Tuesday, August 28, 2007



We moved from St. Augustine to Gainesville in the spring of 1941. The seventy mile or so drive from the Florida coast to an inland town couldn’t have taken more than two hours, even on narrow roads at my father’s careful pace, but in my life story it was my first crossing of the I Ching’s great river. Behind me lay the only place I had known well during my six years on earth, “the Oldest City” in my personal mythology as well as in the tourist brochures.

Behind me were the glittering bay, the net-winged shrimp boats, the white mountain ranges of dunes, the foaming breakers rolling in from the green sea, the great marble lions of the bridge, the fort and the kite flying and Easter egg hunts on its sloping green, every friend and landmark that I had ever known. Gone too was Irene, my second and most indulgent mother. My parents had asked her to move to Gainesville with us, but because of her own aged mother she decided to stay in St. Augustine.

On the brighter side, gone too were any enemies. I recall that for some reason -- related to a lost comic book, I think – just before we left St. Augustine I was afraid to face a neighborhood boy. I pictured him perpetually waiting out on the sidewalk to get me if I went out in front of our house. This is probably the first clear recollection I have of the shyness and fearfulness which I tried so hard over the years to overcome -- though I also remember from an earlier year a little boy hitting me in the nose as he hung upside down by his legs from a tree limb, and my father demanding, “Why didn’t you hit him back?” when I ran home crying. Typically, when threatened by the comic book bully I cowered inside, counting the hours until, flanked by my parents, we would get into our car and drive away from that place forever.

Speaking of anxiety, the pants-wetting incident in St. Augustine first grade was probably the reason I asked my mother, “Will the school in Gainesville would have bathrooms?” Unfortunately, little knowing the seed of doubt she was planting, instead of an unqualified “yes” she gave an offhand, “I’m sure they must.” Having already developed symptoms of an anxious obsessiveness, I interpreted “I’m sure they must” as, “I’m really not sure.” By nightfall, “I’m not really sure” became “I doubt it,” and later, more positive, parental assertions could never eliminate my fear. Not until I actually stood in front of a door at J. J. Finley School with “BOYS” written on it did my worries melt.

We moved into a little rented house in the middle of a row of similar houses in northwest Gainesville. My parents planned to build our own home, but in the meantime we greeted our new town from a neat little wooden box with a yard the size of a large livingroom rug, soon brightened by petunias that I helped my mother plant along the front of the house. Workmen were still putting on the finishing touches after we moved in, and the place smelled like sawdust and fresh paint for days.

In writing about this period I’m given poor assistance by my very selective memory, which tends to fade out anything which is not (a) fairly recent or (b) very important to me. My brain apparently says, “If you can’t use it, forget it.” Of many years I retain mere flashes and fragments — faces without names, names without faces, events without identifiable characters. An example of that sometimes embarrassing trait is that when about 30 years old, or maybe 20 (see what I mean?), I was standing by a stream in a wooded, undeveloped part of Gainesville for some reason I no longer remember, when, announced by some preliminary thrashing in the bushes, a surveyor came into sight through the undergrowth, tripod in hand. To me this tall, blond man was a complete stranger, but the moment his eyes lit on me he smiled and cried, “Fleming!” and seemed ready to squeeze me with his arms.

While I pretended to recognize him, I desperately tried to fish up his image from the deepest archives of my mind. Meanwhile he overflowed with a torrent of recollections of people we had known and things we had done together, which you would think would have brought on the longed-for identification. As far as I could put together, we had been part of the same crowd, maybe sometime around the eighth or ninth grade, and had shared many fascinating experiences. I put on the best act I could, faking recollections, until finally my unknown chum disappeared into the woods in a new direction.

Within hours after we moved into the little rented house in Gainesville, children appeared on the sidewalk out front, riding bicycles or tricycles very, very slowly, or walking even more slowly, taking long glances at our house. Had my parents had no children, the scouts would have spread the word and the place would have been ignored, but as it was, within a couple of days, after the first cautious approaches carried out in ways known only to children, I had playmates who began my orientation in the neighborhood.

