When I was three, I choked on an Oscar Meyer wiener and lost consciousness, turned blue, and was ambulanced to the hospital, where I apparently flatlined and then came back from the dead, according to my Memo, who swore that the doctor told her as such but kept it from my mother.
At the very least, oxygen did not get to my brain for many minutes. I overheard the doctor say something to my parents about being lucky I wasn’t a vegetable. I wondered what kind—cauliflower, string bean, yam? But I got the idea when, for the next year, appointments were scrupulously scheduled and my hair was shaved into a burr so electrodes could be glued to my scalp to check for brain damage. I sat on the edge of a padded examination table and watched electronic waves jiggle and jaggle on the tiny black-and-white monitor, hoping I wasn’t retarded. For years, I wondered how I might have been different were it not for my tragic wiener incident: smarter maybe, quicker. Normal.
Studying basic math in first grade, I couldn’t grasp the simple concept of even and odd numbers. For everyone else it was a breeze, ho-hummingly spouting the answers to Mrs. Ellis’s oral pop quiz:
“Dee Dee, five?”
“Odd!” Dee Dee chimed.
Chris rolled his eyes. “Odd.”
I sat frozen.
Clearly this was rudimentary and I could sense judgment at my hesitation. But what made some numbers “odd”? What did they do to suffer such a label? Weren’t they just numbers like all the others? I fought my anxiety and pretended that I could see the oddness in what seemed ordinary. But I knew I had a fifty-fifty shot and, thankfully, guessed the right answer.
There would be a lot of guessing for years to come.
I suppose everyone looks back on childhood and remembers feeling odd and bizarre and deviant, misunderstood, and potentially involved in some cosmic galactic mishap that resulted in a baby exchange with a perfectly normal earth-child, who was just as bewildered on some faraway planet.
In truth, I wasn’t all that different from the other kids. Except that I wanted to be Jewish and blind and sing like a fat black woman.
And I was “squirrelly.” But I didn’t know what that meant yet.
I spent my wonderless years in the small town of Sand Springs, peculiarly named, as there was neither sand nor springs anywhere in the area. But the name “Red Clay Dirty River” doesn’t roll off the tongue quite so trippingly. Sand Springs was a blue-collar, union-labeled, staunchly Democratic, religiously conservative burb, where everyone’s parents worked at the steel mill or the glass plant or the box plant, and it was generally expected that our generation would, with pride, continue the tradition. It boasted the title “Industrial Capital of the Country”—home to more manufacturing plants per capita than anywhere else in the USA. All the pollution of a big city without a single perk.
I came from the sturdy stuff of American grass roots. My parents, Bill, pronounced “Bee-ill,” and Carolyn, pronounced “Care-lin” (all words in Oklahoma are pronounced with two syllables), both grew up in Cushing, Oklahoma, a town birthed in the oil boom of the 1920s that has been dying a lethargic death ever since.
My grandfather, Ira “Whitey” Harris, whom I called Paw Paw, had an easy bearing and an enviable hairline. He lived in a well-worn pair of overalls and smoked a pipe, toiling at an oil refinery, where he died of a heart attack when he was sixty and I was three. My grandmother, Floy May, whom I called Granny, was just under five feet tall and just under four feet around. She preferred bright red pantsuits, giving the impression, from a toddler’s perspective, that a giant tomato was rolling toward you. She kept a picture of a very Caucasian Jesus on her living room wall and her gallstones in a baby food jar that hung from a pink ribbon on the bathroom doorframe. She would touch them, like a mezuzah, when she went in for her “BMs,” which were a favorite and frequent topic of conversation.
When I was left in Granny’s care, she often secretly dressed me up in frilly aprons and fluffy house slippers and spouted terrifying tales about my father, all ending with his burning in hell because he used the Lord’s name in vain. She would stoop down to me, nose to nose, the glint of her black, rhinestone-dotted, cat’s-eye glasses adding a twinkle to her eye, and whisper, “The crows are gonna peck your daddy’s eyes out!” I would invariably shriek with horror, which would cause her to let loose a crazy, high-pitched staccato cackle.
Granny had a gifted ear for music and played an upright out-of-tune piano but only used the black keys, so her repertoire was limited to “When the Saints Go Marching In” and a few hymns. Her mind flitted like a drunken hummingbird, and she regaled me with allegories of death and carnage, like the time a cat crept into her infant cousin’s crib and “sucked the breath outta him.” She acted it out, playing the cat and the suffocating infant, finally falling back on the sofa in a dead heap. When I was sufficiently in a state of terror, her eyes would pop open and she would release that high-pitched cackle and waddle away, humming “Jesus Loves Me.”
