This is part of an 8-part series about growing up with Asperger’s in a different era.
1944 – 1945
Europe and Asia were in flames. Russia and much of Europe were engaged in fighting for their lives against the juggernaut of Nazi Germany controlled by a madman backed by platoons of crazed, robotized youths. Japan had joined in the fray and was busily overrunning the Far East including weak, behemoth China.
During the war many able-bodied parents worked full time instead of being sent overseas. Since many of their jobs had been deemed critical to the war effort, arrangements had to be made for us children in their absence. Subsequently public schools were assigned the task of daycare between the time classes ended and parents got off work. I was one of these pre-latchkey kids, eleven or twelve. We attended a large, monolithic structure named after one of our lesser illustrious presidents. Classes ended around two or three but we had to remain on premises until our parents came for us around six. During school holidays like Christmas vacation, we spent weekdays there so our parents could continue working.
The staff had its hands full with about fifty of us irrepressible bundles of energy. We were given sundry tasks to occupy the hours and hopefully keep us out of mischief. Offerings included woodworking, model construction, painting, clay modeling, reading, sports indoors and out, building blocks or Tinkertoys, a large sandbox and so on. Compared with much of the world beyond, we were safe, warm, well-fed and led relatively stable lives.
While most of us children were cooperative and behaved well, a handful of us were troublemakers. All except one was soon brought into line. For whatever reason I was that one, seemingly bent on creating mischief. A contributing factor was undoubtedly my rejection by the other kids who regularly excluded me from their cliques and activities. While I made several attempts at participating in group activities initially, mostly through the encouragement of staff, I remained an outsider. In time I stopped trying and sought my own path.
No one was interested in a kid who hated popular music, preferring the likes of Beethoven, Brahms, Stravinsky, Wagner. I came by these composers through my parents, who not only liked classical but had acquired a modest collection of 78-rpm phonograph records.
I devoured science-fiction given the chance. Which wasn’t much at first since that genre was still in its early phase. Walt Disney’s Fantasia in 1940 took me by storm in two ways; first was to introduce me to the rousing music of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring , second to the world of dinosaurs decades before the craze became what is today. I’d gaze at pictures portraying artists’ renditions of how these giant beasts might’ve looked and moved in life to the accompaniment of Stravinsky’s music. It was an instant hit and remains one of my favorites decades later.
Since I enjoyed virtually no success penetrating other kids’ cliques, instead becoming the butt of their teasing and sometimes bullying, my resentment grew. I saw myself as a homely, scrawny scrap of humanity, undersized and shabbily dressed since we didn’t have much money. It came to where I was fearful of venturing outside if staff wasn’t present lest I fall prey to my tormenters.
I made a wonderful discovery. I don’t recall how I came upon it, whether from something I’d read or thought up myself. I’d learned from bitter experience that if I reported that someone had picked on me, retribution could be swift, worsening an already ugly situation. But what if I said nothing, instead vigilante-like took matters into my own hands, leaving no visible trace of my actions? How could anyone strike back at an invisible target? I tried it on a small scale at first and it worked wonderfully. My tormenters soon found themselves blamed for minor transgressions they hadn’t committed. Intoxicated with early success, I broadened my horizons a bit at a time, soon reached the threshold of causing real trouble and possible physical injury to myself and/or others.
And I learned something else. Arrogance can lead to carelessness and I got careless. First my actions were centered on blame-shifting, but I soon gave that up for a wider scope, coming to seek weaknesses wherever I could find them. Then one rainy day I got caught in the act. The verbal lashing from my father was followed by a hard slap to the face, the details leading to that particular indignity long forgotten. Following that debacle I went underground, carefully weighing risks versus benefits, sometimes lying low weeks before I felt safe enough to make another move.
Punishment invariably remolded me into the outwardly perfect, docile child, but never for long. Expulsion was out since both parents were tied to jobs deemed vital to the war effort. Competent outside help was too expensive besides almost impossible to obtain. I was stuck where I was, parents stuck where they were, school stuck with me. The usual approach in circumstances like this is to make the best of it. Except I didn’t; a daemon lurking somewhere within my being refused to play nice if not played nicely to, a daemon I couldn’t always control.
