By age 18, I had lived nine years rural, nine years suburban. The first two years in suburbia were by far the most impacting upon my family. We moved to the Washington, D.C. area just in time for me to start first grade and my brother to start the eighth. This was the post-Camelot, post-JFK assassination era, when LBJ was in the White House. The country was still pretty severely shaken by those black and white images of John Kennedy’s brain being splattered all over Jackie O. and the back of the black limousine in Dallas. Who was this Lee Harvey Oswald guy anyway? Our collective American swagger had temporarily morphed into a timid gait.
But my Dad’s gait was still strong and self-assured. After all, he was the “small-town-boy made good” on that day he informed the folks in Winfield that he was moving to Washington, D.C. to work at The Capitol. Newly elected Congressman William Hungate had decided to hire Lincoln County Missouri native and incumbent County Tax Collector Nathan Albert Ricks as his top aide.
Things didn’t work out as planned for Dad at the Capitol nor for my brother at Sligo Junior High in Wheaton. I don’t know the whole story because I was just a kid and you know how your parents and the other adults try to “shelter” you from everything. But Bill Hungate and my father’s relationship obviously soured shortly after arrival to “the big city.” I think my Dad felt mistreated, maybe too subservient or like a “go-fer”. It was also rumored that Hungate’s ego had gotten out of hand after winning the election. All I know was that it wasn’t a very good period of time for my primary male role models.
Upon our family move, from then on known simply as “the move”, Jim wore thick black horn-rimmed glasses and a flat or crew-cut hairstyle. This style must have been “in” back in Winfield, but it obviously wasn’t at the much more culturally diverse middle schools of Washington, D.C.. Jim must have been an easy target for these 8th grade wise guys.
The effect of not being accepted in his new school was traumatic for Jim. He began to hide in our basement around 7:30 a.m. on school days. Since Mom was home all day, Jim had to “pretend” that he was leaving out the door to school and then quietly sneak back into the basement. He would have me snuggle a days worth of food and drink from the kitchen before I left for 1st grade. He threatened to beat me up if I told Mom that he was not in school. How Jim managed to stay quiet all day while Mom did housework, watched soap operas and did whatever else Moms’ did back in that era always astonishes me.
Of course, eventually Jim was discovered playing hooky in his own house. Things just weren’t working out for him here, so he moved back to Winfield without us to live with our Aunt Bea and Uncle Earl. Jim and I never talked much about the worst thing that happened to him in Maryland until thirty years later. Often it takes a death or something similarly shocking, to get people to talk about these kinds of things.
After burying Dad on a bitter cold day in January, 1997, Jim reminded me of his most painful experience after “the move.” It happened during an all-school assembly at Sligo Junior High in Maryland, when the coach of the 8th grade basketball team introduced Jimmy Ricks over the microphone as “the ugliest boy in the school.” These days a teacher would probably be fired for saying that, but not back then.
My reaction to our family’s move and the way it effected my Dad and brother was mixed. I was stimulated, playful, and thoroughly engaged by what this “brave new world” offered. We lived next door to a fun Italian family that could barely speak English. Their Italian cousins lived across the street. Up the other road a half-mile was a synagogue. And separating our back yard by merely a partial wooden fence, there was an all-black, full on gospel, foot-washin’ Baptist church, complete with a cemetery in front of the church dating back before the Civil War. Here amongst gravestones marked 1700, 1800 and 1900’s, little Randy Ricks would light fires in the rusty barrel and smoke cigs with the even littler 4-year-old Italian boy Petey from next door. The rusty barrel between our back fence and the all-black cemetery was the perfect perch for little kids to create the secret worlds they do.
Despite my rebelliousness, I loved and excelled in 1st grade so much that I passed up a private tour of the White House because I didn’t want to miss a day of school. Since Winfield didn’t have a kindergarten and my Mom was a stay-at-home Mom, (weren’t they all then?) she taught me to read at home before “the move” so I had confidence upon entering my first classroom in Wheaton, Maryland. Also, unlike my brother Jim who moved to Maryland in time to start 8th grade, this was my first school experience. I had nothing to compare it to.
But maybe because of the way I saw my Dad and brother react to “the move”, I just kept rebelling in my own way. I ran away from home sometimes, which generally meant huddling in my underwear out in the cold near the rusty barrel for a few minutes before deciding I was freezing and coming back inside. I also taught myself to pilfer in order to obtain the ingredients necessary for these “spiritual times” hanging at the barrel. Since I was apparently a pyromaniac, I would first need from the nearby grocery store cigarettes, cigars and 500-sheet packs of notebook paper stolen for the sole purpose of burning them in the barrel.
Perhaps my most memorable “crime” from my early youth was getting caught smoking in the school playground one morning–not by the recess attendant, not by my teacher– but by the Principal.
After roughly two years in the big city, Dad resigned and we reunited with brother Jim in my Mom’s childhood town, Elsberry. Elsberry was only 12 miles from Winfield and three times bigger with a town city limit sign fluctuating between 1700 and 1900 residents.
Elsberry would make national news later that decade for cows being found mutilated with unusually precise, laser-like incisions. The rumors were that it was the work of UFO’s or satan worshippers. My Dad lost in the election for State Representative and spiraled into a depression. Jim was a sophomore in high school and experimented with the drugs prevalent in 1967 and 1968. I tried to break up the fights between Nathan and Jim, but it wasn’t easy for a 9-year-old. Within the year, Dad was treated for depression. Shortly after we moved to Florissant, Jim suffered his own depression. To this day in 2010, I remain the only male from my immediate family not to undergo electro shock therapy–known back then as simply “shock treatments.”
I’m not sure what to make of that interesting fact of my family life. But I know that millions of depression and mental illness sufferers today do not face nearly as much ridicule and abuse as they did back then, when even talking about the topic was “taboo”.