by Arnold Snyder
From the bits and pieces I remember from my early childhood, I believe I was a happy kid. We lived in a typical middle-class home on the east side of Strait City that my father had purchased in 1950 when I was two—a two-story four-bedroom brick house on a double lot, with an unfinished basement and a big fenced backyard. Over the years, my father would finish the basement, add wings to create a dining room and stretch the living room, and build a two-car garage and a pool. He did a lot of the remodeling himself, sometimes with help from other men in the neighborhood. His friend Art did all the plumbing.
I don’t remember the apartment we’d lived in before that, though I remember teething on the wooden railing on my crib and the taste of the wood where I’d scraped off the paint with the stubs of my first teeth. I liked the taste of the wood. I can still taste it. I remember holding onto the vertical bars and jumping up and down on the springy mattress so my mother would come. I’m sure that memory is from that first apartment and it’s a pleasant memory. I liked bouncing on the mattress. I liked the squeaky noise it made.
At our new house, I remember playing in the snow in our front yard with my sister Diane who was a year older. We made a snowman. We threw snowballs. I hit her in the face with one and she ran into the house crying. My mother came out with Diane and told me not to throw snowballs at people. Try and hit the tree, she said, pointing to the small elm in front of the house. So I tried to make a contest of it. See who can hit the tree from the furthest away. Diane didn’t want to throw snowballs anymore. She wanted to make another snowman. We made a snowman. I liked Diane. I told her I was sorry. I loved Diane.
I remember my stuffed elephant, Saggy Baggy, named after a 78 rpm record that my mother played for me. But my favorite song was “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” I remember the first time I saw Superman on our black-and-white Sylvania TV. I begged my mother to make me a Superman outfit. She did, out of long johns. All of these memories are happy.
I remember building things with Tinkertoys. I didn’t build recognizable structures like houses or towers. I liked to string together as many pieces as I could to stretch from one end of the living room to the other, then turn the corner and start down the hallway. To me they were train tracks and I was working on the railroad.
The fondest memories I have of my father are from my very early childhood, when he would lie down on the living room rug with his shirt off and ask me and Diane to give him a back scratch. We’d sit down on the floor on either side of him and no matter how hard we scratched, he’d tell us to scratch harder. Then he would turn over and give us both a “whisker rub,” which meant he’d rub his scratchy chin on our bare bellies, and start blowing on our stomachs to make funny noises and tickling us until we were almost in tears.
I remember watching my father saw pine boards to build a sandbox in our backyard. Diane dug holes in the sand with a small painted tin shovel and filled a painted tin bucket, then dumped it back into the holes she’d dug. I didn’t care much for digging. I saw the sandbox as a battlefield where I could play with my army men, the standard little green plastic molded soldiers that were popular with boys in the 1950s. My father had been a soldier in World War II. There was a photograph of him in his uniform that my mother kept on her dresser.
I loved my army men. Santa had given them to me for Christmas. Most had rifles and were in various positions aiming their guns. Some were on their bellies. The guy with the bazooka was down on one knee. My dad said he had to get down like that or the blast would knock him over when it fired. Some of the soldiers were throwing hand grenades. I decided the bazooka guy was my father, shooting at the Japs.
My friend Billy who lived across the street and a few houses down also had army men. He would come over almost every day and we’d have battles in the sandbox. Neither of us wanted to be the Japs, so we’d take turns. The Japs always lost. We’d throw sand at the soldiers to simulate bullets, sometimes knocking them over, sometimes burying them. When I was the Japs I’d put the bazooka guy in my pocket. I wasn’t going to let Billy bury my Dad and my Dad was never a Jap.
I remember feeling a sense of awe in church on Sundays. My mother had told me that God lived there. God was invisible, but he could see everything and do anything and he made the whole world. The church was “God’s house.” My mother was devoutly religious. There were pictures of Jesus on the walls and a statue of Mary in the living room and a fancy white and gold crucifix over my parents’ bed. When I walked into a church, I felt a sense of reverence. I imagined an invisible God floating there, filling the air with his presence. Everything my mother had ever told me about God was good. He loved everyone. He would always take care of us. When we died we would all be with him in Heaven together, for all the rest of time.
My grandfather on my mother’s side, who we called Papa, was a monsignor in the Russian Orthodox Church and had his own parish in upstate New York. Papa always wore his priest’s collar and black clothes, most often a suit, sometimes a floor-length black cassock. But we only saw my grandparents once a year or so. Their whole house was decorated with Russian icon paintings, many of the Virgin Mary, in ornate gold frames that Papa had decorated with colored rhinestones. I once watched him working with glue and tweezers to apply rhinestones to one of the framed prints. Papa was an artist and I admired him for his talent. He made me want to be an artist. When I told him I wanted to learn how to do what he was doing, he gave me a collection of rhinestones—all different colors and sizes and shapes—that I treasured for many years, though I never glued them to anything. My memories of my grandfather are happy.
