In recalling childhood, we visit islands of memory that shine in a dark sea. We navigate a course from dot to dot, steering by dates and facts like stars we dimly saw back then. We guess at causes. We make up motives for other people and even for ourselves.
What follows is set in the 1950s and 1960s in upstate New York. That I lived there at that time is certain, but the story is what I choose to tell. Or is it my parents’ story? They made all the decisions. They and other family members contradict me. I quote these characters in their own words. I cite letters and documents to buttress my case. These attempts to deceive will be painfully obvious.
In 1953, my father started a new job at General Electric Company in Syracuse, New York. Pierre Boucheron, Jr. was thirty-two years old, a lean man about six feet tall, with an olive complexion. He wore his stiff, brown hair in a brush cut. A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he wore a class ring sculpted with a beaver, nature’s engineer.
Pierre bought a lot near the village of North Syracuse, and he hired the developer to build a new house. This man, Bellinger, called his tract Bellewood, and he named the streets after his family: Mary, Cynthia, Patricia, and so on. One Bellewood Circle, at the corner of Leroy Road, was completed the following spring. My mother Charlotte sold the house in Roslyn, Long Island, packed up, and moved her three children: Charlotte, Pierre III, and myself, a baby. While doing this, she was pregnant. Edward was born that summer after the move.
At General Electric, my father worked for the Heavy Military Electronics Department. During the twelve years he stayed, he developed color television hardware and computer applications for weapons and navigation, things for which the company acquired patents. He researched new products and methods, he traveled to manufacturing plants in the United States, Mexico and Brazil, and he studied to be a manager.
As I child, I understood none of this. My father’s work was mysterious and invisible. It took up regular hours, and it paid a salary. He left early each morning carrying a lunch box and a thermos bottle filled with hot coffee. After five o’clock, he returned home. He talked to my mother in the kitchen as she made dinner, and they drank martinis.
He made the martinis in a large metal cup with a strainer coil in the lid. He loaded the cup with ice, gin and vermouth, shook it for the right amount of time, and poured the liquid into a glass shaped like a shallow cone on a stem. He added a white onion or a green olive skewered on a little plastic sword. I asked once to taste a martini. It was bitter, I made a face, and my parents laughed.
To unwind, as he said, my father gave a blow-by-blow account of his day, full of the names of men, bosses and coworkers, their rivalries and thwarted schemes, the stupidities of management, and his own accomplishments. His talk was peppered with stock phrases that haunted me. What did they mean? Why did he repeat them?
“That went over like a lead balloon,” he would say. A certain man was “a prima donna” or “God’s gift to mankind.” His boss was “our fearless leader,” to whom loyalty was due, but anyone’s “motivation” could be questioned. Proud of being an engineer—he wore a wool suit, a white shirt and a necktie to work—my father had boundless contempt for “salesmen.” His own father was a marketing director for another company, an irony that was beyond me. “That’s trivial,” was clear enough, but “six of one to half a dozen of the other” was a problem in arithmetic. Though he worked in television and often watched it, he called it “the boob tube” or “the idiot box.” Most baffling was the phrase “as sure as God made little green apples.”
One day, the thermos bottle came home filled with liquid nitrogen. At work, my father was studying a super-cooled electronic system called cryogenics. Standing in the kitchen, he did tricks with the liquid nitrogen. He inserted a rubber band, which came out brittle and shattered. He turned the bottle upside-down to pour, but the stream vaporized as it fell.
The house we lived in had one and a half stories, with two bedrooms on each floor and a steep wooden stair. With about 1500 square feet of floor space, it was substantial for the 1950s. It stood on a flat, quarter-acre lot planted with grass and flowering shrubs: lilac, mock orange, forsythia, and honeysuckle. A weeping willow tree stood in a low spot that collected rainwater. Our house was one of four models repeated throughout the subdivision.
Bellewood was filled with English, German, French, Polish and Hungarian surnames, yet everyone was white and middle class. Many of the men were engineers who worked for General Electric, Porter-Cable, or other industries. The women kept house, but some had careers. Betty Wright was a registered nurse, Anne Raqué had been an executive secretary, and Henrietta Smith was an art teacher, married to a piano tuner and musician named Art. Creative and bohemian, the Smith family was magnetic and right next door. They had three children, a live-in grandmother named Mrs. Wells, and house guests from Japan, Korea, and who knows where.
Street by street, on foot and bicycle, I came to know the subdivision. The Village of North Syracuse was about a mile away. As young as age eight, I walked there by myself on a two-lane road with traffic, under Interstate 81, to the barbershop on Main Street. With coins in my pocket from an allowance, I walked to a general store on Taft Road, and another on Church Street. Both stocked toys and candy.
