In his 1954 black-and-white movie “On the Waterfront,” Marlon Brando dreamed of being a great fighter and winning titles. He eventually was relegated to working on waterfront docks, but always maintained that with the right handling and the right breaks, he could have been a contender for national prizefight titles—thus his plaint “I could’uh been uh contenduh!”
As a young boy I dreamed variously of becoming a cowboy, an explorer, an Indian fighter, an Indian, a pilot, a continental bus driver, a soldier or sailor or airman, a policeman, a taxi driver, a husband and a father, a doctor or teacher or scientist or author of books or a combination of all those occupations. I became an airman, husband and father and a law-enforcement officer (in that order) but none of the other dreams ever came true. Because of those failures this is my plaint, as was Marlon Brando’s in “On the Waterfront”:
I could’uh been uh contenduh!
In all seriousness, I believe I could have been a contender had I been born into a family somewhat higher on the economic scale. We were so far down on that scale that my mother often said, “We don’t have a pot to pee in or a window to throw it out of.” Yep, she said that and said it often, and she exaggerated only slightly.
She divorced her first husband (my father) shortly before I was born. Yes, I know that being born out of wedlock makes me (technically) a little bastard, but I can live with that—some feel that since then I have earned the right to that term. When I was nine years old and in the fourth grade, my mother remarried. Her new husband, not anxious to shoulder the responsibilities and economics of raising two kids, dumped me and my sister (18 months older than I) on relatives. During the next seven years I was relegated to an older sister, an older brother and a first-cousin, and as you will learn in this posting, given the opportunity to be relegated to someone outside the family, someone with absolutely no connection to my family. My sister suffered similar treatment, although banished to other pastures—we were never foisted off to the same people—apparently two kids were one too many for others to handle.
I abandoned my formal education just short of finishing the tenth grade, but over the years that followed I managed to earn a BA degree in American history (Nebraska) and a BS degree in Criminal Justice (Texas). This was over a period of 22 years of study, including on-campus study at five different universities, at home and abroad. Also during that period I worked full-time and assisted my wife in maintaining a home and raising three children.
But I have digressed—back to my contention that “I could’uh been a contenduh!”
At the princely age of eleven, when I was in the second semester of the seventh grade, I was offered a path out of the poverty in which I was mired. Early one morning as I entered my home room, the teacher ordered me to report to the principal’s office. With that order every part of me puckered-up—the principal normally waited until two boys got into trouble and then had both sent to his office. He had a wooden paddle, a formidable weapon that was used on the buttocks of male miscreants. The principal did not wield the item himself—he favored a system called “swapping licks.”
The system involved one wrong-doer whacking the other across the buttocks, then submitting to the same punishment by the one he had just whacked—tit for tat, so to speak. The boys were allowed to decide which one administered the first blow. If the principal felt that either or both of the whacks lacked the proper force, he would order one or both to be repeated—that was rarely necessary. (Note: In those days, long ago and far away in a different kingdom, grades seven and eight were termed “junior high,” and grades nine through twelve were “high school.” The six grades were combined in a series of campus buildings and one official, the “high school principal,” held complete sway over the whole.
I was sent to the principal’s office only one time, early in the first semester of the seventh grade, and I must confess that I don’t remember the nature of my transgression—apparently the ravages of time have deleted it, but it was something to be remembered. Of the two boys that faced the principal that day, one was five feet tall and weighed somewhere around 100 pounds—that one was me. The other was Hugh, six feet tall and well over two-hundred pounds, a first-string lineman for the school’s football team—his name was Hugh but everyone called him “huge.”
Infused with the belief that I wouldn’t be able to whack anybody after I received a blow from Hugh, I insisted on giving the first whack. I held back very little, but Hugh made no sound when the paddle landed, although he did rub his backside a bit immediately afterward. I made a concentrated effort by will of mind to tighten up everything I had in that area, hoping to force some muscle into the soft flesh in order to better absorb the blow. What followed was a mystery to me, but it was a mystery that would soon be revealed. While Hugh was warming up to retaliate, the principal said to him, in a tone that left no doubt as to his meaning, something on the order of “Gently, Hugh—make sure you are very gentle.”
I had no way of knowing then that the principal had plans for me—I was soon to learn that he wanted to adopt me, so he was probably reluctant to take on damaged goods. Hugh was more than “very gentle.” He tapped me across the buttocks so gently that, had it not been for the sound of the paddle landing I wouldn’t have known I had been hit—phew! What a relief!
I fully expected that two people would be in the office when I arrived—the principal and another wayward boy. I was right, but the two people were the principal and my mother.