Diane started kindergarten when she turned five. Every day she was returning home with pictures she’d colored or finger-painted. I begged my mother to let me go to school with Diane but my mother said I wasn’t old enough. My 2-year-old sister, Joanne—who we called JoJo—and 1-year-old brother, Leo, were still at home, but they were too young to be my playmates. To keep me from moping around the house, my mother got me some new coloring books and pads of paper to draw on.
I didn’t care much for coloring, but I liked drawing and even more than that I wanted to write words and numbers. We had a big collection of children’s books—Puss ’n Boots, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Little Black Sambo, many others—and I wanted to know how to read the stories. My mother taught me the alphabet and I started writing long strings of letters then I’d ask her what it said. She finally started sitting down with me to show me how to sound out the letters to spell simple words. She was a good teacher. She taught me how to write my name and every day she would tape the words I wrote on the refrigerator door next to the pictures my sister brought home from kindergarten.
I was also fascinated by numbers and after I learned to write all the numbers from one to ten, I wanted to know what came next and how to write it. Some days I filled pages with numbers, all written in order, to show my mother how high I could count. I continually asked her how to say various numbers I’d written until I figured out how to count to a hundred. My Uncle Ned and Aunt Billie visited one Sunday and my mother bragged to him about how smart I was, showing him pages of words and numbers I’d written.
He pointed to a number. “What’s that?” he asked me.
The smile on his face when I said that filled me with pride.
The street I grew up on looked pretty much like the neighborhoods on the popular TV shows in the early 50s—Life of Riley, Father Knows Best, Ozzie and Harriet, The Stu Erwin Show. White-bread, middle-class, single-family houses with well-kept lawns and driveways that led to garages, fenced back yards, elm trees forming a green archway over the street in the summer that changed color in the fall, one tree in front of each house, the branches forming a canopy over the paved sidewalks that were often drawn on with chalk for kids’ games like hopscotch. In the summertime kids ran through sprinklers on their front lawns. In the winter, snowmen stood sentry in front of many houses. Little kids rode tricycles on the sidewalks. Big kids played running bases in the street. There was little traffic. No one locked their doors. Everyone knew everyone.
We were the baby boomers. Our fathers had fought in WWII and came home heroes. A few had gone to college but they all owned their own houses on the GI Bill and got a new car every few years. Nobody was out of work.
My whole world revolved around my mother. If she was in the kitchen, I’d sit at the kitchen table with my writing supplies so I could continually show her my work or ask her about words I didn’t understand. If she was in the living room ironing or folding clothes or using her sewing machine, I’d spread out my stuff on the living room carpet and work there.
Up until I was five, modesty wasn’t an issue in our house, at least not among us kids. I had no natural sense of modesty. On Saturday nights, my dad would stand in the shower in his colorful boxer shorts while my mother would pass us into him one at a time. He’d scrub us down, and rinse us off under the shower, saying close your eyes, keep ’em closed, stand still, stop squirming, we gotta rinse the soap off so hold your breath, here Meg, gimme the next one, then pass us back out to Mom. She’d dry us off and we’d run into the bedroom to get our pajamas on. I loved showering with my dad. He acted like it was all business, but it was a pleasure to feel the hot water and breathe the steam.
Being naked in the bathroom with my sisters at that age meant nothing to me, other than the fact that they seemed curious about the dangling appendage I had between my legs, an appendage they lacked. So, I’d jump around and shake my hips to wiggle it for them. I also think they envied my ability to pee standing up, aiming my dick like a hose.
I would soon be entering kindergarten at Burbich Elementary, the neighborhood public school, and maybe that had something to do with my mother’s decision to teach me modesty. I was growing up, about to enter the world, meet new kids, walk further from home than I’d ever gone before. Whatever her reasoning, the Saturday night shower ritual ended.
My mother explained to us that from now on, since we were bigger, we should never let anyone see us naked.
“Never show your tootsie to anyone,” she said. She used the word “tootsie” to mean both the male and female genitalia. “And never look at anyone else’s tootsie.” Suddenly, looking at a tootsie was forbidden, and she didn’t say why.
It made no sense to me. My sisters didn’t have anything much to look at down there, but they seemed to enjoy my Saturday-night-run-from-the-shower shows and I had fun making them laugh. What was the problem?
I’d seen my father’s equipment on numerous occasions, as he thought nothing of taking a leak in front of me. I’d also seen it occasionally in the shower, as I’m sure my sisters had, as the loose fly on those baggy wet boxer shorts he wore would sometimes flap open. But I’d never seen my mother, or any adult female, naked, not that I had any great interest in doing so. I never even thought about it.
