In a Spanish Polish Restaurant
Quite a few years ago my best friend, Mark Little, took me to a Polish restaurant near Fuengirola, just off the Mediterranean coast of Málaga. I was anxious to go because he had told me that the owner had grown up in Siberia when her parents were exiled there, and I wanted to meet her. Her appearance didn’t disappoint. She looked like a kindly grandmother with a ruffled apron, her grey hair in a bun. She wanted to know about me. I told her I wrote feature stories for a magazine down the road, nodding at Mark. Then I got to pop the question. “Mark says you were exiled to Siberia when you were young. Would I be intruding if I asked what it was like?” “Nooo,” she replied with a big smile, “not at all. It was wonderful. Anyplace is wonderful when you’re 15 years old.”
My experience with the States was a bit like that. It was wonderful.
Life Begins at Grandma’s House
I remember my grandmother’s house. I still recall the phone number: 44791. It was warmer than our house and my grandma would make a proper dessert for every suppertime. She was tiny, with a size four, triple-A shoe, but a woman to be reckoned with. She may be the reason I enjoy obeying women and my kids do, too. Matriarchies die hard. Whenever I arrived there as a little boy she would grasp my ear between her thumb and forefinger, take an embroidered hanky from between her breasts, wrap it round her other index finger, wet it with her tongue, stick it in my ear and start twisting it. “You could plant potatoes in there,” she would always say.
My grandfather had a vegetable garden out back and, 65 years later, I still can’t step into my own tomato patch and, smelling a broken tomato vine, be swept back to an afternoon when I was eight or nine years old, picking tomato worms off the plants with him and throwing them on a bonfire. I was raised by my grandparents until the age of three, as my mother was working in a defense plant. I was the first grandchild and a boy so I must have been doted on. Is this why I’m such an insufferable prick today? I’m guessing it is.
My grandad was a small-time electrical contractor. I remember him getting out of bed on bad stormy nights, climbing into his panel truck and driving out to help restore electricity to people in the blacked-out village. Whenever I read in the papers about “contractors” in Iraq, though it’s an odious comparison, I am reminded of my grandfather. Near the end of his working life he nearly went broke wiring the new Baptist church building for free.
Aged Eight, I’m a New Man
I was reborn at summer camp. My first experience came about in an unexpected, random way. When I was eight years old I threatened to kill my three-year-old brother and one-year-old sister. Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t quite so cut and dried as that. You
see, both my father and mother worked and after work they liked to stop by the bar for a drink. So, at the age of eight I was largely responsible for my baby brother and sister. It became entirely too tiresome, and I spent some weeks trying to figure a way to get out of it. So one day I said to my mother, “I’m tired of taking care of Steve and SuzAnne. I’m going to kill them.”
My parents’ response to that brief declaration was beyond my fondest dreams. First came a series of visits to a nice lady who wanted to sit down and listen to me, to ask me questions and to watch me draw. Then she would sit down with my parents, apart, and talk about me. It was grand, but that wasn’t all. When school was out that year–it must have been 1951–my mom told me that I had been invited to attend a one-month summer camp, the University of Michigan Fresh Air Camp, at Pinckney, Michigan.
Looking back on it over more than half a century I think my experience at Pinckney might have helped to determine significant aspects of my life. It was a summer camp for disturbed children but to me it was heaven. There was so much to be learned. I think it turned me into the project person I have been ever since. There were so many new people, things to do, challenges to be met. There were ghost stories and songs around campfires, handicrafts, swimming, hikes, communal dining, roughhouse in Cabin 11 when no supervision was around. It was perfect. I immediately fell in love with our cabin counselor, Doris. She was 18, blonde with a pixie haircut and, as I remember, spent the entire summer in a bathing suit. She taught me to swim and at the end of the second
month I earned my blue cap by swimming a mile across the lake. Funnily enough, I can’t remember if there were any girls at that camp. I must have been eight years old.
Second month? Yes, that was great, too. When my parents came to pick me up, the camp director whisked them into his office. When they came out my mother said, “Mikey (always ‘Mikey’ when she wanted to wheedle me), how would you like to stay at camp for another month?” The sky opened up and I was wafted back into heaven. So I stayed on for a second month, more of the same wonderful world where people listened to you and took notes. When I got home my mother explained to me what had happened in the camp director’s office. It seems there was a deeply-disturbed boy who was unable to communicate with anyone. That is, anyone except me. So they wanted me to stay on to act as a bridge between that lost boy and the rest of the world. The truth is, I have no memory of that boy. The Pinckney experience was one of the most important, most formative periods of my life and it came at a critical time. That must have been when I became a person, with my own self-awareness, tastes and prerogatives, a whole person . I felt so lucky.
I told this story to a good friend 20 years later. His reply came too fast: “You know why you didn’t remember that retarded kid?” “No, why?” “He wasn’t so retarded. As for the story they told your parents? Yeah, that’s what they told the other kid’s parents, too.”
