When I was a little boy in Dunsmuir

Lee Gass
September 12, 2003

When I was a little boy in Dunsmuir, in the mountains of far-northern California, both sets of grandparents lived in Medford, less than a hundred miles away and just across the border in Oregon. Medford wasn’t a real city by any means, not on the scale of Portland, San Francisco, or even Redding, fifty miles below Dunsmuir at the northern end of the Great Central Valley. But it had a few stoplights, and everywhere I knew about had sidewalks, too. Both of these were novelties to me, and fascinating. There was one escalator, and a few elevators. And in Medford’s Buster Brown shoe store I encountered the flouroscope machine. I know now that “flouroscope” is a fancy name for a now-extinct X-ray machine that blasted X-rays up through people’s feet and onto a flourescent screen. All I knew then was that it let me see my toes wiggle, right through my shoes. Grandma Gass took me back many times by my request. Who knows what the radiation did to my developing testicles; that’s why they made the machine illegal after a while.

Medford was exotic and mostly unknown from my child’s-eye perspective, but it was also a safe place for children. My grandparents lived about 8 blocks apart from each other in a working class residential neighborhood. Although Grandma and Grandpa Gass lived on a busy street, Grandma and Grandpa Dale were on a quiet one where only about half the people owned cars, and none of the streets between them were busy.

As soon as I could walk that far, my parents started walking between the homes with me, and they let me go it alone for the first time when I was about five. The first solo expedition must have been tightly planned, with people at both ends observant, aware of the time, and ready to switch into rescue mode if necessary. I’m sure the route was carefully choreographed and rehearsed. I imagine that in addition to the one I actually took, we also rehearsed several alternate routes in case I strayed, and rehearsed what to do if I found myself in unfamiliar territory. I am confident that my preparation included nothing that would make me apprehensive. In general, my training bred respect of dangerous situations, but not fear. Whatever our preparation for the first route, my mother soon loosened the choreography and I felt free to explore. It is worth describing that loosening, I think, because it reveals something important about how I was raised; I discussed the same set of issues at length in Reflections, elsewhere on this website.

In spite of all the details I speculated on above, I actually don’t remember anything about that first trip, and very little about any of the others. Oh, there are snippets, like the clean-looking piece of gum I saw on a sidewalk and decided not to pick up. But for the most part my memories, if I retained anything at all, are gone. I may have been concentrating too hard at the time on navigating to be aware of anything else; I can’t say. But I can say a few things about what it was like for my freedom to expand, because that kind of expansion was a constant theme of my childhood. Because, as I outlined in Reflections, the expansion was fueled by my challenging imposed limits with rational arguments, I was more or less and constantly thrilled by the process. An example is that in Medford, in addition to the sense of freedom that I experienced daily in my own familiar stomping grounds at home, I felt the excitement and the thrill that only explorers of unknown territory can experience.

My instructions were clear. But we will see that they were ambiguous, and produced much more complex consequences than could any simple recipe of what to do. Because the endpoints were on different streets it was impossible to simply “go that way when you go out the door and stop when you get to the other house”. I had to turn, and my instructions were an algorithm for navigation rather than a route. They provided a few simple rules that prevented my getting lost but required a decision at every intersection: continue in the same direction, turn right, or turn left. A prominent part of the instruction was a set of boundary rules: “Don’t cross Columbus Street (in the west), Main Street (in the south), Orange Street (in the east), or Palm Street (in the north).” This rule boxed me into a restricted area and protected me from heavy traffic on Columbus and Main Streets. But because the box was about 16 square blocks in area, it also opened considerable room for exploration.

Because my elders did not want me to take forever to make the transit they probably added a second constraint to the algorithm. “Go as far as you want in any direction, as long as you don’t cross boundary streets or go back the other way, no matter what street you’re on; don’t backtrack.” Those two constraints would have completely sufficed. I wouldn’t have had to remember anything about routes or plan ahead at all. It would also have allowed me to pay little attention to the names of streets, except for the red-flag boundary streets; in effect I could ignore everything but compass directions, the boundary streets, and the thrill of exploration.

From the viewpoint of a 5- or 6-year old intent on experiencing freedom while exploring the world, collapsing the problem of navigating the landscape into a simple algorithm like that expands freedom immensely, even while requiring the ability to deal with contingencies. It also sets the stage for powerful realizations about navigation in general, and about the geometry of orthogonally structured two-dimensional objects. But I’ll discuss the expansion of freedom first, because it sets the stage for be to describe the realization and to tell a story that I want to tell.

