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.

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

Wednesday, August 22, 2007


Chapter One


The soft rustling of palm fronds in the sea breeze. My first memory of the planet Earth.

What my mother remembers best is the milkman whistling Christmas carols beneath her second story hospital window as his bottles rattled in their metal baskets early in the morning. "Hark, the herald angels sing..."

For I had been ejected into independent existence during a happy season -- on December 19, 1933, at about 5:20 in the afternoon, in Flagler Hospital, in St. Augustine, Florida, with the sun in Sagittarius and Gemini ascending. As the first child of Jean Fleming Blitch and Loonis Blitch, I was the cause for special celebration during the Christmas and New Year festivities.

Later I would know that I had been presented to an old Florida family -- on my father's side, at least -- in the oldest city in the United States, on the eastern edge of a subtropical peninsula pointing down into the Caribbean Sea. Later I would learn that I was born in the midst of a depression, when my father put cardboard inside his shoes to cover the holes in the soles, and that Adolf Hitler and Franklin Roosevelt had been elected to office during the year of my birth, both pledged to cure their countries of economic paralysis.

Just before Christmas, 1933, however, within the stucco walls of Flagler Hospital beside the bay, I simply wondered at the rustling sounds of the tops of palm trees just outside my mother's windows, while I lay snuggled against her in her bed.

For the first six years of my life we lived in St. Augustine, and those years, of which I have more vivid memories than of many later years, have always had a paradisiacal quality in my life's mythology. I had no responsibilities. My wants were satisfied without charge or obligation. I did not yet grapple with the desires and anxieties of puberty. There was not even a sibling to contend with for the first three years. Best of all, there was no puzzling over why I was here and what it was all about, and no fear of its ending. Also, my parents were very glad to have me, and in spite of the Great Depression (of which I was unaware), we lived well, though simply.

Before I go any farther into the pleasant aspects of our circumstances, I need to squelch any suspicion that my father was one of those fortunate few who during the Depression had wealth or a high income position. As a matter of fact, he always talked of that period as one of anxiety, when there was real shortage and struggle and debt. Indeed, the Depression was the reason I was born in St. Augustine instead of Ocala, almost a hundred miles to the southwest, where my parents had met and had been married in 1927. My father had given up his job as history teacher and coach at Ocala High School and in 1928 had taken his very young bride to Blitchton, a little rural community a dozen miles north, where his family’s big, thriving, farm and ranch, with its new sawmill, would provide a bountiful living.

Then the Great Depression came – the Depression whose early shadows had moved my mother’s father to bring his wife and four daughters from Tennessee to Ocala just a couple of years before my parents married. As prices of livestock and crops went over the waterfall of deflation, the expectation that Blitchton would continue to provide a good income shriveled like fruit on a dead vine. Wholesalers either did not buy at all, or offered prices so low that a sale would have been pointless. There was food, but there was no money, or very little of it, and when a friend with the right connections told my father about a job opening for County Agricultural Agent in St. Johns County, my father instantly said,
“I’ll take it.”

“But I haven’t even told you what the salary is.”

“I don’t care what it pays. I’ll take it.”

And so my parents moved to St. Augustine in 1931 and gained an income, and in 1933 a baby.

At the time I was born they lived in the lower floor of a two story house, 164 Marine Street, just across a beautiful park from Flagler Hospital, on the edge of Matanzas Bay. Soon after I came along they rented a full sized house and hired a full time maid who became as important to me as my parents. In fact, of those first six years of my life, I recall at least as much about Irene as I do about my mother or father.

So it is that after the whispering of palm trees, I remember Irene, the old fort, the little railroad station at the end of our street, the shrimp boats in Matanzas Bay, the Bridge of Lions, the Plaza de San Marcos, the Ponce de Leon Hotel.


Irene was the person who generally took me to enjoy all those other things when I was a small child. She was a colored woman (as black people wanted to be called in those days) who was at our house from before breakfast until after dinner at night. She lived with her aged mother in a two story wooden house with an open porches on the ground floor and a large balconies extending across the second floors, supplied of course with rocking chairs and hanging plants. St. Augustine was so small that I could walk with Irene from my house to her house, and there I remember two things: smoky smells, and above all the upright piano, where I first brought forth sounds from a keyboard.

In my memory it seems as if most people had maids, and that they were at least as involved with taking care of children as with domestic chores. The maid in Donny Maitine’s household across the street from us probably went farther than any other in child caring. Donny was very skinny. They said that meat made him nauseated. So, to keep him from wasting away, the Maitine's maid was assigned to sit outside near wherever Donny was playing with his five-year-old friends and call him over from time to time and feed him spoonfuls of Ovaltine.