While walking with the family, though, I lagged behind. Something caught my attention, and I got lost—on the street, in department stores, at highway rest stops, and at sites of historic interest. We took day trips by car in summer, to the New York State Fair in Syracuse and to tourist attractions like Fort Ticonderoga. My father drove with the windows down, and the smoke from his cigarettes blew on us in the back seat. He wore tinted shades clipped to his glasses. When not driving, he flipped the shades up, like a beetle about to fly away.
We attended Andrews Memorial Methodist Church in the village. Sunday service was a dressy affair. Men wore suits and women wore hats. Because my mother waited until a convenient moment came, Eddie and I were baptized as toddlers one weekday in an empty church. We went to Sunday school. Art Smith recruited me for the handbell choir, which was for boys only. My father seldom went with us on Sunday. As he said, he was “not a joiner.” He belonged to no clubs and played no sports. Yet he helped to design a new pipe organ for the church. Art Smith must have recruited him.
By contrast, my mother played contract bridge with three women’s groups which met at different times of day. A graduate of Wellesley College, she worked full time at keeping house and raising four children. She made all of our family meals, and we always ate dinner together at the table. Mother liked to cook. She experimented, and she tried recipes from the New York Times Cookbook, Joy of Cooking, and Clementine Paddleford. She baked bread, pies, cookies, cakes, and muffins. At Christmas, she made loaves of stollen, a yeast bread studded with dried fruit and almonds, some for us and some as gifts. Kneading dough one day, she threw it to me, and we played catch with the elastic, floury ball.
Since my mother was busy in the kitchen much of the time, I lingered there too, until she ordered me out from underfoot. The radio was always on. In the morning, Don McNeill’s Breakfast Club was broadcast “from high atop the Hotel Allerton in downtown Chicago.” The comedy routines included Aunt Fanny, with her signature tune “A Bird in a Gilded Cage.”
When not cooking or washing dishes, my mother knitted socks and sweaters, and she sewed on an electric sewing machine. By way of a hobby, she wove—she had a table loom and a floor loom, a large wooden frame in the basement. She was a great reader, had a head for numbers, sang well, and as she said, “I love to people-watch.”
Here is her letter dated Friday, September 21, 1962, to my sister Charlotte, who had just left home for college.
What a busy day! We are going on the Stewarts’ boat tomorrow and come back Sunday, so I’ve been making food to take. We’re celebrating Pete’s birthday this evening—I made a double Dutch cake this morning, got a cute little 1 ½ lb. canned ham and baked that. Also made two loaves of bread and four pans of sweet rolls. Pete wanted meatloaf, so I made two, one for us to take tomorrow. Zowey! Hard on the feet.
Many people I speak to ask about you. Dad and I are so glad you called Wednesday evening. You sounded elated, and we hope it keeps up that way.
Bridge at Barnharts’ last evening, and I went up by bike—yours. The light is grand, but the air was chilly. We have been having real cold weather. We’ll probably freeze on the boat. Guess I’ll go in blue jeans and sweatshirt.
Mrs. Eachus came back this morning with weaving books and got all the information on looms we had. She really means to get one. By the way, when she arrived, guess what I was doing—washing the breakfast dishes. So she dried. Poor Eachuses! She wanted to know if we’d heard from you.
I am sitting in the car at Northern Lights Shopping Center. Dodie is having heels put on her shoes. The boys are browsing through Sam’s. And this is my chance to write. The house seems strange, even if there are still five of us left. I’ll mail this now and see about buying a dish rag.
A creek ran through the Bellewood subdivision, a stream no more than a few inches deep. It was narrow enough to jump across, from grassy bank to bank. The rear boundary of the lots it flowed past, the creek was no-man’s-land, or so it seemed to a child.
Every family in Bellewood had children. We played outside in shifting gangs. In winter, we played in deep snow, tunneling through drifts, sledding, and throwing snowballs. In summer, we played running games: hide-and-seek, kick-the-can and war. Hide-and-seek had verbal formulas which had to be shouted word-perfect to be of any use. Kick-the-can benefited from poor visibility at dusk, with grass made slippery by dew. War involved gun battles, sometimes with water pistols, prisoners bound and blindfolded, daring escapes; and dramatic death agonies. We disputed who shot whom first, and therefore who was dead.
