Growing Up Culturally Deprived By William J. Petersen

William J. Petersen signs a book for one of his fans.
William J. Petersen signs a book for one of his fans.

C.S. Boyll note: William J. Petersen has been a longtime editor and journalist, writing over 30 books including one of my favorites: 25 Surprising Marriages: How Great Christians Struggled to Make Their Marriages Work. Some of his recent work (also, thumbs up) is a novella Boy in black shorts, long white shirt, black bow tie, points toward the words.series, The Octogenarian Sleuth, inspired by his retirement community and bylined as Bill Petersen. Find his books at WJP was once-upon-a-time my boss; now we go to church together. That’s another story. For now this Octogenarian gives permission to share some “cultured” reflections on his childhood.

Maybe that was my problem. I was culturally deprived, and I never realized it. The reason I’m thinking about it now is because I have been reading two wonderful books.

Boy lies on floor reading a book. One begins this way: “It was a moment that changed me, and I almost missed it. Touring the State Trerykov Gallery in Moscow I was rushing through a small room to catch up with some friends when the painting caught my eye. Russian artist Nikolai Yaroshenko had . . . .”

The second begins like this: “When on a long flight, I finished listening to my favorite pieces by John Coltrane, then opened some music I had recently downloaded but not yet heard. It was a recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons played by Joshua Bell and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields….”

Yeah, that was it. I was thinking about the good old days when I was bouncing a1920s boy pitching a baseball while buddy watches him. rubber ball off the wooden front steps of our bungalow, thinking of myself as Billy Herman, second basemen of the Cubs, starting a double play with Billy Jurges, the error-prone shortstop. The year was 1938, and the Cubs won the National League pennant, only to lose in the World Series as usual to a much inferior American League team. (I doubt if ever again a major league team would have a double-play combination that featured two Billy’s.)

It wasn’t that I was completely deprived of culture. Every two weeks at 2:30 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon, Miss Troyer, the classics specialist for the district, Black and white sketch of a Victrola record playervisited our fourth-grade classroom and acquainted us with great music. She brought her Victrola, sometimes toted by a sixth grader. Then after finding an outlet, she plugged it in, talked for 20 minutes about the composer (who never played baseball in his life), and then if the phonograph needle worked, played a symphonic classic for fifteen minutes while we had our heads down on our desks soaking it all in. For the last two months, or was it years, we had been soaking in Dvorak’s New World Symphony. (Come to think of it, Dvorak might have been less error-prone as a shortstop than Billy Jurges.)

We never could afford a phonograph at home even after my mother won an honorable mention prize of five classic recordings in a Chicago Tribune Krazy Krossword Puzzle Kontest. (She gave the recordings away to some family that owned a phonograph and who needed culture more than we did. )

Meanwhile, I was given piano lessons. If I walked a mile and a half each week to the Elmhurst College Conservatory with neighbor Ruthie Hanselman, we could get the lessons from a piano major at half-price. I really didn’t mind walking withInk drawing of whistling boy and girl holding hands to ears while they sit on steps. Ruthie as long as nobody saw me walking with a girl. About half of the hike was through a large overgrown field of tall weeds. Our student-teacher, Ethel Koons, had a high raspy voice that she tuned by scraping her fingernails on a chalkboard. Even when she approved your playing as “acceptable,” you were guaranteed a “But….” Ruthie turned out to be a better pianist than I was.  After two years of competition with her I started playing the baritone horn, appreciating the marches of John Philip Sousa more than the classics of Chopin or Schubert.

As far as art appreciation was concerned, my lineage came through Elmer, my dad; Twila Bell, my seventh grade art teacher; and John, my brother. My father had spent eight months checking out homesteading possibilities in Colorado in 1918 and 1919. He returned, disappointed with farming prospects but in love with the mountains and evergreens. After that, on Sunday afternoons, for the rest of his life, he sketched pine trees and mountains on various paper tablets  before taking his Sunday afternoon nap.

I never impressed Miss Bell, who remembered my older brother John from three years earlier. John wasn’t a great artist, but he could draw straight lines, could make recognizable maps, and was very neat when he left the art room. I wasTwo 1920s boys in caps walk in step together. One has his arm around the other. none of the three, facts of which she reminded my mother at parent-teacher conferences. John, by the way, was not only an excellent cartographer, but later made his living as a draftsman for the telephone company.

Three 1920s boys illustrate leap frog game in this black and white sketch.Later in life I tried to recover, at least in the area of classical literature, but it’s like in the first inning, when with two outs the bases are loaded and an easy ground ball goes through the legs of Billy Jurges, and, much too late, he runs back, picks it up and throws it over the head of first baseman Phil Cavaretta; all three runners score, the batter ends up on second, and the Cubs, despite a ninth-inning rally propelled by Billy Herman, lose 3 to 2.

Sometimes it may be too late to recover, so Michelangelo and Rachmaninoff need not worry.

Ink sketch of boy on bike, with his hands folded across chest
All children illustrations by Herb Roth (1887-1953), taken from out-of-print Little Benny’s Book by Lee Pape (1926).