The Author as Fifth Grader
I SHAN’T FORGET THE HOLOCAUST
DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
From Accounts Payable – My Life Past Due
Nihil Obliviscaris, Never Forget, is the motto of my Campbell clan, the Clan of the Wild Boar. I shan’t forget the Holocaust films of corpse-filled trenches they showed us kids at grammar school. Come to speak of it, my school chums and I were persecuted often enough. We were thrown up against the wall and had our ears boxed red for good measure, or we were ordered to the principal’s office and smacked with a paddle with a hole in it when we were very bad. Jim Norton, my Mormon friend who wound up married to two women at the same time, got the worst of it; I’ll never forget how he buried his head in his hands at his desk while the teacher often thrashed him with a pointer stick.
We deserved every bit of it and more. Maybe corporeal punishment should be restored to private homes and public schools with a vengeance, considering how good we turned out as a consequence. Martin Luther was beaten several times a day everywhere he went, which got us our fine Protestant religion.
Our crimes against humanity at grammar school were serious enough for our age. I got six resounding whacks for poking Anne Chandler in the wrong place while she was hanging upside down in the jungle gym. I made it up to her later, and kissed her in the alley on the way home. And Jim and I and Clifford Taylor, the only black boy in the school, peed in the finger-paint pots during recess, just before the finger-painting session. We could not help laughing our heads off as our peers smeared the paint. The teacher made a pointed inquiry: Clifford confessed, and we were roundly thrashed.
That was hardly the worst infraction at school: the janitor at our school was very mean to kids, as if he hated them for their opportunities. Every morning he shined the old school bell mounted on a concrete pedestal at the entrance, so we defecated on it one night, and watched gleefully from a window as he approached it the next day.
Not that I was all bad. One teacher knew that wayward boys need certain responsibilities besides taking out the trash at home, so he had me get the kindergarteners lined up and march them around the block for exercise. I also was frequently assigned to walk one slightly retarded boy home when he got to smelling badly because he pooped his pants. And I was favored by my sixth grade teacher because when it came to reading and writing I was first in the class – I wrote my first brilliant story in sixth grade, about diving deeply into the water and finding a device that would save humankind. Yes, I liked reading and writing very much. I remember the little comic strips that came with Bazooka bubble gum. As for arithmetic, the multiplication tables were a pain to learn but I did my duty.
Of course sex was the most important subject in the fifth and sixth grades. I already knew something about the subject; my foster brother in Oklahoma got me started with the little girl next door when I was eight years old. Consequently, and despite my grandmother’s prohibition against touching it when going to the bathroom, I did not think there was anything dirty about sex at all between members of the opposite sex.
Anyhow, we learned to dance the Hop and the Stroll in grammar school. Furthermore, a voluptuous farmer’s daughter with large breasts and broad hips was impregnated and married off to a third cousin. We were shown films on venereal disease, and one film discussed the health benefits of circumcision. Even more interesting, considering that some of us had just started smoking, was the film on reefer madness; we did not know what marijuana was until we saw that film, and then we wanted to try it. Yes, I remember those films very well. Ever so often the film would break and go flap, flap, flap, so we would have to wait and occupy ourselves with chitchat or use our hands to make silhouettes on the white screen until the teacher got it spliced and up and running again.
After we saw the film on the Holocaust, someone asked about communists; he said his dad had claimed that it was “better to be dead than Red.” The teacher said communists were “Jewish intellectuals.” We learned a good deal more about communism from a F.B.I. propaganda pamphlet in the library, and more than one boy decided to be a communist after reading it. The propaganda was confusing to me, for the teacher had told us that Jews were always counting money and hoarding it, so how could they be communists if communists wanted to take private property away?
Some of us grammar school boys were not only smoking but boozing before we went on to junior high school. We walked the alleys to school and back: we found a crate of booze in someone’s garage, and got drunk regularly. We almost burned the Episcopalian church down one evening. We slipped out of the Boy Scout meeting to buy Cokes from the machine in the hall to mix the booze with. We went upstairs to party and were soon in a drunken stupor. We played with matches and wantonly smoked cigarettes. The fire that destroyed part of the roof after we left the premises was unintended, its source being a smoldering cigarette. One otherwise nice boy, a Christian kid who thought he was Jewish because they were reading the Old Testament a lot in his Sunday School, had taken a dump by the organ; that evidence was dwelled on at length by the police department’s psychologist. Pressed to confession, the imaginative anal expulsive boy claimed that the church was the burning bush from whence comes the voice of the Lord. He was suspected therefore of arson; he took the suggestion to heart and eventually became a church arsonist, losing his life several years later in a fire he set in St. Louis.
The empty pint bottles left at the scene of our youthful indiscretion convinced the authorities that we were alcoholic juvenile delinquents. We were consigned to four weeks confinement in a juvenile detention center, where we would hopefully be rehabilitated. We were allowed to smoke two Pall Mall’s at the dinner table every evening. Ironically, I was released a week later on account of my heroism under fire. An unruly girl had set her mattress afire and the fire spread to two rooms. The husband and wife who ran the place were at the saloon over on Main Street. By the time the firemen arrived, I had already put out the fire with fire extinguishers. I was called a hero on the front page; my name was not mentioned because of my young age, much to my chagrin.
I always believed I was really a good boy. I did not know why my pals and I became alley cats. Each set of parents blamed our leather-jacketed, duck-tailed waywardness on “keeping bad company,” as if they and their kids were really better than the others. Mind you, we were by no means as mean as the Chicago and New York juvenile gangs we liked to read about in the books our parents took away from us, and in the movies they did not want us to see – we snuck in the side entrance.
In fact I was regularly accused of doing things I had not done, like stealing another kid’s skivvies at the swimming pool, which sometimes gave me the notion to commit the deed I was accused of, or even worse, out of spite for my accuser. I had sufficient reason to believe I was being persecuted not only by the authorities at school but by homely authority as well. Indeed, my father told me I was cursed with what he called “a conflict with authority.” I remember his frequent references to his own persecution, by “the low-browed people,” presumably the authorities who were in charge of small towns, especially the Masons. After seeing the film about the Holocaust, I imagined that my kind, no matter how good we were, would eventually be gassed and thrown into pits.