Tuesday, July 27, 2010


I've been writing a little about my grade school years. In the 1990s I researched and wrote about my family at the time of my birth (and well before.) I have revised those chapters many times, especially using the Internet and information shared by relatives. Then my early childhood, using what artifacts and information survived from those years. (Prime example here.) This summer, the early grades, using books and photos and stuff I've saved or accumulated, plus what I could find online. And especially guided by my own memories--of general impressions, focused around specific memories.

I'd like to note two aspects of this endeavor here: the educational, and the coincidental. And how each led to the other. There are especially three instances I'd like to record. I don't know if they are significant to anyone else, but their very occurrence seems striking to me.

I started the first grade at Sacred Heart School in 1952. Among my clearest specific memories of that year are of fantasies about Superman, and a crush I had on a second grade girl named Judy. Researching the 1950s context, including the specific circumstances in Greensburg, PA, was interesting--how the local Catholic schools and churches responded to the beginning of the baby boom and expansion of housing beyond the town limits, for example. But as the first generation to start out with television, that medium's early history also pertained. As it turns out, my memory of seeing the opening episode of the George Reeves Superman (the origin), was of seeing the actual Pittsburgh premiere of that series. It started being broadcast that school year. (That research in turn led me to Superman's own previous and subsequent history, as reflected here.)

But that's not one of the three examples. The first pertains to second grade, when the most important event was my First Communion. First grade introduced me to the indoctrination (and I recall specific stories the nun told, or at least I recalled and recorded them several decades ago.) Dealing with second grade got me online to research catechisms. (There are basically three types. A somewhat simplified version for second grade. The one I re-acquired is evidently used in fifth grade, before Confirmation.) I also have a photograph of myself in my First Communion outfit, taken that day with my grandfather. But when I came to write about it, I couldn't remember when in the school year it would be. It seemed like it would be spring. The Internet gave me dates for some in recent years. So I initially set mine around Easter. But then I noticed a piece of paper on the floor. It had evidently fallen out of something--an old book, scrapbook, photo album. But on it was the precise date of MY First Communion.

The two other instances are from third grade. Another element of research involved the books we used, particular the school readers. I learned online that the Scott, Foresman readers that almost everyone used had specific Catholic editions, and they involved the family of John and Jean. As pupils we didn't own our readers--the school did, and they were passed down over the years. But we did have workbooks, and I have one that belonged to my youngest sister Debbie, and it was a John and Jean book. But I remember the Dick and Jane books. A little more research and yes, there was an earlier Catholic edition of the Dick and Jane series.

At used bookstores or yard sales I did acquire a few of those old readers, but probably not the ones I used. There were new editions of the Cathedral readers published between 1954 and 1956, so for the first few grades I was probably using books published in the 1940s. Still, at least some if not most of the content was the same, because I vaguely remember a few specific stories, and more vividly a few specific illustrations in one of these books (More Friends and Neighbors.) With a little effort, the Internet yielded up the secrets of the grade each reader would be used. Unfortunately, the readers I have are for the second and the fourth grades. Yet I had a specific memory that I thought happened in third grade.

Though I don't have a third grade reader, I have my younger sister Kathy's Think-and-Do Book for her third grade. I thought I would use it to illustrate how Catholic doctrine was integrated into our learning to read, but then I came upon a page of questions that I was suddenly certain was about the story I remembered as significant if not life-changing, and moreover the exercise was applied to exactly that feature: the sensory images. It was the story about Whizzer the mouse, and I remember that when we read it out loud in turn that I was amazed and excited by the language, especially the kinetic verbs. The characters didn't just walk or run like Dick and Jane--they zoomed, scurried, sprang, scrambled, scampered, bounced. It was a revelation about what reading (and writing) could do. So there it was--confirmation of that memory, in a workbook that happened to survive, about a story that evidently made it into the later edition my sister used.

This would relate to the main event of this third grade chapter, which is the writing of my first play, performed by my third grade class. But the major sequence leading up to this was about watching a Saturday morning of television, then playing with neighbor friends that afternoon and re-creating stories from those programs. So at last the reason for the illustrations up there. Thanks to the Internet, I found the actual TV test pattern I stared at, so impatient for programs to begin on Saturday morning--for WDTV, a station that didn't exist much longer, though it was transformed into the still-running KDKA. I knew I wanted to memorialize the space adventure shows I loved, and various researches revealed that all of them were on at the same time only in one year: 1954.

However, the play I wrote had a Christmas theme (it was about a Christmas it didn't snow, called A Summer Christmas, inspired by...well, that's another story) so it would have been written and performed that December. So this Saturday morning--with the test pattern, the early cartoons, the snack food we ate--like those graham crackers above--would have to be earlier. But it couldn't be too close to Halloween or Thanksgiving. So I checked the 1954 calendar, and chose October 23. Then I discovered that if I looked hard enough on the Internet, I could find episode lists with original air dates for several of those old shows. Since I was going to describe this experience of watching these shows, I decided to use specific real episodes.

I had to improvise on a few. Rocky Jones, Space Ranger was syndicated and shown on different stations at different times, so I used an episode I've got on a budget DVD, which plausibly could have been shown then. Tom Corbett, Space Cadet was actually switching from one network to another, so new programs weren't broadcast in October. So I decided that the station that was going to carry it might go back and air old episodes (on kinescope, in those days), so I was able to use one I had on an old VHS tape, which was one of the first in that long-running series. But my favorite of the Saturday morning space adventures had been Space Patrol. And of all of these, and the entire Saturday morning experience, I had one specific memory.
It concerned Space Patrol. I wrote about all those shows elsewhere, and specifically recorded this memory: I have one strong memory in connection with this show. It was one Saturday morning when my mother heard the announcer or someone on the show refer to it being set in the thirtieth century. (I have the vague recollection it was another time travel plot.) She asked me if I knew what century it is now. I wasn't sure. She told me the twentieth, and then said that she used to listen to Buck Rodgers on the radio--his space adventures were in the 25th century. I remember this partly because I hadn't imagined my mother listening to space adventures, but also because I began to sense the extent of time, and of the future.
So here is the plot for the Space Patrol that aired on October 23, 1954:
The top-secret Terra 5, experimental model for a fleet of sensational new space ships ticketed for Space Patrol service, falls into the hands of interplanetary gangsters. Using Carol as a hostage, ruthless Gart Stanger forces Cadet Happy to take him aboard the Terra 5 and pilot him back through space and time to the planet Earth in the year 1954. At his destination Stanger intends to construct duplicates of the Terra 5 with which he will equip his henchmen when he returns to the 30th Century. Unfortunately for both he and Happy, the pair arrive on Earth to find themselves imminent targets for an atomic bomb test.

I have no doubt, more than a half century later, that this was the episode that prompted that exchange with my mother that I remember, on the exact date I had chosen for my fictional enactment. (The atomic bomb test is a bonus--it's surprising how many of these shows dealt with atom bombs and radiation.) I don't know what if anything such a coincidence means, or the significance of those earlier two examples of what might also be described as serendipity. Especially since this entire enterprise may be meaningless to anyone but me. But for me, it's some kind of affirmation, and connection. To what, I couldn't precisely say.

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