Sometime last week, a friend of mine recommended that we journey on over to the Netflix box on the multi-faceted display page on our sort of big teevee, and tune in to a show that is now trending as somewhat popular. As he has been also suggesting that I really should watch some of the old John Wayne classics because they are really good westerns, I was a bit skeptical about making this leap. As my thinking about the “olde west” and what that meant both to the peoples who were in the way of that myth and the mindset of those making a destiny manifest, I have a hard time being able to step back far enough as to see any of the classic westerns as anything other than cultural relics that exist to perpetuate yet another level of dark, American mythology. While I did watch westerns as I was growing up, I can’t say that I was drawn to, let alone obsessed by them. Since my friend’s binge suggestion- the Queen’s Gambit- was about chess however, I figured I would give it a try.
As it turned out, this suggestion was fortunate and timely. We tuned in around the time when a certain election was locked in a bit of a stalemate, and no matter how many times Steve Kornacki ran the table with alternative ways the current resident of the White House could be knocked off the board, it was a relief to find something else to binge while the election marathon dragged endlessly toward an uncertain, although finally somewhat satisfying conclusion. Besides the fact that this series actually makes chess interesting and suspenseful for us non-players, it got me to thinking about what I might have been thinking about when the nine year old prodigy of the show who first learned the basics of the game from the janitor playing chess with himself in the basement of the orphanage in which she was raised. The scenes in the show when she takes tranquilizers (being handed out to keep the girls calm), and then kicks back to imagine a chess board on the ceiling with all its pieces, and then plays an upside down game with herself in order to understand the directional movement possibilities afforded the pieces on the board. That this whole show is a fiction is the only disappointment in the piece. It sets the action in the early to mid-sixties, and the period recreation is immaculate.
In taking myself back to what I was thinking about as a kid of similar age at that time, I know for sure I was no where near as focused on anything as challenging as chess. I do remember in the winter of 1961-62, that we spent the time around New Year’s Eve skiing in upstate New York. I was eight years old at the time, and had been skiing at the point for about four years. While we often went skiing with other neighbors on our street over holidays around then, I think just my uncle had come along with us on this particular trip. I don’t recall if I got to stay up late that night. I kind of remember we were staying at something like an old farmhouse. Heading towards that midnight transition, there was one thing that kept me awake for a while, and it was this: I was really hoping that President Kennedy would proclaim that 1961 would be extended for another year, basically because it was really cool that you could write out the numbers- 1961- and turn it upside down and it would still read as 1961. It seemed like a reasonable request, or rather hope, since I hadn’t written any letters to anyone about the possibilities or importance of this concept. I don’t know that I experienced any trauma when I woke up the next day and saw that no one else, let alone the President, had seen fit to perpetuate the year that could turn upside down and remain the same. I’m not sure what that would have accomplished actually. We have however just had a year that has turned upside down or on its ear, and it looks as though at least a few someones are wishing that things would remain the same for this next change of years, while this time I will join the multitudes that believe the change can’t come soon enough.
Somewhere again back in those hallowed early sixties, I donned a uniform of blue and gold when I joined in on the fun and games with the Cub Scouts. I don’t believe it was my idea to join- as it was I was pretty happy just to play in my treehouse and join with my friends in carving handles on spears that we made out of saplings from the woods, sharpened the ends and then threw them at each other, or at some imagined enemy. Or we got on our bikes and rode out on the main road to some challenging destination, or played army in each others back yards with toy guns and hand grenades that were imagined from gathered pine cones. I guess my mother thought it wood be safer if I did Cub Scout things like wood burning or going on field trips to the Indian Point nuclear plant just north of New York City. Actually, since Cub Scouts was only once a month or something like that, we played army and made spears along with the scouting stuff anyway, so I’m not really sure why I kept going, other than it was what I was told to do, so I did. And so it was, when we had that balsa wood, coaster car derby where you carved a race car out of a block of balsa wood and put some wheels and axles on it and let them all roll down a wooden race course, I did as my mom told me when my car weighed in lighter than the regs specified- I pinned a lead weight in where the seat was so that the car responded better to the pull of gravity, and it zipped down the slope faster than all the others and I got the blue ribbon, which is what my mother wanted. And when there was a “discussion” about how the rules specified that you couldn’t have add-on weight hanging off the car, my mother argued that because it was in the driver’s seat that it was within the car- she probably should have been a lawyer instead of a frustrated sixties housewife.
