Ch.6. You Can’t Look It Up

I spent most of my childhood in Ohio, but I was actually born in Kentucky. The hospital where I was born, like so many other physical manifestations of my early life, no longer exists. We moved from Kentucky to Ohio before I was old enough to remember as part of a large-scale cultural migration of people leaving Eastern Kentucky looking for work, a sort of artificial selection that continues to this day.

We moved around a lot when I was young. I never went to kindergarten–in those days it was optional, and while I never really discussed it with my mother, I don’t think it even really occurred to her. Kindergarten was something that rich people did, kind of like preschool is for kids today.

Before I started school, in Ohio, we lived in a trailer at the top of a hill behind a family named Dorfman. I have a distinct memory of telling my mother that I was not going to go to school, but somehow she managed to persuade me.

 Later on, when I was in the first grade, the Dorfmans moved away to Pennsylvania (which, my sister assured me, was a land really far away) and let us rent the house, which we referred to as the Dorfman house from that point onward. I used to watch spectacular thunderstorms from the porch of that house, with lightning and thunder that would most likely make the evening news in weather-starved California today.

When I was in the second grade we moved to a different house at the top of a tall hill near a town in Ohio called Sparta. I don’t remember a lot about that house except that the boys across the street fired off model rockets and I would watch them, from a distance. I was eight and too shy to walk across the road and introduce myself so I could see the rockets better. There was also an abandoned telescope in this house left over from the previous tenant. It wasn’t much of a telescope, just a small 3-inch mirror mounted on the end of a cardboard tube using a ball-and-socket joint–probably an old Spitz moon scope. I couldn’t make it work (because it was missing its eyepiece) so eventually I tore it apart and used the mirror for “experiments.” These were not real experiments, but the kind that any eight-year old might do, focusing light on a piece of paper, looking at the distorted images of things in the mirror at various distances, just playing to learn or learning to play, I’m not sure which. 

When I was halfway through the second grade we moved again, and I attended elementary school for half a year in a little town called Chesterville. The only thing I distinctly remember about this school is that I couldn’t remember which bus I was on when the school day ended, so I had to look for the driver who was wearing a cowboy hat. I do remember a classmate of mine saying his father worked at Perkins Observatory in Ohio. I asked what that was, and he told me it was a place where they used telescopes to look at planets. I begged and pleaded with my parents to go visit the place, but they didn’t see the point. Occasionally, on the bus, I could see a tiny white dome on a low hill in the distance. I wondered what it was like inside.

In the third grade we returned to the Fredericktown district, and I attended school at Fredericktown Elementary. We stayed there for a while, and I completed two and a half years of education at that particular school. That was where I first began to realize I was working faster than my peers. I remember learning to spell all the days of the week and the months of the year in second grade. That was kind of a big deal at the time, but of course now helicopter parents are drilling such spelling lessons into students before they even reach kindergarten. In third grade, I remember doing primitive algebra equations–the kind with missing boxes instead of variables. 

This was in 1972, and the U.S. was nearly finished with the moon landings. I watched these with rapt attention although I am ashamed to admit that while I was old enough to remember the first moon landing, I don’t remember watching it or hearing about it. I do remember the later missions where they used the rover to drive around, and the early Skylab missions that followed the abrupt closure of the Apollo program. This was about the same time as I snuck downstairs to watch Star Trek reruns at midnight. In 1972 Star Trek was fresh enough that it still looked like it had high-quality special effects.

In February we had a Valentine’s party and everyone was supposed to bring a box–but no one told me to decorate it. Apparently the rest of the class already knew.  I remember how all the other kids had elaborate boxes, some of them decorated with crepe paper and flowers, and all I had was a plain shoebox. Since I was relatively new to them, I got only a few valentines in my box even though the teacher had instructed the class to make one for everyone. At least I didn’t get a rock like Charlie Brown at Halloween.

Third grade is also where I began learning about astronomy. I bought a thin book called “Fun with Astronomy” by Mae and Ira Freeman at a book fair. It had the latest pictures of the planets from Mt. Palomar Observatory in California – which, by today’s standards, were grainy and lacked detail. It explained how to set up a scale model solar system using pushpins and string to draw enormous arcs. It even showed how to make a pinhole camera with which you could measure the size of the sun. Pretty cool stuff for a 3rd grader. I worked through all the suggested activities and figured out how to scale the model solar system to make it larger so it would fit on a giant piece of poster paper for a school project. I just took all the measurements in the book and multiplied them by two.

I memorized the diameters and distances of the planets from the table in the book, and knew the names of the larger moons, including Titan and Ganymede, both larger than the planet Mercury. Why?  Just because knowing a lot of things made me feel smart, I guess.

It always has seemed to me that the large Galilean moons and the larger moons of the solar system have been given short shrift. Many of them are larger than Pluto, and Pluto (until recently) was considered a planet since its discovery. I always thought that it seemed kind of prejudicial to allow Mercury to be called a planet, whereas Io, which is a much more interesting and active place, is relegated to obscure status as a moon of Jupiter. If it orbited the sun we wouldn’t hesitate to call it a planet.

