Thursday, March 27, 2008

I Learn the Multiplication Tables

While in Mrs. Rowe's third grade class I learned the multiplication tables. Actually, she announced that we would right at the first of the year. She further stated right up front, that while most teachers only teach the multiplication tables through the 9's, she required her pupils to learn them through the 12's. Many of my modern readers will doubtlessly wonder, "How could she get away with that?" Most of us probably wondered it too, but we were at a complete loss as to what to do about it. After all, this was Pocatello--what did we know about children's rights?--especially back then. She did have one thing going for her that kept us from looking actively for some kind of redress--her son was the star player--or at least, if not the star, on the first string, of the Idaho State College Basketball team. We all assumed (by "we all", I mean, of course, the boys in the class--who knows what the girls assumed?) that her son's prowess on the basketball court was due, if not entirely, at least in large measure, to the fact that his mother had made him learn his multiplication tables clear through the 12's.

And I must say that Mrs. Rowe really drilled us on them. So much so that I remember them pretty much to this day, although, admittedly I do occasionally stumble on some of the tough ones like 7X8 and 11X12. But she really hammered them home. I know that, because sometimes when I'm worried and I can't sleep, instead of counting sheep (or--as Irving Berlin suggested--blessing--counting blessings takes all the fun out of worrying) I try to extend my knowledge of the multiplication tables to the 20s. Since I tend to worry a great deal, it is not unusual for me to get well into my 19s before I finally fall asleep. But the next day, if for some reason I need to know, for example, 7X12 (for those of you who did not study under Mrs. Rowe and do not have a calculator handy, it is 84--and I want you to know that I did that very quickly without the help of a calculator), I know it instantly, but, if I need to know, for example, 16X19, I stumble, I mutter, I pause, and finally, in embarrassment I pull out a pencil and on the back of a credit card where I was supposed to write my signature, I work it out, or I go to my dresser drawer in search of a calculator. Such was the thoroughness of Mrs. Rowe's multiplication drills.

In reflection, I wish that my first and second grade teachers had been as thorough in teaching me addition and subraction--I use them almost every day. Multiplication I use probably a couple of times a week, and calculus and beyond, which I spent so much time and money learning in college, I have used a couple of times in my whole life. Upon mature evaluation, I realize that I would probably have been much better served if I had had Mrs. Rowe teach me partial differential equations and Dr. Harrison teach me the multiplication tables.

While I was in the third grade I had one of the choice experiences of my youth, Dad took me to see the Harlem Globe Trotters. Dad was so busy trying to get his practice established that I hardly saw him for the first years in Pocatello, so what few times we did have together were very memorable. The Harlem Globe Trotter experience was also memorable because my Sunday School teacher's husband was on the team opposing the Globe Trotter's. When I asked Dad why he was there, he explained that Br. Smith was on the local Chamber of Commerce team.

"Why would they have the Chamber of Commerce team oppose the Harlem Globe Trotters?" I asked genuinely puzzled.

"Oh they had to beat some really top notch teams in order to be chosen for the honor." Dad went on. "They had to beat out the Post Office Workers team, the Railroad Union team, the Garret Freight Lines team, and even the Hawkes Brothers Moving and Storage team. No Br. Smith and the others really had to work hard to be chosen."

Since Br. Smith's team was not doing well at all, I finally said, "Dad, they're not doing to well. Why didn't they get Mrs. Rowe's son's team to play them?"

"Mrs. Rowe's son's team!" Dad exclaimed incredulously, "They would never do that. That's the college team. They might very well beat the Globe Trotters. No, they definitely wouldn't do that."

"Beat the Globe Trotters!" it was my turn to exclaim incredulously, "I thought you said that the Harlem Globe Trotters were the best team in the whole world."

