As a child, my biggest problems came on the playground at recess and after school on the way home.
I started wearing glasses at age 2, and although they weren’t the rose-tinted kind, they colored my entire childhood. Back in the 1930s, not many kids of any age wore glasses, particularly in the hills of East Tennessee. Those who did, thanks in large measure to Hollywood, were considered sissies or eggheads. Kids are cruel to each other in general, but in those days in a mining town in the hills of East Tennessee, they were particularly unfeeling and insensitive to the feelings of their mates.
Whoever came up with the kids’ bromide “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me” didn’t know what he—or she—was talking about, and certainly didn’t wear glasses!
I don’t recall any major problems until I started to school. It wasn’t long before some older kids started razzing me, calling me “specs” and “four-eyes.” And I instinctively knew I had to “defend my honor.”
A typical encounter went something like this:
“Four-eyes! Four-eyes! Sissy, sissy four-eyes!
“If you weren’t hiding behind them sissy glasses, I’d whup your ass!”
I would jerk the glasses off and say, “They’re not on now. What’re ya gonna do about it?”
Whereupon the bully would do what he had threatened: whip my ass.
To make matters worse, I was a skinny kid, small for my age plus the fact that I started school when I was 5, a year ahead of most others. My nose was bloodied many times. Years later, I had to have an operation to repair a deviated septum, undoubtedly caused by those early childhood poundings.
Even though I rarely won the fights, after a while the bullies left me alone. Bullies succeed only when the bullied person doesn’t stand up against them—win or lose. They count on your running away so they can give you the horselaugh. If you take the dare and stand and fight, the bully can’t win even if he beats you up. It’s not a real victory because he picked on somebody smaller. And if he loses, he is the one humiliated forever for letting somebody smaller and weaker beat him. So the best thing to do with a bully is to take the dare and suffer your licks. Eventually the bullies tire of the sport.
I also had a problem with the name “Eddie.” I’m not sure why. It’s a perfectly good name, and many Eddies have worn it with honor. But again, I equated it somehow with sissyness, something to be avoided in place like Jellico at all costs. I had seen guys get that sissy label, and their lives were miserable ever after, or else they flaunted it, perhaps eventually becoming homosexual. I don’t know about the latter because I didn’t even know what homosexual meant until I went to college.
Next to “sissy” in the pejorative labels was “mama’s boy” or “sister boy,” which meant roughly the same thing. To avoid such labels, a kid had to divorce himself as much as possible from his mother—at least in public.
I remember one guy in high school who tried mightily to overcome the “mama’s boy” image, but he couldn’t do it. He went out for football. In the locker room, he was being taunted mercilessly. Finally, he stood up and tried to defend himself in the battle of words. A big fullback type pushed him across the room and he crashed into the lockers. Pulling himself up, he yelled at his tormentors, “You old doo-doo butt!” Of course, he was labeled thereafter as “doo-doo.”
My parents noticed early on that my eyes were crossed. Janice Ausmus, the daughter of a local physician and his wife, had a similar problem. Janice was about 5 months younger than I. We were the only two kids in our peer group who wore glasses, and I always secretly envied Janice because I thought that because she was a girl she avoided the teasing and taunting that I got. Many years later we talked about this, and she said that she too got her share of teasing and ribbing. She would get angry, but as a girl she just had to take it. At least a boy could lash out and have the satisfaction of letting his tormentors know he wouldn’t sit still for it. Janice was being treated by a Knoxville ophthalmologist, Dr. Robert S. Leach, and my parents took me to see him as well. He recommended glasses even though I was but 2 years old. I was a lively youngster and my parents feared that I wouldn’t keep the glasses on, throwing them off to get stepped on or otherwise broken. They were wrong. Mother said that from the minute I put on that first pair of glasses I never wanted to take them off, such was the difference in my vision.
