Personal HIstory of Michael F. Nyiri
My first half century on this Planet.
was told that I had a twin. A stillborn twin. I was half of a whole,
and the other half perished. In the womb, my life was shared. We
were a pair. Companions. As mother gave birth, in a painful operation
performed by a seeming quack, my life began alone. Thus began my
legacy. I might have been dropped. At the same time my "sister"
was inconveniently thrown away, like so much trash. When my mother
told me the story of my birth, it frightened and amazed me. I had
always felt some sort of cosmic connection with some other unknown
soul, and with my mother's happenstance recounting of what must
be the quintessential of all life moments, I screamed and ran to
my bedroom. I claimed I didn't beilieve it.....Yet I believed it
Michael Franklin Nyiri, was born at about half past 5 A.M. on May
1st, 1953. I was merely one of the thousands of baby boomers created
in a fit of orgasmic splendor by all the returning soldiers from
what my father used to call "the big war." I was one of
many, yet a singular soul who had found his earthly receptacle.
At the moment of my birth, from how my parents later described it
when I had calmed down, it must have been painful. Painful and bloody.
My vessel chose life. My ill-fated "sister" did not. I
was granted breath and life. Flesh and bone. Mind and Heart. I was
almost ready to begin my journey through the painful existence called
those very few occasions when my parents saw fit to divulge the
story of my birth, it always contained veiled references to the
fact that my head exited the womb in a partially crushed condition.
The doctor was not the most professional of physicians. My father
is said to have flown into a rage at the sight of my sister, which
the doctor tried to pass of as afterbirth. Dad supposedly threatened
the doctor with certain death if he was not able to save me, and
mold my head back to some semblance of "normal". I can
feel the bumps on the back of my head. I have never given much thought
that perhaps everybody else on the planet does not have a series
of valleys and depressions near the back of his skull. I lived.
Father didn't kill the doctor. Mother survived her pain, and sired
two more children, my sister, nineteen months after I was born,
and then my brother, nineteen months after that.
The Family Moves to California
early childhood was spent in Nampa, Idaho, a very small town on
the outskirts of Boise, the state's Capitol. Even in the present,
now, as the gentle strains of memory wash over me, I can remember
wisps of snow falling in winter, helping my grandmother to open
the sluice gates of the irrigation ditches to "water"
the garden in summer, and standing by the incinerator, which was
like a large outside oven, watching the trash being burned in the
fall. I don't have any early memories of the house I lived in, and
I think the memories of Grandmother were strengthened because the
family visited her twice while I was growing up, and the memories
of place compounded with the earlier times spent with her. But I
do remember brief snippets of a life in Idaho before we moved. Very
clearly I can see a snowman with a carrot nose and coal for eyes,
wearing a hat with a red band. He might have been smoking my Dad's
pipe. I remember sitting in the back of a truck somewhere on an
old main street, watching life unfold. These memories are among
and Father had married in their thirties, after the war. Frank had
divorced his first wife, whom he married shortly before he went
into the army at 16, soon after the fighting had stopped. He met
Edna, my mother, in Maine, and they lived in a number of small apartments
on the East Coast, in Maine and in Massachusetts before moving to
Idaho. Father was what they used to call a jack-of-all-trades, or
the consummate handyman, able to "work with his hands".
He had been a train conductor, a prize fighter, a soldier, a photographer
and a knockabout. He impressed my future mother with his worldliness
and charm. I was born very soon thereafter.
At two years of age, my parents, my younger sister Mary Jo, my stuffed
dog Nicky, and I moved to California where my father had been promoted
to a position as warehouse manager of the Joe Lowe Corporation (later
called Popsicle Industries), the company which created and sold
the Popsicle brand of ice cream treats. While in Idaho, though barely
able to comprehend my existence, I do remember that my dad had a
number of jobs, selling Kirby vacuum cleaners door to door, and
selling Chevrolet automobiles on a car lot. I do have a strong memory
of sitting in the back seat of our 1947 Chevy coupe traveling from
Idaho to California. The memories of Los Angeles in 1955 totally
erased any strong sense of place I had for Idaho.
