Childhood memories…Where does reality leave off and the stuff of dreams begin?
Childhood is a strange time. Especially age four. That’s when my memory started. But how accurate are memories that are forty years old? Especially from that age. At age four, the world is a bigger, scarier place than it really is. You’re basically three feet tall in a land of hostile giants. And that’s when you’re around the GOOD people, amidst family, amidst friends.
Visits to the outside world could be terrifying adventures, full of uncertainty…full of hidden dangers. Especially if you were a big crybaby like I was. I would cry at the drop of a hat. Over nothing, over everything. I remember going into the A&P Market with my Dad at that age, and one of the cashiers jokingly saying something to me, like “I’m gonna’ getcha,” and I burst into tears. Dad was embarrassed and explained to the woman that I did that all the time, not to worry about it. She made a big fuss telling me she was sorry.
At this same age, my entire family went to the Philadelphia Zoo. I was standing in front of the birdhouse, enchanted. The spectacle of so many birds, of every color and type, all living and flying around in this giant glass-enclosed area had a hypnotic effect on me. I guess I lingered a bit too long, as when I finally tore my eyes away to move on with my family, they had already moved on without me.
I won’t belabor the incident here, I’m not looking to blame anyone….Yes, it’s a little strange that responsible parents would just move on without counting heads, but, hey….they were human, too. It’s a mistake any parent could have made (my sister Kim once left her infant son in a grocery cart outside the supermarket, got in the car, and started to drive away before remembering him)….
The point is, I got over it….I no longer believe they left me on purpose….That’s ridiculous….But I screamed and cried at the top of my lungs when I saw they were gone. It was the first time in my four years without them.
The teen-aged staff took me to a waiting area, got my name in the midst of my blubbering, and summoned my parents over the loudspeakers to get me. They SEEMED genuinely happy to have me back….But is the way I remember it the way it really happened? What is memory but imagination?
I remember when JFK was assassinated in 1963. My Mom came to me in the living room while I was watching Queen For A Day (an awful show where every day some poor wretched woman would tell the viewing audience how terrible her life was, and they would give her a toaster or some other stupid prize. This was after they put a cape on her, and a crown on her head. Seriously).
“President Kennedy’s been shot….” Mom told me. No one else was home except my two-year-old brother Kirk. It isn’t until now, writing about it, that I really sympathize with my mother’s plight. One of the biggest events in history, and she had no one to tell except a four-year-old.
I remember getting the assassination scenario all screwed up in my head, too. Somehow I understood that President Kennedy had been visiting the Faulkner house across the street, where he had been invited for lunch. There, no doubt unhappy with his policies, Mr. Faulkner shot the President right there at the dining room table. This was the report I gave to Carl Grasso, my playmate who lived next door. (For all I know, this scenario may be believed by conspiracy nuts to be authentic).
So, is a four-year-old a rational human being, one whose testimony can be believed?
Because the topic of this story is exactly how I remember my first ever visit to….
And there are some aspects to this testimony that just COULDN’T have happened…or could they?
How I got a cavity at four years old is incomprehensible to me. But it was a beauty. Bottom right molar. My tooth ached like someone had driven a red-hot poker into my jaw. (I still took a bottle at age four, maybe that’s how I got the cavity. Hey, I was gonna’ drink the milk anyway, what’s the difference if it were in a glass or a bottle?! And besides, I put it away a long time ago….) I let my parents know I had a toothache the best way I could. I cried. And screamed. And cried some more. (I’m almost positive this happened AFTER the zoo incident, or else I WOULD wonder whether I was left behind at the birdhouse by “accident”).
Dad was a long-suffering man. Not as much as Mom suffered, but he paid his dues with us kids. Especially with me. I believe I gave the poor man more trouble than all the other kids put together, and that’s not false modesty. I awoke him at about one a.m., crying about my toothache. He had to get up for work at three a.m. I don’t remember what Mom was doing, or if she even got up. I just remember my poor Dad, upset, frustrated and helpless. What do you do for a four-year-old with a toothache at one o’clock in the morning? One screaming and crying at the top of his lungs?
This next part sounds terrible, and it wasn’t pleasant, but try to keep it in context if you are tempted to judge my Dad too harshly. The poor soul was exhausted, it was one a.m. I didn’t give him much rest all night, and now I’m still crying and whining about my tooth.
