I was too young to remember posing for this picture. It was taken around 1960 by my grandma who liked to pose her grandkids in a stairstep. The last time I posted this TBT photo it blew-up my Facebook page. The dialog it sparked, inspired me to dust-off my old Blog to workshop the book I’ve been writing.
For those who are just here to read the next chapter of my book you could choose to scroll directly to my long awaited second chapter and not miss anything vital from the main story of my book. My years of teaching the circus arts at a Waldorf school, plays a small, but important role in my book. What follows directly below is just a newsletter to the Waldorf community.
I love Waldorf education. Both our living children enjoyed a full Waldorf education. When our second daughter Katya died, the Waldorf community came to our support to help us get through our most difficult days. My hope is that my grandchildren can receive the same benefits of the Waldorf education provided to my children.
Unfortunately, I detect the rumblings of a seismic divide in the Waldorf community into polarizing camps, which doesn’t give me a lot of hope. The community seems to be resonating at the same base-bandwidth as the politics of the day, rather than the higher frequency required to inspire children to reach their higher selves.
I used George Orwell’s literary-choice of “farm animals” to portray some of the politically divisive characters in my book. After publishing the first chapter on my blog, I understand some read my Animal Farm-style references and felt like they were looking in the mirror and took offence by the reflection they saw. To you, and to all my readers, in my book I promise to speak my truth, anything else would be, propaganda. I haven’t been affiliated with a Waldorf school or institution for many years and speak with an outside and independent voice. I’ve been fully transparent about writing my book and clear in my point-of-view to the Waldorf institutions and the families involved, so it should not be a surprise when I start publishing it.
I come from a family of pioneering teachers, and I’ve dedicated nearly twenty-years of my life to not only teaching the circus arts, but also using humor to reform Waldorf education to better serve the children in the times they were growing up. I believe that Waldorf education needs to be further reformed to meet the new challenges of our current times. In my book I plan to explore a third path not currently being taken by the community. My next chapter leads off talking about a beloved former student that I portray as a baby chick I taught, who grew-up to become a feisty Mother Hen.
I hope you enjoy the second chapter of, Birthing a Sacred Fool.
A View from Two Americas
QUARANTINE WATCH / February 13, 2021
Standing in the kitchen, I see crystal ice patterns have formed on the window, blocking my view of the backyard. Up in Northern Minnesota it’s fifty-below-zero. Here in Minneapolis, it’s only nine-below.
I sip my fifth cup of coffee this morning. Since the pandemic my sleep schedule has been thrown way-off, from the normal insomnia I used to enjoy. I haven’t had a good night sleep since the split with my beloved Waldorf community. The good news is I’m getting a lot of writing done during the twilight hours, when artists weave their best magic.
At 9:00am I turn on NPR News because at 10:00am Eastern Time the US Senate is scheduled to begin voting on whether Donald Trump is guilty of inciting an insurrection against the United States Government. I hear the gavel hit the same podium where a few weeks ago stood a half-naked heavily-tattooed man wearing Buffalo horns on his head. It was mob rule that day. The body count was five-dead.
Senators begin giving final speeches before their vote. The majority of Republicans are voting Trump innocent on the grounds of his First Amendment privilege of free speech. From childhood I’ve been told you can’t, “shout fire in a crowded theater.” If this was a true court-of-law, the double-speak argument of these senators would be absurd. I wonder, if George Orwell were alive today, would he be laughing or crying?
I sit down and open my computer. Facebook pops up first. Without thinking, I click on my personal page. Last Thursday, I had posted a picture I was thinking of including in this book. I scanned an old photo my grandma took around 1960, when I was about three-years-old. It was my earliest documented proof my future profession was my destiny from an early age. It was clear from the smile on my face and the sparkle in my eyes, I loved dressing up before I could remember. My older brother and sister and I were all wearing American Indian costumes. Grandma probably bought them at a tacky souvenir shop on her way to visit, when we were each around three-years-old. Jerry’s fake buckskin outfit with beads and fringe looked like it had gone through the wash dozens of times. It had both shrunk and my brother had grown six-inches. My sister’s fake buckskin shirt and skirt outfit was the perfect size for her. It was a little wrinkled but the fringe and beads were still in good shape. Mine looked like I had just unwrapped it and put it on for the first time. Both my sleeves and pant legs appeared to be discretely pinned up so I wouldn’t trip. Grandma arranged us in a stairstep to dramatically show off our different sizes. I thought, Throw Back Thursday, was a perfect theme for this classic picture from my childhood. I typed, “TBT,” and posted the photo.