The one person from those first weeks in Gainesville who made enough of an impression to stay in my memory was a girl a little older than me who lived down the block on the other side of the street in a house whose lawn was conspicuous for lack of weeding and mowing. At that age children are innocent of class and culture, but I imagine that my parents were none too thrilled with the origins of my new friend, who told me that her father was a professional wrestler as well as something to do with pipes.

“He takes a razor blade in the ring,” Becky said. “He sticks it inside his trunks to hide it. He says if somebody pins him down and starts really hurting him, he’s gonna cut’m.”

She confided that she was going to be a nurse when she grew up, but after I told her I was going to be the pilot of a China Clipper she thought it over and decided to be an airline stewardess on the same plane with me. At a later age such talk might have progressed to romance, but this first grade relationship never went beyond sitting in swings speculating about our futures, and playing hide-and-seek or kick the can with other children.

One other occurrence on that street that I recall vividly was a solar eclipse, in preparation for which my parents used matches to smoke glass to that we could look at the sun without being blinded.

Although my memories of ages seven to ten are sparse, the mind-file containing my first years in Gainesville bears the general label, “School”, because I was plunged fully into that insulated and regulated world into which our society stuffs us after infancy and confines us until we have suffered through sexual awakening and are theoretically old enough to survive without our parents. My consciousness having been squirted into a miniature body on this planet with no instructions other than the Two Basic Commandments, “Do what feels good and avoid what hurts,” my concept of where I was and what I was doing there was worse than vague — a situation which hasn’t improved much over the years.

From my parents I had learned to use toilet paper, spoons and forks, to fasten shirt buttons and to tie shoes, to whistle (it took me ages to get beyond labored puffs of soundless air), and to speak a Southern version of the English language which combined my mother’s unspoiled Tennessee accent with my father’s family’s frontier “Florida cracker” speech, which in my father’s case had been spruced up by his years in college. (Floridians had begun to be called “Florida crackers” in the old day because of the loud cracks of the cowboys’ whips. Florida was a bigger cattle ranching state than Texas at one time.) I pronounced “rice” as “rass”, “thing” to rhyme with “hang”, said “hey” instead of “hi”, and knew the midday meal only as “dinner” and the evening meal as “supper.” But home learning and kindergarten -- heavily weighted toward crayons, scissors, graham crackers and playtime -- was officially over. Now I had reached the educational big time, to be taught everything from reading and writing all the words that there were, to multiplying numbers all the way up through the nines.

J. J. Finley School, grades 1 through 6, was only a long block or so from our rented house and just a few more blocks from the home my parents soon built. J. J. Finley was a red brick, one story building whose classrooms had big high windows -- fully opened with long poles during warm days, giving entrance to the occasional distracting wasp, and from which imprisoned youth could gaze longingly at drifting clouds and the upper reaches of oak trees and pines while inhaling chalk dust and knowledge. The decor featured American flags, children’s crayon drawings displayed on corkboards, and that ubiquitous unfinished portrait of George Washington so beloved by the American school system.

During those grammar school years each grade spent every day with one teacher in one room studying all different subjects, except for going to the auditorium for music class or assembly, or outdoors for playground periods, or, most blissfully, eating lunch. From the paradisiacal Irene-pampered, pie filled idleness of my St. Augustine days, this became my climate: A summer of blissful freedom, overshadowed toward its end by the dreaded approach of September; the confused excitement, apprehension, and discovery of the first day of school; imprisonment through fall, winter, and spring; and then finally once more the great day of freedom. “Have a nice summer, boys and girls.”

