The ABC’s of My Youth

Tell the story of your younger years in a series of short paragraphs.

Pick one memory or influence for each letter of the alphabet.  I am mainly focusing on the pre-high school years, where youthfulness got me into trouble, but also fueled an imagination that I rely on today. It was also a time when a person’s personality and values are developed.


A – After school. That was the best time.  We could pack a lot of living into a couple of hours after dismissal.  Walking down the 9th Street hill from Sunset Hill Elementary School only took a few minutes, even with horsing around. Homework was saved until after dinner, so this was time to ride bikes, deliver papers, play sports or get into some mischief.

B – The barbershop.  A part-time job, sweeping up and refilling the shaving cream machines.  It was a good gig that lasted through junior high school.  Wayne, Dick and Doug were great teachers of things a kid should know.  I can still remember the radio station that usually played, KCMO, mostly country music, and Paul Harvey and his “the rest of the story.”  They had the best comic books for kids to read.  All three of those guys are gone.

C – Charlie lived a couple of blocks away.  A year younger, we were good friends until junior high, when kids tend to segregate by year.  What I remember most was his mother had an older car and they owned a piece of land outside of town.  She took us out to their “farm” and we drove the car in the pasture.  My first driving experience. Charlie passed away at an early age.

D – My dad left home when I was 16. Sort sort of thing was not very common at the time. It was painful as it is for all kids in that situation, but you grow through it. I had a good group of friends that certainly helped. Later, I had a very fine stepfather who was the best man I ever knew. I was blessed.

E – Education. I can’t say that I was in love with education, but I figured out the value. It helped to have a caring teacher, I had a few of them, but most didn’t really engage with the average student. Being average was okay, you worked harder and found what you were good at. What I learned is that education is the key to changing your life.

F – From my earliest days, I have loved films. Outside of music it is my favorite art form. If I have the TV on, chances are I am watching film.  I love old films.  I write about films.  Going to the theater or drive-in was a treat, nothing I took for granted. From any decade I can quickly tell you my ten favorite films.  We can talk film history or different styles of film-making.  Film was the first real art form that was available to the masses. During the Depression, it may have helped save the country from revolution.  That’s my theory anyway.

G – Not a very skillful guitar player but learning enough cords kept me happy writing my own songs. When you saw the Beatles or other 1960s group on television you wanted to pick up a guitar and have some of that.

H – The high bar is a piece of gymnastics equipment. Back in the old days, playgrounds contained some dangerous play equipment. I fell off the bar numerous times although not breaking any bones. We taught each other routines, nothing too crazy, but parents, and school attorneys, would not allow that equipment anymore. Why is this memory significant? It might have been the risk although the accomplishment was like hitting a home run to win the game.

I – Idealist. In my youthful days I had a healthy dose of reality. That may be the reason my needle has strongly pointed toward idealism. From George Bernard Shaw, quoted by John and Robert Kennedy: You see things; and you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say, ‘Why not?’” That quote stayed with me for more than 50 years.

J – I grew up a Kansas Jayhawk. Not only did I attend college there but the term Jayhawker from the Civil War days would fit my progressive beliefs. The original Jayhawkers were anti-slavers who battled the pro-slavers often found in Missouri. I still identify with what ever the Jayhawker term means.

K – Kansas City. I grew up not far from this city and I currently live the largest city outside of Kansas City in the region. On occasion, I came over to KC as a kid for sporting events or in college for concerts. I got so that I really enjoyed going to the city and eventually found my way around it. Little did I ever believe I would some day live in the outer ring.

L – When the family moved to Lawrence, Kansas, my life forever changed.  It was the right place for me.  Most of the values I have were grown for the years there.  I did not have to go away for college, that saved expense allowed me to get a college education.  What I learned from the community and through college shaped my world view.

M – Even as a kid, music was a big deal in my life.  My sister had a record player that could play 45’s or LP’s, but mostly we bought the 45’s from The Sound or Woolworth’s. I always got the hand-me-down record players, but that was okay with me.  The world of pop and rock seemed limitless, there was something new to discover every day.  I had a transistor radio that only got AM stations but it was a gateway to the musical universe.  At night, I listened to the baseball games on that radio.

