In the bathtub
From my earliest memories, I always liked being in a warm bath. I can’t even begin to plumb that earliest memory, but I do have a sharp one ready for the word forge. It was adolescence, 13 I think, and just having been pulled out of my four-year reverie in Rock Creek Park where I owned the world. We’d moved to Dayton, Ohio, or Wright-Patterson AFB to be more precise, in Fairborn, a few miles East of the fabled midwestern technoburb — home of National Cash Register and other last-century techs. Then, it was the cutting edge of 1957 military technology, home of the Aerospace School of Medicine (my dad’s job) and soon to host a major Strategic Air Command, though not until after I left.
The age of 13 was as disturbing to me as I suppose it was to the rest of us. Confusing enough as a hormonal rite of passage, it was compounded by displacement into a low-brow cultural Gobi. No comics nearby, no wood fortresses just down the hill, no Rock Creek to forage. Just a brand new culture: Junior High School. Perhaps the most terrifying experience on Earth, and far beyond anything the proto-CIA could imagine, in those pre-chemical days.
Aside from a continuing sexual coming of age — I’d experimented a lot in Washington and even earlier — the social drives put me in an intolerable position of having to socialize and being terrified of coping with it. Fairborn Junior High School was a three-story red brick 1910 building that smelled of horses and chalk dust. Just walking in the first day was enormously depressing. I wanted to run away and hide but didn’t have a clue where to do that. The building was dark, the classes boring, and the classmates … strange. Nowhere near culturally diverse or expressive as my fellow inmates in Washington, and speaking idiomatic English I could barely understand.
We lived in a corner duplex in officer territory on the base; the Gamels, next door to the Hamels. The doublet houses were situated akimbo to the entrance to OfficerLand, adjacent to the golf course and a few blocks from the central Officer’s Club complex — indoor and outdoor pools, teen club, gym, steam rooms, and more I don’t even remember. I frequented them all, eventually. Many stories there, too.
Opon moving into the Ohio house, I was given a choice of living space and chose the third-floor attic, complete with bathroom. all with gabled ceilings, like the Paris attic I would inhabit many years later for a few months. Offered the heady choice of choosing colors for my digs, I picked midnight blue for the bedroom and lobster red for the bathroom, just to be adult and daring. To their everlasting credit, my parents let me do it, though I’ll never know if dad even checked in on that choice. Once done, it was mine, all mine. No one else in the family ever even wanted to come up there.
Those rooms were special in many ways. I’d been given my own room in DC after Dorothy left to get married, but that dispensation was driven more by the need to get me out of my sisters’ sleeping quarters as puberty knocked on my chubby carcass. Ohio was different. This was MY territory. I furnished it, arranged it and was free to indulge my solipsistic ways without fear of discovery or censure. It was mine.
I was a nerd before the class was invented. That’s a favorite conceit of mine. Truth told, all us geeks were being forged from fragile clay in the 1950s by dozens of science fiction writers, Popular Mechanics, Life and the Saturday Evening Post, all of which I devoured — ahem, voraciously. (Yes, I know today that the trend began in the 1880s with Verne, etc.) I started down this path in DC after I checked out my first book ever from the Chevy Chase Library at age 9. It was Robert Heinlein’s Rocket Ship Galileo, and I was hooked for life. Name any science fiction author publishing from 1936 to 1959 and I read almost everything they published, via Ace, Bantam, and every other pulp publisher who distributed to drug store book racks where I’d spend my $.35 every Saturday after the movie.
I remember this period well — it was DC — because I shifted from buying comics to books and had a really hard time deciding where to spend my very limited funds. Well, that’s not quite accurate. I had between $.50 and $1 to spend any given Saturday. I was a rich white kid. I could buy more than I could read in the next week, or at least read without seriously compromising my public life. Which I did more often than not. Which explains my grades.
Oh, about the warm bath … I’m in Ohio, just moved into my new, private digs in the attic of the corner duplex, listening to F101’s firing up about 300 yards away to scramble aloft every morning to save us from Russian nuclear incursions (still haven’t connected those dots). My lobster red bathroom had a five-foot long clawfoot iron tub with an endless supply of hot water at the beck and call of my left foot where I could abandon all reality for as long as I wanted. Nobody cared when I disappeared. I’d been doing it for years in DC, leaving the house after breakfast on non-school days and not coming back until dinnertime. Just so long as nobody got nervous and called out the cops, I was good to be gone. This worked really well in Ohio. In DC, when I languished in the tub, 17 people would beat on the door after a half hour spent with my beloved kitchen pots and pans and tiny plastic submarines … Ohio was paradise!
I remember reading A.E. van Vogt’s Weapons Shops of Isher, Heinlein’s Door into Summer, and just about everything Andre Norton put between covers in those years. And those are just the clear memories. Just writing about it is bringing back a flood of memories of characters, plots, planets, all entwined with the smells of steamy pulp paper and my scent wafting out of the water. Powerful stuff those olfactory remonstrances.