Just Another Apprenticeship and Mugging Semester One (1945-65)
It's a hot and muggy Missouri August in the final year of the 1900's as I scribe this account of my life so far - for all the ages and sages to read, but more likely to ignore. I'm keeping it totally nonfictional to the best of my flawed abilities, except for some changed names to protect the innocent - and also occasionally the not-so-innocent. After investing 54 years in this thing called life (sort of sounds like an old Frank Sinatra song), I just moved back to St. Louis following a semi-voluntary exile in Kansas for a couple decades. As the year 2000 (the so-called Y2K) rapidly approaches, I anticipate and hope that my apprenticeship of writing, painting, and all of life will be resolved, finally, one way or another - not by an electronic glitch, but by the fickle finger of that phantom we all so recklessly call fate.
I've been painting mostly portraits of famous people for nearly seven years now and am still very much at the starving stage, financially speaking. But I'm not complaining, because, believe it or not, I didn't decide to take up art for the purpose of making money. Before painting full-time, I spent more than 5 years full-time writing a novel - a novel that I once-upon-a-time decided to call an "Omnovel" (like in omnidirectional, certainly not omnipotent), and I only this month reluctantly sent it to a mainstream commercial publisher.
Though I left my art store, library, laundromat, grocery store, hardware store, office supply store, Quik Trip, Taco Bell, auto repair shop and mental health friends behind in Kansas this summer, I still keep in touch with some of them. A good guy named Mark who works at the art store back in Kansas recently read my 600-page Omnovel, "In The Winds of Time."
When he finished with it, he suggested that while I wait to hear back from the publisher I sent it to without proper permission to do so, I should write a short autobiography - as over the few years I went to the art store almost daily my loose tongue had let leak more than a little of my speckled past experiences in life.
Mark claimed that writing an autobiography was very common among struggling writers and unknown artists. I can't figure out why, except that maybe these artists and writers hope that even though they have failed to attract an audience with their actual work, they hope maybe the story of how they failed will be of more interest to that same audience. Anyhow, it might be good for my challenged sanity to get it out of my head and onto paper so I can move onto bigger and better or littler and worser things in the new millennium ahead.
Mark also told me to keep my use of ten-dollar words and grammatical gymnastics to a bare minimum. I'll try to, but I need to do something to try to keep my interest while writing. Remember, I already know what has happened; you don't - so it's not as interesting to me without throwing in at least some five-dollar words and convoluted gymnastics or whatever Mark said or meant. Anyway, before I irreversibly distract even myself with this out-of-place introduction (we're supposed to already be in Chapter One but I figured most people don't read Introductions), I'll get to the subject of my life and Sparky's and Pip's.
Aboard the Battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay, two weeks after all fighting had stopped in World War II, General Douglas Mac Arthur presided over, and accepted, Japan's Unconditional Surrender. Millions of soldiers and civilians had died, but Mac Arthur spoke only two simple sentences, "Men everywhere can now walk upright in the sunlight. These proceedings are at a close."
But my proceedings were only beginning. I had been born stateside in St. Louis, Missouri (the state, not the battleship), on August 16, 1945, a couple weeks prior to Mac Arthur's profoundly terse September 2nd announcement.
Recently, I was comforted to discover that the 16th, the day I was born, was indeed the very day Hirohito finally ordered his Japanese soldiers to lay down their weapons. So why all the hullabaloo about the day I was born? Because, alas, my birth on that day was also my first unofficial tardiness for a party.
I had arrived two days late for the VJ Day Celebration of August 14, the party that everybody else partook of on the day when the very first, however unofficial, news first broke into the headlines that World War II was finally over.
But I wasn't late for the ceremonial cutting party of my circumcision. And following that, my earliest years were unpainful and uneventful, much less very interesting. Not nearly as interesting as how my parents had just happened to have been in paradise at Pearl Harbor when it was bombed by the Japanese. My father had actually been a civilian electrician working aboard the Battleship Arizona the evening before it was sunk. He was in the process of installing radar that had just arrived.
Radar or not, back in Missouri after the war, our family moved into a typical two-bedroom tract house on Mt. Olive in the St. Louis suburb of University City. We lived in U. City from 1946 until 1953.
