Stories from childhood are like myths and legends of one’s life. They can be told for their own sake, and a listener or reader will often find them fascinating for this very reason. Our childhood memories, if we can recover them, stand shining and clear—poetic—representative of a magical world. The heroes were real knights. The villains, genuine ogres and dragons. Every day was an eternity. Two years, I personally remember, made up a space of time I referred to as “forever.”
Above is a back view of Flynn Park Elementary School in University City, Missouri, where I was an indentured servant, often a happy one, from 1954 until 1960. The building looks drab, almost industrial here, but it’s actually surrounded by a jewel of a park of several acres that is practically forested with venerable oaks and maples, and benches interspersed here and there.
The blacktop was the location of a daily before-school soccer game that set two mobs of first- through sixth-grade boys loose kicking at the ball and incidentally at one another! Girls did not play soccer in those days; I imagine they were jumping rope and playing hopscotch nearby.
I’ve heard accounts of intense soccer games in the UK and Latin America, during which people are killed. But except maybe for when the fans pour onto the field and join these melees, I can’t imagine a more intense mass fervor than we had going.
How did a person even know what team to join? It didn’t matter! You’d just get in there and start kicking, most days. I dimly remember a few “sixth grade against the school” days, too.
There would be concentric circles of children around the ball wherever it went—maybe 50 boys vying to get a kick in, and only the closest ones having even a chance! The ball would go up against the cement curb into which the fence was embedded; get “stuck” with two boys at a stalemate just kicking away; and then the masses would swarm in and join them.
There was one fellow whom I remember as legendary in these games. His name was Buddy Lerman. Everyone called him “Lerman the German.” He was a couple years older, and I didn’t know him at all, personally. He could dribble through the mob of both teams, somehow, and kick goal after goal! I don’t remember anyone else being able to do that.
At 8:45 a.m., the school bell would ring, and the game would quickly disperse, to be resumed again the next day.
Inside the building
The classrooms were on the upper floors. The basement, which fed into all the doors shown here, contained the cafeteria and three other rooms I remember. There was the auditorium, where we had occasional assemblies, like the “Yo-Yo Man” demonstration; Christmas caroling, during which I would, as a Jew, lip-synch the word “Christ”; and the dreaded Rhythms (dance!) classes. We also learned the minuet here. Our elderly, maiden teachers actually made learning this dance all the rage, somehow. I don’t know how they did it. They were geniuses at publicity. Agencies would vie for their services today.
There were also the Boys’ Playroom and the Girls’ Playroom, two identical long, rectangular rooms with floors of dirty grey concrete and walls of bricks painted “puke green” with bars on the windows—not prison bars, they said—but bars to keep the windows from being broken by thrown balls.
And throwing balls was the point, the very point, of the boys’ playroom! I have no idea what went on in the girls’ playroom—more hopscotch and jump-rope, I guess.
When it was raining or snowing too hard to play on the blacktop, or when we had our winter cold snaps and the temperature went down to around zero, we played a game called Bombardment. The idea of Bombardment was simple: you tried to smash the heads of the boys across the centre line between the ball and the wall behind them! When you got the volleyball, you just aimed and hurled it as hard as you could. When someone was hit, he came over and became a thrower: a merciful fate.
I never saw anyone’s head splatter. I did receive an injury during one of these games, but not from the ball. My friend Steve pushed me hard, and my forearm just crashed into the wall. I ended up getting seven stitches, and retain a scar which to this day I occasionally display to the children I teach!
A casino for boys
At a certain time of year, our St. Louis Cardinals went to St.Petersburg, Florida for spring training. Harry Caray, “the voice of the Cardinals ” on KMOX Radio, which somehow could be heard all over the Midwest and in parts of the South, would start to broadcast the games; and there would seem to be a spring breeze flowing from the radio, accompanying his crazed-with-enthusiasm play-by-plays. At this time of year, the Topps baseball card company and the smaller but more aesthetically-minded Bowman company would bring out the new season’s cards,
Then, regardless of the weather, we boys would congregate in the Boys’ Playroom, and in a church-like silence, would engage in our obsessive pastime—flipping baseball cards for fun and profit!
There were three main games we played:
» Odd Man Wins: Three boys would say in unison, “Odd… Man… WINS!” and then each would flip a card. The cards would flutter down. When they landed, the boy with the odd card—the head amid the two tails or vice versa—would gather up the cards! If all three cards landed either as heads, or tails, they’d become part of a jackpot that would accrue until there was a winner.
» Matching: Somebody would come to you and say, “Match me three!” Or even, “Match me ten!” Then he would flip, in the latter example, ten cards, and you had to get the exact number of heads and tails that he had gotten. If you did, you got his cards; if not, he got yours.
There were boys who had “a method,” and could flip cards with incredible accuracy. I once saw someone flip 50 heads in a row! The method involved either careful straight-on flipping or, in some cases, standing sideways and holding each card with a thumb above it and three fingers below it, then letting it go ever so gingerly.
I had a “method,” but what with my various nervous tics, it was not as effective as some!
» Sailing, Closest to the Wall: Just what the name says! You could, if you were good, get a card to “kiss” the wall. Once in a great while, a card would flip itself vertically, and stand up against the wall! (No one could do that deliberately, of course; it was always just an accident.)