Each day maids like Irene would converge on the Plaza de San Marcos pushing baby carriages and baby strollers, or leading toddlers by the hand, and trying to hold children of four and five in check with entreaties, threats, promises and an occasional open-handed whack on the seat of the pants or skirt. Maids wore uniforms then. Today it would be rare to see a maid in a middle class neighborhood, and the cleaning women who might be spotted would be wearing blue jeans or shorts. But in the 1930's, in the midst of the Great Depression, the maids of the small town middle class wore uniforms.

Although Fort Marion was the center of everything for me, the Plaza was the real center of the town. To the east was Matanzas Bay, separated from the ocean by a string of islands linked to the town by the Bridge of Lions. The bridge was named for the two huge white marble lions which faced the town where the bridge met the mainland. I always insisted on being helped up to touch their big paws and the round stone ball on which a front paw rested.

The lions looked down the Plaza, a long, rectangular, shady park with the Slave Market at the east end and the ornate Ponce de Leon hotel across the street at the west end. There many benches where the maids could sit among ancient cannons and pyramids of ancient cannon balls, gossip, and perhaps occasionally contemplate the fact that their ancestors might have involuntarily begun occupations in the New World on the very spot called the Slave Market, where old men, black and white, now played checkers in a spacious tile-roofed pavilion.


Later I wondered whether the maids, if they had the inclination to think about their forebears, were pleased they had ended up where they were, or if they would rather have been living in some African village. But at the time Irene began taking me to the Plaza I was too infantile to wonder much of anything other than where my rattle had disappeared within my wicker baby carriage, and whether I would soon get some more of that delicious sweet frozen milky stuff that Irene let me lick from a wooden stick in her dark hand.

One feature of the Plaza area that I never wanted to miss was the display window of The Neptune Grill, which in my memory was St. Augustine’s only restaurant. From the sidewalk one could look through the sweating plate glass at an expanse of crushed ice on which was arranged a beautiful display of fish just as they had come from the water that morning – a kind of seafood bouquet whose centerpiece might be a big grouper surrounded by red snappers, the design completed by sea bass, pompano, crabs, and giant shrimp.

By the time we left St. Augustine when I was seven years old I had never been into a restaurant except Morrison’s Cafeteria in Jacksonville, and so the glimpses I could get into the dim interior of The Neptune Grill when the door opened and closed were like glimpses into some mysterious, luxurious, storybook grotto.

Even when I was an adult I amused people with my stubborn recollection that The Neptune Grill was, if not St. Augustine’s only restaurant, certainly its major one, when in fact the tourist-trampled town had in subsequent years sprouted more restaurants than there had been fish and shrimp on ice at The Neptune Grill . . . which became extinct at some point without my even knowing it.

Speaking of shrimp, Mother recalls that she and my father used to go down to the docks and buy shrimp off the net-festooned boats for a nickel a pound.


One of the major economic changes during my lifetime, much greater than the general tides of inflation, has been the rising price of seafood, which, even starting the sample long after those Depression lows, has gone from being far cheaper than red meat to being more expensive. In the present day, ocean fish which were considered inedible, or at least too unattractive or poor in flavor to sell, are given fancy new names and hawked as the latest delicacy. But soon even those nouveau fish become so popular because of their price that their cost goes up and they join the piscatorial elite.

Being the first born, I got disproportionate coverage in my baby book compared to my later-arriving brothers, and those cards and letters and photographs and newspaper clippings record many more things than I can remember: In one picture I stand by a little mahogany table by a birthday cake with one candle on it -- outdoors because my parents' bellows-folding Kodak camera couldn’t deal with indoor lighting. Those were the days in which the amateur photographer took a roll of black and white Kodak pictures in bright sunlight and hoped that most of them would "come out".

My baby book, with its padded satin cover on which an angelic infant reclines, also shows me dressed up for Easter, holding my stuffed Easter bunny, and at Christmas I am seen seated on the front sidewalk with my new beach ball, teddy bear, and drum major's hat.

I also ride a rocking horse which is not a horse but a round-eared Mickey Mouse.

I pedal a sporty metal roadster (our world knew nothing of plastic, though little figures were made of celluloid), stand beside it in a snowsuit of questionable utility, and in short pants strut with my plumed cardboard drum major's hat on, pretending to pound away at the toy bass drum suspended by a braided cord around my neck. Pretending because the folding Kodak had a shutter speed that would cause a rambling snail to blur, and all photographs had to be taken with the subjects rigid.

A look at my baby book – which covered a few years past my actual babyhood – reveals that children’s birthday parties were big news in tiny St. Augustine. The newspaper articles which Mother cut out and pasted indicate that respectable parents would as soon have let their pre-school offspring go to kindergarten without shoes as let a birthday pass without a party involving at least a fifteen guests, and often more.