I attended Nathaniel Hawthorne Grammar School in Jew City (as U. City was called by us young Jew boys who lived there) through the fourth grade - but can recall only a handful of events. Academically, I did fairly well, but nothing too outstanding. On the subject of standing out, though, I do remember being told there was something wrong with my speech and as a result I took speech lessons in a little cubby hole right next to the Principal's office. Whether or not the tutor, much less the Principal, ever corrected the problem, I have no idea and really don't care, at this late date anyway.
However I do know something that has never been corrected - my poor performance in the sports arena. I was very young when it seemed like the whole world realized that I was a clumsy athlete. Though, even at that age, I felt sports were an unimportant part of the human experience, I was nevertheless emotionally bruised as I waited with a few fellow sufferers to be amongst the very last batch chosen for "the team."
I began to wear nearsighted glasses all the time at age 8 and was told by somebody I don't remember that it was because I read too much. Surprisingly, I really didn't dislike it that much when kids called me "four-eyes." But I hated it when adults who were misguided enough to think I was some kind of a real big brain called me "the little professor." Maybe, in retrospect, it was the "little" I so disliked - though not nearly as much as I still disliked being amongst the last ones standing in a sad line to be chosen for "the team."
I thought it was really unfair. Hey, why didn't they call up the class in the descending order of their scores to come up and get their graded test - the lowest score being the last to march forth in humiliation. Or, better yet, I thought back then, why didn't the coach choose the teams, maybe even out of his sweaty St. Louis Browns baseball cap, and call out the names in no particular order.
At any rate, I wasn't totally without blame for some of my humiliation at Hawthorne. One watershed day in the mid-50's, Michael Shure and I were being distracted by the beauty of Eunice Krane (an Annette Funicello look-alike) sashaying down the hallway when we absolutely accidentally wandered into the very wrong room to take a quick leak.
We had taken no more than two steps into what we really did think was the Boys Crapper when we smelled flora instead of farts and noticed there weren't no porcelain pissers up against the pristine walls. Instantly, we realized somethin' big wasn't Kosher in Jew City that day and ran like the dickens from what had to be the Girls Powder Room. But some hotshot sixth grade whistle blower saw us and turned us into the Principal, Dr. Books.
Books didn't believe us when we said we had made an honest mistake and he walloped our rear ends hard with a giant 5-inch wide, 1-inch thick yardstick. Michael's parents complained to the school board, but that didn't help the painful bruises from Books' board.
And wouldn't you know it, shortly thereafter all Missouri schools were ordered not to use corporal punishment. Why shortly thereafter and not shortly before?
At any rate, I must have learned my corporal door-reading lesson well, because to this date half a century later, I always read the label on any public restroom twice before entering - no matter how many times I've been inside the very same room before to supposedly "rest."
At about the same age, neighbors took me to several Cub Scout meetings but I failed to earn any badges and dropped out because I was unable to find anyone to help me with my projects like the other kids had. And every Halloween I was dressed up as a girl in my sisters clothes, and I hated that. The only other neighborhood memory I have from Mount Olive is that I did poorly in music at school and took private clarinet lessons from Mr. Simon across the street. He said I had a great sense of timing even though I needed to control my "puffy cheeks."
Indeed, my memories are sparse because of certain "medical procedures" that I will describe in a later chapter. But, on the lighter side, I do remember rather vividly how we spent every Christmas Eve at my grandparent's dry goods store in South St. Louis. Even as extremely reformed Jews, we didn't go to church and never, God forbid, even uttered the word Jesus. We simply celebrated Christmas Eve as a time to gather for dinner and give gifts and maybe even hope for a good year to come. Religion aside, it seemed like a peaceful time for all.
On the other hand, the Jewish holidays were set aside for seasonal social visits to the reformed Temple. There, financial worth and social status was the religion-of-the-times that the reformed and frustrated Rabbi Nodel attempted to dissuade. Even then, I empathized with his mission, long before he eventually moved on to start the first reformed Temple in Hawaii.
