For too many memoir writers, the task is about recounting a life and nothing more. What these folks miss is the opportunity to share life lessons from a more mature perspective. I’m not talking about Monday morning quarterbacking. There’s a reason we remember some incidents in our lives and not others, and it isn’t based on the degree of trauma involved. Examining those episodes through a present-day lens can help put them in a more useful context. And, in some cases, may offer opportunities for humor–an all too rare commodity in most memoirs.
To wit: an excerpt from my own life story from the 1950s, which I refer to as “The Great Skippy Peanut Butter Factory Massacre.”
His name was Bennett, but I can’t remember if it was his first name or his last. He lived in the house at the end of the block, but I can’t remember what the house looked like. I can’t even remember what he looked like. But I do remember he was the luckiest kid on Earth, and the massacre was really all his fault.
Bennett had everything: a big-screen TV (a full 13 inches, measured diagonally), no older brothers, a basketball hoop mounted eight feet off the ground instead of ten, and he had a spring board. Topping it all off, he had not one, but two junior-size Lakers basketballs, the kind an eight-year-old can almost palm if the rubber hide isn’t too dirty or worn too smooth. It’s not that I was a great fan of the Lakers, because I wasn’t; not many people in Minneapolis were, which probably explains why the team wound up moving to Los Angeles. But I sure liked those junior-size basketballs–and Bennett had two of ‘em!
When I was at his house, we could both take shots. We would drag the spring board out of the garage and set it up in strategic positions near the basket. We used leftover house paint to outline the square base of the spring board in several places on the driveway. (I recall Bennett’s mom saying something about that; she wasn’t pleased.) We took turns running down the short drive from the alley, leaping as high as possible and landing, heels down, on the spring board. The board catapulted us into the air and empowered us to make incredible dunks and miraculous saves. I could go from ground level to eyeball-even with the rim of the basket; I was Jerry West, Bob Cousy, and Peter Pan–all rolled into one!
Or I could stay at home. Our basket was ten feet high and our regulation-size ball was so smooth it was hard to hold with two hands unless it was wet, or unless you were one of my brothers or one of their friends. Turns were something they had three of for every one of mine, unless we were playing “Pig,” a follow-the-leader game where you got one letter of the game’s title word every time you missed a shot. When you had all the letters, you were out. I was out a lot. Bennett and I played the same game at his house, but we called it “Tyrannosaurus Rex” or “Duck-billed Platypus.”
The other thing I really liked to do at Bennett’s house was watch TV. When Buffalo Bob came on and asked, “Hey kids, what time is it?” we didn’t have to listen to my clever brothers say “It’s ‘Captain Video’ time!” which is what they always said at my house. They always insisted on using the democratic method to determine which program to watch. I think my brothers invented block voting. As I recall, we only had three TV channels back then, so there weren’t any other choices. If I wanted to watch “Howdy Doody,” I just about had to be at Bennett’s.
Don’t get the idea my brothers and I never agreed on anything, even though there may be some truth to it. There was one particular show we never missed. Each week the whole family would gather in front of the old Zenith to watch “You Asked For It!” with Art Baker. It became something of a tradition.
The show’s sponsor was Skippy Peanut Butter, and in our house, it became something of a tradition, too. It wasn’t a case of the other brands not measuring up, they were simply never considered. But only creamy Skippy was acceptable. Somebody, probably my father, brought home a jar of chunky once, and it lived in the cabinet for years. Sometimes my mother would try to sneak some into a PBJ sandwich, but she never got away with it. There must be a law of nature that prevents chunky peanut butter from spoiling, ‘cause that jar lasted forever.
Life would have been truly idyllic if only I could have spent the afternoons at Bennett’s. Alas, my folks said a family ought to be together at dinner time. Mom and Dad would sit at opposite ends of the big table; my brothers would be on one side and my sister, who’s the oldest of the four of us, would sit next to me. She and I got along great since the only thing we had in common was a last name.
Now, any kid who’s ever’ swished a shot from the foul line knows the best time to shoot baskets is during those special hours tucked between the end of school and the beginning of dinner. There’s a kind of magic in effect at that time of day, a special something that enhances a shooter’s aim, adds loft to a lay-up and takes the edge off the worst arguments about who fouled whom. As far as I can tell, it still holds true today.
Back then, the best way for me to follow up an afternoon of basketball was to watch the “Howdy Doody Show,” which is why I was frequently late getting home for dinner. When I eventually got home, my mother and I would observe yet another tradition, like a responsive reading, except we both had our parts memorized.
“You’re late,” Mom would say.
“I know. I’m sorry,” I would always respond.
“Don’t they have any clocks at Bennett’s house?”
“Sure, but you know, we were busy, and I sorta forgot to look.”
“You didn’t notice it was getting dark?”
“Well, yeah, but it gets darker earlier every day!” (After all, basketball is a winter sport, and the best time to get ready for it is in the fall. Finding a place to shoot baskets outdoors during a Minneapolis winter is tricky.)
“But if the sun goes down earlier, shouldn’t that give you even more time to get home?”
“You’re not sure?”
“Okay, you’re right. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again, I promise.”