The local newspaper dutifully printed all the details of each party beneath a front-lawn group photograph of the partygoers in fancy, festooned hats. Ice cream and cake were of course essential, along with hats and party favors. The favor I liked best produced a loud bang and the smell of gunpowder when a ribbon at each end was pulled. Second to that I liked the one that unrolled and whistled when I blew into the mouthpiece. Pin the tail on the donkey was the most popular game, followed by Blind Man’s Bluff and Hide and Seek. One little boy who lived a few houses down from us took advantage of Hide and Seek to disappear from his own birthday party. He was found alone in our back yard, pensively swinging on our swing.

The scrapbooks which I myself created, apparently with great zeal, were obviously an early way of keeping me occupied: The first one is filled largely with pieces of magazine pictures cut in all kinds of outlandish shapes, pasted down without regard to whether the page had a top or a bottom. Those pictures give the impression that Shirley Temple and Walt Disney's three little pigs and big bad wolf were by far the most important things on Earth, but I was also attracted to lavish desserts with cherries on top, to beautiful women in lovely surroundings, and to long, luxurious Packard cars,-- interests (except for the cars), which would not abandon me as life proceeded.

The second scrapbook which I created in my infancy was much better laid out and more varied -- children flying kites in the March wind, whimsical tramps roasting wieners on sticks at an open fire, a poor child being forced to eat spinach before he could have his ice cream, robins and dogs and cute little kittens dressed in human clothes doing human things -- but my memories of those years in St. Augustine take the form not of the second scrapbook but of the first -- fragmentary, disordered, full of bright colors:

Sitting on the massive, low swung chains that marked the boundary of the Ponce de Leon hotel. Watching stone frogs spew water from their mouths into the hotel's Spanish-tiled courtyard fountain.


The municipal Easter egg hunt on the fort green -- with a wave of children charging up the hill like invading Vikings. Most of the participants were older than me, and I was lucky to find one egg, hidden by the grass in a small hole.


Slouching by the window during a downpour, watching raindrops chase one another down the glass. I loved rain, and if there was lightning and house-rattling thunder, all the better. Some drops of water would hesitate and hang on the glass, while others would slide quickly; one might run down into a hesitant one and merge into it, start it rolling, and that enlarged drop would join with others, and help form a wriggling stream among other streams running down to the bottom of the pane. And then, as the rain ended, running out to the street to send paper boats, or just a big leaf, down the rapids in the gutter beside the sidewalk.

Cleaning my teddy bear with corn meal. One of my early Christmas presents was a blond teddy bear. When he had been held and pulled around the house long enough to get grimy, Mother would say it was time to give him a bath. She would spread newspapers on the floor, and we would put my teddy bear on his back and massage him with corn meal from a bag in the kitchen. Then he’d lie on his stomach and we’d rub corn meal into the rest of his fur. When the meal was brushed out he would look considerably brighter. I wanted to know why Mother couldn't wash my hair with corn meal instead of the much-dreaded shampoo which stung my eyes, and I never got a satisfactory answer.

Going to Mr. Caruso's barber shop on for haircuts. I know from photographs that for the first few years of my life I had long blond hair, large curls down to my shoulders. Mr. Caruso eventually ended that. I sat on a smoothly worn wooden board across the arms of the barber's chair, a little tense at being elevated into the stratosphere by Mr. Caruso's lever, but soon totally absorbed in the endless corridor of receding reflections created by the mirrored walls in front of and behind me. Peering into the mirror I was drawn away from Mr. Caruso's barber shop, from my father standing nearby, and from St. Augustine, by the infinite procession of ever shrinking images of myself in the throne-like chair, until finally I was in a world too far away to be seen, and yet where the images must go on and on and on.

Going to Mr. Wolfe's photography studio to have my picture taken. Mr. Wolfe was on the same street as the barber shop -- a street now “restored” and closed to vehicles in order to attract tourists to restaurants, bakeries, and all the kinds of shops that are found in such places from Savannah to Charleston to California.

Like a sorcerer's den, Mr. Wolfe’s inner sanctum was dim, strange smelling, draped with dark fabrics and filled with strange apparatus. Mr. Wolfe, however, was jolly, though as thin as a walking stick. He let me stand on a stool so I could look at the big ground glass plate at the rear of his giant bellows camera; magically, I could see the world going in and out of focus ... upside down . . . rivaling even Mr. Caruso's infinite mirror images. Then Mr. Wolfe would arrange me in some endearing pose in front of the gleaming lens, get on the far side of the massive tripod, slide a black frame into the camera, and draw a great dark cloth over his head and most of the camera. One of his hands held a rubber bulb while the other stuck up from under his tent waving a brightly feathered bird on a stick. Then his fingers would squeeze the bulb and the grotto would fill with blinding light.