The pupils at J. J. Finley were all white, of course -- I had graduated college before the earthquake of desegregation struck the South -- and almost all were of Southern ancestry. The most exotic persons were two pretty, dark-haired sisters who had lived in Hawaii and had grass skirts which they showed off performing a hula in front of the third grade class. A Yankee – most likely the transplanted child of a professor at the University of Florida, which, though tiny in comparison with its later size, was already Gainesville’s main feature -- was such a rarity that derision and minor persecution were inevitable. Larry Smith, the only Yankee I can actually recall knowing while in elementary school, pled, “It’s not my fault I’m from Illinois.” But Larry called dinner “lunch”, and supper “dinner”, and was called home for “dinner” an hour before the rest of us, and such things as that, along with his ludicrous accent, marked him as a permanent oddity.

As for my elementary school teachers, I’ve since realized that many of them – as well as many of my high school teachers -- were absolute dodos when compared with intelligent and educated individuals, but in those days they were goddesses of wisdom. Not all looked like goddesses, of course — but Miss Crane did . . . my beautiful and attentive fifth grade teacher, with whom I fell precociously and dizzily in love. More commonplace was the kindly sternness of steel-haired Miss Cannon of the Third Grade, or the barrel-like form of bun-topped Mrs. McGinnis who presided over the Sixth Grade.

Although Miss Crane -- hair of light brown, always in a pretty dress, always sweet with perfume -- was in the awesome category of “grownup” she was probably no more than twenty-one. I took the incredible step of voluntarily sitting in the front row so that I could smell the sweetness wafting from her skirt and hair as she floated to and fro in front of the blackboard. I shivered and blushed if she accidentally touched my hand when returning a marked paper to me, and I would try to create that experience each time she handed me anything. It was just as well that, like all goddesses, she was unattainable, because at the age of eleven I had no idea what I wanted of her except her perpetual nearness.

Love. My worship of women actually predated Miss Crane by two years. In the third grade, as inexplicably as these things usually happen, I developed an overwhelming attachment to the Queen of the May, Anne Saunders. Slim and pretty, with light brown hair, she was to the undiscerning just one of the girls in the third grade picking her awkward way between the cuteness of little girls and the burgeoning beauty of adolescence, but to me she became the center of the universe.

I feel uncomfortable writing that. Perhaps because it brings to mind other episodes — agonizing, shattering, wonderful, ridiculous — of which this was the archetype.

Why did Anne Saunders, Queen of the May that year, become the center of my universe? Why should skinny legs, bony little knees, a turned up nose, and brown hair in twin pigtails suck me into a vortex of helpless adoration? If I knew the answer I would know the answers to many other mysteries in my life. All I know is that the annual May Pole was set up in a clearing among the pines and sweet gum trees and oaks that surrounded the red brick school, and that my lifetime devotion to Venus began there.

Long, wide ribbons of various bright colors hung from the top of the May Pole, undulating gently in the summer breeze. Anne appeared in a frilly white dress which stood out starchily from her legs. Upon her soft hair was placed a wreath of flowers. She took one of the ribbons. Other children took up the other ribbons, and we moved as far away from the pole as we could. Then, to music from a piano which had been wheeled out to the top of the steps at the school’s main entrance, we began that ancient, weaving dance around and around the wooden pole which gradually cloaked it in mulicolored ribbons from top to bottom. Of the historic phallic significance, we were innocently unaware -- but how appropriate to my story, I now see.

Laughing, ducking, bumping into one another, stumbling, we went round and round until only bits of ribbon at the bottom remained free, and then we stepped back to admire that gaily colored column we had woven.

The music teacher continued playing the piano — a strangely feeble, tinkling voice away from its home in the auditorium, out here beneath the sky and trees, as if nature, centered on our May Pole, mocked the tenuous power of humans and their music – as we consumed celebratory cupcakes and fruit punch.
From then on I did not want to be anywhere except as close as I could get to Anne Saunders. I wanted to sit or stand next to her, to hear her voice, breathe the incense of her hair and skin, and if possible to touch her, or at least to be brushed by her dress. Just a near miss by her skirt thrilled me. I worshiped her laugh, the way she spoke, her walk, the color of her blue eyes. I even looked forward to going to school on Monday mornings so that I could revel in the intoxication again. When I was away from her I was like a planet of eccentric orbit out at the dark and frigid farthest reaches from its sun, and when I was near her I was that planet thawed to glowing warmth and spring.

