This is one I never intended to share. It had been buried in the deepest part of the memory chest I never planned to revisit.
I was branded a “pinko” as a kid.
I grew up in an era when the name McCarthy was first associated with Edgar Bergen’s puppet pal, Charlie McCarthy. We followed Bergen and McCarthy on their radio show, religiously, along with Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Bob Hope and the other funny people of a more innocent era.
All of that changed when “Tail Gunner Joe” McCarthy unleashed his witch hunt of everyone in the guise of ferreting out Communist sympathizers. It was part of a bleak period when Cold War angst followed World War 2.
I didn’t understand why people shied away from talking about something called “The Black List.” I was still in grade school but a voracious reader of newspapers, magazines and the gold mine of books in our home library.
One of those books was “Not So Wild A Dream.” It was written by Eric Sevareid, a news commentator I listened to every evening on CBS Radio News. I loved Sevareid’s gritty voice talking about the evil in far-off places like Russia.
I was puzzled when Sevareid talked about how “we” were endangered by a politician named Joe McCarthy. I had seen the newspaper stories and headlines – famous actors and writers ‘outed’ as “Commies.” I asked my parents about it but they told me “no worries,” it didn’t involve people like us.
What did that mean? People like us?
I was fond of taking some of my grown-up books to school. I liked to show off the books I was reading. I was on first-hand terms with Sevareid, John Steinbeck, and the guy who wrote about “Crime and Punishment” in Russia.
While other kids bragged about their new cars, summer homes, and vacations in Florida, I only had books with which to earn bragging points. I didn’t always fully understand the books, but I liked how the words were put together. I enjoyed reading them aloud.
It was the beginning of a lifelong passion for words. The sound and feel of words. Words that you can sometimes stroke because they touch your heart in a special way.
All of this was the prologue to a nasty wake-up call for my youthful innocence.
We had an assignment in Composition Class. Probably the 4th or 5th grade. My heart was beating at double speed as I searched my treasure trove of books. I skipped past kid stuff like “Treasure Island,” “The Last of the Mohicans,” and my whole collection of baseball related material.
“Not So Wild A Dream” was the winner. I was just getting into some heady stuff by people named Odets, Miller, and Lardner. I liked what they said. I used to memorize sections to impress my Mom who was always proud of my ability to sound like a proper young man. I figured everyone would respect that ability.
I remember it was a warm spring day. I was wearing my new spring outfit — LONG pants, crisp white shirt, and shiny new shoes. I was brimming with confidence in Composition Class. When volunteers were asked to read their homework, my hand shot up faster than Big Don Newcombe’s fabled right arm.
My throat was dry but I plunged right in when I was selected. I read some passages from “Not So Wild A Dream” and a quote from Clifford Odets who was talking about social ills. I didn’t understand much of what I said but it sounded and felt good to me. I looked around.
Silence and a few nervous giggles. My teacher had a strange look on her face and stammered as she praised my work. She told me I probably would see the Principal later to discuss my impressive homework. I was beaming with pride!
The Principal seemed nervous as he talked to me. He hemmed and hawed. He even stammered. Where had I found the books I read? Who gave them to me? I proudly told him about our home library and the magazines we got every week. I remember the Principal’s eyes arching in surprise.
What was the big deal, I wondered.
All the joy of that morning came crashing down on me during lunch recess. The warm day meant we could open our lunch boxes outside in the play area. I was munching on my sandwich when I saw kids staring at me.
I began to pick up the words.
“He’s a pinko.”
“His parents are pinkos. I’m gonna tell my Mom. All his people are Commies, my Dad told me.”
The whispers grew louder. Finally, I was approached by a couple of the guys who used to pick on me because of the way I dressed, my glasses, and my stupid hearing aids which made me look a space villain. Oh, yeah, they also picked on me because I was the shortest kid in the class.
What now? Were they jealous of my composition? What the heck?
The biggest kid came right up to my face. He had bad breath and smelled worse. I don’t think he bathed often. I could see the red pimples sticking out on his face. “Hey, you four-eyed deaf midget nigg_r, so you’re a pinko too, huh?”
Pimple face leered at me, obviously daring me to get up and fight. I gulped hard.
His pal, beady-eyed, and sweating, taunted me, “I hear all you people are Commies. You don’t go to Church — you go to Commie meetings! All of YOU people. I’m gonna tell my Dad. You’re in big trouble, you lousy little pinko.”
My throat was dry and I was very scared. I couldn’t think. Then, the bell rang. Lunch was over. I was (literally) saved by the bell.
That evening, I recounted everything to my Mom and Dad. They listened without saying a word. Usually, they’d interrupt me, correct my language, diction or choice of words. When I’d finished, they looked at each other for a long time before speaking to me.
Mom and Dad were unusually patient in explaining things to me. I think I was a little put off by their civility. I tried to absorb what they said. It was hard.
And that’s how I started on the road to journalism. Suddenly, I understood something about the grown-up version of the truth.