Even now as a grown adult whenever I dream that house, the home I dream of is the house on Pembrook. I spent my entire formative years living in that house, Mom brought me home from the hospital to that house and I would live there until I left for college eighteen years later. Growing up I remember it as a huge, cavernous place with five bedrooms but only one bath. My two oldest brothers occupied the two bedrooms in the attic, while I shared a room with my next oldest brother on the second floor.
It was from this house that all my adventures growing up would begin and end. The first such adventure that I can recall involves walking to Kindergarten at Oxford Elementary school, the only public school I would ever attend. All of my brothers were already at Catholic school but at the time but Christ the King did not have a kindergarten so I was sent off with the public school kids in the neighborhood to walk to school.
Fortunately in the late seventies there wasn’t as much to worry about, sending your child with the neighborhood gang on a daily 2 mile walk each way to school. I remember very little about kindergarten itself except that it was there that Mrs. Martin taught us that letters make sounds, and that you actually have to use white crayon when you say you used white crayon on white paper or you will fail the finger surface test. I have the most powerful memory though, of getting ready to walk home from school one day and having terrible cramps in my leg. Mrs. Martin sent me to the nurse, who sent me back to Mrs. Martin’s class room, who in turn told me to get my boots on because it was time to go home. I’m not sure what was wrong with me but I remember Jimmy Barle coming to collect me. I couldn’t find my boots and still had cramps in my leg and was just a miserable wailing mess. Jimmy couldn’t have been more than two years ahead of me, and yet was trusted enough to walk myself and half of the rest of the neighborhood to and from school every day on the secretive paths that we were never really sure if our parents knew about or not.
There are many secret paths and places that hide among the places of suburbia. Small islands of land that are unclaimed by ownership and set in between fences and hidden paths that snake in between backs of garages and behind ball fields and churches.
Later I would return to Oxford Elementary school but not as a student. My scholastic path would take me into the sometimes frightening locale of East Cleveland, right at the bottom of Noble Hill. In the winter we got to see the lights of GE every single day on the bus or from the sidewalk.
The world expanded from the postage stamp plot of land on which my house sat when I learned to ride a bike. Riding a bike was critically important, for while one could walk to the mall or to Ruckasin’s Deli, it was far more efficient to ride. And once you learned how to ride you rode often and everywhere with boundaries that increased just as your age did.
As a parent, I was tasked to teach my eldest how to ride his bike. I also ran a few miles behind my second child’s back wheel teaching her about balance and riding and how to get the momentum going when you first kick off on the bike to not fall over. After the second child, however, it comes to the siblings to teach the young ones to ride.
So it was that it came to my older brother Neil to teach me how to ride a bike. I remember the lessons vividly. We would start at the top of our twenty foot driveway and he would hold up the banana seated bicycle so that I could climb aboard. He would ask if I was ready and without waiting for a response shove me down the driveway. My choices at that point were limited. I would either crash into the grass on either side of the driveway which was humbling and just brought me back to the top of the driveway again or learn to ride, and more importantly steer so that I could turn onto the rapidly approaching sidewalk before traversing the last eight feet of apron and get smashed by a passing car.
His technique was quite effective. I do not recall ever having a bike with training wheels. Such is the pressure that comes down when you are the fifth boy in a house full of boys.
The first hard boundaries, as they are with all kids are the dimensions of the yard. Our yard was tiny, minuscule, or a vast jungle in the eyes of a youngster. From our side porch you could almost reach your arm out across the driveway and touch the side of the Davis’ house to the north. If you stood at the sink in our kitchen you could look directly across the neighbor’s driveway and see into their kitchen. At times my mother would hold conversations with the neighbors as she labored at the sink. There were tiny slivers of land that separated driveways and houses.
The yard was maintained by my mother. She mowed it at least once a week with a push mower. The yard work was her responsibility. I never liked working in the yard and never had a green thumb, that was left to the baby of the family, who is this rare case was my next oldest brother Neil. I may have been the youngest but Neil was, and is, the baby of the family. I am reminded frequently of Neil’s favorite saying for the first ten or twenty years of my life: “Why did we have to have this baby?”
Neil was a geek before there were geeks. He was the influence in my life that effectively led me to the career I have today. He was the one that was responsible for bringing the first primitive computers into our house. Later, I would be the one responsible for hooking these computers up to other computers in the primitive pre-world of the internet. Fastidious and detailed oriented, Neil was a detail perfectionist. He was a model rocket enthusiast and would maintain detailed records of each launch that he piloted. When we shared the same room asking him question after inane question as we tried to go to sleep.
“What do you think would happen if I put two needles into an electric outlet?” I asked him one night after I had attempted just such an operation and felt the jolt of 110 volts through my body. I was very worried I was going to die that night and hung on his every word.
“You didn’t do that did you?”
“Good, because you would probably die,” he said and rolled over. End of discussion.
This was the Neil technique at its best; curt training, quick advice, and all of it good.
I had a restless night, but Dad was always fearless of electricity. He would work on circuits and outlets without pulling the fuses. One night he was replacing one of the light outlets in the basement and I was “helping” him by holding the ladder. It was a silly little four step stepladder but it was important work when you are little. He managed to touch the wires together and got a jolt which travelled into me and gave me a jolt as well.
“Did you feel that?” he asked with a slightly amused grin on his face.
I nodded in response.
“The second person gets zapped worse than the first!” He explained with a much wider grin as he went back to work. I’m not sure if that is true but it was fact at the time. Dad said it.
It is amazing to me to realize that my first formative memories of Dad are when he was about the age I am now. By the time I came around raising boys must have been old hat to him. He never laid a hand on us but the age old threat from Mom of “Wait until your father gets home” held quite a bit of sway in the house. I wonder if my wife says the same thing to my kids, because I have never touched any of them but can bring them to tears begging for forgiveness with just a few words in a certain tone of voice.
Dad traveled quite a bit for work. He had one of those lifelong careers that I don’t think really exist anymore. After the Army and after college we went to work for one company and worked for that same company until he retired some forty years later. It was a very large company with very little chance of ever going out of business and he loved what he did.
I remember when Dad was on the TV news. It never happened very often but sometimes there would be a strike big enough to warrant local TV coverage and it was always something to see Dad being interviewed. I’m not sure when the nurses strike was, sometime in the late 70s, but Dad was the primary Federal Mediator working the strike and after 27 straight hours of negotiations everyone decided to take a break and the TV crew interviewed Dad on the way out. He told them that everyone was going to go home and sleep and shave and take a shower and come back in the morning to resume negotiations.
I can see as clear as day my Dad on TV rubbing is stubbly chin talking about needing a shave. I think this memory is so ingrained because Dad was always very cleaned shaved, the only exception being when he grew a beard when he fell off a ladder and broke his back in the infamous “ladder moving incident”.