I am convinced that her parade of activity and prattle did not rely on the presence of others.
My mother’s mother, whom I called Memo, was a Texas girl, raised without a father. When she was an infant, her father had abducted her two older sisters and brother and left for parts unknown. She met him only once, at twelve years old, when she heard tell of his whereabouts and took a train to his general store several hundred miles away. She walked in and straight up to a mustached man in an apron stocking a shelf. “I’m your daughter Mary,” she said, “and I just needed to see your face.” Then she turned heel and took the train back to her mother.
Memo married my grandfather Sam when she was a mere fifteen years old. He was twenty-five and had fought in World War I—a man, strong-willed and solid. They moved to Cushing in the mid-1920s, and Sam operated a taxi stand in a town that didn’t support a taxi stand. Its primary purpose was to run bootleg gin during Prohibition and thereafter in the dry state of Oklahoma. Patrons called for a “pick-up” and got a “drop-off” from the trunk. Memo owned a café, which was celebrated for her homemade bread, desserts, and a visit by the gangster Pretty Boy Floyd, who flirted with her while she served him peach cobbler and coffee, after which he walked across the street and robbed the Cushing Bank. Memo said he was, indeed, pretty—and he tipped well.
She’d rejected her generation’s idea that a woman’s place was in the home and regularly rose before dawn in preparation for her eighteen-hour day. Her challenging schedule didn’t really have any wiggle room for my unexpected mother, who was born years after a son had been raised and a daughter had been buried. There was a business to run and others already relied upon her.
My mother was forced to be her own caretaker as soon as she was able, getting herself up and ready for school in the mornings and often not seeing her mother until suppertime, when she ate in the back room of the café before walking across the driveway to their apartment to put herself to bed.
As a teenager, she was a beauty, with chocolate-colored hair that fell in thick, wavy ringlets around her graceful face and sorrowful mahogany eyes. Basically unchaperoned, she could have gone good girl or bad, but chose precision over defiance, becoming her own disciplinarian and homework monitor. She excelled in drama class and dreamed of becoming an actress—maybe even in New York or Hollywood.
My father was a fiery, strikingly handsome rebel with a love of music that never compromised his cool-man, jeans-clad, cigs-rolled-in-the-T-sleeve persona. The trumpet was his instrument of expression and he spent endless hours nestled next to their wooden-cased Motorola radio, devouring jazz and classical music, aspiring to one day join a symphony, or tour with big band leaders like Stan Kenton or Billy May.
My parents were high school sweethearts—an unlikely match since my mother was the perfect student, cheerleader, yearbook editor, and school actress and my father was James Dean with a trumpet. They married during his junior year of college and three years later, when I was born, my father gained employment as high school band director in Sand Springs. There would be no symphony or big band tour or New York or Hollywood. But it was an accessible, responsible career in the field of his passion. And my mother was determined to be the caretaker she never had.
By the time I was a toddler, my dad had become somewhat famous in the tristate area for his marching band style, which incorporated a heart-stopping goose step that brought the crowds to their feet. During the orchestral season of the school year, he conducted concerts on the auditorium stage and, as if a great sorcerer, when he tapped his baton on the metal stand, magic would ensue. I was awash in sound—dramatic and elegant and exquisite—and I watched the back of his head and shoulders rise and release as he waved his arms in a powerful and fervent dance. This was his element, his symphony.
My father brought the love of music to my life. To the lives of many. He was the go-to guy for students and parents alike, the favorite teacher, the giver of advice, the shoulder to cry on, and a source of encouragement. But he was all used up by the time he got to us.
During the rare daylight hours that he was home, my father’s moods would swing, alternately and without notice, from playful to fractious. Peripherally glimpsing his hand coming toward me could mean a tussle of the hair or a pop on the head with his ring finger, seemingly without provocation or warning. I mostly saw him on weekends, when he would mutely seclude himself with a ball game on television, prompting my mother to beg thousands of times, “Go be with your father.” “Be with your father” meant sit in the same room with him in the dark for twenty minutes while he sat glued to the Cardinals or the Cowboys. My presence was seldom acknowledged and I exited as unnoticed as I entered.
