This is part of an 8-part series about growing up with Asperger’s in a different era.
1944 – 1945
I was a lonely kid bereft of meaningful interactions with everyone including siblings and even parents to a large extent. We had fled a big, grimy industrial city in the Midwest and moved to California in 1941, first to San Francisco and later to a cottage in Woodside some thirty miles south.
As a consequence I was cut off from relatives outside my nuclear family; I might as well have had no aunts or uncles, no cousins or nieces, nobody. Each year a small package would arrive just before Christmas from an obscure uncle on my mother’s side. When he came out to San Francisco for a medical conference in 1945, we dutifully made the long pilgrimage to the City to visit him in his hotel room.
Now and then we’d receive a telegram or letter announcing the passing of one or another faraway relative, frequently someone I’d not heard of. Over time the telegrams and letters diminished, finally ceased because nobody was left, descendants if any unwilling to maintain contact with unseen relations too far away. The one relative I might’ve bonded with was my father’s brother who I was named after, but who’d died before I was born. Uncle Mark had been a ham radio enthusiast like me so we might’ve hit it off. It saddens me, thinking what might’ve been.
As often happens those bullied by bigger boys take it out on littler boys. Since I was smallish and not like the others in temperament, I became a natural for abuse on the school grounds. Though I wasn’t big enough to confront my tormenters head-on, I devised other means of hitting back, the object being to do so without anyone knowing it was I.
One little guy in our community was a whiny, tattle-tale brat who surprisingly hadn’t been teased much, going for the most part ignored. Thinking we outcasts might hold something in common, I once or twice tried to strike up a conversation but got nowhere. Looking back he must’ve been in a tough family situation because I never saw him smile, not even when everyone else was laughing at something funny someone else had said or done.
Since Maximilian—a heavy name for any kid—had ratted on me for a minor infraction, I felt I owed him something.
One gloomy day, for whatever reason I don’t recall, he was carrying a gallon of high gloss enamel from one table to another. I was sitting on the floor playing with a toy. On his way he came within a couple of feet of me. On impulse I thrust out a leg just long enough to trip him. He lurched forward but didn’t lose his balance, in the process letting go of the bucket of paint. The nearly full can clunked heavily onto the floor popping its lid. A great circle of indelible white spread in all directions, its circumference expanding with alarming speed. I jumped back in the nick of time but not Max, who slipped on the substance going down on all fours causing him to slide forward some. Paint also splashed up a nearby wall forming a semicircle of white halfway to the window sill.
Poor Max began to cry, all but his head and backside slathered with gleaming white, the kind of white nearly impossible to get off in the days of lead-based enamel. A staff member tried to rescue him, almost joining him on the slippery floor. She managed to remain upright and pull him up and away from the mess and steer him to a nearby lavatory, blobs of white and two pairs of white footsteps marking their progress. Maintenance was hastily summoned and we were dispatched to the far end of the room as three burly men began the arduous task of cleanup with wads of newspapers and paper towels, and later solvent whose malodorous fumes drove us outside.
I later discovered that some of the paint had run through a hole in the floor which admitted the pipe to the radiator. Since nobody was in the room beneath us at the time, globs of white had streaked the wall and several window sills and shades, specked the floor and several desks, drying before being discovered the following day.
Nobody was punished since no evidence of wrongdoing ever came to light. To be on the safe side I stayed out of trouble for a spell.
One afternoon, again acting on impulse and without premeditation, I ducked into a downstairs lavatory, tore away the paper from several rolls of toilet paper, set the pile ablaze and fled. Back upstairs I waited but nothing happened. Luckily the fire had burned itself out. Fortunately I never tried anything like that again; I had become a danger to the school, a danger to myself and everyone around me. If that fire had taken hold no telling what might’ve happened. Surely the finger of blame would’ve been pointed squarely in my direction, resulting in an outcome too terrible to contemplate.
