My mother taught me not to hit back. She thought that it was more civilized, more dignified somehow, to walk away rather than stand your ground. She taught me many useful things, but that one didn’t take.
In Claremont there were many things we didn’t have. Minorities, for example. There was one black family, but that was it, and they moved away. No Asians, no Hispanics, no Native Americans. In other words, we were missing many of the groups that help make America a diverse society. Even without blacks, we sang a song in school, “You can get good milk from a brown-skinned cow; the color of its skin doesn’t matter anyhow … .” I’m not making that up.
I guess the fifty or so Jewish families were the minority, although no one made much of it. The prism of hindsight can be selective – maybe there was anti-Semitism in the town, but (with one exception), I didn’t know about it. In those days, the 1940’s and 50’s, Claremont was prosperous (it’s having a comeback, I hear), and people seemed to get along. It was, in my memory, a tolerant place.
Another thing we didn’t have was homosexuality. At least we didn’t know we had it. I thought about this recently as the New Hampshire legislature debated whether to join Vermont and legalize same-sex marriage. Sure, there were a few people in the “closet” back then (although that term didn’t exist either), but no one said anything. They worked in stores, taught in the schools, made their own way, and did no harm.
For that matter, we really didn’t have sex of any kind. As kids we talked about it, but no one actually did it. Well, hardly anyone. I recall that a girl left town one day for the better part of a year, and then came back.
Drugs existed in those days, but in far away places like New York City, not our town. There was no shortage of alcohol, of course, and I grew up knowing words like “highball” and “nightcap” and “one for the road.” Sounds quaint, but back then it was just being social. Like cigarettes. Most people had them out on the table, so guests could help themselves.
Crime was something else we didn’t have. Supposedly, there had once been a murder in Claremont, but no one ever talked about the details, like who was the victim or what became of the murderer. One time they had an “open house” at the police station jail, and I went inside and they closed the door with a loud clank. Funny, the sounds you remember.
Pollution? Of course we had it, the factories, including my father’s mill on the Sugar River, contributed to it, but no one ever talked about it. So in that sense, like the tree that falls in the forest with no one there to hear it (unlike last winter in Peterborough, Jaffrey and environs), it didn’t exist either.
I remember the one exception. It happened in the schoolyard during recess. A kid called me a name, referring to my family’s religion. I ignored my mother’s teaching and hit him. We wrestled on the ground until the principal came out, broke up the fight, and called our mothers. Mine took me home and said something in the car I’ll never forget. “Good for you.”