Saturday, May 12, 2012

From My Memoir

Chapter 4 


Events are the ephemera of history; they pass across its stage like fireflies, hardly glimpsed before they settle back into darkness and as often as not into oblivion. Every event, however brief, . . . lights up some dark corner or even some wide vista of history. – Fernand Braudel

Moving from Happy Valley to the City of Oak Ridge presented a vast array of new sensations and experiences. My vision of the world immediately began to expand.

During the summer of 1946, after months of waiting, while the world’s fourth atomic explosion was taking place on Bikini Atoll in the Pacific, we were finally able to move into a small two-bedroom cemesto house on Vista Lane off of Vermont Avenue. By then, most streets had been paved and the once grassless yards required mowing.

One of the first memories I have of our time on Vista Lane took place the night of December 8, 1946. Though I had just celebrated my second birthday 18 days earlier, I remember it as if it were yesterday. The night was clear and cold. The moon was full. Our next-door neighbors, the Borgers and the Dulaneys, gathered with us as everyone in the neighborhood emerged from their homes. Gradually, the right side of the moon began to disappear until the entire moon turned a dim dusty rusty color with a faint golden rim. It was truly a magical night, especially for Peggy Borgers who had celebrated her second birthday earlier that same day.

Peggy soon became my best friend and playmate. Over the years our families did much together. When the Borgers moved from Oak Ridge to Norris in 1949, two months later we moved to Norris.

Our childhood fantasy play included all the usual imaginings and explorations. The two most frequent themes, playing 'doctor and patient' and 'husband and wife', allowed us, like most children, to satisfy our natural curiosity and examine the differences in our anatomies.

Another frequent theme of our playtime together was 'the outlaw and the sheriff'. It was during one of these episodes when I nearly lost my life in the role of the outlaw. After being arrested by Peggy, the sheriff, I was put on trial and sentenced to death by hanging. A rope was fashioned into a noose and tied to the end of our swing set. The noose was then placed around my neck, and I was ordered by the sheriff to step off the gallows. Like a half-wit I did as I was told. Suddenly, I was dangling by my neck, gasping for air. Fortunately, I was able to reposition myself back upon the swing set.

My neck felt like it was on fire. I ran to my house and into the bathroom. My mother and Mrs. Borgers, who were seated at the kitchen table, thought at the time that my rush to the bathroom only indicated that I desperately needed to pee. I quickly began splashing water on my neck. Too small to see myself in the bathroom mirror, I climbed upon the sink to examine my injuries. There was a rope burn around my neck.

Emerging from the bathroom, I tried to sneak out of the house without my neck being seen. My attempt was futile. As I headed towards the door my mother asked, “Would you and Peggy like some Kool-Aid?” When I responded with a quick incoherent “no” she knew something was not quite right.

On January 1, 1947, following intense debate, President Truman created the Atomic Energy Commission and appointed David E. Lilienthal its chairman and Robert Oppenheimer to head its General Advisory Committee. The purpose of the commission was to promote the peaceful development of atomic energy through science and technology. The creation of the commission revealed the optimism of America's nuclear monopoly.

It was not long though before the political and military friction between the United States and the Soviet Union began to heat up. On March 12, 1947, amidst the crisis of the Greek Civil War, President Truman addressed a joint session of Congress, asking for a $400 million economic aid package for Greece and Turkey.

During the address President Truman announced that the U.S. would support Greece and Turkey to prevent them from falling into the Soviet’s sphere of influence, stating that the policy of the United States would be "to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” The Truman Doctrine marked the point at which the Cold War began, altering America's foreign policy toward the Soviet Union from a wartime alliance to one of containment.

On June 5, 1947 U. S. Secretary of State George C. Marshall announced a comprehensive plan of economic assistance to all of Europe, including Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Marshall reasoned that a strong European economy was essential to American’s continued prosperity. Unfortunately, Joseph Stalin prevented the countries of Eastern Europe from taking part in the program. He saw The Marshall Plan as a direct threat to his desire to keep Europe weak and Germany under communist control.

The implementation of The Marshall Plan from 1948 to 1952 marked the fastest period of growth in European history. Western Europe’s recovery and restructuring along democratic principles made communism less appealing. It also provided a market for American goods and most likely helped prevent a post-war recession in the United States.

Before I was born my Aunt Mary knitted me a blue and pink baby blanket. It became my security or comfort object. I never went anywhere without it, that is until I returned home empty handed one summer day in 1947 from playing outside with Peggy and some other kids in the neighborhood.