Seating me in a kitchen chair, Dad went to the drawer, and pulling out some type of household tool or appliance (I really don’t remember exactly what) he brandished it at me angrily and yelled “Do you want me to pull it out with THIS?!”
“NO!!” I screamed……
He went back to the drawer and pulled out something else (maybe a pair of pliers)….
“Do you want me to pull it out with THIS?” he yelled again.
“NO!” I blubbered again.
“Then what do you want me to DO?!” he yelled in frustration.
Today, the modern liberal parent reading that may think my father a monster guilty of some horrible abuse. But in those days, that was just Dad acting out.
I don’t recall exactly when I got to the dentist, but I’m sure it was the next day sometime. I honestly don’t recall the dentist’s name, but I’m sure he’s never forgotten ME. (I shall call him Dr. Frenzy.) This was my first trip to the dentist ever in my young life. I always, without fail, cried whenever I got a haircut (at Tony and John’s on Delaware Street). There were scissors, and this electric razor device, and a big unnatural looking chair.…enough components for any horror movie……So you can imagine my reaction when we got to the dentist’s office.
A huge Chamber of Horrors that would have looked at home in a wax museum greeted me. First, the dreaded waiting room, where the pain in my molar could be matched by the pain of suspense…Then the “work room,” with the dentist’s chair looking ten times worse then any barber’s…And that tray…that awful tray with every instrument of torture ever devised by the twisted mind of mankind. All of them made of gleaming metal, harsh and sharp and cruel…The tears started flowing immediately. Whatever was about to happen, I knew I wasn’t going to like it. I was the victim, the dentist the monster, and my Dad the terrible betrayer of my trust…..But there was no escape.
First, the dentist took a needle and injected my gums around the offending tooth. I screamed in agony and horror….Bad enough the tooth was killing me, now this fiend was jabbing me with a needle in the same area!!
Then he tried to place a wad of cotton in my mouth. (It is important to remember that from the time I entered this man’s waiting room until now I did not cease to cry and scream…I don’t recall whether Dad came into the dentist’s “work area” with me or not…I believe he did, or he may have been hiding.) I spit the cotton balls out of my mouth, across the room, and onto the floor. In a move that probably could have cost him his license (or at least a huge fine), Dr. Frenzy bent down, retrieved the wad of cotton from the dirty floor, and proceeded to stick it back in my mouth! I guess I was wearing on his nerves. At one point, I bit his index finger. He was wearing rubber gloves, but I don’t think they helped.
I REALLY carried on when he picked up the shiny metal pliers from the tray. The memory of dear old Dad “acting out” the night before played like some demented video in my head. For all I knew, this gruesome quack knew as much about pulling teeth as my Dad.
I remember the tremendous pressure of the pliers first crushing, then lifting the tooth from its socket. Then, blessed relief. The ordeal was over. The toothache was gone.
I eventually stopped crying, toning it down to a pouty moodiness.
That’s all of the experience I recall. As I look back on it, I wonder how accurate my memory of these events really is. So much of it seems crystal clear in my recollection, then fades out at the edges, becoming hazy around the corners. And what parts were merely the stuff of nightmares, that may not have happened at all?
Childhood memories….treacherous things….unreliable.
One final example doesn’t have to do with me, but an incident that happened to my brother Kirk.
When he was about six or seven, he was pretty sick with a high fever. During a period of delirium, he leapt out of his sick bed and out into the backyard. It was dark out, and either my Mom or Dad went out back to retrieve him.
In his fever dream state, he was babbling about giants being in the back yard. These things were as real to him as the kitchen table. My parents calmed him down, and put him securely back into his bed. Giants in the back yard, indeed.
The next morning, as I was in the back yard with my Dad, I saw him standing over by the side of the house outside the bedroom window. He looked grim and pale, and he called me over to where he was standing.
There, on the ground right outside the bedroom window where my younger brother Kirk was sleeping, were several pairs of giant footprints.
My Dad made me promise never to tell anyone, especially my brother. I kept that promise until now. I watched as Dad rubbed out the giant footprints with his shoe.
Nothing human had made those prints….
Childhood memories…Where does reality leave off, and the stuff of dreams begin?
Copyright 2004 by Kevin Kopko
This page was last edited on 03/3/2007