Billy Graham and My Brother’s Creepy Toys: Childhood Memoirs

Billy Graham comes to South Bend

I found an article saying that Billy Graham came to South Bend on May 15, 1977, and a video of the event.  It had to be Notre Dame, because it looked like a football stadium.  In all these years, I didn’t remember where it was, just that it was big and stadium-like, not a place we went to otherwise.

I don’t remember much from that day, being only 3, but I do remember wanting some Pepsi.  My parents didn’t have any, and I guess they couldn’t buy any, because they gave me water instead.  Being a little kid, this made me cry as I sipped my water (and probably got some snot into it).

My Brother’s Creepy Toys

My brother had a bunch of really creepy toys in his room.  One was a creepy puppet with a “plastisol” head, Hugo, Man of a Thousand Faces.  (He had a bald head which you’d give all sorts of different wigs and faces, like a Mr. Potato Head.)  Hugo came out in 1975, when I was 2, and my brother would’ve been 9.

One toy was a Frankenstein head, mounted on the wall, which my brother painted green.  Then there was the poster….I think it had a vampire on it and was for the Krofft Horror Hotel….. Gee, I wonder how Gen-X got so twisted…. I think it said “Come stay at the Horror Hotel” or some such.  At the time, I recognized it as belonging to the TV show he watched with the girl being thrown to what I thought was a spider.  I wrote about that show here.

Anyway, my brother had his monster stuff and rubber dinosaurs (which I loved to play with), and I’d go in his room (which I wasn’t supposed to do) and play with them, and find 9V batteries he left on the floor and stick my tongue on them.  They gave me a weird shock, which I liked, but it wasn’t enough to hurt me.  It had this metallic taste.  Through the Internet, I’ve learned that 9V battery-licking is actually a thing, not just something I did as a toddler.  There was also rubber cement; I don’t remember if I touched that stuff.

In my grandma’s big walk-in attic was a bunch of toys used by my dad and uncles, so they were ranged 1930s to probably around 1950: toy Wild West guns with holsters, jack in the box, something with the Mulberry Bush song, Cooties…. My grandma also had a chalkboard, which she said was her slate in school, so it must be from around the 1920s.  It wasn’t like my slates, with their texture and slate pencil, but larger and more like a chalkboard, so I’m not sure it was technically the same as a slate.  But she must’ve used it that way anyway, with chalk instead of a pencil.  Eventually she gave it to me, and we still have it.  It’s currently in my little library, since my son is too old to play with it anymore.

There was also a box with a magnet and geometric metal strips which you could build things with, Magnastiks.  I played with that for hours while watching Grandma’s TV–a string of half-hour kid’s shows from the 50s and 60s, like the Lone Ranger and Lassie and Robin Hood, which channel 46 played in the afternoon.  Grandma finally gave it to me to keep, and I later gave it to my son, who played with it as a kid; at the moment, it’s upstairs in my house, with a bunch of other games.

Childhood Memoirs: Gender Roles

As a young child, I read Tom Sawyer, and became jealous of boys.  Gender roles were still very much a thing back then: Just look at the Brady Bunch for proof.  The girls did ballet and their mom taught them how to take care of the house and cook; the boys did sports and got jobs.  You also had the idea that boys were into cars and tinkering, so they could get an old beater and make it work.  Meanwhile, girls weren’t into stuff like that and had to get their boyfriends to help them if they needed car repairs.

Well, Tom Sawyer made me wish I were a boy because climbing trees and playing pirates sounded like lots of fun.  Of course it didn’t occur to me that I could’ve been doing those things all along, but the only real barrier was living in a big city with few kids nearby and no park in reasonable walking distance.  I just accepted it as a given that boys did those things and girls didn’t.  (I’m not sure if I had read the Little House books yet, where Laura went against gender roles.)

I decided to rebel against gender roles.  I asked for a toy car, which surprised my mom, but she got me one anyway, and I played with it.  I recall having it on display in my room for many years after I got too old for such things.  I also got a storybook about boys playing sports, from the book club that sent books to every classroom every month.  (Scholastic?  Troll?)  I read that book from cover to cover and enjoyed it.

