My first years in this world, from 1940 to 1946, seem like a dream to me now—distant, episodic, a little nightmarish. For one thing, World War II darkened the whole period, with two of my uncles in harm’s way. At home, in the small agrarian city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, we practiced blackouts at night, reminding us how serious everything really needed to be. Then my grandmother died, the only grandparent I ever knew and the only real parent my mother ever had. I was just three, mostly an uncomprehending witness to the upheaval roiling my family. My mother cried all the time as she slid into depression and fell ill herself, nearly dying of gall stones before an operation resolved her pain. She had a strong attachment to her mother.
There’s one memory, though, that cuts through this foggy sea like a beacon. I can fix the approximate date—August, 1945, around the time of my fifth birthday. I was outside by myself, doing I don’t remember what, when I heard a commotion down the block. I saw people gathered at the corner, I heard cheering and music playing—drums and brass. With mounting excitement, I ran to check it out.
“What is it?” I asked a tall, elderly man who stood among a crowd lining the curb up and down the block. Of them all, he looked the most kid-friendly.
“Why, it’s a parade, honey,” he grinned. His eyes had tears. “The war’s over. We won. America won.”
That seemed wonderful. I stood for a little and watched the parade. People from the crowd joined in as it passed. Some of the drums were ordinary kitchen pans. Everyone grinning, everyone joyous. My spirits rose with the crowd’s, and then I turned away and ran back home to tell my mother the good news because she was very concerned about the war and I knew she would be glad to know.
“Mommai! Mommai!” I cried as I rushed into the house. But she wasn’t in the living room or the kitchen or out in the yard or anywhere downstairs. She must be upstairs, maybe in the bathroom. I hurried up the steps on pounding feet. “Mommai!”
The bathroom door at the top of the stairs stood several inches ajar. I burst in. She stood by the sink, holding a wash cloth to her face. “Mommai! The war’s over!”
She didn’t answer. Something was wrong. “The war’s over!” I said again, thinking this news would surely cheer her up.
“I know the war’s over,” she replied in a broken voice which caught in her throat as she cascaded into sobs.
Why is she like this? I wondered. When everyone outside celebrates, why does she cry? The lively concord of drums and fifes from down the block floated through the screen of the bathroom’s open window, mixing discordantly with my mother’s sobs. I felt blocked from the celebration by the need to stand by her. But what could be wrong?
As I later learned and came to appreciate over the years, my mother cried because our country had unloosed the atomic bomb into the world, killing hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians and dooming me and all other children born forever afterwards to a nuclear world more dangerous than in any other era in history. While most people celebrated this as a great victory, my mother, understanding the deeper implications of the event, mourned it as a huge moral defeat for civilization. That was a lot for a little five-year-old to take on.
Right after the war, my sister Sybil was born, and RCA transferred my dad to its plant in Harrison, New Jersey. We moved from Lancaster to the barely developed suburbs of Summit.
In New Jersey I rode a school bus to first grade at Summit Elementary School. Sometimes the bus passed me by as I waited across the road from our house. Finally, my mother called the school about it. They talked to the driver and reported back that he didn’t see me standing there. But when I stood on the shoulder of the road to wave him down, as they told me to, he passed me by again. That annoyed my mother. Unless she drove my dad to the train station at the crack of dawn, she had no car to take me to school, and I’d end up staying home that day, which I didn’t really mind. I was bewildered by Summit Elementary, a much larger, more urban institution than my neighborhood school back in Lancaster. I made no close friends there. I felt like a stranger the whole time we lived in New Jersey.
In 1947 RCA transferred my father back to the Lancaster plant, and we moved to Terre Hill, a borough in rural Lancaster County, best known to the outside world as Amish country. But the Amish were only one of many strict Christian sects operating in “the Garden Spot,” as the region’s called. Outside of Lancaster City, the county seat, most everyone in Lancaster County, especially if they’d been born there, were orthodox Christians—evangelical Bible literalists fixated upon apocalypse, the final judgment, and the removal of vast numbers of us to a maximum security Protestant Hell where one big pit of roaring fire provides agony for all sinners, no matter what the sin.
Most people in Terre Hill—population about 1,000—were born there. Of course there were no people of color. I’m not sure there were even any Jews, though Old Testament names like Amos or Isaiah or Joshua were common throughout the region.