What words did we exchange? Nothing personal, I’m sure. Most exchanges between boys and girls in the third grade consisted of quips, taunts, and teasing, not conversations or declarations of love. I was probably never alone with her. So what was the goal of my infatuation? I was not yet conscious of sexual desire. I no more had a purpose than did one of my paper boats when I put it into a rain-made river which carried it bouncing and bobbing down the gutter along the edge of the street. At that time I probably had not even asked myself seriously why there were boys and girls instead of just one model to fit all. It had not escaped my notice that we dressed differently, but there are always so many novel things in the life of an eight year old that I expected to be confused much of the time.

It seems that my desire was to achieve some kind of identity with her. I doted on any similarity I could find between us. If we both used the same phrase, or thought the same thing was funny, it was like discovering diamonds. If she had a ham sandwich for lunch, I wanted a ham sandwich for lunch. If she expressed a love of chocolate cake, I loved chocolate cake, even though until then I had liked pie better than cake.

But the satisfaction of finding similarities was limited by inexpressible boundaries. Maybe what I yearned for could be called unity. If two people are similar enough to be almost identical, that is about as close to unity as they can come without the presumably impossible feat of occupying the same space at the same time. Plato’s idea that souls are split into two before incarnation, and that the halves must find one another on earth, comes to mind. Actual unity being impossible, and sexual acts being unknown, the closest I could get to my goal was similarity — and as much momentary touching of the two bodies as I could get away with.

Of course the result of being enthralled by a goal which was as unattainable as it was indefinable was eventual frustration and fading passion. I imagine that summer vacation intervened and my garden of adoration could not grow unwatered from June until September while I saw only the children in my immediate neighborhood. I wonder if Anne Saunders — if she remembered me at all after she grew up — remembers me as the skinny, and slightly bucktoothed boy in short pants who had a crush on her in the third grade. Most likely she never noticed. It’s an interesting thought – that people very important to us in the past may not remember us at all, while we have forgotten people to whom we were monuments along the road of life.

(To be continued.)

Copyright 2005 Fleming Lee


  1. This is especially fascinating to me because my own memoir is now reaching the age of 11 or 12 and I see massive differences. Your childhood from my point of view sounds typically American as by that time I would have known from books and films. Things were certainly not that way in England, though it would take too long to explain the differences. Yes we had typical pictures of growing up but they would have been manifold, with class and regional variations. My feeling is that there was altogether less social conformity in England compared to the USA and also other countries which I learned about through literature: Canada, France, Australia.

    And my own childhood was completely eccentric, as you will have gathered.

    Your reminiscences continue to be fascinating especially your detailed recall of the fascination of Anne Saunders and the way that fascination affected your own behaviour.

    For me, going to boys-only boarding schools, having no friends at home, there was no experience of girls (of any kind) between attempted intercourse aged 4 (the girl was 5 or 6) and a summer romance aged 15: which was also the time that crushes of the kind you describe did occur, but with younger boys.

  2. Vincent, I'd really like to read your description of the massive differences between our childhoods as far as nationality is concerned. We certainly had significant regional difference in the U.S., but class was no doubt much more important in England.

    Of course in reading your memoirs I can see national differences, but I'd like to know your analysis.

    Thank you for the very interesting comment.

  3. Oh! Did I promise an analysis? I don't know if I could. I never had any co-ed education except briefly when I went to school in Holland and equally briefly at a convent school when I was 5. I don't actually remember any girls at either of them so I'm only guessing to say they were co-ed. I don't remember any child at all!

    And then, I don't know American childhood except mainly from movies and a little from books.

    I think that post-war Britain was poor, and that also cut across the classes generally. If in fact you were rich, you would not display it in view of all the poverty and loss which had happened as a result of bombing and bereavement.

    Stoicism and "getting on with it" were what everyone was proud of. Children played on the streets, the more so if they were poorer or of lower class (the two things not being synonymous at all: look at Charles Dickens' childhood).