"Oh, they are," Dad explained, "for their game, but their game is not exactly basketball." Which, of course, was true. They drop-kicked the ball into the basket a couple of times. And one time I remember, one of the held Br. Smith at arms length with his hand in Br. Smith's face while the latter tried in vain to steal the ball. After a minute or so of that, the referee called a foul, and the Globe Trotter protested loud and long about the "unfair call". I decided that Dad was right. They were very good at what they did, but it wasn't exactly basketball and I very much doubted that they knew their multiplication tables through the 12s.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The First Kiss

After our family got back from Germany, I started school. I attended the first and second grade at the old Bonneville Elementary. After my second grade year it was torn down and I switched to the Washington Elementary. I really liked the Bonneville elementary, especially the second grade. My second grade class consisted of three rows of second graders and two rows of third graders, which made those of us in the second grade feel really important, since we told everyone that we were in Mrs. R's (she had a funny German name that I can't remember and I couldn't pronounce even back then), third grade class. Dad said he didn't like me going to the school since he was afraid it would fall down, but I never noticed anything falling. Everyone said that it had been built right after the war, but they couldn't remember whether it was the Civil or the Spanish American. At any rate, because it was torn down, I had to go to Washington Elementary, which was, admittedly much newer. I was in Mrs. Rowe's third grade class and it was there that I learned one of life's hardest lessons, because I fell madly, hopelessly in love.

The girl's name was Virginia, and she was beautiful. I knew almost from the moment I met her that we were destined to be married to each other, but I was also wise enough to realize that I would have to wait a few years. I even asked my dad how old you had to be to get married which resulted in his launching into a tirade about Idaho's crazy marriage laws which allowed people as young as 14 to get married. This meant, of course, that I would have to wait six full years before Virginia and I could get married--maybe even longer, because Dad was careful to point out that marriage at 14 required parental approval, something that I suspected my dad would not readily give, although, I was more hopeful of Mom--she seemed to approve of almost everything I did. At any rate, I began courting Virginia. I walked home with her, played with her at recess, and sat by her at noon as often as seemed practical without making it too obvious that I was after her. After all, ours was going to be, of necessity, an extended courtship, and there was no reason to rush. But it was tough. When a fellow has found the girl he wants to marry it becomes irksome to go through all the formalities society expects before they can be properly united.

I said I walked home with her, but only on those days when we weren't having a ball game, a marbles championship, a yo-yo contest or similar doings that absolutely required my presence. During the fall, therefore, my chances to spend a lot of time with Virginia were acturally pretty limited, so limited, in fact, that she might have passed out of my heart altogether had I not been forced to sit near her during school, thus having my passion constantly rekindled. Toward the end of November, however, the weather became of a nature as to make marbles, baseball, and even yo-yoing impractical--or at least, uncomfortable. I, therefore, began excorting her home regularly and equally regularly ate my lunch with her. I was greatly rejoiced to notice that I received much encouragement from her. The only real fly in the ointment was Virginia's girl friend, Carey, for whom she seemed to have a much greater affection then myself. They were inseparable. Unfortunately, Carey reacted with equal grace and enthusiasm to all my advances, and I began to fear that she thought many of my efforts were directed toward her.

As we moved into December my conviction that Virginia was the one and only girl for me became stronger. She was perfect in every way (except spelling, in which she was very poor indeed). I became more and more eager to find ways to disply my true feeling. Sonehow the usual ways of showing affection (putting snow down her back, throwing snowballs, pulling her hair, etc) did not seem adequate to express the growing passion I felt for her.

One day as Christmas was approaching, we were all sitting in the classroom being as noisy as possible because the teacher had been called out of the room.

"Hey," the kid a behind me whispered loudly, "I'll sell you a sprig of mistletoe for a nickel." He held out a branch with some prickly green leaves on it.

"Why would I want to buy an old branch or whatever you called it?" I asked.

"Man, haven't you heard of mistletoe before?'

"No." I admitted sheepishly. "What's so special about this mistletoe stuff?'

"Are you sure you never heard of mistletoe before? I thought everyone had heard of mistletoe. You just hold it over a girl's head and then you kiss them." He went on to explain.

"I never heard of that before," I said quite truthfully, then added skeptically, "Are you sure that its all right to kiss a girl if you hold this stuff over her head? I mean, what if she didn't want you to?"

