Soliloquy 33


My son Marcus, actually my stepson, is now married and living in
Kentucky. Years ago, when he was yet living under my roof, he was attending Carl Sandburg Junior High School. In Levittown, Pennsylvania, junior high encompasses grades seven through nine, serving as a buffer between elementary school (1-6) and high school (10-12).

Carl Sandburg is also my alma mater. That was at a time when I lived under my father's roof. This is the same house, but I have since put on a new roof.

There was an occasion, when Marcus was attending Carl Sandburg, that he was selected to be Master of Ceremonies for the school's talent show. Ms Keogh, my significant other and Marcus's mother, drove him to school that day to have him there early for his performance. His role was a point of pride with him and he wanted us to witness it.

That evening, I came by a separate way to the school. I had decided to walk. It was a whim to trace the old route I used for school when I was Marcus's age. Trees had since grown. Houses had sprouted additions. Each house had its own quarter acre, but the many lots blended into a grass sea with every home an island. Still, fundamentally, the homes and community were unchanged. Originally they were all one-story buildings topped with steep attics, but very few of them haven't had their attics converted into second floors.

It was a familiar path through the winding maze of Levittown and I began to apply the names of families that once lived in this or that house, realizing that I was also forgetting many. Most of the families had moved, and their children, those with whom I went to
school, very few of them returned to Levittown upon graduating college. Still, there was enough resemblance with the past that I began to slip between the yet similar dimensions, back into my childhood where memories were waiting.

Mary's house! Once there was a small sign posted beside the driveway that read, "Mi Casa, Su Casa." The sign was gone. Her father, a retired Navy officer, had a map of the world that filled one entire wall of his study. The map is probably no longer there. The Commander died and was buried at Arlington Cemetery. Mary's three sisters had all left home. And then Mary's mother, a religious woman, died the long death of cancer, was buried next to her husband. Mary was a tall redhead, a great beauty, who I admired remotely in junior high and would later befriend in high school. For a few years we became very close. My father hoped I would marry her, but though she and I were intimate, our friendship remained platonic. In time, our views diverged and we developed in different directions, to become somewhat alien to each other. She is now living in Rhode Island, a chaplain in the Navy, and the last time I saw her she was still a great beauty.

I walked past Scott's house. In my school days it was a regular stop. How often his mother said, "Scott is not ready, yet, you better not wait or you'll be late, too." His house had changed. The people living there now had turned the garage into a spare room and built a carport in front of it. I knew I wouldn't recognize his home if I had been permitted to step inside. I would not find the same kitchen where Scott and I sat discussing morality and metaphysics over glasses of ginger ale on ice. By now, I am certain, the original steel cabinets have been replaced with decorative wood. That day, I continued on to school without him. Scott's in California, now, playing piano for The Swing Session, a lively sextet performing a music between Jazz and Rock and Roll.

As I came closer to the school, my capricious notion of taking that walk began to have an undesirable effect. I grew more oppressed. I remembered the bullies. I had become quite skilled at being wary, developing a sharp eye and ability to anticipate. I recognized and avoided potential brushes with my enemies, doing so with a cunning nonchalance that wouldn't betray my ability to predict and detect their ambushes. I left them thinking it was their bad luck they couldn't catch me. It was nothing less than paranoia, but it was also good training that must have protected me this long from being mugged or robbed on the bad city streets I would sometimes explore, later, as an adult.

The oppression was strongest when I was within the walls of the school. In my childhood, I was scorned and jeered at by many of my peers. They thought me strange because I did not endeavour to imitate the fashions of the day. I was and remain a nonconformist, more interested in pursuing my own interests rather than theirs. I suppose the same thing could be said for the subjects taught in the classrooms. I forsook their curriculum for the books I found on my father's shelves. I would like to think that I might have flourished under another system.

Entering the school halls, the old insecurities returned. I have visited Carl Sandburg Junior High School several times when my son was attending. During these open house visits, I felt a little ill at ease, but on the particular night of the talent show, the school was once again filled with children. They made me feel terribly self-conscious. The old feelings returned. I began thinking they were laughing to themselves behind my back, that I was still being regarded as a queer sort. Their word for it, back in 1964, would have been "weirdo". And there I was, a grown-up, an adult, once again hating it, being suffocated by my oppressive memories. I could not sit or stand comfortably without suffering deep concern as to the foolishness of my appearance in these children's eyes. They, of course, were hardly aware of me.

It is funny how, for many years, despite all the maturity and independence we gain, as soon as we return to our parents' household, we quickly slip back into our old, immature patterns of co-existence with them. Something similar happened to me that afternoon. I allowed a brood of strange children, who weren't even aware of me, to make me feel uncomfortable. Surrounded by my son's generation, I slowly realized they were a different set of children from those who tormented me. I would like to believe that I have since resolved the injuries done to my psyche from over twenty years before. In actuality, the resolution was I simply escaped them. I am no longer confined by junior high school. As an adult, I live in the real world, where my comfort and happiness is the consequence of having free choice, except for that one afternoon when I was reminded of those old constraints.

Quite unlike my son, I would have never wanted my parents to visit the school. I was unpopular and far too ashamed that the experience would be humiliating. Stage fright to this day has me avoiding the boards. I find even reading my poetry to an audience a disagreeable task. Marcus, on the other hand, came on stage that evening, the spotlight hitting him, the audience cheering and whistling, and he soaked it up, grinning sheepishly. That evening must have become a special memory for him.

I should like to sit down with my son and get to know him better. Rarely do parents really know their children, and rarely do children really know their parents. Most of us live with fixed opinions based on early impressions. Neither of us knows the context by which the other arrived at life choices. What was innocuous to one could have been the source of the other's trauma, and we each find our revelations from different sources. I suppose, in the natural order of relationships, some matters can never be discussed between parents and their children. We are afraid of disappointing each other. The child is afraid of the parent's disapproval and the parent is afraid of disillusioning the child.

Bruce Bentzman

This is the thirty-third in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.