When my mother asked me “Where’s your blanky?” the indifference of my response left her stunned and bewildered. Further inquiries and interrogations of my playmates revealed no additional clues. My blanky was lost forever.

Due to my age most of the historic events of the late 1940s went unnoticed by me. However, I do recall two major historical events. I remember listening to nightly news broadcasts on the radio, heralding our efforts to break the yearlong Berlin Blockade (24 June 1948 – 12 May 1949) by the Soviet Union. I remember watching dramatic newsreel film footage at the Jackson Square Theater of the Western Allies’ airlift to break the blockade led by the United States Air Force.

I also remember the United States presidential election of 1948 when President Harry S Truman pulled off the greatest election upset in American history. I remember how thrilled my parents were when Truman beat Dewey, and the Democrats won back both houses of congress.

At birth, my parents chose not to have me circumcised, which apparently compelled my mother to take on the responsibility of reminding me throughout my childhood to push back the foreskin of my penis every time I took a bath or shower. She continued to do this (even in the presence of friends and neighbors) despite the fact that I was inadvertently circumcised during the summer of 1947 while riding my tricycle.

Believe me, though I was only two and half at the time, I remember the incident extremely well. My tricycle had a metal seat and the foreskin of my penis got caught beneath it, causing me to abruptly jump up and off the moving three-wheeled vehicle. As you can imagine my reaction ripped off a portion of the foreskin of my penis. I began to bleed profusely. Fortunately, the Oak Ridge hospital was only a few blocks away.

I distinctly remember sitting on the corner of a cold metal table peering down at the doctor. She was seated between my legs. Her voice and words were very comforting as she meticulously trimmed off the torn and tattered foreskin with a pair of surgical scissors. She must have done a superb job. I have been told a number of times over the years that I have a “pretty penis”.

It was not long before I was back in the hospital. Once again, I was riding my tricycle on the boardwalk between our house and the Chambers’ house on Pennsylvania Avenue when suddenly Raymond Chambers who was trying to pass me on his bicycle hit me from behind. This time the female physician had to remove a bicycle spoke embedded in the back of my head.

As far back as I can remember the arts and entertainment were always an integral part of our family life. Our parents saw them as valuable and beneficial to our mental health and well-being.

Most evenings were spent sitting around our old Zenith radio and record player listening to a variety of shows – mainly drama, mystery, comedy and big band musical variety programs. Eventually, as I grew older my favorite two programs were The Shadow and The Jack Benny Show.

Every Sunday evening we would listen to The Shadow. It always began with "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!" followed by a sinister “Hekhekhekhekhek”.

The Shadow was an invincible crime fighter, possessing many gifts which enabled him to overcome his enemies. Besides his tremendous strength, he was a master of hypnosis, which allowed him to "cloud men's minds" and escape detection.

In the radio drama he concealed his existence by adopting the identity of Lamont Cranston, a tall, dark, handsome and wealthy young man about town. Cranston’s girlfriend and companion was Margo Lane. She was the only person who knew his true identity.

The plot or format of The Jack Benny Show seemed to never change. It was a show-within-a-show. The main characters (Jack, Don Wilson, Mary Livingston, Dennis Day and Phil Harris) except for Eddie Anderson who played Rochester, Jack’s valet and chauffeur, were merely playing some version of themselves.

The show would usually open with the band playing a popular tune, followed by Jack bantering with Don Wilson or one of the other regular cast members. Dennis Day almost always would sing a song somewhere within the program. The weekly episode would usually evolve around some situation or aspect of Jack’s life as he prepared for the upcoming show.

The bandleader on the show was Phil Harris. He was portrayed as a brash, skirt-chasing, hipster whose shtick was to put Jack down whenever possible. In real life he was married to the movie star and singer, Alice Faye.

Alice Faye became a favorite of moviegoers in the 1930s. She is best remembered for her critically acclaimed performance in the 1937 film “In Old Chicago”, starring along side Tyrone Power and Don Ameche. My father was so enamored by her performance that he named my sister after her.

During the time we lived on Vista Lane there were seven theaters in Oak Ridge. The largest, Grove Theater, seated a thousand people.  Though the price of admission back then was only 35 cents for adults and 10 cents for children, it was a rare treat for our family to “go to the movies”.

As I mention before, one of the largest spring-fed swimming pools in the entire world, encompassing 1.5 acres and holding 2.1 million gallons of water, provided residents of Oak Ridge a summer recreational experience that rivaled or exceeded that of any city in the nation.