In a rectangular patch of town, such as the territory I navigated in the story, a little boy could follow many routes between two houses near its corners, even without backtracking. I don’t remember figuring out how many paths there were, although it would have been easy with the aid of a map, but I knew there were lots of them. Remembering all those routes would have been impossible for me, because I’ve always been very bad at remembering details. Even if all routes had their own names and I could remember the names, remembering which name went with which route would have been beyond me. But remembering the simple algorithm would have been a snap.

Paradoxically, defining the problem as that of navigating a rectangular lattice of streets, rather than that of remembering a large number of routes, at the same time greatly increased my freedom and increased my confidence that I knew what I was doing. But it also paved the way for a realization about geometry. On one of our trips to Medford, I realized something that surprised and delighted me. Within the rectangle, as long as I followed the rules, all possible routes were of exactly the same length. Given this, they would all take me the same amount of time to traverse as long as I walked them at the same speed. That kind of realization is important in my cognitive development, because it is an example of a set of abstract, general principles whose utility extends far beyond the situation in which I discovered them.

The realization about geometry in particular was especially interesting, because it was counterintuitive. I was already well aware that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. But the straight-line path between my grandparents’ houses was inaccessible because of the layout of the streets. So although the routes available to me were all the same length, each was longer than the diagonal that only a crow could traverse, and by exactly the same amount. In turn, this led me to consider fundamental differences between navigating flat fields, cities, forested mountain topography (see Reflections), and other kinds of landscapes.

The importance of general abstractions in cognitive development is a big topic. It would be fun to explore some implications of my realization, and I may do that later. But my purpose here is to explore my emotional development. So now that I have given some of the context that will give it meaning, I want to tell what happened one day while I walked from Grandma and Grandpa Gass’s house on Main Street over to Grandma and Grandpa Dale’s house on Palm. The story begins while I was walking along a sidewalk on a sunny day, heading north toward Palm Street and checking things out along the route. I found a Silver Dollar.

No matter that a dollar was worth a lot more in 1947 than it is today. I doubt if I had much idea of the value of money then, because I have hardly any idea of it even now. Silver Dollars were money, and since I didn’t have any of it of my own, getting some that I didn’t have to ask for was exciting. And Silver Dollars were big, heavy, shiny, fun to play with, and had interesting pictures on both sides. Silver Dollars were heavy enough to throw high in the air, and they made a satisfying sound when they hit the floor or the sidewalk. Although Silver Dollars were too big for my little hands to flip as easily as they could flip a nickel, when I managed it they flipped in a very satisfying way. Unlike a dime, I could feel the Silver Dollar in my pocket. I could feel it with my hand from the outside, with my leg from the inside, and from the sag of my pants. And the mass of a 1947 U.S. Silver Dollar was so much greater than that of a 1947 dime that its momentum emphasized its weightiness. While running, for example, dimes just disappear into the excitement. But Silver Dollars are for real and they stay that way, even to the extent that they can become the Main Attraction of the running, which adapts itself to exaggerate the bouncing of the dollar.

For all these reasons, I was ecstatic to find the dollar. I remained ecstatic all the way to Grandma and Grandpa Dale’s house, and was ecstatic when I entered the house, playing with my new-found money. Suddenly, my ecstasy turned to something else when my Auntie Alta, who had been alone in the living room when I entered, attacked me. Auntie Alta was my mother’s oldest sister, and she lived in Medford.

“Where did you get that dollar? You got it from your mother’s purse, didn’t you? You stole it!”

“I didn’t get it from Mama’s purse, Auntie Alta. I found it on the sidewalk and picked it up. It’s a Silver Dollar.”

“I know it’s a Silver Dollar, and I know you stole it from your mother’s purse. You’re in big trouble now, buster, because stealing is a bad thing to do.”

“I found it on the sidewalk, Auntie Alta. It was just laying there, and I picked it up.”

“Well where did you find it then? What street was it on?”

That really scared me, because I didn’t remember what street I found it on. So while Auntie Alta stood there waiting for me to lie to her again, I tried to rewind the movie in my memory to the place where I found it. I blurted out “Court Street! I found it on Court Street”.

“You couldn’t have found it on Court Street, you liar, because Court Street is way over on the other side of town. You’re lying to me, because you know and I know that you stole that dollar from your Mother’s purse.”

Just then, Mom came into the room and asked what was going on.

“He came in here with a Silver Dollar in his hand. When I asked him where he got it, he said ‘Court Street’. I think he stole the dollar from your purse and is lying to cover up.”