N – The neighborhood was my community. In grade school I knew all the kids in my age group. Even in cold weather we played outside. Wooded areas were close by so there was a lot of opportunity for hiking, building forts and generally exploring. With your imagination there was always something to do. The neighborhood was safe, we could roam the area even after dark without fear. Very different times.

O – Octaves, as in singing. I cannot say I had much range, but being part of the school chorus was fun. The chorus program also exposed me to music I would not have otherwise heard. I had no future as a professional singer though it gave me a lot of enjoyment. We mischievously changed some of the words in chorus class to the suspicion of Mr. Carson. Even then I had a talent for annoyance.

P – Paper route.  I delivered papers, unfortunately, they dumped a problem route on me.  It would nice if it had been a longer-term job, but it was both challenging and rewarding. The route included the owner of the newspaper, so I made sure his paper was always delivered on time.

Q – Quietly and quality.  Those are two words I would use to describe by two grandfathers. Each were men of few words, in part, because they had noisy women around them.  Each came from hard scrabble beginnings, they went to work when they were of age and didn’t stop until retirement, although each had part-time jobs.  I could use the word humble as well.  Both were family men who had few hobbies other than working and spending time with family.  Both could still out-work me in their seventies, but they never sacrificed quality in everything they did.  They were from the generation that did not complain, worked hard and could have signed every job they ever performed, because it had their best effort.

R – Race relations.  It was hard not to know what was happening in America in the 1960s. Even in “progressive towns” there were issues, whether they were visible or more subtle, eventually everyone must confront the reality and look inside themselves.  Even in my progressive town there were examples of discrimination, even close to home.

S – Swimming pool.  A block away from our home was a private swimming pool.  My parents scraped up the money to buy a family membership every year.  The pool was where we spent a lot of time.  The worst punishment in the world was being banned from the pool for a week.

T – Visiting Texas was fun, especially Six Flags, the first really big amusement park for me. I will always remember the 100 degree day and the smell of fresh oil on the parking lot.  Whenever I smell that on new asphalt or an oil treatment on a parking lot, that Six Flags memory comes back.  We also went by Deely Plaza in Dallas, though it was hard to comprehend how the world changed that day in 1963.

U – The universe.  I have always been fascinated with space.  What kid in the 1960s didn’t follow the space program and test pilots.  The quest to the moon was about our imagination and ability to solve the next challenge.  I still marvel at the moon and have forgotten more facts about the stars than the average person ever learns.  To me, the universe was about growing our knowledge and trying to figure out where we fit into life’s equation.

V – Vietnam was on the evening news, every evening.  Around me, I saw growing concern and then vocal opposition to the war.  I also saw a rift grow between the young and old. “America, if you don’t love it, get the hell out!”  Vietnam was not just an age conflict, or a long-hairs verse short-hairs, it was a complicated time. You never forget the evening body counts on the news or the demonstrations in your town.  You may not fully understand it, but you never forget it.

W – Wayne was a close friend through grade school and junior high school.  We went through a lot of the same youthful experiences together, in fact, we were pretty inseparable for several years.  He lived down the block and his brother was the first person in town I met.  Wayne’s family moved away after ninth grade and we quickly drifted apart.  A couple of years ago, I did some research and found out Wayne had passed away from cancer.

X – No really an X, but I’ll use cross-country as my choice here. I didn’t run on a team, I ran on my own. I had untreated asthma, but I ran anyway, simply dealing with breathing problems. The solitude was something I enjoyed. Running the track never held much interest for me, it was going off-road where I found the satisfaction.

Y – Not the youngest, but not the oldest. A middle child. Not to complain, there are advantages and disadvantages, although at the time you feel at the end of the line. Being the second oldest came with some responsibilities later on, if I had to do it over, I would have better embraced them.

Z – My grandmother’s name was Zeda, an unusual name. Her and grandpa Fred, were important in my life as a kid.  Summers at their house are great memories. Every kid needs an advocate in their lives, and she was mine.

Each of us have a different set of things that influence our development; yours may be similar or different, but they are the fingerprints on your early life.  Each letter of the alphabet is a guide, the rest is up to us.

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