Turn, Turn, Turn
I loved the seasons, barefoot with a cane fishing pole in summer, and in winter ice skates and sleds and the crunch of the snow on the way to school in sub-zero weather. On one of those mornings Terrie Bristol dared me to put my tongue on the iron-pipe hand railing at the entrance to the school. That was a valuable lesson in chilled hand railings–and girls. The Boy Scouts were important in my life between the ages of 11 and 13. We would meet one night a week in the basement of the First Methodist Church. (Were they expecting a second one?) There we planned hikes and campouts, worked on merit-badge projects and plotted against one another. Our scoutmaster, Waldo, was a good guy and was not a pederast. After my first year of college I returned to the First Methodist Church to tell the pastor that I wanted to cancel my subscription with God and with Jesus and Mary. “Oh, that’s a very serious step to take,” said the Reverend Winnacker, “and besides, it can’t be done. Once you’ve joined the sacred fellowship you can’t back out. Once you’re in, it’s for good. So I didn’t back out. I walked out.
Great Teachers Are the Breath of Life
I loved everything to do with school, teachers, friends, books, sports. When I was six years old my first-grade teacher, Miss Wolfle, would take me out to her farm on weekends and give me advanced reading books. I had great teachers straight through school, and when I reached college (MSU) a group of hip young professors just pried my head open and dumped all the contents of Pandora’s box in there. The most important thing I learned was critical thinking: don’t believe everything you’re told; do your own research, consult people you respect, think for yourself. That has stayed with me. The other great thing about a university education is that you learn to learn. Once you’ve mastered that you can learn anything you like or need and the world is your oyster. I now see how lucky I was regarding education. I was born into that post-war window of opportunity when a college education was inexpensive and, with the help of scholarships and part-time jobs a working-class kid could graduate with no debt. But the times of guns and butter are over. Now it’s just guns and loan repayment.
When I was a teenager, working part-time jobs and having my own money made me proud to be self-sufficient. I started when I was 13, spending that summer working, alongside a brigade of Mexican families and a few local farm hands on a muck farm where they raised mint and onions. Mainly we pulled weeds. You haven’t lived till you’ve pulled all the nettles out of a field the size of four football fields, parking lots included. The Mexicans, despite their hard, itinerant lives, were light-hearted, good company. I still remember them with respect. Occasionally the boss, himself, would come out to the fields and work alongside us. Wayne Gruesbeck told us jokes under the unforgiving midday sun. He was not only a good guy; he was smart. It was long hours and hard bend-over work, but I was earning $75 a week, a fortune for a 13-year-old.
I loved eating American food. Hamburgers in a basket with onion rings, eggs and hash browns, chili con carne, New England clam chowder, inch-thick steaks and roasted marshmallows. I almost forgot the roast turkeys. In the fifty-some years we’ve lived in Spain we’ve only celebrated Thanksgiving once. That was when my wife Maureen’s studio assistant, María José, wanted to learn how to do a stuffed turkey. Maureen prepared it and I drove it down to the bread oven in the village. Old-fashioned Spanish bread ovens–they hardly exist anymore– have a special heat and that turkey was historic. All it lacked was cranberry sauce. How do you imitate cranberry sauce?
I don’t eat junk food anymore. Nobody from my family will accompany me to McDonald’s. They’re all anti-junk-food fundamentalists. The fact is, American fast food in Spain is not as good as I remember it in the States. It’s not fast and they don’t heat the buns. European anti-hamburger snobbery, by the way, is based on ignorance. They have never tasted a proper hamburger.
I admired President Kennedy and I perceived him as a true American hero for facing down Premier Kruschev over the Soviet missiles in Cuba. It wasn’t till I read Seymour Hersh’s The Dark Side of Camelot that I became convinced that Kennedy was not only a cynical opportunist and a shameless satyr but probably a gangster, as well. As for the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy did not stare down Kruschev eye to eye “until he blinked.” What really happened was that the Kennedys (John and Bobby) cut a secret back-channel deal to remove the American offensive missiles from Turkey. So there was no heroism, just simple horse-trading. ” Hersh makes a convincing case for all this and a lot more.
I loved the American writers of the time: Hemingway, dos Pasos, Steinbeck and especially Kurt Vonnegut, for whom I have a special devotion. Later, reading the Hemingway biographies, I learned that the grand old man (who wasn’t actually that old; he died at 61) was first and foremost a drunk and a blowhard. It just happened that he could write. As for his passion for the bullfight, you only have to see one corrida de toros to see how full of bullshit he was. Nor can I tolerate the idea of him roaming across Africa shooting everything that moved. Look how he left Africa. Though, maybe it wasn’t his fault. His mother made him wear dresses until he was five years old.
4 thoughts on “What I Remember from the States 1/2”
Hi again, Mike. Your writing style resembles Frank McCourt’s. Check out his books, Tis, or Angela’s Ashes.
Will do, Lew. Thanks.
Hi Luman, I googled Frank McCourt and, from his bio, I guessed that his books might be depressing. The news is depressing enough. Merry Christmas to you and yours. Mike