One of my tormenters broke a window whether by accident or on purpose. On a bright sunny day soon after, I impulsively picked up a tack hammer, stuffed it under my shirt and stole into a nearby lavatory where I calmly tapped out all six panes in its single window, gratified by the sound of glass shards tinkling on the sidewalk two floors below. As I turned to leave, I was mortified to see Miss B—an attendant I’d dubbed Miss Battleship B—standing in the doorway blocking any chance of escape. She yanked the hammer out of my hand, grabbed my arm hard and steered me straightaway into the Principal’s office downstairs, not a word spoken until we arrived. She angrily waved the hammer in front of the Principal’s startled face and I thought she might actually strike him. Outside of that everyone seemed calm. No raised voices, no threats directed in my direction. The Principal, a bald, severe-looking individual without a mote of humor in his bones that I could detect, kept me grounded in his office until my parents arrived to take me home. When I saw my father a sense of foreboding seized me. I was told to wait in the hall while he and the Principal had words. Again no raised voices.
I fixed my gaze on one of the hall ceiling fixtures. It seemed dimmer than the others, its bulb perhaps on the verge of burning out. I felt like that fixture, dim, failing, about to undergo punishment which would never befall a bulb, just me. Failing bulbs could be changed and I wished I could be changed as easily for a newer, better me.
My father, at heart a kindly but angry man, almost never beat us children. But almost never wasn’t the same as never and he could get mean if riled up. One of his tactics was what I dubbed The Silent Treatment. After we got home I was sent to my room. He unscrewed the light bulb from the ceiling fixture and the lamp on the desk, closed and locked the door behind him. The only light I could see came in from under the door and a lone streetlight a few houses away. “Would you boys like to go to the movies tonight,” I heard his overly loud, strained voice asking my two younger brothers just outside, obviously raised for my benefit. “Or we could go to the store and get you guys something nice.” I don’t recall their replies, if any. I later wondered if they were fearful, knowing the same could happen to them for whatever infraction one or the other might commit. My siblings and I rarely exchanged words so I never learned how they felt. Curiously, my mother never mentioned the incident; it’s possible my father had gotten her out of the house or she was working that night.
In 1945 the war was in its sixth year, no end in sight. That meant we might have to spend another summer under the auspice of Daycare like the year before, a prospect I both feared and dreaded. Could I withstand another year of teasing and bullying? What if I got caught doing mischief again? Or someone—maybe even myself—got hurt because of what I’d done, a growing possibility.
Cots had been set up on the stage of the school auditorium, a hulking edifice capable of seating hundreds. These cots were arranged in neat rows, upon which small children, some of them preschoolers, would climb after lunch. Members of the staff took turns reading aloud to them, watching over them as they napped.
I had on more than one occasion scurried up a long steel ladder bolted to the left side wall backstage, its top rungs allowing access to a long, narrow platform spanning the width of the stage. The contraption was thirty feet or so above the stage floor, the equivalent height of a three-story building. It had sturdy guardrails along both sides affording a measure of safety. Numerous rails suspended from the ceiling ran along either side; attached to them were sundry canvasses depicting various scenes that could be raised or lowered. Clusters of lights and other theatrical paraphernalia could be seen whenever I glanced up.
The platform swayed slightly with each step; itself hung from above via sturdy, steel-braided ropes. I had no business being up there, making it all the more inviting of course. Woe to me if the staff ever found out. I’d not only be punished but the ladder would’ve been made inaccessible, perhaps the entire stage as well. Only later did I wonder why this hadn’t already been done with us kids running all over the place. It was dangerous going up, dangerous being up there, dangerous coming back down. Surely somebody must’ve known, but apparently no one had pursued the matter.