The lavatory incident did not prevent my starting another fire, this time with resounding success. Our school needed room to expand now that Japan has surrendered, ending the war. A number of mostly ramshackle bungalows had been cleared away on a block adjacent to the school. One remained, its roof sagging, windows long ago punched out. It too had been marked for demolition but further progress had come to a halt, probably owing to issues with eminent domain or other legal entanglements. Rumor had it a mean squatter or vagrant with a gun had sought refuge inside so we kids stayed away. Each day on my way to school I couldn’t help noticing this ruined heap as we drove by. I even dreamt about it.
Since getting into mischief at school had become too risky, I needed to shift my venue. I came to picture that unwanted house engulfed in flames. Once that image took hold I couldn’t rid myself of it, not that I tried.
Though it was the rainy season, rainfall had been scant. Trash was piled high in back of the house, including heaps of paper and bashed-in cartons, rags, sticks of wood, materials that would readily burn. One day when everyone at school was occupied with one thing or another, I quietly slipped away, made my way to the house across the street watchful of being observed or followed. I approached the side facing away from school, hesitated briefly before striking a match. I touched its budding flame to a heap of paper, then another and another, gratified to see how quickly the flames took hold. I hurled the remaining matches into the pile not wanting to chance getting caught with them later.
Though not big enough to be seen from afar, the flames soon would be. I fought the impulse to break into a mad dash back to school, instead circled around in back out of sight of what would soon be a raging fire, sauntered nonchalantly back to school without being observed.
Fifteen or twenty anxiety-ridden minutes later I heard the wail of a fire engine. Someone cried out “big fire across the street!” We all went outside to behold a thick column of black smoke billowing upward from the house, now entirely engulfed. Another fire engine arrived while we watched, spellbound.
Then I saw something ominous: on the other side of the nearly vacant block across the street stood a massive high school. And lined up on the sidewalk running its entire length were hundreds of students who’d been let out to witness the action. Might anyone there have seen me? I mingled closer to my group, keeping my head lowered. The peak of excitement came when the roof caved in creating a giant, momentary fireball. The firefighters kept their distance and now four hoses were trained on the ruins. The fire was soon extinguished and we returned to our classrooms. The local paper detailed the fire, displaying pictures of the burning building and the students lined up on both streets at a safe distance. Probable cause was laid to someone inside smoking or cooking though no one was seen leaving the scene. Only later did it occur to me that someone could’ve been inside, too sick or drunk to get out in time, perhaps done in by the smoke which kills more people in house fires than the fires themselves.
The following night the entire high school burned down! Totally gutted. Three stories high and occupying an entire city block, it was an immense structure. The front page detailed nothing else, all reference to the war momentarily banished to the inner pages. One of the school’s blackened walls bulged dangerously outward so a side street had been cordoned off.
I panicked—had my actions caused this conflagration somehow, maybe an errant spark landing on the school’s roof? All next day I kept mum fearing the worst. Each wail of a distant siren instantly put me on edge. I’d stand stark still, waiting to see if they grew louder. I visualized police cars screeching to a halt outside our house, cops swarming out pistols drawn, myself frisked, handcuffed and thrust rudely into the back of a cruiser. I pictured my parents at the police station, grim and silent, frightened like they’d never been frightened before. All because of their son and what he’d done.
Turned out the fire had nothing to do with my actions. Someone had broken into the building during the night, splashed gasoline over much of the first floor, set it ablaze. The entire building was quickly consumed; by the time the fire engines arrived on scene it was already too late.
Though I hadn’t been responsible, it didn’t matter. I could easily have been. After all I’d already tried burning down my own school, and succeeded doing that to the abandoned house. No more setting fires after that, my days as an arsonist over for good. Still, I wondered if the fire I’d set had been responsible for giving whoever destroyed the school the idea of burning it down too, the act of a far more accomplished and dangerous arsonist than I could ever be. Had my success lit a match in his imagination? It was clear someone hated school even more than I.
