This week's column is another excerpt from a book I am writing about growing up in Florida during the 1950s and 1960s. Again, despite the distance in miles and time, perhaps it will sound familiar to some readers who grew up here.
As a child I knew I would lead a charmed life. Most five-year-olds live in a small world. You dream of being a fireman or a cowboy...you believe cake and ice cream are a perfect lunch...and no problems are so big that mom and dad can't solve them. You live life by the hour. Pretty normal, really.
Of course, I didn't know exactly how my life would unfold when I was five. I just felt it would be good...something special. We all have defining moments in our lives. One of mine was telling my first-grade classmates that I would see the world...meet presidents...maybe be a writer.
Be a writer...really? At five years old? Such hutzpah was uncommon in 1950s Anthony, a small town of working-class — largely Southern Baptist and Methodist folks — in Central Florida. Between the end of the Civil War and my birth in 1950 only 93 families lived in Anthony, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But the 1950s brought relative prosperity. The community would gain a few hundred homes and a 12-grade school by the time I entered first grade.
Maybe my fellow first-graders didn't know quite what to make of me on day one. But unlike children who would boast and suffer ridicule...my classmates believed me. Our teacher, Ms. Ruth Shealy, would tell me years later when I was an adult: "You were irrepressible!" It was, no doubt, both fair and accurate praise and criticism during my grade-school years.
There's proof aplenty. I was in the principal's office the first day of school...before lunch. During recess I had kissed Pam Weekly, a pretty blonde. She was a head taller than me...a fact that might have deterred some boys. But she was the prettiest girl in my class, and I guess I decided, "Why wait?"
When Principal Newton Perry, a huge athletic man and a champion swimmer who had taught Hollywood's Tarzan — Johnny Weissmuller — how to swim and fight alligators, asked sternly, "Young man, what do you have to say for yourself?" I proudly exclaimed, "Sir, I had to jump to kiss her!" Through lips fighting a smile, he cautioned me to never do it again. I remember on the walk back to class, funny can keep you out of trouble...or at least delay it.
I read everything I could get my hands on as a youngster...even before reaching first grade. Comic books, Life and Look magazines...almost anything. I remember reading the Merriam-Webster dictionary on summer vacation between third and fourth grade! By fifth grade, I was reading Hemingway, Mark Twain and Faulkner, among others.
Anthony was home for the first 11 years of my life. But, books opened a world well beyond my hometown. We had a television when I was five, too...one of the first in our neighbourhood. I remember precisely the first program I watched..."I Led Three Lives." It was loosely based on the life of a Boston advertising executive who infiltrated the U.S. Communist Party for the FBI in the 1940s. Herbert Philbrick lived it and wrote a bestselling book, "I Led Three Lives: Citizen, Communist, Counterspy." It was a popular radio program in the early 1950s, and a few years later actor Richard Carlson played the role on television.
Television and books captivated me. Mom and dad would find me mornings wrapped in a blanket three feet from the television screen watching the test pattern waiting for programming to begin. There wasn't enough programming to fill an entire day and night back then, so a geometric test pattern would appear with a steady low-impedance buzz during down times. Stations signed-off each night with the Star-Spangled Banner. After that, I read under the covers with a flashlight.
If I wasn't reading or watching television, I was playing outside...baseball, cops and robbers or hide and seek with my brother, Clark. Anthony — however small — was the start of a mostly glorious journey...my roots.
I never missed a single day of grade school...six years of perfect attendance. I was never sick as a child...no mumps, no measles, no chicken pox, no ear infections or sore throats...nothing. Certainly, good luck, because my brother had all of those and more. When I learned in first grade that you got a certificate for perfect attendance, it was like a competition...and I wanted to win.
There was always excitement at school, it seemed...and some scares. If you were born after 1955, you didn't have to worry about polio in the U.S. or Canada as much. But in the early-1950s it was a very real and terrifying disease. Even as a child, I remember how the fear of polio was almost as crippling as the disease itself. Tens of thousands of kids suffered from polio across America and Canada. Perfectly healthy children - suddenly and forever crippled - and no one knew why or how. That was the scary part. You could be running and playing...and weeks later...living in an iron lung.
Mom and dad — like so many other parents — listened to the experts. Make sure your kids are well fed and rested, bewildered health officials said. Bathe often, screen your windows and avoid crowds. The public pool in Ocala closed for a time. Mom and dad didn't even let us play with other kids...officials were so unsure of what caused polio. Rumours spread...kids from poor families whose hygiene wasn't as good might be the cause.
A child a year older than me in Anthony's second grade got it...and they thought about closing the school for awhile. They were too scared to even have a public meeting to discuss it. The school stayed open. Everyone was vaccinated that year — Salk vaccine shots — and by 1961 it was Sabin vaccine...pink drops on a sugar cube. Even years later I would see some teenager walking with braces and feel uneasy. Everyone — including me — wondered, why did they get it?
Polio was behind us, but that didn't mean there weren't other real life worries. Something called the Cold War was on the evening news and in newspapers almost every day. Would the Russians — people in some snow-covered country far away — drop bombs on Anthony? Apparently.
We had regular Atomic-bomb duck-and-cover drills when I was in third, fourth and fifth grades. Move from the windows. Put your head down, cover the back of your neck with your hands and get under your desk, look away from the windows...because the bright atomic flash could blind you. We had more bomb drills than fire drills. People were building bomb shelters...most of which were ridiculous in retrospect.
The whole thing seemed surreal, really. The high school agricultural teacher who advised Future Farmers of America members about cows and crops - a man named Bill Fish - signalled the atomic-bomb drills. Quite inexplicably, he ran alongside the 100-yard stretch of six classrooms of my elementary school banging a number 3 washtub with a hammer. It all seemed ridiculous to me...even in third grade. Why not use the school bell? If a real atomic-bomb came...was Mr. Fish our warning...our first line of defence?
What if the Russians attacked when he was sick? I was pretty certain that Mr. Fish, his number 3 washtub and the entire school would be vaporized if the Commies attacked. Twenty-five years later, Bill Fish would be Marion County's Superintendent of Schools. That's how it worked back then...coaches or ag teachers first became principals and one of them eventually won an election and became Superintendent...as long as you were, of course, a man.
– Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.
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