(Which reminds me of a similar bird we got at some kind of boardwalk at Jacksonville Beach when we went to visit Mother's aunts. Tied by a length of string to a stick, the bird would chirp and whistle shrilly, and its tail would spin, when I whipped the stick round and round over my head. I remember playing with it all the way home in the back seat of the car. It is an isolated memory, connected with nothing, like a soap bubble against a blue sky, and just as pleasant.)

The best thing of all about Mr. Wolfe was that he gave me a kite for being such a good boy. Like the chirping bird from the beach, the kite was probably made in Japan in those days when Japan was a quaint and elegant subject for picture books rather than wartime enemy. "Children of other lands", such as little Japanese boys in silk kimonos flying exotic kites, Hans in wooden shoes, and Ahmed in Bedouin robes next to his camel, figured prominently in my childhood picture books -- I suspect more so than in the 21st Century, when little Japanese boys wear pants and shirts, Hans wears blue jeans, and Ahmed wears tennis shoes and t-shirts and rides a sports car instead of a camel.

Mr. Wolfe's gift led to my pretty mother and me flying kites on the fort green while Daddy was at work -- one of my most vivid memories.

First, we put the kite together and tore strips off an old white sheet to make the tail. I would hold the roll of string and run, and Mother would hold the diamond-shaped kite, which eventually rose into the sky while the string tugged at my hand like a living creature. Other kites followed the demise of my first on a telephone wire. All tended to end their days (or minutes) in such unspectacular and frustrating ways, hung up in trees or stepped on, but on one occasion the loss of the kite was more satisfying than retrieval. The taut, vibrant string broke and fell gently, lifeless, back toward me, and my dragon-faced kite escaped, quivering in the strong wind, leaping upward, flying higher and higher inland from the fort on Matanzas Bay toward the middle of the town. Mother and I ran after it down the grassy hill until we reached the street and saw that it was above treetop and power line level. Then we moved back up the slope of the green to get a better view, and saw it, like a distant bird, fly southwest toward the far end of the plaza, where -- miraculis mirabuli -- its tail caught on the top of the highest spire of the Catholic cathedral...and there it remained, flapping and bobbing, like the flag of the town.


As I've said, my father was the county agricultural agent, a job he had taken when the Depression ended his and Mother's efforts to make a living on the family farm at Blitchton. I loved to visit Daddy's office, on the second floor of the post office building, near the cathedral. Those were the days when the government built post offices that looked like post offices and not like quick-stop food stores. They were monumental stone edifices with echoing marble floors and sculpture on the facades. Even the little doors of the post office boxes were beautifully sculpted of brass. In the lobby were long, massive tables made of pecky cypress covered with thick glass. My father would lift me up so that I could tirelessly inspect the beautiful pocketed wood.


In Daddy's actual office the main attraction on the second floor was the water cooler with its inverted glass bottle, where you held a little Dixie cup under the spout and pushed the button and lo, if you were lucky, the thing would emit a gigantic belch and a huge bubble or two would rise in the jug. If you were not lucky, and there was neither bubble nor belch, you had -- like a slot machine addict -- to keep drinking water and refilling until the grand eruption occurred.
The office smelled of some fluid used in the mimeograph machine, which was the second greatest attraction, because when you turned a crank freshly printed papers shot out into a wire basket. Apparently I liked the typewriters too, even during the earliest visits, because there is a picture of me, in diapers, sitting on a table while earnestly pecking away at the typewriter's keys. One of Mr. Wolfe’s works, I assume.

I don't remember the people at that office, although I remember my father complaining to my mother that because the secretaries were Catholic (like most people around there, where the country churches were Catholic instead of Baptist because of the long established Minorcan population) they would brag about "doing whatever they wanted every weekend" because all they had to do was go to church and be forgiven. My father was always darkly fascinated by other people's sexual misdeeds (even though neither he nor my mother ever admitted to us children that there was any such thing as sex) and he was still repeating his indictment of Catholic secretaries years later when I was old enough to understand it.

Once each year the circus -- Barnum, Bailey, Ringling Brothers -- arrived in St. Augustine in its own train and publicized the great event with a parade through town. We would go down to the tracks to watch the horses and camels and elephants walk down ramps from their railroad cars to the ground, and then we would wait for the parade, which luckily passed directly beneath the balcony of my father's office. We fortunate ones would clutch the wrought iron balustrade and peer down at tumblers, staggering clowns, glittering girls on caparisoned horses, and elephants holding one another's tails. Lions and tigers came by in gilded cages drawn by huge heavy-footed horses, while the sound of the gilded calliope dominated it all.

