May 6th, 2011 10:14 EST
A Poet Recalls Beating The Starch Out of His Shirts- and His Tormentors in Boarding School
I don`t have many fond memories of boarding school, but one of them is beating the starch out of my shirts with a baseball bat. Once in a great while I would visit my artist-mother in one of the several studios she had at various times in lower Manhattan. On one such occasion she got the idea of starching all my clothes, including my underwear. When I got back to school in West Islip, Long Island, which then consisted of nascent suburbs, farms and large estates, I leaned my socks against the wall in the closet and took my undershirts and dress shirts outside for a good beating. I think it inspired me a few years later to go after bullies with a bat, making me a kind of partisan leader.
Knocking the starch out of someone is a venerable idea. It`s what my life was partly about at boarding school. In beating my shirts I was observing custom. Those shirts were my enemies. They expected to be worn to Sunday school where there was a big banner that said, Suffer the Little Children to Come Unto Me. I knew by that time that He didn`t mean me, because if He did none of what was happening to me at school would be happening. That was my childish reasoning, anyway. I did take careful note of the word suffer, and because I was so sure of what it meant I didn`t bother to check the dictionary for its secondary meaning. I always glanced at that banner with something like, Yeah, right, in mind. After all, nobody was going to suffer me to open my little pie hole about people who were trespassing against me. You know, those who trespass against us.
Later in life I took scholarly note of No Trespass signs because I already knew a lot about trespass.
Back in those days, the forties, some kids were still wearing corduroy knickers, knee socks and soft caps with little bills. I didn`t wear a cap, but I remember the worn-at-the-knees knickers. I had a little leather windbreaker whose collar I chewed like a cud. I started to decorate it with military insignias. The Rainbow Division, the 82nd Airborne, the Coast Guard " but my most prized insignias came from the German prisoners of war who worked on farms in the area under the watchful eyes of GI guards. I had the Afrika Korps eagle. Nobody seemed to think it unpatriotic of me, especially since American insignias were preponderantly in evidence. But I do remember asking my German friends "I spoke a little German, thanks to my Prussian grandma "for the silver insignia associated with lightning strikes. The Germans looked pained, knowing I was describing the reviled SS sig runes.
I`ve never been obsessive about clothes. Nowadays I hear that if you walk into certain Madison Avenue shops the clerks size you up by your shoes, wristwatch and suit. By that standard, I`m someone they should snub. Of course, these days, if those stores are still open, they`re glad to see anyone. But I`ve never hankered for an expensive suit or car or watch, with one exception. Once in high school in Manhattan I saw a young man who looked so princely and kindly that I`ve spent a lifetime imagining his splendid life. He was wearing a gray Chesterfield coat with a black velvet collar. I`ve always wanted such a coat, but I`ve never had the nerve to buy one, which is just as well, because they should be worn by tall, thin men with long necks, as should double-breasted suits. If I were a classic fiction writer I`d imagine a great tragedy for this magical young man, but I want him to have had a life as splendid as his looks, and for all I know he had just such a life. Aren`t the chances of that as good as those for tragedy? I guess this fantasizing about that coat is another of my outside-looking-in-from-the-cold symptoms.
Still, I yearn for that Chesterfield when I pass Brooks Brothers, which is rather like yearning to be someone else, taller, smarter, more sociable, more respected. And yet if anyone had given me such a coat as a gift I wouldn`t have treasured it as much, anywhere nearly as much, as the gift several of those Afrika Korps prisoners gave me at the war`s end. They knew I had a mad passion for the Messerschmidt 109. I knew everything about that airplane, how it sounded, how it was painted, who made it. The Germans were fascinated by my love of this killing machine. I made all sorts of balsam and paper airplanes. I had Spitfires, Stukas, Hurricanes, Heinkels, Yaks, Zeros, P 49s, but I was crazy for the M 109, and at the end of the great war the Germans presented me with a two-foot model they had made in their spare time.
There was a world of trouble ahead of me. I was eleven. There was already a world of trouble behind me. But the simple kindness of those lonely prisoners has proven as unforgettable as my first kiss, from a girl named Mary Corbett from Copiague.
Djelloul Marbrook is a retired newspaperman. His second book of poems, Brushstrokes and Glances, will be published by Deerbrook Editions on December 20, 2010. His first book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. It won the International Book Award in 2010. His novella, Artemisia`s Wolf, will be published by Prakash Books of India in December. His novella, Saraceno, was recently published as an e-book. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal LattÃ© first prize in fiction in 2008. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller`s Room, in 1999.
Del`s book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm
New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/
Artists Hill, Literal LattÃ©`s fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/
His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com
His mother`s art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com
His aunt`s art: http://www.irenericepereira.com