sedans by their sound alone. But I countered in my way and held my own in the schoolyard cluck, preen and strut. I recall my pride as he and I reclined against the warm trunk of a vehicle one day during recess at South Brookley Elementary School, our heels locked into the rear bumper, our backsides comfortably and impertinently resting on the sloping deck of somebody’s incidental automobile, as I recited to him the offerings of the evening’s broadcasting or answered scheduling questions. He was properly impressed at my unique and hard-won knowledge. Ours became a cycle of mutual, reciprocal admiration, even if founded on dubious distinctions.

Although I was acquainted with all the evanescent events of the air, I had my particular preferences. Until the age of nine, of all the snowy programs that danced in half-hour increments before my eyes, my favorite was “The Howdy Doody Show.” I waited patiently to hear the question, “What time is it, kids?” and then to answer along with Bob Smith’s voice, “It’s Howdy Doody Time!” and to sing along with the theme song that inevitably followed. His was a world of wonder and adventure. This wooden-headed red-haired freckled cowboy marionette with his assorted stringless side kicks—Buffalo Bob, wise and kind, Clarabelle Hornblow, who never spoke but honked “her” answers and was lethally armed with a seltzer bottle canon, Chief Thunderthud, the initiator of the interjection “Kawabonga!” and Princess Summerfall Winterspring, Tim Tremble, Bison Bill, and other occasional visitors —took me and millions of other children to a world of technological fascination and slapstick comedy. His perennially smiling and forty-eight freckled face (one dot for every star in the flag) became an icon of the energy and hopefulness of mid-century America—and its naiveté. He showed up not only on Saturday morning but also other places, even in the test pattern that began the broadcast day for NBC. His smile encouraged us; the worst of history, it said and we hoped, was behind us, both for us and for the rest of the world, a world of which I was only dimly aware.

A Skip Across the Carribean

It began to dawn on me like a Saturday morning that the world was wider and more complicated than I imagined when I chanced to hear a familiar tune as I cranked the tuning knob of our Motorola around the channels passing the number 4; a crackling voice that sounded familiar sang out “Hola, cabritos! Es tiempo de Howdy Doody!” I stopped and stared through the electronic snow as a dark-haired puppet, my very own “Howdy,” cavorted on the screen. But he was speaking Spanish! A rare atmospheric phenomenon had occurred and the television signal had skipped across the Gulf of Mexico and reflected from the ionosphere beaming over the curve of the earth from Havana, Cuba to Mobile, Alabama. He was speaking Spanish, so I concluded that my wooden friend must be in Mexico, just like the extended family of my human friend, Johnny Hernandez from Birdville, the only person I knew who spoke “the Español.” I watched until the sound grew too scratchy and the broadcast image too indistinct to make out, but the sights and sounds in my imagination never faded. I had seen, for the first time, over the fence of the horizon to a place where children like me laughed at silliness and seltzer shots yet sang in Latin-nuanced voices, “Es tiempo de Howdy Doody! Es tiempo de Howdy Doody! . . .”

It was 1956. It was the year I also first heard of the Russians—and of the Hungarians. Halloween was coming with candy and scary fun, but something more menacing than jack-o-lanterns and goblins intruded into my living room without invitation with broadcasted images of the Hungarian revolt. I saw newsreels of frightened families fleeing through the snow with suitcases in hand. I stared as teenage boys, Budapest youths, only six or seven years older than I, flung rocks and brickbats in anger and frustration at the inexorable Russian heavy armor. One image burned into my visual cortex of such a scene: there in the foreground a young man, uniformed in a sweater that could have been mine and armed with stones alone, opposed a tank painted with a red star with hammer and sickle beside. Behind it was a semicircular colonnade with bronze statues. It was a drama that frustrated me. I was a child and was impotent, yet I was outraged. Here was a nation enslaved but struggling in futile obstinacy alone as I stood by wringing my hands. “The Hungarian Revolt” they call it. It never had a chance to grow into a full-blown revolution. It was over in less than two weeks. America, the savior of Europe, could do nothing.   We were as powerless as children to intervene. But we had seen of what Communism was capable. We had seen what oppression looked like. And we feared that it was possible to happen on Government Street if “they” were to wrest the power from our leaders’ hands by guile or by force.