I start combing through this morning’s responses. For the past three-days, all of them have been positive. My heart sinks into my gut. At 10:01am Central Time, it appears the gavel came down in the court of woke politics, for the audacity of posting my childhood photograph. My prosecutor is a former Waldorf student, with a reputation for being a fierce cultural warrior. She is the youngest baby chick of the Mother Hen who was the teacher I witnessed telling a fairytale by candle-light, the day I first visited a Waldorf Kindergarten.
I remember her last year in our circus program. I directed her and another eighth-grade girl in a juggling routine where they needed to learn how to steal the balls from each other while keeping the pattern going. It’s a great skill to build a comedy routine around, because of the conflict you can create by stealing the balls back-and-forth. They learned the skill quickly, but when it came time to start building the comic tension around the conflict, the stealing back-and-forth didn’t come off funny. From my director’s point-of-view, all I could see was the beauty of two friends keeping three-juggling-balls in the air, in perfect cooperation. I renamed the piece, Friendship, to capture the purity of their sweet spirits. I recall opening night, watching the show from my backstage perch above the stage. Daddy Rooster and Momma Hen were watching in the audience with smiles from ear-to-ear. Every show afterwards, just before the Friendship Routine, the proud Rooster and Hen would slip backstage to my director’s perch long enough to watch their youngest baby chick perform in her last circus.
The baby chick has grown-up to become a feisty Mother Hen who now teaches in the same Waldorf early childhood program where her mother once worked. I read her public lashing several times through. The basic thrust of her argument is I should remove my photo because it’s offensive. I agree with 100% of the goals of my feisty Mother Hen foe. I just don’t agree with her battle tactics. As a professional comedian I take my First Amendment right of free speech very seriously. All of us in the profession stand on the shoulders of great American comedians like, Lenny Bruce and George Carlin, who secured the freedom of speech we enjoy today, by exercising their rights of free speech in not-too-distant American history.
Back in the early 1990s I had my first battles with, “Political Correctness.” I loved playing the role of sacred fool, punching holes in the humorless New Age school with my comedy to let the light in, so the children could laugh. I remember many years ago, tangling with the mother of the feisty Mother Hen. I was walking past the Kindergarten room with thirteen rubber chickens stuffed in a cardboard box for the fifth-grade class leaving for the Pentathlon Games in Wisconsin. It was just after our spring circus and the entire school was still talking about the show. I smiled at the lead Kindergarten teacher as she came out of her classroom.
Scowling she asked, “Lloyd, what is that?” Pointing to rubber chicken legs sticking out of my box.
I answered, “A parent requested I bring enough rubber chickens for each fifth-grader to play mock Greek games at their campsite tonight.” I could see that she was becoming agitated, so I asked, “Is there a problem?”
She pointed to the door at the end of the hall, “Please remove those before the children see.”
I asked, “Why?”
She looked at me with steely eyes, “Because they represent dead animals.”
Needless to say, the challenges for a comedian today are much greater, the stakes far higher, and the costs more crippling. My problem with the battle tactics of today’s P.C. Police is they seem to create more victims than they protect. I tried to explain to my feisty Mother Hen the real solution is quality education. I told her about my family roots in education and how I witnessed my mother helping people climb out of poverty one student at a time.
America is guilty of creating generations of victims from our original sin of slavery, our long history of genocide against the indigenous people living on this land first, and our a checkered history with immigration despite what’s engraved below the Statue of Liberty. The clarity of this fact is made murky by today’s politicians muddying the waters. We are all divided-up like pawns on their red-and-blue gameboard. Both sides manipulate us, by separating us into groups based on the politics they want to sell us for their wedge issues. Today’s politics have splintered our society into tribes that only interact with other tribes if the Venn diagrams of their political beliefs overlap. It seems we point the finger of shame and blame at tribes outside our beliefs until we end up in a circular firing squad. The real problem with this political battle tactic is when the circle arrives at the MAGA side of our country’s divide, they are picking up real guns. Now we’re on the verge of a civil war with 75-million people who think they are victims of a stolen election.
