The title hints at a “worst of times, best of times” situation. There is some truth to that.
Midway through my first year of public school my family moved, not far, just a mile or two up the street to a white single story house with a driveway and a covered porch on the side. Thanks to the wonders of Google Maps and “Street View” I do believe that house in the picture is the very house. If so, it has been modified since then, with the attic finished (as evidenced by the upper floor in front) and a raised section added in the back).
The tree in the middle of the front yard and the one visible to the right in back may well be the same trees I remember climbing as a kid. Although, if so, the one in front had some lower limbs removed.
One of the first things Bruce did when we bought the house was have a garage built in the back yard. It wasn’t for cars. Oh, no. There was no access to it at the time for a car (although you can see a second driveway to the left of the house here–other views show it leads to a garage in the back yard, right where Bruce had the one built–which I suspect was added sometime after we left). The garage was Bruce’s ham radio station and lab. It’s where he built his radios, some from Heathkit kits (the company “Heathkit” remains but is a pale shadow of its former self), and some from scratch.
While I was in First Grade I walked from this house down to the old school, a distance of about one and a half miles. To school in the morning, from school in the afternoon.
I actually enjoyed that time. The only real “downside” was that Bruce was a strict disciplinarian. A very strict disciplinarian. He believed in corporal punishment with a heavy hand. While I’m not opposed to a moderate ration of corporal punishment where needed, looking back I do think that Bruce’s use of it rose to the level of abuse–particularly given things I learned about him later–but, at least at first, it wasn’t considered so at the time.
So, I finished first grade and moved on to second. This was at the school that was much closer to our new house, and, indeed, I’d walked right past it every day going to and from the old school. The new school was Highland Biltmore Elementary School. The school at that location now is called Victory Elementary School.
At Highland Biltmore I had a teacher that I hated–and the feeling was apparently mutual–Mrs. Faircloth. About this time I was having trouble with math. It wasn’t until many years later that I learned that I had a perceptual problem–not “dyslexia” but akin. I’d see letters and numbers reversed and I’d sometimes see a “-” as a “+”. In reading, context and the fact that I read avidly anything I could get my hands on allowed me to develop coping and compensating skills completely unconsciously. Math, however, proved to be a different challenge.
This was also the time that I became aware of the space program and things related to outer space. One of those things was a children’s book by Mae and Ira Freeman “You Will Go to the Moon”, which was based on illustrations for von Braun’s articles for Collier’s magazine (a later edition was based on the actual Apollo hardware). It is literally nearly if not the very first book I can remember reading (Dr. Seuss’s “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish Blue Fish” is the other candidate).
My parents had friends who lived in a house in what today would be a fairly nice neighborhood (and so was downright palatial back then) and they would, from time to time “watch” my sister and I while my parents were off doing other things. However, it turned out that they weren’t particularly nice people. One day my mother came home and found that my sister and I were playing outside while the other people’s children were all inside. When asked why the other children were inside the other family’s mother said “It’s too hot for them to be outside.”
My mother threw a fit. Too hot for her children but not too hot for us? (Later when it was “too hot” my sister and I were relegated to the garage which, I suppose, was a modest improvement–we got some bleed over from the house air conditioning, which was a major luxury back then, and an indicator of just how well-to-do these folk were.)
However one time when we were actually in the house, the TV was showing the reentry and landing of the Apollo 9 mission. I was captivated although I didn’t really understand it at that time. However, I got the Freeman book soon after that and the things connected. My parents followed the Apollo 10 mission and so, therefore, did I.
I was hooked.
The rocket in “You Will Go to the Moon” was black. Therefore, I declared, my favorite color was black. This caused some sneering from Mrs. Faircloth. In class we were to draw an underwater scene and I colored all the fish black. When she commented on it one of the other kids said “his favorite color is black” which led to her saying “he must see everything in a black light.”
Another factor was that in that school second grade science was taught via a television broadcast. They’d set up a television at the front of the class and we’d watch while the person on the screen went over various elementary science concepts. When they got to the section on the planets, the gimmick they used was that the instructor went around to the different planets in a spaceship (okay, it was a cardboard cutout of a flying saucer propped up in front of her but it worked for eight year old me).
Oh, I was so done. Space was what I wanted. Space was what I lived and breathed for.
Bruce, it turned out, was a Star Trek fan. And that was it. I wanted, with every fiber of my being, to go into space. It was all I could think about. (Okay, I also wanted to be a superhero thanks to comic books and the Superman and Batman TV shows then in syndication but even there–Green Lantern and Superman went into space a lot so I could do both, right?)
