Still Learning How to Fly ~ Chapter Three: "To School" (Pt.5)

Ken Painter By Ken Painter, 19th Sep 2013 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Biography & Autobiography

As the 3rd Chapter closes we find my mother announcing that she is finished with the neighborhood (meaning "feuding with the neighbors"), and that we are looking to move.

Execution Chamber

It’s always strange looking back, because while that basement enhanced the value of our home immensely, brought us some relief from the humidity of the sticky heat of Michigan’s summers, gave Sandi and I a game table we could play at and not bother Mom and Dad so much, that basement would sometimes also prove to show another side of itself. It could be a double-edged sword. There were times, and fortunately they were not common, but they existed more often than I would have liked for the fact that they even existed at all in which this basement for me could become my execution chamber.

What I do recall is that as time went on if my mom took a moment to think about what she was going to do first (which she rarely did except on a rare occasion) then she’d march me to the basement where her screaming was less likely to be heard by the neighbors. One such incident that occurred when I was 11 or 12 years old, and I recall it because it involved her white Bible. Whatever I had done or she perceived that I’d done for I never did know then and I still don’t know now, I recall concealing a thousand unanswered questions in my head that day, because I knew the futility in asking them. I knew that the perceived disrespect would only enrage my mother further, and I was keen to try and ward off any blows. What kind of lashing I would receive, tongue or otherwise, for whatever it was I’d done would depend strictly upon how I received her rabid message.

My mother placed her hands on my shoulders and stuffed me into the wooden chair before sitting down directly across the table from me. She reached up above us and switched on the light over the table thus augmenting the stairway light and heightening the shadowy sense of doom. The basement contained only two standard windows through which very little of the late afternoon sun filtered that day. I’d been in this situation before, but for some reason my mom appeared unusually fierce this time. She began her tirade by screaming so loudly at me I felt as if my eardrums would surely burst, and then after about ten minutes of the screaming and yelling about my tongue and how I should control it and not use it in any way that would be unbecoming to God, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, I began to wish that I would go deaf just so that I wouldn’t have to listen anymore. My God! What had I done? I was certain that I didn’t curse - that much I knew for sure! I never cursed, not to my sister, not to my classmates, nor my teacher, not to my father, certainly not to my mother! I didn’t even curse to myself inside my head for fear of burning in Hell, so I knew that I hadn’t cursed! But what had I done that deserved her vehement and complete condemnation on this day?

I would never know. Somehow I would endure her deafening harangue though I calculated that it must have lasted for at least half an hour by which time the neighbors may even have heard some of this even though we were down in the basement and surely they would have run to close their windows and lock their doors. I couldn’t even begin to count the number of times her white Bible had been loudly and soundly thumped, slapped was more like it, and, though I felt ashamed of it later, I even had begun to pray silently with my eyes wide open that the Bible would fall apart in her hands so that my mom couldn’t slap it anymore!, Unfortunately, the leather proved to be too tough for her to rend that day. By the end of her tirade, she left the white Bible open to one of the Psalms and gave me a reading assignment, and then she marched back up the stairs to the first floor of the house where I could hear her banging about the kitchen. I read what she required, but the words made no sense to me only because I was so upset. How could I think? I couldn’t think! I couldn’t focus on anything. I put my head down on the cool tabletop and just tried to calm my racing brain. Eventually, I crept back up the basement stairs and upon reaching the top, I opened the door, and I turned right and shuffled toward my bedroom, my haven, and away from the kitchen, hers. I crawled into my bed and eventually drifted off asleep, the only way I could cope.

Good Times

We did experience some good times as a family. I would be remiss if I said it was all bad. We were not well-to-do, and we were a single income household, and as I’ve recounted Dad put some of that back into the property, plus he was a good saver, so we were not a family given to taking family vacations. We’d do little stuff each summer like picnics with our cousins at a lake somewhere, and we’d all go swimming, inexpensive stuff like that. A day trip like Greenfield Village in Dearborn but usually no vacations. And lucky-dog me I got to go with my grandparents, and then later still with just my grandma for a week every summer up to Cranberry Lake, but I’d long silently looked at that as just fruits for being my mom’s punching bag. Justification, though I did feel a bit sorry for Sandi that she didn’t get to come along, but it was dirty and smelly, and she wasn’t really into dirty and smelly. Justification.

