E1: EARLY CHILDHOOD; PRESCHOOL
This chapter is based largely on my own recollections. Only occasionally have I had to employ information provided by my parents. I have no reason to doubt its accuracy.
I was born June 8, 1912 at 4150 North Kildare Ave., Chicago, a Dr. Henn attending. (Births at home rather than in the hospital where the rule, not the exception, in those days.) It is important to note that medical practitioners and medicines were not highly regarded and were not used much by my parents, who believed that the Lord would take care of them and their offspring; perhaps they believed that He would think that they didn’t trust him should they turn elsewhere for help. But a birth was apparently thought to be outside God’s expertise. Also outside must have been a few other conditions. For example, when as a baby I ate a bar of Ivory soap during a bath period. Dr. Henn was summoned; he gave assurance that no harm would result. He might have been right; but since then I have found Ivory soap decidedly repulsive, not to my disadvantage, of course, but possibly to that of Procter & Gamble.
Gertrude with baby Lee Roy Wilcox, ca 1912, Chicago, Illinois
I was characterized as of “sickly” child, although I had rosy cheeks, then regarded as a sign of health (at least in the case of children). But I didn’t suffer any ills other than a few normal childhood diseases, such as measles, chickenpox, German measles, and diphtheria, all of which were “home diagnosed” (guessed at), and in each case prayer was the only treatment. I do remember having at age 4 a high fever and commenting during it that “darkness is going by in portions.” That could have been the start of my graphic perceptions. There were, of course, also a few childhood accidents; the most memorable one occurred at age 3 when I was rocking in a rocking chair at the top of the stairway and found myself on the landing below after series of backward somersaults. I cried, probably from fright rather than injuries. In all such cases no doctor was ever called. Frankly, I regard myself as extremely lucky.
Jenny Schultz (“Aunt” Jenny), the rumor at our house, died before I was 3, but I remember her well. She liked to play German versions of “patty-cake” with me; she also enjoyed singing German ribald songs, one of which I still remember. (I make no claim to have understood it at the time.)
Da ich so spat bin ausgeblieben,
Hab’ ich Katarrh aug meiner Brust;
Und weil’s noch nicht sei ausgetrieben,
Hab’ ich für Lieben keine Lust.
‘So trink’ ich aus Malankelei
Ein volles Glas Krambambulei –
Free translation follows. (The words Malankelei and Krambambulei are not in the German dictionary. They might be dialectic, or possibly coined for the song.)
Since I was out too late last night,
A cold has settled in my chest.
I’m so completely tired out,
At making love I’d fail the test.
Thus I’m drinking from a giant stein
A man-sized mix of schnapps and wine.
Snifter, snifter – schnapps and wine,
Schnapps and schnapps and wine!
Aunt Jenny’s death was sad, but in a way it was timely: I could move from my parents’ room to what had been hers. Still, Jenny’s sense of humor had been a real plus for our family; I believe that the vividness of my memory of her from so early a period in my life stems from that contribution.
During most of this era, both my parents were working, and so I was under the care of my grandmother, Gertrude. This was no fun for me, for I found her bossy and self-centered. (She remained that way throughout her life until shortly before her death when she suffered a stroke; only then did she become agreeable and pleasant, even to the point of laughing – something of a novelty for her.) Actually, her “in loco” parental role was to continue through most of my early school years. As will be seen, however, her influence had a distinctly positive effect on me. As noted earlier, her immigration to America was motivated by religious considerations. While willing to accept and enjoy religious freedom here, she found nothing else about America that she liked, so far as I know. She shunned all steps toward becoming “integrated,” including learning any more English than was absolutely necessary. It was natural, then, for her to make German the household language, over futile objections of my father. (Whether he refused to learn German out of spite or was actually incapable of learning it is not clear.) In those early years I saw a little of my father since I was put to bed before he came home from work on weekdays, and I arose after he had left in the morning. Only on weekends did I see him a bit; even then there was little opportunity since he worked on Saturday mornings and was tied up a lot at the Galewood church on Sundays. I recall that we took walks on occasion but we couldn’t converse since my language was German and his was not.
Roy with his parents, Lee and Pauline (Miller) Wilcox, ca 1915, Chicago
It is not inaccurate to say that German was (orally) my native language. Of course, after about age 4 I was bilingual, mostly because I had been playing with the hood children and I had been attending Sunday School locally where English was spoken. Since Gertrude was to remain part of our family for many years, continuation of my bilingual character was guaranteed.
Pauline, Gertrude, and Roy ("Buddy"), ca 1916, Chicago
Our neighborhood offered little by way of congenial playmates. In our block there were a few families with one to three children each, half of the boys being “roughnecks”; in addition, two houses were occupied by numerous Russian immigrant families with ultra-numerous children who couldn’t speak German or English and were thus unsatisfactory as playmates. So I developed no strong friendships and became something of an introvert. What was more, my father wanted me to become an expert at self-defense (as he had had to become in the Navy); but I shied away from fights, primarily because inevitable attending pain held no attraction for me, even if by some chance I would come out on top. So my avoidance of fights was a great disappointment to my father, who mistook my good sense for cowardice. Quite possibly our lack of consonants in this matter explains why our relations never became close or cordial. (Only later, when he began to realize that I had a few useful skills, and especially much later when he had to depend on me in many ways, did cordiality emerge.)
Since I needed some refuge from unpleasantness, related mostly to my grandmother and in part from my father, I naturally turned to my mother, who fortunately saw some potential in me; so our relationship became a positive one, probably more so than was good for either of us.
Roy with his Aunt Ottillie Mueller Dallman (left) and mother Pauline (middle), May 1917, Chicago
Roy with his Uncle Art Miller, March 1918, Chicago
Normally at age 5 I would be expected to go to Kindergarten. But my parents disdained the idea: in their view school should begin with grade 1. Since each of them had begun with that grade, they probably “reasoned” that sauce for the goose and the gander would be sauce for the gosling. Moreover, it was thought necessary that I become acquainted with my father’s family in Dallas. So in the spring of 1918 my mother and I took a train to Dallas; of course we would be staying with Grandpa and Grandma Wilcox and meet a miscellany of relatives. (My father had to work and so couldn’t go along.) The train ride was uneventful. We rode in a coach, Pullman being too expensive, and had to change cars at St. Louis. I recall the Youngs (Pearl Young being a stepsister of Lee) meeting us there. The stopover was too short, for I found that I liked their son Pipkin, who, as it turned out, I never saw again. When we were again underway, I asked for a drink of pineapple juice (one of the few food items taken along on the trip); but my mother had left it on the other car, no longer on the train. I was furious, but crying did no good.
Our Dallas visit wasn’t all that great. I remember some people: Lee’s brother Roy and his sister Alma, along with assorted half-and step-sisters and their spouses. Almost all of these were not to cross paths with me again.
Roy is the smallest child in the middle, front
Roy with his step-grandmother, Leonora Stickle Caskey Welch Wilcox
The rest of the time I played by myself, making mud-pies in the gutter, then taking them to the streetcar line a block away so that I could watch them getting smashed as the car passed over them. Some fun.
The return trip to Chicago was uneventful.
 It is likely that Kindergarten wasn't even available to either of my parents. As late as 1960, Kindergarten, public or private, was unavailable to over half the 5-year-olds in the United States.
* It was told to the transcriptionist (by the author) that Grandma Leonora Wilcox sniffed little Roy (Buddy) and told him he was already beginning to “smell like them.”