Friday, August 31, 2007



My first years of school flow in a river of muddled memories on whose surface occasionally float clearer recollections of playground activities, friends, enemies, and information recited by teachers and occasionally absorbed. Among the things I discovered early were that I could not sing, that I was not good at outdoor games, and that I did not like school generally.

To me, with rare exceptions, J. J. Finley School was a brick prison which kept me from the sweet safety of mother and my own room and back yard. That feeling grew, along with severe shyness and fearfulness, as I was compelled to be in contact with increasingly larger and bolder children. For whatever reason — sometimes I blame my father’s negative attitude toward the world, sometimes genetics, and, more recently, former lives — I felt completely vulnerable and defenseless. Seen from outside, my body looked normally firm and healthy, if skinny, but from inside I saw it as weak and vulnerable as a paper kite. For some reason I was sent into the world like a conch without its shell. Add to that an unusually extreme fear of being hurt, and you have the perfect recipe for flight rather than fight.

Despite my father’s exhortations, “Don’t let other boys push you around,” or, “If anybody hits you, you hit back,” it never occurred to me that I could overcome even the scrawniest male who might challenge me. I was also confused by the contradiction of my father’s words by what I was taught in the Sunday School he made me attend: Blessed are the meek; if someone hits you, turn the other cheek; if someone forces you to walk with him, walk further; if someone takes from you, give him more. I believed everything I was told, especially when the news was direct from God, and I was being told exact opposites by my earthly and heavenly fathers. It was easier to obey God than my father.

I was almost as afraid of hurtful words as of physical knocks.

“He’s too sensitive,” became the polite label applied by sympathetic adults.

In the classroom, with a grown woman up front to protect and reward me, just as Mother had at home, I was quick to put up my hand to answer questions and say clever things. All too quick. My hand kept bobbing up over the other children’s heads like a cork over waves. The classroom was my schoolday sanctuary, while the school playground was my nightmare.

My timidity came to painful focus in the games we were required to play during recess. As long as the games had been infantile — like the musical chairs, ring around the rosy, bean bags, or drop the handkerchief, that we played, laughing and squealing, in kindergarten and first grade — I was all right. But when the games progressed through dodge ball and Red Rover and became competitive team sports, my mind dissolved in dread and my body turned into an awkward assemblage of sticks just barely held together with flimsy thread instead of muscle. My lack of physical confidence, my anxiety about pain, and my conviction that I could not stand up to other boys ran amok on the playground.

The archetypical misery was “kick soccer” — a derivative of baseball played by kicking a soccer ball instead of hitting a baseball. I stand there on a chilly day at the vital point of the diamond to which the ball will be rolled by the pitcher, with the lines from first and third base converging on me like sharp spears. Bare knees cold in the winter wind, brown leather shoes dusty, I wait beneath naked oaks and shivering pines for the desperate moment when the ball will arrive at my feet. Everyone is looking at me without hope, without encouragement, despite a shout or two of, “Come on, Fleming!” or “Try to kick it this time!” The boy on my team who is waiting at third base looks despondent, while the fielders from the other team move closer in. I picture the disaster before it occurs. My foot connects feebly. The ball rolls gently to first base, and the usual groans go up as, once again “out”, I shuffle back to the sidelines.

It isn’t surprising that when two captains were choosing their teams for any sport I was always the last chosen, and there would even be arguments over who was going to be so unlucky as to have take me into his squad. Since I did not want to be on any team, it would have been more than fine with me sit under a tree and watch, but teachers were there to be sure that no inmate escaped recreation.

At J. J. Finley, part of the tactics in most team games was to keep Fleming from fumbling or otherwise dealing catastrophically with balls, even if it meant one of my teammates racing over out of position and grabbing a fly ball that should have been mine. In that way I had less and less opportunity to learn to correct my mistakes, and so I soon gave up and despised all athletics, salving my humiliation with the belief that people who excelled in sports were a lower life form than myself. I learned early to scorn boys who did physical things well which I could not do, the classic sadism of lowering others to make oneself feel higher.