But in the summer of 1961 the four of us went on a family summer vacation. Like normal folks. We’d just bought a new car the fall before, a Plymouth, and Mom had decided to learn how to drive finally, I guess because the Plymouth had a stick shift and it intrigued her, but Dad taught her how to drive, and we’d all survived the grinding of the gears, and even he had learned a little patience I truly believe, because she got her license. Plus in Michigan we had this brand shiny new bridge up at the Straits of Mackinac which had just opened just a few years earlier, and everyone was just itching to see it and drive over it. It was a big deal, because until November of 1957 in order to get over to the Upper Peninsula you had to take a ferry boat over, but not anymore! So in the summer of 1961, we joined the throngs of Michiganders heading North up US-127 and over the Mackinac Bridge (Big Mac), and we continued on into Sault Sainte Marie to visit the Soo Locks.

This was a big deal to me! We went on the Soo Locks boat trip, and even though we didn’t continue on into Canada, I got to look at Canada so I felt so proud that at ten years old I was looking at a foreign country. I’d momentarily forgotten that I’d been living only 75 miles away from one my entire life, and the couple of times we had gone to the auto show in Detroit I was looking at Canada from across the Detroit River. It didn’t matter. I wasn’t thinking clearly. It didn’t connect for me until I got back home and dragged out the Collier’s and looked at the maps. Oh! This is Canada, too. I was way too excited! The funny thing is, I would never actually get over into Canada until I was an adult and I drove myself over there. All those years living so close, and my parents never went.

We were gone only a total of three or four days, and we stayed in inexpensive but clean motels, but it was still great, and I recall that everyone was happy. We must have been, because we actually had a repeat family vacation just two years later during the summer of 1963.

One thing that is absolutely great about Michigan, it is a vacation wonderland! There is so much to see and do; Michigan has been well-blessed. When we were in upper Michigan we had passed through Mackinaw City, of course, but we had lacked sufficient funds to visit the other major attraction in the area, Mackinac Island which lies just a few miles offshore out in Lake Huron not far from the bridge and the Straits of Mackinac. It can be reached only by ferry boat from one of two points, either from Mackinaw City in the Lower Peninsula at the lower end of Big Mac or from St. Ignace in the Upper Peninsula at the other end. We took the ferry from the lower end.

The island is somewhat like a fairytale for a couple of reasons. First of all, no motorized vehicles of any kind are allowed on it. You may travel on it by foot, bicycle, horse, horse drawn carriage, or other contrivance I suppose if desired though I didn’t see anybody on stilts or pogo sticks while I was there. But it is a step back in time, and that’s just great.

Also, the British fort is still there, and it’s well-preserved. So we did many things to fill up our day trip on Mackinac Island. We visited the shops, and there are a lot of them. We visited the fort, and this began my love affair with forts and castles, Mackinac Island, 1963. We had ice cream cones and fudge. The fudge is made right there. We walked over to the world-famous Grand Hotel and just gaped! It’s beauty is matchless! And so is the view from the veranda.

At the foot of the hotel, we rented bicycles, and the four of us rode them the entire 8 mile circumference of the island. The road encircling the island is paved, and so we spent a beautiful part of that afternoon riding around it, looking for agates and shells now and then, but just having a great time being together. These were the good times, and there were damned few of them. But we did have them on occasion, and then like those few wonderfully blue-sky sunny days we’d have once in awhile in Michigan, they’d be gone. And after three or four days we were back home again, and the fairy tale evaporated.

Moving On

The summer of ‘63 was a benchmark year for me. I had just graduated 6th grade, and I was leaving Longfellow Elementary behind. I would be moving on to Hunt Junior High School in the fall, and I was so excited I could hardly stand it! My life would soon be exploding with new opportunities because of this.