Two weeks ago, I shared on Facebook an article from The Atlantic, published the day of Joe Biden’s inauguration. It was about hope for a return to seriousness after four-years of Trump. I wrote, “Read this article to learn why it was a bad idea for America to elect a clown for President.” I was soon attacked from a friend on the far-right-side of the Waldorf community. She was the mother duck of a couple of former circus students of mine. Their father is infamous for his online attacks against the shifting of Waldorf education from a Eurocentric curriculum to a more culturally inclusive approach.
I find myself standing in-mid-air above a vast cavernous divide like, Wile E. Coyote, in a Road Runner cartoon. I don’t seem to have the moral authority with the far-right to call Trump a clown. From the far-left-side my free-speech-rights are being challenged for posting a picture of me as a three-year-old, the day Trump is being found innocent of causing murder, mayhem, and insurrection against America on the grounds of free speech. I realize the divide within the Waldorf community, echoes the same cavernous divide America is trying to heal from, too.
My parents came from different worlds. One from the country and the other the city. Back then nobody identified themselves as red or blue, but the cracks of our country’s great divide were clear to see in the 1960s. My perspective of growing up and visiting my grandparents from two different Americas helped shape my world view.
I’ve never been afraid of ladders. When I was seven-years-old, I climbed to the top of the windmill on my grandma and grandpa’s farm. I remember standing at the bottom, examining the ladder leading up to the platform below the turning blades. It was made of two endless serpentine-shaped steel-rods welded on opposite sides of one-leg, like a pair of snakes climbing up to the top. The looped steps were staggered far enough apart that it appeared only a full-grown adult could climb up. But, I could see how a little guy like me could use both the bottom step and the top of each snakes’ back all the way to the spinning blades. The next logical thing in my imagination was climbing to the top and seeing what it looked like from up there. In my fragmented memory, I recall my sister following up behind me, but as we got higher up she made her excuses, and returned safely down to the ground. When I reached the top I only had the courage to remain standing on that little worn-out wooden platform a brief moment. The strength of the wind off the eastern Nebraskan plains had the force-of-god. The view I stole was beautiful. It looked like a giant one of my grandma’s patchwork quilts. Checkerboard fields of corn and soy for as far as the eye could see. The windmill was near the house, nestled in a grove of cottonwood trees, with the whirling blades above the treetops. Standing in the erratic wind gusts was exhilarating, but soon my instinct for survival kicked in, and I descended back to earth. When I went into the farmhouse and proudly announced my accomplishment, my mother didn’t believe me.
“It was windy up there,” I declared.
Mom’s face went pale, “I guess you did climb to the top of the windmill.”
My grandparent’s farm was a magical place to spend my summers. From our house in the city to the farm was a day’s drive, so I was often asleep when we arrived. Waking up in a different place from where you fell asleep was always disorienting, but when you’re a city kid it takes a bit longer to adjust to the rhythms of country life. Time was upside down on the farm. In the city, the first thing you do is eat breakfast. In the country, humans were the last living things to eat. In the city, you have breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In the country, your biggest meal of the day was dinner, but it’s served at lunchtime. Lunch, was a mid-afternoon snack grandma brought out to you in the field, but only during planting and harvest seasons. Finally, at dinnertime you ate supper, which was always smaller than dinner at lunchtime.
When I walked out of the farmhouse the first thing you saw was a red barn with the date, 1926, painted in black, on a white-weathered-board, nailed under the peak of its classic six-sided-roof. To the right was a larger building with the same shaped roof, but Grandpa called that one the corn-crib. The outside walls were made of red boards going longways with wide gaps between, letting the air dry the corn stored inside. The building farthest away was the hog-house, but I could smell it as soon as I opened the front-door of the farmhouse. What I looked forward to most was helping Grandpa do his work. I remember once helping him string a new barbed-wire-fence. He needed a second pair-of-eyes to help him lineup the fenceposts, so he could dig the post-holes in a straight line.