But in spite of my misgivings, kick soccer evolved into softball, and then into baseball, and -- like a monstrous giant looming higher and higher over the horizon – tackle football. You’d think I might at least have endured basketball in a better spirit, since the opportunities for getting slammed to the ground or hit by hard objects were relatively limited, but I particularly hated basketball because it was so repetitive and because somebody was always leaping up and down in front of me waving his arms in my face. My lifelong dislike of basketball also stemmed from its being almost a body contact sport but not quite -- involving all kinds of fidgety and unnerving almost-touchings. When some kid wiggled in front me waving his hands in my face I just wanted shove him out of the way, not take part in a ridiculous ghost-dance.

I think that in retrospect I exaggerate my childhood dislike and fear of sports, even if I don’t exaggerate my lack of confidence. I actually enjoyed friendly games of vacant lot football, although it was embarrassing to be outplayed by Marjorie Gratz, who became a nun, and to be known more for dropping passes than for catching them. This in spite of my father (who had been a high school coach for every sport that there was, and who had introduced me very early to throwing and catching a baseball and football) having pronounced that I was very well coordinated and showed real talent for pitching a ball. I think that was true, and not just a biased expression of fatherly hope, because eventually I did well in tennis and golf.

Which leads to the suspicion that not only does my memory make the playground picture bleaker than it was, but more importantly that my real problem was entirely of the mind and not the body. My terror at the prospect of being hurt by a fist or a fast-flying baseball was not based on an abnormal sensitivity to pain. My pain threshold is actually higher than average. I was just convinced that pain was intolerable and in some indefinable way a major catastrophe. My propensity to kick and throw balls in the wrong direction, even to members of the wrong team, came as much from fear of criticism as from a conviction of my own ineptitude. Even shouts of encouragement from my own teammates had unnerving overtones, pregnant with the noise of disappointment that would rise up following my failure. I was so occupied with worrying about my poor performance that I went beyond predicting my own incompetence, thereby bringing it about, to losing all focus on the game itself.

Children seem to have an instinct to kill the weak, or, as a substitute, to stab them with recriminations. Bullies like Red Smith (can you guess the color of his hair?) scented scrumptious prey in my timid form. Luckily, bullying at J. J. Finley rarely progressed beyond a little pushing and shoving to the circling, lunging contests between the handful of brutish louts who had nothing better to do than pick fights with one another. Red Smith, Kenneth Celon, and Donald Askew were the worst, while Peeler Norton, a strong, decent, blond boy from the country who was always chosen first for every team, occasionally joined in. Donald Askew, small and wiry, foulmouthed and mean, bit John Springstead on the nose during a fight, and years later I read with gratification that the repulsive Askew was serving a long term in the state penitentiary.

Red Smith was the only one who picked on me with any regularity. One time it backfired when he elbowed me in the ribs while we were waiting in line outside the school building, and I instinctively returned the push and bounced the back of his no doubt exceptionally thick skull against the brick wall. To my astonishment this ogre of my nightmares began crying loudly. I had experienced an actual triumph in battle! But a teacher hurried over and scolded me and would not listen to an explanation. I was too elated to mind the unfair accusation at the time.

(A similar false accusation came when another child pushed me while we were in the cafeteria line. I pushed back and got blamed for attacking an innocent. Ever since those incidents I have had an extreme angry reaction to being falsely accused.)

The day that I thumped Red Smith’s head against the red bricks the word went around that he would be waiting “to get” me after school by the bicycle rack. My bravado evaporated. In the security of the classroom, my mind would not go beyond the horror that awaited me out there on the hard, dusty ground. I stayed in the school building after the final bell rang. It never occurred to me that I might have had another victory. I imagined Red Smith – miraculously expanded to the size of a mountain gorilla -- out there by the steel bars of the bicycle rack, pacing, fists clenched, anger-crimsoned face bright with freckles like hot sparks, surrounded by a bloodthirsty audience of 11-year-olds that would not leave until the inevitable slaughter had been accomplished.

But I knew that Red Smith was a bus child, and that the last school bus left at 3:30. We had two categories of pupils in Gainesville in the 1940's: “Bus children,” who lived out in the country and came to town on big yellow school buses, and the rest of us, who lived in town and had our own transportation, even if it were only feet. The bus children were almost always much poorer than the town children, sometimes wore overalls to school, sometimes brought only a cucumber for lunch, and were allowed to leave school briefly during harvest times.