My mother would take me to watch the Big Top being set up in a huge field, where elephants and horses helped men raise stupendous poles and haul incredible expanses of canvas high into the air, until where there had been nothing in the morning there was now a city of lofty tents, ornate red and gold wagons, and fluttering banners like an picture from a book of fairy tales.

The three ring circus performances themselves, being like circus performances everywhere, have become generalized in my mind except for the clowns and the trapeze artists, and I otherwise I remember mostly the opening procession, especially the bandwagon, and visiting the menagerie -- for which a separate ticket was required -- and seeing the animals close up. Also vivid is the time my little four year old blonde friend, Christine Smith, who was sitting between me and her mother in the bleachers, was suddenly not there anymore. A piece of circus magic? No -- guided by her wails we quickly discovered that she had fallen between seat and footrest onto the sawdust five feet below.

I remember, too, that the boulevard from the ticket wagon to the big top was flanked by the sideshows, with their big, garishly illustrated canvas signs. Of course I always wanted to see those shows, especially the freaks, but Mother said there were strange, ugly things in those tents that we wouldn't enjoy seeing. That may really have meant that we couldn't afford the extra expense, but most likely it was an expression of my mother's discomfort with anything that was not guaranteed to be cheerful and uplifting -- for my mother's major characteristic, passed down by her mother -- is to avoid noticing or even recognizing the existence of anything ugly or depressing, and to speak only of what is bright and beautiful. "Sufficient to the day is the evil thereof," she would say, or "Whatsoever things be beautiful, think on those things." This attitude has its obvious pitfalls, but Mother has been lucky in leading a life that never managed to shatter her philosophy, and it makes her such a pleasure to be around that even in her old age she is extremely popular with her contemporaries and much younger people. Even of the Depression she says, “We didn’t realize we were so bad off because everybody else was in the same boat.”

Another good use of my father's office balcony came at annual Fiesta time, when for several days the town celebrated Ponce de Leon's first landing, which was reenacted by local politicians and members of the Chamber of Commerce dressed as conquistadors who ceremoniously disembarked from a long open boat near the Bridge of Lions. We could stand on my father's balcony and look down along the plaza, where churches, clubs, and civic organizations had set up booths. There was all kinds of food for sale, and throngs of people, many in costume, jostled one another while guitars and trumpets played Spanish music and the cathedral bells tolled.

Once off the balcony and in the narrow streets during the Fiesta, all I could see were legs. Much of my view of life then was legs, and my main ambition was to be tall enough to see something else. Legs in trousers, legs in overalls, legs in boots, legs in stockings ... except for the omnipresent nuns of this cathedral town, who had no visible legs but nevertheless walked in pairs or larger groups in full length black skirts swinging about the tops of high black shoes. Long strands of ebony beads swung from farther up, and when I was distant enough, the view included the women's fantastic headgear of starched white and draped black. My mother said nuns had queer beliefs and never married, but since I did not know what "married" meant I just thought of nuns as one more phenomena in a world flooding me with new, but somehow not new, things -- intense things, startling things: nuns, dragon flies, locomotives, lizards, lightning, cat eyes, hippos, horses, doodle-bug holes, net-draped shrimp boats, shrieking seagulls swooping for bread by the sea.

On the crowded Fiesta streets, bounced this way and that by conquistadors, I was startled when my eyes started traveling up the trouser legs just in front of me and when they should have reached the belt line kept traveling farther and farther until I gradually realized that I was looking at a giant. Where his head should have been was his waist, and from there he just went on and on. Mother and Daddy -- whose principle function in life, I had come to realize, was answering my questions -- explained that the giant was a regular man standing on stilts hidden underneath his trousers. What are stilts? My father made me a pair, two-by-fours with wedges for footrests, on which I, and later my brothers, would lurch around our yard like ostriches.

The Age of Legs is linked in my mind with being in the post office lobby with my father, grasping the fabric of his trouser leg at the knee to keep from getting separated, and looking up and discovering that I was not holding on to my father, but to some man had never seen before.

Which in turn takes me to the post office lobby when my father introduced me to a real, live G-man, a government secret agent who opened his business suit jacket to show me his hidden pistol in a shiny black holster.

Leaving my personal perspective aside, by far the biggest event in the St. Augustine area during the six years I lived there was the creation and opening of Marine Studios. It was, I think, the first giant oceanarium in the world, the first place in which gigantic tanks of seawater allowed marine life from sharks to little tropical fish to live together in spacious natural conditions.