I suppose there’s some sort of subtle message here in that I always felt less certain of myself because of what other people thought when they found out where I was born (Appalachia? How ever did you survive, dear?) and so I thought it seemed unfair that these interesting worlds are relegated to footnotes and tabular data instead of getting the attention they should in schools. I guess that’s sort of silly since they are inanimate objects, but I suppose that speaks more to my thinking about myself than any emotional attachment to the moons of the solar system.

With respect to the recent brouhaha about the status of Pluto, I suppose you can tell I’m in the leave-well-enough-alone-and-let’s-add-new-discoveries-to-the-list-of-planets camp.  Don’t get me started about Plutinos.

My favorite teacher in those years was my fourth grade teacher Esther Weller, who was really nice to me and encouraged me.

Among other things she did for me was obtain some lithographs from her son, who was an engineer who knew other engineers who worked for NASA. I remember one in particular was a picture of a hand controller for maneuvering thrusters on board the Apollo capsule used to deliver astronauts to Skylab, the first space station the United States had back in the early 1970’s. I kept that picture for years, and even included it as decoration on a science fair poster I did some years later on space station design.  I wrote letters to her for years, including one when I graduated high school.

During these years of my life, I was fairly isolated from affairs of national significance; my world consisted of my home and school, and we did not discuss such events of importance at either venue. I knew nothing of Vietnam, or Kent State for that matter despite the fact I was living in the state where it occurred at the time; I knew of the space program only because that was part of the evening news. What was said about matters Presidential or about the war was shielded from my eyes; war news and news of protests and civil rights was not fit for children, and my mother would turn off the news when these things came on, saying that the television stations had no respect for families. What I knew of the counterculture movement was distorted and made into caricatures by such shows as Gomer Pyle and even Star Trek, which always spoke about things that other shows avoided, if only through the mechanism of allegory and metaphor.

I had a great time in 6th grade in the fall of 1974, there in little Fredericktown, Ohio, especially in Mr. Cameron’s class in the first half of the sixth grade. He reinforced my interest in astronomy by having a round-robin work day where we had to go to stations to learn about each planet. One question, in the Saturn station, said, “Does Saturn have seasons?” I looked in the book, and couldn’t find the answer. I asked Mr. Cameron who said, “You can’t look up that answer. You have to figure it out.”

I never knew there were answers not contained in a book somewhere. It was probably the greatest lesson I ever learned from him.

Things were going great. Three other advanced students and I were given half an hour a day to attempt to teach ourselves Spanish with a record-based self-teaching class. I learned to play trombone enough to participate in the winter band concert. I developed enough hair to become somewhat embarrassed when I dressed out for gym.  I had a couple of friends by then, and had even visited a few of the neighboring kids’ homes, but that ended when they didn’t come to my house, which my mother took as a slight against us; her rule was we couldn’t go visit a kid who hadn’t been over to visit us. That even applied to my cousins from the next county over.

Then, halfway through my sixth grade year, my older half-brother Ida died.

My mother had been married to a man named Combs before she married my father, and had given birth to two sons during that time. One was Bill and the other was Ida. Both boys were “born to be wild” and got involved with things that would leave my mother weeping at night in her later years. Ida paid the price (so did Bill, eventually) when he died suddenly in his late 30’s of liver failure, undoubtedly brought on by excessive drinking.  Ida is the reason I am a teetotaler to this day.  Not because of what drinking did to Ida; rather, because of what his drinking did to our mother.

It’s a hard thing to watch your mother weep, night after night.

Consequently, Mom wanted to move immediately from Ohio back to Kentucky, where both sons of her unhappy union with “that man” had lived and one still survived. Her reasoning was that if she had been around she could have kept Ida out of trouble, therefore, she should move “back home” to keep Bill straightened out.

It didn’t help that Bill had gone AWOL from the Vietnam draft and spent some time in the penitentiary. He didn’t dodge the draft out of some objection to the war; he just didn’t want to fight, as far as I knew.  I myself was too young to be worried about the draft in Vietnam, too old to be concerned with the Bush wars. I was born at the trailing edge of the baby boomer generation and the leading edge of Generation X. I was in high school when disco music ruled the airwaves, even if our access to discotheques with mirrored balls and flashing lights in the floor was limited in Perry County. Even if I had been from a more mainstream American family (whatever that means) from somewhere else in the country, I think I’d still feel culturally misplaced, if only because the ‘top-40” music we heard on the radio, slotted between Bible-thumping sermons and Bluegrass twangs, was not much more than a brief fad on the American landscape. Baby boomers think we are too young to be of their generation; Gen-Xers think we are too old. Perhaps we need a new category; Tweeners, best symbolized by the movie Airplane! with its cultural in-jokes and parodies mirroring our cynical views about the significance of cultural generations in the first place.