I was jealous of my older brother once he got tall, because Grandpa let him drive the tractor, and stay the entire summer to help him on the farm. One day my brother tried to teach me how to drive the tractor by himself. You’d think it would be possible to avoid hitting the broad-side of a 100-foot steel-shed, however, when you’re two city kids on a tractor with a dead-man’s-throttle, and the younger one’s steering but he’s too short to reach the brakes, that’s exactly what happens.
Grandpa often told me, “One boy is a half-a-man, but two boys is no man at all.”
Some days I spent a lot of time inside the farmhouse with Grandma. I remember loving her cinnamon rolls she made-from-scratch. I would sit at the kitchen table with the spiraling warm mana-from-heaven as its creator toiled in the kitchen. The divisions of labor were clearly defined on the farm, and I remember my grandma and grandpa always seemed to be equally busy. Grandma was a first-generation Swedish-American and a devout Lutheran, so from outside appearances she was often stoic.
Once she caught me saying, “gosh darn it,”
Scolding me, she said, “Do not take the Lord’s name in vain.”
“That’s not swearing.” I blurted out, defending myself.
My grandmother patiently explained, “Gosh equals God, and darn equals Damn, so you are asking God to Damn whatever you’re talking about.” She then began warning me against imitating the speech habits of my father.
I innocently asked, “My daddy says, ‘constipation class’ when it’s time for my brother to go to church for his ‘Confirmation Class.’ Is that swearing too?”
I don’t recall the exact words my grandma said, but I remember her back stiffening and her lips pursing like she just sucked on a lemon. I do know I got the clear message that following my father’s bad habits was not the shortest path to heaven.
My first memory of my Grandma Brant was crying in bitter disappointment that she was the wrong grandma. I had woken-up in Highland Park, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit where the Ford Motor Company’s main factory was based. It was normal for me to feel strange waking-up at my grandma and grandpa’s house after falling asleep in the car on the way there. I was looking for my favorite toy, a miniature cast-iron stove like grandma cooked on when my mommy was a little girl. I remember sitting in this strange gray-haired lady’s lap who stunk like perfume, while she tried to convince me that she was my grandma too.
I looked around the strange house and saw the furniture was much more-fancy than on the farm. Looking into the dining-room through a large wooden archway I saw a china cabinet filled with bright dishes of all colors. In a distant dark corner of the living-room, a single light focused on an old man with thick glasses, sitting in an overstuffed chair, silently reading the newspaper. I was guessing he was my grandfather. Later, I learned he suffered from a rare eye disease he inherited from his mother, and my father had inherited from him. It was a combination of tunnel-vision and night-blindness. This disease caused my grandfather’s world of broad horizons and beautiful sunrises of his youth, to slowly shrink until his dawns and dusks all became midnight, and his peripheral vision slowly vanished, leaving him reading his newspaper like he was looking through a tube the diameter of a nickel.
Sitting on grandma’s lap, somehow, she opened a secret door into my heart. Maybe, I shared my dream of becoming a movie star? I remember giving my mother, what I called, “Hollywood kisses,” which were the kind, Errol Flynn, gave to the women he rescued after his big battle scene at the end of his movies. It was a chaste touching of the lips, designed I’m sure to not alert the censors, but it might have done the trick for the conquest of my second grandma’s heart.
Afterwards, she showered me with gifts of different costumes she would buy or make upon my request. In her later years, she had earned a teaching degree in early education, and got a job at a neighborhood Kindergarten. Her college degree provided the perfect grandma skills for a kid like me with an active imagination. I have fragmented memories of visiting her class. I was probably too young to be enrolled in Kindergarten. I remember she performed a puppet show with puppets she had made-from-scratch. At some point before the day was over, I realized I was one of the only white kids in her class. I clearly wasn’t in Nebraska anymore.
We were a family of five, living in St Paul, the Capital of Minnesota. As a child growing up in the 1960s, I recall hearing people boast, “Here in Minnesota, we live in a theater of seasons.” On the coldest days, I remember Minnesotans boasted the loudest.
