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I sang to my girlfriend

June 14, 2015
Daddy took this picture while someone turned the hose on and off.

Daddy took this picture while someone turned the hose on and off.

I just can’t stand thinking about my unhappy childhood because it wasn’t really unhappy. As far back as I can remember the sun came up every morning and if school was going poorly I had plenty of other interests, the things I really did. Here in a sort of chronological sequence is the list.
Three years old: I got up early one summer morning when everyone else in the house was sleeping. Daddy had finished building a bunch of cabinets beneath some stairs next to a coat closet and everything was being painted with gray enamel. All by myself, while the early sun poured through the windows, I painted the walls gray with a brush that had been sitting in some turpentine, then I painted all the tools nearby. For some reason they didn’t like my work. But they didn’t like it just a little bit. They didn’t hate it.
In 1997 I gave the mitre box painted gray with the diluted paint to my late niece Hannah Banana Graham when my brother Tom died. During that era before 1953 I dug holes in the backyard, looked at the pictures in comic books, and broke the model airplanes my brother built. The most interesting stuff around the house was off limits. Therefore, I had to ignore the limits and break things when nobody was looking. I developed a sly, secretive, dishonest nature that has served me throughout my life.
Four years old: I learned to hold a teaspoon, thanks to my neighborhood babysitter [Susie Bickel Cole]. I also spent most of that year in Kalispell because daddy was dying of cancer and they needed me out of the way.
My real job in Kalispell at age four: to strut around the spread and admire my land, my buildings, my tools, and all of the things my grandparents, Carl and Ellen Bonde, thought they owned. Often, I’d stick my thumbs into my trouser belt loops. Once I saw a lot of garter snakes and I ran into the house and hid. Oh, there were a few unpleasant memories. One was having to eat my grandma’s cooking. My mom, Helen Struckman, made delicious scrambled eggs. Grandma’s were dry and tasteless and if I didn’t–couldn’t–eat them, perhaps drop them on the floor, I got in lots of trouble because she would put them back on my plate. I had a hard time getting the eggs into my jeans pockets because I was a small boy then. Grandma made me stay at the table. Until she got tired.
I had trouble with other life skills. Unsnapping my pants to pee was one, so I wet my pants often. Another was untying and retying my shoes, so I tracked mud and dirt into the house. I couldn’t untie my shoelaces because I couldn’t tie bow knots, but I could tie hard little knots in my shoelaces that were almost impossible for me to untie. I wasn’t good at explaining myself or telling my grandparents what was wrong, so I cried and whined until they spanked me. They hated the way I took their things without asking. Therefore, I had to hide lots of evidence. I was happy with the arrangement.
Five years old: came the academic rigors of kindergarten at which I excelled. When I didn’t play hooky, that is. My friend Mike Kohler across the alley and I smoked my mother’s Kent cigarettes and played with my older brother’s plastic army men. These were not the cheap kind of toy soldier available from the back of comic books, but the kind that really stood when placed and had mean expressions on their plastic faces. My friend and I played with them in the snow when we were supposed to be in kindergarten learning to sing. I didn’t need to be taught to sing. I listened to the radio, then practiced in the dark at bedtime.
I sang on my rooftop outside my bedroom window, wearing only bedroom slippers, belting out hits, like “Yankee Doodle.” I sang to the little girl, Katy Lou Bass, next door, one of my kindergarten classmates. When playing hooky, I’d have to knock on her door in the morning and explain to her mother that I wasn’t attending kindergarten that morning. My own mother worked after daddy died, so my friend Mike across the alley simply left home, came across to pick me up, I’d get clear from the little girl, then we two boys would go to my house. What I didn’t know was that the girl’s mother was not stupid, or blind.
At six school really occupied a good chunk of my care and effort, although we played army quite a lot, if we weren’t playing cowboys. We got most of our information about both WW II and cowboys from TV. My friend got the first TV I ever watched. Flash Gordon came on after school. My mother bought a TV within a year. Everyone knew about WW II, and most of my friends’ dads had been soldiers or sailors. The information was everywhere and so were the war relics: guns, ammo, knives, uniforms, canteens, mess kits, medals and insignia. Old kids were in cub scouts and they had all kinds of medals and insignia too. Much of my extracurriculars centered around playing war. I had one friend on the end of the block, Johnny Gaul, who loved sports, so I had to play catch. This meant holding a big useless floppy leather glove in my left hand, throwing a hardball wildly in Johnny’s direction. After he retrieved it, he threw it back at me. He hit me hard the first time, in the chest. After that, I learned to protect myself by running out of the way or ducking. Then came my turn to retrieve the ball. Like that. He wondered why I didn’t want to play catch!
Seven years old was the best school year ever, so my real learning and research suffered. Oh, my friends and I were formulating the important questions about the differences between boys and girls, but our teacher, Daisy Jacobs, had compelling stuff going on at school. We learned to read! I could read to the little kid across the street. In fact Steve Little was his name.
Then I found out I was ugly. This helped release me from the marvels of going to school and got me interested in haunting the University of Montana buildings. Of course, lots of people are ugly and some of them don’t mind, but I did. I don’t even remember why. Perhaps because my brother taunted me. Sang songs, chanted, smacked me with his fists, slapped me.
The mirror told me the truth. Some boys were good looking, but not me. When I complained to my best friend Mike that my ears were big, he said his were too. Only they weren’t. None of this would have made much difference, except I always wanted a girlfriend. I also wanted to be smart, good at baseball and basketball, and like Bret and Bart, the two gamblers on TV, charismatic. I never was until last Wednesday. I watched a lot of TV.

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