Alley Cat

Me Allan Milledgeville“Is it true that Alley Cat is your brother?” the older blonde girl demanded breathlessly.

I glanced nervously out the school bus window, relieved to see my stop approaching. “Yes,” I whispered.

Suddenly the bus was filled with squeals, and I was lavished with the attentions of a legion of new preteen best friends.

Such is the life of the sibling of a pop star. My brother, Allan, had begun working at the radio station owned by our next-door neighbor and had adopted the name Alley Cat, using the popular piano song as his intro. In our little town, he was a teenage idol. He had always been an idol to me.

One night, my mom and I huddled in front of the huge radio in our living room, waiting for Allan to deliver on a promise. “This next song goes out to my sister, Cheryl. It’s her sixth birthday today, so this one’s for her. Happy birthday, Sis!” And then my favorite song: “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah!” The Beatles. I was so in love with Paul—along with my elderly doctor and my mother’s friend’s teenage son, who was oblivious to my existence. Oh, the pitiable romances of little girls.

Those were the halcyon days. My mother later said that they were the happiest years of her life. My sister was a toddler, I was in Miss Ivy’s Gingerbread House kindergarten, and Allan was in high school at Georgia Military College, an all-boys school in town. On weekend afternoons, we would go to watch the military parades, decked out in dresses, hats, and white cotton gloves.  On Friday nights, my parents would go to the country club with their friends. We had a close community, and it was a sweet and seemingly innocent existence.

It could not last. When I was in the fourth grade, my father took a job in New York, at least partly because he wanted to send us to Catholic school. Just as we prepared to leave, my brother’s “number came up,” and in order to avoid the draft, he enlisted and was able to go into Army intelligence because of his experience in radio. Our teen idol turned soldier and shipped out to Japan.

We spent the next few years adjusting to living in New Jersey, losing our southern drawls, and listening to the evening news about the Vietnam War. The whole nation was torn apart debating whether our country should participate in the conflict at all. There were over 58,000 American casualties in Vietnam, and one battle could cause thousands of deaths. Our avaricious neighbor once purred that she hoped that the war continued, since her investments were doing fabulously. I thought my mother would throttle her. Mom spent her days and nights dreading a knock on the door or a tragic telegram.

After spending several years in the role of eldest child, I was thrilled when Allan moved back home. These had been tumultuous years for him, a result of the war, the world, and his own life. When Allan entered the military, he was a mildly rebellious kid from a nice family, living in a newly integrated Georgia still in the midst of the civil rights movement. He went into the army wondering why our country was fighting in southeast Asia, and like many soldiers of that era, his heart was not in the cause. Some of his teenage decisions bore the fruit of personal suffering, and somewhere in Hawaii or Japan, Allan grew up. He wrote me long, handwritten letters, musing on life’s meaning while watching the sun come up over the ocean in the Land of the Rising Sun. I still treasure these bundles of lined notebook paper. He decided to go back to college, and after his discharge, he stayed in Monterey, California, working in radio while he finished his bachelor’s degree before coming home to a place he’d never been before.

When Allan moved into our house in New Jersey, I was a moody fourteen-year-old who seemed to do nothing but weep. He knew that I was an avid reader, so he gave me an incredible gift: the first American edition of a new work of literature by J.R.R. Tokien called The Lord of the Rings. He also gave me his paperback copy of The Hobbit, and I think I read the entire boxed set of LOTR four times in a row. My early teen years took place in Middle Earth.

These few years with Allan set my life on a new course. Somewhere, somehow, he had acquired something that had not been present in our family before: culture. My parents were smart, hardworking people who deliberately pulled themselves and their kids out of the working class of their parents and into the middle class. They had a nice house in the suburbs, sent us to Catholic school, dressed well, and went on summer vacations. But they knew nothing and cared nothing about art, literature, classical music, or any intellectual pursuits. Whether it was the influence of that great high school history teacher, his reading during his time in the army, his travels, or the classical music that he had been playing on the radio, by the time Allan arrived in New Jersey, he had matured into the intellectual that he would remain for the rest of his life.

Allan decided to go into graduate school at Rutgers to study medieval history—the whole world was mad about the middle ages at that time– and I was his lecture audience. While he rattled on about Frederick Barbarossa, I read Malory and Gottfried von Strassburg. I learned French and read Le Chanson de Roland and Tristan et Iseult. He taught me about classical music, and we debated Plato and Aquinas. My high school also excelled in the liberal arts, and the theology classes accomplished the opposite of what my father intended and sent me into New Age wanderings, Wicca, Buddhism, and finally, atheism. I did all of these things through storms of tears; I have no idea why Allan put up with me. Perhaps I was eager to learn, and my brother was eager to raise up his kid sister in his own image.

Allan Distant Mirror
Allan’s publicity photo for his radio show, A Distant Mirror, on WWFM.