Angeles, 1955. A
city in the throes of growing pains, expanding with concrete and
mortar. The first vivid memory I have of driving down the streets
of Los Angeles were the "electric buses" which used the
old Red Car lines. The spiderweb of electric lines strung above
the city streets impressed my small mind with their complexity.
The "tunnels" connecting the Harbor Freeway to the Pasadena
Freeway seemed to have been blasted through the hillsides by some
giant of engineering prowess. Around the city were a series of intricately
patterned concrete bridges. Traffic was everywhere. Belching smoke
and blaring horns. In 1955 the tallest building in L.A. was City
Hall, now dwarfed by skyscrapers, but a visible landmark when we
moved to the city. We settled in the Silver Lake district in a rented
property, and then moved to Highland Park pretty rapidly, and rented
a small house on a culdesac leading to the York Street bridge over
the Pasadena Freeway. Highland Park still retains some of the historic
charm of being a close suburb of the city proper, and I still have
fond memories of spending lazy Sundays under the trees in the park.
early school experience didn't include kindergarten. Since my mother,
a domineering fussbudget whose anal retentive traits I inherited
fullblown, took the time to "teach" me how to read and
write before the age of five, I was placed into the first grade
at Garvanza School in Highland Park in 1958. The school still stands,
and whenever I pass an elementary school these days, I am still
overwhelmed at the feelings I absorbed when first going through
the gates and into the classrooms of academia. We didn't spend too
much time in Highland Park, but to my six year old conscience, the
years there felt substantial. As awareness became apparent in my
psyche, the house in Highland Park, at "107 Oak Terrace",in
a culdesac which was torn down in the early seventies, overlooking
the "gulley" as my
mother used to call the precipice at the end of the street where
the hills overlooked the curve of the Pasadena Freeway, bore me
many important early memories. I first "fell in love"
with a little girl named Kimberly who lived down the street and
also attended Garvanza. My little brother Daniel was born in Los
Angeles, at County General Hospital, a now crumbling landmark. I
remember is the times spent playing with both my brother and my
sister, in the yard, in the culdesac area (but never too close to
the "gulley"), and in the parks. At school, the shapely
legs of the young teacher passed over our little bodies as we took
our naps. My aunt Evelyn lived in Echo Park and though my parents'
sense of "style" in decorating our rented house seems
to have been borne of the forties, my aunt's place was strictly
"modern". Her kitchen had boomerang linoleum on the counter
tops and we drank milk out of shiny aluminum glasses. By 1960 my
father had saved enough money to buy a house, and the family moved
again, this time presumably for good, to a house in the San Gabriel
Valley area of L.A. in El Monte. The place was incredibly small,
but my dad, being one of those "handymen", promised my
mother that soon he would transform the two bedroom, one bath house
into a showplace even better than the house in which Aunt Evelyn
Three: The Sixties Begin in El Monte
trip from Highland Park into "downtown" L.A. was very
short. Los Angeles has always been known as a sprawling metropolis,
but when you live fairly close to the city's center, the sense of
place while in the city proper leads one to believe he really lives
in Los Angeles. Highland Park is not that far away, and when my
father first drove the family to the new house in El Monte, it wasn't
on freeways, and the ride seemed to go on forever. I remember feeling
sad that we would be leaving our home, especially when it seemed
we were moving far away from my beloved L.A. proper into a large
anonymous grid of suburban blocks with cookie cutter homes, most
of which were built en masse in the few decades since the war to
accommodate the rising tide of the baby boom, of which I was on
the back end.
introduced me to my new first grade teacher, and I began school
life in El Monte at Shirpser School, a much smaller institution
than Garvanza. El Monte was a "suburb" whereas Highland
Park was a close neighborhood of Los Angeles. I will always feel
like an "urban" child, simply because L.A. is such a big
city, but it's sprawling nature means that each neighborhood can
feel like an individual small town. El Monte is centrally located,
so there was ample access to a large amount of civic and state areas.
