Portrait of the Boy as a Young Artist

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For reasons too complicated to explain– and which only became evident to me long after they had all died, my parents moved in with my grandmother when I was a month old.

Into the same house my mother had grown up in.

The war was finally over and my parents bought a laundry with the proceeds from the sale of their former home which my father had designed and helped build with his own hands.

The plan was that my mother would run their new business.

My father quit his job in Florida as a lawyer for the railroad and had gone back to his old job as a telegraph operator at the railroad station in Savannah. 

My parents both worked from 8 o’clock in the morning until after 6 in the evening five days a week– and from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m. on Saturdays.

Consequently, from the time I was about a year old, I was entrusted to the care of my grandmother, 58, a widow who had lived alone and whose husband had died suddenly when she was 41.

Beginning when I was first able to walk down the hall from my room to hers, I’d climb into bed with my grandmother every chance I would get, cozy up next to her and she would read to me while I looked at the pictures in the books. She read the Bible to me–and illustrated Bible Stories–and Aesop’s Fables–and children’s books I had received as gifts– but best of all, she read me the newspaper comic stripsMany of those characters in the comic strips looked suspiciously like people I knew from the real world.

In “Bringing Up Father”, the main character’s nagging wife, Maggie bore an uncanny resemblance to my father’s Aunt Maggie, whom we would occasionally visit. The comic character, Roscoe Sweeney in ‘Buzz Sawyer, ’ looked exactly like my parents’ friend Ed. Little Orphan Annie was the spitting image of Ruthie, a little girl with orange hair who lived two houses away. The comic strip Nancy was obviously based on my cousin of the same name.

And there were others.

But the one that really struck me the most was HENRY— a strip about a little boy with a bald head and big ears. It had to be about the boy next door. It looked exactly like him. And his name was “Henry”.

I assumed it was just a matter of time until someone did a comic strip about me.

My father grew up on a farm and hated to waste things. He worked for the railroad, in the telegraph office. Information about freight and passenger trains from all up and down the “line” was constantly being printed out by teletype machinesThese machines were fed by large rolls of yellow paper– and if the paper ran out, the machines would keep right on typing –and all that information would be lost. To prevent this from happening, the last few yards of paper on the roll were dyed pinkThis alerted the “operators” that it was time to put on a new roll. My father would bring these almost-empty rolls of pink paper, which would otherwise have been thrown out, home. He showed me how to use a wooden ruler to tear paper off the rolls and make it  into “sheets.” He would type personal letters on some of the paper, but most of the sheets he gave to me.

There was also a never-ending supply of pencils from the SEABOARD AIRLINE RAILWAY.

Years later, he would give me the sheets of white cardboard which came with his freshly-pressed white shirts.

My earliest memory of receiving any approval for my artwork from my parents was the day after my mother had given me some crayons and a coloring book to distract me so that she and my father could go out dancing, dining and drinking for the evening. 

I was around three.

A year or so later, my mother made a big deal about a drawing of a squirrel I had seen in the backyard.

Once, when my father and I drove to Florida to see his mother, my grandmother sat me down at the dining room table with paper and pencil and had me copy a framed photograph of him. I wasn’t about to disappoint her. She might give me a“switchin”–or even worse–another one of those “enemas”. But I knew I could do it– and I wanted to please her.  I liked it when people seemed pleased with me.

By the time I was seven and in the second grade, I looked forward to those times when the teacher would hand each student one sheet of Manila Paper and we’d all take out our crayons and draw something. You could draw anything you wanted. One afternoon I drew a ship in a storm. It was being tossed about by big waves. Lightning was striking the ship and it was sending out an S.O.S. signal.  Afterward, a girl went around the room and collected all the drawings and brought them up to the teacher’s desk. A few minutes later, Miss Sutlive got up –and walked over to the blackboard– and pinned my drawing up so everyone could see it. The way she was talking to my classmates about that picture gave me a strange new feeling. I could even feel a couple of my classmates starting to like me. Up until that time, I just figured that everyone could draw. From that day on, I began to think of myself as an “artist”— someone special –who could do things that most others could not.

