My mother was Anglo. Her ancestry dated back to John Quincy Adams and the Mayflower. My father was born into a good family in La Paz, Bolivia. I was the first of their three children. My father had been hoping for a firstborn son and got me instead. He didn't have much regard for the female of the species, unless they were parading around in swimsuits. Do you get the picture? My brother, James Stanford— called Jim—was hatched on exactly the same day as me, two years later, on September 5. My younger sister, Gayle Carole, came along one year later.
Even though Mom, Dad, and two-year-old me ended up in Southern California where the sun outside was always shining, it was strangely chilly inside our family home. Physical affection was in short supply. There was no cuddling or lovey-dovey stuff happening, even between Mom and Dad. I don't recall ever seeing him kiss her or hold her hand. I was left hungry for a taste of tenderness and romance from an early age. All of us were terrified of my father. He was quick to anger and was a stickler for manners and rules in our modest home. I complied.
As a kid, I had a highly emotional nature and loved being swept away on flights of imagination. Inside my head, anything could happen, and I could avoid the fact that I felt trapped under the thumb of my domineering father. In my mind, I was already grown-up and independent. I was simply waiting for the biological process to catch up with my vision . . . so I could escape. I had to wait to reclaim my childhood until after I left home.
I grew up with one ear glued to the radio. Our family gathered 'round it to hear Roosevelt's speeches, and I also knew all the words to the popular tunes on the airwaves. I would sing them around the house, in the car, and on the backyard swing. My favorites were Don't Fence Me In and I'm Looking over a Four Leaf Clover. My father used to call me out to the living room to sing for company. It was kind of embarrassing, but I did it anyway. I got the early impression that above all else, I was on this planet to make my moody dad proud of me.
Later on, we got a brand-new television set, complete with rabbit ears and fuzzy black-and-white reception. There were lots of comedy shows, with Jackie Gleason, Red Skelton, Milton Berle, and Sid Caesar; but my fave was Jerry Lewis. I used to squeal with laughter over his childish antics. He seemed like a big overgrown kid. By the time I grew up, I had switched my attention to Dean Martin, the suave, handsome crooner. Years later, I would actually get the chance to star in a movie with Dean and Jimmy Stewart!
What's in a Name?
Just as the war ended, in 1945, so did my kindergarten class. A dark cloud had been lifted, and we moved out of "the projects" and across the bay into a real house, with roses growing over a trellis; a yard filled with peach, plum, and avocado trees; and a dog named Shep. Dad drove a Hudson. It was the American dream! It was also a new neighborhood, and I changed schools just in time to enter first grade at Bay Park Grammar School.