My brother Jerry was the oldest, my sister Linda was the middle child, and I remember being called the pip-squeak. We were crammed into a one-story two-bedroom matchbox house. Mom and Dad slept in one room and we three kids slept in the other one. Jerry and Linda were stacked-up in a bunkbed, while I was still in a crib. One of my earliest memories was crawling out of the crib and waddling to my mom, interrupting her writing in the other bedroom. This event caused a domino effect.
Saturday morning my father took a hammer up into the attic and started removing main support beams to make room for his growing family.
I heard my mommy franticly cry, “Daddy, help!” into the telephone.
Before sunset Grandma and Grandpa showed up at our door. Without saying hello, Grandpa rushed upstairs to examine my daddy’s handywork.
He returned muttering, “It’s not as bad as I thought,” under his breath as he collapsed onto the couch, laughing. I’m guessing he had driven the eight-hour trip from the farm in under six.
Grandpa made us a beautiful attic bedroom. The challenge was the pitched roof only left the center peak with enough headroom. Grandpa built knotty-pine sidewalls running the length of the house, along the lower pitch of the roof. The wooden walls had invisible doors hiding the typical attic stuff like old steamer trunks, Christmas decorations, and wool sweaters in the summertime. In the winter, we stored our electric fans and window air-conditioners behind the secret doors. At bedtime, I’d often open the hidden back-panel inside the storage closet where all the winter coats were hung, and crawl the length of our house, past antique trunks and other clutter to a secret panel behind my bed.
Our neighborhood was like the one Pete Seeger sang about in his 1963 hit song, “Little Boxes.” As a boy, I liked to sit on the roof of my family home looking around at the endless landscape of little houses with perfect green lawns. From an early age, I loved climbing up on top of our house. We had an attached garage with a low-hung-roof in the back where our patio was. When I was a toddler my father attached old kitchen counters below the low-hung-roof as a service area for outdoor dining on the patio. I remember pushing a lawn-chair to get-up on the counter, realizing it was an easy climb to the roof. I then navigated my way to the highest peak of our house. When the next-door-neighbor saw me, she alerted my mother.
Mom asked me, “Lloyd, how did you get up there?”
“Ove thew,” I pointed towards the lower garage roof.
“Can you show me?”
“Ok, watch me,” as I navigated my way back to safety.
Our next-door neighbor was kind of like, Mrs. Kravitz, from the 60s TV show, Bewitched. Between our houses, grew a young maple tree on our side of the property-line. The main fork of the maple was low enough for a kid my size to get a footing, allowing an easy gateway to the higher branches above. I’m sure watching me climb our growing young tree gave Mrs. Kravitz sleepless nights for years.
Like all kids growing up in the 50s and 60s, I enjoyed a free-range childhood. The only hard-and-fast rule you heard from your parents when leaving the house was, “Be back before dark.”
Mom raised us as Spock babies. Dr. Benjamin Spock was the renowned child psychologist who published the bestselling book, Baby and Child Care, in 1946. Most post-war mothers used his book as a guide to raising the baby-boom generation. Later, Spock was blamed for writing the roadmap leading to the youth rebellion of the 1960s. Mom read his book cover-to-cover. She was proud she had raised her children as three unique individuals. I know she consistently honored and fed my creative impulses throughout my childhood.
Grandma Brant read an article in her local Detroit newspaper about a little theater company in Minneapolis, performing groundbreaking work for children. I was captured by the magic-of-theater, when my parents brought me to a makeshift storefront housing, The Moppet Players. Later, this ragtag theater went on to both fame and infamy, after it was re-named, The Children’s Theater Company.
Mom would help me make costumes. Crowded in my parents’ tiny bedroom was her desk. She would clear the typewriter and fountain pens from the top to make room for my costume dream factory. Magically, the top of her desk opened and she lifted up a heavy black Singer® sewing machine, which swung-up and was designed to lock into position on top. The vintage cabinet had two draws to the right-and-left of the center cavity that hid the sewing machine. The bottom of the drawer on the right-side had deep stains from different colors of the various ink bottles and leaky fountain pens stored there, along with a stapler, scotch tape, and paperclips of various sizes. The left drawer you needed to first get past a tangle of thread from loose spools and bobbins of all colors, to find the hidden tools-of-the-trade below. Mom owned two types of scissors. One was a pair of pinking shears that made a zigzag cut. But her heavy-duty polished steel fabric scissors were the workhorse of the operation. I used it to cut cardboard, canvas, and rope of almost any thickness. Besides these vital cutting tools, inside this mysterious long narrow drawer was a yellow cloth-measuring-tape, a pin-cushion, and most important of all; safety pins of all sizes scattered on the bottom of the drawer. With these clever fasteners my mother could make miracles happen. Whatever my imagination could think up, Mom would struggle to make it into reality.
