A large duplex with a vacant lot next door. We lived on the first floor. I have no memory now of the upstairs neighbors. The back of the lot sloped down to a creek (pronounced "crick" in that region). That creek was the locus of many boyhood adventures. This house, which I went back to see in the fall of 2003, was still almost exactly as it had been more than 60 years earlier.
At the time of my 1977 visit to Peoria, there was still a giant tree in the side yard (an elm would be gone, so I suppose it was an oak or maybe a cottonwood) that when I was about 3 supported a very big swing that my dad had put up; the ropes must have been 20 feet long. I loved that swing with a passion, except for the time I went out there and started swinging vigorously right after stuffing myself with two bananas and promptly threw up. On my most recent trip I was sad to see that this arboreal behemoth is now gone.
We had a dog, a big Irish setter named Tipperary, "Tippy" for short. She was high-strung and incredibly stupid, but docile enough. I didn't care for her that much, though, and I never thought of her as my dog. I was much more attached to my red fire engine, made of cast iron, and was completely disconsolate when my dad drove the car over it, breaking it beyond repair. He gave me a licking for crying and said it was my own damn fault for leaving it in the driveway. I learned pretty early that people hit you to cover up their own chagrin.
I didn't get many spankings from my mom, though one time is still a vivid memory. We had a glider-swing, a wide, three-seater one, on the front porch. I discovered my mechanical talents spontaneously at about age 4. One day I found that I could remove all the bolts holding the glider together without its falling apart. Until someone sat on it, of course. It was a hot day. I think there was lemonade. My mother came out on the porch and sat. Of course, the whole thing collapsed in a heap. She probably would simply have laughed, except the front edge of the glider -- it was steel -- came down and scraped her Achilles tendon, which must have been very painful. She was pretty furious and I got a spanking. There must have been a lecture, but I don't remember it.
Four was an eventful year. In the winter, I got croupe, a serious respiratory illness. The treatment was a steam vaporizer with some sort of awful-tasting, awful-smelling medication. The cough was horrible, and I remember coughing up blood, sweating profusely, and feeling very, very sick. Actually, I think I had croupe several times, but this is the time I most vividly recall now.
My grandmother came for a visit. I loved her in the completely unreserved way that small children do. One day, she and my mother were in the basement, doing laundry. I was playing upstairs alone. I found one of Gram's big hairpins on the floor and thought it would be interesting to stick it in the electric wall socket, which I did, holding it with my two little hands. The short-circuit did not blow the fuse. Instead, the wire became white-hot and melted through while I was still holding it, burning five of my fingers right down to the bone. The screaming brought my mom and gram upstairs at once, but it was too late to do anything but take me to the doctor. If the wire had not burned through, I might have been electrocuted. The experience gave me a permanent horror of being burned. To this day, for me being burned is what's in Room 101 in the sense of Orwell's 1984.
Another day I was sitting on mom's lap while she talked on the phone to her best friend, Eulah Derges. I pointed across the room to the hot-air register and said "Look, Mommy!" Flames were shooting out. My mother said, "Eulah, I have to hang up now, the house is on fire." She was always cool in emergencies, a trait I've luckily inherited. The fire station was close-by, and the firemen were there almost at once to put the fire out. No great damage was done, fortunately.
When the firemen investigated the cause of the blaze, they found the remains of wax crayons on top of the firebox in the coal-fired furnace. Guess who had put his Crayolas down the hot-air vent? Mom decided the fireman should give me a talking-to to explain that I must never do that again. This was necessary, she thought, because one of my most persistent personality traits had already emerged in no uncertain terms: I was stubborn, and more than capable of ignoring any and all instructions -- I simply had to make all my own discoveries, to the point where the only sensible epitaph for me would surely be "Do it my own self!"
Well, I had never seen firefighters before. Here were these huge guys with big, really goofy-looking hats and black raincoats and big black boots, and I was already sure they were bad news: when they arrived I had announced to them that they were going to get in trouble. "Oh, why is that?" they wanted to know. With a priceless look of superiority that I can still muster if needed, I said, disdainfully, "Because you're tracking in mud on Mom's clean floor!" So the disciplinary step was scary because I thought they were probably already mad at me. I certainly knew that angry people -- my dad, for sure -- were prone to hitting me.
