Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Saturday, March 21, 2015

My Surprising Mother

On our grandparents' back steps. Very early 1950s.
1609 E. Broadway; Enid, Okla.
Mom and her 3 boys--left to right--Dickie, Davi, Danny
This was supposed to go up here yesterday--didn't quite get around to it ...

My mother has surprised me a lot over the years. For my fifth birthday, for example, I'd apparently expressed a wish (at the last minute) for a football uniform. Mom (talented at the sewing machine) stayed up late to make one for me, one that featured an old red sweatshirt with a new bright white number 5 on the back, uniform pants crafted from a pair of dad's old khaki Army pants (one leg!), and Dad (for his part) had bought me a new football and a red cardboardy helmet. Somewhere, there's a photo of me in that outfit in my grandparents' back yard in Enid, Okla., 1949. I'd never been happier.

In the mid-1950s, in Enid, Okla., Mom decided she wanted to paint our front door pink. And so she did. Need I say it was the only one on the block? (In all of Garfield County?)

Another surprise: When I was in junior high (late 1950s), Mom decided she was going to get a Ph.D. (Why? thought my self-absorbed teen-self; she's just a mom!) It took me a long, long time to outgrow some very fundamental stupid. Anyway, she did it, graduating in the mid-1960s from the University of Pittsburgh. She went on to teach (and retire) with my dad at Drake University.

But one of the great surprises in my boyhood occurred in the early 1950s when we were living in Amarillo, Texas, a temporary residence. Dad had been called back to active duty in the Korean War and was serving as chaplain at the Amarillo Air Force Base. We had very little money then (meals featured tomato soup, grilled cheese, hot dogs), but I remember that one summer we went on a little camping trip over in New Mexico, the Red River region. (I just checked Google Maps--it's only about 280 miles from Amarillo to Red River, NM.)

We camped in a National Forest, right next to the river, where Dad would catch trout for our meals.Our site (we were the only ones there) looked something like this picture I found on Google Images.

I don't' remember a lot about what we three boys did. We were--approximately--9, 6, 2. I remember some fishing. Older brother Richard was already reading a lot. I probably had a library book with me, too--and lots of comic books.

Anyway, one evening, by our campfire, Mom--for a reason I can't recall--launched into a performance of a fairly racy song (racy in more ways than one), "The King of the Cannibal Islands." I have no idea where she'd learned that song (girlhood camp?), but I do remember being shocked--not at the lyrics (which remain shocking now for more than one reason) but at the fact that my mother was singing and dancing!
About all I remembered of that song--until I did a little research--was a nonsensical chorus that made me laugh. Anyway, I looked up the lyrics (not hard to find in today's cyber-searching) and was reminded yet again how times have changed. Remember: This was pre-Civil Rights, racially segregated Oklahoma and Texas where we were living in my boyhood. I attended all-white schools. And both Amarillo and Enid featured those alarming signs of segregation on drinking fountains and restrooms and movie theaters.

To today's ears (well, to most of them, I hope) the lyrics are offensive in all sorts of ways.

But I'm confident that Mom did not sing any of the naughtier versions of the lyrics I found online. She was a very straight-laced preacher's kid--and, in ways, she still is at 95. My guess is that it was a sanitized version of something she'd learned at school or at summer camp. I'm going to ask her the next time I talk with her, but it's not certain what she'll remember--or tell me.

After that Red River trip my brothers and I tried on other occasions to get Mom to sing the song again. But she never would. And I'm fairly certain that this was due to her evolving social attitudes. She had grown up in Richmond, Va., had lived in the Southwest. But she was a bright, bright woman--one with a social conscience--and I'm guessing that she'd realized that what she was singing was not exactly the sort of fare that her little boys ought to hear. Nor was it consistent with what she and Dad were teaching us about the world--and about human beings. Brotherhood was a word we heard a lot in the Disciples of Christ churches of our youth. And I'm relieved to remember that during the 1960s our Disciples churches were supporting the Civil Rights Movement from the pulpits and in the streets.

Anyway, I had forgotten that saucy and, yes, racist song until just the other day when I was reading The Adventures of Augie March, which contains, early in the story, some silly lyrics that reminded me of "King."  And thus began a very uncomfortable return journey to the Cannibal Islands.

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