Everyone knows about how the Dutch founded New York City
, but very few know that that was not the only colony in the New Netherlands. One of them was Rudenburg, the Red Rocks that circled three sides of the harbor. Now we know them as East Rock, West Rock and the Sleeping Giant
, of the Colony of Greater New Haven
We even have had some notable Dutch-decended people living here, in my memory, and they have been good people, indeed. One was Christiaan Dinkeloo, the architect, with whose daughter Hanni, I attended school. I did not know them well, nor was I ever a guest in their home, but she was always friendly to me, and her father designed many buildings in this city and elsewhere. But whose family knew at least a little of my family, enough to gossip about, was that of Dr. Ben Spock.
People nowadays think of a Mr. Spock as having pointy ears and no expression. Dr. Spock was a big, strong, gentle man who laughed and acted like a hero.
He grew up in a big house near East Rock Park. It still stands, and in some ways is less remarkable than some, being solidly 20th Century Early American Revival. The only thing you might find odd is the second floor, which has an outdoor space, which we might call a deck, right where a bedroom might be.
That is where the young Ben slept, every night. His mother told him to.
Most stories about her talk about how mean, even cruel she was to him. But there was another side. She’d had a hard-scrabble life, with an alcoholic mother and a father with syphilis. Father Spock was wealthy, and had a kind of hubris peculiar to the well-meaning and affluent. He wanted to rescue her. With his love, and his money, he would make sure she would never want for anything again, in the wonderful house he would build.
Unfortunately, this didn’t work out very well. While she was to him at worst, a grateful wife, all she could think of for their children, especially Ben, was that he would grow up weak and unprepared for what she saw as an incredibly hostile world.
Well, he didn’t grow up weak: he rowed in the Olympics in 1924, and got a gold medal, and lived hale and healthy for the better part of a hundred years. But what he took away from all this was that he never wanted any child to grow up the way he did.
I wish I could say something nice about the first Mrs. Spock. Some say she was driven to drink because of her husband’s long hours, but there are just as many people who said that she’d been a troubled woman to begin with, and he’d just taken after his father in choosing a mate that he felt needed his help. Indeed, she was in some kind of psychiatric treatment through most of their marriage, but they stayed married, and she gave him four sons. No one I knew ever said he was mean to her, or to their sons.
Whatever his shortcomings as a husband and father, he redeemed by being the best pediatrician Yale Hospital ever had. He genuinely felt a fatherly love of babies and children of all ages, and their mothers, and warmly encouraged them to cultivate good feelings towards each other. Life Magazine photographed him playing with toddlers with a loving lack of inhibitions few had ever seen in any kind of human interaction. And then, he wrote a book.
Published at the beginning of the Baby Boom, it was a book like no other. While there had been many parenting manuals written beforehand, few of them were as comprehensive as this one, covering the whole span of childhood, from birth to eighteen, with both medical and behavioral advice. Need to deal with diaper rash? Colic? The first day of school? Puberty? It was all in the book, and with very few exceptions, his advice rings true even today. On the first page, and throughout the book, his message was clear. Your instincts are right. Pick up your baby when it cries, feed it when it’s hungry, let it sleep when it’s tired. It’s right to tell your child that they are loved and special. Forget about schedules, milestones, and the like: your baby is unique, and you should treat it that way. If he’s not walking at the same time as your neighbor’s baby, don’t worry. He might talk earlier, or be potty-trained, or grow up to be a great baseball player.
If this wasn’t enough, his big heart had found another cause: the Vietnam war. Up till then, wars took in young men, and killed them, with the casualness of a slaughterhouse. Their names were listed in the newspaper, but otherwise unmentioned and unmourned, except by their families. But the Vietnam war was different: instead of happening through the eyes of journalists, and in a few minutes at a time, this was happening in America’s living rooms, every evening. For him, every name in the newspapers, was another boy he’d helped raise. It wasn’t simply a statistic, it was a cute little human larva, still with a bandage on his belly and his willy, who became a round-eyed curious toddler, a vigorous schoolboy, and thence to a fine young man. Who was delivered to the Pentagon, who killed him. They were all, in a way, his sons. And he would not let his sons die in an unjust war.
The response was not favorable. Conservatives, and hawks of all stripes, blamed his “permissive”, “soft” attitude for producing a youth culture unwilling and unable to fulfill their duties to the Republic.
He changed on several key issues: babies should be put to sleep on their backs, to insure safe breathing, not on their stomachs, inhaling vomit is not a crucial issue, SIDS is. Boys don’t have to have their prepuce removed, it’s traumatic at best, and hazardous at worst. And, at the end of his life, he opined that toddlers should be weaned onto a vegan diet.
Was he a hero? I’d say, yes.