The Great 1973 Little Golden Books Caper
My boy Daniel just turned 3 a couple of weeks ago. Birthday party, of course. I was pushing for Chuck E. Cheese, but his mom won out and we had his party at home. It started raining, so we had to move all activities indoors, including piñata whacking. Guess who had to hold the thing up in the overcrowded living room all while trying to dodge erratic toddler baseball bat swings — yeah, they aren’t that strong, but toddlers are groin height, you know.
Great fun was had by one and all. Daniel made out particularly well in the birthday loot department. I’ll spare you the list save for one particular item: I’m a T. Rex, a Little Golden Book! Forget the T. Rex part, although lordie knows I’d been saturating him with dinosaur-o-bilia way before he could figure out a pterodactyl’s a pterosaur, not a dinosaur. No, what’s got me all excited is that it’s a Little Golden Book! I had those growing up!
Three of them, to be exact. But more on those details later. I hadn’t seen a Little Golden Book in ages! And you know what, they look just like I remember them: the same dimensions; the same heavy cardboard cover; the same gold foil spine; the same retro back cover illustrations. This was pretty cool! I peeked behind the front cover — yup, there it was, the same old open-book illustration in the middle, with the words “This Little Golden Book belongs to” heading on top of it. Ah, seeing that sure brings back some interesting memories.
You see, my father drummed it into my head very early in life to never ever ever ever ever write in books. Never. Ever. Not even in those Little Golden Books inside covers, where I argued it clearly showed I was supposed to write my name down. Nope, not as far as my Dad was concerned.
I had three of those thin Little Golden Books. I don’t really remember their titles now, but I could swear one of them was Three Little Kittens Lost Their Mittens. Doesn’t matter, but there’s absolutely no doubt in my head that then I knew exactly what they were and whose they were: MINE. Even if my name wasn’t on the inside front covers.
Back in the day, I took to carrying those Little Golden Books around with the five comic books I owned (one Batman, one Superman, one Justice League of America, one Supergirl — don’t ask — and one Sgt. Rock) in the coolest box in the world: the box my Superman pajamas came in. That box must have been a bit over two inches thick, about a foot wide, and over a foot-and-a-half long — just the perfect size for carrying my comic book and Little Golden Books collection, and then some.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. This story should start back in the middle of 1972, just a bit before I turned 6, when a little Philippine “experimental” private school, Benedictine Abbey School, opened its doors to three classes with something like 30 kids each: one Kindergarten class, and two Preps (the year after Kindergarten and before the first grade; I have no idea if the country still uses the same grade level structure today).
The school was built in the town of Alabang, what was then considered a pretty remote and, well, empty part of the metropolitan Manila area (I don’t believe that “Metro Manila” was formally established until 1975, when President Ferdinand Marcos also declared that his wife, Imelda, was going to be its governor). A lot of residential development was going on in Alabang and its surrounding towns and cities, like in Las Piñas, where my parents moved us to in 1969.
I think Bene (as we students ended up fondly calling the school) was the first “elite private school” for the area’s young but fast-growing population. It was considered experimental for a number of reasons that I can remember:
• Although Catholic (in the Philippines, what wasn’t?), it was co-educational, something that would serve me well in later years, but again I’m getting way ahead of myself. Heck if I know if it was the first, but it sure wasn’t common then.
• It had “no walls” and “no desks.” Supposedly at the forefront of the latest ideas in education for the era (I guess), the school’s first building had some cool beehive-cluster design thing going for it — each classroom was like a huge hexagon, and the building’s classrooms and other areas were interconnected to each other accordingly, surrounding a central hexagonal hub or area. As you can imagine, the building looked nothing like a traditional structure. And it had no walls in between classrooms. Instead, there were movable partitions which could be removed to create one large open space easily on demand.
Instead of desks, they had hexagon tables that sat six. Actually, they had two half-hexagon tables, but they were usually laid out paired together as hexagons.
Now that I’m thinking about it, it’d be cool if I could get my hands on some of those tables and chairs for my own kids — they were really well built. Made of wood, very sturdy and balanced looking, in just the right dimensions for the age group, that first batch of school furniture came in three colors: blue (Kindergarten, where my sister was), yellow (Prep, this was my classroom’s furniture) and red (Prep class #2). The last time I visited the school was 16 years later, and believe me, some if not all of that furniture was still there.
• They did not use traditional number grading. Instead, they used a letter-coded system, and not ABCDF either. I think, from what I can remember from my first report card, there were only four letters in the initial grading code: VS (Very Satisfactory), S (Satisfactory), I (Improving) and NI (Needs Improvement). An I in the grade letter code was the kiss of death, it looked like, but supposedly not “discouraging” like regular number grades. Uh-huh. On the other hand, maybe they’re right, since the only I-grade I got in my first report card was for “Conduct,” and I really couldn’t have cared less.