Bill liked his beers as well as the next guy, at least at first. Later on, he liked them a lot more.  In my younger years he was healthy and vital and had a little boy, my only nephew. Kept a little garden, as we did, and grew enough food to make a difference in the budget. Played the guitar.  He used to play the Batman theme song for me when I asked. He kept a neat and well-decorated house, with nice leather couches that I liked to sleep on when I visited. He was a skilled carpenter like my father, and built several houses and worked in construction for many years. Eventually, though, poor choices in friends, worse choices for drugs (oxycontin, called hillbilly heroin by those who write about those who use it and oxy-tocin by my brother not realizing that was another substance entirely) finally precipitated his downfall. He used to keep his stash in multiple layers of plastic bags in the drop ceiling space above his bedroom, on the theory that drug sniffing dogs couldn’t smell it because it was too far from their noses. 

Repeated falls from grace, wildly fluctuating temper tantrums, declining health driven by the abuse and neglect, his never-ending put-downs and disparagement of his wife and son so obviously a reflection of his own lack of self esteem, led to near-total estrangement from everyone in the family.  People like that–drug users, alcoholics, gamblers– are like an energy black hole, sucking in and demanding all the time and money and energy of everyone around them until there’s nothing left, all forgiveness depleted, all last chances expended. Eventually no one could, or would, dedicate the energy necessary to keep him alive; thus he died as my brother Ida had all those years ago, albeit in a much more drawn out and torturous way.

So halfway through my sixth grade year, we evacuated during Christmas break from Ohio and moved to Kentucky. We knew we were moving only about a week before school dismissed for Christmas break. My father agreed to the move only on the condition that we never move again--he was tired of endlessly shifting our furniture from house to house. My little sister Brenda cried for days–she was in the first grade when we moved. Her biggest complaint was that we had left the swing-set behind, because it wouldn’t fit on the aging Ford pickup truck. Dad refused to make the eight-hour trip necessary just to get the swing-set. She was angry about that for years.

I wondered what it would be like to live in Kentucky. My classmates teased me that I would wind up marrying my cousins and that kids in Eastern Kentucky had legs of different length to better accommodate the hilly terrain.  We owned a small house there; a house perched on the edge of a ledge painfully scraped from the hillside, a house that would be considered a shack by my adult friends in California today.  These are the same well-meaning and friendly people who drop the phrase white trash without a second thought–repeatedly– and pontificate about the sociological effects of poverty and the tendency of families in poverty to have misplaced priorities, while never having actually experienced the condition for themselves.

Our Kentucky home had no siding, little insulation, and a tin roof for many years. The ground wasn’t quite level so the house stood suspended on several 4x4 pylons that made it look like some sort of beach house on a cliff from a distance. We stored lumber and coal under the house until we got around to digging out the basement and making the house a two story home many years later. When we moved in from Ohio the house had kuzdu vine that had crawled across the hillside from my grandmother’s house over the hill, across a couple of trees and fences, and halfway up the side of the house.

Our first week was spent hacking and chopping at the stubborn vine to make a path to the outhouse that perched on the edge of the ridge a short distance away.  I thought the weed was dead, but it was merely dormant in the winter. In the springtime the vines returned with a vengeance, with a large dark green leaf that scraped your skin uncomfortably if you let it. The ropy vines were difficult to cut in the first place, and my mother warned us that kudzu, originally imported from Japan during the Depression to help combat soil erosion, was so tenacious that if you merely threw a piece of cut plant on the open ground it would take root and start spreading overnight. You couldn’t literally see the stuff grow but it was rather like watching the hour hand of a clock; walk away and come back and you might actually notice the growth.  During that time I read a science fiction story about some astronauts who accidentally bring home a fungus from Venus that grows so fast it starts covering cars, houses, even sleeping dogs; a theme that is spooky enough it appears in War of the Worlds and in the if-you-find-a-meteor-in-your-field-don’t-touch-it story that Stephen King did for Creepshow. Our version, featuring cuzzy vine in the starring role, would be called Creekshow, I imagine.

I’ve always considered it the height of irony that in Eastern Kentucky, the rich people lived in the expensive, flat bottom land, and poor people lived perched on the side of hills, while in the San Francisco Bay Area (where I live now) the exact opposite is true.  The difference, though, is that in the Oakland Hills the roads are much better. In Perry County you would often find yourself on the edge of a road with a 150-foot cliff on one side, and an overloaded coal truck more than half the width of the road on the other. The roads had guardrails only occasionally, and no lines appeared to guide your choice of lanes until you got all the way to Viper. Sometimes you could stick your arm out of the window and have it suspended literally over a hundred foot drop or more.  Our bus driver once accidentally forced a coal truck off the road because both our vehicles wouldn’t fit on the narrow, winding road.

My story insists this particular digression is over, and it’s time to tell of magic, and the willing suspension of disbelief, and love, of doors opening and closing and of the hard choices that must sometimes be made in life. That’s the thing about storytelling; it’s a negotiation between the teller and the story on behalf of the audience, and the teller must listen to the story’s cues if communication is going to occur.

Thus, during Christmas break of my 6th grade year, we left, my mother weeping nearly every day over her lost son. And so I eventually wound up in Miss Caudill’s drama class, rehearsing a play written by some English guy, dead and buried hundreds of years ago.

© Jeff Adkins 2014