Growing Up Fast

I can’t remember Mr. Roquemore’s first name, but he taught vocational agriculture at Arlington High in the fifties, and he made a lasting impression on almost every boy he taught. I mean that literally. Nobody could swing a paddle like the Rock. 

He was short and powerful with arms like strands of steel cable, no great scholar but a man of deep and abiding convictions. He claimed there was no such thing as a bad boy. He blamed Fool’s Hill: kids just had to climb Fool’s Hill a time or two. When a boy ventured up Fool’s Hill, the Rock demonstrated the courage of his convictions by lifting the lad off the floor with one brute swing.  

Paddling was a daily, almost hourly, ritual. Some poor sinner was always presenting himself to the Rock for redemption. At the beginning of each school year most of us handcrafted our own designer paddles. Some boys decorated them with daggers or initials, and a few class pets even drilled holes in the surface to provide aerodynamic balance and ensure welts. Several dozen paddles hung from the base of the Rock’s blackboard.

“Boy, grab the jewels and bend over,” the Rock would say. He’d always treat you to his gap-toothed grin as he added, “This won’t hurt a bit.”

You could hear the pop all the way to the home-ec cottage. You could hear the bloodthirsty cheers from classmates clear past the gym. Then the Rock would smile again, to let you know all was forgiven. And here’s the part my own kids could never understand: thirty years later I still remember the Rock with affection. 

Arlington was a small country town when I grew up. It had a definition and a perimeter. It had a center. Rules and limits were clear and simple. There weren’t a lot of choices. No kid in full possession of his senses talked back to an adult, any adult. If you talked back, or cut school, or got caught smoking or cursing or transgressing in any of a hundred other ways, you took your licks. Licks were a matter of pride — for both parties.  

Everything changed with World War II, but change came a little slower, a little easier, in Arlington. There was an enormous sense of security in a small town. Families were large and seemingly permanent. Your cousins were usually your best friends, at least until you got to high school. Few mothers worked outside the home. Nobody had much money, but nobody wanted for anything. There was no TV, no stereo, no rock ’n roll, no freeways, no nukes. Divorce and crime and communism were conditions they sang about on Hillbilly Hit Parade. Drugs were things you took when you got sick. Almost everyone I knew went to church. Church was what you did on Sunday, before dinner at Granny’s. 

We loved our parents and grandparents and took it for granted that we would be parents and grandparents someday. And none of us had the slightest idea what that might mean. 

They called us the “silent generation,” those who came of age in the fifties. That was a polite way of saying we weren’t bright enough to ask questions. We bought the whole package — wife, kids, home in the suburbs, horizons unlimited. In truth, the prospects of getting anything except fat, broke, and old were pitifully narrow. The three most exciting things I remember about the fifties are some foreigner breaking the four-minute mile, the Russians putting up an electronic basketball in space, and a group of existentialists in San Francisco who recited poetry to jazz. Beatniks, they were called, forerunners of hippies. I desperately wanted to join them but never found the courage. I volunteered to fight in Korea and was disappointed that the war ended too soon. I was almost thirty when I cast my first ballot. I voted for John F. Kennedy. He was murdered three years later. 

As fate had it, I married my second wife, Mary Jo (M.J.), six days before the assassination. I was writing sports for the Dallas Morning News and occasionally smoking a joint, slipping on dark glasses, and marching in civil rights demonstrations. I had written a column about a guy I knew, an Army helicopter pilot killed in some place called Viet Nam — he was one of the first Americans to die in that god-awful land — and to my surprise the column created some controversy. But basically I was an innocent, a mainstream dreamer and dancer, until that shattering day Kennedy was wiped out. Then a strange thing happened — to me and to millions of others. Once the numbness and bitterness subsided, we were overcome with a sort of fatalistic exhilaration. I still don’t have words to describe it — it was like being born again, or maybe being kidnapped by gypsies. Our whole value system changed. Little by little, over the next several years, we no longer felt accountable to the system, nor did we owe it allegiance. If patriotism was blindly following, patriotism was a joke. Our mood was one of massive rebellion. Never in my lifetime had so many Americans questioned basic assumptions.  

Less than two years after the assassination, our only child, Shea, was born. Two years after that, I quit my newspaper job and began thinking of myself as a serious writer. A year after that, M.J. and I were busted for possessing a tiny amount of marijuana in the privacy of our home. They wouldn’t give you a ticket for it today, but in the late sixties the offense carried a possible life sentence in Texas. The ultimate victim of our arrest was a hapless antiwar congressional candidate I was trying to help — he was forced to withdraw because of the publicity. Our case was later dismissed, but the bitter taste lingered. What M.J. remembers most about being arrested, aside from the handcuffs, is that they took

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