Lyrics ‘What’s it all about Alfie’?
What’s it all about, Alfie
Is it just for the moment we live
What’s it all about when you sort it out, Alfie
Are we meant to take more than we give
Or are we meant to be kind
And if only fools are kind, Alfie
Then I guess it’s wise to be cruel
And if life belongs only to the strong, Alfie
What will you lend on an old golden rule
As sure as I believe there’s a heaven above, Alfie
I know there’s something much more
Something even non-believers can believe in
I believe in love, Alfie
Without true love we just exist, Alfie
Until you find the love you’ve missed you’re nothing, Alfie
When you walk let your heart lead the way
And you’ll find love any day, Alfie, Alfie
‘What’s it all about Alfie’? was a 1966 British Comedy starring Michael Caine. It was a movie that lasted long after the release date, but it is the song I remember most clearly. It was one of the first songs to really get me thinking. I was one of those kids who tried to sort it all out. Many decades later I still am. While, there are constants throughout life, as roles and goals change so does the balance of things. In the beginning, I imagine listening to this song had less to do with my free will than my sisters. She shaped what music I listened to (shaped -euphemistic term for forced control). Like many older sisters of that generation, she was my overseer. I did not have a lot to say about what I watched, listened to, or even thought. It is because of my older sister I learned to perfect my self-survival skills and learn to think beyond my age. Whether that was a good thing is hard to know. I became aware at a young and tender age that life wasn’t fair. I didn’t think I was singled out It tended to be a universal law. My sister was older, smarter and thought differently than me. I thought that I should be my mom’s favorite and she did not. Which was a little short sighted on her part because this was back when a mother’s favorite was always a son. It all balanced out because I wanted to be dad’s favorite and she held that honor. This brings us to another quirk of the female mind. It has a tendency to feel oppressed. For example, just because Dad was never home she felt like she got the short straw in the favorite sweepstakes. When she received the lion share of all the responsibilities, you didn’t hear me complain. Her focus being more practical in nature was well suited for doing the day to day things necessary to keep the family running. When your dad is seldom around and your mom works there is a lot for a big sister to do. I figured it was good training for when she got married. Rather than thanking me, she probably thought much like my wife that I spent far too much time on things I can’t do nothing about. My focus was less useful in nature and had a more questioning bent.
My teachers on more than one occasion forbade me to use words such as why and if. I remember asking my Sunday School teacher, “I am supposed to believe I am going to spend eternity either in heaven, where things are really good or in hell, where things are really, really bad; is that right? To which he answered’ “yes”. I responded, “Ok, first, I need little help with the whole eternity thing. Is everything frozen in time or do things change, I assume we don’t age?” (I didn’t like being a little kid and if I died I didn’t want to go through eternity as a kid.) My other question was, “Given the magnitude of the stakes, why do I spend five days a week in school and only a few hours in church? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Smells a little fishy to me.” Looking at his face, it suddenly dawned on me that this could be the very reason I was on my third Sunday School teacher. I was a little nervous because there were no more Sunday School teachers and my mother would be disappointed if I took away her one hour of freedom on Sunday. My mother made sure I went to Sunday School and church, but didn’t seem overly concerned about my immortal soul. She focused on my behavior here on earth. In her view, heaven was a more inclusive place than some thought and you would have to be a real stinker for god to send a kid to hell. I was safe for now. I went to church, said my prayers and was a good boy who was just misunderstood. All that didn’t help on that Sunday morning in class. My actual death wasn’t in question, in fact it is possible my mom may not even raise her voice. Guilt would be her tool of choice in a situation like this. An effective tool in the hands of a master. She could wield guilt with a skill and precision that reminded you of Chris Everette craving up an opponent on a tennis court. In this moment of despair and insight I was saved by the girl sitting next to me. I am not sure, but it is possible she may have liked me a little. It is hard for me to know because I was scared of girls and considered them a little bit yucky. It might have been a normal stage of development or I could have been traumatized by my sister against females as a whole. I say that because even today I am insecure around women and consider them a mystery. Anyway, getting back to the girl who was now waving her arm saying, “I know, I know the answer to his question”. The teacher finally called on her and she replied, “God wants you to go to school so you can get a job and feed your family.” Everyone smiled and said, “of course, of course” even the teacher agreed. I remember looking into her eyes and thinking this brilliant angel of mercy. I almost forgot I didn’t like girls. This optimism about girls and people generally, was short lived. I am not sure why, but I have considered this an important experience for me. If this is true what did I learn that I can pass along to Alfie. I realized that this sorting out was going to take a while and as sure as there is a heaven, there is something more and part of that something more is rain. For someone who was never abused I was a tad disillusioned for a young child.