Mom kept her cool. She just said something like “Let’s go see where you found the dollar, Lee, just you and me. Do you think you can show me where you found it?” She kept her cool all the way, I’m sure, because that was her style and because she knew it was important for me to keep my cool and find the spot. I don’t know what we talked about on the way, but I’d be willing to bet that we didn’t talk about my guilt or innocence. We may have talked about how pretty the Silver Dollar was, or about how I made up my mind which route to take that day, or who knows what. But before very long we got to the place, went beyond it, and I re-enacted the excitement of my discovery. Then we went to the end of the block to read the street sign, and I discovered that it was “Myers Court”, not “Court Street”.

I learned from my mistake in reading or remembering. I also remember reveling in how one word can mean different things in different contexts. “Court” can refer to a short, quiet street with little traffic, or to a square expanse of pavement. Courts are much different than the “Highway” we lived on, and different than “Boulevards” or “Main Streets”. But the name of a street can also refer to what they named the street for. In the case of Court Street I imagined a kind of a building where a certain kind of thing happens. We didn’t have a courthouse in Dunsmuir, so I had to learn about law courts to appreciate this. It helped that while we called the street in front of our house “the highway”, its official name as it appeared on letters that came to our mailbox was “North Highway (later it became “Dunsmuir Avenue”, and I found all of this fascinating).

I don’t know what we talked about on the way back, either. But at one point, Mom said something like “Don’t pay any attention to Auntie Alta. She’s pretty mean sometimes, and she likes to accuse people of things. Don’t argue with her, though. Just stand there and let her rant. Pretty soon she’ll get tired of it and stop. And if she asks you a question, just tell her the truth, just like you did about Myers Court, no matter what she says. If you have to cry, go ahead and cry. But there’s really no reason to, no matter how mean she gets, because you know what the truth is and you know that you told it. If you’re wrong about something, admit it. But if you’re not wrong, or if you don’t know you’re wrong, it’s her problem, not yours. If you’re not sure you’re right, it’s OK to say you’re not sure, but give the best answer you can and don’t worry about it. This time, you don’t need to say you made a mistake in remembering Myers Court as Court Street. If she asks you, then tell her you made a mistake. But I’ll talk to her about what happened, and I don’t think she’ll bother you any more about it. At least I don’t think she will. But if she does, don’t let her get under your skin, OK?”

Obviously I made that dialog up. I didn’t remember it, and although in some cases I remember the exact wording, the exact timing, and the exact context in which things happened 50 or 60 years ago, in this case I didn’t remember anything except the feelings. At least I think of them as feelings. And out of the feeling I invented the dialog. In fact, I invented all of the details except the three players, the overall context in which the episode occurred, the fact that it really was a Silver Dollar, and that I found it on Myers Court, not Court Street. In spite of all the invention, however, I believe that I invented it much as it really happened, in each of its essences.

Given that, several things about the episode are interesting and I think meaningful. I’ll save the meaning till later, till after I’ve related a few more stories about justice. But some things are worth pointing out here. Apart from the main theme of justice, particularly unjust accusations, there is the theme of characterization, which in the episode was closely associated with the accusation. Not only did Auntie Alta demonstrate her lack of trust of me as a person, but she “named” me both as “liar” and as “thief”. That in itself can be a very heavy thing, not just for 5-year-olds wanting to explore the world, but for 61-year-old Grandpas wanting to make sense of their lives.

Sticks and stones
Can break my bones,
But names can never hurt me.

There were many things that I didn’t understand about playground culture, and one of them was that ditty. I never said it, myself, because it always seemed like a lie when I was about to say it. And when other kids said it, it was obvious that the names had already hurt them and they were trying ineffectively to cover up, attacking back, or some other thing that I had a hard time imagining. In my experience, i.e. in my memory, it often hurt very badly to be characterized, and it still does. In general, I would rather have had the sticks and stones. Not always, however, and that is interesting in itself. For example, if some kid that I knew to be a chicken had called me a chicken, it wouldn’t have made any difference and I wouldn’t have cared. But if someone I considered brave called me that, it would have broken my heart.

Interestingly, I remember feeling similarly concerned about positively-slanted characterizations, and later came to understand the therapeutic term “impostor syndrome” for my response. For example, I was nearly always suspicious if adults called me a “smart little boy”, or anything like that. What did they know? Were they smart enough to know what smart was? How could they know how many mistakes I made in remembering or explaining things? And after all, the thing they were commenting on was usually some dumb thing that was so easy it was embarrassing that they thought it smart. Besides, I don’t remember my parents ever calling me smart, although I knew they knew I was. With Mom, for example, we thought about hard things every day and figured them out. But we didn’t call ourselves smart just because we could do that. We just felt good about what we’d done and then thought about something else.