This is the second installment of my memoir: “The Imperfect Logic of the Heart.”. The book is available on Amazon. I am reprinting it here chapter by chapter.
I never read Proust but somehow I remember the magical “madeleine cookie.” If you dipped it in a cup of tea it evoked your childhood memories. A disinfectant used at a subway stop in New York City had the same effect on me. Apparently it was the identical compound that cleaned the floors of my elementary school in Cleveland, Ohio. Its scent sent me back in time. A journey I warmly welcomed this late in life. My 73-year-old brain cells can become invaded at any time by beta-amyloid sticky stuff that will make the trip impossible. Even now, I confess, my brain may have rewritten some of the facts to make them more palatable and relatable.
I was eight years old when I was sentenced to the hall floor waiting for my mother summoned by the authorities to rescue me. It would only take her a sidewalk stroll of ten houses to my school to hear Principal Berger describe his latest disappointment with one of her sons.
When she arrived, I watched her shoes circle her prey while his shuffled sideways. When I dared look up I thought I saw more fear in Mr. Berger’s eyes than my own. His eyes darting from me to my mom’s face, strangely, by way of her legs strapped into high heel shoes.
“No, it’s not Larry, it’s Richard.” Berger expressed surprise.
“Apparently Richard threw a bit of a tantrum today learning he was one A short of winning baseball tickets for a straight “A” report card.”
My mother never bothered to look at me before she responded:
“That is surprising…a tantrum for one A missing.”
“Which one was missing?”
“Well, I’m not sure that’s relevant.” Berger frowns. I remember now he had one of the first “comb-over” hair treatments I had ever witnessed. Even then I knew something was not quite aesthetically correct.
“Well apparently it was relevant to Richard.”
Mom looks at me for the first time. I think I remember a wink.
“Ok…it was handwriting.”
“Well of course he was upset. He’s left handed like his father and you don’t supply left handed school desks…so shame on Groveland Elementary. You need to judge his handwriting based on a lefty trying to write on a righty desk. By that standard he should have received an A plus.”
“You need to change his grade!”
Our address, 4337 Groveland Road, University Heights, Ohio, zipcode 18, sprouted from the once vacant suburban woods and reflected the magical rebirth of American spirit following WWII. People were moving to the suburbs with new ambition and GI loan borrowing power. Our $9,000 box looked like all the other neighbors’ homes, but there was still excitement and pride of ownership in the air. I was ten years old in 1954 and it was a glamorous, exciting time. There was Ian Fleming’s “Live and Let die.” Marilyn had married Joe. We liked IKE and of course there was Brown v. Board of Education and “Duck and Cover.” There were no telephone Area Codes. Our exchange was “Evergreen.” We had a milk man, a bread man, ice cream man, pretzel potato chip man and we actually liked, not feared, the policeman who knew our name and our parents’ names.
If there was an end of segregation in schools, our middle class ghetto still housed many girls with names like Clara and Oprah living in the attic of our tract houses, operating the mangle iron in the basement and cooking their own childhood dishes like fried chicken and potato salad.
Our houses were all laid out in rows with little differences between them. “Little pink house for you and me.” If I lifted my bedroom window at night, my neighbor Mary could read me a nighttime story if my mother had more pressing duties. My most precious possessions were my Schwinn bike and my Emerson clock radio. The bike allowed freedom while the clock radio was succor to loneliness.
Were my codependent training wheels beginning with my brother Larry?
In ’54, there was a lot to watch on TV. Our house had one of the first TV’s on the block. We had one in the “family room” (what once was the screened in porch) and one in my parents’ bedroom. We watched Lassie, Father knows Best, Rin Tin Tin, and of course I Love Lucy. If our parents were gone there were Swanson TV dinners with turkey pieces, cornbread, mashed potatoes and peas and TV Time popcorn (with the corn on one side and the grease on the other). Dessert was from the Good Humor ice cream man or Sealtest vanilla ice cream and Dad’s Root beer.