My father was, and is, a good man with a giant if not articulate heart, and we have since developed a strong relationship; but during those years he was driven and career-focused and his best was reserved for others. Mothers were for raising children.
I remember being three—sitting, spinning, waiting on a tall stool at nursery school, the last child to be picked up. I clutched a collection of heart-shaped, crayoned Valentine’s Day cards with anticipation. Today was a big day. My dad was taking me to see the movie Mary Poppins. Just me and Daddy, father and son. My teacher was as eager for me to leave as I. She was a billowy woman with a mountain of dreary, unfriendly hair that exploded from a priggish bun to a demented puff of white by the end of each school day. Like Santa Claus upside down. My father arrived and she pressed a box of SweeTarts into my fist and nearly shoved us out the door.
We sat on the far left side of the theater in the haze of the smoking section and my father constructed a hump from our coats to prop me up for a better view. He went to the lobby and returned a few minutes later, juggling popcorn and Milk Duds and pop, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth and a trail of smoke stinging his squinted left eye. It was a grand day indeed. I was grateful we’d arrived before the movie started. It was customary for my family to choose a “show,” and just go to the theater with no idea what time it ran. We would walk in midway through a film, watch to the end, and then sit through the next showing until the movie got to the point at which we’d arrived.
This time was different. My dad and I saw Mary Poppins in order, from the splendorous overture to the final credits. We’d found a common passion—no real interaction, but a bond all the same. This time I was thrilled to “go be with my father” and sit silently to watch something in the dark. I begged to see the movie again and he said yes and we remained in our seats for a second full showing. It is the only time I can remember from my early childhood that my father and I shared something alone, together: a recollection so precious that I have sometimes wondered if I made it up.
But my mother tells me that upon arriving home early that evening, I sang the entire score, reenacting the story of how Jane and Michael Banks didn’t see much of their father and then Mary Poppins came and they visited wonderful places and the daddy smiled and everybody flew kites together.
A year later, when The Sound of Music came out, my family watched it from the bed of our red-chipped Ford pickup truck at a drive-in, complete with lawn chairs, blankets, and our own popcorn. The actual sound of music tinnily eked out of a wired metal speaker, no better than a transistor radio, but I was just as taken with this movie—same theme, different characters. However, a few days later it went a little sour when my father caught me in the garage with my mother’s skirt on my head as a makeshift nun’s habit, singing “I Have Confidence.”
Having a high school band director for a father, however, had its advantages. I was only two when he plunked me in front of a microphone at a football game and I sang an iron-lunged, on-pitch “Star-Spangled Banner” to the cheers of the stadium. In the next years, it was common and convenient for the teachers’ own small children to participate in coronations for homecoming queen or basketball queen or wrestling queen or band queen or debate queen. We’d be dressed up in little suits with hook-and-bar bow ties, or crinoline stuffed dresses with shiny patent leather shoes, and were pushed onto the field or court or stage carrying velvet tasseled pillows with tiaras tied on. Or throwing rose petals before the feet of wrestling royalty.
I’d pomped and circumstanced several times, but I hit the jackpot at age five, when I got to play little Jerome de Beque, one of the two mixed-raced Polynesian bastard children, in the Charles Page High School production of South Pacific. I wore a flowered loincloth, full body paint (Max Factor Egyptian Tan No. 5), and eye makeup that looked more like Agnes Moorehead in Bewitched than anyone remotely Polynesian.
On opening night, I made my entrance from up left in all my Polynesian Bastard Child Glory, hand in hand with Dee Dee Shields, who played my sister, ready to slay them with the song “Dites Moi”—in real French.
Unbeknownst to me, in the prior scene, one of the actors had dropped a drinking glass, which had shattered all over down center. As we began the song, Dee Dee and I walked, barefooted, toward the audience and after only one verse, I stepped onto a shard of broken glass, which drove straight up into the arch of my foot. I felt the hot bite of penetration and looked down to see a pool of blood spreading around my feet on the mottled wooden floor. I gasped and, for a split second, fell behind on the phrase of the song. A voice from within spoke loud and clear—some five-year-old-version of Suck it up, Harris, you’re in show business! I lifted my chin as Dee Dee glanced down to identify the wet stuff seeping between her toes. She screamed. I squeezed her hand like a vise, a warning, then smiled at the audience—row after row of silhouetted heads and shoulders in the hazy streak of the spotlight—and finished the song alone as Dee Dee wept. The applause was better than first aid. I loved the purpose and the drama and I knew Dee Dee would never make it in show business.