    One difference in education systems is that in Britain some daily religious observance (at morning assembly) and religious instruction (at least one lesson a week) was mandatory by law, whereas I believe the opposite to be the case in America.

    So why is religion so marginal in the UK, kept alive almost entirely by immigrants? In the fifties and sixties it was Caribbeans (Pentecostal was the most popular Christian sect) and Muslims from Pakistan, not to mention Hindus and Sikhs. Now the influx of Poles has put strain on the Catholic Church's resources. Meanwhile the indigenous population remains apathetic to religion for the most part.

    Patriotism is also hardly visible among the English. Some Englishman said it's the last refuge of a scoundrel and most others agree. the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish are patriotic but mostly to declare their separate identity from the English.

    In fact nobody really wants to be English at all. A Yorkshireman is proud of being a Yorkshireman and the same can be said of certain other counties, such as Durham, Cornwall, Somerset, Devon, Kent. It's a land of tribes, and was therefore quite naturally racist when the foreigners arrived after the war.

    That has been stopped by law and the British are basically law-abiding, when they stand a chance of being found out.

    I being one feel no loyalty for my fellow Brits at all. I love the land, its history and the people I know. The others I view with suspicion. And all the other Brits are like this too.

    Beyond this, I don't know if I could give generalisations.

  4. Fleming,

    I fell in love with a girl in kindergarten named Kathy. We didn't have last names then, but she caught me staring at her, and she stared back with her big brown eyes. Not a word was ever spoken between us.

    I moved away, and some years later when I was 10 or 11 I saw her from the window of our slowly-passing car. She was at a campsite. Same big brown eyes, same girl. She remembered, and waved.

    Maybe it's possible for both the archetype and the persons encompassed by it to endure.

  5. Vincent, thanks for granting my request for a further analysis. I overlooked considering the post-war differences, and I now realize it was because the memoirs I've posted here so far cover the time before the war. The upcoming chapter is called, "My First War", and there you'll see some stark contrasts between national experiences.

    No, we never had required religious services in school, but my school days were before "under God" was removed from the Pledge of Allegiance we recited with our hands over our hearts every morning, and I have a feeling that The Lord's Prayer was said aloud by a teacher on one occasion or another. Things were simply very, very different in the U.S. in the 1940's and early 50's than they are now.

    But we did have regional differences such as those you mention in England, probably much more so than today, when TV and MacDonalds and Wal-Mart have homogenized the country. There were many in the South who only angrily and grudgingly acknowledged that Yankee invasion and occupation had forced us to remain in the Union. Each University of Florida football game was heralded by a mounted rider in Confederate uniform carrying a big Confederate battle flag, whose steed galloped from one end of the field and back to a trumpet call, while the band and audience broke into a rousing rendition of "DixieLand".

    'Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton,
    Old times there are not forgotten,
    Look away, look away, look away Dixie Land.

    'In Dixie Land, where I was born in, early on one frosty mornin',
    Look away, look away, look away Dixie Land.

    'I wish I was in Dixie, Hooray! Hooray!

    'In Dixie Land I'll take my stand
    to live and die in Dixie.

    'Away, away, away down south in Dixie.

    'Away, away, away down south in Dixie

    I appreciate your continuing to read my scribblings.

  6. Marc, I especially like your last sentence.

    "Puppy love," adults call it? I had the same experience of seeing a girl I'd once been in love with and hadn't seen for years. She was in a car going in the opposite direction from me. My heart almost stopped.

    What's really odd is that I had a similar experience involving a girl I'd never seen before. I was turning right at an town intersection, and she was entering from the right, and we glanced at one another, and there was such an electrical shock, such a sense of familiarity and longing, that tears came into my eyes. But our cars went on their ways, and I never saw her again. I think about her often, decades later.

    That's the kind of thing which makes me believe in some form of "past lives". The setup seems to be that we meet quite a few people "from other lives" in our youthful years, and very few as we grow older.