Thank You

allen band uniform 1

I’d like to say thanks to everyone who has written in with kind comments about these pages, and those of you who have corrected me when I have wandered astray. I have decided to end things, more or less, on this blog, while I expand the memories I have on our times in West Virginia and Parkersburg in particular. There are things that I could not talk about in the larger forum of the Internet that I can address in book form. So that’s what I’m doing, making all of this into a real book.

But don’t stop coming to these pages! I still have questions which I will put up here as I go along. I hope you will recommend this site to others who grew up with us or those who came later who might like to see how we did grow up. It’s difficult to keep from writing like an old geezer who rants on about how wonderful a time we had, but really, in so many ways it was a wonderful time.

If anyone would like to read any of my fiction, my books can be found on Amazon. Just click on the underlined text here. If anyone would like to reach me for anything, you can comment here or you can email me at appelworks@gmail.com.

Rest assured, I will be working on this book and I will let everyone know when it is finished.

Thank you all!

Step-Vans and Madams

 

step van

All you Delicate Flowers out there who swoon when the subject of sex comes up (no play on words intended) time to flip over to another channel. For the rest of you Parkersburgians and 1950’s West Virginians, buckle your seatbelts because we’re talking Mabel Mackey. Well, actually, that makes it sound more exciting than it is. As always, it’s about me, a small, fairly clueless young teenager living in Parkersburg in 1958.

No discussion about sex in Parkersburg during the 1950s would be complete without including the most famous whorehouse madam of that or any other period in Parkersburg. Since I have begun these pages, one of Mabel’s nephews, Roger Mackey, has begun a fascinating Facebook page about his aunt Mabel. I recommend you go on Facebook, search the term The History of Parkersburg WV & its Madam’s and ask Roger if you can join the group.

Roger is a serious amateur historian who has worked hard at hosting a number of Facebook pages about West Virginia, Parkersburg, and the early history of the area. He was recently chosen as a West Virginia “History Hero” by the Wood County Historical and Preservation Society. Roger keeps a fair but firm hand on the sometimes unruly commenters to his pages, and he has thousands of followers who enthusiastically chime in with personal reminiscences that color and enhance Roger’s many ongoing historical topics. He has graciously let me horn in on his pages with announcements of when I put up a new entry of this memoir blog about growing up in West Virginia. All this is a preamble and apology to Roger because I’m about to steal some of his information from his writing about his aunt, the infamous Mabel Mackey. A visit to Roger’s pages will give you the true story of his Aunt Mabel. They can be found here. Thanks, Roger.

If you were a male of any age in Parkersburg in the 1950s you knew the name Mabel Mackey. You might have been too young to know exactly who she was, but simply saying her name would bring on knowing glances, lewd gestures, jokes from the men and giggles from the ladies. As readers of these pages have learned by now, I was a backward lad when it came to sexual matters. If Bobby Huffman hadn’t been a knowledgeable friend to teach me about the ladies, who knows how long I would have remained in the dark about sex. Eventually I must have picked up the meaning of words like Prostitute, Whore, and all the variations describing the sex act and those who participated, especially those who charged money for its many pleasures. But, as we are all aware, knowing the meaning of the word and understanding its possibilities and implications can be two greatly different things. I was probably even more confused than many kids because I was reading novels far above my understanding of the intricacies, both physical and moral, of sex.

I once read a quotation by Mark Twain, who had overheard his wife swearing. He was in the next room when he overheard her, and she wasn’t aware he had done so. He laughed and said to her, “You got the words right, Livy, but you don’t know the tune.” Precisely. I knew the words, I just hadn’t understood precisely what they related to. This is hard to believe in the Internet age when there are no secrets, no act that is not somewhere on your computer screen, in, as we used to say, glorious living color.