But in that place called Terre Hill, long ago, my memories begin to settle from a dream into a time line of consecutive events. There, I woke up standing on the foundation of my world. My socialization accelerated immediately. There were no kids at all living near our house in New Jersey. But in Terre Hill kids my own age lived on both sides of us. I started relationships with them the day we moved in. It was June, after school had ended. I was six-going-on-seven, and in September I would enter the second grade at Terre Hill School.
My parents rented half of a duplex, as we’d call it today—it was a “double-house” then—on the corner of East Main Street and East Earl Hill. I don’t know why they didn’t buy. Maybe it wasn’t for sale. It was the first of its kind in town—fronted in clean, tawny brick, the bit of ground around it freshly landscaped and sprouting new grass. But the design didn’t fit in with the rest of East Main Street. Long-time residents muttered that the builder, Ben Schneider, had jammed two houses in where there should have been only one because he wanted to milk the property like a cow. The contrast was obvious between our new, development-style townhouse at the end of the block and the vintage, country homes lining the rest of Main Street. With their old shade trees and established lawns, their turreted roofs and porches with banisters, their vegetable gardens in the back yard by the shed or the chicken house, they stood as monuments to pre-war rural prosperity in a place the Great Depression largely spared because agriculture remained a top economic driver and the soil in Lancaster County is famously rich—well manured every spring, when the fragrances in the air reach even into the city.
Our family, on the other hand, didn’t have any trees or much yard out back, but we had a double-width driveway almost as big as any softball field, if we counted the curve bending down to East Earl Hill. My friends and I played hours of dedicated pick-up baseball in that dogleg driveway.
But I can’t explain why my parents chose to live in Terre Hill. From the beginning it was never convenient for them. My dad commuted to work at RCA in Lancaster, a forty-five-minute drive, partly on a two-lane country road shared with horse-drawn buggies. On Sundays we drove to Lancaster to the Unitarian church. My mother’s Great Books discussion meetings, the department stores where we shopped, the public library, my cub scout meetings, our relatives—all in Lancaster.
I can only imagine they wanted a bucolic environment for raising me and Sib. They certainly provided me with that, for as long as we lived there. But neither of my parents grew up in the country. They may have been naive about what awaited us there.
My primary parent was my mother. My father was at work most of the time, especially in New Jersey, and was not a great conversationalist. I confided in my mother, as I did not in him, and in a sense she also confided in me. Over the years she filled my head with endless, repetitive discourses about the concepts in her beloved Great Books—Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Hobbes, William James, Mahatma Gandhi, Paramahansa Yogananda. To name a few. My mother read voraciously and talked about it to any who would listen. Often I was the only one available.
From this background I emerged into the culture of Terre Hill, where none of my peers had heard of Homer or Virgil or Saints Augustine and Aquinas or any of the names I’d grown up with. There were times I wished I’d never heard of them, too. I did my best to forget them when I was among my friends.
I still think of those first couple months in Terre Hill as an endless summer, my yardstick for excellence every summer since. Time didn’t stand still, of course. But it seemed to—day after day of hot, outdoor weather in an expansive present where just about everything, including friends to play with, was new to me. I settled into small-town life like I was born to it.
Nearly all the kids played baseball. My dad prepped me to the game in our front yard—catching, throwing, batting, fielding bouncers. I took to it. Soon I was playing ball with the other kids. If there were four or more of us, we picked up sides. If there were three, we played rounders—pitcher, batter, fielder. If there were just two, at least we could play catch. We called it handling. “Hey, ya wanna handle?” we’d shout to one another. All it took was a ball and a glove, and most kids had one or the other or both. I had two gloves, so I could share one with Red, who didn’t have one. He lived below and cattycorner to our house in a barn converted to living quarters, which his family rented. They had no indoor plumbing. They drew their water from a well with a long-handle pump sunk in the cement outside the barn door in what had once been the barnyard. They went to the toilet in an outhouse sitting next to the barn along an unpaved alley running uptown, parallel to Main Street.
Red’s father worked as a day laborer on the farms surrounding the borough. His mother stayed inside most of the time. She was sickly from bearing seven children into poverty, my mother said, and insisted on addressing them as Mr. and Mrs. Bauer. No one else in town dignified them like that. They were the second-poorest family in Terre Hill. The poorest were the Weavers, who also lived in a barn further uptown. They had eight kids. I never knew them well.
