My first memory is from 1960 on the linoleum floor of a kitchen in a house on the corner of Huron and Lexington Avenues in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I am two years old and crawling. My mother is cooking. At the kitchen table, sitting in front of a manual typewriter, is my father, a student at Harvard Business School. I discover a crumb of something interesting on the floor and put it into my mouth. It’s an old dried-out piece of fried onion and the flavor is intense.
Second early memory: I am sick and still in Cambridge. There is a vaporizer pumping out Vicks Vaporub steam over my crib. A smiling stranger enters the bedroom with my mother and he picks me up. He opens a black leather bag, prepares an injection, and gives me a shot in the butt. The pain is the worst thing I’ve experienced. The smiling stranger then becomes the dreaded Needle Man and his subsequent house calls are nightmares.
Four years later in the living room of an old colonial house on Central Street in Georgetown, Massachusetts, I am alone and exploring the forbidden drawer of my father’s desk. I’m afraid to touch his drafting tools, his slide rule, his mementos, but I touch them anyway. Knowing the consequences of desk invasion, I turn to the bookshelves and look for something to read.
I started reading when I was three years old. I said the word “stop” when my father stopped the Ford Falcon station wagon at a stop sign in Houston. He asked me why I said the word, assuming I was referring to the fact that he had stopped the car but I pointed at the red sign and the big white word. And the word was “STOP.” By five I was tearing through the weekly copies of Time Magazine, Argosy, BusinessWeek and the Boston Traveler. I had read all of the series by Thornton Burgess and Tom Swift, and was obsessed with sea stories by Edward Rowe Snow which Ida Anderson, the librarian in Cotuit, recommended I read.
My reading talent earned me with a lot of flattering attention from the grownups, particularly my grandfather, a high school teacher in Exeter, New Hampshire. I began to associate reading with praise, but I couldn’t pronounce a lot of words correctly (the Nile River was the “Neely River”) and got easily bored. I could rattle off the names of every one of the state capitols, carry on a conversation about U Thant, the Tet Offensive, and the names of the Mercury astronauts. I was trotted out at cocktail parties like a literary Mozart, a parlor trick who did tricks for treats. Life was good for I was special.
The bookshelves sag with college chemistry textbooks, a Modern Library edition of Rabelais, Boccacio’s Decameron, a Time-Life series of books about the countries of the world, a long row of yellow-spined National Geographics. There are shelves up higher which I can’t reach, so I drag over a chair to climb up for a peek. There is a book way up on the top shelf with the word “Child” on the spine. Being a child, I take it down, sit on the floor and look on the back cover.
There is a photo of the smiling Needle Man.
I understand why the book is kept so high and out of reach. It is part of the conspiracy to stick needles in me. It is where the pain is hidden. It’s an owner’s manual for raising a child circa 1964.
I open the book. I turn to the index at the back and start scanning for key words. The most important word in my world is there:
Yes Santa. The opposite of Needle Man. The avuncular giver of good. The chubby red-suited saint on his throne at Filenes Basement who flies around in a Piper Cub with Edward Rowe Snow and drops his presents out of the window down to remote islands for the stranded children of lighthouse keepers. Santa who brings train sets and itchy sweaters. He who sticks special gift packs of LifeSavers into stockings hung with care by the fire. The mysterious eater of Cookies. He who knows all. He who must be obeyed because he’s always watching.
I turn to Santa’s page in the Needle Man’s book by and begin to read. Knowledge flows from the page through my eyes into my empty brain and in an instant the world begins to feel wrong like the hallway of the snowbound hotel in The Shining when Jack Nicholson’s son is riding his tricycle down the carpeted hallways and the parallax perspective shifts and turns the hallway into a endless nightmare with no end.
“How to tell your child there is no Santa Claus…”
No Santa Claus. No Santa Claus? In that moment — as brutal as if the words were written bu chiseling letters chiseled into a tombstone — everything that was magical about my childhood became a sordid lie. The Tooth Fairy. The Easter Bunny … All of it was dashed into pieces made from my parents’ lies. I forgot to breathe. It was my heart breaking moment of existential First Grader despair. A loss of innocence straight out of that madman William Blake’s poetry:
A truth that’s told with bad intent
Beats all the Lies you can invent.