If you were a kid, back then, the best you could come up with as far as pornography is concerned, the real mother lode, was to find what I refer to as “roadside porn.” For some reason this was actually fairly common. Usually it meant tattered, rain-soaked copies of men’s sex magazines or on occasion reels of 8mm stag movies, abandoned at the side of the road. How did they get there? Who knows, but if you were lucky enough to find one of these you were careful to hide it from your parents and pass it around amongst your friends. Tattered pages became even more worn. Film was unspooled and held up against the sun, offering glimpses of nakedness and sordid love.

As already noted, just saying the name Mabel Mackey always got a response. The thing is, I don’t ever remember anyone saying something like, “That Mabel Mackey is a bad person.” I’m sure there were plenty of Church Ladies and God Fearing Gentleman who denounced her, if not from the pulpit, from the safety and sanctimoniousness of their living rooms. And I can’t claim to speak of my parent’s friends in this matter, but all I remember is a sort of sly humor when her name was mentioned, and even a mild admiration. The people I knew, at least the adults, seemed to see her as a scrappy businesswoman providing a service and that she didn’t take any crap from anyone, including the police. It was supposedly said by Mabel herself that every time her establishment was raided and the news made the front page of Parkersburg’s several newspapers, (it always made the front page) she experienced a big bump in business.

The aforementioned Roger Mackey has written extensively about how generous his aunt was with the poor, passing out hundred dollar bills to buy kid’s shoes, paying mortgages and hospital bills, and generally being a sort of Robin Hood benefactor, indeed a whore with a heart of gold. I think it’s pretty clear that, as an adult, it would have been far more fun to sit and have a drink with Mabel and listen to her stories than have the finest Sunday dinner with any of Parkersburg’s most saintly citizens.

Did I tell you about the time when as a young, impressionable, teen I was in Mabel’s establishment?

I have talked before about working for several summers at my friend, may he rest in piece, Freddy Klein’s dad’s Mr. Bee potato chip factory. Most of my early days at the factory were spent on the business end of the massive potato chip fryer. Giant trucks would arrive on the loading dock out back and it was all hands on deck as everyone showed up to help unload fifty-pound sacks of potatoes. The sacks were opened and the spuds were dropped in a circular tank where they were spun around and peeled, then it was into the washer and slicer and onto the conveyer belt for their trip into the boiling oil. The hot chips, fresh from their plunge into a vast pool of boiling grease, rolled out, still on on a conveyor belt, under the salter and into the giant metal cans that it was my job to shift when each can was filled. Another responsibility of the “catcher” (me) was to punch a thumb into any of the chips that had formed a grease-filled bubble so the boiling oil would leak out before being bagged. Hot!

The cans we caught the chips in were mostly old and beat up and the lips were sometimes bent out in such a way as to be sharp and dangerous. Often, especially in the beginning, I would cut the inside of my thumbs on this lip and the salt and hot grease would work itself into these cuts. I bore the pain in silence as I was pretty sure none of my fellow workers or anyone in management (that would be Freddy’s dad, he was a one-man management department) wanted to hear that their new little employee was bleeding into the tatey chips. That’s what the product was called, at least by everyone in the back of the operation: Tatey chips. Never potato chips.

Mr. Klein was a good boss. He stayed up front in the office and left the sweaty, salty business of making potato chips to his loyal employees. When I first started, it was thought to be great fun for one of the guys, muscled from years of hauling around giant bags of potatoes, to pick me up and throw me atop the towering stack of tatey chip cans, where I would have to sit, balanced, careful lest the stack tumble beneath me, until someone was kind enough to drag over a ladder, and I could climb down. As you can see, job safety was not really priority number one in those days.

Maybe Mr. Klein recognized my importance as an employee, my growing knowledge of the over-all operation, or maybe someone noticed the blood-stained tatey chips, but eventually I was moved up, or maybe down, to being a helper on the delivery trucks.

