My generation’s childhood wasn’t just one happy day after another — not even in Laredo’s Golden Age of the 50s and 60s! The rose-colored nostalgia spectacles we put on to look back over arthritic shoulders may make it seem a paradise.
No need to remind anyone that there was injustice, inequality, and inhumanity enough back then to make you throw away those spectacles in shame.
“Twinkle Toes” is not about the good old days, but it doesn’t point an accusing finger at anyone except me.
It could be an uphill slog sometimes trying to make my way up a boy’s narrow path to manhood in Laredo 60 years ago. Women will laugh, thinking, “Ha! And you think you boys had a hard time!”
When I was in fifth grade at United Day School, there was a late spring production of Rumpelstiltskin. Teachers were having a hard time casting the role of “Twinkle Toes.”
Principal Dalziel Cobb, the terrifying figure still haunting the nightmares of United Day School alumni, called my mom while I was still at school, and my participation in Rumpelstiltskin as Twinkle Toes was negotiated as quickly as a kickback on a government contract. Corruption functions best cloaked in secrecy, so no one told me what the deal was.
At 2 o’clock the next day, time for play rehearsals, I was pleased not to have another dumb role to play in front of the neighborhood gang at the Lamar Jr. High Auditorium. Then Miss Cobb, who might as well have been wearing the white robe of a Fate, approaches, hands me the script of Rumpelstiltskin, and announces my doom: “Danny, you’re Twinkle Toes.”
The inevitable sniggering and the merciless comments of the Mier St. Crew were already ringing in my ears.
Besides, the role didn’t play to my strength, which was memorizing lines, a skill developed in years of committing King James Bible verses to memory for Sunday School and United Day. The only thing I needed the Rumpelstiltskin script for was to get my entrance cues from the speaking roles luckier students with less cooperative mothers had been assigned.
A long soliloquy would have been a walk in the park.
Such a Mr. Memory task proved to be no problem several years later, when I played the role of Meteu, the Medicine Man, in the Induction Ceremony of the Boy Scouts’ secret society, the Order of the Arrow. As Meteu, I had to memorize seven pages of doggerel verse beginning:
“Years ago, in the dim ages,
In the valley of the Delaware,
There lived a peaceful tribe of Indians,
Lenni-Lenape was their name.”
No other brave in the Laredo lodge, not one of my friends, not Stuart Temple, Frank Elder, George Goodwin, Hector Torres, Bill Leach, or Eugene “Jeep” López would learn the verses for the hocus-pocus of the Initiation Ceremony’s pseudo-sacred rites, whose name, “The Ordeal,” was more descriptive of my job reciting Meteu’s third-rate Longfellow than anything the inductees had to endure on muggy nights in July at Camp Karankawa on the shores, not of Gitche Gumee, but of Lake Corpus Christi.
The awful reality of Twinkle Toes’ role in Rumpelstiltskin was that it required dancing AND a costume. I didn’t have a single line to speak on stage.
Just dancing. Twinkle Toes’ role was to flit around and above the boards like a little Nijinski.
Even worse: in a Sherwood Forest green Robin Hood costume that included – O, the horror! — tights. To top it all off: a pixie hat. The final indignity was a pair of ballet slippers with curled-back Aladdin toes. No, actually, the ultimate blow to my boy’s pretentions to being ‘one of the guys’ was the little half-inch bell sewn on each toe.
I cursed my bad luck for having to be not just Twinkle, but “Tinkling” Toes.
The evening performance in the Lamar Jr. High Auditorium came and went, and I survived. The gods smiled on me, and only United Day School classmates witnessed my fall from aspiring cool all the way to the lower regions of ‘cute.’
Or so I thought.
It would be only a week before my worst fears about the Twinkle Toes performance would be realized.
It was at a Little League game.
My team, the American Little League Yankees, was loaded with (compared to me) towering 11- and 12-year-old All-Star players like Victor Woods, Robbie and Johnny Snyder, Jimmy Powell, and Chester Long, who let me wear the red-and-white uniform — and sit on the bench. I got out in right field occasionally late in games as the lead approached the 10-run sportsmanship rule. My baseball skills were modest, but I could yell from the dugout with the best of them, “¡Puro ponche!” and “¡No sirve el 9!” at opposing batters and exhort teammates with an encouraging “Águila!” or “¡Órale, órale!” I was unaware that the natural habitat of this unique cultural mix was limited to South Texas.
The Twinkle Toes disaster took place one night down in the heat and dust at the old Little League baseball field. Tucked into a bend of Chacón Creek, I believe it’s now called Dryden Park.
Late in the game, Mr. Hale called me off the end of the bench to pinch-hit against a hopelessly behind Don Antonio’s Men’s Wear team.
I grabbed the 29-inch bat that was too small for any of the other Yankees to bother with, trotted up to the batter’s box, miming confident body language, being careful to walk around and not step on the rubber home plate. (Baseball players, even 10-year-old Little Leaguers, are a superstitious lot, and to step on the plate other than to score would be to invite bad luck.) Little would that help seconds later, after I went through my batters-box routine, tugging at the bill of my cap, adjusting the jersey’s seam on my left shoulder brown with sweat and dust from my face, and swinging the bat over the plate exactly two times, preparing for single combat against the adversary on the mound.
Had claims that visualizing success is the key to achieving it ever been valid, I’d have been a Home Run King. How many hours had I spent at my school desk, in the backyard, or in a church pew imagining the long, graceful parabolas traced by baseballs slugged into the distance?
No matter what I visualized though, my achievement as a hitter in real games so far had amounted to a walk and three strikeouts, 0 for 3, lifetime average, 000.
That night I was firmly resolved to swing at the first pitch. Maybe miraculously the longed-for contact of hickory and horsehide would take place.
Just as the Don Antonio pitcher was winding up, it happened.
My ears burned to hear the acid mockery of Pete Walker’s voice from behind the wire mesh of the backstop.
“Get a hit, Twinkle Toes!”
My shoulders collapsed in shame.
Giggling from both dugouts.
A blood-red curtain came down between me and the pitcher.
The ball was already in the catcher’s mitt by the time my bat waved weakly at empty air.
Strikes two and three were pro forma. I was blind to the next pitches.
There was no consolation that Mudville’s Mighty Casey had struck out once, too, as I crawled back to the cover of the dugout, to teammates’ smirking faces.
“Get a hit, Twinkle Toes!” One of those childhood catastrophes that we all suffer, and scarred, mostly survive. That night in the dusty batters-box hearing Pete’s taunt must be the sort of thing Nietzsche had in mind with “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”
Even though it must have all been in an exuberant spirit of kidding around, Pete Walker damn near killed me that night.
Children say cruel things to each other both accidentally and on purpose. Cruelty is hard to determine in other people’s intentions, but it is easy for victims to know exactly what cruelty feels like, intended or not. For this late-maturing, shorter-than-average boy aspiring to be one of the guys, trying, literally, to measure up, the Twinkle Toes episode was a wrong turn on the road to manhood.
At the moment it felt like hitting a dead end with no exit.
When everything tasted like failure, I blamed my mother for putting me in humiliation’s way. It was a handy excuse that she had made me vulnerable to being cute, and I kept the excuse handy for years.
And then I finally got to this little promontory from which I can look back and see that Twinkle Toes wasn’t about my mom.
She didn’t give me the Achilles’ heel Pete Walker took advantage of in some mythological ritual at United Day.
“Get a hit, Twinkle Toes!” wasn’t about my mom, or Pete, or the Yankees.
The weak spot had always really been all mine. That Achilles’ heel was the gap between who I really was and who I thought Laredo, that is, the world, wanted me to be.