I eventually went back to my usual interests, but fondly remembered my “rebellion.”  Heck, I never stopped rebelling against ideas of femininity which seemed appalling or useless.  No, I wasn’t into shopping or spending lots of money, a stereotype of women that persisted well into the 90s and probably later.  I wasn’t into being “crazy” (a concept which nowadays we know is actually misogynistic).  I was against cleaning up while the guys watched football.  I was against the idea that a man couldn’t cook or clean or help with kids, or that I had to “obey.”  I wasn’t into cooking.

(Even now in my Greek church, the predominant idea is that women like to cook and men aren’t really into that, so women do the hospitality stuff.  The church newsletter, written by the priest in the mid-10s, used to say any “ladies” who wanted to bake/do coffee hour/make prosforon/etc. may do so.  I think that finally started to change after I quietly edited “lady” to “person,” and men started signing up for coffee hour.)

It’s also true that as a small child, playing in the dirt “bank” (as we called it) next to the house, I made large stones into cars and played that way happily many times, with no thought to whether it was a “girl” or “boy” thing.

When girls started playing sports at school, I didn’t “get” it.  Sure they’d play some things, like tennis, but basketball? football?  I didn’t understand those girls–though some of them did seem “boyish” in the way they walked or talked or dressed.

Not that nobody female ever liked playing these games recreationally instead of in a sports team.  Playing volleyball or shooting hoops (which I did) or tag football were also things that girls did in the eighties at, say, church youth parties.  I couldn’t get the hang of team sports, though, which got people mad at me during gym class.  It was too fast for me, and I couldn’t figure out what was happening or what I was supposed to do.  I didn’t know back then that it was because of NVLD.  I may have thought it was just that I was a girl, or that I didn’t watch those sports to know what I was supposed to do.

In college, the early 90s, my girl friends and I still didn’t get girls playing the rough-and-tumble team sports, even though some of the girls were into watching the Packers, which surprised me.  (Before I started college, I still thought none of my roommates would watch sports because “girls aren’t into that sort of thing.”)

When I became a youth leader around 2001 and girls were just as much into playing sports as boys were, it seemed weird to me.  But over time, as feminists have pushed the idea and more girls have realized they like it, I’ve become used to the change, and even think it’s great.

Though I still hate sports.

Childhood Memoirs: Lake at 2 yrs old; Blizzard of ’78

One weekend, my parents took us all to a lake house owned by fellow members of the church.  I remember sleeping in the little cottage, and the lake smell.  I think I had sandy feet.

We stopped at a little shop with fish and some ice cream, bars I believe.  I wanted and I believe I got the ice cream.

I actually swam around the lake as my dad watched.  It’s amazing because I was never able to swim again in my life, yet that time, I could do it.

I wore a bathing suit with a roller skate on the front, which had real shoelaces.

Then when we went back home, I was excited to finally go back to the “gold house,” which is what I called our home.

Years later, my mom was surprised that I still remembered this–and calling it the gold house.  Seems I was only about two years old.


The blizzard of ‘78 in South Bend is proverbial, still referred to on Facebook by my generation and the ones before, in little memes and pictures saying “Remember this?”  I was five.  I remember one of my parents opening the back door, and the snow went all the way up!  I don’t recall ever seeing it get that high in one dump, before or since.  Or even collectively.

My dad, of course, called Diebold, saying there was a terrible blizzard and there was no way he could get to work, roads are closed, etc.  But Diebold was based in Ohio, where there was no blizzard (yet).  They thought he was lying, and told him to go to work. !!!!!!!!!!!

My poor dad, and this was South Bend in 1978, not Wisconsin in 2022, where even a blizzard can be quickly plowed through.  One time about a decade ago, when we visited my family in the winter, it snowed and my husband hoped they’d plow it in time for our departure.  My brother snorted, because heck no, not South Bend.  Here in Fond du Lac, however, they’ll plow before the snow’s even done falling.