Back to the furniture: The rest of the classroom had more non-traditional design elements as well. Such as big colorful wooden stacking cubes, open in the front and back. They were often used as large shelving, but also occasionally cleared out so we kids could play, climbing and crawling through them, etc. etc. etc.
Neat cubes, those were. Supposedly movable, rearrangeable and stackable, but this was before the era of plastics and synthetic materials, at least in the Philippines. Which probably explains why the tables and chairs I mentioned earlier lasted at least 16 years despite heavy abuse from children. And which also explains why 6-year-old me couldn’t move those dang heavy large wooden shelves/cubes around myself.
And I did try. You know why I know? Because at some point before Christmas, I was playing around those cubes, and for whatever reason, I purposely dropped one of my Little Golden Books in between two cubes. Then I dropped a second one in there, and then another. Then I couldn’t get the dang things out. Couldn’t move the cubes. Then, for whatever reason (I guess I have to use that a lot to explain my behavior at that age), I figured I’d just leave and try again the following day. That was a TODO list item that, you can probably guess, I ended up completely forgetting.
Here’s why I know this happened some time before Christmas: I had a big precocious crush on a girl in my sister’s blue furnitured Kindergarten class named Trixie (not her real name, because I’m dead sure if she reads this and it happens to have her not-exactly-unknown-to-everyone name, she’ll go apeshit). And I had to go give her a big precocious kiss on the lips, something she never forgave me for, by the way, which ruined my chances with her forever and ever. The teachers thought this was the cutest thing in the world — I tended to bring that kind of thing out of teachers — and, get this, they paired Trixie and me for the lead roles in the upcoming Christmas Nativity play. Yup, I was Joseph the Carpenter, and poor cornered Trixie was the Virgin Mary, parents of the heavy newborn baby Jesus (as in heavy solid wood, no plastic ones yet either I guess).
The Nativity play was held at night, on the last school day of the year before Christmas break. It was a big party, and that one in particular was kind of a big deal — my school happened to be the latest sibling of a very large and very well established Benedictine college in the Philippines. So, there were more than the usual number of robed Benedictine monks roaming around. Even more visually-memorable: There was a mini-flood of nuns, from our sister all-girls’ college, all excited and a twitter about the event — I guess taking nun vows does not render one immune from attacks of “Awwww” upon seeing 5-and-6-year-olds in Biblical costume, many of the boys running around with black-markered beards on their faces. But the most interesting, probably unbelievable, part? One of the nuns was my father’s aunt, Sister Mercedes Sarte.
Note that I really know squat about the following details — I just picked all this up over the years from various “family” sources who likely knew just about as much as I did (nothing!) — but heck if that’ll stop me from sharing it with you: Old large family and landowners, the original Sartes. And like all older established land-owning families in the country, the kids’ futures all seemed to be predestined and distributed evenly among all the various important and influential segments of society. There were the ones sent to study law and prepped to be politicians. The military. And there were the doctors. The academics and educators. And the business people (land-owning farmers, really, if you think about it). Now frankly, granted I’m at the bottom of the list of folks to ask about anything family-related, but I’d be hard-pressed to think of anyone in my family then who wasn’t lawyering, politicking or landowning. But that distributed thing makes for a good story, doesn’t it?
Different story for the women, though. Old world. I’m guessing they had little in the way of practical choices back then, but they did have a choice: get married, or become a nun. Two of my grandfather’s sisters became nuns. Sister Mercedes was one of them.
Well, she was there that night of December 1972, and Dad was spending a lot of time after the play chatting with her. So much so that my sister and I (she was the Christmas Angel in the play) wandered off to the school Library.
That’s what the teachers called it, anyway, the “Library.” Didn’t look like much of one — that first year, there weren’t even bookshelves; instead they had what looked like primary color-painted wooden newsstand magazine racks, just a few of them set up not too far from the colorful cube/shelves. The school probably didn’t have much of a book collection yet that first year to bother futzing around with the library decor. What it did have, however, I discovered that night, was my Little Golden Books collection. There they were, my three Little Golden Books, spread out evenly and prominently displayed on the top magazine rack!
There were a few other kids at the Library too. I don’t remember who they were, but at least one of them was a true play cast member, costumed and all, as opposed to the no-role-and-little-more-than-just-decor background singers, who had to do really nothing more than just bathe and show up and yet they still got credit for being part of the play. Now tell me, is that really fair? Anyway, the costumed kid — I think he was one of the shepherds — was reaching for one of my Little Golden Books.
No big deal. I just did what every sensible 6-year-old would have done in that situation: I took my books and proceeded to walk away. Well, tried to anyway — the damn shepherd wouldn’t let go of my book. That’s when the proverbial shit hit the fan.