I was on my best behavior for long time following the fires. But I couldn’t contain myself forever. One day I yanked out the hinge pins to a door leading to the cloakroom. The first pin slipped out easily since it was already halfway out. The other two were harder but I worked them up far enough to where I used the first to pry them out. Now loose, the door settled heavily into the frame. Two possibilities faced anyone trying to open it. It wouldn’t budge, or come free falling upon its hapless would-be opener. After class a teacher was summoned from an adjoining classroom who freed the door and leaned it against the wall as we watched. “Where are its pins,” he asked. I’d taken the precaution of ditching them so if accosted I wouldn’t be caught red-handed.
My downfall began when I was out for a week with the measles; nothing more untoward taking place in my absence. Since I was unbeknownst already under close surveillance, the first time something bad happened after my return I was taken aside and grilled relentlessly.
The coupe de grace that finally undid me was a simple yet potentially devastating act. I snuck into the school auditorium, removed both fire hoses in front and turned them on full blast. Water under high pressure poured forth as the hoses’ ends snaked wildly to and fro. I beat it out of there pronto. When discovered later, a foot of water had already covered the floor in front of the stage. But I got to see none of that because my father had been summoned in the meantime. I don’t recall what happened after that but it must’ve been bad because it appears I’ve repressed the memory in its entirety.
Strange as it may seem, I was returned to school several days later on the condition that I not be let out of sight for an instant: even when I went to the lavatory someone accompanied me. Probably owing to the war and the shortage of help I’d not been expelled or dispatched to a reformatory.
Soon after the war ended I was sent back to my rural school. It wasn’t long before I was bullied there too. Since my reputation had followed me I had to come up with other means of coping; no more raising mischief. I was not long in finding a way, discovered by accident. Best of all it inconvenienced or disrupted nobody and damage to school property was minimal.
Though houses and other buildings lined the street where the school stood, their rears faced what appeared as unspoiled wilderness as far as the eye could see. The playground had been fenced off with chain-link fencing to keep us in. While strong enough, it had one flaw: someone tall enough could climb over, or failing that perhaps slither under.
One way to avoid getting teased was through baseball, or so I thought. Though I had no interest in sports whatever, I figured if I played with the other boys I’d be safe. Problem was when sides were chosen I’d be the last, sometimes not chosen at all. Occasionally a teacher assigned me to the side needing one more player to even things up. But if both sides already had the same number, I could find myself left out.
Not wanting to play anyway, I explored the school grounds, the back fence in particular. Getting there unobserved was easy since the way along one side was largely obscured with overgrowth. One day I wriggled under the fence and entered a different world, a world where I imagined myself on another planet. And it might as well have been because it was nothing like I’d seen. Stately redwoods soared toward the sky, seemingly almost touching the clouds. Ferns and other exotic plants carpeted the ground in verdant lushness.
The stillness was entrancing. At first I heard little outside of noise emanating from the playground in the distance. As I ventured farther afield that faded away and new sounds greeted me, many I’d not heard previously. Hidden frogs croaking, the low hum of a passing dragonfly buzzing nearby, leaves rustling in the breeze, crickets chirruping near and far. Another sound caught my attention: the chatter and chirping of birds high above, most I’d never seen before. I paused to look up, tried to identify from where these wonderfully musical trills emanated.
I knew nothing of forests let alone how to survive there. My father had killed a rattlesnake in our backyard with a rake so I wondered if they might be here too. I took note of the biggest redwoods, memorizing their appearance since they’d guide me back. And the position of the sun provided a backup on sunny days. It seemed no matter how far I penetrated, the forest showed no sign of ending. I couldn’t venture too far because I dared not be late after lunch period lest someone start asking questions. I’d come upon a new world and had it all to myself. No more bullying or being teased, no more failing grades, no more stupid ball games. I’d been a prisoner on the other side of the fence and now I was momentarily free, freer than I’d ever been, freer than I’d ever be again. Though each outing lasted less than an hour, it was nirvana and heaven rolled into one.