Larry and I each had our own RCA Victor record players that only played 45’s (smaller records with a big hole in the center), which we stacked by the players as prized possessions. You did not touch dad’s turntable or amplifier which played only LP’s, also forbidden without permission. I had in my collection: “Oh My Papa” and “Mr. Sandman.” Larry had “Rock Around the Clock” and other more obscure “Negro” records. Dad listened to Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee.
Dad’s souped- up stereo was in the basement. He preferred the large tape deck to vinyl and often listened with his new Ampex headphones that shut out any household noise that could interrupt his concentration on the amazing stereo “separation.” I listened in my room, reading comic books. Mom talked on the phone while she knitted and chewed Dentine gum. Larry sat on his bed with legs on the floor and bounced to the music until, after years of this behavior, he had created a depression wave in the bed.
Looking back now, I wonder if Larry was autistic or had some form of Asperger’s. I do know he was dyslexic and answered to only himself.
The war between my father and Larry began shortly after Larry’s first IQ test, which put him at a near-genius level. How could someone with such a high level of intelligence do so poorly at school? To my father it was lack of effort. To Larry it was probably lack of interest.
My father, Robert Sheldon Schwachter, was born in coal country Williamson, West Virginia not far from Jackson, Kentucky of “Hillbilly Elegy” fame. His father Harry was not a coal miner or a traditional hillbilly. His shovel work was selling ladies clothing to a captive audience of coal miners’ wives. Harry had moved up in the world by marrying the boss’s daughter. He was a runaway from Hungary and his studious but unemployed Orthodox Jewish father. A stowaway on a cruise ship en route to America. Once discovered, he danced for the passengers for pennies. Somehow he arrived on the Ohio River. When the boat stopped in Cincinnati, he randomly got off and eventually got a job as a window dresser. He courted and finally married the store owner’s daughter, my great great grandfather, Papa Brown’s daughter, Rose Brown. A Jewish girl from a pre-Civil War family.
Harry was sent to Williamson to open a branch store where he succeeded and ultimately owned most of the town’s assets. He accomplished this by hard work and a remarkable ability to not only know everyone’s name but also their business. He was the towns entertainer and storyteller. He could recite almost all of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and later paid me handsomely for every passage I could memorize. (I still have a few stuck in my brain.) One in particular seems particularly relevant now:
“I sent my Soul through the
Some letter of that After-life to spell:
And by and by my Soul return’d to me,
And answer’d: ‘I Myself am Heav’n and Hell”
Rose was the best cook in the state, sharing her bounty with any family temporarily in need.
Harry had three children: a boy, Bob, (my father) and two daughters, Mary Lou and Betty. Bob looked like Jeff Chandler of movie fame with dark hair and striking blue eyes. A swimmer’s body and a natural born leader personality. Charisma was his greatest gift.
Dad was off to West Virginia State with his Catholic girlfriend until his mother Rose announced that he was going solo to Ohio State or remaining in his room for the rest of his life.
He excelled at Ohio State becoming, president of the student body, president of his fraternity, and Jayne’s new husband. The latter achievement was easy since Jayne lassoed him. And he could not believe his luck since she was gorgeous, sassy, rich, and had her own car with her name etched on the side. He spruced up his image with speech classes and the finer touches of manners, but those extras probably weren’t necessary since by some estimates Bob had it all.
Jayne Deutsch was Cleveland Jewish royalty. Her father was the only Jewish funeral director in Cleveland and one of the oldest Jewish families in this steel town. Her grandfather on her father’s side had been a carriage maker with an office where Cleveland’s Terminal Tower now stood. Jayne’s mother Rose was also a Deutsch. No need to change her name at marriage. Her Austrian and later New York family were the jewelers of choice for many years in Cleveland. Jayne’s mother, my Meme Rose, was highly educated and expected the same of her children. Her older son ultimately complied by getting a degree from Case, the MIT of the Midwest. Jayne didn’t need a degree. She had natural blond hair and blue eyes, great legs and a sharp wit. But as those that underestimated her soon discovered, she also possessed a special brand of intelligence. Jayne excelled at knowing the difference between shit and shinolla a quality not fully infused into Robert’s otherwise complete package.