On a summer evening, we chased the fogger. This was a cart that sprayed insecticide to keep down the mosquitoes which bred in the creek. Men of the neighborhood took turns towing the fogger behind their cars at dusk, when there was no breeze. We raced ahead and lay face down on the grass. The white, sweet-smelling fog washed over us. The fogger roared. Deafened, our lungs filled with poison, we writhed in ecstasy.
We played on swingsets in anyone’s yard. We played in weedy vacant lots, on the tar-and-gravel streets, and near the house in a cautious way, knowing that we might be watched. At all times and in all weather, we played in the creek.
Where the creek crossed Leroy Road through a culvert, it widened to a shallow pool. The south bank had a seesaw and stubby mounts to ride, a half-hearted attempt at a playground. The ground here was pebbly and strewn with trash. The creek, for that matter, was polluted by runoff, drains from washing machines, and more. Each house had its own septic tank, and the drainfields were prone to mishaps. Foam clung to the edges of the creek, and objects lurked in its bed—shoes, cans, a pouchy, airless ball. Still, the water was clear. Minnows lived in it, frogs and creeping things.
The culvert frightened me as a child. It was dark, the bottom was slick with algae, and cobwebs hung in the air. Another toddler dared me to walk through it in a low crouch, the same one who dared me to climb to the top of a willow oak in his back yard, or to balance on the top rail of a fence and walk as on a tightrope. Three times, I made careful steps halfway through the culvert and chickened out. Finally, tired of my own fearfulness, I dashed all the way through to daylight, splashed with mud and glory.
In rubber boots or barefoot in summer, with or without friends, I waded in the shallow pool next to Leroy Road. Bending double to use my hands, I built dams of sand and gravel. I observed patterns of ripples, the rising flood, and slowly drowning islands. As water overtopped it, the dam eroded. Then it broke and gushed a torrent. This moment of disaster was worth hours of effort. My back ached from bending like a farm worker in a field, and my feet grew numb, but I was never happier.
My older brother Pete introduced me to the jungle. This was a marshy area upstream, overgrown with reeds and poison sumac, which was death to touch. Trails wandered through the jungle, which steamed under a pitiless sun. The mud and rotting plants smelled vile.
“Is it the breath of a cougar?” I asked.
“Yes,” Pete said. “Cougars lurk on low branches. They spring out of hiding and eat you.”
“You’re walking too fast.”
“You have to keep up. But stay on the path. One false step, and you’ll sink up to your neck in quicksand. No one will hear you cry for help.”
There were forts in the jungle, but all I saw was a small clearing, with a fallen tree trunk that served as a bench. Pete never specified what they did, the gang of older boys. I believe they sat solemnly in council, trooped through the jungle in single file, raided a fort with bloodcurdling yelps, and perfected their skill with knives. Every boy had a jackknife. Some had ropes and other useful gear. Pete’s specialty was pulleys, which he rigged between trees to transfer cargo. Their training as Boy Scouts was not for nothing.
Farther upstream, beyond the jungle, was a private dump. The creek was a trickle here, down a steep bank, engulfed by briars. Pete and his friends roamed the hillocks of the dump and destroyed whatever they could find—bottles, boards, crates and paint cans. I was drawn to construction debris—bricks, lumber, and globs of plaster that looked squishy but were hard as rock. I collected ceramic tiles and scraps of wood in a damp cardboard box to carry home.
We had a bin of scraps, a miscellany of wooden dowels, dominoes, offcuts, shingles, and alphabet blocks. Eddie and I built cities that sprawled across our bedroom floor. The ceramic tiles were good for floor slabs—the cities were multi-story. Eddie had a catapult that launched empty thread spools by means of rubber bands. We laid siege, lobbed boulders, admired the ruins, and cleared them to build again. I later became an architect, while Eddie became an engineer and joined a firm that made thermonuclear bombs.
Where did the creek flow downstream? One listless, overcast day, Eddie and I explored. Exiting Bellewood, we plunged into a dense forest whose canopy blotted out the sky. Along a streambed that twisted and turned, we trudged for miles through uncharted wilderness. There was no path and considerable underbrush. The trees had giant roots that were hard to step over. We wore shorts, and our legs got scratched.
“Where are we?” Eddie asked plaintively.
“I forgot to borrow Pete’s compass,” I said. “Lichen grows on the north side of tree trunks. If we get lost, we can find our way back.”
“I’m hungry,” Eddie said. “Did you bring supplies?”
“No. Tighten your belt a notch.”
“It’s lonely out here.”
“An explorer has to keep going, regardless.”
“I want to go home.”
We never discovered the end of the creek.