I made a wonderful discovery soon after: a green-tinted pond a hundred or so feet beyond the fence. I glimpsed tiny, shadowy forms darting across the water’s lightly rippling surface. I got down on all fours and crept to the water’s edge and watched what was happening. Insects buzzed lazily overhead or skittered across the pond’s surface buoyed by surface tension. Bottle-nosed flies in iridescent green circled about or zigzagged in what seemed aimless flight. A tiny speckled, green frog popped out of the water, glanced about and disappeared. I wanted to see one lash its tongue out and catch a fly but never did.
In due time someone saw me wriggling under the fence, ratted on me. I was reprimanded though not punished. The authorities saw to it the overgrowth was cleared away and steel bars installed along the fence’s bottom making escape impossible. Barbed wire was added to the top to discourage anyone climbing over. I later suspected this was done to protect the school from liability since many dangers lurk in forests. I spent many a recess gazing forlornly into the now forbidden territory, wondering what one would find at the other end if there was an end; for all I knew the forest stretched all the way down to Mexico or up to Oregon.
One incident that highlighted my isolation was our teacher, a male who I had come to admire, announced to the class everyone was to stay after school except Mark. Why had I been singled out for release and no one else? I was later to learn everyone else was in on a prank; someone farted and the entire class except me raised a finger in response. My participation had apparently been excised with surgical precision.
I had to find other ways to avoid being teased or bullied. After some experimenting climbing trees, I boasted I could climb any one. And I did, scaling the seemingly impossible, a few without limbs for the first twenty feet or so. Some older trees were covered with rough bark with sharp ridges and grooves, just enough to allow one to gain purchase. Others had tried it but kept falling off or ending up badly scratched. Part of my success lay in removing my shoes but not socks, their weaving snagging the rough surface. Someone finally caught on and I was challenged to do the same in my bare feet. To my astonishment and probably everyone else’s, I made it up to the first branch. Backing down was trickier and I frequently slipped, acquiring numerous scratches and scrapes. Blood became my badge of honor.
That all came to an abrupt halt when I climbed out onto a large branch about fifteen feet up. The trouble began when I got about ten feet out, when I heard an ominous cracking. The branch began to give way and I tried to make it back to the trunk before it broke. Too late—it snapped and fell, taking me with it. Since there was nothing else to grab onto we parted company about half way down. Which was just as well since the rotted branch was about five inches in diameter and I could’ve ended up in a double whammy: my hitting the ground followed by the branch clobbering me.
Though I’d sustained several bruises no bones appeared broken. That was the good part. The bad was I’d landed on the edge of a cactus patch, my left side impaled with around sixty cactus needles, a few snapping off at the skin’s surface. That meant a painful ride to the doctor’s office, followed by an even more painful extraction as the needles were pulled out one by excruciating one, each tweezing more agonizing than the previous. Finally, swathed in antiseptic and bandages, I hobbled back to examine the fallen branch which had seemed so secure. I discovered that about two-thirds of its underside had rotted. A good windstorm would surly have brought it down soon enough.
While the tree-climbing stunts had raised my status some, it wasn’t enough. I was still me, a gawky ill-dressed kid who spoke a different language from the others though we all spoke English.
Our school had a set of swings, the tallest I’d seen anywhere and since. One chilly, sunny day in 1944 I boasted I could swing higher than anyone else. In those days swings had flat seats upon which one could sit or stand. I got on, remained standing, swung higher and higher and higher. As the swing reached its apex first one foot then the other left the seat. All I remember was being very high above the ground for an instant, suspended in space, then picking myself up from the hard concrete—or trying to. While my legs worked okay, my right arm didn’t.
Those who saw what happened came running and a teacher soon followed. Next image is my being driven to Stanford University Hospital in Palo Alto, where every bump in the road elicited excruciating pain. Through it all I didn’t utter a sound, Mom said afterward.