Years later, we would experience something similar with our fourth child, Richard. Ghislaine grew increasingly concerned about Richard when he was 5 years old because, of all things, he had little or no interest in television. And, he would hang back when the others were playing. I thought he was just a shy kid who was interested in better things than TV. A number of other things happened, including serious night tremors, leading us to take him to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist said he was a very sensitive little boy, but found nothing really wrong with him. Then, one day Ghislaine went into the living room where Edgar was avidly watching a kids’ program on TV. Richard was lying down, sucking the two middle fingers of his left hand, paying no attention to the antics on the TV screen. When a clown appeared on the screen, Ghislaine asked him what it was. “It’s a frog,” he replied. That was the first real tip-off that he had a vision problem. After eye examinations, it was determined that he did indeed have a problem and glasses were prescribed. We got his first pair and arrived home in Bowie, Maryland, just after dark. A piston-driven airplane was flying over as we got out of the car. Richard looked up and cried, “What’s that, Daddy?” “It’s a plane,” I said. He had, of course, heard planes in the air, but this was the first time he had seen the lights of a plane. Then he discovered the stars that were beginning to fill the night sky. He had never seen stars before. The glasses immediately changed Richard’s personality. Instead of hanging back, he was now in the middle of everything, including the roughhouses and fights.
In my case, since I had never known anything else, my glasses became as much a part of me as my nose or my limbs. I put them on first thing in the morning and took them off only when I bathed, went to bed or cast them aside for a fight. They would get bent and scratched. Nose pads would come off. But I don’t remember ever breaking a lens. Once, while playing with my cousin Emma Jo in the fishpond in her backyard I took my glasses off for some reason. When it was time to go, we started searching for them, eventually finding them buried in the mud, dirty but intact.
When I would arrive home from school dirty and bloodied from my frequent scuffles, Mother would often accuse me of liking to fight. Nothing could have been further from the truth. I think I desperately wished that I could just go on and ignore the taunts, as Mother said I should. But somehow my quixotic sense of honor would not let me do it. I think this is something that has stayed with me all my life. As an adult, I have often waded into verbal arguments that I would have much preferred to have avoided, but something inside me would not let me stand down. Often I got a symbolic bloody nose, but usually I held my own better verbally than physically.
As tough as it was to take the ribbing from my peers, I was stung even more when adults unthinkingly made cracks about my glasses. I couldn’t fight them, but I could usually let them know that I didn’t appreciate it.
Another aspect of my eye problems that I didn’t realize until it was far too late was that I had no depth perception. In those days, I guess they didn’t check for depth perception, because I learned I didn’t have it only years later in the 1970s during a routine eye exam at a clinic where they did such tests. That explained why I was never good at sports using balls. If I hit a baseball or caught a football, it was blind luck. I was terrible even at ping-pong.
Daddy was an avid golfer and often took me with him when he went to the golf course in LaFollette. I would pick up some extra change by caddying while I was there. But try as I would, I could rarely hit the golf ball. I would swing above it or chop up a huge divot. One day I was at the course and got a great job caddying for a guy who just wanted to hit practice shots. My job was to wait until he had hit all his balls, then go out and collect them. I was picking up the balls when he found another and hit it. He saw it was heading toward me and yelled. I don’t know if he yelled the traditional “fore” or just “look out.” Whatever it was, instead of ducking I turned around to see what he was yelling about. As I did, the golf ball hit me squarely in the eye—or I should say, in the lens of my glasses. The glass was thick it didn’t break—it knocked the lens out which sliced open my cheek. It caused a huge stir, and it ended any pretensions I had for the sport of golf—or caddying.
Actually, I never considered wearing glasses a handicap. It was just part of who I was. In fact, it did have some advantages. The main one was that I frequently got out of school to go for eye exams in Knoxville. To me, Knoxville was wonderful exotic place with all sorts of things that Jellico didn’t have. I hated the exam itself, which usually involved having drops put in my eyes. But afterward, I would tail along while Mother shopped. She would let me have some side excursions into the toy sections at the 10-cent store, as we called it, or at Miller’s department store. Compared to the variety of toys at today’s stores like Toys ‘R Us, the stores had little to offer, but I was delighted with whatever they had. If I had not put up too much of a fuss over the eye drops, Mother would usually buy me a small toy—a plastic car or airplane or a toy soldier.