Six years old and sitting by myself feeling very alone and faint, I closed Needle Man’s book and pondered the consequences of this terrible knowledge. I had flown too close to the sun, taken a bite from the corrupt apple of knowledge, and lo — Eden was destroyed and I had nowhere to go with with my new found knowledge. Tell my little brother Tom because I needed a friend to console me? That would be too cruel to destroy his illusions. Run sobbing to my parents? That would certainly bring an end to the annual scam and Christmas would surely be cancelled forever. I knew enough to bury the secret.
Actually, I had no moral compass and I kept the knowledge of the Santa Scam to myself for another five or six years out of pure greed. The book by the Needle Man went back on the shelf, but I kept returning to it constantly because it was the Dark Book of Parental Knowledge.
I pulled the book down whenever I was left alone in the house. I had no idea I was reading the most provocative influence on baby boomer child rearing since Doctor Benjamin Spock. Needle Man was the guy who told mothers to breast feed, to love their kids freely and not run them through some Prussian schedule of forced feedings and denied urges. After all it was the 1960s, Dr. Spock was getting arrested for protesting the Viet Nam War, and free-range child rearing was still in effect before the dawn of Helicopter Parenting. Those were the years when Daisy BB guns and bikes without helmets were considered acceptable Christmas gifts. Whenever Mom would run an errand to the IGA to pick up some milk and leave me alone for 30 minutes, that was enough time for me to pull the down the book for a quick exploration. Darker secrets lay ahead, ones far heavier than the Santa Disclosure.
I rode Bus #3 every day to the Perley Elementary School in Georgetown to attend first grade. In the classroom I sat behind a kid who had rickets and was given a special glass of milk every morning by the school nurse while the rest of us watched. One day, while I watched, he pooped in his pants and cleverly worked the turd down the leg of his pants, shaking it out of the cuff and onto the floor beside his desk, grinding it into the floor with his shoe to erase the evidence. The entire Perley Experience was weird. The principal had a pet goat who wore a sweater with a big G for Georgetown on it and who came to school on special occasions and could be induced to butt heads with the high school football players who got on all fours and charged it with their helmets.
The dynamics of my life on the playground and school bus were vicious, a Malthusian life of fear and despair. I was the tallest kid in the first grade, a total smartass because of the reading and my Texan nursery school manners which made me sound like a total suck up whenever I called the teacher “Ma’am” or wore my cowboy shirts to school. So I was the target of many fist fight challenges by the bullies in the second and third grades. I got the shit beaten out of me by one future serial killer on a regular basis. His last name was McBriarity and he lived in a dilapidated grey unpainted sagging house next to a rank smelling tannery and was the youngest of 10 siblings. I was forbidden by my parents to ever associate with him, but he lived in the neighborhood and there was no escaping his torments. My father nicknamed him “Pig Pen” after the character in the Peanuts comic because he smelled a bit like the tannery.
Pig Pen’s throne was the very back seat of Bus #3. His court of cronies were allowed to sit near him if he approved and his approval was earned through gifts of pocket knives, quarters, or penny candy. I wanted to be a back seat rider badly, but I lived on the edge of that clique, listening to their bawdy limericks and forbidden songs which they had learned from the older brothers I lacked: songs about Hitler and Mussolini’s genitalia, three Irishmen working in a ditch, and monkeys who wrapped their tails around flagpoles to keep their assholes from getting ice cold.
The back of the bus crowd was obsessed with sex. It was a Patriarchy too far from the bus driver to be disciplined and there were profound whispered debates between them like a bunch of Oxford dons speculating about the mystery of girls. Listening to them was like sort of like what it must have felt to sit in the back row of a meeting of the Royal Society in London in 1600 while the great scientists like Newton debated the miasma theory of disease spread by foul smells.