The "beach" and the "mountains" are "freeway
close", and there was certainly no reason to be bored growing
the experience of having a lot of places to go to means that one
feels more a part of the "world", when one is young, the
immediate world is what's inside one's garden gate. My mother loved
to putter in her garden. She was an aficianado of "rock gardens",
and turned our front yard into a veritable desert. Each of us children,
my sister, brother, and I, were assigned "chores". Mine
were emptying the trash, and mowing the yard. We weren't allowed
to freely walk around the neighborhood, even though at that time
things were relatively safe in the urban sprawl. My mother, being
the dictatorial sort, wanted to make sure she had her eye on her
brood at all times. I don't particularly feel that she was overbearing,
or that I spent a bad childhood. She was artistic and joined with
us in our playtime pursuits.
was at work most of the time, in his job at the Popsicle manufacturing
plant. I remember, although we were rambunctious at times, my siblings
and I were throughout our childhood pretty well behaved. If we got
out of line, Mother would mention it to Dad in her noon telephone
conversation with him, and we had to suffer the pains of waiting
to see what he would do about the particular situation when he got
home. Of course Dad never had to do anything but unbuckle his belt,
and usually we stayed "good". Looking back, I realize
that my childhood was rather strict, and some might say my mother
was too controlling. But since I seem to have inherited her "anal
retentive" and "controlling" nature, perhaps I see
it less so than my siblings. I consider that the environment of
spare the rod and spoil the child helped to insill "family
values" in me, and although I have never married nor raised
a family of my own, my memories of my youth are dear ones, and I
feel that most of the problems with "kids today" might
stem from the lack of authoritarianism when it comes to parenting
in the present.
Four: An Insular Brood
elementary school, my family was fairly tight-knit. Father, although
away during the weekdays, came home about six p.m. each night for
dinner, and usually spent the evenings reading the newspaper and
watching television or listening to sports on the radio. Mother
cooked, cleaned, and raised us, and joined her husband in the evenings.
In the early sixties, the television was already established as
the "family center" after dinner, but I remember our evenings
sometimes revolved around family endeavors, like playing games,
singing hymns around the dinner table, and "performing"
skits and musical numbers in homemade variety shows for my parents.
brother and I were very close, and our "playtime" activities
included acting as movie moguls, actors (and actresses when need
be) and performing our own "movies" from start to finish.
Our collaborative efforts also ran to creating home grown "magazines"
and "comic books". Sister was sometimes involved, and
sometimes I would play with my sister instead of my brother, but
memory serves to tell me we seldom played all together for long
because it was always a "two against one" scenario when
my brother, sister, and I got together. Each of us children had
a large wooden toy box, constructed and painted by my father to
hold our personal toys. We never lacked toys. Those toys that were
community property were given their own place. Tinkertoys and plastic
bricks had their own tubes. Green army men and cowboys and indians
occupied the "little men drawer". Building blocks, including
those my dad cut and polished in his woodworking shop were to be
found in the "block box". My sister had her own room in
the front of the house, and my brother and I shared a room. Mother
decorated our room with themed curtains and bedspreads. Daniel's
theme was the old west, and mine was transportation. My curtains
contained a whistling steam locomotive. The wallpaper on my part
of the room was decorated with "old car" graphics. I had
remained fascinated with automobiles, trucks, and busses after first
viewing the L.A. traffic when moving to L.A. My toy box was filled
with model cars of all sizes.
and I established our own "worlds" with our toys, and
the denizens of these "worlds" would interact during shared
playtime. Daniel created "Cowboytown" and I had "Cartown".
We were skilled at drawing, and drew picture books about our "lands".