Early on, the only paved surfaces in Oak Ridge were the tennis courts. They soon became a gathering place for social dances often with live music. By the time we moved to Vista Lane, residents had organized a city orchestra and a community theater, performing regularly at the Jackson Square Playhouse.

But what captured my sister’s and my interests more than anything else was the Jefferson Circle Skating Rink, run by Roy and Bee Swanson. The rink provided an outlet for both of us to exercise and demonstrate our natural gifts and abilities. By the time my sister turned 10, Roy was entering her in skating competitions, as well as, showcasing her talents at rink events and exhibitions. In November 1947, on my third birthday, he presented me with a pair of boot skates he had specially made for me.

Once the military administration of the federal reservation was taken over by the Atomic Energy Commission in January 1947, our family began to take excursions out and beyond the fence.

When Roy and Bee Swanson left Oak Ridge to open a tent skating rink in Gatlinburg in 1948 and then later a series of rinks in Newport, Pigeon Forge and Maryville, we would often visit them on the weekends, taking sojourns into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

We also began to take day trips to Norris Dam and Big Ridge State Parks and extended vacations to Dadeville and Montgomery, Alabama, Atlanta, as well as Tampa and Miami to visit relatives.

As I mentioned before, the Chambers family lived directly across a common area from us on Pennsylvania Avenue. They had three sons. Raymond, the eldest, was my sister’s age. Jay, the youngest, was two years older than me. And Harold was their middle child.

Sometime during the fall of 1948 we heard that the Chambers had bought a house on Lake City Highway, 20 miles northeast of Oak Ridge, and that they would soon be moving there. The day before they were to move, Jay came over to our house and asked if I had seen his toy pistol. I told him that I hadn’t but I’d keep an eye out for it. Later that day, around dusk, I saw it. It was lying in some tall grass about half way between our houses.

What happened next remains a defining moment in my life. You see, I coveted that toy pistol. I loved the sound it made when I pulled its trigger. For a long moment I just stood there staring at it. And then I turned and walked away, pretending I did not see it. I suppose I thought if I discovered it later, after the Chambers had moved, I could then call it mine.

The next day instead of going over to the Chambers to say goodbye I found other things to do. I was afraid that Jay would know just by looking at my face that I knew where his gun was.

By the end of the day, after the Chambers had left, though I was too young at the time to understand what I was feeling, I knew in my gut that I had disgraced myself. The shame was palpable. I desperately wanted to put it out of my mind, to pretend it never happened.

Days, weeks and months went by and I never returned to that tall grasses area between our houses to ‘rediscover’ Jay’s toy pistol. To do so would mean that it did in fact happen and that I was a despicable, dishonest person. As far as I know, that pistol is still there.

Several years later after we had moved to Norris my parents and I one Sunday afternoon drove to Cove Lake through Lake City. On our way back to Norris my father suggested that it might be fun to drive down and see the Chambers. Suddenly, all those repressed feelings of shame and self-loathing returned. Though I vehemently told my father that I did not want to go, he drove to their home anyway. When he turned into their driveway I leaned out the back window and began to vomit.

My father immediately stopped the car, turned around and said, “Why didn’t you say you were sick?” He then backed out of the driveway and drove home. I did not tell my parents that day why I was so upset. I suppose they figured that I had some bug or virus.

It was not until 1960, 11 years after my fall from grace, before I was able to tell anyone. I was a sophomore in high school, playing varsity basketball for Norris. Jay was a senior, playing varsity basketball for Lake City. When I saw him in the locker room I knew what I had to do. When I finished telling him the story he laughed and glibly responded: “Dee, I don’t even remember that gun.”

Despite the fact that Oak Ridge had been under government rule for six years and physically cut off from the rest of the world, when it came time to open the gates to the public in 1949 most Oak Ridgers were against the decision. Bare in mind that during the Manhattan Project the government provided free-of-charge water, electricity and coal for heating. The public school system was not only the best in the state but one of the best in the entire country. The quality of medical care at the time was excellent and was provided to families for only $4 per month. Oak Ridgers, as you can imagine, were reluctant to give up such amenities. They were also afraid with the influx of outsiders the city would become less safe and that they would have to start locking their doors.

Nevertheless, on March 19, 1949, five months before we moved to Norris, the government opened Oak Ridge for the first time since construction began on the city in the spring of 1943. Though the city of Oak Ridge was at last open to the world, X-10, Y-12 and K-25 remained securely fenced and gated.