From 1937 until 1938 construction proceeded eighteen miles south of St. Augustine between the inland waterway and the Atlantic Ocean, and then on June 23, 1938, came the grand opening. Although I vividly remember Marine Studios, I’m not sure that I saw it on that first day even though my parents tried to get us there. My mother rolls her eyes at the thought of the traffic that was on the road. Here is a description from a current Web site:

“Of the twenty thousand people who descended that single day upon the narrow coastal road south of St. Augustine, only the early ones managed to reach the oceanarium. Swarming through the passageways with their cameras, they stood transfixed for hours at every available window space. As they stared and were stared at by giant groupers and by thousands of other specimens, up the road for miles cars stood bumper to bumper unable to move.”

Whether I saw it on that first day or soon after, Marine Studios remains a magical part of my early childhood. There was something almost supernatural about standing at a glass window far below the surface of ocean water and looking eye-to-eye with a shark or a huge jewfish just inches away, while brilliantly colored reef-dwellers, octopi, and eels were seen in and around the wreckage of a sunken ship down in the middle of the tank. At intervals a deep sea diver in a ponderous helmet, linked to the surface by a hose, would descend and walk the sandy bottom dispensing chopped fish from a basket. He would be at times completely hidden by the swarms of feeders that swirled around him. But the liveliest place of all was the tank where the porpoises were fed, their sleek shiny bodies breaking the surface to fly high in the air to snatch a fish from a human hand. Now that there are many oceanariums, and more performing porpoises than performing dogs, Marine Studios may seem unimpressive, but from our perspective in the 1930's, it was a wonder of the world.

Other memories of St. Augustine are simply nostalgic. Like catching crabs behind our rented house on St. George Street, whose back yard ran down to Maria Sanchez Lake -- a shallow salt tidal lake retained by a low dam at one end and a ground-level wall all around. We would tie chicken necks on a piece of string, lower them into the water, and later pull the crabs up to the air and sunlight when they had fastened their claws onto the meat. Once the tides were so inflated by the passage of a hurricane that the water came up into our back yard onto our little screened porch behind the kitchen, and standing on the porch barefooted we could see fish swimming among the submerged grass blades of our lawn just outside the door, darting fish suspended a few inches above the green grass where the day before we had run in dusty shoes.

Next door to that house on St. George Street lived Mrs. Meginnis, who cured sauerkraut in big jars under her house. You could smell the sauerkraut when the breeze was right. Like many Florida frame houses, the Meginnis home rested on high foundation columns which created an accessible area beneath the floor enclosed by latticework -- an excellent place for children like me to crawl in and hide and inspect doodle bug funnels in the fine sand and risk, as our mothers constantly warned, being bitten by spiders, snakes, and scorpions. Once there was a big stir when a neighborhood boy disappeared, and after hours of searching he was found lollygagging behind the latticework right under his frantic parents' feet.

In the back yard between Mrs. Meginnis's house and Maria Sanchez Lake was a little cottage where a dark-haired lady artist and her small daughter came from the North to spend the winters. I hardly remember the daughter, but the Yankee artist made a great impression. She was much more abrupt than the other females I had encountered, and she talked with a strange hurried accent, but she let me look closely at her brightly colored palette and her squashed, smeared tubes of oil paint, like so many toothpaste tubes in a long box. I loved to smell the paint and turpentine as she brushed swathes of color onto a canvas. Once, after asking Mother's permission, she set up her easel in our backyard and painted a picture of our clothesline with our clothes hanging on it. Mother always said she hoped the artist would give us that painting, but she didn't.

There were also things I don't remember, but which I seem to remember because of hearing about them so often, or seeing pictures of them: My father and his brother, Landis, going fishing and filling the whole sidewalk from our front door to the street when they laid out their catch. My parents taking me, as a baby, fishing with them on Pelicier Creek, where they let me grip the rod and reel; at other times I stayed on the river bank in the shade with Irene while Mother and Daddy went fishing. Daddy told how, when he and Mother first moved to St. Augustine, never having lived by the ocean before, he bought a rowboat and a kicker (which is what we called an outboard motor), and left the boat tied to the downtown pier, where he came back hours later and found it dangling in the air because the tide had gone out.

Irene was my constant companion. One of my favorite walks with her was to the railroad station, which was only a few blocks from one of the succession of houses we lived in. (I have no idea why we moved so often, but it may have expressed some restless characteristic of my parents, who in other aspects of their lives seemed as fixed as oak trees; later in life, when they owned their own home and their children had left, they went on moving from house to house every few years, even designing two homes themselves.) As I recall, the little railway station was Spanish-looking, like most public buildings in St. Augustine, with a red tiled roof. We would just sit around or stroll, and sometimes I was given a penny to put on the track when the train was heard approaching. Squatting and peering excitedly under the monster as it roared and rattled by, I would go and retrieve the smoothly flattened copper from the hot gray gravel between the railroad ties.