It was clear to me that I did not look at adults with the starry-eyed wonder as the other kids. The only exceptions were sports figures who were really just big kids. Otherwise, I was unimpressed with grown-ups’ ability to give coherent answers to my questions. Their failure to realize that good answers are consistent convinced me that many, if not most adults, were not all that smart. Whenever I would try to point out how their present answer didn’t fit into a logical pattern with other answers they had given previously; they would respond with a threat. In this they were consistent. If you question an adult long enough and soon or later they will threaten you. It wasn’t that they were dumb, it just that their knowledge tended to be limited to certain areas like their jobs or hobbies. They were not very good at the big questions. I was not alone in my estimation of adults. This opinion of adult intelligence is typically a phase teenagers go through. I differed in one notable way; it was more of a permanent condition I was born with than a phase. This state of mind, pleased a few people, but as a general rule, it enraged them. The prevailing thought during that time was, kids should be seen and not heard. I had noticed that adults were found of saying that when what they really meant was go away. If you don’t take candy from a stranger you have nothing to worry about; go outside. Women said be quiet and men said shut up if they wanted you wanted you to be silent. That was if you were lucky. Although, I was frequently lucky it was still frustrating to be told to “shut up” even if they said it in a nicer way. They never seem to understand I was only trying to explore and expand my natural curiosity and intelligence, not expose their ignorance.
Since anyone reading this is obviously smart, I sure they have figured out primary school was not a good fit for me. Well to be completely honest, I would tell you if I was only going to be half honest, neither was Junior High (middle school) or High School. I considered Huck Finn my role model. That being said, my formal education got off to a good start. My kindergarten year was a success. The teacher, who I am sure is dead now, was named Mrs. Wells, I can remember her name because good memories of school were few and far between. I spent most of my time trying to forget anything associated with school. I considered it incarceration without the benefit of a trial. She was kind and thoughtful and one of the very few teachers who liked me. At last, much like that brilliant angel of mercy in my Sunday School class, she was just a blip on the radar screen, a shining star soon to be swallowed in a sea of incompetence and mental illness. At least that’s how it seemed to me at the time and I have accepted far too much responsibility for past and present actions lately to reconsider.
My first-grade year would set the tone for the rest of my school life. My first-grade teacher in the words of our beloved president was a nutjob. She was not my fan and I understood this, but remember I had had a remarkable kindergarten teacher and was still hopeful at this point. I was puzzled at her attitude toward me. Since she didn’t seem to like children and I only liked a few we should have been kindred spirits. It wouldn’t take long for me to dislike as much as she disliked me. I remember the incident that raised the tension between us. The bell rang, my chair was on my desk, I began to walk out to catch my bus when she called my name. I stopped and looked at her, she said, “I told you to take that paper home and you shoved it in your desk”. First, she never told me personally, it was a general statement made to the whole class because she was disappointed in their effort. At least that was my working hypothesis. I happened to get a 100% on the assignment so her comment shouldn’t have pertained to me. I was worried about catching the bus, there was no one home to get me, unless my sister walked to school and met me. You can guess my feelings on this possible eventuality. Given these factors I made it as simple as I could for the teacher and responded I got 100%, at the same time I grabbed the paper and walked thru the door. I remember she said, “this isn’t over” as I scurried out. I think that was the first time I felt the sense of dread that has haunted me for most of my life; I say haunted because I seldom, if ever heeded its warning. That way I could continue to make the same mistakes, but It will soon become apparent it isn’t my mental health in question. At least not this time. Please, it is true I have always been afraid of being thrown in a mental ward. So, I have always been careful not to reveal all my thoughts. I figured if I ever was committed I would lose it and threaten to kill somebody. Ok, it is possible I might have given it the old college try. To understand my mental state you have to remember at that time in history, fear was just something that came and went. It was something kids needed to be aware, experience, then let it go. Those in authority would let you know when it was time to be afraid and laugh at you it was wasn’t. Kids today are afraid of zombies, I wondered what they think if they were told to get under the desk for a nuclear war drill. Was I the only kid that had seen “On the Beach”. My dad thought it was important for me to know that war now would even be more horrible than the ones he fought in. My mom was a southern democrat, they used to exist, she wanted me to know what would happen if Goldwater got elected.