Here I must again digress:
The high school principal was known to be a wealthy man. He owned and lived in one of the finest antebellum homes in town, and owned or had substantial interests in local businesses. I mention this only to stress that the reason my mother was there was to give her youngest son the opportunity to be adopted by the principal and raised as his son. Well, I suppose she had another reason, namely the possibility of relinquishing her responsibilities of raising me to another person. I have no problem with that—I accepted her reasoning then and I accept it now.
It was also known that the principal was the father of two girls (I was well aware of that). He had not been blessed with any boys, and had always wished for a boy he could bond with as a father, one that could then carry on his family name (I was not aware of that). His wish was never granted, and he was therefore willing to adopt a boy for those reasons. My mother was willing to authorize the adoption—nay, she appeared to be quite enthusiastic about it—but she made it clear that the decision was ultimately up to me.
And here I must digress from my digression:
The principal’s daughters were very popular and very pretty—not just pretty—they were gorgeous. The ninth grader was a brunette and the younger, a perky blond (whatever “perky” means), was in the eighth grade. In my admittedly untrained and immature opinion, both girls were beautiful and fully worthy of becoming my sisters. In fact—and you may call this vanity if you like—I have reason to believe that they possibly were urging their father on, perhaps even begging him, in his quest to adopt me. Hey, don’t laugh—I was a cutie back then!
Both girls were active in school activities, including band and cheer-leading and as all know, rightly or wrongly, there are no homely cheerleaders. Had the two girls—or just one of them—either one—been present at my meeting with my mother and the principal, I suspect that the outcome may have been very different.
I had three sisters in my family, all of varying mental and physical characteristics. The two older sisters were married and the younger, the one that was passed as I was from one relative to another in her early years, while bright and likable in many respects would never have won any beauty contests, neither first place nor first runner-up. She has since passed on, almost two decades ago, to a place where everyone is equal and there are no runner-up positions—no matter the nature of the contest, all are judged first-place winners.
Okay, that should be the final digression.
The principal briefed me on what he had in mind. He wanted to adopt me and raise me as his son, with the promise to guide me and support me in my quest for learning. Evidently my performance in the first semester of the seventh grade had impressed him—and that’s another story, well worthy of its own blog posting. Stay tuned.
I learned that my surname would be changed to his family name, and everything was downhill from that point. My stepfather had wanted me to change my name to his, but I refused because I did not want other kids making jokes such as, “Hey, there’s Weathers—how’s the weather gonna be tomorrow?” etc., etc. Had I accepted the adoption my new name would have garnered jokes such as, “Hi, Farmer, what are you growing now?” and “Hey, Farmer, be sure you spread enough fertilizer.” The word “fertilizer” would, of course, be replaced by one or another of less savory words.
The surname I was given at birth was bad enough—it generated questions such as, “Hey, Dyer, what are you dyeing? Your clothes? Your hair?” and “If you’re a Dyer are you dead? How long will it take you to die?” ad nauseam. Over the past 13 years I had learned to live with the die jokes (heh, heh, heh), but I was reluctant to voluntarily provide hecklers with a fresh repertoire.
Actually, the proposed name change was a minor factor (pun unintentional). I rejected the “adoption option” because I was a rather independent 13-year old lad. I had already survived several changes in life and locations in the past three years, and I was prescient enough to believe that other, perhaps greater, life changes and locations loomed in my future (I was right—boy, was I ever right!).
I felt that my independence would be severely hampered, and any inclination I may have had to accept the adoption was severely tempered by the memories of, and the presence of, the wooden paddle the principal kept in a desk drawer. I speculated as to whether he took it home with him each night, or perhaps kept one or more similar items in his home.
I also was aware of the story that he had recently become so irate at one boy that he slapped him and punched him in the eye—gave him a really significant shiner and dispelled him—that was the boy’s story and most students believed him. The kid with the black eye said he was ordered to submit to the paddling procedure and when he refused to submit, the principal lost his temper. I worked with that ex-student for a time as a drive-in restaurant car-hop, and heard him tell his story many times—he never deviated from the salient parts of the incident, and I believed him.
So, in a nutshell as some say, in order to wrap this posting up, I have always felt that “I could’uh been uh contenduh!” had I accepted the offer of adoption. Rather than 22 years of combining work and family with my quest for learning, I could have and perhaps would have been educated at the finest schools in the nation for a career in law or medicine or business or mathematics—oops, scratch the mathematics—or perhaps a career in politics, one that theoretically at least, could have catapulted me into the highest office in the land. Speaking frankly (and comparatively), given the nature of current events and the recent past, I could have done a more stellar job in that office than the present occupant.
That’s it. I could have been a contender for things that were denied me because of my economic status, but I have no regrets. I am completely satisfied with my contributions to society and to my country, and with their contributions to me.