A candy-colored clown they call the sandman
Tiptoes to my room every night
Just to sprinkle stardust and to whisper
“Go to sleep, everything is alright”
(Roy Orbison, “In Dreams”)
When I was in grade school, I was in fear that someone who wasn’t my mother would steal into my room at night. This thought scared the hell out of me and often prevented sleep. It delayed the beginning of dreams. I was both afraid and drawn to sleep and dreams: I had no idea what would come of either.
I learned the common child’s prayer:
Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
If I should die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take
Of course, I never for an instant knew what those words meant. Keep?
How exactly would the Lord keep my soul and where was it anyway? I had this idea it might be somewhere near my heart, but I wasn’t sure at all. And dying? Really? If that happened, the Lord might take my soul if He listened to my prayers, but where would He take it and what would it do there? I had not a clue about any of the things I was taught to say having to do with getting in bed and going to sleep. “Sweet dreams” – What kind were those exactly? It was all confusing to me and thus frightening because at an early age I was something of a rationalist and a literalist. If I had a soul, I wanted to know where it was. If there were people in limbo, what were they doing and how did they feel? Were they feeling the same thing as people in hell only they knew their sentences would eventually be commuted? The Church was a big part of my growing up, and I took its teachings literally, as truth, but try as I might, I couldn’t really understand any of what I was taught in catechism class by a succession of old, fat nuns with facial hair and long rulers to slam your fingers if your eyes weren’t glued to theirs.
So that was part of my nightly bedtime thought mix along with whatever TV program I could think of. There was Uncle Fred’s Junior Frolics on Channel 13, featuring anthropomorphic cats, mice, and dogs, and Farmer Gray, an old guy with a bald head and a Santa Claus beard. None of them spoke. I might as well have been watching Junior Frolics
for the deaf.
Flash Gordon and The Web were on Channel 13 too, both of which, on occasion, scared the bejesus out of me. The clay men on Flash Gordon creeped me out, and the intro to The Web scared me to the point where I would not watch the actual episode. Luckily, there were safer channels for my impressionable self: Channel 9 had The Million Dollar Movie, whose theme music I liked, and whose movies I watched with interest because they revealed things about the grown up world that I would otherwise not have had a clue about. The Dodgers were on Channel 9 too until they left Brooklyn for LA. The Early Show on CBS was another favorite. I liked “The Syncopated Clock” theme song, and most of the movies. But when they showed Dracula, The Wolf Man, The Mummy, and horror films, I would change the channel unless I was so paralyzed with fear that I couldn’t. Finally, there was Jon Gnagy’s Learn to Draw on Channel 5, a big show for me because I was learning to draw and had one or two of Gnagy’s books. These TV shows provided the content for night time thoughts in my childhood.
“I Love Lucy” was the deciding TV show for my bedtime. It came on at nine o’clock on CBS, Channel 2, for a half hour. Sometimes I could stay up to watch it. Sometimes I couldn’t. I never figured out what went into my mother’s decision, must have had something to do with how her day had been. But, I could hear it because in our three-bedroom apartment, anyone could hear everything all the time. So, even when I couldn’t see the show, I could hear the lines and the laugh track. When it went to a full hour, I had to be in bed. I often fell asleep to Lucy. Curiously though, I can’t remember any dreams with Lucy, Rickie, Fred or Ethel in them.
And my dreams were strange ones. Often I felt lifted, carried up somewhere in space, moving along, sometimes very quickly as if I were flying through space, sometimes more slowly as if in a space ship. My feelings were quickened during these space dreams. I often had feelings of dread, impending doom or conversely, feelings of elation, power and control. The space that I entered looked nothing like any TV show, comic book, or movie I had ever seen. The second defining quality of my space dreams was that I could not stop or start the dream, only be part of it. I never knew how I got to space or what happened after I got there besides moving, traveling through space.
Another type of dream I had involved my third grade teacher, who for me was very beautiful. Her name was Sylvia Stern. She asked us to call her Miss Sylvia. I had seen Ava Gardner in “One Touch of Venus” on The Million Dollar Movie. That is what Miss Sylvia represented for me: the actualization of a standard of beauty far beyond other women. She had black hair done in a modified pageboy style. She wore light colored dresses that did not hide her figure. Sometimes, the top button of those dresses was undone because of the late fall or late spring heat. I could see a slight bit of cleavage and I was entranced. I became a breast man then and there. Actually, I think the real reason I have always loved women’s breasts is that I was not breast-fed as a baby. My mother was part of the generation who were hoodwinked by advertising. Formula was the thing to give your baby; it freed the modern woman from the onerous job of unbuttoning, unfastening, and finding a hiding place in which to feed a hungry child.
So dreams of Miss Sylvia were a second category of dreams that often occurred. When I had those dreams, I began to get a different feeling in my private parts although I had no idea what sex was or who did it. That feeling eventually manifested itself in actual product before I was out of grade school. This was fine when it happened, but the aftermath was an embarrassment because my mother washed the sheets and, as naïve about sex as she was despite having given birth to two boys, she certainly knew how I had stained those whites.
The overriding factor in my young life was my asthma. I got it and got it bad. I had a laundry list of allergies, any one of which could lead to bronchitis and then to an asthma attack. I have a distinct image in my mind of me, in pajamas, lying on a fold out Castro convertible, trying to breathe, and not doing very well at it. The cure that would get me from asthma attack to bed and dreams was the Vicks vaporizer. I would huddle over it with a towel enclosing my head and the machine so that the vapors would not be lost. They were precious because they loosened the tightened muscles in my airway and allowed me to breathe normally. We did not want to lose those thick and strong Vicks vapors. After treatment with the vaporizer, I was usually able to sleep a dreamless sleep of exhaustion.
Winter sleep was my favorite sleep when I was little. Why? Because you got to wear a onesie that covered your whole body and your feet. You felt as if you had on a special uniform, designed for a very special purpose that you would learn only in your dreams after you fell asleep. A onesie was also really good for sliding on the polished wooden floors of our apartment, so it provided a waking activity as well as a sleeping one.
As a child, the idea that things would be better in the morning was not what I focused on. For me, it was, as Roy Orbison sang, “Go to sleep, everything is alright.” A child wants to know that things will be the same in the morning, that nothing bad will happen between the time he lays his head down and drifts off and the time he awakens. Children are the real conservatives in life. Without the promise of a new day the same as the one before, what child would willingly put his head to pillow and go to sleep? Not many, I think. The innovation in childhood is the doing during the day. Once that is done, it becomes a piece of the quotidian, fits into how things are. To sleep like a child really means to sleep in the hope that the new day will be much like the day just past.