The inhabitants of Cartown were small plastic automobiles that were
purchased in bags. Cartown had a mayor, civic leaders, heroes, and
villians. At our house, playtime was always elaborate, with a large
amount of set up time. The weather is usually nice in Southern California,
and we children played in our rather large backyard often and for
long periods of time. There were only three of us, but we participated
in badmitton games and softball. Summers could find us using exploded
cardboard boxes as slip and slides.
had friends from school throughout the sixth grade, as did my siblings,
but we could only visit school friends who happened to be related
to mom's PTA cronies. Mother was a whirlwind when it came to the
PTA, exercising her creative nature by desinging posters, flyers,
logos, and felt boards for the schoolrooms. There was plenty of
social engaging amongst us and some of the neighborhood kids. We
weren't completely isolated from life, but sometimes it seemed so,
especially when someone wanted to do something against our parent's
attended baseball games, first the Dodgers, then the Angels. The
grass always seemed super green at the ballpark. The family would
spend selected Friday nights at the El Monte Drive In, where my
love of the movies was born. The family was pretty much always together.
I do have a distinct impression that my parents actually had separate
interests and were not that close physically, but they always made
time for their children.
Five: Do It Yourself Home
never slowed down.He fashioned cabinets for the kitchen. He made a
hutch for the hall. The screened in porch was given walls. Water lines
were installed in the back yard for faucets to water mother's flower
garden. A cement driveway was poured. I became very familiar with
the layout of Ole's Home Centers and Angel's Hardware, shopping with
my dad. Lumber yards, bags of concrete, nails and hardware. Dad almost
singlehandedly rebuilt our home, room by room. He added a new master
bedroom and bath, complete with matching blue porcelain tub and toilet.
He constructed a two car garage and recreation room. There was constant
construction throughout my young life. Because he suffered from arthritis,
Dad felt he had to keep busy or else he would eventually cripple.
His furniture was more workaday than distinctive or artistic. But
it was functional. Our walls were panelled with knotty pine and birchwood.
Our floors were carpeted with thick shag. The family helped, and I
learned to be a handyman myself from the experience.
Saturday afternoons, which could last forever, we three kids could
be found either in the backyard or around the kitchen table with our
coloring books and drawing pads. My brother and I loved horror movies,
and weren't content just with watching them on the television. I fashioned
a "television" viewing area from a shoebox, and crayoned
in the knobs and dials. I would cut strips of paper, draw a series
of ovals to match the size of the "screen" in the shoebox
TV, and create my own "movies" complete with elaborate credit
sequences. The movies were "shown" by inserting the strips
of paper through slits cut in the sides of the box. My brother and
I would supply our own dialogue.
spent Saturdays in his workshop. Originally, the back yard to the
house in El Monte had numerous "sheds" which we used as
"buildings" for our play, but my dad eventually knocked
them all down, and in their place grew a large two car garage, which
doubled as a work area for Father's "projects". The sound
of the buzz saw is one of my sharpest memories from childhood.
parents strived for the "Leave it to Beaver", "Father
Knows Best" type of atmosphere at home, just like the media told
countless postwar couples with children how to live in the fifties
and sixties. The "suburban ideal" certainly engulfed my
parents. Mom was into "arts and crafts" joining Craft of
the Month Club, and designing posters and artwork for the elementary
school. Dad was the consummate handy man, and poured concrete for
our driveway, and eventually redesigned and rebuilt 3/4 of our house,
then added a two car garage and recreation room.
even installed the plumbing for the new "Master Bathroom"
and laid pipe in the backyard for the spigots for watering the lawn.
The back yard was immense. It had two sheds and a berry field on it
when we moved in. My dad tore down the berry fields and one of the
sheds. My mom planted the perimiter with flowers and shrubs. There
were three spigots for attaching hoses. We didn't have a sprinkler
system in those days.
memories of living in El Monte are fond ones. First I and my brother
had one bedroom, and my sister had another. Mom and Dad were in the
master bedroom. There was one bath, off their bedroom, and the living
room and kitchen were the only other rooms. The kids' bedrooms were
really not even rooms at first, but part of a large screened in porch
area, which my dad turned into "rooms". When he built the
add-on Master Bedroom and bath, my brother and I moved to the old
master bedroom (still together) and my sister moved into our old room.