The trucks were classic step-vans, the same ubiquitous, boxy white delivery vehicles you see shuttling around every city and town in America. The driver sits in the only seat. The passenger seat is missing, because you’re not supposed to have passengers. So I sat on an upside down tatey chip can, the same kind that cut up my hands. Did I mention that it was Mr. Bee delivery style to drive these babies with both doors wide open, at least during the summer months when I worked? I guess that was so the operation wasn’t slowed down by the driver/delivery guy having to open and close the door. Or maybe it was just so the breeze would cool us down. These were the days before air-conditioning. So while this was good for the company — more efficient — it was bad for the helper (me) who was bouncing and sliding around on an overturned potato chip can, inches away from tumbling out the open door and being smeared across the highway. After awhile I figured out how to ride with my feet jammed up under the dashboard so I was more or less stable. More or less.

There were a half dozen guys that drove all over the surrounding Parkersburg area delivering chips. Some of them ventured far back into the hills to the little, barn-wood, everything-for-sale stores with the coolers full of soda pop and large cheeses on counter-tops sweating under white cloths. These businesses, I soon learned, sold a hell of a lot of tatey chips.

Our main competitor was the Wise potato chip brand. As noted elsewhere, your favorite brand of tatey chip was an either-or proposition, just like much else I’ve been discussing. You were either a Mr. Bee person or a Wise person. Allow me another digression (I know, Dear Reader, that you are muttering under your breath when the hell is he going to get back to the whore house?) The Wise chip was thicker and had a more pronounced potato taste. Mr. Bees were thinner, much thinner, and had a distinctive taste reminiscent of the oil they were cooked in. I have to admit, even though I ate a boatload of Mr. Bees over the years, I didn’t then, nor do I now, think that they were really all that high a quality chip. But back then there was little choice. The words “kettle cooked” had yet to be invented, at least in reference to a deep-fat fried snack product.

Some of the step-van drivers didn’t want a helper. Or at least I was never assigned to them. I usually drew one of two guys. There was a little guy, not little like me but short, who was probably in his early thirties. He had a crew cut (pretty much every male in that age bracket and job description had a crew cut) and wore jeans and a white T-shirt with classic, carefully-rolled short sleeves. We’ll call him Bob. I haven’t the slightest memory of his real name. Bob was very religious, subjecting me to long sermons about Jesus Christ, his personal Lord and Savior, and how a smart fellow like me should be thinking about the salvation of his soul. There were times when I came close to throwing myself out the open door onto the onrushing, unforgiving, black-top highway to spare myself these sermons.

Bob’s other main topic of conversation, which was mostly one-sided in his direction, was his son, who was ten-years-old and addicted to sniffing gasoline from a can, which Bob said, was a popular addiction among children of the time. I had never heard of it, but then, as you have noticed, there was a lot that I had never heard of. Bob would often come home from work and find his son, we’ll call him Bob Jr. slumped over a gas can in the back yard or in the ramshackle shed where the gas was stored. Bob had thought long and hard about this addiction and decided that his son was lacking some nutrient in his system that his body was crying out for and trying to find in the fumes from a gas can. That seemed pretty unlikely to me, but I kept my mouth shut.

Bob also seemed to think I had some sort of knowledge, maybe because I was young, or at least an opinion that would help him understand his son and the situation. He had asked the Lord what the answer might be, but God was strangely silent on the subject of gasoline fume huffing. The only thing that was clear to me was that, (a) Bob Jr. was probably heartily sick of hearing homilies and sermons from Bob Sr. and was trying to escape into the deadly, soporific arms of his friend Mr. Esso, and, (b) if he kept on huffing gasoline fumes he was going to be dead sooner than later one of these fine days. But there was no way that Bob wanted to hear any of that, so I continued to keep my mouth shut, resigned to the fact that whenever I drew helper duties with Bob, I knew it was going to be a long hard day.

The other guy I rode with was an older fellow named, um, Ralph. As always, I don’t have a clue what his name was. When I say older, I mean he was probably in his late forties or early fifties, but at the time that looked pretty old to me. He was clearly an intelligent guy, had a good sense of humor and didn’t take life too seriously. At first I wondered why he hadn’t moved up to a more professional position in the company but after a few trips in the step van with Ralph I figured it out. Here’s the way it worked.

