Author: Laudizen King
Laudizen King currently divides his time between Northern and Southern California. In 2009 he published his first book, a collection of memoirs and travels titled Signposts and Junctions
. His poetry has appeared in Gloom Cupboard
in the United Kingdom, and his creative nonfiction has appeared in Word Catalyst Magazine.
Visit his website at www.laudizen.com
The Power of Symbol
In 1958, I was in the third grade at Bowers Elementary School in Manchester, Connecticut. During that year I began a period where I was fascinated by all things related to the airplanes and air battles of World War II. I think this was immediately after my fascination with the dinosaur period had ended. I would draw complex pictures showing squadrons of B-17 Flying Fortresses under attack by German fighter planes. I had discovered the use of perspective in my drawings: If a fighter plane was coming directly at the viewer from a distance, the orange-red tracers coming out of the machine guns in the wings would appear to widen as they approached you. Conversely, if the tracer rounds were traveling away from you, they narrowed from where they left the wings. These streams of tracers were everywhere and traveling in all directions: coming out of the waist guns, turrets at the top, the tail guns, and the ball turret underneath.
I would also draw pictures of Thunderbolts and Mustangs attacking squadrons of German fighters, the scene thick with planes on fire and streaming smoke as they plummeted to earth through the clouds. I was part of a group of three or four who were interested in this activity, and we regularly drew these scenes during art class. As soon as somebody came up with a new perspective or type of plane, the others would incorporate this discovery into their drawings.
One day in art class we made small clay dishes and bowls. We formed and smoothed them from the clay provided, and we left them in the small utility room at the back of the classroom so the teacher could fire them in the small kiln installed there. After firing we painted them, and then covered our drawings with a glaze that the teacher baked over the designs. On the outside of my small bowl I painted stars within wings, like the insignia on American planes, and on the inside bottom I painted a swastika.
One afternoon, as school was letting out for the day, I heard my name called by the small elderly woman with white hair who cleaned and did other janitorial jobs within the school; she was in the small utility room with the kiln and art supplies. I walked over to the room and went in. The room was dim, lit just by the light coming through the open door. She was quiet, but nervous and anguished. She had an elderly woman from the old country
smell to her, just as my grandma did who had come to America from Poland. I was afraid, and I was not sure what I had done.
She held my small bowl in the palm of one hand, and ran a finger delicately around the top edge with the other. She held the bowl out towards me.
“What is this?” she asked quietly.
“It’s a bowl,” I offered sheepishly.
“No,” she said. “What is this?” and she pointed to the design at the bottom of the bowl.
I told her its name, afraid I was in some kind of terrible trouble, trouble as yet unknown. She was struggling with something, looking for words.
“Do you know what this is," she asked, pointing to the swastika. "Where it comes from?”
I told her haltingly that I had seen the design in pictures from the war. America had a star and Germany had this. I felt I had broken some indescribable law.
“Why did you put it in your bowl?” she asked me quietly and forcefully.
I felt ashamed and looked at the floor. Trembling, I told her I did not know. She set the bowl down and told me to run along home.
I never told my parents about that incident. I was afraid my actions might bring about the same reaction from them—the breaking of a rule I knew nothing about. Years went by, but I never forgot about her or that moment in the dark room with the kiln.
When I was older, I often wondered about her, what she had been through, the family she probably lost, and about the horror she must have endured and witnessed that would drive her to confront a small boy in the distant future. I remembered how she looked into me, probing, to see if some greater evil lurked behind me at home.
That was an important day in my early education. I learned about the power of symbols, and it was my first introduction to the horror of the Holocaust.