I received a lovely birthday card from my mother for my 67th birthday back in March. It was more of a letter really than a card. In the letter, she talked about my early years and the challenges she and my dad faced as first-time parents. My dad was still in college when they got married, and I came along a couple of years later. Dad was in ROTC, so after graduation, he had to complete his military obligation.
My mother and I joined him at Fort Rucker in Ozark, Alabama after basic training. I was a little over a year old, but surprisingly I have memories of living there. I can picture our little apartment behind our landlord’s big house. I remember she had a grand piano in her living room and a wonderful African American housekeeper I adored. Funny what you can remember even at an early age.
My mother reports that I was an easy-going child but had a maddening habit of wandering off. Remember, I was just a toddler, so I didn’t move very fast but got around well enough to escape confinement. My parents tell two stories of me wandering from our small yard.
In one incident, I vanished right around the time a tornado warning had been issued. My folks were in a panic, as you can imagine. I didn’t go far. Near our apartment was a busy railroad yard. A toddler wandering around in a railroad yard, what could go wrong with that? Dad found me sitting beside the tracks watching the men load cotton bales onto the rail cars.
Another time, he found me a few blocks away, sitting on the curb in front of the barbershop where he always got his haircut. I had a cigar butt hanging from my mouth I’d found in the gutter. I do remember a fondness for old cigarette butts as a child. Fortunately, that never turned into a desire to smoke cigarettes.
I’ve heard these stories many times, and my first thought always is: “why wasn’t someone keeping better track of me”? One solution they came up with was to put a red hat on me. Apparently, they thought a kid with a red hat would be easier to spot. I wonder if they got that idea from Dr. Benjamin Spock (author of the best-selling and most influential child-rearing book of all time)? Eventually, my wandering subsided or at least came under better volitional control. It’s also possible that the threat of getting a spanking with a “switch” (another Dr. Spock idea?) had something to do with it. I don’t think my dad ever followed through on that threat, but the prospect was scary enough to make me think twice.
Yet, I also displayed a bit of resourcefulness in my early years. I was probably about 3 years old when I was sure a spanking was imminent when my dad got home, so I shoved a few books into the back of my pants. My flat butt was a dead giveaway, of course, but the incident inadvertently led to the realization that humor was a useful strategy for getting out of a jam. Trying as he might to keep a straight face, my dad couldn’t deliver on the spanking. Unfortunately, many years later, I also learned that humor is not always a surefire solution when you’re in a tight spot. I was in high school and arrived home late and slightly drunk one evening and was met by my dad at the top of the stairs. “Hey, Dad, remember when I shoved those books down my pants….?” Good thing he didn’t have a switch handy!
I have that red hat pinned to the corkboard in my office. When my mother gave it to me some years ago, I started thinking about my youthful wandering tendency. Did I still have it? I still wander off from time to time. It tends to happen when I feel out of place or nervous in social situations with a large number of people I don’t know. I’ll wander away, leave, sometimes without saying goodbye (how rude!).
So, if I unexpectedly disappear one of these days, look for me in the red hat. I’ll be sitting on the curb, an old cigarette butt hanging from my mouth.