Every kid in Terre Hill went to Terre Hill School through eighth grade, unless they flunked so often they quit before then. After that, it was off to high school in nearby New Holland, a larger borough six miles down the road towards Lancaster.
The school sat a block south of Main Street, about midway through town. You’d follow Oak Lane down and around a bend to the right, and there it was, at road’s end. But if you were a kid like me, walking, you could take the alley past Red’s house all the way uptown, across Oak Lane, and straight on to the school playground.
The school building itself was an imposing two-story brownstone with colonial-style columns supporting a generous porch, shelter for the double doors leading inside. Every school-day morning at 8:25 the janitor rang the bell in the tower at the top of the building to warn kids they had just five more minutes to get to school. It could be heard all over town, so if you were walking to school and heard the bell, you started to run. And if you heard the second bell at 8:30, you knew you were late.
On the first day of school in 1947, with some sense of my summer’s idyll ending, my mother and I mounted those steps and passed through the front doors to enroll me in Terre Hill School.
Mr. Schuler, the principal, scanned my paper work, but that was a formality. There was only one room they could put me in—Miss Fryberger’s first-and-second grade—the classroom just down the hall from the front office, on the right.
The day started at Terre Hill School with the teacher calling the attendance roll. Then we all stood, hands on our hearts, and, facing the American flag on its tall pole in the front corner by the black boards, we recited the Pledge of Allegiance. There was no “under God” in it then.
Back in our seats, we’d hear a designated pupil read ten verses of the King James Bible, selected by the teacher. We’d end our morning exercises with a group recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.
Over the four years I attended Terre Hill School, I became well acquainted with a number of Bible passages, which I suppose was the idea behind reading them every day. I can still recite the 23rd Psalm, everyone’s favorite, it seems.
After the Lord’s Prayer, lessons began. The teacher gave an assignment to the grade on one side of the room to keep those kids occupied while she taught a lesson to the grade on the other side. Then she gave that grade an assignment and returned to the first side to teach a different lesson to the other grade. So the school day proceeded, mostly back and forth like that, unless we’d all get involved in a lesson or project together, like singing or making Valentines or exchanging names at Christmas. Of course we looked forward to morning and afternoon recess, when we’d play kick or dodge ball in the school yard or baseball in the diamonds next to the adjacent town cemetery. Most of us went home for lunch.
In third and fourth grades, across the hall from Miss Fryberger’s classroom, my teacher was Miss Miller, a matronly woman in her forties, I’d guess, with an even temperament. That is, she seemed neither joyful nor sad. She believed in drill, which is how, against my nature, I finally learned how to subtract figures before my father, a cost-accountant by profession, gave me up for a dunce.
During my two years in Miss Miller’s classroom my confidence in myself with others took root. I emerged as a skillful baseball player among peers, I pleased my teachers most of the time, I got along well enough with the other kids, including some of the girls, and I loved where I lived.
My mother, however, bemoaned the curriculum at Terre Hill School and on several occasions talked to Mr. Schuler about it, who always sympathized but made no changes. Essentially, she felt Terre Hill School, like most public schools in America, lacked the Great Books—the thinkers upon whose speculations the foundations of Western society rest. We didn’t read much of anything in the way of books or journals, as I recall, but we knew the three Rs of business well enough—readin’, ritin’, and ’rithmatic. And we knew about American history to an extent—the heroic interpretations more than the critical ones. We struggled with grammar and spelling, learned no foreign languages, and, beyond the names of the Greek and Roman gods, we knew little about philosophy or the origins of human thought or the responsibilities of a citizen in a democracy, other than voting, preferably Republican, every four years.
If my mother needed a loaf of bread or a quart of milk, she’d send me to Reimie’s across the street on East Earl Road. “Reimer” was the family name, and “Reimer’s General Store” was the business entity, but everybody called it Reimie’s. It was an old-time country store with a porch and a kerosene pump out front. Inside, everything relevant to country life stocked the shelves and display tables in a crowded, ill-lit chamber, from staples like milk, bread, flour, and sugar to long johns, hand tools, muskrat traps, chewing tobacco, and burlap sacks. In winter a coal stove near the center of the room kept the place cozy and the hot bullshit flying. A ceiling fan spun the sweat in the summer, when the gossipers typically moved to the porch.