Harry had a job for my father. He had in fact bought him a men’s clothing store in Williamson. If his son wanted to get married he had to leave school with only one quarter left at Ohio State before his degree was achieved and move to W.VA. to open the Roberts- Morris men’s clothing store.
Without considering the consequences, mom and dad jumped at the opportunity which lasted long enough for Larry to be born and my dad to realize that my mom was not a West Virginia girl and that Cleveland offered a brighter future for their new family. Five years later with a lot of extra physical activity (which my mother loved to brag about) I was finally conceived and born in Cleveland. My father eventually got his degree from Ohio State when he was over 60 years old. Accepting the degree with cap and gown was one of my father’s proudest moments.
In 1944, my Mom was living in Cleveland with her parents while my Dad was preparing to be a “frog man” at the Great Lakes training facility in Chicago. Fortunately the war ended before he got in the water and we were all able to move to suburbia in a newly built house in a newly built world financed by the GI Bill.
My Dad’s new career would be on the sales floor at the Deutsch’s jewelry store. No dead bodies for him at the mortuary, although this alternative was offered. He’d go with the other Deutsch.
He excelled at this new job with his great looks and personality until a representative from Dunn and Bradstreet visited the store and wanted some basic information for their updated report. My Dad was asked his title. He proudly responded Vice President. D&B asked him: “Which one?” Apparently everyone working the floor in the store was a VP. This did not sit well with my Dad and he stormed out to become his own man. He would become a wholesale diamond salesman on the road.
Dad traveled the small cities in Ohio and Pennsylvania with a suitcase filled with diamonds in the trunk of his car and his German Luger strapped to his chest. Every small town had a local jewelry store and these stores became my dad’s clients. He usually left on his diamond route early Monday morning and returned late Friday afternoon. There were no turnpikes so it was back roads and small hotels that had a safe. Phone calls were expensive so the person to person trick was employed. The phone would ring and the operator would say:
“You have a person-to-person phone call from Sheldon Schwachter for Harry Schwachter…will you accept the charges?”
If it was my dad you would say:
“Sorry, Harry Schwachter is not in.”
And then a few minutes later my dad would call back station-to-station without the operator at a lesser charge.
Beating the phone company was something Larry taught me. If you carried a thumb tack in your wallet, you could stick it through the exposed wire that led from the pay phone to the headset, ground it on the coin return, and get an immediate dial tone for free.
Dad’s travel requirements affected the dynamics of our household in ways that profoundly affected the remainder of my life. While my dad was gone the full Oedipus complex was in effect for the brother-mother relationship: in Freudian theory “the complex of emotions aroused in a young child by an unconscious sexual desire for the parent of the opposite sex and a wish to exclude the parent of the same sex.”
While my dad was gone my brother pretended to be the man of the house. In effect he was. Discipline was not my mother’s strong suit and Larry was too beautiful and clever to sustain anger in my mom for long periods of time. She once tried to spank him with a hair brush that broke in two, prompting laughter on both their parts. And Larry lived his life his own way. And in fact did so until he died.
One Sunday Larry accompanied his little brother to downtown Cleveland’s Euclid Avenue Temple for Sunday school. As the 32 B Heights Express bus stopped at the temple my brother reminded me that directly across the street from the temple was the best donut and chocolate cookie store in Cleveland. The option was not “let’s get a cookie when Temple is over. It was: “COOKIE or TEMPLE…TEMPLE or COOKIE.”
We would get a cookie, go visit my great uncle at the jewelry store, visit Record Rendezvous, and then catch the appropriate bus back home where I would be complicit in my brothers lies, out of guilt not fear, since Larry never was unkind to me.