Water bombs were all the rage. I’d observed the other kids making them so by copying their tactics I soon learned to fabricate my own. My first efforts leaked or fell apart so I experimented with different arrangements and kinds of paper until I got what I wanted: a leak-proof, rugged bomb that held together for at least several hours and which I could carry some distance without mishap.
Battleship B I’m sure hated it when it fell her turn to read aloud to her charges but duty was duty, a fact she clearly understood and bent to if not willingly. Her day of reading was every other Wednesday, I soon discovered. Now I avoided her whenever possible but not so obviously as to rouse suspicion. Little did she know I had her in my sights. A wrong gesture, glance, or act of carelessness on my part and the surprise I’d been planning would be called off.
I chose a date three weeks in advance to allow for further testing. I practiced dropping water bombs from the roof of our house and other high places to see how accurately I could hit a target not quite directly below. More than once I was on the point of calling off the whole affair or postponing it to another Wednesday. The danger was I could keep putting it off to where nothing would happen.
The day before the day I’d designated Operation B was stressful. I rehearsed what I’d planned again and again in my mind, on the lookout for previously unthought-of snafus which could ruin everything. Finally, that fateful Wednesday dawned after a mostly sleepless night. This is it, I thought grimly.
I was on hyper-alert now, on the lookout for the slightest sign of suspicion. If anyone suspected anything they didn’t show it. Maybe they were watching me as closely as I was watching them; I had no way of telling. I had previously sneaked items I needed up to the platform bit by bit, reducing my chances of getting caught red-handed. And I didn’t want to do anything that could rouse suspicions later. I was really scared but had invested too much to back out now, a rollercoaster careening madly downhill gaining momentum.
Around midmorning I disappeared briefly, stating I had to go to the bathroom. Instead I bolted a roundabout route to the auditorium whose back entry was a short distance away. I scurried up the ladder, prepared my bomb exercising consummate care not to get a drop of its contents on me or my clothing. This was no ordinary water bomb: about a third of its volume consisted of indelible India Ink, lifted from my mother’s art supplies.
While I’ve forgotten some of the details, the sequence was essentially this: eat lunch with the others, bolt back and dash up the ladder before the smaller kids came in and took their places on the cots. As hoped-for, Battleship B presently sauntered in, and seeing her charges safely bedded down, sat in a wooden folding chair facing them, opened a book and began reading aloud.
Unbeknownst to her, her nemesis was stealthily creeping noiselessly along the platform high above to a position nearly directly overhead. I moved slowly, warily, pulling the bomb some distance before me on a sheet of paper—I can still feel the rush of adrenaline decades later. I nudged the bomb toward the platform’s edge, took one more quick look before easing it over.
Splat! A soft, barely audible squishy sound reached my ears, followed by a yelp that would’ve sent the whole town running had this occurred out-of-doors. I itched to peer over the edge to see what was happening but dared not. I heard her chair tip over followed by heavy footfalls as she jumped up and fled. The children, suddenly startled awake quickly followed. I caught a fleeting glimpse of her ink-besmirched dress a fraction of a second before she sailed through the rear exit.
It hit like a blow to the stomach that, with all my careful planning and preparations, I’d neglected one detail: now what? How was I to get off the platform, down the long ladder without slipping or falling, and out of the building before anyone showed up? I froze with terror as I heard approaching footfalls growing louder by the minute accompanied by unfriendly-sounding voices.
I totally freaked out, momentarily seized by abject fear. No time to dash back down now, besides I might slip and fall in my haste since the rungs were worn smooth. I had two choices: fall to my death or be held accountable. It would’ve been a hard choice to make had I had the time to think about it. Seconds counted.
The only way out was up. But up to where? Wasn’t I already as high as I could go? The unbroken surface of the ceiling unnerved me. Then I spied a small, barely perceptible rectangular opening in the gloom almost directly overhead. Could I reach it? I had to! I figured it was five or six feet above the platform. If I stood on the railing, about three feet high, I could reach the opening. But if I miscalculated and fell, it would be like tumbling out of a third floor window.
