I was born on the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains, in Lamar Colorado. We moved from there when I was almost two to a small house in Alamosa Colorado, where my Dad became a Professor of History and Government at Adams State College. The house was perfect for him, being a block away from the building where he had his office and taught for more than twenty years. Not only that, but when Mom went back to teaching full time, she was only three blocks away from her school as well.
I got lucky there. When Mom started teaching, she was teaching fifth grade English. I was a sixth grader. It was bad enough in the previous year, when I’d had her as a substitute teacher once or twice (How do you address your own mother when she is your teacher? I’ve never called her Mrs. Carter in my life, but I couldn’t call her mom in class either?), but if I’d had her full time back then, it would have been horrible. Not like when I took a couple of my Dad’s classes in college – that was a lot of fun, and I was old enough to appreciate that he was a great teacher. My mom was too, I just didn’t appreciate it at the time.
To this day, I still don’t know all the details behind the exchange, but when I was in the third grade, Dad did some sort of educational exchange with Tuskegee Institute, in Tuskegee Alabama. My confusion comes because the professor he replaced for a semester didn’t come back to Adams State, he went somewhere else. But I was just a kid at the time anyway, in third grade to be exact. So I didn’t know much of anything. Unlike now that I’m adult, where I still do not know much of anything, but I pretend I do. “Well the sky is blue because of the sunlight refracting off the particles and reflecting back the color of the oceans. How about some ice cream?”
So we packed up the house, got a college student to watch it and the dog, and drove to Alabama, stopping to see Grandma in Missouri on the way. Now the house I grew up in wasn’t very big. It was a simple tract house, originally just like every other house on the block when it was built in the 1950’s. Gradually each one was added on to and modified, so that today you can’t tell that they were once all the same. But it was still only three bedrooms and two baths. When I was in junior high (back before this ‘middle school’ concept) we added on two bedrooms, a bath and a family room, as well as a deck and a detached garage.
The house in Alabama wasn’t small, by any mean or description. I remember distinctly my mom describing it, “Twenty-three rooms and that doesn’t include nooks and crannies”. My sisters were ecstatic; they finally had their own bedrooms instead of sharing one. It was an old antebellum mansion, and at some point they had connected the outlying slave quarters and turned that into the kitchen. There were two staircases, we loved the circular iron one in the back, because Norma and I could stand on the landing and drop our laundry on Margaret as she walked by underneath.
We had rooms we never used. The day we arrive, Margaret runs out the front door onto the huge porch, and nearly steps on a copperhead sunning itself on the front steps. Dad beats it with a hoe, but we aren’t sure if he killed it or not. I think we only used the front door twice after that for the entire rest of the five months we lived there; it was just easier to enter by the kitchen which is where the driveway went by, and thus where we were always parked. The front door led into a formal living room that we didn’t use, nor did we ever use the formal dining room but a couple of times.
The place was surrounded by pecan trees, and in the fall we tried pecan pie for the first time. Well, everyone else did at least. Me, being as naturally brilliant as I was, and knowing everything, knew that I didn’t like it without ever letting a piece pass my lips. Luckily for me I have learned enough to realize that you have to be willing to taste of life before deciding that you don’t care for it. I wasn’t as bad as Margaret however – she still is the only person I have ever met who claims to have eaten one Grit. Not Grits, plural, as in the hominy breakfast concoction that is so popular in the south. She tried it, but separated a single grain on her plate, and ate just the one. To this day she hasn’t had that second grit.
School there was interesting. Once more my memory doesn’t quite serve me with all the details that were so unimportant at the time, but now make me look back puzzled. It was a much bigger deal to get to class and to trade with the other kids to get “Nialaters”. That was one that took me quite a while to ever figure it out – all the kids loved this candy, which was basically taffy, though I didn’t know it at the time. It just started out hard, and got chewy and lasted for a long time, and everyone was nuts over them. There was a regular black market for this stuff in the schoolyard. It was our silly Colorado accents that kept us from figuring it out. We finally got to the store one day, and somebody pointed them out. These were actually Now and Laters, which still exist. I can’t imagine how we couldn’t find them before.