Ralph and I would march into a bar, convenience store, gas station or other business that carried Mr. Bees. Ralph would take out his pad and write while the owner placed his order. We would hit these places once or twice a week and you’d be surprised how many bags of tatey chips these guys would sell. Ralph would tear the order out of the pad and hand it to me, and I would go out to the truck, jump up inside and pull the correct number of bags, stuff them into boxes, carry them into the establishment and secure them onto the racks while Ralph shot the breeze with the counter guy. I got so I could remember the order without the written slips, and I’d have them up on the racks in record time. I also became amazingly proficient at carrying stacked boxes and in my heyday could balance five large boxes of chips and carry them through doorways using a practiced dip that probably looked pretty cool, if anyone actually noticed. But truth be told, Bob was the really amazing box carrier, able to balance seven or even eight full boxes through doorways and down narrow grocery store aisles without ever dropping or damaging a single chip.

But Ralph never carried a box after I was assigned to him and even though we could have cut an hour off our day when I was really busting my ass, after filling the order and hanging the chips Ralph would send me out to the van where I would sit on my can (tatey chip can) waiting. I figured Ralph was inside pitching increased sales to the owner, or maybe trying to get a die-hard conservative storeowner to branch out and start carrying the radical new barbeque style chips along with the regulars. It was when we got to Mabel Mackey’s place that I finally figured out what Ralph was doing, and why I was sent out to the truck to sit on my can.

Mabel’s establishment was located on William’s Court Alley, a small backstreet behind the courthouse in lower downtown Parkersburg. In the early days, Parkersburg was said to be a rough river town with other bordellos some of which research on the Internet tells me were named the Red Onion, Noah’s Ark, Hawk’s Nest and Little Egypt. One has to wonder what the deal was at Noah’s Ark; two girls of every race and creed?

The actual male fantasy didn’t really focus on Mabel herself, but on her stable of girls. In real life, as I read on the Internet and see from pictures on Roger’s site, Mabel was a matronly, hefty lady who favored high-waisted pants, cowboy shirts and cowboy boots. She was interested in collecting muzzle-loading rifles and handing out money to the poor. The girls, it is said, were brought in from out of town and rotated in and out every two weeks so the choices remained fresh. Which sounds like a pretty efficient, high-class operation.

By the time I was in high school, I’d figured out, generally, the mechanics of prostitute/client transactions. As noted in an earlier entry, there were parts in Peyton Place and other novels that outlined the procedures. You went in the house, and ended up in a room with a whore who told you the price of the evening’s activities. Then you took out your “equipment” and your lady would wash you off with a washcloth in a basin of warm water. If someone on the street corner was telling you this tale, at about this point he would always relate the story of the young, inexperienced youth who never got further than the warm wash-water part before discharging his load and disgracing himself forever. I always listened to this part figuring I would probably disgrace myself at lot earlier than that, maybe even when I was getting out of the car.

A time-honored ritual among young men of my time, and even some of the bolder young women, was known as “cruising the alley.” On a Friday or Saturday night you would cram into a pal’s car, usually four or five of you, and drive downtown, circle around the courthouse and come up the alley, slowly, and if you were lucky there would be some young ladies hanging out the second floor windows, haranguing the crowds outside on foot and in cars, daring you to come on in. Here’s the way I remembered the scene. I’m not saying this was right, I’m just saying this is how I remember it.

We’d head up the alley in the car; the scene seems to be bathed in a harsh yellow light. Streetlights? It all has the appearance and feel of a Hieronymus Bosch painting, more The Last Judgment rather than The Garden of Earthly Delights. (Look it up on the Internet to see examples.) In my memory, the alley is crowded with a line of cars creeping slowly along, and throngs of men on foot, shouting and laughing. Are they all drunk? You motor at a walking speed and finally you’re in front of the house where you ride past and your pals hang out the window and shout at the girls, who if you’re lucky, are wearing bras with no shirts and hollering back and waving. Then you’re past the house, you exit the alley and circle around and do it all again.