I loved to walk on the rails, pretending to be a circus tightrope walker, and to feel the vibrations in the steel ahead of an arriving train. I'm not sure when "streamliners" (which were heavily represented in my scrapbooks) became universal, but at that time there were still engines which burned coal and discharged satisfying billows of smoke from stacks and loud bursts of steam from their sides. I particularly liked to watch the trains go through the stately ritual of preparing to move after letting off and taking on passengers and baggage. First, the conductor called, "All aboard!", and picked up his mounting stool from the hot cement and casually hopped with it onto the metal steps of the train. He would push the stool into the mysterious sanctum behind him and casually, holding a bright steel vertical bar with one hand, swing out to look to the rear along the side of the train and then to the front. His arm would signal, and my breath became barricaded in my throat as I waited for the first hiss, the first barely perceptible silent movement of a burnished wheel-- a movement that would sometimes end, accompanied by a soft bumps and creaks, after only a fraction of a rotation, and the suspense would begin again. But eventually the wheels would begin soundlessly to rotate, and after a few creeping turns would begin to move faster. There would be faint sighs and creaks, then vibrations, then jingles, rattles and bumps as speed gradually increased, until finally the details of the sides of the wheels would be lost in their spinning, and an accelerating rhythm of clanks and bumps would smooth all the natural sounds of train into a single continuum which, by the time the caboose sped by and diminished into the distance, had reached the same reckless roar that had come to my ears before the train had entered the depot and squealed to a halt.

In our small but famous coastal town, those tracks stretching off to north and south, and the trains which traveled them, were by far our most prominent links with the greater world – a world of which I had very little conception at the age of four or five, but whose existence I could sense from the boxes and suitcases that were moved on and off the trains, and from the smells which came from the open doors when the train was stopped, from the faces peering down at me from the windows of the passenger cars, and from the proud superiority of the conductor, who had been far from me that morning and would be far from me that night.

On one special winter day word spread down our palm-fringed street – who knows how – that a train was about to arrive which had snow on it. We ran over to the station and watched the southbound train pull in, its rooftops glistening with a melting white crust which, when the train had stopped, dripped like rain onto the gravel below. Magical. Snow, which we knew only in picture books, really did exist, and we could catch in our hands the icy water which had fallen from the sky in delicate flakes. It would be fifteen years before I saw snow again.

Second to my birth, the major event of my St. Augustine years was the coming of kindergarten. In the first event I was thrust from the warm perfect universe of the womb into a noisy world of bright hospital lights and unfriendly cold air, and with the second event I was thrust from the warm dependency of home, Mother, and Irene, into Mrs. Joyce's kindergarten. If I had comprehended that this was just the beginning of a seemingly interminable sentence of confinement in classrooms I would have felt much worse than I did, but as it was I ample grief for the occasion.
Mrs. Joyce's house was only a few blocks from ours, but at the time it seemed the other end of the world. The day my mother first drove me there I was in a tearful panic. She parked in front of the place, which looked like any other home on the street except for an extensive glassed-in porch on the side, and tried, as always, to show me the brighter side of things. She pointed to the big windows.

"Look at that boy. See how much fun he's having?"

The fact that this other child was sitting at a table looking out a window without actually squalling did not in the least reduce my anxiety. I was being cut loose into the unknown, and would be separated, possibly forever, from everything I cherished. But I was not given a choice. I was taken up to the front door and deposited with Mrs. Joyce, a very nice, slender lady who wore her graying hair in a bun. I don't remember what happened next, except that I stopped crying and merely quavered after taking my place at a painted table with crayons and paper in front of me.

The boy Mother had pointed out through the window was John Randolph Frazer, whose father had made a lot of money inventing the proximity fuse or something, and who was mayor for awhile. John Randolph became my first and best friend during that time, and there were fabulous birthday parties at his house, with pony rides and once even a merry-go-round. At Mrs. Joyce's I also met Christine Smith, my first girlfriend as our mothers jokingly put it, who fell through the bleachers at the circus.

I really enjoyed Mrs. Joyce's kindergarten soon after the first day or so. We children sat on little painted wooden chairs at little painted wooden tables and covered paper with crayon pictures, learned the use of blunt-nosed scissors and thick white paste, and gradually mastered the alphabet, the days of the week, the names and order of the months. Before long we could even print our names.