Later, historians would call the time of my early childhood, America’s Camelot. In the summer of 1962, I dressed up as a knight in shining armor to deliver an invitation for my sixth Birthday Party, to my Kindergarten girlfriend, Renee McCoy. She was the prettiest girl in class, so everything needed to be perfect. I recall my mother fitting me with long cardboard packing tubes for arms.
I complained, “I’m supposed to be, A Knight in Shining Armor, not the Tin Woodman after a rainstorm.”
Using a portrait of Sir Galahad that hung in our living-room as her model, Mom painstakingly crafted moving elbows out of cardboard sheets carefully cut into the correct shapes that she stapled together, and covered with tinfoil for an authentic look.
This outfit was one of a long line of costumes Mom helped me make. One day I might imagine being, Mighty Mouse, a popular cartoon-superhero on TV. I’d dress-up wearing swimming trunks over long johns with a bath towel Mom carefully safety pinned to my shoulders as a cape. On other days, I’d wear just the swimming trunks, with large cardboard tubes strapped to my back, like scuba tanks from the TV show, Sea Hunt, starring Lloyd Bridges. Because we shared the same first name, I imagined swimming just like the show’s star before I ever learned how. When Mom tried to teach me to swim, I insisted she first buy me a scuba mask. I explained to her that if I was going to learn how to swim, I needed to do it underwater, just like Lloyd Bridges. So, Mom bought me a scuba mask. I learned to swim by launching off the side of the pool towards my mother standing in the shallow end a few feet away, like all the other kids. But, when I put on my scuba mask, time slowed down underwater. I could see my mother clearly as I launched myself like a slow-motion guided-missile into her waiting arms.
Whenever there was a costuming need beyond Mom’s abilities she called up Grandma Brant. One of those times was the day I insisted I needed to look “exactly” like Gabby Hayes, the comic sidekick of the famous singing cowboy, Roy Rogers. The problem was Gabby had a full bushy beard. Everyday I’d wait for the package postmarked from Detroit to arrive. When it finally did come, I opened the box and held perfection in my hands. Grandma Brant used real human hair from her puppet making supplies and wove it around wire that wrapped around my face. She braided the hair into the wire, which split above and below my lips, separating the mustache form the beard. Each end was hooked like a coathanger to fit securely behind my ears.
I couldn’t wait to get into the full outfit. I had it all planned out. I first got on my oldest pair of worn blue-jeans with triple-stitched side-seams and patched knees. I then put on hand-me-down cowboy boots with scuffed toes. Next, I strapped on real metal spurs with spinning-sprockets that jingled-and-jangled when I walked. I had out grown the boots and spurs I’d gotten on our family vacation to Texas. My big brother’s boots were loose, but fit fine. For the top half I wore a fake buckskin shirt with beads and fringe that was part of an American Indian costume my Grandma Brant had given me. I knew Gabby Hayes never wore a fringed buckskin shirt, but I was becoming my own unique character.
I looked in the mirror and liked how my bottom half was 100% cowboy and my top half was 100% American Indian. When buying my cowboy hat, the store only had two color choices, black or white. I chose white because I wanted to be a “good guy.” The salesman told me I could shape the brim to my own taste. I had patiently worked the front of the wide-brimmed straw-hat into a perfect V. Gabby Hayes wore his cowboy hat with the front of the brim turned up like a clown, but I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my carefully shaped brim to match him. Finally, I put on Grandma’s beard and picked up my toy rifle, pointing it at the mirror. A stranger was looking back at me.