The voices were growing louder. Panic stricken I hopped up on the handrail and with a burst of superhuman energy grabbed hold of the opening’s edge and somehow pulled myself up and in, perilously close to losing my grip. I prayed the opening’s thin frame would hold and not break or pull free or I was a goner. But I made it. I was breathing so hard I stirred up a toxic cloud of dust and began to choke, slapped a hand over my mouth in an attempt to stifle any sound that could give me away. My throat burned, bringing tears to my eyes which also burned.
What an awful place! Heaps of dust and cobwebs were everywhere, nails hammered through the boards from below poking my every move. It reeked of dust and dirt, old wood and plaster. Then I discovered more: wires, dozens of them, some with loose, bare ends. I’d casually noted an array of spotlights mounted on the ceiling some time ago, remotely controlled so they could track a performer as he or she moved about onstage. This must’ve been a way to access their wiring for servicing. But what if someone turned on all the lights at once—would I receive a nasty jolt causing me to cry out, or be electrocuted?
A loud thumping onstage. Bright lights I never new existed flashed on. A powerful flashlight was beamed in my direction and I quickly drew back. Not too soon because an instant later the beam illuminated the space just above my head, paused briefly before moving on. I heard loud male voices, intensifying my dread. This had gotten serious!
I heard the familiar metallic ring of footsteps as someone dashed up the ladder followed by heavy footfalls headed my way on the platform. The flashlight, closer now, flicked to and fro, several times coming to stop on the underside of the alcove. I heard someone say there was no way anyone could get up there. Another voice said take a look anyway to make certain. I expected to be instantly dazzled by a sudden burst of light followed by a dreaded Got ‘im!
I held my breath, rolled my eyes upward, prepared for a fate worse than death. The slightest move could’ve raised a spurt of dust or caused fragments of old plaster to spill out. Since the opening slanted downward slightly, my perch wasn’t secure. I tensed every muscle, praying I wouldn’t lose my tenuous grip and give myself away—or plummet to certain death. A bright flash illuminated the top of my hideout, the bottommost rays momentarily landing on top of my head. My brown hair, about the same color as the dirt and aged boards surrounding me, probably saved me. The light flicked to and fro scanning the sides and top of the interior. But no face appeared. I later suspected the person peering in had been short; a taller one might’ve seen more than just the top of my head.
The flashlight clicked off. “Don’t see anyone up here.” More clumping, a brief pause, followed by the sounds of the ladder being descended. The search gradually wound down and the overhead lights went dark and it become still.
It was almost too dark to see now, a few naked bulbs on the ceiling providing the only light. I had to act fast because no telling if or when someone would return. And maybe they were already looking for me. I gingerly turned myself around so my feet faced the opening, began to lower myself out. Where was the support rope? The steel-braided one? I groped blindly, frantically, could not locate it, dimly perceived it was just out of reach.
What to do? I couldn’t spring for it since I had nothing to push against. I was trapped, desperate to get out, desperate not to fall. Only one thing to do—I maneuvered myself to one corner of the opening, dangled my legs over the edge and began to swing them back and forth, all the while easing myself out more and more. I lost control and began to slide out the rest of the way. I swung my legs as hard as I could toward the platform as I came free, landing smartly on the handrail knocking the wind out of me. Dazed I clung on, worked my bruised body to the platform’s floor. I was breathing heavily and felt giddy with terror. Go, go, go! an inner voice screamed.
I staggered to the end of the platform, kicked the remnants of my hidden supplies in different directions, more slid down the long ladder than climbed down, holding onto the sides, feet dangling. I had to stop several times because my hands burned from the friction. Nearing the bottom I dropped to the floor landing harder than expected. Crazed with fear I dashed to the other end of the stage and out door that opened to the street, paused, taking care to close the door as quietly as I could. I made for a small copse nearby separating the auditorium from the street about twenty feet away. I hid inside, trembling so violently that had anyone seen me in that state, it would surely have aroused interest.