For all that I didn't yet despise my dad. I had a scooter, which he had made out of a couple boards and the front and rear sections of a roller skate. I loved zooming up and down the sidewalk on it, the faster the better, elated by the clicks of the wheels passing over the regularly-spaced cracks in the walk. Though he had a car, a bright red '35 or '36 Ford coupe, my dad usually took the bus downtown to work. The bus stop was about half a block from the house, but shielded from view by tall bushes.
One afternoon before dinner, I was out on the walk, scootering gleefully up and down, having a great time. Mom was sitting on the porch waiting for dad and watching me. When I saw my dad getting off the bus, I dropped the scooter and ran toward the house, hollering "Mom, hey mom! Daddy's coming!" But just before I got to the porch I tripped on a crack in the walk. Because I was running, I fell fast and hard, landing on the very edge of the first concrete step with my upper teeth, which were driven back up into the bone, also ripping my upper lip from the corner back about two inches toward the cheekbone. You can imagine the screaming. My dad ran up, by which time my mother had already scooped me into her arms. They jumped in the car and sped to the hospital with me. I still remember screaming, blood gushing from my mangled face like a fountain.
In 1939 plastic surgery was pretty unusual, but as it happened there was a great surgeon on duty that day at St. Francis Hospital. I owe Dr. Vonochan a lasting debt of gratitude that he was able to graft skin from the roof of my mouth to repair the damage to my lip and cheek, for otherwise I would have been very disfigured. There remains only a small scar in the corner of my lip. Though it has been obscured by a moustache for many years, I assume it still flashes red when I'm very angry. It always did when I was an older kid.
The hospital was pretty traumatic, psychologically. As the name suggests, it was a Catholic institution, so the nurses were all nuns. In those days, nuns wore floor-length, severe black habits with starched white cowls. I had never seen these creatures before, so for all I knew they were space aliens or maybe dead; they certainly didn't look like people, after all, because they didn't have legs and glided rather than walked. I was already quite annoyed because when the doctor was giving me the ether before the operation he said, "If you don't like the smell, just blow it away." I never fully trusted a doctor again after that day.
When I came to, my mouth was taped shut, I was in terrific pain -- they didn't think young kids needed a lot of analgesia in those days -- and I was sure I was about to suffocate. I couldn't cry, of course. All I could do was moan pitifully. My poor mother, what a trial it must have been for her, not to mention me. She had a 7-year-old daughter at home to look after, so she had no choice but to leave me overnight in the care of the nuns. I was completely terrified of being alone: no way in hell (I could already swear like an adult) was I going to let those Martian zombies bathe me! And besides, it was literally the very first time -- associated with such horrible physical pain, too -- that I had ever been apart from my mom. Seriously but not surprisingly, it did leave an emotional scar, a great fear of abandonment, and consequently of dependency. It took me a long time to get over it, or rather, I've probably never really gotten over it.
It's a miracle I didn't also drown in the creek that year, given everything else that happened.
On the other side of the vacant lot from us was a huge dark house. A Mrs. Vogel lived there, and in the years since I have had countless dreams about the place. Mrs. Vogel was a huge, fat lady, bedridden virtually all the time by some illness. From my own bouts with croupe, I knew being sick was a Very Bad Thing. But there was something about Mrs. Vogel that drew me to her -- it can only have been that she was kindly and liked me, though I seem to remember she didn't like her own kids -- and I was frequently in her house, which in the dreams is always a vastly labyrinthine place with walls thick enough to have secret passageways in them. Her room is always dark, and she is propped up in a very disheveled huge bed, dozing or smiling weakly at me. One always whispered there.
The house next to us on the other side was large and occupied by an older widowed lady whose name I don't remember. Rather than sloping down to the creek as ours did, her back yard was a sumptuously planted sunken English garden. I would occasionally have to go over there to fetch a ball that had landed on her side of the high hedge that separated the two properties. She would be out there in an instant, making sure no damage had been done to the plantings. She was fairly fierce with children, but as I had been raised to be polite (my mother's influence) I quickly learned that I should always ask her if I could please retrieve the ball, express regret if in fact an iris had been knocked over, and so forth. By degrees I discovered that I liked her garden very much, and that my interest, appreciation and manners softened her attitude toward a generally rambunctious kid as well. There was an obvious lesson for life in this very early experience: people tend to like those who share their interests, even if there's a large age difference. Now that I'm no longer young myself, the same easy principle works the other way just as well, I've discovered.