I hated it, not that I ever said so. It was important if you were a teen of that time, especially if you were only four feet tall, to appear cool, though that term was not yet in popular use. The men milling around in front of the house seemed like beasts to me, braying like asses. Stupid, in all the senses of the word. I didn’t know it then, but I do now, that this was the power of sex, able to addle men’s minds and provoke them into ridiculous acts. I went along with the drive-by a few times, though I don’t think anyone else really thought it was all that much fun either. My friends were all smart, good in school, decent kids, members of the Big Red Band. Of course we were always willing to do something dumb, after all, we were teenagers — remember my earlier entry about getting shot at night in the City Park? But, at least for me, the stumbling spectacle of drunken, bleating men lost interest after you had witnessed it a few times.

Back to the tatey chip truck. After a few days helping Ralph, he seemed to decide that I was an ok guy who could be trusted. One day we loaded up the van and headed out around nine o’clock. We made a few routine grocery store stops and then drove to lower downtown Parkersburg. With growing astonishment I realized we were going to William’s Court Alley. We drove to the head of the alley and parked. We went into a bar, which I now think was probably in the Monroe Hotel. Now I’m asking for a little help from those of you out there who know what I’m talking about. What was this bar? It seemed to me to be right up against Mabel’s “house,” but not in the house. Was there a back door where you could discretely go into Mabel’s without joining the crowd of drunken louts in the alley?

We walked into the bar. Ralph climbed up on a barstool as if he’d parked his can there many times in the past, as he probably had. I just stood in the center of the room, gaping around, awestruck, like the dumb rube that I was. Here I was in a real whorehouse bar, and only God knew what was going to happen. After a bit I realized that it looked like most other roadhouse bars we delivered tatey chips to. In the daylight – not that there was much daylight in any of these places – it, and all the other barrooms, seemed kind of run-down, dusty and a bit forlorn. No neon, no jukebox playing, no crowds, and certainly no painted women in skimpy outfits.

A door behind the bar opened up and a sleepy-looking woman came through, pulling a bathrobe around her. Except in wasn’t a bathrobe, it was a Japanese Kimono of the type called a Happi Coat. (I just looked this up, that’s how it is spelled.) It was the kind of robe that you see whores wearing in the movies. Or at least that’s what they wore in the movies of my day. The woman was young, maybe in her late twenties, and she had short brownish blond hair done in what at the time was called a Pixie cut. And she was really pretty. Really really pretty.

She said hello to Ralph, they obviously knew each other, went behind the bar and poured him a shot of whiskey without him asking for it. Ralph introduced me and she gave me a sunny smile. Instantly, I was in love.

Ralph got out his order pad as the lady rummaged around behind the bar and began ordering bags of chips. It took a few minutes to pull me back into reality: we were here to sell potato chips, not gape at attractive young ladies. I could not bring myself to think of her as a whore. It was ten o’clock, or thereabouts, in the morning, too early for thoughts of whores.

“Want a coke?” she asked me. Sure I did. She filled a glass and slid it across the bar. Ralph finished his shot, and she poured him another. He gave me the page from his order pad, and I went out to the truck.

Dear Reader, you can see how my brain has recorded this event, minute by minute. Each shiny, lapidary moment, bright and clear, luminous even in this beat-up old barroom, seems engraved upon my very soul. Talk about the power of sex.

I hauled the chips back inside, and the beautiful lady took them and stored them behind the bar.

“You want a pickled egg?” she said, gesturing at the big two-gallon jar of Penrose pickled eggs. A pickled egg? Is there anything less sexy than a pickled egg swimming in a suspicious cloudy liquid? I shook my head.

She gave me a long look and a sly smile. “It’ll put lead in your pencil,” she said.

Lead in my pencil! I looked at Ralph. He was laughing at me. I got the impression he’d knocked back a couple of more shots while I was out in the truck getting the bags of tatey chips together. Maybe they even talked about me: yeah, he’s a good kid. Kind of wet behind the ears, though. Yeah, well, he’ll grow out of that.

