The Early Years, From Gutter Sandpile to First Grade
A Twilight Musing by Elton Higgs
If we stay long enough in one place, our personalities are affected by where we have lived. I spent my first 24 years in Texas, and Texans absorb certain outlooks and perspectives. For example, we smarted from Alaska’s joining the Union and becoming technically the largest state. After all, one can travel 1,000 miles from border to border and still be in Texas. The sky itself is bigger in Texas. Everybody’s your neighbor in Texas, and we are a generally friendly bunch in casual interactions with each other. Texas is so big, it has at least four distinctive topographies within its boundaries: “piney” forest in the east; flat, semiarid plains in the west and north; “hill country” in the central part, and hot, humid coastland in the south. I grew up in the part of the plains called West Texas, mainly in a town called Abilene (named after the one in Kansas), in a region of cattle ranching and oil production.
I lived with my family in Abilene the first four or five years of my life My earliest memories (late 1930s, early ‘40s) are connected with the little house my family owned on Locust St. in Abilene. A couple of them were traumatic, like getting into a red ant bed, or waking one morning to find that the city had cleaned the gutter outside our house, thus depriving me of the sand pile I had delighted playing in. I was greatly offended by the maintenance workers’ arbitrary decision to take away my sand pile! I flew in to tell my mother, with indignant tears, about this abuse of municipal power. But in a happier vein are pictures of me in my overalls playing outside the house, or sometimes posing with my brothers. One showed me in a little cart pulled by a goat, so there must have been enough money to give me a treat once in a while.
A couple of vivid memories from the house on Locust St. had to do with my paternal grandmother. She was a wizened little lady who sat in her chair chewing snuff and spitting nastily into a receptacle at her feet. When she died sometime around 1940, we went to the funeral and burial in Nugent, TX, a little town north of Abilene close to the family farm where my father had worked until he got married. It had rained heavily the day before, and we had to drive carefully through a creek flowing high enough to cover the running board in order to get to the burial site. As we sat in the car at the graveyard, my father wept freely, the only time I ever saw him do so.
While we were at Locust St., my mother suffered a complete psychological meltdown (what was then described as a “nervous breakdown”). I remember her spending whole days in bed, unable to get up and function normally. I was sent to stay with my uncle Oby and Aunt Sarah, out in the country in the little village of Nugent. This was rather fun for me, a change of pace from town life. I enjoyed my aunt Sarah’s home cooked meals and going with my uncle on his rounds in a pickup to check on the large oil pumps that took the crude oil from the ground and pumped it into big tanks nearby. I remember the cigar that he kept in his mouth most of the time; he must have put it out when he went to check the oil pumps, since we never experienced a conflagration on those trips.
As I look back on these earliest remembered experiences, I realize that in the midst of feeling secure with my family and feeling that I belonged, I was also being forced to deal with the realities of pain and loss. Indeed, introduction to that mix of pleasure and unpleasantness is typical of our early years, and the places we have lived form a significant context for that stage of our education, both informal and academic.
We moved to Stamford, TX, when I was about 5 or 6, because of my mother’s felt need for some change in our situation. My dad hoped that moving to Stamford would help her, and he was able to continue his bread delivery route from there. Mother was a lifelong hypochondriac and was much pampered by my father, according to my brothers. She was certainly focused on her illnesses and seemed always to be under physical and psychological stress.
My earliest memories in Stamford were associated with the fact that my brother Otho had joined the Army Air Force and was stationed in Delaware, with the result that his wife, Lucille, came to live with us while he was away. While there she gave birth to my oldest niece, Linda, and I had my first opportunity to observe an infant first hand. That was my introduction to the anatomical differences between the sexes and my first lesson in sex education. I knew nothing, of course, of the implications of those differences, but it made a deep impression on me nevertheless. Socially, I was informed that I was now an uncle, and I was told later that I was very proud of the fact. At some point we went to an event involving the Red Cross (related to war time, I imagine), and I was given one of their little pins. So now I bragged that I was an uncle and a member of the Red Cross! My sister-in-law was much amused.
Lucille was attended by a Dr. Metz, who sported a little mustache (rather resembling Hitler’s), and she drew a caricature of him on one of my Tinker Toy pieces (all wooden, no plastic) that gave us both a chuckle. Lucille took a special interest in me at that time, and we continued to have a special relationship until she died many years later. I was to her like an adopted son.
My memories of those early days in Stamford include playing on the sidewalk outside our house (a quite safe thing to do in those days) and encountering a girl with golden curls as she walked home from school with her mother. Her name was Gwendolyn Rogers, and she was the object of my first crush. I evidently had an early attraction for older women! To her I was no more than a little boy on his tricycle whom she walked past on her way home, but she was my chosen one. The attachment must have come to an end when I started to school, but I remember no trauma attached to the separation.