I gave up on Howdy Doody. I turned instead to Mister Wizard and to Continental Classroom, especially after Sputnik frightened and fascinated me when it tracked overhead the next year. Year by year more of the world filtered into our living room than ever before. Strange-sounding names like “Budapest” and “Debrecen” were replaced with different but equally strange names like “Saigon” and “Da Nang” and “Hue.” I grew to young adulthood seeing with electrons well over the horizon, even though the line of my eyesight was ever blocked by a swampland forest screen, even though my travels as a youth were bounded by waters and my parents’ lives: the Atlantic, the Great Lakes, the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi.

Irány Magyarország Welcome to Hungary

At last I left the swamp and at long last visited Europe for a time with my wife and my own children. We made Budapest our home for three months while I worked as a guest researcher at the national laboratory. The People’s Republic of Hungary was still “socialist,” in 1978 but its leaders had warmed to tacit capitalistic partnerships between individual enterprise and governmental investment.   A thawing breeze blew in from the West in the “Cold” of the war of ideals. The National Science Foundation had seized the opportunity to nudge the scientists of the two nations closer together. But the old hated images came again when we crossed the border with Austria: Hedgesshalom with machine-gun-wielding gray soldiers and suspicious, jealous eyes; the word, “Tilos!,” “Forbidden!” everywhere.   We soon learned that a cartoon of a camera with a line slashing across it meant: “to be taking pictures— tilos,” or more practically there was a post of Russian soldiers around the corner.

I was apprehensive, but I did develop a deep affection for many of Buda and of Pest, even if the saying “one must have sharp elbows to be Hungarian” is true. I had met them in empathy as a child and, now, I appreciated them for the kindness and generosity of true friendship. Riding one day in the auto of my host, Dr. Joszef Gyulai, I was trying to memorize the way from our apartment on Eagle’s Hill to the Zoo at Vidam Tér for a hoped-for Saturday excursion with my young family. Down the boulevard we sped when he pointed out a shop front that he identified as a puppet theater where he had such fun with his daughter Sophie. I thought again, of course, of the televised marionette that danced for me as a child. I thought also of my own puppet Howdy Doody that my parents had purchased for me and that I had loved nearly to pieces. I wondered where Mother had put it.

A Flash of Recognition

Suddenly, I shuttered in a frisson of recognition as I do now while I recount it to you. I glanced ahead to Husok Tér, Heroes’ Plaza. I recognized the colonnade. I had been here before. It was more than déja vu.   I had actually viewed this very scene, from this very spot, but vicariously from my living room in Alabama, twenty-two years before. How the scene had changed; how I had changed; how the world had changed! Gone were the tanks and brick throwing teens. Gone was the cold light of October displayed in stark black and white. It was early September and the sun was shining on the last of the Austrian and German tourists of the season. The scene was washed in golden light and a warm glow. The world had shrunk, indeed, and had revolved as well.

We now belong to a neighborhood where we can stand at the fence of a backyard thousands of miles, half a world, away and see with electronic eyes what triumphs and tragedies are unfolding in Darfur, or Syria, or Sudan, or Rwanda, or Beijing, or Budapest.

I see “migrants” fleeing for their lives from the insanity of war in Syria, and I am witness to a great atrocity. And if we see what is happening next door, I wondered then are we—no, I—not accountable? If we are witnesses, then we must be part of the scene, as well. And if I am part of the event, then am I not culpable? Can I now so easily turn aside to slapstick comedies or “reality TV” or simply change the channel and ignore it all? Do I justly think, “CNN is just good TV”? Can I do this and remain part of humanity? I wonder.

I was born in the time when the world shrank, and then, sadly, I discovered that I had other neighbors, people who were like me whom I had overlooked. The Cyclopic box with a glowing singular eye has brought them into view, my fellows with invisible strings who are not made of freckled wood and who do not always have reason to smile perennially.

The iconic Chain Bridge from the Buda tunnel. Note the popular Russian vehicle the Lada in the foreground. This was the spring of Glosnost. Photo credit: S. Matteson 1978

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