Lead in my pencil! Was she actually talking about what I thought she was talking about? Was I really standing in this dim barroom having a conversation with a prostitute about MY PENIS? Was this the high point, sexually speaking, of my young life, eclipsing even the pictures of dead naked women in the Carnegie library? Yes! God, yes!

I realized that now both of them were laughing at me. I’m glad it was kind of dark in the barroom as I’m sure I turned beet red. Ralph slapped the bar, shook his head, said goodbye to the pretty girl and we left. Did she give me a little wink as I waved goodby? I like to think so.

After that I realized that Ralph had been having shots in all the bars we stopped at while I was out in the truck, from first thing in the morning to the last delivery of the afternoon. From then on, he no longer hid this day-drinking from me, and I didn’t say anything about it.

The next few weeks I was teamed up with Preacher Bob, a great disappointment to me. I began every day hoping we’d be going back to Williams Court Alley. Then Ralph stopped showing up for work, which was another crushing blow, and it was time for summer band practice so I had to quit my job.

But I had my memories, which I built into elaborate fantasies, which fueled my imagination then and for many years to come.

Which, I have to admit, fuel them even now, on occasion.

Oh, you old biddies who cluck your tongues at Mabel Mackey’s name, don’t talk to me of the evils of prostitution, don’t shake your heads, don’t give me your false piety, your scorn. All I know is what I think happened years ago; all I have is my memory.

Here’s what I know for sure:

I have seen the lady of the house, and she was beautiful.

End

This is the last entry on this site about my Life In the Big Red Band. In a few days I’ll write one more post about what the future holds for this memoir.

#19 Leave it to the Beaver

beaver

 

We didn’t eat out often; we didn’t have the money for it, and my dad ate out in barrooms every night during the week, so when he came back to Parkersburg he wanted home-cooked food. Even so, there were a few places we went to. My favorite, and where we went with regularity, was The Clam House on 7th street. We would always walk through the dimly-lit first floor dining area and head upstairs where there were booths and a colorful, bright jukebox. There was usually no one up there besides us, which my parents liked because my sister and I could walk around, play the jukebox and goof off while my mom and dad enjoyed their own company. Did they serve alcohol there? I can’t remember. If so, my dad would have been drinking a beer.

My sister and mom usually ordered the shrimp, I can’t remember what my dad ate, and I always had the frog’s legs, a delicacy that you don’t find in restaurants much these days. When I do locate it on a menu and order it, I don’t find it nearly as exotic or delicious as I did back then.

As I would eat my frog legs, my dad would sometimes tell stories of when he was a young man and worked during the summers in the Adirondack Mountains at a resort for wealthy vacationers. One of the unusual tasks assigned to him was to take the young ladies of the gentility out in little rowboats where they, the ladies, would sit in the front of the boat as he rowed them along the banks. When they spotted a bullfrog, the ladies would take shots at them with miniature, silver-plated BB guns. It was an image we always remarked on: silver BB guns! Who could imagine such a thing? Surely these must have been the richest people in the world. If they hit the frogs, Dad collected them and the catch was brought back to the kitchen and would be served later that evening to the huntresses for dinner. And isn’t that a vision of a world long gone?

It was at the Clam House that I had another of my revelations into the pain of being not believed by adults. The Clam House had a garden beside the restaurant, situated between the restaurant and another building about fifteen feet away. There was a small artificial stream that meandered along in a concrete gutter in this little garden. There were a few decorations, primarily a walking bridge over the concrete stream and a four-foot tall windmill of the type you might find at a miniature golf course. Were there goldfish in the stream? Probably not, but maybe. While waiting for our food to arrive, I would be allowed to go downstairs and walk around this mini-garden. One afternoon, I must have been six or seven, I came face to face with a “beaver” sitting on the little bridge. No one else was around. We locked eyes, boy and beaver. Surely this was a tame animal, brought in by Old Captain Doug to lend some realism to the garden? Would he (the beaver, not Captain Doug) dam the concrete stream with concrete logs and create his own pond right here next to the Clam House?

