When I was three we moved to Huntsville. Compared to Whitehouse, Huntsville was a big town, although the population was under 10,000. What made it seem so big was the presence of a state college – Sam Houston State Teacher’s College, now Sam Houston State University -- and the central offices for the Texas State Department of Corrections.
A few blocks off the courthouse square sat the massive red-brick building called The Walls, an active prison which also housed administrative offices and the electric chair. My father and my mother worked in this building for a while. On the outskirts of town were prison farms, including the Goree Unit, at that time the only women’s prison in the state. The house I lived in throughout my school years was across the road from Goree. There was only a normal barbed wire fence on the property that far from where the inmates were housed, and we sometimes ventured over the fence to climb trees or play among the gullies.
My parents knew the woman who was warden at Goree then, as well as her husband. I remember us having dinner with them once. Whenever they wanted something, Mrs. Dobbs would ring a small silver bell on the table and the (inmate) cook or a maid would come in. After this had happened several times, my little brother piped up.
“I want to get one of those bells,” he declared.
Everyone laughed, and Mr. Dobbs told him, “We didn’t always have a bell like that, Ted. I remember when all we had was a tin can with some rocks in it.”
The Dobbs were nice people, and funny in spite of where they lived – on the property of the prison itself. One of their sons became a writer for television, and I recall waiting up late one night to watch an episode of Gunsmoke that he had written.
Huntsville was a pretty little college town, with lots of trees, some hills, the college buildings, a small park across from the college and straight streets built in a grid around the square. There were the usual things downtown, a couple of cafes, two movie theaters, two dime stores, a J.C. Penney, some locally owned dry goods places, two banks, also locally owned.
It was easy to find your way around. Avenues were lettered and streets were numbered. If you lived at 1225 Avenue O, your house was between 12th and 13th Street on Avenue O, between Avenues N and P. If you knew about Cartesian coordinates, you were all set. And in Huntsville, at least the Huntsville I knew, populated largely by the families of college faculty and staff or the families of people in the prison administration, folks all just seemed to know about Cartesian coordinates and how they worked. Later when I found out that not all towns were laid out this way, I had trouble figuring out how people got around without getting lost.
Thanks to the GI Bill, my father and his two brothers who had fought in the war got college degrees at Sam Houston State. When we moved there in 1953, my father got his MA while teaching biology and driver’s education at Huntsville High School. My mother went to work at The Walls, working as a secretary/bookkeeper in the offices of the Inmate Trust Fund.
We lived for a while in graduate student housing, old army barracks left over from the war. These were adjacent to the college football field and to the state park that housed a Sam Houston museum, two of his homes and his law office. Houston had lived in Huntsville in the last years of his life and was buried in Oakwood Cemetery, across the street from the high school where my father taught and from which I would graduate.
Houston’s exalted and much-mythologized figure loomed large in Huntsville back then, and today it looms even larger. In 1994, twenty-five years after we left Huntsville, a local artist created a 67-foot tall statue of Sam Houston near the State Park on Interstate 45, just a few miles from the house I lived in during my public school years. In what I fear is typical Texas fashion, it is described as the second-largest free-standing statue in the United States, second only to the Statue of Liberty.
In fact, there are at least two others that are larger, but in the eyes of Texas, those others just don’t count. It has been said that Texans never lie; they just tell more truth than there is. The boasting about the Sam Houston statue would seem to be an instance of this kind of truthiness.
I only remember one thing from our time living in those old barracks. One Sunday I was playing by myself on the sidewalk beside the park. I assume it was a Sunday because part of the memory was that I was wearing good clothes. I was idly tossing pieces of gravel into the road, one of those things that little boys of three or four can do endlessly. A woman drove by in a car, and the Imp of the Perverse made me throw a rock at the car. It hit the rear passenger-side hubcap. The car screeched to a halt and began to back up. In my three-year-old brain, I realized I had broken the car and now it would only go backwards. Throwing down the handful of gravel still clutched in my left hand, I turned tail and ran home.
Somehow I knew that I should not actually go home, because by this time the woman was out of her car and chasing me down the dirt road that ran among the barracks. I went past our barracks and hid underneath a stairwell nearby. The driver was too clever by half, however, and dragged me out into the sunlight. I knew I had done something majorly wrong by breaking her car, but part of me was more worried about getting in trouble because I got my good clothes dirty huddled under that stairwell. I don’t remember much more. Fortunately the car was not broken, not even scratched by my feeble three-year-old pitching arm. I do remember my mother standing there and being read the riot act, however. And I am reasonably sure that a spanking, not hilarity, ensued.
At that period of my life and for quite a few years after, spankings ensued with some regularity. In fact, I remember one day when I was nine or ten, it occurred to me that I had not had a spanking in a few weeks. I guessed I was growing up and sensed that maybe I was finally learning right from wrong. In Catholic tradition, kids are supposed to be able to tell right from wrong when they are seven. That is the age they make their first communion and, scrupulosity and Jansenism being alive and well, the kids have to go to confession first. In order to justify this, the Church is forced to say that seven-year-olds can understand the three criteria for a mortal sin, the deadly kind that must be confessed: it must be objectively wrong; you must know that it is wrong; you must freely and knowingly do it anyway.
I am not sure that all seven-year-olds fully grasp this, especially since learned theologians with advanced degrees argue over the fine points. Most seven-year-olds, however, know that in order to get the gifts that come with your first communion, you have to say what the grownups want to hear you say. So of course you understand! And of course you memorize what your teacher tells you to say! And of course you march into the confessional box-or-room and repeat it word-for-more-or-less-word to the kind priest who is trying hard not to laugh at the mistakes kids tend to make. But I will talk about hearing confessions when the time comes.