The four seasons played a prominent role in our activities. We cut paper leaves, colored them with autumn hues, and hung them on strings to festoon our rooms. We drew or otherwise fashioned apples, pumpkins, arch-backed black cats, witches, Christmas trees, Santa Clauses, American flags, George Washington (but not Abraham Lincoln), Valentine hearts, and Easter bunnies. It was first discovered that I was red-green colorblind when I crayoned the green-labeled balloon the wrong color and made my apple green and my pumpkin orange. But I got high marks for scissors work.
We also played games, of course, and took part in skits. My first dramatic role was as Jack, who was nimble and quick and jumped successfully over his candle stick. Musical chairs must have been our favorite activity, because it stands out happily in my memory above ring-around-the-rosy and everything else we did. Mrs. Joyce would play the piano, and each time she stopped there would be a mad scramble with boys, girls, and little chairs falling all over the place. And then we would lie down on our pallets and take naps, for which we would be rewarded with graham crackers and milk. What could be better? No wonder I resented much that came in the future.

Only two other things come to mind from Mrs. Joyce's. One is the Japanese plum tree beside her back steps, where we would pick the fuzzy-skinned loquats, chew the sweetness from the flesh, and suck the slippery black seeds..

The other memory is of one afternoon when my mother did not come to pick me up on time, and Mrs. Joyce took me into the kitchen with her while she made cookies for the next day. She let me scoop some sweet, gingery raw cookie dough onto one finger to taste, but told me it would make me drunk if I had more. I did not know what “drunk” was, but even after I found out I've always wondered how cookie dough could have that effect.


My biggest ambition during that period was to get to be seven years old so that I would be grown up and sophisticated like the seven-year-old boy down the block -- who, by virtue of his maturity and parents’ relative prosperity in this Depression time, had an Erector Set, whereas I had Tinker Toys. My second big ambition was to join the children who passed my front yard every day going to and from school -- real school, not kindergarten. I would stand at the gate of our home and watch them walking by in their sweaters, carrying their lunch boxes, and I was so impressed by the sophisticates who walked backwards down the sidewalk without even looking over their shoulders that I could hardly stand to wait any longer to join them.

Meanwhile two very significant events had occurred. First, my brother Riley was born in the summer of 1937, but I don't remember the event. I only realize, in retrospect, that my era as an only child, the unchallenged darling of the house, had ended with a jolt. Then, one morning when Riley was two years old and I was almost six, we were up much earlier than usual one morning. It was still dark outside. I thought somebody was sick. By then I knew about colds and flu.

Standing on the stairs, I asked, “What’s wrong? Where’s Mother?”

"She’s gone to the hospital to have a baby," my father said.

"Another one?" I asked incredulously.

When we were in the hospital lobby on the day my mother was ready to come home, she was carrying the new baby, Gordon, while my father paid the bill, and I asked her where babies came from.

"Go ask that doctor and he'll tell you," my mother said, but I was very shy from the beginning and not about to cross the lobby and accost the big man in the long white coat.

Speaking of doctors, when I was five years old I underwent surgery to remove my tonsils. I certainly hope it was necessary because the experience gave me a permanent phobia about anesthetics. All that I recall is being wheeled away from my mother into an operating room where overhead lights blazed into my eyes, and where a nurse spoke reassuring words as someone put over my nose and mouth a kitchen sieve lined with a cloth soaked with some blinding, suffocating liquid. The ether put out the light, and I can remember only the moment just before that, and then lying in a hospital bed with a sore throat drinking apricot juice. The nurses joked with my parents that I had completely used up Flagler Hospital’s supply of apricot juice.

Finally the time came when I could glimpse on the horizon that long-anticipated September when I would be starting First Grade -- real school! In late summer we drove up to Jacksonville to buy my school clothes, but when my parents took me to the school to register they learned, incredulous, that because I’d been born in December I could not begin school until the next September. Returning to Mrs. Joyce’s kindergarten was definitely an anticlimax.

That winter and the following year dissolve into memories of Irene and her pies (no longer just for me), Irene dragging me out onto the back porch and calling to the children there, “You all want to see a BAD boy?”, and more seasonal creations at kindergarten.

I just don’t remember starting First Grade, and I don’t remember much about those first months in school except some speculation on the playground that Jack Armstrong, the All American Boy (a radio character), must have strong arms. I also recall sitting around long tables with other children drinking milk and at one point wetting my pants because the teacher just wouldn’t believe I really had to go.

Maybe the reason I remember so little about First Grade in St. Augustine is that when I was about halfway through it there was a revolutionary change: My father was to become the County Agent in Alachua County, and we would be moving those seventy miles or so to Gainesville in the spring.

Copyright 2005 Fleming Lee