If two boys’ cards were both “kissing” the wall, they each became part of a jackpot for next time. One of the good things about Sailing was that a lot of people could take part in the same game.
Dad would often buy me a whole box of Topps cards—which my eyes ever lusted for, as some grown-ups might desire the Crown Jewels of England—when the baseball year began; and occasionally, as a surprise or reward, another as it went on. Opening these packs, each with the sugar falling off of its pink slab of bubble gum and onto the cards, was one of the most exciting things a boy could do. Glad my cardiac rhythms were strong in those days!
I’d take my shiny-clean, crisp-cornered treasures to school, making me a standout mark for cardsharks. Once or twice, I ended up the equivalent of a pauper coming home from Vegas wearing a barrel in lieu of clothes.
Trauma by the dumpster
To the left of the silver boilers in the top photo (which were not there when I went to Flynn Park) were some big green dumpsters—in fact, they were the first dumpsters I ever remember seeing, though I don’t think we used that word for them then.
One day, I was out of class and walking with a friend across the blacktop, near the dumpsters. I don’t remember why we were out of class, or where we were going, but I think it was all “legitimate”—when a teacher I didn’t know very well, Mr. O., who was one of only two male classroom teachers, appeared and began to snap at us like an army sergeant! I can’t even remember what he thought we’d done, but I think it had something to do with putting something into a dumpster.
All I clearly remember is how his sharp words suddenly made me feel like crying. They instantly seemed to produce a pool of tears in my tummy and chest, making me feel vulnerable and violated, I don’t think I actually cried. But I had that feeling every child knows, of wanting to melt into the Earth, to disappear… to be anywhere but in your own skin and clothes, standing in front of that ogre, in that moment.
This was the first time I remember ever having that feeling—which has revisited me over the years in quite a few forms, even during adulthood.
My brief career as an apostle
In sixth grade, there was a boy who became kind of a mythic figure to us, his pre-pubescent classmates. He was around a head taller than we were, maybe 50 pounds heavier, and he already had facial stubble.
His name was Ben. He’d always been a little “larger-than-life,” from kindergarten on. Now, however, the gulf between him and the rest of us had widened into an abyss!
Besides being large, Ben was also extremely precocious—intellectually, but especially in sophistication. He read adult magazines, and introduced me to Tom Lehrer’s satirical songs and Shel Silverstein’s book, Uncle Shelby’s ABZs, which became like a bible to me.
This was shortly after the year 1958, when author Boris Pasternak had received, and then had been forced to refuse, the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was still probably the most famous person in the world. His last name resembled Ben’s, and before long, someone had given Ben the nickname “Boris.”
The name stuck. I don’t know how long after that it was when—“while futzing around during math class,” as he later described it—another of our compatriots-since-kindergarten, David Lazarus, happened to call him “Boris de Poop.” “Poop” then vaguely suggested what it means now, but it wasn’t an oft-used word. I doubt that David was doing more than playing with words. The French in the middle may have been unconsciously inspired by Ben’s sophistication.
Whatever its origins in the labyrinths of David’s mind, “Boris de Poop” immediately became a sensation. This boy had needed to be given a name that honoured his differences! He truly resembled someone of another race who had come to us to give us “grown-up” ideas and tastes, and even a preview of what our own bodies were soon going to do!’
I caught the fire of enthusiasm and made myself Boris’s—apostle? Publicist? Was he “real” as a religious phenomenon? If there is such a thing as a religion for 11-year-old boys, then I’ll answer with at least a qualified “yes.”
At home, I asked Dad to go with me down into our basement, where I knew we had stored some yellowed sheets that looked a little like parchment. Together, we burned the edges, and I wrote (and embellished) the “scripture” of Boris de Poop’s origins!
Alas, nothing of “de-Poopism,” as we named our short-lived religion, has survived—not the parchment, and not the De-Poop Weekly, the one-issue newspaper several of us mimeographed and handed out to everyone at school.
The Weekly was revolutionary! Junior high schools had newspapers written and edited by students, but back then, no one had heard of an elementary school that had one. We did have to bring our material before Mr. H., my classroom teacher, who functioned as censor. Mr. H. let everything go except for a phrase I’d cribbed from MAD magazine in the lead story, which was a purported “biography” of the Great One. One section, entitled “A Day in the Life of Boris de Poop,” listed a chronology of Boris’s daily activities. Between 8 and 8:15 a.m., it had him “kicking kids around the playground on their butts.” Mr. H. made me excise the words “on their butts.” (I still wonder, did he feel it was OK to kick kids around the playground, as long as it wasn’t on their butts?)
Then, just as we were gathering steam and my head was feverishly concocting future plans for de-Poopism and the De-Poop Weekly—Boris up and quit!
This may even have happened the day after I presented him with the faux-yellowed scripture. He would not discuss the matter further. He would not “issue a statement” for our next issue. He just made it clear that the whole thing was over. I believe, in retrospect, that Boris was really a rather introverted fellow, and felt our enthused mass activities were an invasion of his privacy.
There never was a second issue of the De-Poop Weekly. I went back to being a sixth grader and then a seventh grader, and, well, here I am today—possibly the shortest-lived apostle in the history of religious movements.
(Note to self: might the Guinness World Records book recognize that as a category?)