And then there was a time that I found out I was supposed to give a sermon at our church. Every Sunday, I would get dressed up and go to Sunday school in the annex while my parents went to the big church next door where we kids only went at Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas. What we went to was school and it was on Sunday, so I really didn’t like it in the same way that I could really take a pass on the other school I went to during the week. So there was a short while that my friend Tim and I would hum while other kids were reading bible passages out loud, and stop when they stopped. When the Sunday school teacher turned their back, we would huck crayons up into the white, translucent light fixtures that hung from the ceiling. By all rights we should have gotten in trouble, but we didn’t. Instead, I found myself being asked to do this sermon thing at the big church. And so it was that on the night before I was supposed to speak, I had nothing written down, partly because I really didn’t want to do it, but mostly because I had no idea what to say. I kind of remember staring at a blank sheet of paper for a long time until it got late. With nothing to say I went to bed, and in getting up the next morning I magically had something to read- a something which my mother had stayed up to write. I kind of recall hearing what I was saying as I read, while at the same time hearing my mother say it in my head. Some of my parents’ friends came up and congratulated me after the “sermon”. I vowed never to get in a situation where I would have to own someone else’s words ever again.
It used to be relatively easy to place events on a timeline and be fairly close and accurate with its placement- I just have no clue anymore. I would say though that the time I decided to get creative with the dinner blessing was around this time as well. My dad usually had the task of the pre-meal God talk, so I didn’t think about it all that much. But there was a time when I was forewarned that it would be me duty to say something that particular evening when we sat down to eat. I was used to pretty much the same old thing my dad said most of the time, so I wanted to say something new and different, and I had all afternoon to come up with some certain somethings that would fit that bill. I had a whole list of things and people I wanted to make note of and most assuredly thank. As dinner time rolled around, we sat at the table and I closed my eyes and started. After I had gotten into the full swing of things, I heard the suppression of laughter from the direction where my mother was sitting. I kept going, and the laughter continued. I think I finished, maybe I didn’t- I can’t remember for sure. I just never felt like getting creative or truly grateful about dinner after that.
As we move to the end of the 1960’s here, that was the time I found myself in a New England prep school. As it is, am currently helping to construct a yearbook for our 50th reunion that may or may not happen next June, depending on the plague and vaccines and who knows what else. My memories are being stirred about that and then as I go through old negatives, but I was unprepared for one that surfaced in an email the other day. I was at school as a boarding student, as were most of the kids there. But there was a small segment of the school made of day students. By default, because they were not there all the time as we were, they were less a part of the family, so to speak. Being a prep school, there was some snarky cynicism cast their way, but I had not really seen anything about life at school from their perspective until just the other day. A day student classmate has joined the reunion committee and he sent a one page remembrance of his time there. I did not know that the headmaster who had put the school on the map over the sixty years he had been in control had made it a requirement that day students attend for five years instead of the standard four in order to, essentially, give them an extra year get up to speed with the boarding students. And I had not known, or forgotten, that the day students ate lunch in the basement of the dining hall, apart from the rest of us. All 500 students ate at once, so it was easy to not notice they weren’t there with us, I guess. I just don’t know. All I could think of while reading his piece was the scene in Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’, with the proletariat in the underground as the rich and privileged lounged far from the clutter and machines that made their surface life possible. With BLM and 1619 and the Doctrine of Discovery, this latest teapot revelation shouldn’t be a surprise. We can only step back, make the corrections that we can at this point, and hope that the next wave doesn’t completely knock us off our feet.