So, knowing that Red Smith was a bus child, I hung around in our classroom after the others had left, finding reasons to talk to the teacher, watching the clock out in the hall, making myself inconspicuous, until finally the last bus had left. Even then not sure of safety, I slipped out a side door and made my way home in a roundabout way, suffering pangs about my cowardice.

Although I never talked to my parents about any such problems, as if I were ashamed or feared the consequences — criticism from my father because I had not defended myself — the next morning, remembering how I had to stay home from school when I had chicken pox, I pretended to be sick at my stomach, and by the time I returned to school after skipping a day Red Smith had lost his head of steam, and his limited brain was occupied with something other than me.

And so my fearfulness led to my discovery of the lovely effectiveness of lies. “I’m sick,” became the talisman which enabled me to escape from school and bullies and baseball, as well as arithmetic tests for which I wasn’t prepared. I think I was unwittingly helped in the evasion of school by my father, whose severe mother had forced him to go to the Blitchton schoolhouse even on days when he was truly ill. Daddy was therefore susceptible to my finely rendered simulations of sickness. In my portrayals of “not feeling good” I showed a natural talent for acting which for some reason I never thought of exploiting except to avoid going to school.

Another significant point in my development of strategies for coping with life came on a certain day when some older boy who liked scaring smaller kids was chasing me across the school grounds. He tackled me, and as we rolled across the crackling leaves I said something funny. Just as he was ready to lock an arm around my neck, I made him start laughing. The assailant was disarmed, haw-hawing. Laughing, we got up, the chase was forgotten, and my lesson was learned: I could turn away wrath with humor.

An extension of that was: If people like you, they will not hurt you. Do not
offend. Do not challenge. Be friendly. Be funny. “If everybody likes me, I’ll be safe.” Believe me, it works.

But the only truly solid safety in those days meant being at home with my mother. For some reason it developed very early that I was afraid of my father and uneasy about any conversation with him, although I realized after I grew up that he was a kind and well-meaning man. When I could manage to stay at home on a week day I waited with tense eagerness for Daddy finally to leave for work. It seemed to take forever for him to finish getting dressed, have his coffee and his corn flakes, and go through unexpected delays and his predictable complaining. I stayed out of his way, but the weight of his presence bore down on me so that I could hardly breathe as he grumbled about this and that, and proclaimed the martyrdom he would suffer at his office. When at last I heard the sound of the car pulling out of the driveway, the heavens opened, sunlight poured through the clouds, and I was comfortable and happy.

That may not be a fair or realistic picture of my father, but those were my feelings. I remember my young mother, at the other extreme, as good-humored, pleasant, and indulgent. The bright house, freed of the dark paternal cloud, smelled of vanilla and furniture polish and cookies baking. There were no bullies, no teachers scratching inexplicable number-pictures on blackboards, no balls hurtling at me — just everything as it was intended to be, as it had been in the beginning before there was school, before there were brothers.

When I was able to stay home on a school day I could play in my room, build things with Tinker Toys, set up battlefields with metal soldiers, apply crayons to a coloring book, connect puzzle dots with a pencil, or run my electric train. I could have Campbell’s soup and bologna sandwiches with Mother at noon, and glory in the peace of it all.

Later on any day when I played sick, when it was too late to hustle me off to school I might say I was “feeling better” (unless I was planning to be sick for two days), and I would go outside, affecting weakness, and watch beetles laboring through the grass, or position a magnifying glass over a dry sweetgum leaf and watch a magical wisp of smoke rise from the blinding dot of the focused sun, and then the smoldering pinpoint expand into a black-rimmed hole. I could expand the hole by working around its rim, or I could burn a narrow path right across the leaf and see it fall in half. Of course it was not long before I discovered that I could bring my death ray to bear on an ant and make it sizzle. I would never have done such a thing to a beetle or a worm, but ants seemed fair prey, maybe because they had bitten me quite a few times before it occurred to me to fry them.

My sadism toward ants seems especially strange since I was extremely tenderhearted toward all other living creatures. My parents said that they had to give away the dog they had when I was a toddler because I was so frightened for him when he went into the street. When Mother showed us how to tie a thread to a June bug’s leg and hold it tethered as it flew buzzing around our heads, all I could do was worry about the bug’s distress. When we children used to catch lightning bugs on summer nights (there were so many, many more then than now) and put them into jars with perforated lids and carry those living lanterns through the darkness, I was unhappy for fear that a lightning bug might die.