Her bedroom became Mom's Sewing Room. When the recreation room was
finished by the time I was half way through high school, I was able
to turn the back end of it into a bedroom of my own. When Dad finished
the garage, Mom decided it was time to move. She was afraid of the
Mexicans. The town was named "El Monte" and half my class
throughout grade school was of Latin American descent, and my mother
was chiefly afraid because of the neighbors.
Six: 1963: The year I became aware
afternoon I was invited to go to Lucy's house, which was on the street
where we lived, but across a cross street. My best friend and Lucy
pleaded with me to break the bonds of my childhood prison, and I eagerly
gave in, unleashed for a fraction of a decisive moment to the wild
abandon of disobeying my mother. A lot of children disobey their mothers,
but I was particularly afraid of doing anything that would hurt my
mother, or her high opinion of me.
But I went anyway. I had a great time at Lucy's house. I considered
her a girl I "loved" rather than just "liked"
but she was a girlfriend already to Greg, my best friend. I learned
how to ride a bicycle that afternoon, but in a crash I tore my jeans
and cut my leg.
When confronted with the consequences of the episode, I bravely told
my mother the whole story, how I disobeyed her and went across Rose
Street to Lucy's, and cutting my leg riding a bicycle.
Instead of punishing me, my mother praised me for telling the truth.
This incident stands out in my memory because there was no punishment,
and I learned a valuable lesson about honesty. I will always tell
the truth to this day, and I abhor liars. The truth can't cause all
that much trouble, because it exists.
I didn't try to confound my parents, and take chances with my childhood
existence with them. I understood the story of life when young. I
observed the people I met, young, middle aged, and older, and determined
life patterns which instilled in me a deep sense of life and how lucky
one was to experience it, and how it only came once, so each person
should live deeply in each moment.
In 1963 I attended the fifth grade at Shirpser School in El Monte.
My grades were excellent and while I was not among the most popular
kids in the school, resulting from the fact that my mother kept us
in our own yard after school hours, I did have quite a few friends
and participated in schoolyard games of marbles, foursquare, dodgeball,
and handball. In fifth grade my teacher was Miss Burr, a rail thin
lesbian with sharp edged glasses and a serious demeanor. We had a
reading program that year, with different colored "groups",
each color designating a more difficult level of reading. Four or
us streamed through the program all the way to the top color, which
was lavender. Because the other kids were still struggling with the
program, our group was labelled "advanced" and we pretty
much had free time. I used this time to read even more difficult books,
which I had checked out of the library, and we also had discourses
concerning our little world, and the world spinning around our classroom.
I have always called this "the year I became aware." One
of the extra credit projects in which I participated involved making
a model automobile, and I sent away to GM for project materials. Included
was a list of automobiles that GM manufactured from the early years
of horseless carriages. I fell in love with the 1963 Corvette Stingray
split window coupe and began a love affair with automobiles which
has never abated. I was always able to identify the year almost any
auto was manufactured after 1963.
During the summer before the school year began, my mother, father,
sister and brother piled in our 1960 Chevrolet Brookwood station wagon
and Dad drove us to Idaho to visit my grandmother. We repeated this
vactation trip the following year, right before my grandmother died.
Although in later years I lost contact with my mother's family, my
grandmother, and aunts and uncles, were very close to our family when
I was young, and often visited us. We had large Thanksgiving and Christmas
feasts, in which my dad cooked when held at our house in El Monte.
Because I was getting a bit older, and doing well in school, Mother
did let me visit more of my classmates at their homes. I can clearly
remember checking out Glenn's model castles and knight figures, which
were very detailed. I was allowed to visit Greg because his mother
and my mother were best friends. I even visited Lucy a few more times
during my fifth and sixth year. She was one of the "advanced"
students in our reading group.
When John Kennedy was shot, I was home from school with a cold. That
weekend, my "awareness" of the world around me increased
tenfold. For three days, our television, along with every other television
in the country, broadcast nothing but news and history of the Kennedy
administration, the funeral arrangements, and tributes. Slowly but
surely, throughout these times, the insular world of my mother's construction
started falling apart. The TV screen brought the world into the house,
and nobody could really keep the images away.