Reimie himself was an excessively obese individual. It was worth a trip to the store just to see his stomach, which protruded so enormously he had to pick it up and put it on the counter so he could get near enough to customers to take their money.
His elderly father, the store’s founder, lived with Reimie, his wife, and their grown daughter Fern in a house around the corner on Main Street. I think he died at some point while we lived there. I remember him vaguely as a crotchety old man with few words of praise for his son, who he called the dumbest jackass in Lancaster County. There was some justification for that. Everyone in town knew the stories of how customers had duped Reimie, sending him searching his shelves for such items as a left-handed screw driver or a box of J.C. Coffin’s Nails.
One day, tired of being the butt of jokes, Reimie exploded when two college boys from Lancaster passing through stopped to ask if he carried ping-pong balls. He came out from behind the counter red-faced, like a rushing bull, and threw them the hell out of his store, by goddarnit! He wasn’t going to be taken for a fool again!
Someone told him later that ping-pong balls are real, and he stopped telling the story, but everyone still repeated it, not always behind his back.
The Post Office, located approximately mid-way through town, was everyone’s mail box. We had no home delivery. Every address had a post box number. You asked for your mail at the window. Mrs. Burkholder, the postmistress, knew everyone by name and number and was not above making a mental note of what mail we all got. That made her an excellent source of informative gossip on just about everyone in town. People tended to run into each other at the Post Office, too. It served as a vortex for serendipitous meet-ups.
Every June, on the first Monday after school let out, two weeks of Vacation Bible School began at the Brethren Church uptown across from the Post Office. Nearly every kid in town attended.
The only church I knew from the inside was the Unitarian Church of Lancaster, where my parents were active members. Initially, it never occurred to me to go to Bible School once regular school let out. But after I’d lived there a few years and had many friends, I decided to join my school pals and give Bible School a try.
I was in the third and fourth grade group with most of my classmates from school, including Red and also Beth, a new girl in town I’d just begun getting to know. Miss Yoder was our teacher, sweet and young and ardent in her cotton print dress, her hair pinned up beneath a lace cap, her earnest blue eyes fervent behind wire-framed glasses.
One of her lessons in particular stays with me. We had coloring books depicting various scenes of Jesus interacting with contemporary Christian families who pray to him for help and guidance on some trouble in life. All the figures to be colored, in addition to the clothes they wore, sported Valentine’s hearts inked in on the upper left side of their chests. Even Jesus had one.
“Everybody sins,” Miss Yoder told us. “Even Chesus sinned before He vas baptized. Maybe only vunce or twice. But even Chesus sinned. To show us He vas human.”
In our coloring books Miss Yoder encouraged us to blacken some portion of each heart to show the universality of sin. Red and I got into it, passing judgment in high spirits. This one had half a black heart, that one was all black but for maybe a dot of white, the one good thing he did at the age of seven, when he gave a little kid his last stick of chewing gum. Jesus got a single black dot, as Miss Yoder said, because not even he gets off scot-free. What was his sin? we wondered. Did he beat up a girl once? Steal a coin from the Temple and buy candy for himself? And we’d giggle and chortle over our absolute power over these coloring book souls
If we attended Bible School all ten days, we’d get a medal and also a jig-saw puzzle of Jesus knocking on a door in the side of a hill. I started out that year with an eye on the prizes, but when it came down to Wednesday of the second week I couldn’t motivate myself to go. I had sunburn, I said, from going swimming at the New Holland pool the afternoon before. It was true, I’d gone swimming with some other kids—Beth’s mother drove us—and I had sunburn. But it wasn’t the whole truth. I’d become uneasy with Miss Landis’ increasingly zealous sermons about sin, Satan, and hell. At times she scared us, she seemed a little hysterical, even to my young and inexperienced judgment. I gave up my ambition for the prizes and stayed home through the end of the week, feeling a little unsettled, even so, after Beth, who also had sunburn, won a puzzle and a medal for perfect attendance.
I got to know Beth because I had to pass her house on my way to and from school, and especially on the homeward trek it often worked out that we’d walk in the same group or even, on occasion, together—just the two of us. I learned she was born in Baltimore, Maryland, and her dad worked for New Holland Machine Company. She had a younger brother and sister, twins Jimmy and Jenny, who would start first grade the next year. (There was no kindergarten at Terre Hill School.) She took oboe lessons every Tuesday after school from a retired music teacher living in Narvon, a nearby village. She loved playing baseball. She wanted to be a nurse.