One time we did get caught. Uncle Jake or the Gene Carroll show was a Cleveland TV show popular in the 50’s. My dad wrote some advertising copy for the show and produced a children’s record that was an early version of the Chipmunk gimmick. Gene would record voices and then speed them up to create the effect for Johnny the Mud Turtle and Suzy the Squirrel dad’s idea. One of the sponsors of the children’s show was Spang Glazed Donuts. My brother convinced me one Sunday to skip temple and go to the live show. Gene knew me from my dad and our visits to his farm and knew it would be safe to bring me on stage for the live commercial. I would bite into a donut and express my complete delight on live TV. What happened instead was I bit into the donut and lost one of my teeth on live TV. My parents didn’t see the show but did hear about the incident from an amused Gene Carroll.
When my dad returned on Fridays late afternoon he would say hello to me before I was shipped out to my grandparents until Sunday. After dinner out with my grandparents at one of the two same restaurants every week (Chinese food or ribs), I would return home and the cycle would begin again. I did not spend much time with my dad and when the family was all together the elephant in the room was always Larry’s aberrant behavior. When the entire family was together the Larry-dad fight would begin again over Larry’s misadventures while my dad was gone. At the peak of the anger I would retreat to my room and wonder why my dad seemed to hate Larry when I adored him.
When my dad was gone I was lonely during the week, particularly at bed time. Homework done, I would turn the timer on the clock radio to 30 minutes and look for something to listen to to send me to sleep. (I have never been able to fall asleep without conversation in the room.) I remember listening to Ozzy and Harriet and my favorite the Lone Ranger to send me to my dreams.
My grandfather was in kidney failure before a dialysis machine had been invented. My grandmother, with a little help, cared for him. He sat mostly in his large green vinyl arm chair or in bed. On occasion he was outside looking at his beautiful garden and creeping bent grass. The carpet-like lawn required a special Jacobsen lawn motor. His gardener, Mr. Portero, would supply me with a ready supply of strawberries when in season and eventually allowed me to grow my own patch which, when ripe I would stuff in my pocket for my bike ride home.
Friday nights at my grandparents we watched Your Hit Parade and I Remember Mama and we talked. My grandmother was a fanatical sports fan. Her brother was the first owner of the Cleveland Browns (originally a baseball franchise). She scored every pitch in every game the Cleveland Indians played. I did not share her enthusiasm. Her neighbor’s son Mike was my age and I loved his company, but he too was a sports fanatic and I had to pretend to be interested in his baseball card collection.
Actually what interested me was the news and God. My grandfather read the three Cleveland papers every day: the News, the Plain Dealer and the Press. (He explained that the word news also stood for north, east, south and west.) We listened to John Cameron Swazey for national news and Dorothy Fuldheim for local.
My interest in the news started with my grandparents’ friends. When they were around they didn’t send me to “go play” but instead included me in their conversations. No one had ever before asked me what I thought about anything. They did. And I wanted to be able to answer them and participate in the conversation.
I think because my grandfather was dying and was also an undertaker and I had actually seen dead bodies at the funeral home (because Larry had forced me to look), I was a little over-obsessed with death and dying and religion. My grandmother believed religion was all nonsense and theater but she wanted me to have an open mind. She had read all of Will and Ariel Durant and allowed me to read a little of one volume, which explained how religions were an outgrowth of the seasons: the winter solstice for Christmas and the spring solstice for Easter. Praying to the idols who allowed the sun to return so there would again be food. How the Jews needed one God that traveled because they were shepherds and couldn’t carry their dead with them. I learned that most of the world didn’t believe in Judaism. I couldn’t understand the trinity idea at all. I still don’t.
I remember the strange sight of false teeth next to a glass at night and my grandmother’s ruined feet. Her mother had told her that pretty girls do not have feet larger than size four. Grandmother’s were size 6 so apparently her feet were force fed into shoes too small as a child. But mostly I remember being treated like a whole person not just a little boy. Someone who had things to say and opinions and someone who responded to love and respect.
