I seethed. A relatively diminutive person, I took this song personally.
Eventually, I realized that Randy Newman's pop hit was parody, that Newman was lampooning bigotry, showing that discriminating against people on any basis is not merely ugly but stupid.
Still, I wince whenever I hear "Short People."
I was an inch over five feet when I joined the Army. Following tradition, our training company was "sized," tallest men in the first platoon, next tallest in the second, and so forth. I was in Fifth Platoon, the so-called Mickey Mouse Platoon. The six-footers in First told jokes at our expense. Drill sergeants berated us for low altitude and demanded extra pushups. When Fifth Platoon took company honors on the end-of-cycle proficiency test, our pennant was presented with yet another give at shortness. "The Mickey Mouse Platoon had to stand on boxes so we could see them all at roll call every morning," said our CO. "But somehow they got the top score."
I felt cheated of a hard-won triumph. We had proven our soldierly skills -- what more could these people want?
A year and an inch of growth later, I sewed on sergeant's chevrons. Almost immediately a pair of six-foot MP privates, sneering that nobody that short could be an infantry noncom, demanded to see my ID. Instead of apologizing for their mistake, they cracked a short joke. Outraged, I went to the MP desk sergeant, who spread his palms. "Well, you are pretty short, Sarge," he grinned.
In America, height is a valued physical attribute. As author Ralph Keyes documented in his book, The Height Of Your Life, most Fortune 500 companies are run by men of more than six feet, while those at the helms of Fortune 100 firms, on average, are even taller. In most corporations, each inch over six feet correlates with significantly higher salary.
That this cultural imperative is bigotry is easily overlooked. During President Clinton's first term, pundits derisively noted what they termed his "predilection for surrounding himself with short appointees," naming among his Cabinet and senior staff the diminutive Robert Reich, Donna Shalala, George Stephanopoulos and Bruce Lindsey. That they are brilliant and accomplished people was less remarkable, it seems, than that they are short. Their short stature seemed to be fair game, but not even the most indecent of administration critics would have observed that the president also had surrounded himself with dark-skinned appointees, including Togo West, Ron Brown, Henry Cisneros and Federico Peña, among others. Race is not an acceptable measure of a person's worth. Why is height?
I topped out at 5 feet 4 inches, and I have felt a sense of powerlessness, of being discounted, reduced to insignificance for reasons beyond my control around pretty much everyone.
Being small was worst in the arena of romance. Growing up, girls towered over me; through high school I had a total of two dates. I thought this would change as I grew older, but it didn't. in my late 30s, a woman whom I had courted for more than a year finally told me that she enjoyed being with me, admired my qualities and accomplishments ... but she wanted tall children and could not marry a short man. On the long trip home from her house, I fantasized about driving off the winding road.
There were women with even less tact. I have been rebuffed by dozens whose first question on seeing me was, "How tall are you?" Others laughed in my face. "I won't date short guys," they said. Never mind that they are superficial, and beneath my attentions. It hurt then, it hurts now.
But bigger is not always better. My daughter entered my life shortly after her first birthday and inherited no genes from me. From kindergarten onward, she was tallest in her class, reaching her ultimate elevation of 5 feet 6 inches at age 10. Because she dwarfed playmates, teachers assumed that she was smarter, more mature, more able. Her test scores, however, were just above average, far beneath teachers' heightened expectations. They expected her to lead, but she was more comfortable following. Pedagogues pouted that she was lazy, that she did not perform up to her capabilities, that she was immature and often behaved childishly.
Well, yes. She was and she did. She was 6 years old.
For reasons unrelated to size, I was divorced when our daughter was 5. Eight years later, a gawky teen hiding behind punk-rock pancake, my child came back to live with me. Learning about parenthood, I grilled her beaux when they came calling. Craning my neck to look them in the eye, I asked such penetrating questions as, Where do you live? What are your parents' names? What are your plans after high school?
One day my daughter objected. "Pops," she wailed. "You are like, sooo intimidating! My friends hate coming here!"
Me, intimidating? I was taken aback. "But those kids are taller than me," I said.
"It doesn't matter!" she sniffed. "You've written books! You go on TV! Your picture is in newspapers! You were a drill sergeant in the Army! You were in Vietnam! You interview famous people! You can talk to anyone about anything!"
Suddenly I felt tall. It felt good.
"But we have our own problems, and you just don't understand us," she said.
I turned that over. She was right: Everybody has problems growing up. The tallest boy feels the stares, and fields lame jokes about playing basketball. The acne-scarred geeks hide their faces. The overweight bury the world's disdain under layers of protective adipose. The thin hide behind baggy clothes.
Thanks largely to my experiences as a short person, by middle age I had learned to accept rejection. That's valuable to everyone, but especially to writers. I know that negative responses are part of the cost of doing business, every writer's emotional overhead.
In adulthood, we come to learn, there are plenty of handicaps. Everybody has one. Me, I'm short. And if some people in our Taller-Is-Better world can't get past that, then they ought to move on.
* * *
Copyright © 2000 Marvin J. Wolf
First published in TWA Ambassador, February, 2000, with this notation:
"Marvin J. Wolf, the author of nine nonfiction books,* was the only U.S. serviceman to arrive in Vietnam a private and depart as an infantry lieutenant."
*Update May 23, 2018: Marvin J. Wolf is now the author of eleven nonfiction books, three novels, and a made-for-television movie script.
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, excerpts from books and unpublished works, short fiction, and photographs, each offering a glimpse of my life, work and times. I'll be posting weekly. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.