“What do you want to be?” she asked me. It was in the spring as we walked together on the lane leaving the school yard.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe a writer.”
“Really? What d’you wanna write?”
“Stories, I guess. Books.”
“I don’t know.”
“How can you be a writer if you don’t know what you want to write?”
“I don’t know. I just think I’m ’sposed to be a writer. D’you think you’re ’sposed to be a nurse?”
“I don’t know. I think my mom wants me to be a nurse.”
“Yeah,” I said, “I think my mom wants me to be a writer.”
“Don’t you wanna be?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t tried it out yet. D’you wanna be a nurse?”
“I don’t know either.”
At that moment we looked at each other, and a loopy wave of something ticklish and silly passed between us like a nudge, and for just a second I saw it in her eyes, her blue, blue eyes: a soul as mischievous as mine—and in that instant of recognition we both broke into a giggle. She slapped me on the arm like I’d teased some secret truth out of her, and I would’ve hit her back but I was too well-trained never to hit a girl so I just protested. “Not fair!” I said, still laughing, and she laughed, too.
We walked on then for half a dozen steps without speaking when, unprovoked, she poked me on the shoulder. I poked her back and jumped away before she could poke me again, and we giggled and threatened each other with our poking fingers, briefly, but settled down then, playfully wary of some trick the other might pull as we resumed our walk, calming down until she finally said, “D’you know what you really want to be?”
“A baseball player,” I said, without hesitation.
“Me, too!” she cried, holding up in her tracks. “And I can’t because I’m a girl!”
“That’s worse off than me,” I said.
“I should’a been a boy. My father wanted a boy.”
“He has Jimmy.”
“He wishes it was me,” as she resumed walking.
“I don’t,” I said, catching up.
“Well, I do.”
“Well, I don’t.
“Oh, shut up!” laughing, she said, and she slapped my arm again, more like a tap this time. I thought of tapping her back, but I didn’t really want to. I liked it that she touched me. It warmed me up, it made me feel silly and loose. For one thing, I wanted to isolate and preserve like a sacred site the place where she touched me. For another, I wanted to . . . .
Well, I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do.
We walked along a bit in silence. I realized I was smiling, and when I sneaked a peek at her I saw that she was smiling, too.
“You’re funny,” I said.
“No,” she said, “You’re funny!”
“You wanna come down to my house and watch Howdy Doody sometime?”
“O, I’d love to!”
Nothing could have made me more proud and pleased. There were only three television sets in Terre Hill then, and we had one of them because my dad worked at RCA and bought it at a discount at the employee store.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll ask my mom.”
“Oh, goodie!” she said.
And so that spring day in mud time, we began our “special friendship,” as it might be called today, but back then adults called it “puppy love” and gave it little serious respect. Times may have become gentler since (or maybe not), but I suspect any change in family oversight is more superficial than substantive, and pain is still the price children pay for growing up. Some of the most traumatic dramas of our lives take place when we’re too young to know what’s happening but old enough to feel the tragic collapse of our innocence. Cynicism and pessimism get baked into our emerging world views before we’re old enough to recognize their toxicity.
The pastoral existence I remember living in Terre Hill did not come without its price. Corporal punishment of children was a matter of faith in Lancaster County well into the 1980s. Nearly all kids got “lickin’s,” often severe, for engaging adult disapproval. In our otherwise liberal household, not even we were entirely spared.
Consequently, we kids all lived to one degree or another in fear of adults, especially fathers. That was the idea—to instill fear—and it was effective but not foolproof. At least from my point of view, the call to freedom from the top of East Earl Hill, looking out over the farm fields and woods across the graceful slope of the valley below, competed with adult rules for my attention. In Terre Hill we easily fell to the temptation of some outrageous mischief, and on any given day odds were good that some young person either got a licking or escaped one through luck, lying, or lax detection.
Yet in my four years at Terre Hill School I never saw corporal punishment or knew of its use. It seemed to be a practice reserved for the home. I have no memories of fear at school. Terre Hill School was of another age when kids accepted the authority of their teachers, which by and large was gently exercised. Still, there were rumors that Mr. Schuler kept a paddle in his desk, and, as playground legend had it, he’d used it, too, on the worst of the worst of us. I thanked my lucky stars I was never one of them. It seemed like I could’ve been.