The prevailing sexual theory held by Pig Pen’s gang was the Belly Button Method of Reproduction. The Stork Model of Baby Delivery had been long discredited because of its appearance in a Loony Tune cartoon. Nudity, rubbing and the butt were somehow involved in the Belly Button Method. Pig Pen was the final authority on the Navel Theorem and embellished it with observations about the role of alcohol and public displays of affection in front of him and his siblings before the act took place. There was no challenging his hypothesis, for he had actually committed an act of “show me yours and I’ll show you mine” with one of his older sisters and thus had actual field research to confirm that girls lacked the appendage then properly known as a “dingus” by the back benchers of Bus #3. To deny Belly Buttons meant banishment from the back of the bus. (I never could understand the whole civil rights back of the bus thing as a kid watching the evening news with Walter Cronkite because I was so desperate to sit there myself).
It occurred to me that I might earn my seat if I found an definitive answer in the Needle Man’s Book. I turned to it wondering if there was some scripture between its magic covers about baby making that I could smuggle onto the bus to show Pig Pen and his lieutenants. I had kept the horrible proof of Santa’s nonexistence to myself for over a year, and felt smug knowing that whenever the big kids got worked up in early December during peak Santa Fever when they talked about their visits to Jordan Marsh to sit on the fat man’s lap and got crazed talking about their Christmas letters to the North Pole complete with a list of wants compiled from the Sears catalog.
“Puny fools,” I thought. “I could make you sob and grovel with what I know.”
Anyway, Needle Man’s book did indeed contain anatomical diagrams of Fallopian tubes and uteri, testes and urethrae. It was a Cliff Notes to help tongue-tied parents disclose the mysteries of life to their tweens. It was not written for a six-year old autodidact looking for leverage against a bunch of future Massholes riding in the back of a school bus and cracking up over words like “douchebag” and “dildo” — both of which I called my mother to see if she too found them funny but which earned me a savage mouth soaping and spanking with a wooden spoon.
I read about foreplay, intercourse, gestation, birth. The whole biological saga was there for me to consider, but once again my mind was blown and with my world rocked and as I sat cross-legged on the hooked rug of the old colonial house on Central Street, my thoughts raced with the horror that OMFG, mother and father had engaged in coitus like frogs in amplexus to produce me and were still doing it as mother was very pregnant with my future sister at the time.
The Horror. The Horror. There was no unseeing that truth.
I was so unsettled by the discovery that I could never bring myself to share it with the back seat gang. Santa was one thing. Sex was way too dangerous, so I tucked the nuclear secret away beside the truth of the Santa-Tooth Fairy- Easter Bunny deception and never told a friend nor my brother for another six years.
More than 30 years later, during the summer of 1995, I was at the Hyannis Airport waiting for the 6:30 am flight to LaGuardia. I saw sitting in the terminal the Needle Man. He was perhaps in his late 70s, but still looked as familiar to me as he did when he stuck needles in me. But he had gone from being a young doctor who made house calls to sick toddlers in Cambridge to become the most famous pediatrician in the world, publishing 40 books beyond the magic one I had found, and become a celebrity for his pioneering concept of child raising.
His name was T. Berry Brazelton and he died at his home here on Cape Cod last week at the age of 99.
Dr. Brazelton sat by himself reading a book while we waited for the flight to board. Because the seat beside him was empty I sat down and introduced myself as a former patient. He claimed to remember me, or at least to remember my mother, who he correctly recalled had red hair. He laughed hard at my memories of Needle Man, looked concerned and a wee bit wistful when I told him about the Santa trauma, and narrowed his eyes and furrowed his brow when I told him about my personal Sex-Ed Education as a first grader.
“That must have been awful for you!” he said. “To carry such a thing inside of yourself for so long. Did you ever tell anyone?”
I told him the story of quahogging in the Seapuit River with my father. I was 13 when the old gent turned to me and ambushed me with the topic of the birds and the bees. I let him suffer a little as he tried to diplomatically talk me through the realm of manhood and responsibility. I took a little pleasure seeing him stammer with embarrassment, saying nothing until he asked me if I had any questions. I dramatically raised a finger to make him wait a second, felt for a clam with my bare toes, then reached down to pull it out of the mud.
Dropping the clam into the basket between us I innocently asked, “So you mean you don’t tickle the woman’s belly button and the baby doesn’t come out of their butt?”
Rest in peace Dr. Brazelton. I forgive you the needles.