My dad use to tell me fear was a good thing. Learn to use it and it can save your life. These parents had experienced war. They had learned to live with pain and violence. You know like 1% of us do now. If something didn’t kill you it made you stronger and they weren’t afraid to try and improve your strength. My dad was a progressive, he just figured if it didn’t kill you then don’t complain. I never told him if you are dead you definitely can’t complain. I think he had something against complaining. He didn’t have many good war stories. He seldom spoke about the war. Although you could feel its unseen presence, like oppressive humidity on a hot summer day. His stories were less about heroes and more about the things men do. I remember he told me, “I never knew any real heroes like in the movies. The ones who carefully consider the situation and then act out of bravery. I saw heroes, but that’s not why they acted. According to him there were three basic types; the new guys who hadn’t figured out they could die, more common were the ones that just lost it and charged. Finally, there were the ones who were so sick and tired they just wanted it all to end. He told me, “I lost it once. I felt something on the back of my neck and it was my friend Buck’s brain. It might not have been his brain splatter, but I thought so at the time.” I didn’t say anything, I didn’t ask him what he did or if that was why he always called me Buck. I guess I was and am kind of honored. Still the image that came to mind whenever he called me Buck was of the indescribable pain he must have felt when it happened. I picture his face more than Bucks’. I was often told I was too sensitive. It seems I carried my feelings on my shirt sleeves. That would change in time. Anyway, fear was a frequently used tool in the education of children back then and there was a battle of wills going on in my first-grade class.
I didn’t have to wait too long for the shoe to drop. We had a girl in our class who refused to talk except on rare occasions, and then only to this one girl. No one had ever heard her speak, but once in a while, the girl who sat next to her would bend her head over and she apparently would whisper in her ear. If I thought our teacher didn’t like me, she was totally infuriated by this child. Even in first grade I recognized this silent girl’s vulnerability. I was not blessed with excessive courage and watch this child get chastised several times with a heavy ruler (a thick yard stick, to this day I have never seen a yardstick that thick) several times for not talking before I had the courage to act. Her friend, at least the one who spoke for her, asked if she could go to the bathroom? This is as close as I can remember to a public statement from this silent child. The teacher response was to ask, “do you want to go to the bathroom” I thought I saw her head go up and down, but the teacher pick up the yardstick and said, “I asked you a question”. The child responded by looking down at the floor. The teacher told her to stand up and wacked her butt several times and told her to sit down. Everybody’s eyes were glued on this too familiar scene. She sits down crying. Ever noticed kids are always fascinated when other kids cry. Most kids don’t want to cause it, but when it is done by an authority figure they want to watch. I guess it comes from the place that makes people want to attend executions. Anyway, not thirty seconds after she sits down, she pees. Not a little pee, but through her panties and all over the floor. Everyone sees it. The teacher says,” did you pee your panties? Did you pee on my floor? I am going to pull your panties down and see if we can solve this problem once and for all.” Solving something once and for all were words no child ever wanted to hear. These words meant however bad you think it is going to be, it will be worse. How will they know when it has been learned once and for all? You can tell them, but it is doubtful they will listen. They obviously think what they have tried so far is insufficient. The kids that were captivated by the scene taking place a few minutes ago were looking away. Something was not right and they took refuge by looking at the floor. It didn’t work for the silent girl and it wouldn’t work for me.