Our mother didn’t want us to play with guns. My older brother was on the frontline of that battle. Before our trip down to Texas, she read an article in Reader’s Digest of a scientific study about Germany between the world wars. Mom told to me that after WWI, German mothers didn’t allow their children to play with guns. However, the article argued it didn’t stop the rise of Hitler or WWII. Driving back up to Minnesota from Texas, our family station wagon and small travel-trailer were filled with an arsenal of toy guns. I had my own pair of chrome-plated steel six-shooter pistols with a set of genuine leather holsters, plus a replica Winchester rifle with a steel gun-barrel and a real wooden butt.
The stranger in the mirror was clearly not Gabby Hayes, but who was he? I looked like a character right out of an old western movie, but who? Maybe, I was a scout with my feet in two worlds? One wild and one civilized. Those guys often wore a cowboy hat and a buckskin jacket with beads. English would be my first language, but I could probably speak several Native American languages if you asked me.
Mom let me dress-up anytime I wanted and allowed me to pretend to be my imaginary characters anywhere. I remember jingle-jangling along wearing my spurs, fake buckskin shirt, and Grandma’s beard in downtown St Paul with my mom. I had a red plastic soap-bubble-pipe clenched between my teeth when a hobo, or as they say today, “homeless person,” came up to me with a can of tobacco, and placed a single grain in my pipe, while my mother held my hand without fear. That night, I kept that red plastic pipe with that single grain of tobacco by my bedside while I slept, as if it was sacred tobacco in a ceremonial peace pipe.
Between Kindergarten and first-grade, Mom finally agreed to shave my head like a Mohawk Indian. It had been a battle to convince her. I didn’t understand why she was so reluctant? I was drawn to the idea of getting a Mohawk haircut when I was at the downtown St Paul Public Library. It was a huge stone building. I recall walking past giant pillars when I entered. The children’s section was in the basement. I remember how the summer air got cooler as I walked down stone steps with a solid-brass-railing, where my hands left fingerprints each Saturday morning after it was freshly polished the night before. The book that caught my imagination was called, Fleet Foot, about an Indian boy my age from the Iroquois Nation with a Mohawk haircut, who could run fast just like me.
Mom sheared my blonde hair to the skull, except for a two-inch-wide strip running down the center. I looked in the mirror and was immediately disappointed.
“My hair needs to be darker.”
“You mean dye it a different color?” Mom asked.
“Can that wash out?” I enquired.
“No, it’s permanent.” Mom answered flatly.
“Oh,” I said, as my nose wrinkled, still fascinated by the reflection of me and my new haircut.
“I think you should leave it alone,” Mom said as she began putting away her electric clippers.
“It’s Wrong!” I shouted, as I began to cry into the mirror.
After I began gasping-for-air between sobs, she suggested, “You could use burnt cork.”
I don’t think Dr. Spock’s book had a chapter on how to navigate this moment in my childhood. Growing up on the farm, Mom didn’t see a person with a different skin color from her own until she went to, Omaha, the biggest city in Nebraska. She was about the same age as me when I was drawn to a picture-book. My mother found the book that opened her imagination in her country schoolhouse library, which was a plain wooden bookshelf in the corner of the little kid’s room, built so a six-year-old could reach the top shelf. Her special book had photographs of children of all races from around the world. Mom thought it was a fairytale until she was riding in the backseat of her family car driving into Omaha for her first time. When she saw a black person, she exclaimed, “God made people just like flowers. We come in all colors.”
I couldn’t recite the lesson she taught me word-for-word as I stared at myself in the mirror. I learned about the distasteful practice of white performers using burnt cork to put on blackface, and perform old minstrel music that was insulting and demeaning to black people. I also remember her teaching me how a book called, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, had the power to change people’s minds in America. In the end Mom told me we didn’t have any corks in the house because our family didn’t drink, but she suggested using Dad’s black shoe-polish. The tin can was more than half empty, but its inky black grease cast the magic spell on my hair, and I became Fleet Foot. When I emptied the tin of black polish, it wasn’t replaced until after my hair grew-out. Much the same way as when the TV broke in the middle of the summer, and Mom made Dad wait weeks to call the repairman, while we played outside in the fresh air. He must have worn his brown shoes that summer.
The shoe-polish didn’t last for too many outings, but well before Punk Rock icon Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols first made Mohawks cool, I was causing chaos running across the rich green yards of my east St Paul neighborhood. I wore a loincloth my mother made by sewing two small squares of bright red cloth the size of lunch napkins, then strung them together with a narrow cord to tie around my waist.