In 1955, we also moved west - a few miles anyway. To this day, I remain thankful for being afforded the luxury of the finest public education available in 20th century America. A very fortunate fellow of the suburbs, I attended 5th Grade in Olivette at Ben Franklin's namesake, Old Bonhomme Elementary, and I flourished.
I told my new Olivette classmates about the Nathaniel Hawthorne Good Handwriters' Club I'd been a member of in U. City. They'd never heard of it, and, when I filled them in on all the exciting details, they elected me their president.
Every morning for ten weeks or so, I sat behind Mrs. Nielson's desk in front of my constituents and directed the flow of Old News and New News. Tossing in some humor every now-and-then to keep everybody's attention (including my own), I reflected to myself on how easy it was to entertain the class, and felt slightly guilty about being applauded for it.
When the term ended, two-thirds of the kids amended the Class Constitution so they could allow me a second term. And I didn't feel too guilty to accept. Little did I suspect that double-term in 1955 was the premature peak of my political career. But not my social career.
My social career peaked one year later, in 6th grade. After coaxing the in-crowd to invite me to their Halloween party, I dressed up as a cow poke and taught them how to play spin-the-bottle and was an immediate hit, especially with the girls. I took a couple of the girls to the movies many times that year and even put my arms around them. By the end of the school year I had become the most popular boy.
But as soon as the summer began I got a hair cut to replace my wave. It was a flat top, which had become quite popular (even Spartacus sported one that year). Though the connection was surely only in my head, suddenly all my friends, male and female, ceased to have anything to do with me. It was the end of a very lonely summer by the time my hair grew back. But my friends never returned. And I made no new ones for quite awhile.
Even worse, in the fall of '56 when I moved on to 7th grade, into the giant high school, the sheer magnitude of the student body overwhelmed me. It was definitely a watershed event. I turned inward with confusion (into my "shell" as my well-intentioned grandfather repeatedly pointed out).
Confusion indeed; I remember that first day at Ladue High School vividly. Strangely, it was as if a giant hand from above was pushing down on me, almost keeping me from moving. It was very mysterious and horrifying. In short order I realized the only thing I could do was remain silent, pay attention in class and do my homework. So I decided within that first week, that if my life was going to be limited to those lonely tasks, I might as well make the best of it. And I was thankful that at least I was able to go on to get good grades.
To additionally restrain me, by the end of the year, the muscles in my hands and face started to act up for the first time and only made things worse. I now realize that they were the earliest symptoms of a slowly progressing physical problem. However, at that sensitive time, when I was forced to hunt and peck everything on my older sister's portable typewriter because my hands didn't work good enough to write much anymore, I figured I was just another "nervous wreck," (a very common phrase in suburbia at the time). So ended my good handwriting and good nerves, but not my two-fingered typing and good grades.
When I would see how hard some students really tried to learn a subject, and how frustrated it made them when they couldn't, I felt guilty that most learning was so easy for me, be it learning that never relieved my own growing frustration. Recognition for academic achievement brought my satisfaction but also made me feel uncomfortable, for I feared my classmates might think I was just trying to showoff, at their expense.
Indeed, though learning was usually easy, I did work intensely when a challenge presented itself. Several times in 7th and 8th grade, I discovered that if I typed just a few pages every night for a month or so, I could turn in typed notebooks of over 100 pages (i.e. Westward Movement, Missouri Constitution, etc.).
At 13, I faced what appeared to be a religious challenge. I started Hebrew School three years late and was forced to cram four years of study into the few months before my Mock Mitzvah.
Rabbi Minz, more an administrator than a theologian, tutored me all summer, recording my Hebrew readings from the Torah on a tape recorder so I could memorize (instead of understand) the entire ceremony. Rabbi Minz spent his daily lunch hour with me, but it took several hours on the bus for me to get to his office and back home, so I didn't have much time to be lonely that summer. But I became a man - a mensch in the loosest sense of the word I even thought back then.
I began that menschood by trying to keep my mind off unsteady hands and the isolation they and my thickening "shell" caused. Teachers assured me that my nervousness was teen angst and I would outgrow it.
