03 February 2014

"Just Call me Rip" Part Two of My Month Long Autobiographical Series - Countdown to 60

That's me on dad's lap. Mom next to us then grandparents and big brother far right front.
Genius is the recovery of childhood at will. -
Arthur Rimbaud
I was really really good at being a child. I knew playing. I knew imagination. I knew games. I did not know in my youth brooding or prolonged sulks or pouts I was an unabashed lover of fun and pursued it with precocious zeal bordering on mania. I loved to run and be chased and to throw and kick and laugh and giggle. I loved attention but not affection -- no never that. Love was to be unspoken and not displayed just sensed. I -- this wild bundle of cute -- received love unconditionally from family and friends.

My parents and big brother and a few other relatives called me Rip. There’s no one around anymore to ask about the origins of the nickname but I like to assume it had something to do with the manner in which I tore through my existence.

Trees. I loved to climb them and once at about five I fell from one and landed head first. A rather nasty cut opened up and blood poured. (I remember this from my own memory not from being told about it.) My dad took me the mirror and showed me my bleeding head and said that as a man I needn’t cry. So I stopped then and there and that may well have been the last time I cried until I was an adult. He took me to the doctor for stitches. The doctor expressed amazement at my bravery. I knew how to impress my old man.

You would think that I bought hook line and sinker into the whole macho lifestyle but that wasn’t  the case. I did use hook line and sinker a few times to fish but it never became a passion. My hunting days ended before they started. I had a bee bee gun with which I shot a bird from quite a distance. I remember watching the dead bird fall from it’s branch to the ground and feeling sickly sad even as dad came over to congratulate my marksmanship. I never wanted to kill an animal again.

My earliest memories are of the duplex we lived in until I was four but they are vague and doubtless influenced by what elders subsequently told me. I do remember our move to 1426 Grove Street where I was to spend the next 13 years. It was the classic middle American house to grow up in with a big backyard and trees and lots of dirt and even a shack where dad kept his tools. Later dad would build me a treehouse right there in our redwood tree.

Berkeley in the early 1960’s seemed less the hotbed of radical protests and hippies it was to become than a bucolic small town straight out of Leave it to Beaver. Just like the Beaver I had a wiser taller older brother. Picket fences and corner market and burger joint with a jukebox where teens hung out helped round out our neighborhood scene. A few blocks away was an empty lot rich in blackberry bushes that I used to go to with big brother for fruit feasts that would stain our sweatshirts. That lot has since housed a bank an apartment building and a store.

In my childhood Berkeley still had traditional parades down main street that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in Anytown USA. The mayor was a Republican. My parents were Democrats as were about 99% of all Finnish-Americans and my mother was a poll worker on the day of the contentious 1960 election. Political rancor was not so acerbic absent cable TV and the internet. My early memories are of an idyllic life featuring the greatest dad in the world a cool big brother fun cousins and friends and loving grandparents. There was a dark cloud amidst all this however....

I started school almost a full year earlier than I should have and consequently I was invariably the youngest of any given group I was in for many years to come. This has helped make me fill like the kid in any group I'm in no matter that I'm years older than anyone else.

I want to Jefferson elementary which was just a block away from my grandparents' house so like my big brother before me I went to Grandma's house everyday for lunch through the sixth grade where I was joined by a golden retriever named Sisu ( a Finnish word for courage that has special significance to my people). And I walked to and from school despite a distance of about seven blocks. Children were allowed to walk the streets unsupervised back then. There was infinitely less paranoia. The idea of play dates would have seemed ludicrous. We managed to find people to play with on our own. One of my first friends and my best for many years was Mark who himself had some Finnish ancestry. He would go on to take LSD an ungodly number of times and do severe damage to his brain as a consequence. But as a child he shared my zeal for play and the pursuit of it with what can only be called reckless abandon.

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