Friday, December 26, 2008

Scarlet Fever

Len Klein
Memory Sketch #18
Friday, July 13, 2001

During my last year in Public School One-Seventy-Five I had to leave home, all by myself, and go forth to live with another family, not my own. When put this way, it sounds more dramatic than it actually was, and yet it was dramatic in its own way. I went to live with Uncle Jack and Aunt Beatty in East New York, about a mile or so from my house. It was only for two weeks, or perhaps ten days. The reason for my stay away from home had to do with my brother and sister; both Arnie and Linda had contracted Scarlet Fever. Our family physician, Dr. Sol, recommended that I not stay at home until they had recovered from the fever. So, off I went.

While I felt awful at having to leave home, there were some very agreeable positive aspects to the experience. First of all, I was then much closer to my cousin Dan’s house on Williams Street, so it was much easier for us to get together. Secondly, I was off from school for the whole time, and I was very much the kind of kid who really appreciated any opportunity to miss school. It felt great to be so free, and not have to go.

Aunt Beatty and Uncle Jack had no children of their own for reasons that are not clear to me. They both seemed to want children, and indeed, a few years later they served as foster parents to a girl whose name I have forgotten. It was during the time they had a German Shepard named ‘Lucky.’ The dog really was lucky because they loved him very much and were very good to him.

They grew quite attached to the girl they cared for, and she to them. I remember that she was more fearless than I when it came to playing with Lucky. When they were both pulling on a rope, Lucky would growl as he shook his head. That always made me hesitant in playing with him, but not her. Her thin, little, body frame pulled back on the rope despite Lucky’s growling sounds. It was embarrassing that a girl could play more bravely with the dog than could I.

When it came time to give her up it was very difficult for Jack and Bea. I think it wasn’t too long afterward that they enlisted Lucky in the Armed Services. A call had gone out for trainable dogs to be part of our Military Forces in the Second World War, and Jack and Bea responded by volunteering Lucky. Jack felt very proud and patriotic that his “son” Lucky was serving his country; nevertheless, they both cried a lot when he was gone.

When I was staying with them, both of them worked during the weekdays, and I was left alone. To be realistic, I have to say that I had nothing much to do during school hours and I was actually quite bored.

I slept in the living room on a pull-out, convertible couch. It was my first experience with the convertible bed, and I found it was pretty comfortable for sleeping, but what really intrigued me was that when the bed was pulled out, beneath the arms of the couch, a pocket became available on each side, which was completely concealed when the bed became a couch again. It was in those pockets that I stored my most secret papers, the ones that only Danny and I could see. As I remember, there were drawings of naked girls, which weren’t really such good drawings but all the essentials were there. That was really top secret stuff, in fact, “eyes only” as they used to say, whatever that meant. No one would examine a document with their nose, so it seemed funny to specify “eyes only.” Anyway, there were drawings of muscle men, some tic-tac-toe games, and a secret code that Danny and I were working on.

When I returned home, the secret papers were left behind in those concealed pockets; I had forgotten to take them. Many times, I wondered about how they may have been discovered, and by whom. What would have been the reaction to them? But, no one ever mentioned them to me, so it remained a mystery.

One Saturday morning when Uncle Jack and I were alone, he made breakfast for us, and I was really astounded. I had never before seen a man prepare breakfast at home, so just on that basis it seemed quite strange. Furthermore, he made salami and eggs, which was a combination that I never before had as a breakfast. To have meat in the morning was nothing short of revolutionary, and salami was one of those treat-meats, not regular meats like chicken, steak, and lamb chops. As I watched him, I thought that Uncle Jack was really quite bold to just go ahead and disregard all the rules of permissible breakfast foods, and he did it without any hesitation at all. He simply did it because he wanted to. It was the very first time I realized that breakfast menus were not written in stone, nor in fact were any other menus, or schedules of eating or how frequently one should eat. It was positively amazing how much freedom one actually had.

While the ethical philosophy deliberations went on in my head, at the table we really enjoyed ourselves eating the salami and eggs, and I believe Uncle Jack got quite a kick out of my amazement at his bold breakfast behavior.

I noticed that Uncle Jack always called me Lenny Boy, as though it was one name, and for that matter so did Dr. Sol. But, Dr. Sol also called my father, Harry Boy, so I don’t quite know what was going on there. Sol never called my mother, Irene Girl. He would use an alternative that he applied instead, he would say, “Good girl, Irene,” or “Good boy, Harry.” Maybe Sol believed, as some did, that physicians are traditional father figures for us all, perhaps even appointed by God to that position. It made me wonder what he had for breakfast.

I was at the very beginning of my interest in muscular development and exercising routines. Uncle Jack’s interest was in seeing me flex my arms to show off my biceps. He found it very humorous and had difficulty controlling his laughter, which he then had to explain away when he looked at me. There is a difference between the enjoyment of a child imitating an adult, and the demeaning laughter at the child for appearing foolish. With Uncle Jack it was a mixture of both, and once I caught on, as much as I loved him, I refused his requests to show my muscles. Although he proclaimed his unalterable serious interest in my progress, it was too late for that; I just no longer trusted him.

When I finally got home, it felt really good to be back. I couldn’t wait to tell Mom what Uncle Jack had prepared for breakfast. Would it shock her as it did me? Not at all, she just smiled in appreciation of my astonishment. That’s all there was to it. I guess to her it was not so unusual as it was to me. What else, I wondered, did my parents know, and accept as ordinary, which if I learned about would blow my mind. The door was opened to all kinds of hitherto unspoken information, but thus far, I could only perceive the new experience of ‘breakfast.’

It seemed as though I had been away for a long time, and I didn’t fully realize how much I missed everyone until I was back home again looking into their faces. As far as being away from home, the way some kids go for a week or more, that was it for me: no sleep away camps, no long trips, no out of town visits.

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