by David Lohrey
We are drawn back in adult life to scenes of childhood unhappiness,says the noted biographer.Harold Pinter took his wives to Cornwall to see where he had spent the blitz.Thomas Bernhard, a favorite, picks at his wartime memories like a scab, but for me was childhood a source of such ever-lasting pain? I wonder.I remember so much, but especially hiding in the gigantic tractor tires at the Firestone warehouse. Was that so bad?Or scrounging for tossed paper cups on the floor of the grandstands at Tobey Park so we could refill them with free Coke. We washedthem out in the public restrooms like good little boys. The smellof fresh urine made us work fast. Pinter is said to have had a “Lord of the Flies” childhood surrounded by cruel children. The ones I grew up with could have been cast in “Platoon,” that brutal depiction of Americans at war, sadists having a ball killing babies in Vietnam.Those guys could have come from my neighborhood in Memphis, each and every last one of them.They’d put a cigarette out in your eye. They loved a good punch-up – “meet me after school.” The neighborhood consisted of whites who feared the opposite sex as much as they despised the opposite race. We were black or whitein those days. The only Mexican restaurant was 50 miles away across the river. We stayed to ourselves. It’s hard to say who was more dangerous, but if black I’d have stayed off the streets on our side of town.But unlike Pinter the playwright and Bernhard the Austrian we were not driven out by Allied or Axis strafing. Our neighborhoods were safe. There may been bombings but not over Memphis. This was the 1960s, but in my house,it was still the Great Depression, prolonged by a father who missed it. We used to sit with the lights out to save electricity and ketchup bottles were tipped to catch the very last drop. There were no allowances: “Get a job.” We threw newspapers at eleven and cut grass for a living. I stole quarters from my mother’s purse and did a lot of lying. Our father’s fake poverty was an act he’d perfected. He missed being deprived and wanted us to experience it. We were cut off in a period of unprecedented affluence. We were locked in the basement during the masked balls upstairs, a bitof Cinderella in 1969. “Don’t you dare take a bite. That’s for our guests.” We hid in our rooms as the parties unfolded. From time to time, a family friend might wander in and catch us with our pants down. She’d grasp her pearls and let out a cry. The door would close and we’d hide under our beds. In the morning we’d find hundreds of cocktail glasses in the sink. The refrigerator door would be left wide open. My parents would sleep all day and we’d be told to go to the neighbors when we got hungry.We were not invited to our parents’ parties. They told people we hadn’t been born.Sometimes I wished that I hadn’t. And I dreamed of being taken away.But as phony as this baloney was, I’m not sure that it made me unhappy.We watched “I Love Lucy” and saved Beatles cards stolen from the five-and-dime. The starship Enterprise was there on the horizon and so was “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”When I look back now, I’d say, it wasn’t so bad. I might even say we never had it so good.