Friday, September 16, 2011

Daydreaming, playing hooky in grade school

The Roosevelt Grade School graduation memory book just arrived by email from classmate Mike Cole and it brought back lots of bittersweet memories of 1945-54 in conservative Spokane. I made some good choices in grade school -- day dreaming and leaving the building.
Trying to dodge the school yard bullies was part of the experience as well as class activities like the discussion of Easter Resurrection or choir singing Christmas carols and “Onward Christian Soldiers”. I was conflicted because of parental pressure not to sing Christian songs so I would mouth the words and the sour puss who was the music teacher would reprimand me. I couldn’t win for losing.
No, I wasn’t a student at a Catholic parochial school but enrolled almost full-time at a public school. One of the enterprising teachers passed out free New Testament bibles during recess and of course I was eager for anything free. When Dad caught sight of the bible he was not amused and it went back the next day.
The reason I say almost full-time was because, according to the memory book, “David couldn’t seem to tell time this year (1947) and used to wander home at recess time.” When you factor in the so-called “free time” and the Christian instruction, that didn’t leave much time for any meaningful education. Oh yes, Mr. Kale warned us about the radio program that satirized the Army-McCarthy hearings as being subversive. We also listened to Gen. MacArthur’s "old soldiers never die” speech on the radio and watched a lot of incredible boring Encyclopedia Brittanica instructional films. We read the Weekly Reader and if anyone has one of those I would love to see it.
I was one of a handful of Jewish or atheist students at Roosevelt and the Christian students had “free time” away at a nearby church for bible study. I was left in an almost empty class room to continue my day dreaming.
Picture 1930s actress Edna Mae Oliver and you have Miss Piendl, my first grade teacher who caught me day dreaming (once again) at the blackboard and gave me a vigorous shake. I think I cried. Miss Piendl wanted to flunk me but then I would have missed Mrs. Moran’s Easter lecture and a chance to make replicas of the Christmas manger scene the following year.
I had friends in grade school despite the anarchy including Jack Malone, a boy named Randy who I had to beat up on the play field because he wouldn’t leave me alone and George Nichols who lived up the street. One of the boys I knew in grade school, Nevin, was also a friend in high school.
My fondest grade school memory was third grade when we were rewarded for collecting newspapers with a showing of the movie “March of the Wooden Soldiers” with Laurel and Hardy. I own the movie and watch it every December.
I also remember a few birthday parties, a graduation party at Rick Judy’s home on Twin Lake and the graduation program when we played “Heart of My Heart” on comb and tissue paper. Miss Lou Eckhart, the third grade teacher, was a favorite and she married an aged wealthy former governor named Martin. I was lousy at math and luckily calculators came along in adulthood.
What doesn’t kill you will make you stronger is the applicable phrase for grade school.
In “class personality” summary for the memory book my nickname was “Dizzie”, ambition bank president, weakness day dreaming, famous for walk, pet saying “by george”, favorite food spaghetti and hobby collecting post cards. I was a crossing guard in addition to my Glee-like vocal efforts. Put your head down on the desk and tape a nap was a familiar refrain. Also, get under the desk for the "communists are coming" drill. I don't know what good the desk would have done. Try not spilling the ink in the ink well.
I was never good at conforming to behavior codes, then and now. It has served me well.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

How My Sister Claudia Got Her Name

The popular 1940 novel “Claudia and David” by Rose Franken deals with episodes in a young woman’s life in the ‘40s as she searches for her voice and identity so it was somewhat subversive in a time of oppressive paternalism. On the surface it is about the trials and tribulations of modern marriage, but it also gives a frightening glimpse at the attitudes, behavior codes and prejudices of the 1940s.
I couldn’t put it down once I got into “Claudia and David” as I continue my study of ‘40s books and movies.
This was one in a series of “Claudia” books by Franken and was read by many women including my mother . It must have made a lasting impression on Mom because it was partly responsible for how my sister Claudia got her name. The book was made into a movie in 1946 and was a sequel to the original “Claudia” movie.
Claudia Naughton is the central character and the husband character, David, is never fully developed. “Like the person you love, that’s marriage, and it’s exciting,” says David. Otherwise, he is either sexy and loving or vain, rude, abusive and narrow minded reducing Claudia to tears. In brighter moments there is a bit of escapism for the average reader in that Claudia has a full-time live in maid and accompanies her successful architect husband on a transcontinental flight to Hollywood where she buys an $800 dress which women in that time could only dream about. She also drags the unwilling David to a seance which he dismisses as bunk.
Despite leading a life less ordinary, Claudia confesses that her marriage is less than ideal. She complains that she is “stagnating” and would like to be like “women who function with a job” so she could be treated like a human being. David is quite dismissive at hearing this and she never mentions it again. When the author touches on a defining moment one of the characters gets sick and the plot abruptly shifts.
One of the more disturbing interludes in the book for me is when David discovers that their six year old son Bobby can’t make an acceptable fist to defend himself . David opines that the boy has a “streak of the sissy” and this is not acceptable since he won’t be good at skating or other sports. Claudia to the rescue: She teaches the boy how to skate and he impresses Dad. The subversive sissy crisis is averted and David voices a familiar theme: “Be a man. Stand on your own two feet.”
A crisis befalls the otherwise happy Naughtons when Bertha, the German maid whose standard response is “ach”, leaves. Two weeks without a maid is hell, Claudia and David state. At this moment we are treated to prevailing racism when Claudia interviews women for the mother’s helper job. A “mammoth Negress reeking of perfume” applies, says Claudia, and the Naughtons say the job has been filled which is a lie.
Women were examining their roles in print in 1940s. In a humorous memoir, “The Egg and I”, Betty Macdonald describes her ill advised first marriage Her life as a child bide on a broken-down chicken farm in rural Washington State was made into a successful movie that spawned the Ma and Pa Kettle characters that were a cash cow for Universal-International Pictures in the 1950s. Macdonald never offers an opinion on the marriage but she steers us in the right direction.