Always the rebel, the next morning, I started skipping down the hallway naked, laughing and shaking my stuff for all I was worth. My sisters screamed and Mom came running. As I attempted to race past her, she picked me up off my feet and swept me laughing into her and my father’s bedroom—a room that was off limits to us kids unless invited. She sat me down on the quilted bedspread on their big bed and produced a length of thin red ribbon from her dresser. I watched in curious amazement as she tied a big bow around my penis. Then she picked me up and carried me into the kids’ room where my sisters were playing.
They screamed when they saw me, pointing and laughing. I looked down at my penis wrapped in that ridiculous bow and it hit me that I was being made fun of. I didn’t like it. I’d never before seen my dick as something to be ashamed of. I started crying, begging my mother to put me down. My sisters laughing made my anguish worse. I tried to cry louder than they were laughing. My mother was holding me under my arms and swaying me back and forth in front of them. They laughed harder. I cried louder.
I must have looked to my sisters like a two-year-old having a temper tantrum. Except I was five. My mother was strong; she came from sturdy Russian stock. I was kicking my skinny legs for all I was worth and screaming bloody murder. It was an angry rage I felt. I was being violated and my sisters screaming in laughter tortured me.
Then my mother carried me back to her room and removed the bow.
She tried to comfort me but I was inconsolable. For the first time in my life, I didn’t want her to hold me. I wanted nothing to do with her. I ran out of her room and into the bathroom, shutting the door.
Within moments, the door opened and she was there, trying to talk to me. I couldn’t hear her words. I just kept crying and telling her to go away. She was trying to be nice to me. Was she trying to apologize? Just words.
My parents normally spanked us to keep us in line, but spankings were rare and this was not like a spanking. I knew I’d disobeyed, but it didn’t seem like I’d done anything I hadn’t done a hundred times. I made my sisters laugh. We were all happy. We weren’t fighting.
I’d never before seen my sisters laugh at me when I was crying. We were allies, my sisters and me. We occasionally argued about territory or who’s first or who gets the biggest piece. But we were comrades in arms in our household. We didn’t tell on each other or ever try to get one another in trouble. When I spilled my milk at the age of four, five-year-old Diane ran to the kitchen and got a dishrag to wipe it up fast, so Mom wouldn’t see it. We’d do anything to avoid getting Dad mad. We were on the same team.
I didn’t have a team anymore.
I was incapable of forgiving. I didn’t trust my mother any more. I didn’t like my sisters. For some reason beyond my understanding, my mother hated that thing between my legs. There was nothing she could have said that would have made me trust her again the same way I’d trusted her before. She’d succeeded in teaching me a lesson, but we lost the relationship we’d had. I’d lost my connection to the most important person in my world.
That night, in the quiet privacy of my bed, under the covers, I found a peculiar new comfort. I was crying but making no noise. I didn’t want my mother coming in to see what was wrong. She was what was wrong. She didn’t like my tootsie. My sisters didn’t like it. There was nothing I could do about it. I wrapped my fingers around my dick and held it, squeezed it, stroked it, gradually discovered how sensitive the underside was and how rubbing that area made it grow and get stiff.
It was not an entirely new discovery. I remember showing my dad once in the bathroom that my tootsie was hard and him telling me to “pull your pants up and go play,” like I was bothering him with something that didn’t matter. I think I was three or four then.
But that night, for the first time in my life, I masturbated. And on that night, I had my first orgasm.
It stunned me. It snuck up on me. I was rolling my dick in my fingers with both hands, like kneading dough, and that hardness inside just kept getting harder till it felt like the soft skin had been slipped over something that was more like bone than flesh. And it felt so good and it kept feeling better and better, until every muscle in my arms and my legs and my stomach and my neck tightened and I didn’t want to stop. I was no longer conscious of my bed, my room, my house, my place in my family. My skin tingled and it felt so good it had to be magic, until I found myself breathing heavily in my bed, exhausted, and just thinking what was that?
And whatever the problem had been with my mother wasn’t even worth thinking about. This was magic. Real magic.
At five, I believed in magic. I not only believed in Santa Claus, I loved Santa Claus. He was as real to me as my parents. He was as real to me as God, who floated in his house where we visited him every Sunday. And this was the most real magic I had ever felt.
Then I squeezed one of my balls and almost went through the roof. So much for that experiment.
My perspective on the world went through a profound change. Girls had become a different species. I could see that my two-year-old brother had the same kind of tootsie as mine, so I knew I wasn’t alone in my deformity. And I knew my father had a dick.
Up until that incident, the only substantive difference between boys and girls that I could see was that girls had to sit on the toilet to pee. On that basis alone, I preferred being a boy. Now I saw the difference as much deeper than that. I hadn’t known before that boys’ tootsies were repulsive to girls. That changed everything.
Go to Chapter 2