If not for those critical years, I would be a different person today. I learned at least as much at home as I did in school, and the knowledge was deeper and richer when I could discuss it with my revered older brother. Of course, there were unintended consequences of studying at the same university a few years later, such as the shock I felt when I realized that the graduate assistant who would be grading my art history final was the young woman with whom my brother had recently gone through a dramatic and messy break-up. Fortunately, she was a serious student and gave me the A for which I had labored.

I came to true faith in Christ ten years later, and that faith was stronger for being tested and tried. I still read widely, and I taught my own son at home and passed on this desire to live an examined life. I went to graduate school myself late in life and became a librarian, a field that explores all the riches of human knowledge. Allan continues to challenge me to think critically about the world, introducing me to new authors and keeping up with plays and music. In the end, all that I have learned and even the hunger for the mysteries of wisdom have come to me as a result of those years under the tutelage of Alley Cat.

 

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Born to Read

Sherman's marker Milledgeville
So, not Sacred Heart Catholic?

I grew up hating General Sherman, incensed that he had quartered his troops’ horses in our church in Milledgeville while burning his way to the sea. I had vivid memories of the bronze historic marker outside the church and remembered it as one of my earliest reading experiences. It was an embarrassing number of years later—decades, really—when my brother, upon hearing my story, informed me that Sherman quartered his horses in St. Stephen’s Episcopal, not our church, Sacred Heart Catholic, and that he likely did so in order to preserve the building, unlike the other structures in town. He also said that Sherman marched to the sea, burning as he went, in order to bring the war to a precipitous close while we still had a country left. I harrumphed something to the effect of, “Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” but in matters historical Allan always reigns supreme. It seems that Google agrees with him.

Although it appears that I was not reading bronze historical markers at a precocious age, I was a solid member of the Cat in the Hat Book Club. I eagerly awaited the delivery of the two books that came every month in a cardboard box, ripping the box open as I walked back to the house from the mailbox across our sleepy street. Mom and I would sit on the living room sofa and make our way through the likes of Green Eggs and Ham and Go, Dog, Go! Looking back at these brilliant beginning readers, I now realize that, despite my preference for phonics instruction, I probably learned to read by sight, just catching on to the fact that most letters have the same sounds all the time. My mom was never a teacher, but like most mothers of her day, she sat patiently and read aloud, running her finger along the words as she went. We got it. By the time we arrived in school—first grade, as there was no compulsory kindergarten—we were tracking along with Dick and Jane, those sight readers extraordinaire that raised a whole generation of kids.

Milledgeville LibraryNot long afterward, my friend Dee’s mom took us to the library downtown. Dee Hammond and I had met because our mothers found out that we had both had benign tumors that had been removed when we were toddlers. Had Dee been a child today, she would have proudly displayed the Potteresque scar on her forehead, but as it was, she daintily covered it with a fringe of bangs. The public library was located in an imposing Greek Revival building on the campus of the Georgia Women’s College, and as we walked into the children’s section, Dee went to the picture books and I went to the chapter books.

“Don’t read those! Those books are for babies. Look at these!” Evidently, I didn’t understand the library value of not criticizing other people’s reading choices in those days.

“Those books are too hard for me!”

“No, they’re not. Look!” I opened up a copy of Eddie the Dog Holder, or some other Carolyn Haywood favorite, and she peered in.

“I can read that!” she exclaimed, and we happily picked out one book apiece to take back to her house and read on her parents’ big bed while her mother ironed. I distinctly recall that her mother said not one word, only looked on, smiling, during my very first reader’s advisory transaction. It took me forty years to figure out that I could get paid for this.

First Girl I Saw in Pants
The first girl I ever saw wearing pants.

I actually lived in Dick and Jane’s world. Carolyn Haywood’s Betsy and Eddie were the kids that I saw around me. Boys wore dungarees and loved their dogs. Girls were blond, with pigtails or ponytails, and wore cotton dresses that poofed out right from the armpits. I did not see a girl in pants until I was school-aged and my parents had some friends visit from Massachusetts. I asked my mom, “Is she a boy?” She was surprised. It hadn’t occurred to her that her own daughters wore dresses every single day of the year, and so did all of their friends.

Most glaringly of all, every single child in all of the popular children’s books of that time was white. No exceptions. How in the world did the adults of the 1960s expect children of all races and ethnicities to enjoy reading when they never saw anyone who looked like them or their families in books? As a children’s book selector today, I can rejoice that so many writers have answered the call to create literature for every child. You can peruse some of the titles on my book review blog, EatReadSleep, to see that some of the best writing for children is coming from diverse authors.

We were not wealthy, but we did have the advantage of our Greatest Generation parents, who were determined that their children would have a better life and a better education than they did. Thanks to them, I learned to read early and never stopped. Read to your little ones. Run your fingers under the words in beginning readers. Let them see you reading. Read together as a family. As Frederick Douglass said, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”