I waited a few minutes, anxious to get moving again, away from the building, away from the school grounds. I cast cursory, sidelong glances to make sure nobody had seen me and was approaching. I darted for the sidewalk, sauntered along brushing against a long hedge lining the walk hoping no one from school could see my lowered, bobbing head from a second-story window. I was probably safe for the moment.
I doubled back going several blocks out of the way, running most of the distance. I stopped at a half-filled, muddy creek which cut across one corner of the playground. This portion had a long history of being fenced off, fence cut, fence repaired, fence pulled apart, fence repaired again and so on. I managed to crawl under, waded in getting my feet wet and some of my pants. I grabbed several handfuls of mud and splattered it on myself. I slipped on the bank nearly falling in, unintentionally heightening the effect.
It was with mounting dread I approached the entrance to Daycare, fearful of what lay ahead. I’d had little opportunity to prepare myself for re-entry. I fought off an even greater urge to bolt but that would only make it worse. It was paramount to convey I had nothing to hide, nothing suspicious to invite closer and possibly damning questioning calculated to trip me up on some minor inconsistency. “Here goes nothing.” I thrust my trembling hands deep into my pockets, paused, took a long, slow breath and strolled in.
A staff member accosted me. “Mark, where’ve you been? We’ve been looking all over for you.” Her kindly but troubled eyes searched mine. I briefly held her gaze since looking away too quickly might be taken as a sign of guilt. Much as I hated looking people in the eye, this time I had to. My life could hang on such a seemingly innocuous gesture, and maybe it did for all I can tell.
“I s-s-slipped and fell in the creek,” I replied a bit too loudly, stuttering as I did on occasion when excited. I looked down to see my pants torn in several places. With horror I realized one doesn’t get cuts from merely falling into water. I affected to rub these places, surreptitiously smearing mud from one of my shoes, my actions going unnoticed. Nor did anyone seem to notice the scratches on my mud-covered hands, a few still bleeding.
“What were you doing there? You know you’re not supposed to leave the school grounds or go near the creek.”
“I know,” I replied meekly, glancing away. A show of guilt was okay now.
“Why’d you go there?”
“I was playing with a ball and it—er—sailed over the fence into the creek. I went after it but couldn’t find it.”
“I see,” said the staff member, uncertain whether to believe me.
She instructed me to go to the lavatory, wash up as best as I could, come back. After mercurochrome and dressings had been applied to my sundry cuts and scratches, I was directed to an adjacent room, grilled closely about the auditorium. My questioner examined my hands and clothes minutely for a tell-tale drop of blue-black ink but none was found. My meticulous care in avoiding that had paid off. Amazingly, I was let go owing to lack of evidence. Though I was certain everyone believed I had been the culprit, no proof was ever brought to bear. The question that surely hung in everyone’s mind was, if not Mark then who?
Looking back, I see how incredibly fortunate I’d been, how so many things could’ve gone wrong possibly crippling me for life or even getting myself killed. What if I’d slipped and fallen atop Battleship B—or onto one of the kids possibly killing us both? This was an incredibly stupid thing to have done—and for what? What if the incident had been reported to the local newspaper, maybe even gotten syndicated, embarrassing my family? One good thing came out of it though: I never tried anything on that scale again. My only other dangerous act, screwing up the school’s electrical system as detailed elsewhere, had been carried out months earlier. Both had led to near-paralyzing, previously unanticipated terror, something I didn’t wish to experience again.
It was one thing to think about such deeds safely under the covers late at night, another to deal with the realities of something gone horribly wrong. To say nothing of the possible consequences.
Still, I gained more than expected in one way. Battleship B resigned the following day, not to be seen on premises again. Only later did I come to regret what I’d done, sorry for what pain my prank must’ve caused. She was only doing her job. For all I knew she could’ve had a bucket of problems of her own. What if a loved one had been overseas facing injury or death on some distant front, a never-ending worry for so many. I see now what a twelve-year-old with his own bucket of problems couldn’t see at the time.
I fantasized writing a letter of apology but never did, thinking it too risky. Besides I didn’t know where she lived and dared not ask.