“I’ve heard that before.” Which is true, I made the same promise every time. I suppose I should have said “It won’t happen again, tonight,” but I never did.
One night, after we had observed the usual “You’re late/I’m sorry” ritual, Dad made an exciting announcement: his company had been hired to produce a training film for the local Skippy Peanut Butter factory. That was a shocker, we hadn’t known there was a local Skippy Peanut Butter factory! Dad planned to make arrangements to tour the facility, which was only open to the public on Saturdays, and wondered if any of us wanted to come along. He knew the answer in advance; even my sister wanted to go! The date was set: a Saturday some four weeks off. Who knew–Art Baker himself might even be there!
I believe it was the following day, an hour or two after resuming my usual occupation in Bennett’s driveway, that I really noticed how dark it was getting. I must have said something to Bennett because I remember him running to his garage, swinging his arm in a theatrical flourish and yelling “Ta-da!” just before he flipped on the newly installed floodlights. Sundown? Hah! We managed to get in at least an extra half hour. I returned home tired, but happy.
“I know. I’m sor–“
“Don’t say it!” My mom had a stare that could freeze water coming out of a spout.
“Don’t say another word. I’ve heard it all anyway.”
“Your father and I had a long talk about you. We’re tired of having to track you down every night before dinner.”
Track me down? Right. As if my location had ever been a mystery. But I opted not to respond as I could already feel little red chunks of ice bobbing around in my bloodstream.
“It’s about time you learned some responsibility,” she said. “So here’s what we’re going to do.”
I’ve always had a pretty vivid imagination so it wasn’t difficult to conclude that my trips to Bennett’s would soon be banned.
“The next time you show up late for dinner, you’re going to lose a privilege.”
“A privilege? You mean like stayin’ up late on a Friday night?”
“I mean like going to the Skippy factory.”
“The Skippy factory?”
All of a sudden the little chunks of ice floating around in my system decided to have a team meeting at mid-court–somewhere near my heart.
“Yup,” she said. I remember her voice was light, almost unconcerned, and wouldn’t have been any less incongruous if she had confirmed that one of my toes was about to be removed–at about the knee.
“I won’t be late again. I promise.”
“Good,” was all she said.
For the next two weeks, I was the most punctual child on the planet. There were times when I was even early. I figured I was storing up “earliness” like a squirrel stashing nuts for the winter.
In all fairness to Bennett, I shouldn’t really blame him for what came next. While President Eisenhower was warning everybody about the “military/industrial complex” Bennett’s folks went out and spent their vacation money on the entertainment industry’s greatest achievement: color TV!
Somehow the magic went out of the junior-size Laker basketballs, the springboard, and the dwindling daylight. How could it possibly compete with the likes of “Crusader Rabbit,” “Tom and Jerry,” or “Huckleberry Hound”–in full and sometimes accurate, color? Dinnertime couldn’t compete very well either. I went home late.
Mom met me at the door. “You’re late.”
“I know. I’m sor–“
“You know what this means, don’t you?”
Even someone with extremely limited deductive powers could tell this was not a happy woman. “The Skippy trip?” I asked.
“The Skippy trip,” she confirmed. “Your dinner is in the kitchen.”
That’s all she said! Period. She didn’t ask why I was late or anything. There was no argument, no pleading, no tears, no second thoughts–nothing. And it was two whole weeks before we were going on the tour! There was no way in the world she could possibly remember I had been late that one lousy time.
If I had turned punctuality into an art form before, I became one of the “Old Masters” in the days that followed. I made sure I was home early every night, not just once in a while. I was the first one at the dinner table. I ate the liver. I even helped with the dishes when it wasn’t my turn. I wagered everything I had on the value of good works to dull the memory of my earlier transgression.
The long-awaited Saturday finally arrived. The house was a bustle of activity as we all got dressed and ready. I remember helping my sister clean up after breakfast as Dad loaded the Brownie with fresh film and stuffed his pockets with little blue flash bulbs.
We all prepared to troop out to the car when Mom pulled me aside and asked, “Where do you think you’re going?”
That was definitely not a question I was prepared to hear. “The Skippy factory?” I suggested.
“I don’t think so,” she said. “I told you what would happen if you were late one more time.”
I wept. I moaned. I sobbed. I rolled my eyes so far back in my head it hurt. I fell to the floor and actually begged. Oh, such pathos. Everyone tip-toed by me, avoiding eye contact as if it would somehow ensnare them in my guilt. No condemned man ever created a greater spectacle than I did that morning, nor was any such protest less effective.
No reprieve. Mom was a rock, her face a mask of steely resolve. While my family spent the day reveling in Skippydom, I languished in my room.
That evening I discovered I represented only half of the casualties. Rounding out the massacre was my father, the very architect of the whole affair. His undoing came when a security guard spotted his camera and leaped to the conclusion there was industrial espionage afoot.
While I sat in my room, Dad sat in the car. (When he and his film crew arrived some weeks later there was a similar scene with the same uniformed enforcer, but the outcome was entirely different. I never did get to see the training film.)
Much later, I learned there were other casualties as well, including at least a part of my childhood innocence. And despite my considerable display of grief, my mother suffered most of all. In later years she confessed that saying “no” to me that day was one of the hardest things she ever had to do.