In one of those flashes of insight which stays with one, I wondered one summer night why I felt it was fine for me to capture fireflies, but very worrying to watch others doing the same thing. Enlightenment came: I knew that I would be careful with my captives and set them safely free, but I was not sure that the other children would be so kind. Somehow that seemed a bright revelation.

Unfortunately I could not stay home every day during the school year, but as a providential counterbalance to misery on the playground, I learned to read. That changed my life entirely, as if God had only then unveiled the full happy potential my personal universe. At first there was no special thrill in making out the pronunciation (our teachers used “phonics”), and what we read was definitely uninspiring: “See Dick run. See Jane Run. See Spot run. Who has the ball? Jane has the ball.”

We were restricted to that uneventful level of literature for months, and I thought, “If this is all there is to read, what’s the point?” The watery pabulum we read wasn’t nearly as exciting or funny as the stories my mother had read aloud to me. There were no thrills or laughs — just children who ran too much, were obsessed with balls, and whose items of clothing and their colors were of inordinate interest to the author. I complained vaguely to the teacher, struggling to grasp what was wrong, “Nothing ever happens.”

In another of those insights that I’ll always remember, well before I might have tossed reading into my mental trashcan along with sports and arithmetic, I woke up to the obvious fact that books had to exist which embodied those stories Mother had read to me. With the help of an understanding teacher, I went to the Finley school library and was introduced to books beyond my official reading level. Suddenly I discovered excitement, suspense, humor – even if only in the mild struggles of children and talking animals. From that moment I would withdraw from the world mentally as well as physically. I was entranced. I could not stop reading. I read at school, when I got home from school, when lying in bed at night (“Just one more page, please. . .”), and while pulling on my socks in the morning. My concerned parents began to try to put limits on my reading and force me to go outside the house and play with other children.

For many years I looked back approvingly on this reading frenzy — which continued right on through high school — as a sign of my exceptional intellect and general superiority over school’s athletic heroes. Only much later did I begin to question whether living in a world of books is a wholesome substitute for direct perception of the universe. But meanwhile, I read and read and read, and laughed out loud, cried if an animal died, shivered with fear, or rejoiced in relief, as I devoured “just one more page” under the bedsheet with the help of a flashlight.

What did I read in those early school years? My favorite was Frank Baum’s Oz series, best known for the Wizard of Oz. Guided to some extent by teachers and by my parents’ and grandparents’ memories of what they had enjoyed, I read all of the Hardy Boys books, the Bobbsy Twins books, 'Tom Sawyer', 'Huckleberry Finn', 'Penrod', 'Little Women', 'Little Men', 'Dr. Doolittle', 'The Arabian Nights', everything Jules Verne wrote, and eventually everything Edgar Rice Burroughs ever dreamed up, and scores more.

'Myths Every Child Should Know', which was given to me for Christmas one year, made a tremendous impression, especially the story of Pegasus and the tales of humans who entertained gods without knowing it -- when, for example, the humble but generous peasant couple found themselves with a pitcher of milk which was never empty.

Books about mistreated animals featured prominently in literature which was thought suitable for young people. 'Beautiful Joe' was a dog who had his ears cut off by a wicked owner. 'Black Beauty' had a wagon full of equine problems, and there was plenty of stimulation for the tear glands in 'My Friend Flicka', and 'Thunderhead'. While I managed to make my way through 'Alice in Wonderland', for some reason I had problems with 'Treasure Island' and started it twice before I finally finished it several years later. In other cases I just did not like trying to translate dialect, and so even though I had enjoyed 'Uncle Remus' when my mother read me the stories (she tells me she hated struggling with the dialect herself), I had a hard time appreciating it on my own. On the other hand, 'Green Pastures', a 19th Century Southern black preacher’s telling of Old Testament stories, made me howl with laughter as much as any book I’ve ever read.

Even now I feel elation and a glowing, intoxicating nostalgia as I write the names of those books. What wonderful hours I spent under many skies far from my Florida sky, in distant fields and forests, among many different fathers, different mothers, different friends . . . and a multitude of enemies, not one of whom could actually hurt me. My extraordinarily vivid and detailed imagination made those fictional worlds more intensely vivid than anything in the world to which I woke up each morning.