On the subject of growing, the beginning of the summer after seventh grade was particularly interesting in a good way. I'd been mowing lawns all spring with a push mower and Mark Martin made me a deal I couldn't refuse. Mark's stepfather figured their lawn didn't need to be mowed any more since his lawyer/wife ran away with her legal partner. So Mark offered me their riding mower for fifty dollars, payable before school started in the fall.
Everyone else in the neighborhood charged two dollars per lawn (with trimming). I undercut them at a dollar a yard (without trimming), and used my dual-engine riding mower to do four lawns a day, six days a week. Before midsummer, Mark was paid off and I'd earned $150.
Shell or no shell, I saw an advertisement in Popular Mechanics and sent for a Travis Bikemotor on the rider/demonstrator plan. The ad said to allow ninety days for delivery; so when I mailed a money order for $70, I braced myself for a long wait.
But only three days after ordering it, the weekend before school started, my machine arrived. After ripping open the box with my hungry hands, I took several deep breaths as I scrutinized this magnificent contraption that was going to be my ticket to freedom, then nearly passed out in ecstasy. But didn't.
Half an hour later, I had the 2 HP monster was mounted on the front forks of my Schwinn. In no time, the Travis drivestone began burning up balloon tires while I pushed the envelope of the neighborhood.
Then, in short order, the envelope collapsed. My motor ran slower and slower, until it finally crapped out. One Saturday night that I was destined to remember far more vividly than the day Kennedy was shot 6 years later, I took a deep breath and disassembled my bikemotor. I discovered that the three holes that the manual said were supposed to be the exhaust ports were all plugged up with black crud. I scraped them out and bolted the thing back together. Covered with grease, I rolled my bike into the street and gave a shove. Instantly, the motor sprang to life and catapulted me around the block faster than ever. That cool night of mechanical resurrection, I felt a euphoria unlike anything I'd ever felt before.
Desperately in search of that mysteriously wonderful euphoria, I overhauled my Travis every Saturday night, whether it needed fixing or not. But the euphoria never returned even once - not until 35 years later when I took up painting (which supplied it on a regular basis for several years until I realized that too seemed destined to crap out).
But, back to the late 50's, I quickly realized a machine, no matter how well-maintained, could never be a friend; and I needed one in the worst way. I'd said a prayer every night since my grandmother had died a year before, but had never asked for anything for myself. But I was getting desperate.
With some mixed emotions, I asked God for a friend - and the very next morning Dale Weiss and Eddie Goldberg showed up, checked out my bikemotor, and they got Travi of their own. And I got a couple good friends, motor-biking partners, and a reinforced faith in the Almighty-no matter how mysterious His or Her ways temporarily were.
Mysterious indeed, considering the fact that I realized at about this age of puberty that I would never fit into any of the standard molds society had allotted for its adult citizens. I'd already come to know well that if something wasn't interesting to me (and not much was) I couldn't even force myself to do it, no matter how hard I tried. For whatever reasons, I naively felt that nothing short of saving society from itself would give me peace of mind. In distant retrospect, maybe it was just because my own social life at school (Dale and Eddie aside) was already so unpleasureable that I felt the need to fix everybody else's; since I felt impotent to do anything about my own.
At any rate, I was naive enough to believe for a few years that I could fix the human race by my becoming another Tom Edison. Just what the world needed, I thought at the time, considering my growing prowess with mechanical contraptions.
Re-inventing the light bulb wasn't destined to be, but a true candle flickered for awhile in the arena of female companionship. I first sat next to Susanna in Language Arts and Social Studies classes in 9th Grade. Susanna made me feel so alive that freshman year that it was almost fun to go to school. Like I said, even then,I had a gut feeling life was never going to work out for me as an adult, but at least I could enjoy a few teenage years in the meantime with a nice girlfriend.
We talked and kidded around through two classes a day. The new cafeteria wasn't finished yet, so sandwiches were delivered to the room and we dined together too. It seemed as if my grammar school charisma had returned, at least as far as Susanna was concerned, it seemed. Like I've said, I was in no way an athlete. But I made the wrestling team following a year of highly disciplined weightlifting, to earn a Varsity letter and thus guarantee Susanna's affection. Or so I stupidly hoped.
