An Inappropriate Life

Memoir by Stan Gotlieb

Little Boy Lost

I learned to read when I was four. My mom taught me. My dad was serving his country in Alaska (it was 1942), my mom was a housewife, and we had a lot of time to spend together. Maybe too much. We were living upstairs in a duplex building not far from the Saint Paul Cathedral, on a street of similar duplexes and one family dwellings..

I had, as she was fond of telling me, been a difficult birth, and as a result she had been advised that she should have no more children. I, being the only child she could ever have, was an object of close and constant observation. The fact that I was a “sickly child”, having by the age of four had mumps, measles, whooping cough, rheumatic fever and scarlet fever, as well as surgery to remove my tonsils (once) and adenoids (twice),probably had a lot to do with her attitude. I, for my part, was not the easiest child to be with, having learned, through my various illnesses, how attentive my mother could be.

Giving me a book to read was a good way to keep me out of her hair, and at home, not playing with our non-Jewish neighbors’ kids. My mom had a thing about that: just because we couldn’t afford to live in the “Jewish” neighborhood, didn’t mean we had to “lower our standards” and hang out with the goyim. I longed, out loud, for a little brother to play with, and eventually invented an imaginary brother whom I named Billy. Being constantly reminded of her inability to provide me with a real younger brother, probably did little to improve her enjoyment of life.

Billy was a year younger than I, with blonde hair and blue eyes, just like most of the neighborhood children. He always played with me when I wanted him to, and never refused to play the game that I chose. He was a mischievous kid, and was constantly urging me to do things that I had been told I shouldn’t. He never ate things he didn’t like. He didn’t have to take a bath if he didn’t want to. He was invisible to my mother, but sometimes he would manifest his presence by acts of pure defiance for which I would get blamed, even though I explained to my mother that it wasn’t me who did it. One of Billy’s favorites was slopping water out of the bathtub and on to the floor.

By the time I was four and a half, I had developed little skill in getting along with other boys and girls, but I had a powerful desire to break out of my mother’s bonds. The answer, I was sure, was to go to kindergarten, a place where she couldn’t follow me and limit my acquaintances. The problem was, since my birthday is in March, that I was deemed too young to enter the public schools in the fall of 1942. However, early admission was possible for those children who could demonstrate advanced social development to a school counselor, and I, with my book-learned sophistication, was sure that it would be a cinch.

When I “failed” the test, and was told I would have to wait another year, I was utterly disconsolate. I simply refused to accept the verdict. I began to prepare to go to school, convinced that once there, I could talk my way into class. Billy was very angry with me for choosing school over him, and about this time he disappeared from my life. When I announced to my mom that Billy had gone, she almost wept, with what I misinterpreted as sorrow. In fact it was joy. I had decided, I informed her, that I was too old for imaginary brothers.

When the first day of school rolled around, I told my mother I was going out into the fenced back yard to play, and snuck out, heading for School, which I was pretty sure was “over there”, just a few blocks away. When I got “over there”, I didn’t see it. I decided to go a little further. Still no school.

Perhaps, I thought, I would find it if I went a few blocks in another direction. No such luck. All the neighborhoods looked alike to me, being mostly single and duplex houses and four-flats, built in the 20s and 30s with stucco exteriors and screened porches, set back from the street in generous lots on tree-lined streets. I wandered for several hours without encountering any schools. Even if I had come across any restaurants, diners, or lunch counters, I didn’t have any money, and lunch time came and went. For the first time I could remember, I knew hunger. I didn’t care for it very much.

Finally, after what I was later informed was about five hours (I had no watch), I emerged onto a commercial street. At first I thought it looked familiar, but on second observation, I realized that I didn’t recognize a single landmark. I picked a direction, and walked along for a few blocks before coming upon a major intersection. A police car was parked at the curb. Tired, hungry, and frustrated, I approached the car. There were two officers inside. I tapped on the window. The nearest officer rolled it down, and looked me over.

“I’m lost”, I said. “What’s your name”, he asked. I told him. “Do you know your address?” I did. “Get in” he said, opening the back door. “We’ll take you home”. “Can’t you just tell me how to get there?” “No, you might get lost again, and your mom is worried about you”.

“How do you know she’s worried?” “Because she already called the police to report you as missing”. Oh, oh… “Do I have to go home? She’s probably pretty mad at me”. “She’ll be even madder if you keep her waiting, and besides, we have to take you, that’s the rules”. I got in, and they took me home. But they didn’t just drop me off, oh no. They escorted me up the front walk and opened the front door. We lived on the second floor. My mother was waiting at the top of the stairs. I had never seen her so angry. “Go on, now”, said one of the cops. “Get along upstairs”.

With every step, my fear grew and grew and grew. Even though neither parent had ever raised a hand to me, I was sure that she was going to beat me, or worse (whatever that might have been in the fevered imagination of a four-and-a-half-year-old). My fear had built up to such a pitch, that when I was about four steps from the top, I fainted. When I woke up, unhurt, I was lying in the downstairs foyer with my head in my mom’s lap. All thoughts of punishment had vanished from my mother’s mind.

I was so pleased with the results, that the next time I ran away to school and was brought back, I pretended to faint. It didn’t work. I guess it didn’t look convincing. I was forbidden to play alone in the back yard, but I managed to sneak out of the house another couple of times before I finally found the school, and asked the adult walking down the hall where the Kindergarten class was. By then, I had taught myself how to go somewhere and find my way back home.

The teacher of whom I had inquired firmly but gently showed me to the principal’s office. I pleaded with the principal, and I cajoled. I tried “cute” and I tried “smart”. I cried. Nothing did any good. No school for me until the next year. At that point, convinced that I was fighting a losing battle, I stopped running away from home – at least to go to school.

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