It was then that the bullying started. My interest in science (wanting to go into space) made me stand out from other kids. I also tended to be smaller and weaker (which would plague me through most of my youth) which made me an inviting target. I got beat up with some regularity.
Then there was Mrs. Faircloth, the “Bitch” of the title. She was the “he sees things through a black light” teacher. One day for some reason or other she had us all put our heads down on our desks (a common punishment for minor classroom infractions back then–usually, I think, for the class being overly noisy). I yawned. Apparently this displeased her and I was told to go out and stand in the hall (another common punishment).
The part about that that I hated most was that I missed the science lesson for the day which…well, see above. I loved those lessons.
At one point she sent home a “paddling” permission slip to be signed by my parents and returned. The schools used corporal punishment back then but at least in that district they required specific parental permission. I, not really understanding what that was about, forged signatures (only I had a problem with “George Bruce Savage, III” so I just wrote “GBS” in the space–I could read fine; writing, however, was a whole other ballgame–still is when it comes to handwriting). Very bad idea on my part anyway but they caught me at it and contacted my parents directly. My mother was basically “not only ‘no’, but ‘hell no.'” Nobody was going to paddle my behind, should I need it, but my parents.
Another time she called me up in front of the class and asked me why I wasn’t wearing a belt. For some reason I just didn’t bother to put on belts in the morning back then. I have no idea why, I just didn’t. However, this was Mrs. Faircloth and I knew she hated me and the feeling was mutual, so I had to come up with some excuse so I told her I didn’t have any. A few days later she had several of the other students bring in extra belts they had and called me up in front of the class once more to hand them to me so now I didn’t have an excuse.
Yes, it was as humiliating as it sounds. Okay, partly my own fault for lying about it in the first place but still I really think that could have been handled better.
My mother told a version of the story some years later to her friends that I overheard. She said that the teacher had come to her about the belt issue asking why I didn’t have any belts. She told her that I did have belts but just wouldn’t wear them. It seemed that the teacher and my mother had a conflict of personalities and at least part of what I encountered in school was blowback from that.
Those incidents were typical of my first time through second grade. And the reason it was “first time through” was that at the end of the year I had failed math and English. My mother was certain that most of that was the teacher getting back at her over the belt incident. Maybe. The math may have been entirely legit given my undiagnosed perceptual disorder, but English? Which was mostly reading? Again, whole. other. ball. game.
First makeup opportunity was “summer school.” This was an intensive period where I spent the first half of the day in “English” and the second in “Math.” I don’t remember much about the English except that we were reading a story that was somewhat interesting (far better than stupid Dick and his insipid sister Jane). Math, however, was basically just sitting at your desk solving arithmetic problems in a workbook. Hundreds and hundreds of problems one after the other.
Now, something particularly special happened during Summer School.
Sunday, July 20, 1969.
Yep. Apollo 11 landed on the Moon.
From about 3 in the Afternoon, I was glued to the TV set, waiting, watching as Lunar Excursion Module landed on the Moon and then Armstrong and Aldrin spent the next several hours securing the LEM and preparing to make their exit onto the lunar surface.
At one point the commentator (Cronkite, I believe, may he rot in…Why no, I do not like the so-called “most trusted man in America”, but that’s for other things, not this) said “They are on the moon” and I jumped up and ran to tell my mother thinking this meant that they had finally gotten out of the LEM and were walking on the surface. My mother simply said “They have been for some time now” with which I knew he meant the space ship was on the moon, not that the astronauts were walking on it yet.
There were a lot of “simulations” (pictures of models to illustrate what was going on) and those were confusing to eight-year-old me since I didn’t have a good grasp on that idea at the time.
During the preparations one of the equipment bays in the LEM was opened letting a TV camera, which they also activated remotely basically fall out. This provided the images of Neil Armstrong taking the first steps on the moon.
Watching all this kept me up well past my bedtime on a school night but my mother allowed it given the historic nature of this literally once ever event. This will never be another “first time men from planet Earth walked on another world”. And I got to watch it via live broadcast.
The following Thursday, the Apollo astronauts re-entered Earth’s atmosphere, splashed down, and were recovered. To give you some idea of how rapt I was with the whole thing, I actually stayed. after. summer. school to watch on the school TV and not risk missing any of it.
I ended up failing summer school too. I don’t remember whether it was just the math portion or whether I failed both (possibly as a result of penmanship in English). But whichever was the case that meant I had to repeat second grade.
The second time through went much better but we’ll pick that up next time.