But, alas, all my chauvinistic endeavors failed. As dating years approached and moved by, our relationship turned out to be no more than a case of classroom friendliness, on her part. I, on the other hand, was destined to carry a passionate torch for her for unrequited decades to come. My ego had always become angry when rejected, but I could never be mad at wonderful Susanna, never. To this date, I remain thankful for having known her, thankful for her having given me something sweet and innocent to dream about for so many sour years to come.
Some sourness aside, I seemed to be lucky enough to have one requited girlfriend in high school. Sandra went to another high school, University City. I did not love her but had an intimate relationship with her nevertheless. After all, the 60's had just begun and I was as gullible as everybody else.
Gullible, but not cowardly, one day my 125 pound self was walking down the hall toward the cafeteria, when a 200 pound bully wisecracked, "Hey, Krause, how's your U. City whore doing?" Without thinking, I went berserk. I jumped on him, beat him to the floor and started to bang his head against the linoleum. When it took 3 guys to pull me off him, I was startled at my own passion.
All passion aside, my intermittent physical problems had gotten so clumsy by my senior year that I began wondering if there was any sense in pursuing any career, inventor or otherwise, which might involve any sort of social contact at all - which I knew they all did. As a result, my grades fell off some. But I had still managed to graduate near the top of the class, but, like most bookworms, at the bottom of the social register.
In the fall of 1963, though I'd already lost interest in book-learning, I enrolled at Washington University and made the Dean's list in engineering - to demonstrate to the world that I wasn't totally incompetent that first semester.
By the time of Kennedy's assassination during that freshman semester (I don't have any idea where I was because of shock treatments a couple years later), my manual dexterity had gotten so bad that I couldn't even take notes in class, much less eat in the cafeteria. My feet were occasionally so uncoordinated that I had to wait until class had already resumed and the stairs were empty to shuffle up up the steps unobserved, but tardy (only several minutes, not two days as I had been in 1945).
I periodically mentioned my degenerating symptoms to various counselors, but they said it was all in my head - since the symptoms would come and go. Eventually, when fatigue (which I now realize was disease related) forced me to cut classes and go home to rest, one particular counselor told me I was sleeping my life away. It saddened me, for I feared he was right, but I knew not what to do about it.
I'd always had only a few friends, three from high school who'd already gone their own ways a couple others who went their separate ways after only one year in Engineering School. Very recently, I've begun to wonder if all those early years I felt the need to help large numbers of people only because then large numbers of people might want to be my friend. I certainly hope that wasn't the case. But the mind's simplest motives are indeed supremely mysterious.
Not so mysteriously, like a lot of people back then in the 60's, I was unhappy with things...but really not depressed. I still had hope, be it a false hope that my problems would someday spontaneously vanish.
In the mean time, still classified S-2 (student deferred) by the draft board, I continued to miss classes and mess around with greasy cars and loud motorcycles, confident God would eventually intervene and bring me some sort of happiness, or at least help me make some small contribution to the human experience, to give me some feeling of fulfillment, some peace of mind - anything that would mean I hadn't lived for nothing. I knew I wasn't a bad person and I knew I'd tried as hard as I could, despite what others may have thought. In my mind, I needed to justify my existence, to somehow be sure I hadn't consumed 20 years of food, shelter, and education without giving back to society more than 20 years worth of the same commodities.
So I went willingly to see the suburban psychiatrist, Dr. Aidelman, who had treated a neighbor's breakdown several years before. He said I could be helped, and began to analyze me on a routine basis.
Actually, he was quite a likable guy and did give me considerable insight into the human psyche. Mind-numbing drugs hadn't yet become a part of his regimen - except for intravenous injections of sodium amythal to "help me talk" about my most personal things. My muscle spasms and shyness would strangely disappear for a couple hours after each shot so I went willingly along on his weekly chemical trips.
Very soon, it was apparent that none of my efforts at mechanical invention were working out, nor where any of Aidelman's efforts at mental intervention. Very soon, it was apparent that none of my efforts at mechanical invention were working out, nor where any of Aidelman's efforts at mental intervention. So I did what seemed like the only constructive thing I could do. Yes,if I would have completely dropped out of school, I would have been drafted. But I didn't want to be drafted. I wanted to go of my own volition, so I enlisted.