When my grandmother asked me to help her change my grandfather’s soiled bed she made no apology for his illness and expected me to understand what happens as we age and decay. I can’t think of anyone I loved more than Meme Rose.
Meanwhile the wars between my brother and father were escalating. As my brother continued to fail at school, he had strangely developed skills that astonished my father and made him all the more angry. Television was the new phenomenon. We had an early one and everybody wanted one. Strangely Larry could fix anyone’s broken TV or radio or for that matter anyone’s broken anything. He wouldn’t read a history book but studied Popular Electronics and Popular Mechanics as if they were the holy grail.
And then my brother announced that he wanted to be a shortwave operator. A neighbor had a shortwave receiver but my brother wanted more. Somehow a shortwave set appeared in the house. I think Uncle Sid my mother’s brother got bored with his own set and gave it to Larry who after a few weeks learned the Morse code and became the youngest ham radio operator in Ohio.
Now my father was even more confused and convinced that Larry just didn’t care about what was important. Where was the discipline for school? And so the war continued. Meanwhile the “good child” got all A’s and starred in children’s theater. Never complained. Was almost too quiet.
I knew I was not in my brother’s league; he was brilliant and I was, if you looked closely, ordinary. I also knew Larry didn’t care a bit about my father’s judgment of his behavior. He was his own judge and jury and quite comfortable with his own assessment. The world adored him partly because they sensed he didn’t need their adoration.
The good child was fooling the world with hard work as opposed to raw talent. Misjudged by my parents. Put on a pedestal I didn’t want. Not being comfortable to fail or be less than exceptional. Alone. Feeling the need to mediate, to somehow help my brother and explain him to my parents. One thing for sure: I would not add to their problems by being a problem. The golden boy would never disappoint.
Maybe sensing my distress, my parents arranged to send me to overnight summer camp for eight weeks. “He needs to get out of this house for the summer.” I was ten years old and had never been away from home for more than two nights. I had never played baseball, cared nothing for sports, had an early near drowning experience and was terrified of the water, and needed noise to fall asleep.
Camp Roosevelt in Perry, Ohio had a history that dated back to Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. I didn’t know much about that history except that older campers would write their names on the cabin walls and sign them with their years of attendance. My uncle’s name was on the wall and other names dating back, I guessed, to Teddy.
My first night in our cabin was unsettling to begin with but not helped by watching our camp counselor Marshall Glickman remove his wooden leg and put a sock over his stump. He had several legs and one special one for the water.
The first day we were introduced to the “camp letter.” This was what we were all supposed to be working towards achieving by the end of the summer. The letter had sections like scouting, nature, work hours, craft, etc. For example, if you could start a camp fire with three matches you could earn some of your scouting points. Every day we would head off to work on the letter. Getting the letter early in the year was considered a very prestigious achievement. New campers did not get early letters. But I was concerned that I had to be successful at camp, like I was successful at school to maintain the balance in the Schwachter household. Once again I would balance out Larry.
The previous year Larry had been sent to Camp Conestoga, a much more prestigious camp than Roosevelt. The first week they had an overnight hike where you sleep in the woods in a sleeping bag. In the morning Larry was no longer there. He was picked up by the police 70 miles away. He had one successful hitch and then a truck driver called the police. With the help of a seasoned Camp Roosevelt professional camper a few weeks older than I, we managed the first and second letters in camp, an amazing achievement at the time. I knew my parents would be proud. At least my dad.
My mother was getting weary of my over achievements.
I learned at Camp that I had athletic abilities. I was very fast and strong. I discovered baseball. I was a lousy fielder, had never played catch with my dad or Little League, but I was a great hitter. I was a home run guy and at first base I didn’t have to judge a fly ball. Peer pressure finally taught me to swim and I quickly excelled at it.
Except for the camp haircut,0 which made my mother furious because it was so short, my camp adventure was successful. But did I have as much fun as I could have if I weren’t worried about the damn camp letter, if I weren’t obsessed with maintaining my status as golden boy?
Letters from home only hinted at a new crisis. What was going on with Larry?