When I was at home after school and my parents were still at work and I didn’t feel like hanging out with my grandmother, who had fallen and broken her hip when I was four and was confined to bed or a wheelchair, I would often sit at the table in the dining room and draw pictures. 

Hours passed like minutes. 

Battlefield scenes with airplanes, tanks and soldiers were a recurring theme. I went through my “Sunken Ship with rotting timbers and open chest of treasure guarded by menacing sharks while a skeleton in a deep sea diver outfit with a big brass helmet and a severed air hose that somehow still emitted bubbles” phase. In a couple of years people were referring to me as the “best artist” in the school and there were several other kids who regularly asked me to draw things for them. I remember this kid named Rolf always asked me to draw sports cars or a motocycle. 

I discovered that I was also able to think of funny things to say in class which would crack up my classmates. I loved to make the other kids laugh. But, in general, the teachers were not amused –and a couple of times, I was sent to the principal’s office. But the urge to make others laugh was stronger than any fear I might have had of getting into trouble. 

Eventually, I realized that drawing funny pictures–and passing them around —seemed like a safer way to get attention. I longed to fit in– and be accepted by the others. But after the laughter died down, I still felt like a reject with no friends.

One day when I was 12, there was a knock at the front door. Nina, our maid, whom I loved dearly, came into my room and told me there were some “boys from school at the front door” and they wanted to see me.

I never got any visitors

There were six or seven of them. I was thrilled. Finally I was going to be accepted into a group! 

Nina invited them into the house and they all crowded into my room. Somehow, they had  heard about my room and wanted to see it. My bedroom walls were completely covered with drawings of monsters and aliens I had copied out of Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine. They loved it! But my feelings of elation quickly dissipated when I realized they were just stopping in for a minute because my house was on their way to The Coastal Empire Fair in a nearby park and one of the guys had to use the bathroom.  Almost as an afterthought, they invited me to come with them and I tagged along, basically ignored, and as soon as we got there, “Carey”, the “coolest kid in school” and leader of the group– began flirting with some girl in such an inappropriate and shocking way that it made me feel very out-of-place– and I was suddenly overwhelmed by an overpowering urge to flee. I half-walked, half-ran back home, went directly to my room and further retreated into the world of my own imagination.

One day Nina announced to my Mother that, Ricky is going to be an artist when he grows up…”  It seemed to me at the time that Nina knew me better than my own mother did. 

I received further validation when I was around 14. I was over at a friend’s house and it was a rainy day–and we couldn’t play ball outside. His older brother, whom I looked up to and respected– handed me a magazine with a photograph of newly-elected president John F. Kennedy on the cover. He asked me if I could draw a picture of the new president. I sat down at a table in the den and in an hour or so,  got up, walked down the hall to his room and showed him the drawing. He was very impressed with it and left his room. I followed. He went to show his mother the drawing. “Look at this, Ricky is going to be an artist…” There didn’t seem to be any doubt in his mind whatsoever.

And that was enough to convince me.

4 thoughts on “Portrait of the Boy as a Young Artist”

  1. That was a great read. It fleshes out in a fresh way the story I already knew. Or is this the original? When did you write this?

    Sent from my iPhone


    1. Thanks, Renee–I have come to believe that everything we have ever seen or heard, in fact every experience we have ever had– is stored away for future reference by our brain. So, if you accept that, as I have, it’s just a matter of finding the room that those things are in and clearing away the cobwebs from the door and opening it. I believe that this is at the basis of the success of hypnosis. I have found that when I start to write about a subject, slowly things which I thought I had completely “forgotten about” start to come back to me. And I write them down–and I can shape that into a story. Try it. You may be pleasantly surprised. Good Luck.


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