The problem was Mom insisted I put on my tighty-whitie underwear first, before my loincloth. I argued that Tarzan didn’t wear tighty-whities. I had studied the construction of Johnny Weissmuller’s leather loincloth by closely watching his adventures on our Zenith black-and-white TV. Once when Tarzan was climbing a sheer mountain cliff a gust of wind revealed the key piece of material absent from my costume. When I tried to explain this essential detail to my mother, I saw her eyes glaze over, as if it was one detail too many during that long hot summer.
I remember the sweet pungent smell of freshly cut lawns, and how the grass clippings stuck to the bottom of my bare feet. The flat top of my Mohawk matched the neatly trimmed rows of hedges, planted along the driveways between the matchbox houses. It didn’t feel natural playing in my neighborhood with its manicured lawns. Plus, being the only kid dressed like an Indian, I lost every battle. Just one block east of my house was my secret sanctuary, Beaver Lake. I’m told the local Native Americans named it for its shape. Back then pussy-willows and cat-tails were growing wild along the shore, with flowering lily-pads floating on the water.
I’d ditch my tighty-whities in the tall grass and imagine I was a real Indian boy roaming in the wilderness. I spent endless hours catching tadpoles in the marshy water, and searching in the thick woods for long sticks to make spears and sharp rocks for arrowheads.
Eventually my hair grew back and I became an ordinary boy again. The City of St Paul later drained off the beaver’s tail to develop an urban park. Now it looks more like a turtle. The lake’s natural muddy shore was dredged – sand trucked in to make an artificial beach – and the wild brush along the water was transformed into neatly manicured grounds. The fleeting time I had a Mohawk haircut, running free along the untouched shoreline with a summer breeze caressing every inch of my body, was the closest I’ve ever felt to nature.
One block in the opposite direction from Beaver Lake was, Nokomis Elementary School. It was a squat one-story brick building designed like a prison. Unlike Kindergarten the previous year, the first-grade was a sterile cube-shaped room with linoleum floors, cold cement-block walls, and straight rows of small wooden desks. The only escape for my imagination was a bank-of-windows looking out on the grassy field, where we were allowed to go outside once a day for recess.
That autumn, I remember listening to Mom reading Shakespeare. It was her Halloween tradition to recite the famous scene from, Macbeth, where the three witches cast an incantation over a large black caldron, “Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble; Fire burn and caldron bubble.”
The real witch in my life was my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Netts. The school year seemed to start out fine. Mrs. Netts was a young, pretty newlywed, but unfortunately we were the lab rats for her first year out of college as a teacher. To be fair, as first-graders, it was our first year too. I’m sure it was difficult to corral twenty-five wiggly children at their desks for six-hours, five-days a week. She was like a drill-sergeant marching up-and-down the neat rows of desks, holding her three-foot-long wooden pointer with its black rubber tip,
“Why is it wrong to look out the window?”
“Why do I get hit on the head even when I’m thinking about what I’m supposed be thinking about?”
“Why do I now st-t-tut-t-ter when I have to read out loud in c-c-class?”
I became withdrawn because of my debilitating stammer, and escaped into the private world of my imagination. Renee McCoy went on to become the teacher’s pet. After all she was the smartest girl in first-grade.
One day Mrs. Netts disappeared and a long-term substitute teacher finished out our school year. My mother explained to me that Mrs. Netts was hospitalized for what they called in those days, “a nervous breakdown.”
The fall of Camelot happened on November 22, 1963, when President Kennedy died of an assassin’s bullet to the head in Dallas, Texas. The day of Kennedy’s funeral, I watched the news coverage, while eating oatmeal from a bowl my mother had placed for me on the floor in front of the TV. She used the morning newspaper as a placemat to protect the carpet. A young unblemished picture of John F. Kennedy was staring up at me, when a small dollop of my oatmeal landed on his face. I recall feeling immediately guilty for spoiling his perfect image with my breakfast cereal. I futilely attempted to wipe his oatmeal-soaked image clean, but the wet paper dissolved leaving a hole. Tears leaked from my eyes, reflecting the national grief flooding out of our television.