"Why man," he laughed assuredly, "what can she say? It's an old custom and if you hold real mistletoe over their heads, they have to let you kiss'em whether they want you to or not."

"You sure about that?"

"Of course, ask anybody. You're the first kid I ever knew who don't know about mistletoe."

I have always heard, and since this time, I believe it to be true, that if you hear something that is too good to be true, count to ten, or even one hundred, before you act on it, because it probably is--too good to be true, that is. But I hadn't heard that yet, so I gave the kid a nickel, he gave me his mistletoe and I made a bee-line for Virginia.

Some instinct must have told her that something was amiss because when she saw me coming she jumped from her seat and began running. I chased her around the room once and finally caught her at the front of the room. I grabbed her and held the mistletoe over her head. I expected immediate submission and was extremely surprised when she continued to struggle to get away. Since I was in front of the entire class and my honor was at stake, I lightly kissed her on the cheek and then let her go, beaming proudly at my accomplishment. My self-satisfied grin came to a sudden, and very painful, end when, in a fit of rage, Virginia slapped me across the face twice. She was obviously furious--as furious as I was surprised and stunned. It finally dawned on me that maybe she didn't know about mistletoe either. Both of us went to our seats, almost in tears. "Merrill Gee, I never want to see you again as long as I live," she muttered loudly as we went.

The incident made me a hero to my peers. It turns out that most of them had heard about mistletoe but none of them had ever dared use it. In fact, any that had seen it used had seen it done by their aunts on them. The glory was hard-won. The incident put an end to my infatuation with Virginia. In nursing my broken heart I took to yo-yoing, despite the cold. I even asked some friends if they wanted to play marbles. "Are you nuts," they responded, "can't you see the snow? We'd lose most of our marbles." That taught me one of life's great lessons--having your heart broken is a great tragedy, but its not nearly so bad as losing you marbles.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

How I Came to Grow Up in Pocatello

I was born in Pocatello, but, of course, that is not how I came to grow up there. My father had attended high school and college in Pocatello, but, like so many others, he had been driven by the Depression to seek greener pastures. The greener pastures were for him, as for many others, to be found in Washington D.C. He had gone there to work and get a law degree, which he did at George Washington University. He had in the process also managed to find a wife, my mother, who had been driven from Preston, Idaho by the very same Depression. After getting his degree, Dad had returned to Pocatello as the regional director of Social Security. While there, I and my sister Loni were born. If he had stayed on in Pocatello, he might have had a very large family, but shortly after having Loni, he moved to Boise to become the assistant Federal attorney for Idaho. It turns out, for some reason known only to people who know about such things, that my parents could only have children in Pocatello.

After WWII ended, Dad jumped at the chance to become involved with the Nazi War Crimes Trials, so we moved to Germany where we lived for two years. After the trials ended, Dad reported back to Washington, thinking that the powers that be would give him back his old job as assistant Federal attorney, or maybe even, considering that he had so much experience prosecuting ne'er do wells in the Nazi trials, make him the full fledged Federal attorney for Idaho, but, it turns out, the Nazi trials had become very unpopular and to have participated in them was to be branded as a sort of ne'er do well yourself. So instead of being promoted or even allowed to return to his old job as regional director for Social Security, Dad was told he would have to lay low in Washington D.C. hiding out in some large government building, receiving a salary, of course, but doing what everyone else who is hiding out in large government buildings in Washington D.C. is doing, viz. nothing. Of course, Dad was assured that after several years, the fact of his having been involved with the Nazi trials was bound to more or less blow over and he might be allowed to return to the field.

Dad told me (years later) that after getting that piece of news, he wandered around Washington--more or less looked the place over--and decided that he could not raise a family there. So he did what almost nobody ever does. He quit his safe, secure government job, and returned to his home town to set up a private practice, hoping, no doubt, that if things got really bad, that his dad would pass along a loaf of bread or two and let him use the family tent. Fortunately, it never came to that, but to hear him talk, it came close in the first few years.

Anyway, that is how I came to grow up in Pocatello.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Growing up in Pocatello

In the next several days I will be writing some biographical essays about my experiences growing up in Pocatello, Idaho.