Now try and picture this scene: A melee with high-pitched 5-and-6-year-olds, apparently around a tug-of-war over a book, between a Biblical shepherd vs. Joseph the Carpenter and the Christmas Angel. Not only had a few parents and teachers rushed over to the commotion, a small horde of nuns had joined in the confusion too. All of them asking questions. Really couldn’t tell you what they were saying, or what it all really looked like, frankly, since I was right in the thick of things.
They eventually managed to get the shepherd and Joseph the Carpenter apart, of course. That’s when the serious “official” interrogation started. The shepherd immediately began bawling that I just started taking the book away — that’s when all eyes fell on me. Interestingly enough, the teachers deferred to my father for my cross-examination.
He knelt down to my eye-level. That’s when I began telling him, with Sister Mercedes hovering over his shoulder, all about the Little Golden Books and my comics collection in the Superman pajama box and the cubes/shelves and how my sister and I found my books again in the library (although I’m sure she had no idea — probably never did — about what the heck was going on) and how I don’t see what the big deal was all about since I’m just taking what’s mine anyway.
In the blink of an eye, that was when — and note that this was the first and probably only time I ever saw it happen in my life — Dad got deftly and quickly “pushed aside.” Sister Mercedes took control and took over the questioning. “Are you sure these are your books, Eldon?” she asked.
“Why are you sure they’re your books?”
“Because they’re mine.” Duh.
“Is your name written on them?”
“Then how can you be sure they’re your books?”
“Because they’re mine.” Double duh.
“Sorry, but unless you can prove they’re your books, you have to leave them here.”
I looked over at my Dad standing behind Sister Mercedes, and I actually saw him nodding his head in agreement. I’m pretty darn sure at that point I was thinking something along the lines of, “You son of a motherless jackass. You told me not to write my goddamn name in the effing books!”
I literally remember a whole bunch of things zooming through my head that split second after I realized I couldn’t reason or argue my way into getting my books back. Actually, it was more the realization that, for chrissakes, how in everything that was good and holy could I possibly win an argument with a damn nun.
BAM! That’s when I also realized something else. But I wasn’t saying anything as I was figuring all this out. I’m sure Sister Mercedes concluded that my silence meant I was close to defeat. She went in for the kill.
“So, can you prove they’re your books, Eldon?”
“That means you’ll have to leave them here.”
I put my Little Golden Books back on the newsstand. A smug smile crossed the Sister’s face, the same smug smile I’ve come to recognize on every adult when they think they just won one over a child and that the matter, whatever it was, was settled.
The incident seemingly forgotten just as quickly as it ignited, the adults went back to whatever it was they were doing. The shepherd and his crew were gone, probably dragged off quickly by their parents while I was being Guantanamo’d by the ladies from the Inquisition. My sister no doubt bored by the whole scene was off playing somewhere under the watchful eye of her nanny, who technically was supposed to be watching me too, but I was used to finding myself usually being left alone to do my own thing.
Yeah, alone doing my own thing. Which in this case was moving my Little Golden Books and hiding them behind other bigger books on the Library newsstand.
My last realization: Although I was in the right, no way in hell was I going to win the battle now, butting heads with the adults. Especially the holy ones. But out of sight out of mind, I figured, so they’d forget all about this pretty quickly. What then was stopping me from coming back and taking my books later? It couldn’t have been stealing because they were my goddamn books anyway.
Looking back now, I’m a bit taken aback that my 6-year-old self managed to do all those situational, even moral, calculations in those few moments after being, well, checkmated. Actually, I’m less surprised that I had managed to process that line of reasoning, and more that the whole thing — and my memory is quite clear on this — was pretty gosh-darned effortless. Kinda scary, in a sense, now that I think about it, while making a mental note now to make sure I remember all that and this as I work at guiding my now 3-year-old boy and 7-month-old girls through life: Tread carefully when dealing with their developing brains, because really, age doesn’t matter with what their brains may really be capable of.
I’ll leave you with two more truths that should cap this story nicely.
The first is that when I first realized that I could hide the books and come back later to reclaim them, I knew full well that that would be at least a couple of weeks later, when school resumed in 1973, after the Christmas break. And that’s exactly what happened: I walked to the Library and got my Little Golden Books from behind the bigger books concealing them. I took them to a table to read, in full view of a few people. Dum de dum de dum normal. Eventually the people left, which is when the books somehow slid into my bag. Problem solved. So, there it is, “The Great 1973 Little Golden Books Caper.” Take that, smug Sister Mercedes… try to manage me, will you…
The second thing: When I got my Little Golden Books home, I still didn’t write my name in them. To this day, I can’t get myself to write anything on books. Textbooks don’t count, of course, but go figure.