The next scheduled production was The Miracle Worker. I became fixated with Helen Keller. Anyone with that many handicaps was not only captivating and heroic, but could relate completely to the tribulations of the human spirit. And who, better than I, to understand the complexities? As it was a high school production, both six-year-old Helen and her twenty-year-old teacher, Annie Sullivan, typically would be played by high school girls of the same age and size, making the dining table scene where Helen eats from everyone’s plates look like a teenage food fight, and all but destroying the famous water pump “wa-wa” scene. A sixteen-year-old would just look and sound stupid and Helen Keller was anything but. Because of my triumph in South Pacific, I was certain I would land the role of Helen. I understood her—and I was short.
I began staggering about the house with a dish towel tied around my eyes and toilet paper stuffed in my ears to simulate blindness and deafness. I thudded into furniture and knocked over lamps. I stumbled to the smallish avocado-green Formica kitchen table, which was scrunched between the refrigerator and a doorframe against a wall, though an actual full-size dining table, exclusively reserved for holidays, sat only four feet away. I squeezed myself into a chair and, just like in Helen’s family, my mother insisted I eat with a fork. Still, I was surprised at how messy pancakes and syrup can get when you can’t see where the fork is going. Finally, she’d had it.
“Take that rag off your head and eat like a person!”
“Helen Keller was a person! How can you say that?”
“You’re not Helen Keller!”
“I could be if they’d give me a chance!”
My father entered and exited with one sentence, ripping the cloth from my eyes. “Take off the goddamn rag and eat your goddamn pancakes and don’t talk to your goddamn mother like that.”
I removed the toilet paper from my ears, but had memorized my senses so I could still pretend to be blind and deaf.
I’d auditioned for South Pacific, even though Dee Dee and I were the only ones up for our roles, and on the day of tryouts for The Miracle Worker, I begged to go—even though I’d been told a part was being given to me.
I had other plans.
I walked confidently onto the auditorium stage and friendly voices welcomed me from the darkened house. Then Miss Young, the drama teacher and director, said, “You didn’t need to come, Sam. We already know you’re playing Percy.”
“I wanted to come. I want to read for Helen.”
Read for Helen. Helen didn’t have any lines. But I was prepared to convincingly stare blankly with my eyes slightly crossed and bump into furniture.
They didn’t even attempt to stifle their titters, which quickly grew into full-out, patronizing “isn’t that cute . . . and strange” guffaws. Despite my pleading logic, I didn’t get to bump into anything.
I was cast, instead, in the tiny, silent, and pajamaed role of Percy, “a little Negro child,” who mostly slept. I couldn’t understand how they could see me as a Polynesian child and a Negro child, but insisted on casting a nonchild in the most important part. The girl who played Helen Keller was gangly, with full-on breasts, and somehow managed to “wa-wa” with a southern accent. Dreadful. I knew she wouldn’t make it in show business either.
My disappointment was not discussed at home, but after a few days, I heard my name called with a tone that I knew meant my dad had been inspired to offer fatherly, sage advice, which would fit perfectly into a commercial break from a game.
“Turn down the TV,” he said. I knew this must be really important. When the room was silent, he pulled back the handle on his recliner, rocketing him to an upright position.
“Son . . .”
He leaned forward and paused to shuffle a cigarette up from the pack, grip it in the corner of his mouth, and light it with a Zippo.
“Life . . .”
He snapped the lighter shut with an emphatic clink and took a long draw, letting the smoke fill every cell of his lungs, then finally exhaled, slowly, deliberately, until the last foggy fume was purged.
“. . . is a bowl-a shit.”
He took another puff and tilted his head, squinting for emphasis. Then through the exhale: “And we just stir it up.”
He let the words hang in the air alongside the smoke. Then:
“Turn the TV back up.”
I did, and the baseball game resumed as he jutted himself back in his recliner and I went back to practicing my autograph. Hoping what he said wasn’t true.
Hear Sam Harris read a story about fatherhood. Recorded live in downtown Tulsa.
From Ham: Slices of Life by Sam Harris. Copyright 2014 by Funky Pants Productions Inc. Reprinted by permission of Gallery Books, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc. Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5 Issue 2. Jan. 15, 2014.