Our living room had a Windsor chair. Made of wooden spokes and slabs, the chair resembled a cage. It had a rounded back, a double hollow carved in the seat, struts like those on a biplane wing, lathe turnings, and an oval tray on the right arm. I say oval, but the shape was more of a teardrop, and it had a slight tilt. You could write on it or lay open a book, but eating was risky. A plate or bowl was apt to slide.
Too hard and bony for comfort, the Windsor chair was an apparatus. You could crawl under it, hang things on it, bang the spokes like a xylophone, roll toy cars around the curves, and shake the bars of your jail in despair. Once, I climbed up the back and tipped it over, unaware that I posed an eccentric load.
A little wooden drawer hid under the seat. You could see it by lying flat on the floor, or by looking between your legs, upside-down. When the chair was vacant, I pulled the wooden knob, and was surprised when the drawer came all the way out. A runner on each side fitted snugly in a slot. With practice, I learned how to close the drawer. Since it was empty, I put things in—a penny, a cat’s-eye marble, and a plastic scoop that came in a can of ground coffee.
Our grandmother Dodie brought the Windsor chair from Hartford, Connecticut, and she often sat there. She spread a magazine on the oval tray. Her head leaned back, her eyelids drooped, and she snored. We had an overstuffed couch and armchair, a Welsh dresser, and a dining suite. The house was modern, with large windows, clamshell trim, and a one-car garage. It had a furnace, ducts, and a thermostat, but no fireplace or chimney.
“How will Santa Claus get in?” I asked.
“Through the front door,” Dodie said.
“But the door is locked at night.”
“Santa Claus has a key.”
“Does he have keys to everyone’s house? Because that would be a lot.”
“He only needs one. It’s a master key.”
Dodie steered clear of grandmotherly clichés like knitting. In her late sixties, she had arthritis in her hands. She wore old-fashioned clothes that smelled of camphor, and she had a stock of archaic lore—gypsies, bad luck, and the evil eye. In the Windsor chair, she took one child at a time in her lap and told about her youth in the 1890s. Children picked wildflowers and twined them in wreaths. Dodie learned to play the zither.
On a wall over the dining table hung a large painting, oil on canvas in a gilded frame. The painting showed a young woman in a long white gown and blond braids standing on a stage, with her mouth open. Behind her stood a man in a red robe, hat and shoes, with a sinister mustache and a sharp tail sticking out behind. Red flames flickered in the background. Below, with his back to the viewer, was the top half of a man in a black coat with arms raised, holding a baton. The man in the red costume was clearly the devil, but what was happening?
Our grandfather, the advertising director for the Radio Corporation of America in the 1920s, had commissioned the painting. It was reproduced in magazine ads for radios. Other ads showed well-dressed people at home listening or dancing to the Radiola, RCA’s brand name. These early radios were large, operated by vacuum tubes. They came in handsome wooden cabinets, which were expensive. But there was no radio in this painting.
After a detour of many years, the painting passed to me. Then, in a junk shop, I found The Victor Book of the Opera, subtitled “Stories of the Operas with Illustrations and Descriptions of Victor Opera Records” and printed in 1929. In that year, RCA bought the Victor Talking Machine Company, the leading American producer of phonograph records and players—the Victrola with its white beagle-terrier mascot named Nipper. The book confirmed my hunch.
Loosely based on the play by Goethe, the opera Faust premiered in Paris in 1859. It was popular in New York in the 1920s. The opera “with its conflicting human passions and religious sentiment . . . amazing wealth of melody . . . and colorful orchestral treatment” shifts the focus from the elderly scholar Faust to his young love interest, a soprano named Marguerite. She wears a long white gown and blond braids. Mephistopheles, however, a bass dressed in red, steals the show. He behaves like the devil, deceiving, tempting and mocking the other characters. A child could easily mistake his sword for a tail.
Faust does not have a duet between Marguerite and Mephistopheles, though they appear onstage with others. The painting, then, shows the essence of the opera, not an actual scene, with the conductor in the foreground. This is what you could hear on the radio—live music, an exciting story, and high culture.
The grandfather connected with the painting was married to Dodie. But she lived near us in a garden apartment, and he lived in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He visited us in North Syracuse for a few days one summer while she was absent. A dark, cultured, energetic man of seventy, well-dressed, he brought a tray of slides from a trip to Paris and projected them on a wall. He brought a supply of liquor, which he drank in the evening. And as gifts he brought children’s books in French, which we could not read: Bambi, Histoire de Babar, and Le petit chaperon rouge. Was this grandfather also the devil? Why did he live in Fort Wayne, Indiana?