I have other memories of Stamford during my pre-school years. We were within walking distance of the town square, and my brother Thavis took me sometimes to the drugstore, where we would drink a limeade at the fountain. On the way there and back, I remember going by a shop that had a partially assembled small airplane, probably a military one, visible through a big window.. I don’t know the function of the shop, but the image of the plane stuck with me. The town was evidently safe for kids to play in, even a little way from home. I remember going down to the railroad tracks to watch the engines go back and forth, switching cars. I have a vague recollection of meeting another little boy in that area, because he allowed me to read his Captain Marvel comic books, and I tried to see if the magic word that turned little Billy Batson into Captain Marvel (“Shazam!”) would work for me, but it never did.
On perhaps my fifth or sixth birthday, my mother made me a cake that lasted a few days after the party. On the day when only one piece was left, my dad wanted to share it with me, but I said I wanted it all for myself. That little act of selfishness haunted me for years afterward. I’m not sure when the guilt faded, but the memory has stayed with me all this time.
I have vivid memories of playing indoors at our house in Stamford during my pre-school years. My toys reflected the context of wartime. I had a bomber model that dropped marbles, with which I destroyed imagined enemy installations. One Christmas I was given a model electric train by Otho and Lucille, and it engaged me many hours with its electric engine and circular track. It was operated by a transformer box with a lever that made the engine go backward or forward, and I often derailed it with my rapid changes in direction and speed. I can still smell the oil with which I lubricated the wheels of the train.
Most of our news came from the radio, supplemented by the newspaper, and though I don’t remember listening to any of President Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats, the family must have listened to some of them. One program that I do remember my mother listening to faithfully was the commentary of Gabriel Heater. I can hear even now his soft but confident voice, delivering his opinions on the news of the day, particularly of the war.
My first-grade experiences in Stamford were dominated by respiratory illness. I was sick so much during my initial enrollment that my parents decided just to pull me out so that I could concentrate on getting well. Consequently, I started again from scratch the next school year. Since I had learned the basics of reading in my first enrollment (including phonics, an exercise in audial perception that has helped me throughout life), I spent much of my convalescence time developing my reading skills, and consequently, when I went back to school, I had a head start on the other students. In fact, I read so well that the teacher asked me to listen sometimes to students reading and to correct them, while she worked with still another group. That spotlight on my advantage was, I fear, unhealthy food for my ego—I enjoyed it overmuch. However, being one of the oldest in all my classes thereafter contributed materially to my academic successes. Being held back in early primary school is often a good strategy for an initially struggling child.
I should note several other memories of my first-grade years. My family bought a milk goat because someone had said that drinking fresh goat’s milk is good for ailing children. The nanny goat my father milked became a pet, and it was great fun to play with her baby when he was born. We took the goat with us when we moved back to Abilene around 1944 and created a shed and pen in back of the house. I remember going out with my dad to milk the goat, and he taught me how to do it, though I never became really proficient at it.
I had significant interactions with my brother Thavis (eight years older than I) during our stay in Stamford. He was a builder of model airplanes, and he spent hours meticulously cutting out parts of the plane from sheets of balsa wood and gluing them precisely together. His room was off-limits to me, but I sneaked in when he wasn’t home and looked over his work. I don’t remember seriously disturbing anything, but when he caught me in his room, his displeasure was strongly expressed.
Another of his wartime activities was to collect tin foil from chewing gum wrappers and roll them into a ball to convey to a recycling center for the war effort. I can still see and feel the process of starting at the corner and carefully peeling back the foil from its wax paper base. I helped with building some of the balls of foil, and they became rather large, say about the size of a hardball or larger.
While we were in Stamford, Thavis got a job at a little grocery store owned by a man named Earl Stagner. He and Thavis became good friends and remained so for years after we moved back to Abilene. Another of his jobs in Stamford was working at a little café, where he learned to cook some of the dishes he served. As a result, he introduced me to an egg and jelly sandwich which was made with three pieces of bread, with a hole cut in the middle of the middle slice to fit over the fried egg resting on the bottom slice. Jelly was added to make it a memorable taste experience.
My most traumatic experience with Thavis was his trying to teach me to swim. After a few rudimentary instructions, he decided that it was time literally to let me sink or swim, and I sank. I was very frightened and swallowed some water, I think. The swimming lesson failed, and much to his disgust, I refused to try any more. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I made any progress in learning to swim.
Thavis decided to run away from home after we moved back to Abilene, in order to finish his senior year in high school at Stamford. Our time together in Stamford created a bond between us, and he continued to be a special big brother to me even after we were separated.
These scattered memories attached to places lived make me aware of how important seemingly insignificant details of experience can be. Being stung by the red ants and being deprived of my gutter sandpile were my introduction to loss, but it took the brief, isolated event of watching my father weep at his mother’s death for me to have my first limited understanding of the grief attached to death. I had the dawning of conscience in the small incident of not sharing my birthday cake. Early experiences with my sister-in-law and my brother Thavis were not dramatic, but they were the foundation for more mature relationships later on. My illness as a little boy actually resulted in my having an advantage when I finally started school. So it was that my early years in Abilene and Stamford contributed significantly to who God has enabled me to become.
Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)