My new school was about a mile from my home, just shy of it, so the walk would be longer, but not a problem. I was looking forward to it. It was a beautiful new school with a large campus, and a brand new on-site Olympic sized swimming pool. I had already been told that we would be having gym class, and that as a part of our curriculum we would be having swimming class. No problem! I’d been a part of the YMCA program through my 5th grade year, and I’d stopped only because my Boy Scout activities had gotten so involved during the 6th grade that I no longer had the time. And as if this didn’t provide me excitement enough, I was going to take Band.

My folks recognized my musical ability, and it was affordable, cheap really, and cheap was always good. After all it was public school, so it didn’t cost a thing, other than the instrument, and the beauty of Jackson Public Schools were that they would let us rent the instrument, and the fees were low. And so I would meet with the band instructor in the fall, and we’d decide together.

Or would we?

At some point after we returned from our idyllic vacation to Mackinac Island my mom announced that she’d had enough of living in that neighborhood, and she and my dad were interested in looking at lake properties to move to. Here we go again, I thought. They’d been doing this off and on for the past year or so dragging us to one open house at one lake after another, so I didn’t pay it a lot of mind at first. But then they engaged the services of a realtor who started doing the looking for them, and I knew they were serious this time. Then I started worrying.

He took us way out to a house on Wolf Lake in the Napoleon school district way out from town, and I mean way out! Nice two-story house, lake view , but not lake front, and that’s important to note. It had beach access, and it was just across the road from the lake with nothing restricting it from Wolf Lake, but it wasn’t right on the lake. Well, my parents just fell in love with the place, and so did Sandi. Of course she did. She always got the bigger bedroom, because she’s the girl. This was always the justification they had always used for treating me like a second class citizen within my own family when from a young age they moved me from my bedroom which had been the larger one into the smaller one on the first floor next to the bathroom, and moved Sandi up into the larger one on the 2nd floor next to theirs. Although as many times as I later had to crawl into that 1st floor bedroom after a beating it may have proven to be a blessing. But still . . .

The bedroom which would be designated as mine should we move to this Wolf Lake house was on the 2nd floor and measured a cozy 8 by 6 feet just barely big enough for my twin bed and my desk, but not big enough for me to sit at it. When I looked at this room, I registered a minor complaint, but not a loud one, I didn’t want to embarrass my folks, but it was enough of one that my dad should have picked up on it. It was barely larger than Harry Potter’s closet under the stairs not that we knew who Harry Potter was in those days.

We left the house, and I just knew it was a done deal. And to put it bluntly, I was scared shitless. Fortunately, it was a Friday night, and that weekend I was scheduled to be spending the weekend with my grandma Bess. It took forever to get there, because Wolf Lake is waaay out on the southeast side of Jackson County, so for me it was a looong silent ride back to Jackson’s north side and her house where they dropped me off.

I went inside, and I told my grandma all about it, and I did something that at 12 years old I didn’t do very often anymore, I started crying. I just couldn’t hold it in anymore. This situation wasn’t right, and I didn’t want them dumping on me like that. If we were going to move that was one thing, but it had to be right for all of us, and I wasn’t about to be locked up in a cell. And that room was no bigger than a prison cell. This is what I told my grandma as I sobbed.

She took me in her arms, and she comforted me, and then she told me that if that’s the way I felt then I needed to tell them that just the way I had just told her. And so after I stopped crying, and after I’d composed myself, she handed me the telephone. I knew they’d be home by then. I dialed the number. My mom answered, and I told her exactly what I felt just exactly like I told it to Grandma though without all the drama, and I did not cry. She said thanks for telling her, and she’d relay the information to my dad. I said good-bye, and I hung up.

We did not move to Wolf Lake.

(This ends Chapter Three. Next: Chapter Four: "The Hairy Years" begins, and I'm off to junior high school).

Link to next installment . . .

Link to last installment . . .

Link to beginning of book . . .


Autobiography, Child Abuse, Childhood, Childhood Memories, Memoir, Memoirs, Memories, Memories From Childhood, Memories From My Young Days, Non Fiction, Non-Fiction, Nonfiction, Serial, Series, True Experiences, True Stories, True Story

Meet the author

author avatar Ken Painter
Retired Chicago public school teacher. Singer, songwriter, musician, author, & opinionated old curmudgeon. Married to my husband & living in Colorado, USA. Also a father & grandfather.

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