A runner-up to this year was 81/82.  That must be the year that I remember walking home from the bus stop on top of the snow banks between the sidewalks and the street.  It’s hard to remember, but for us not to use the sidewalks, they probably hadn’t been cleared.  But the banks were packed hard, so we could walk up there instead of sinking right through.

My Early Childhood Games and Tiger-Kangaroos

First of all, I wanted to note something from the last episode of the latest season of What We Do in the Shadows.  Colin Robinson has the same philosophy of diaries that I do: “Oh, well, the great thing about keeping a detailed diary is, if you ever forget anything about your life, you can look it up.”

Now for my latest childhood memoir:

In kindergarten, we would sit four at a table.  As I sat with Melissa and another girl or two at the beginning of the day, I would make little tigers with my hands.  They actually looked more like the dinosaur-shapes I would later make with my hands.  Then I started making kangaroos.  Then I put them together and made what I called tiger-kangaroos.  They’re formed by curling over your index finger to make the head, putting together your thumb and middle finger to make two arms and hands that are curved around and clasped together, and curving your other two fingers down to make legs.  They would hop all over the table, and Melissa would try to catch them or bonk them on the head.  It was a game for us.

Eventually, I developed a whole world around two tiger-kangaroos, one for my right hand and one for my left.  They were named Sally and Hedreda (HED-jrih-duh), two sisters whose world of tiger-kangaroos had been destroyed, so they came to Earth.  Sally was the silly and mischievous one, also my favorite, and Hedreda was the sensible one that acted as mother.  They went through many adventures, some of which I wrote down.  Sometimes, they even lived in my desk at school, among my books and papers and pencils and a big yellow box, with letters carved in it along with directions for how to make them, that held pencils and crayons and erasers and things.

Sally would “come on” my right hand and “help” me write, and would also run around inside my desk.  This was my favorite of their adventures, capturing my imagination with thoughts of how they’d live in my little desk and come out at night when everyone was gone.  I wrote a story about this, too.  Sally would play with my pink erasers (possibly even use them as pillows or chairs) and pencils on my desktop, and I think she’d play with bees as well.

I had a whole repertoire of hand puppets, and not just the tiger-kangaroos.  There was 8, who was in the shape of an 8, formed by curving four fingers around and then curling my index finger over the top, and plenty of others who, back in 1st and 2nd grade, would act out the song “Convoy.”  Several of them were the simple hand-puppet, four fingers on top and the thumb on the bottom, acting like talking jaws, the common one almost everyone uses at one time or another to imitate someone who won’t stop talking.  One of these was Rubber Duck.

I also had dog-characters, and curled up my first and fourth fingers to make ears.  I thought the other common hand-puppet, the one in which the hand is the head and body and the index and middle fingers are legs, was amusing when I was in my crib, but after I made up the tiger-kangaroos I thought they looked nothing like real people.  I thought my tiger-kangaroos were better representations of people.

Related to the tiger-kangaroos were some time-travelers.  I had gone in my wardrobe, a tall, brown, cardboard thing that a great-grandmother had given or left me, back in time to the days of the dinosaurs.  I would make little dinosaurs with my hands; these were creatures I myself had made, and, after praying that God would animate them (since only God could create life), I put them there.  These little, intelligent creatures lived and breathed and had adventures in the days of the dinosaurs, which I would read about in a Childcraft book on dinosaurs.

While I was very small and had to walk to school, I invented a game that was mostly in my imagination.  Usually my games would involve shuffling my legs like a choo-choo train, skipping like a gallopping horse, or hand puppets, or any of a number of different things that I did to make the long, 8-block trek more enjoyable.  There was also what I called Rocky Alley, an alley full of rocks in which I found a strange, small, cone-shaped rock one day.  To my dismay, I later lost it.  But I had a whole collection of rocks taken from Rocky Alley.  Horror of horrors, one day, in my later childhood or high school years, I walked down that way again and discovered that the rocks had been cleared out of Rocky Alley!