I’d crushed the elbow, necessitating two separate operations under general anesthesia. A steel pinion was added, apparently the reason for the second. If the damage had been more extensive I might’ve faced the possibility of amputation. I awoke after the surgery with arm in cast from wrist to shoulder, bent at a right angle at the elbow. The cast stayed on for several weeks where I was monitored closely for possible complications. After its removal I was instructed to carry around a heavy objects a few times a day since at first I could bend the elbow only a few degrees. I still cannot extend the arm all the way out.
When I returned to school, I saw the chains had been removed from the swings, frames dismantled soon thereafter.
The saddest—and in some ways the scariest—event taking place on school grounds occurred on a warm sunny afternoon. I can still picture the row of tall eucalyptus bordering the playground with occasional glimpses of distant Kings Mountain far to the west. The trees’ sickle-shaped leaves jostled against one another in a light breeze, a soft rustling which could turn into a roar in stormy weather.
I came upon a relatively secluded area surrounded by the school building on three sides which had few windows and two windowless doors. I’d come around from behind and was heading for the main playing area when something caught my eye. I stopped, glanced to my right where I saw three large bicycle racks. The one in the middle held captive what appeared to be a puppy that had escaped its owner. A long leash trailed behind with a short chain at the far end terminated by a hook-like device. The chain had apparently gotten snarled in the rack. The forlorn creature strained to reach me, its tail wagging in the animal’s obvious pleasure at seeing me. As I approached, its liquid, soft brown eyes met mine, stubby tail wagging so furiously I though it must fall off. I stooped to pet the dog.
As I did, I spied a rusty iron pipe lying on the ground several feet away. It was about an inch in diameter and a yard or so long, slightly bent near the middle. In a flash something sinister and evil came upon me, utterly taking over. I snatched up the hunk of iron and without a second’s hesitation brought it down hard onto the puppy’s head with every ounce of crazed strength I could muster. It landed with a dull thud, bending some more. The poor animal looked up in surprise as if to ask what are you doing? It whimpered softly, settled to the ground. Another blow followed and the pup’s broken body quivered briefly before becoming still, eyes half-open.
Aghast at what I’d just done I dropped the pipe with a loud clang and bolted at top speed, crying hysterically and screaming, What’ve I done? What’ve I done? I dove headlong into a clump of bushes and sobbed my heart out, not caring if anyone heard. I screamed, kicking my feet furiously against the ground bruising my knees and toes but I didn’t care. I pounded the ground with my fists yelling Monster! Monster! Monster! I’d become more evil than Hitler and Mussolini and Tojo rolled into one, no longer fit to live. More than any other time in my life I wanted to die, felt I justly deserved to die.
The peak of my anguish slowly subsided and I lay on the damp, weedy ground limp and cold. Each time I saw that puppy’s brown, trusting eyes I’d start crying all over again. I was a long time getting to my feet, wiped off what mud I could and returned to where I was supposed not to have left in the first place. On my way back I made a wide circle to avoid seeing the outcome of my most heinous deed and never went back.
I had unwittingly—or is that wittingly, perhaps unconsciously?—destroyed the one object that could’ve become my friend, the first living entity I’d encountered not scolding, berating or teasing or bullying, slapping me around, giving me failing grades or rejecting offers of friendship, but which had in their stead offered unconditional friendship. Here was my one chance and I threw it away without a second’s consideration. I imagined taking that puppy home, raising it with love and affection, bonding with it, bonding desperately needed but never forthcoming. Sometimes I’d sit in class, tears streaking down my cheeks, feeling a great loss for which I alone had been responsible. I never got over it entirely, never told anyone until writing about it decades later.
Once when my teacher had been called out of the room, I hastily made a paper glider, launched it from my desk. It sailed up, up to the ceiling where it remained, wedged in a crack. After he returned everyone was smirking, trying not to burst out in laughter. The teacher, puzzled, glanced up and we all had a good laugh. If only my other shenanigans had turned out so benignly.