As I said, I wasn’t sure the details on the schools there. Apparently there were two schools in town, one the private school where all the white kids went, and while I thought the other was a public school, I seem to remember that some of the teachers were nuns. Or maybe it was the other years of catholic school invading my memories, like crusaders saving my heathen memories in the holy land of my past. My parents were adamant on one point however, we were not going to a segregated school – we were in Alabama, and we were going to have a chance to experience other races. And that was how I became the ONLY white boy in my third grade class.
And I’m not just white, I am (to steal the phrase I heard from comedian/ventriloquist Jeff Dunham) Neon White. Or more recently, Weird Al Yankovic had the hit song “White and Nerdy”, which isn’t too much of an exaggeration, even at that tender young age. The only reason I wasn’t already playing Dungeons and Dragons is that it hadn’t come out yet (and I would start within a year of when it did!). I stood out like lone marshmallow in a mug of hot cocoa – dark chocolate cocoa. It was a great experience.
The school did have a handful of white kids, and a few more from Indians. These weren’t the Native American kind, but the sub-continent, often turban wearing (some were Sikhs, including a good friend of Dad’s, who we would visit regularly)) mid skinned folks that seem to gravitate toward either being doctors or running convenience stores. (It wasn’t until I was out of college and married that I had ever heard the phrase black ever applied to someone from India – it just didn’t make sense to me, even though some of them are darker than some African-Americans.)
I was a fairly smart kid, not just the smart ass that I am now. So I got put into a special class. Luckily it was next door, otherwise the six of us in the class would have had to take a short bus to get there, and that would have been embarrassing. As it was, it was an advanced math course. They basically taught us a year and a half of math in one semester, so that right before we left before Christmas, the rest of the kids and I went into the fourth grade math class – and we were at the same point they were.
The most significant portion came right before we left. The class was almost over, so on the last day, the teacher did get a van (much better than a short bus) and took us to the college, where we got to play math games on the computers for the afternoon. I thought it was fantastic. This was my first ever experience with computers – little did anyone realize what an influence it would have on me.
Now, these weren’t the kind of computers people think of now. In fact, we never saw the actual computers, because they were still sitting in big, air-condition rooms. This was 1972, long before Time Magazine would make the computer man of the year, and we would have them everywhere. Even now, I carry a PDA with me on my belt that is faster and more powerful than these machines. And there weren’t screens back then – everything was done on paper – big boxes of green and white striped paper – 14 inches wide, with holes on either side to guide it through the printer, which had a keyboard on the front (affectionately called green-bar paper by those old folks like me). I brought home a stack of paper inches thick, covered with the math problems I did.
It was interesting to note how the class around me changed with a bit of time. My birthday is near the beginning of the school year. So like all kids, we planned a birthday party, and invited most of the kids in my class. We had little balsa wood and rubber band airplanes for everyone to put together, and even set up the big dining room for the party. And nobody showed up. That was a rough day, not having anybody come to your eighth birthday party. There was one boy who had been planning on it, but he got sick, and missed school and the party. He did come over a couple of days later, and gave me a copy of his favorite record (this was also way before CD’s, and even cassettes weren’t that popular yet). It was Edgar Bergen, with Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Sneed, teaching ventriloquism. He loved it for the jokes, as did I. So what did I ask for (and get!) for Christmas that year? You guessed it – a ventriloquist dummy. Never did really learn how to do it though, but I did try.
Comes my last day of school, just before the Christmas break. I don’t remember what was going on, but the teacher sent me to the class across the hall to get a stapler. The teacher there sent me all over the room as she read to her students looking for it, before realizing that it was in her lap the whole time. How she managed to miss it there I never figured out. I walked back across the hall, opened the door, and suddenly found myself being lifted on the shoulders of all the kids in the class, cheering for me as they sprang a surprise going away party for me. They literally carried me around the room. Scared the snot out of me at first, but it felt kind of nice afterward.
I had a lot of memories from then. The white kids who lived behind us, whose parents didn’t want us playing with them because we went to the black school; digging through old tool and hobby magazines out in the barn; going out to dinner after church on Sunday to the one restaurant that was open; visiting Dad’s Aunt Zorrie in Georgia and watching Hitchcock’s “The Birds”; going to the mall between Auburn and Opelika and shopping; learning about George Washington Carver; and having to buy electric blankets (which we never had before in Colorado) because it was so humid you felt the cold more. It was a great five months, and a part of my life I’ll always remember.