I then made up a game that I may have acted out some of, but mostly it was cartoon images in my mind, and I would say the lines each character had.  These images were better than I could draw myself.  The game was about The Duck of Death.  He looked much like Donald Duck, only with an evil look and a black cape.  He was much like a vampire duck.  There was also a mild-mannered duck with a yellow cape who tried to fight him, but was scared of him.  There was also a carload of teenage kids, boys and one or two girls.  You can imagine my surprise, many years later, in my teen or college years, when a duck very much like my Duck of Death, and with a similar name, showed up in a cartoon!  (Could’ve been DuckTales or Darkwing Duck.)

Why I Hate Football (and a new memoir series for this blog)

This is intended to be the first of many posts taken from my childhood memoirs, which comprise a 25-year-old WordPerfect file I still add to, a few diaries, and countless stories/dream accounts/etc. that fill fireproof vaults in my basement.

Before my baby came along 18 years ago, I was busily working to turn them into a chronological autobiography just as I did with my college memoirs.  Working backwards as I did with college, I had already finished (high school) Junior Year and Senior Year and was ready to do Sophomore Year.

I was also almost finished writing about my adult life up till then; it was 2003, and I was working on 2002.  That was a distressing year, when my secondary boss had gone crazy after an illness and turned into a rage machine.  It led to 2003, when he yelled at an underwriter constantly, and after a morning of fuming all over the office, quit in a big scene, which kept the manager from having to fire him.  I missed it all, but heard about it when I came in for work.  In 2003, he hadn’t yet driven his red pickup into his own kitchen, or damaged a light at the detention center, after his wife said she’d had enough and was going to leave him.  I was all ready to get the whole year typed up into my “2002” file and properly typed up and arranged with letters, e-mails, etc. in chronological order.  I had a lot to say about that year.

But first I was too morning-sick, and then too busy, to do anything at all with either memoir.  Pregnancy made the computer smell horrible, and then the baby was constantly crying or pooping.  It was all I could do just to keep up with the laundry.  When I had time to write–finally–in his young childhood, it was to work on my novels or to blog about my delving into theology.

When my son got older and needed less attention, now my time was taken up with learning everything I could about narcissism and blogging to heal from an extremely abusive “friendship” that had just blown up.  There was nothing left over for any kind of writing in those days, other than my blog.  Nowadays, I’m so bogged down in household concerns and keeping up with our exploding democracy that the time I have for writing is spent updating my blog or revising my latest novel.

In recent years I’ve started adding to the childhood file again.  Since it’s far from being put in chronological order, I’ll have to grab snippets from it here and there and post them.  I’ll start with snippets that I’ve recently read in Writer’s Club.  This is the first, just in time for football season:

Why I Hate Football

When I was very young, my mom told me one Sunday evening that my Disney special would start after the football game, and I started to cry.  Why?  Every weekend, my dad and brother seemed to watch every football game there was.  All weekend, all afternoon and evening, they’d watch football games.  When you’re too young to understand that the uniforms and channels are different (and we had a black-and-white TV), it looks like One Big Football Game that lasts Forever.  Seriously, it never ends.  It has always existed and always will exist.  There never will be an end to the game.  So my Disney special will NEVER come on.  I will go the rest of my life and that Disney special will never have a chance to begin.  That is why I cried.

As I got older and learned they were different games, they still seemed to drag on forever, going on for hours and hours–and if I wanted to watch anything else, say a cartoon or a movie, I’d be told NO.  Football took preeminence over anything I wanted, even though all the games were the same–no plot, no characters, no story, just people running around after a ball, constantly stopped and replayed, over and over again for HOURS.  Nobody cared what I wanted.

And those constant sounds of the whistle and the grunts and the audience–it gave me a massive headache.  I’d lie on the couch with my head aching.

I HATE FOOTBALL.  This is why I avoid all football talk all season long.  This is why I avoid even the Superbowl.  This is why finding a man who hated football was high up in my list when I was a young adult.