By sixth grade, I had attended my first real funeral. Grandmother
had died in Idaho, and the family didn't travel there. Only my mother
took that trip. We were friendly with our neighbors, and it was the
man next door, dead of a heart attack, whose funeral I first attended.
His skin, pallid in death, looked almost plasticine, and his face
was forever in sleep. I reached out to touch the corpse, fascinated
by this physical representation of mortality. I learned a lot that
year, both in school and out. There was much more to life than our
parental nest, and it was strange, fascinating, and horrible.
One of my mother's PTA friends had two daughters. One was a year behind
me, in my sister's class, and the other was only in first grade. My
siblings and I frequently played with these two girls, since they
lived on the same street three doors down. I played "doctor"
for the first time with these two girls, hidden in a closet with my
sister on the lookout. The youngest even fancied me as her "boyfriend"
and we would play handball together on the schoolyard during recess.
I also "went steady" with Susan, another school friend,
in the sixth grade, although we never even kissed. My memories of
the last years of elementary school are somewhat warm ones, interspersed
with some rather bad ones concerning some of the rougher boys, who
didn't like my popularity with the teachers, my good grades, and my
lack of althleticism. I was one of those boys who wasn't very good
at softball, and although I did participate in the morning games before
school, I was always relegated to the right field position, and I
was never very good at hitting the ball. Sometimes I was ridiculed
by boys who would pitch "easy" and goad me around the bases.
My friend Miquel who lived across from Lucy was one of the school's
better athletes, and he befriended me, so I did have one guy "in
my corner." Although not too good a softball or football, I was
pretty good at schoolyard games like foursquare and handball. I was
also pretty good at marbles. I had lots of large clear "peeries"
which I used to collect marbles from a lot of the kids at school.
I also loved to read, and could frequently be seen sitting under a
tree in the schoolyard, lost in some faraway land.
Seven: 1963: Graduation From Childhood
mother never got elected to the Presidency of the PTA, but she was
very active, and advanced to Vice President under the Presidency of
Greg's mother, her best friend. When my class was ready to exit grammar
school in the early summer days of 1965, Mother planned an actual
"graduation" with diplomas, pomp and circumstance, and all
the regalia that would become so familiar a few years hence during
high school commencement. The "diplomas" were merely mimeographed
papers with our names written on a blank line, but they were special,
and Mother even wrote an "open letter" to the graduating
students: "We are proud of you, and know that you will succeed
in whatever you choose to do. Good luck, and may the Lord bless you.
A 6th grade mother, and former room mother to many of you." I
recently became reaquanited with a girl who attended Shirpser in my
class, and she wrote me about how much my mother had touched her early
life. At home, my siblings and I tended to think of my mom as an ogre
at times, with strict rules and laws, threatening punishment at the
drop of a hat. But hundreds of children in the school remember her
as a sweet and caring person, with a ready smile, and a willing hand.
I acknowledge that she was indeed a special person, and she instilled
in me a sense of purpose and love which had never left me. That someone
from that time still remembered her made me feel especially proud.
Graduation occurred with all the pomp and circumstance that my mother
and her PTA buddies could muster, and a lot of us prepared for our
next year at junior high, in a school four miles away. Junior High
was to be attended at Gidly School, a K-8 school on the northern border
of El Monte. All through elementary school, I walked the two and a
half blocks, first with my mother as the doting hen, and then with
my siblings. Since Gidley was so far away, I would have to take a
school bus for the first time in my life, and the physical fact that
the school was farther away caused my life away from home to become
a bit more free from the strict bonds of the home. After the summer
of 65, I would become a "big kid" at the junior high, and
would be tossed into an experience far far away from the two block
radius which had been my "life" up to that point. My mother
was quite correct in preparing a "graduation" for us, because
I was about to pass into another wave of experience, leaving childhood