All I know is that I got spanked – we called it whipped – pretty regularly until I was nine or ten. At first, spanking were applied by my mother or father using a bare hand. Well, except for the aforementioned Incident with the Sycamore Sapling. As time went on and my brother and I got older, my parents moved from bare hands to switches or to belts.
My mother favored switches, long thin branches torn from a nearby tree. Part of the punishment was having to go pick and prepare the switch, peeling off the leaves and any branchlets. It did no good to pick a switch that would break, of course. Every parent saw through this ploy, and that only mean a longer whipping with an adequate instrument. As kids, we did experiment occasionally with switches, trying to find one that would hold up but not hurt too much. And you always hoped you were wearing long pants!
My father used his belt and then turned to a razor strop, a thick piece of leather he got from his father who had used it to sharpen his razor and to discipline his own children. We hated the razor strop, but I think it hurt less than a narrow switch.
We dreaded my mother’s whipping more than my father. My mother was a small woman and did not hesitate to put her minimal weight into her swing. My father, on the other hand, knew his strength and always held back some. Add to that the greater air resistance built up by the razor strop compared to the switch and you had a noticeable difference.
Corporal punishment was not stigmatized in those days in Texas. It was not only common on the home front, it was a regular feature of the school room. Even the female teachers often had large wooden paddles, sometimes decorated and with holes drilled in a pattern so as to reduce the wind resistance, lying on her desk or hanging prominently on the wall nearby.
At home one got spankings or whippings. (Spankings were for little kids, whippings for older ones.) At school one got licks, usually a predetermined number. Boys, I must say, got lots of licks. I think girls got some other punishment, but I don’t remember what it was. Maybe they just never acted up.
My parents were the kind who literally told the teacher at the beginning of the school year to spank us if we did anything wrong. They promised that we would get another spanking when we got home and told about it, and yet another if we failed to report.
I lived in terror of getting licks. Those paddles looked enormous and sounded loud when vigorously applied, especially by the coaches who though that no boy became a man with getting his bottom beat at least once. The coaches tended to give licks for all sorts of reasons, most of which did not rise to the level of active malfeasance. Whispered stories about the coaches and what they had done to some poor kid “last year” were a staple of school yard gossip.
Paddles and licks were with us all through school, up to graduation from senior high. I got through all twelve years without a lick, which may explain why I am gay. It’s as good an explanation as many I have heard.
The closest I came to an encounter with the dreaded paddle was in sixth grade when I left my gym basket out one Friday. We had wire baskets and kept our stinky gym clothes in them. Every Friday we had to take things home to be washed. If you failed to return your basket to the rack where they were stored in numerical order, you got one lick.
One Monday morning I discovered to my horror that my basket was not in the rack. Frantically looking around the dressing room, I finally spied the basket with it’s tell-all number sitting on the floor of the coach’s office. I could see the number plain as day. I had failed to return it to its allotted place after class on the preceding Friday. I was doomed.
I said nothing, suited up, suffered through whatever humiliating activity we were doing that day, stripped, showered, folded my stuff up in my towel and waited to be called out for pain.
I tucked my stinking clothes under my notebook, pressed them up against my side and ran to the next class. I had trouble getting to sleep every night that week, and every morning brought fresh terror when I got out of the shower. Surely today would be the day. But the day passed. Another day passed. The weekend came, and no lick yet. I sneaked my dirty clothes to and from my regular locker every morning. The kids with neighboring lockers were probably wondering about the stench when Friday finally rolled around again.
The following week I discovered an unused basket and began to store my stinky clothes there. And the lick never came.
I don’t know if the coach forgot. I don’t know if he realized it was my basket – we had signed them out at the beginning of the year – and felt so sorry for me that he just let me punish myself with my fear. I don’t know if the system only worked if the guy confessed to his misdeed by asking for his basket back.
Maybe the coach was too lazy to look up the record. Maybe the coach had problems at home, lost interest in hitting junior high kids and finally put the basket away so he wouldn’t trip over it. All I know is I did not get a lick, and that I suffered for weeks and weeks waiting for the paddle to fall.
It was around that same time, not surprisingly, that I began to notice the boys and the horsing around that went on in the shower room. I was repulsed and fascinated and filled with a nameless longing.
So maybe there was a connection between being gay and not getting paddled. Maybe the coach would have beat it out of me if he had been doing his job properly. In that case, thanks to Coach Ford perhaps, I am what I am today.
Before leaving the phys ed stuff, though, I have to tell you a happier story. When I was in seventh grade, we got a new coach – Michael Patrick O’Malley. Tall, good-looking, broad shoulders, narrow hips, the total Catholic package.
That year my p.e. class was right after lunch. So in early September, under the hot noonday Texas sun, we ran out onto the field and began doing our warm-ups and things. The first or second day, I got woozy, spit up a little and nearly fainted. Coach O’Malley walked me over to a water fountain, sat me down in the shade and sat with me until I felt better.
When we got up to go back to the field, he said to me, “When a guy throws up on the field, I don’t think less of him, you know. To me it shows he’s really trying his best. You’re doing fine. Don’t overdo it.” He patted me on the shoulder and trotted back to the others.
I swear to God I would have walked across fire for the man after that. I never did become a good athlete, although it gave me the confidence to get a little better at a few things. And it took a lot of the terror out of p.e. for the rest of junior high.
That, folks, is the way to coach, not by hitting somebody’s butt while bellowing “One!”, but by patting them on the shoulder and saying a kind word.