As a toddler I waited for the morning school bus with Charlotte and Pete and tried to climb aboard with them. Once, I slipped past the bus driver. My mother had to fetch me from the school. I have an early memory of sitting with Charlotte on the living room floor, writing letters of the alphabet with a pencil on scraps of wood. By the time I entered kindergarten, I could read and write, and my theory is that my sister taught me. She denies this.
Legally enrolled, I found school tedious. Coloring printed drawings with crayons struck me as childish, so I used the wrong colors. The teacher made me stand in a corner. I quickly completed written assignments, then chattered and giggled with classmates. The teacher scolded me. Eager to please, I blushed at reprimands.
The school building was brand new, one story, built of concrete block and large sheets of glass, with a polished terrazzo floor and a flat roof. The curriculum and teaching methods were up-to-the-minute. New York State had a Board of Regents for public schools, and standardized tests were the norm. North Syracuse schools also tested students for sight, hearing, teeth, and muscular reflexes. They gave immunizations for polio, and they evaluated IQ, though they kept those results secret. They offered classes in art, sports of all kinds, social dancing, and field trips to museums, state parks, and the Robert Moses Niagara Hydroelectric Power Station, itself brand new in 1961. In the era after Sputnik, a field trip to a hydroelectric power station was something Soviet children would envy.
Once a week, the Catholic children boarded buses which took them to a parochial school for something called “religious instruction.” Those of us in the decimated class had art. We cut and glued construction paper into colorful chains for a Christmas tree, or valentine hearts, or Easter baskets. We painted pictures and modeled with clay. We pressed our hands into pads of plaster, which dried and hardened. Our hands outgrew the casts in a year. The Catholic children missed all the fun.
We had two music teachers, Miss Philips for singing and Mr. Harp for instruments. We sang every day, using children’s song books that included “White Coral Bells,” “Frère Jacques,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Dixie,” and “The Erie Canal Song.”
In the third grade, the whole class took a test in sound pitch and pattern that lasted for hours. The Seashore Test for Musical Ability was devised by Carl Emil Seashore in 1919. Students who did well could then take free weekly lessons on a musical instrument. I chose the clarinet. I took lessons, learned to read music, and practiced at home every day. The elementary school had an orchestra and a chorus, which combined to present two concerts each year. In the cafeteria, which had a curtained stage at one end, Mr. Harp conducted beautifully, while parents listened in folding chairs and applauded.
On November 22, 1963, as I warmed up on clarinet for the concert scheduled that night, my father came upstairs from watching television. He was in tears. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and the concert would be cancelled. This was one of two occasions when I was conscious of national events. The other was Kennedy’s inauguration, which I watched on television in the school library. Each teacher sent one student from her class to watch, then to describe the ceremony to the other children. The word “execute” in the oath of office confused me, so Miss Rand explained it to us.
We had free subscriptions to Weekly Reader, we had spelling bees, and we had assignments to write in class: book reports and personal essays. At some point, maybe in the fourth grade, we had a series of reading comprehension exercises printed on cards in color-coded boxes. The exercises were self-scored. Students competed for points and speed, to see who got through the rainbow of readings faster.
Charlotte graduated from high school in 1962. College was by no means assured. Her grades were mediocre, and our father was reluctant to pay for it. But our mother “put her foot down,” Charlotte says. She left for Minnesota, and I got her bedroom, until she came back for vacations. For months at a stretch, then, I had a room of my own. It contained a desk, dresser, and twin beds with padded, pastel headboards. I listened to the radio, played with a tape recorder, and did homework at the desk.
From age ten, on odd scraps of paper, I wrote letters to Charlotte. While cleaning house for a retirement move, she found a stash and sent it to me. The letters show a precocious brat with an outsize vocabulary and an urge to make up stories. They include drawings. They complain about school and mention a craze for Monopoly. They ask questions, such as: “Did you find the rubber alligator I put in your suitcase?”
By the mid-1960s, the boom in federal defense spending was over, and prospects at the Heavy Military Electronics Department looked dim. My father at age forty-four was not ambitious in the sense of money and power, but he sought advancement in the corporate world. For all his talk about independent thinking and starting a business, the steady paycheck and the pension plan were too good to pass up. Above all, he wanted work that engaged his intellect and made use of his skills as an engineer.
He applied for executive jobs within General Electric, and he tried a “headhunter” for positions outside. The result was a new job at company headquarters in Schenectady, New York. Again, he started work before moving his family, again he bought a new house in the suburbs, and again my mother was left to sell the old house and pack for the move. We left on a bitterly cold day in February, 1966.
In town on business recently, Eddie visited Bellewood. He found it unchanged from our childhood. “That was the time to leave,” he says.