The actual gate opening to the city was a big deal. LIFE, TIME and NEWSWEEK covered the event. Local, state and federal elected officials, including the Vice President of the United States Alben W. Barkley and Tennessee’s Governor Gordon Browning were there for the opening. Most of Tennessee’s state and federal representatives, including Senator Estes Kefauver and a young United States congressman, Albert Gore, Sr., were there to commemorate the day, as were a number of Tennessee mayors and city officials from near and far. One of the chief speakers was David Lilienthal, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission.

The list of Hollywood stars and celebrities was long as well and included the likes of Jack Bailey, Adolph Menjou, Marie “The Body” McDonald, Adele Jergens, Virginia Mayo and a beautiful young up-and-coming starlet, Patricia Neal.

But for me, the real exciting news came when the Oak Ridge newspaper announced that the cowboy movie star Rod Cameron was coming to ride a horse in the big parade. I cared little about the early morning "ribbon burning” at Elza Gate or the speeches on the high school football field that afternoon. Nor was I looking forward to the evening festivities – the gala banquet and ball at the Oak Terrace in Grove Center. All I cared about was the possibility of seeing a real live Hollywood cowboy.

When the parade finally began at 11:00 a.m.  there was nearly a hundred thousand people lined-up on both sides of the parade route. High school bands from all over East Tennessee performed and marched along with the National Guard while planes flew overhead. Convertibles and floats filled with dignitaries, local beauties and Hollywood stars passed by while the crowd gawked and cheered.

My family arrived early along the route to secure a good spot to watch the parade. I was all dress up in my cowboy boots, genes, shirt and hat. As the parade began my father sat me on his shoulders. It was not long before Rod Cameron came riding along on a Tennessee Walking Horse. Now, I know you are not going to believe this, but when he saw me in my cowboy outfit sitting on my dad’s shoulders he rode over and asked if he could take me for a ride. My father consented.

Lifting me up and off of my dad’s shoulders, he placed me on the saddle in front of him and told me to hang on tight to the saddle horn. We then proceeded to canter off down the parade route. Eventually we made a u-turn, and he brought me back to my father’s shoulders. Though the parade went on for more than two hours, the only thing I remember about that day was riding with Rod Cameron on that dark brown Tennessee Walking Horse with a long black mane.

4 comments:

mythopolis said...

One of your best posts ever!! So many thoughts and memories of my own came to mind. One thing I find interesting is the way the personal journals of people over the years offer a unique perspective on the history of those times.

You interwove so much about the culture and the politics of the time and simultaneously painted an intimate picture of your world during those times as a child. Simply awesome.

I loved reading about the nature of your childhood play and it brought back my own recollections too. You captured the magical nature of children's minds and interactions, as well as features of personality development and the events that shape them. The tricycle accident, the hanging, the tale of the missing toy gun and its impact on your developing sense of conscience. Marvelous!

I got such a kick out of all the radio, tv and film personalities you rattled off. Names I hadn't heard of in years. And I am so jealous you got to ride with Rod Cameron!!

A great piece of writing, Dee. Keep it coming.

Stickup Artist said...

Really great piece Dee. Like Myth, I found the cultural context, history, and settings so well developed; these things do matter in the formation of character. And I don't think there is anyone who can't laugh at a few crazy childhood escapades that indeed were quite dangerous. Ouch—the hanging, a bicycle spoke in your head (!), and the tricycle accident. It's funny, my most harrowing childhood accidents were on a tricycle too! Lucky for us, your memory is quite amazing. Do you have any pictures of you in your cowboy outfit?

Peggy said...

Dee, I can't believe you remember all this stuff! I don't remember much from back then -- I don't even remember if I got into trouble for nearly killing you!! (Did I?)

I don't think I knew about your tricycle accident, and -- since we were so much like brother and sister -- I never got to see the "pretty" results ....

I also didn't know that Alice was named for Alice Faye. Don't know how I missed that one.

Jeez, I loved your family. And you, too, of course! It's terrific to be reminded of them and what amazing, unique people they were. Chink and Nelljie. Who had their OWN remarkable stories, didn't they?

Anyhow, I'm loving your memoir. If you ever decide to publish, let me know and I'll give it a copy edit -- no charge. Until that time, I'm anxiously awaiting the next installment.

Hugs,
Peggy Borgers Denker

Peggy said...

Oh, and BTW, that's a very old picture of me, taken in the Oval Office when Bubba was President. Thought you'd be interested in that little detail ....