It’s a few days from the end of the year, a time that always causes me to be in a reflective mood. And not just because another year is almost over. It also happens to be the time of year when I came to be. A kind of double whammy of reflection and I’m always relieved when I’ve finished running this particular gauntlet…
So I’m taking a brief break from “My Life with Ghosts” series to present the beginning of a different kind of piece–one that deals with my earliest memories of Nashville, Tennessee and… my first memory of death.
In the distance, Baptist Hospital, downtown Nashville. Where I came into this world.
November 22, 1963
My life began as a tax deduction.
Late one night in Nashville, Tennessee, on December 31st, 1957, I was ready to come into this world. My father, always anxious to save a buck, was beginning to see me not as the welcome arrival of a third child, but rather, as a valuable asset in the shape of a write-off. So he urged the doctor to hurry things along and I was dutifully born twenty minutes before the beginning of the New Year.
Or so the story goes. With my father, it was difficult to separate actuality from his tall tales for with each telling of notable events in his life, his stories evolved and grew and took on a heroic, dare-devilish stature.
In fact, one of my first involvements in my father’s escapades took place when I was still an infant. I was in the car with my parents one evening, riding along a Nashvillian residential street, when we drove past a private party taking place in one of the large houses. A policeman was directing the heavy traffic out front, when inadvertently, my father struck him with our car. What makes this story even more out of the ordinary is that the car’s stick shift was broken at the time, and in its place, my father had inserted a metal nutcracker, using this unusual substitute to shift the gears of the car. I’m not sure if the nutcracker had anything to do with the reason my father was hauled off to jail, but a lawyer relation was fortunately able to extricate my father out of this particular jam. This event was typical of life with my father. It became my “normal.”
I emphasize “life with my father,” for Daddy would figure large throughout all of my existence.
In fact, he is the heart of one of my earliest memories…
I am five. My father is walking me to school. The octagonal shaped paving stones that form the sidewalks on our street rest at awkward angles due to the underlying growth of large tree roots. As I hop from stone to stone, clutching onto my father’s hand, I feel that every moment in time holds an endless potential for magic…
That feeling of magic must have been felt by my father as well, for he would later go on to immortalize the ritual of walking me to school with one of the many poems he wrote throughout his life.
My wonder for life manifested itself in odd ways during those early years in Nashville. Of course, there is the usual montage of childhood memories that still inhabits my brain, a random sampling of what was taking place in the bigger, adult world at the time: S & H green stamps; Nashville’s version of The Parthenon, with its dark and smelly interior; the nativity scene set out in front of The Parthenon every Christmas, with its glowing lights which I could see from Broad Street as we made our way to my aunt’s house; the mansion turned art museum called Cheekwood where I loved to play among the boxwoods–I can still smell their earthy fragrance.
View of Music Row, Downtown Nashville. Much the way it was when I was a child.
But I also had an unusual fascination with all the advertising and stores and products that swirled around me in my little child’s world. Especially remarkable were the Red Goose shoes with the snapping toy that came with your purchase; Harvey’s department store with its indoor carousel horses and escalators; Castner Knott’s with its smell of new fabrics and its glittering counters; the shops that filled the Green Hills Mall; and the neon Jim Reed Chevrolet sign (which remained on display for decades into my adulthood).
Food ads were also at the forefront with Colonial Bread, Martha White flour, Elm Hill sausage, Shoney’s with its Big Boy statue out front, precariously balancing his hamburger, the potato chip factory near Vanderbilt with its giant potato chips sign, and of course, a proliferation of signs up an down the the highways that brazenly pushed Jack Daniels’ whiskey (which we would partake of by way of our Christmas eggnog out at my grandparents who lived in rural Tennessee.)
My lifelong fascination with bright, colorful signs originated with the neon signs along Music Row near The Ryman Auditorium, once home to The Grand Ole Opry.
All of the above made itself known through a glorious onslaught of billboards and neon signs, T.V. commercials and magazines-an explosion of popular culture in the early 60’s. And I felt as if I was right smack in the middle of it all. That made me happy.
Now that I think about it, food also played a large part in my early happiness. There were the warm bags of popcorn purchased from the department stores’ machines that luringly glowed yellow; the brown paper sacks full of candy and gum which my grandfather delivered to me from his country store during his visits to town; and the pleasure of drinking milk from the elementary school cart that rolled up and down the halls during break time, pausing to make deliveries at each classroom door.
And one of my favorite food related memories is also one of my earliest memories of my mother. It was of her making doughnuts, with me observing intently as she first rolled out the dough, then carefully molded it, most likely using the rim of a glass for a circular shape, then cutting out the centers to make the holes. I think I tried to help but I was barely tall enough to see above the rim of the fryer, so I would struggle to stand on my tiptoes to watch as she’d drop the shaped dough down into the sizzling oil where it slowly browned. When done, she sprinkled the doughnuts with cinnamon and sugar or simply powdered sugar, creating an aroma that smelled like heaven…
But there were hints that not all was well with the world. First grade memories of the sugar cubes handed out to students in the auditorium–a vaccine against polio—led to my concern: what exactly, was polio? But my question was overridden by my desire to eat sugar, so I ate the cube without complaint. And then there was The Cuban Missile Crisis that had us practicing diving under our desks while awkwardly covering our heads with our arms–an exercise that left me with no small amount of consternation. (Curious how, with the recent passing of Castro, The Cuban Missile Crisis is still so prominent in the news some 54 years later.)
I had a habit as a child to go over and over memories of my experiences, savoring each one. I was especially attached to those “first time” events—the first time I rode a sled down a hill; the first time I rode a bike; the first time I took a plane ride…Eventually, the number of my experiences greatly out powered my capacity to remember them all, but their sum total still had the effect of filling me with awe during those early years…
This was my world at the time of my first experience with death.
It was one of those life-changing moments that has become a landmark in our country’s social consciousness and which has often led to the clichéd question “where were you when it happened?” I’m referring of course, to the death of John F. Kennedy.
This is how I remember it…
(to be continued…)