My sister Karen disliked the Spanish teacher, Mr. Kissler, because he was a smart ass — Hijo de puta (son of a bitch) who had a habit of saying rude things in Spanish to you if you happen to be the last kid arriving for class, or would mock you if you mispronounced a word or phrase too many times. Karen was going to be late one day and could not bear the idea of being embarrassed in front of the class, so she skipped school and hid out in the backyard. It wasn’t too bad because Grammy and Ken were visiting at the time. Karen sat quietly below a screened window and enjoyed listening to them talk to our mom throughout the afternoon.
School could be quite awkward when puberty blossomed suddenly and you were looked at and judged on a totally new and unfamiliar playing field. My Mom should have been coaching Karen from the sideline well ahead of time, but never talked to her about the things young girls should know. If it weren’t for sixth grade health class, Karen wouldn’t have found out she would very shortly be expecting her first period. Life for a twelve-year-old girl is an awkward time in a number of ways and my sister felt like a geek. She wasn’t really, she was very pretty actually, but didn’t realize it, I guess. Karen didn’t have a bra to wear or “cool” clothes like the other girls. To make matters worse, she had the hairiest legs in the school.
Her sixth grade graduation ceremony should have been a fun and happy memory but it wasn’t. Karen: “I remember having nothing nice to wear for my 6th grade graduation program at the elementary school… I wore this plain hand-me-down sleeveless pink top (She was the oldest kid, so I don’t know who she got the hand-me-down from!) and skirt mom had made. And a pair of white pointy-toed flats and I felt as if everyone was looking at my hairy legs and worn shoes – I couldn’t wait for the ceremony to be over, I did not enjoy it, I just wanted to leave!”
Mercifully, they didn’t announce: “Sasquatch Adams” when she was called forward to get her diploma, she would have never gotten over it.
Fortunately, Karen had a few fond memories of her sixth grade year. Her class went to a weekend camp below Mount Palomar in north San Diego County, the home of the Palomar Observatory. They stayed in cabins named after the constellations; hers was “Orion.” The class toured the observatory and peered through telescopes into the Milky Way late into the night with the astronomers.
The magnificent observatory building looked like it had dropped down onto the mountaintop from outer space itself. The whole building rotated and the domed roof split open like a Martian’s helmet to expose the “Big Eye.” The mirrored lens was 200 inches across and took thirteen years to grind down and polish. At the time it was the largest optical telescope in the world. The astronomer, Edwin Hubble, had the honor to take the first exposure with the “Big Eye” in 1949, and many more until his death in 1953. He continues to discover new galaxies through his namesake, the Hubble Space Telescope. Launched by a space shuttle in 1990, it orbits the earth every 97 minutes.
Karen was becoming quite the social butterfly. She won third place in the “Home Economics- Cake Walk Contest” that year. Her winning entry was “The Good Ship Lollipop,” a cake decorated with a colorful assortment of candies. The Shirley Temple song, “On the Good Ship Lollipop,” was the inspiration for her cake. Before heading up to Pershing Middle School for seventh grade, Karen took advantage of the active summer program at the Elementary School and learned to dance the Cha-Cha and the 4‑step. She could add those to her list of dance steps that included “The Swim” and “The Funky Chicken. Now that she started shaving her legs, she’d have no problem getting asked for a dance.
Karen joined the Camp Fire Girls and earned sacred purple beads doing community service, and in the process learned about Home, Camp and Health Craft, as well as Nature Lore. When you earned enough beads you’d attain the rank of Wood Gatherer. They dressed in ceremonial Indian garb during secret ceremonies where beads, feathers, wood rings and various awards were handed out each month. Part of their credo was to promote social and community services, including the arts. That summer, Karen’s Camp Fire group went to see performances of “Madame Butterfly” and “Peter Pan” starring Mary Martin at the Balboa Park Bowl.
I remember watching the TV version of Peter Pan and was stunned, “ — Mary Martin? Wait a second, Mary — a girl is playing Peter? That isn’t right!” I protested.