I am thinking my dad was WWII and Korea marine how can I ever look myself in the mirror if I chicken out now. I stood up and said, “you know she don’t talk, everyone knows she don’t talk, I don’t know what is wrong with her, but I know this isn’t the answer and stood in front of her.” The teacher went to hit me with the stick, I moved and it broke over the back of the chair. Instead of taking this as an opportunity to take a deep breath and rethink the rightness of her position; our teacher proceeded to try and beat me to death with the rest of the yard stick. By this time, the whole class was in revolt; not that this helped me, by revolt I mean they cheered me on. Some of them was under the mistaken impression I was fighting the teacher. I was simple trying to escape. She was holding me by the hair in one hand and hitting me with the stick in the other. She was stronger than she looked and determined I would not get away. In retrospect, I am not sure where I thought I could run to even if I managed to get loose. Somewhere during our struggle my finger got caught in her mohair sweater and pretty much ripped it off. With her attention now diverted I escaped. I instantly recognized this was not a good thing. There was nowhere to run and this could prove to be a major piece of evidence against me. What I saw as a gallant defense against overwhelming odds to protect the innocent was not going to be universally shared. I was not going to be held up as hero. The adults in my life were going to view this has a heinous crime against authority, but the girl that never spoke had said “thanks”. This was not a breakthrough, I didn’t hear speak, she simply mouthed the word thanks, but it was enough. I say it was enough because people say that when something that seem right at the time, goes wrong. It was dawning on me that this could go really bad. This realization came as the teacher was escorting me to the office. By escorting, I mean dragging me by the hair. She did this even though I offered to walk. I took this moment to say I’m sorry over and over, I figured this was better than discussing the merits of my case. I did however wish she would stop long enough to fix her mohair sweater. It was becoming clear she wanted a visual aid to use in her prosecution of me. She was going to leave her bra covered breasts exposed for all to see. She was not going to take a minute to think about it and come to the conclusion I was right. Thank you for saving me from making an awful mistake. Instead, she saw herself has the warden and I was her prisoner. I changed my pleas of I’m sorry, to the more classic prisoner defense; I didn’t do anything. You know I actually believed it at the time. While I conceded, the incident was unfortunate for all concerned; I was the wrong party. They threw me in a room and didn’t even give me a phone call. I paced nervously waiting for the interrogation to start. I figured this must be psychological warfare. Maybe there would be no interrogation and they just start with the torture. Looking out the door I could see they were making a phone call. They were trying to get even more people there to beat me in case they got tired.
In one of the great quirks of life my dad was home. This was not a comfort, his opinion of me was the single most important thing in my life. My dad had many talents and perhaps even more flaws. He was good, maybe even gifted at reading a situation and that would prove to work in my favor. My dad was more thoughtful than most and would evaluate the situation objectively. He was kind of an Attica Finch on a good day. This was a good day. Upon arrival, my dad walked in and said, “I want to speak to my son.” We went out into the hall away from the principle and teacher. He asked me what happened. I would never lie to my dad and I told him my story. He listened and simply said, “sit down”. He walked back in the office and closed the door. While in the hall my will broke and I began to cry. I quickly pulled myself together I didn’t want to cry in front of my dad. I was always somewhat of a realist, I knew they would break me. There would be time for crying. The door opened and my dad motioned for me come in.
I was not expelled or even paddled by the principle. My dad said, “we decided the best thing to do is for you to write a letter of apology”. I wasn’t confused, I was stunned. I knew that was a lie. We didn’t decide anything, my dad did. The teacher wanted blood and principle had made a point of taking practice swings with his paddle outside the door I had been waiting in. Was it possible I was not going to be tortured. My dad had negotiated a peaceful settlement. Of course, the teacher had tried to beat me to death with what was left with her yardstick. There was a type of consistence here because in my dad’s system of morality it was never permissible to hit a girl even if she hit you. This was a loop hole my sister and her female friends took full advantage of. I never intentionally hit the teacher and I wasn’t even trying to rip her sweater off. I had not been vindicated, but I had been paroled. After the year was over my dad told me that she would never teach again, she didn’t have the temperament for it. It was never mentioned again. He never asked what I had learned. I don’t think he wanted to answer my questions. Does being nice mean you prevent bad things from happening to someone even if you must be unkind to someone who has authority over you. How does the golden rule apply, it was the silent child I identified with so I stood up for her? On the other hand, if I was the teacher this is the last thing I would have wanted to happen. So, in the end, do we only defend people we identify with. My dad defended me, did he identify with me? Seemed unlikely at the time.
After first grade, my dad became even less a part of our day to day life. This provided an opportunity for me to implement what became over time a somewhat sophisticated way of dealing with school. The first part of the plan was to reach an informal agreement with my mom. I agreed to maintain better than average grades if she would over look my attendance. This benefitted me because I could limit the amount of time I had to be trapped in the repressive institution commonly referred to as school. Limiting the amount of time was a win, win, win. In small amounts, I could on occasions enjoy school. The teachers and other authority figures found the less interactions they had with me; the happy they were. It seems that with some people I had a kind of cumulative effect. The irritation would build and unless It was given a chance to go down it could reach a breaking point. Finally, it was a win for my mom. This system kept me out of trouble. This also addressed my mom’s concerns in a less obvious way. My mother would frequently tell me that there was a thin line between genius and insanity. I think her standards for genius were low. I never knew if she was concerned for me, or if this was more of a commentary on my dad. I loved my mother and I would do my part, I promised myself she would never have to worry about me becoming too smart.