On those trips as I grew older, I refused to hold Mother’s hand. Again, I thought it was sissy. She wasn’t about to let me roam free on the busy streets of Knoxville, so the compromise was that I would hold on her dress tail. I likewise refused to go into the ladies’ room with her. Instead, I would wait patiently in the corridor outside until she came out. One day as I was waiting, a woman wearing a light blue dress similar to the one Mother had on came waltzing out of the restroom. Without looking up, I promptly grabbed the hem of the garment. “Well, hello there, Specs,” the strange woman cackled. I was humiliated. I let go of the dress and ran, hiding around the corner until the correct blue dress with my mother in it came out of the restroom. I still recall that as one of my most embarrassing moments.
Downtown Knoxville was a wonderland for a little boy. In addition to the variety stores and their year-round toy displays, there was Miller’s department store, a wonderland in itself. I particularly liked the book department, where I could browse happily while Mother shopped for clothes somewhere else. I was particularly into the Hardy Boys mysteries and read every one that was published during that period. Even when I didn’t get a toy, I always got a new book when I went to Knoxville.
For lunch on those trips to Knoxville we usually would go to the S&W Cafeteria. In later years I dubbed it the “Stand and Wait” Cafeteria because of the inevitable long line. The S&W on Gay Street was a favorite Knoxville meeting place for residents and visitors alike. White-coated waiters carried trays for the patrons. A woman at the Wurlitzer Organ played the popular songs of the day. And of course the smells were delicious.
Mother’s favorite newspaper columnist was the News-Sentinel’s Bert Vincent. She would save his column to read after she went to bed at night. One day we were waiting in line at the S&W when Bert came in, standing immediately behind us. Never shy about talking to strangers, I asked him if he was indeed Bert Vincent. When he admitted he was, I piped up loud enough for everybody around to hear, “My mother takes you to bed with her every night.” Mother pretended to be embarrassed, but it didn’t stop her from having a chat with her favorite writer.
We always parked the car in Pryor Brown’s enclosed garage on Church Street. In those days just about everything was fueled by coal and if you left you car outside in Knoxville it would have a coat of coal soot on it when you returned. From Pryor Brown’s it was a short walk to either the Tennessee Optical Co. or Clancy Optical Co., depending on which was in favor with Mother at the time. It was a slightly longer walk over to the Medical Arts Building where Dr. Leach had his office (he later moved to a house on Cumberland where the Duncan Federal Building now stands). After getting the business with my eyes out of the way, we would head for Gay Street, with Miller’s being the center of activity. The women’s shoe department at Miller’s was the rendezvous point when I was with Mother. If Daddy was along, the meeting place was the lobby of the Farragut Hotel. I also loved the Farragut with its big easy chairs, its bellmen and the hustle and bustle of a major downtown hotel. It was the ultimate in sophistication to my Jellico mind. Daddy didn’t particularly like standing in the S&W line so when he was along we often would eat in the Farragut Coffee Shop, the apex of elegance to me then.
A major treat of those visits to Knoxville was the chance to attend a movie at the Tennessee Theatre. It was air-conditioned, which meant that it was an oasis of coolness on a hot summer day. But it was the huge screen and the first-run movies at the Tennessee that made it so special. Even the sound was better. Daddy loved the movies, so when he was along we almost always found time for a picture.
Later on as a teen-ager, I was allowed to go off on my own as long as I made the rendezvous point at the appointed time. I would wander about the downtown, visiting all kinds of stores and shops. After I got my pony, a favorite and inevitable stop was a saddle shop on Jackson Avenue. I loved the smell of the leather and the oils they used. I rarely bought anything because I never used a saddle when I rode Dan—but that’s another story.
Sometimes we would visit friends in Sequoyah Hills before starting the return trip to Jellico. I loved driving by those huge houses with their vast well-manicured lawns and massive trees. I dreamed of someday living in one of those white-pillared mansions.
I also sometimes visited my cousin, Wilma, and her husband, Jay Barlow, who lived on McCalla. They operated a little restaurant on Magnolia called “Tick, Tock, It’s Time to Eat.” It was near Chilhowee Park where I would spend many happy hours. Other days I would catch the streetcar and ride to town. Sometimes I would just keep transferring to other lines to see where they went.
Had it not been for my eye troubles, I wouldn’t have had that exposure to Knoxville and that far outweighed, I think even then, the burden of having to fight the taunting bullies in the schoolyard.
Next: A handicapped hunter
Previous: School days