The greatest family event of that time was the building of our new home. In the beginning was The Lot. Although it seemed remote at that time, in fact it was no more than half a mile northwest of J. J. Finley School and our rented house (which was only a block or two west of the school). The lot faced north on Fletcher Terrace (later Northwest Third Place), a block-long street surfaced with crushed lime rock hidden under a thick bed of pine needles, two lanes divided by grassy islands planted with palms. It was in a heavily wooded and sparsely populated area, felt by my parents to be safely beyond an expansion of Gainesville even though it was only two or three blocks from the University of Florida football stadium, which was on the other side of University Avenue to the south. There were three other houses on the street at the time. Retired Senator Hill and his wife lived beyond a vacant lot to the west, while the Dowdells and the Coopers had adjacent homes facing ours. The rear of our lot merged into thick woods of several acres in whose recesses was a shallow stream.

We would walk around our quarter of an acre and Daddy would lovingly identify every tree that grew on the property — oak, pine, sweet gum, redbud, dogwood, ironwood, wild cherry. The lot had been selected as much for its trees as for any other reason. My parents loved plants and passed that love on to their children — one of their best gifts to me.

We went as a family to see Roscoe McLain, the contractor. He would spread out his big blueprints and I would stare at the mystic patterns of white lines on the blue background and try to transform them into the image of a house which did not yet exist. My parents largely designed the house themselves, and Mr. McLain provided the necessary details and supervised construction.

Houses were built more slowly in the 1940s days than now, maybe because there was a less prefabrication and more care. After the foundation was poured and cured, the fireplace and chimney began to take shape under the canopy of trees, and then the brick walls, and finally the whole house was there — two stories of white-painted brick in the colonial style facing north.


A few steps brought one to the front door, which was crowned by a small ornamental portico. Turning right from the entrance hall, walking over gleaming hardwood floors, we would pass through the dining room to the kitchen and breakfast nook and a door to the back yard. To the left from the entrance hall we would enter the livingroom, the only single storied area of the home, and from there, looking out on the back yard, the sun room. Between the sun room and the kitchen was a wood-paneled den with built-in bookshelves above cabinets making up one wall. On second floor, split from front to back by a hall with a bathroom at the end, were the bedrooms and a storage room.

That was where I lived until I graduated from college. My room on the southeast corner -- with one window looking out over the trees and shrubs of the back yard and the woods beyond, the other looking to sunrises over the livingroom roof – became my castle tower from which I looked out over the beautiful, ominous world while my books took me to other lands, other universes.


  1. I'm still laughing over Red Smith. I think all us guys have had at least one Red Smith in our elementary days. Staying after class to watch the clock so you knew he'd be on the bus was "damn good thinking" Fleming. Wished I thought like that. I remember my friend Alex seeing a bully beating me to a pulp, grabbed the big kid and pounded him in the parking lot till the teachers came running and we all were suspended for a week. The bully actually tried to be my friend after that. No way! Great story, thanks for the memories.

  2. Hi, Zoey. I'm very happy that you not only read my latest installment but even enjoyed it!

    And I enjoyed your bully story. Thanks for the entertaining comment.

  3. Fleming, your latest instalment is fascinating, as well as reflecting to a certain extent my own experience (the sport and reading aspects).

    Your story is important. Here in UK emphasis on sport in State schools has declined greatly, perhaps because of a sense that competitiveness in these things is brutalising. In the same way, public examinations seem to be marked in a way that every candidate passes and none is humiliated. Which is nonsense because every teacher and pupil seems under constant stress of exams and other forms of performance measurement, so that there is no time for true education, which as you pointed out in your most recent post, requires a lot of dreaming and looking out of the window and so forth, especially during adolescence.

    I was far too much living in a world of books in order to escape all sorts of dysfunctions and loneliness in my childhood. But at least it did set free the wild unfettered imagination, and make it possible in later life to make my own path through life off the beaten track, with all the risks of going through interminable bramble patches that that implies.

    Keep on dear Fleming and don't ever stop, please. (I realised the other day that the writing of memoirs never actually finishes.)

  4. oh here you are ... i will read your memoir dear Fleming ... once the times are easing up on me.