When I started third grade my plan of taking time off and keeping my head down was working. I was trying to figure out how to maneuver through a world that often sent out conflicting messages. I felt like I was making some progress. My whole hypothesis of how you act in civilized society was about to be shaken. It is true I preferred the company of dogs to people, but I tried to avoid conflict, especially of a physical nature. My third-grade teacher was named Mrs. Tandy (I only used names if I liked the people even though I am sure they have all been dead for a long time). This was a country women who I liked and seemed to like me. Things were going good, I was even taking less time off school when she asked me to stay behind. While the rest of the kids went out to recess I went up to her desk. I quickly did a mental check list trying to figure out what this was about. Coming up with the answer isn’t as important as you might think. By this time, I knew the trick question, “do you know why you’re here”. The answer to this question was always the same, “no”. Any answer you give can and will be used against you. It could provide additional evidence they didn’t have and it is entirely possible you might confess to something they didn’t know about it. I had nothing and felt surprisingly comfortable about the encounter. I walked up to her desk and said, “You wanted to see me.” She was a big woman and said, “come on around here.” She put her arm around my shoulder. This was a little unusual, I was not the type of kid that got hugged a lot. I wasn’t dirty and didn’t stink, we just preferred our own space. Mrs. Tandy asked me, “why do you let the kids pick on you ?” Surprised I responded, “because you are supposed to turn the other cheek” she laughed and pulled me into a bear hug and said,” oh baby, that’s only for Sundays’.” A few weeks later the recess teacher took me to the office for aggressive behavior. Mrs. Tandy came to my defense. She walked in and said, “now, just put that paddle down”. His name was Mr. Cook, he was a new principle and seemed rather indignant and asked “why”? She answered, “well it was my fault and second, you have to call his dad first. I told the boy he needed to stick up for himself. He was a little confused about the turn the other cheek thing. I think he has got it now. “Mr. Cook answered, “I think he may have learned it to well.” She said, “you can’t go from wimp to your rightful place without delivering a few bumps and bruises.” I was thankful for her support, she put herself on the line for me. An adult had been consistent with her message. While her defense was both well executed and successful; the word wimp hit me hard. I took from our first talk I shouldn’t take stuff from anyone, but I had never considered myself a wimp. I became angry on that day. I don’t mean that flash anger that is temporary in nature, that was a tool I kept just below the surface. I mean that chip on your shoulder that went with you everywhere. I was surprised to hear my dad had talked to Mrs. Tandy. He seemed to have respect and influence through some kind of perceived power. He was far more understanding than mean, but he did contain a violence born of experience that you could sense. Today we would call it post-traumatic stress syndrome. People seemed aware of his capability for violence. I would never experience it directly, but when I was older I would see it in action. I was beginning to understand the idea only fools were nice and the strong ruled. You couldn’t really be nice unless people were convinced you didn’t have to be. I learned that most of the time you didn’t have to convince someone you would win to get them to back down. You just had to send the message win or lose you were going to hurt them. I called this method my insanity defense. No one wants to fight someone who is insane.
By the beginning of fourth grade I was angry, scared, and disillusioned and didn’t really know why. But I was young and there is a resilience in youth; if you can find it. Sometimes I did, sometimes I was a mess. My world view had changed. I still hoped we were meant to be kind and I longed to believe in the old golden rule. We don’t always get what want and the smart money says it’s wise to be cruel because life belongs only to the strong. At the root of all this was an insidious insecurity that set up shop deep in my soul. This would manifest itself in many ways, but it was foremost the great saboteur. Whenever success seemed to be closing in it would spread enough doubt to make the last mile appear impassible or it would whisper your reaching to high the fall will kill you. So, I would turn toward what had become more familiar.
I have never completely overcome my formative years and cynicism is still one of the hallmarks of my outlook, but only one. Some might view my life as sad, but I don’t. I learned to love people, but more importantly to love life. It is great if you can get what you want, but it is not necessary. There is joy in treating others with compassion. I have learned to lose and be happy for the winners. Maybe because I have had a lot of practice losing, but I don’t think so. I have seen the wisdom in being happy with what you got. It is much harder to take the simple pleasures against your will, they must be given away. You see Alfie, I have tried to figure out “what’s it all about?” for many decades. I guess, in the end, how you sort it out depends on what you hold sacred. My list starts with love and the golden rule. I think more problems arise from how we judge ourselves and others than how others judge us. There are critical points in our life that have a lasting effect. What that effect is and the extent of its effect is ultimately in our control. Remember, many, if not most of the bad things we fear never happen and sometimes people will surprise you.