I approached the bridge where the little fellow was sitting up on his hind legs, staring at me. Maybe I could I pet him.

Suddenly he charged straight at me and before I could dodge the attack, he bit me savagely on the shin and ran off. I was stunned. I ran back upstairs, blurted out my story and showed my parents the two angry red beaver bite marks on my shin. There was no blood, but there were a couple of serious red dents. Everyone laughed at me. Beavers! they exclaimed, there are no beavers at the Clam House!

I was crushed. Mortified. When our dinner orders arrived my frog legs were as ashes in my mouth, and I was close to tears. Every once in awhile I checked my beaver bite. The two teeth marks, and the pain, slowly faded. But the humiliation remained.

On thinking back now I guess I had confronted a groundhog, not a beaver, but surely someone should have believed this small boy. But no, they did not, and one more black mark against unfair, disbelieving adults was chalked up on my growing list of grievances.

There may have been fancier restaurants in town, but we didn’t frequent them. I remember spaghetti joints and home-cooking places and barrooms that served food as well as beer.

My one experience of fine dining came courtesy of my band friend Bill Shattuck’s father. I’m not going to give him a fake name because I admired him so much. He was a tall (of course everyone was tall to me) handsome man who had a commanding air about him, which befitted his status as an executive at one of the chemical plants that lined the nearby Ohio River. Mr. Shattuck liked me, though I have no idea what he saw in this undersized, teenaged West Virginia rube. Maybe he thought of me as something of a “project,” in that I was a nice kid who didn’t have many opportunities of the type his son, my friend, enjoyed and that he would, graciously, give me some and pointers. Whatever reason, he was one of the kindest men I have known. He actually once took me along on a business trip to Chicago even though Bill decided he didn’t want to go. I’m sure I embarrassed him by standing on the broad avenues, slack-jawed, staring in wonder at the towering buildings around me. We flew in an airplane (I know, what else would we fly in?) to get to Chicago, obviously my first airplane ride. I remember it vividly. The plane was a DC-3, a plane that saw much service in WWII. If I had examined the fuselage I might have found patches indicating where the plane had been hit by flack while attempting a bombing run on some Nazi outpost. It had two prop engines and since the back wheel was much smaller than the front it sat back on its tail. You entered through a hatch toward the rear of the airplane and had to climb up what seemed like a fairly steep incline to get to your seat. The thing I remember most about this airplane was that there was a handrail that ran down the center of the aisle that you used to help haul yourself up. This handrail was made of a piece of pipe just like the ones in the basement of our house that carried the hot and cold water. It had regular pipe fittings at the ends and was attached by bolts at the bottom on the floor of the plane. Even to one as inexperienced as myself it seemed like a pretty crude solution to the problem of putting in a handrail. I had a moment’s worry when I saw this, wondering if that’s what I could see, what else was in this plane that I couldn’t see? Were the engines held on by 2×4’s hammered in with ten-penny nails? Anyway, it took off just fine and we made it to Chicago and back without trouble.

Around the time of my joining the band, my first year in high school, the Shattucks invited to me to dinner at the country club they belonged to. This was standard fare for Bill, but for me it was a special, and daunting occasion. We sat down at an elegant, to me, table with a white tablecloth, crystal clear drinking glasses and lots of silver implements. Of course I was in my best clothes, yes, that damned striped Sears and Roebuck clown coat. I was handed a menu the length and breadth of which I had never seen before. Once again I have to repeat, I wasn’t stupid, I had read a ton of books and seen plenty of movies where fancy people sat down in fancy restaurants and ordered fancy meals, it was just that I wasn’t one of those people. I could read, yes, make sense of the menu offerings, yes, but the etiquette challenges in this undertaking were a vast looming chasm, on the brink of which I precariously balanced. After I found the entrees — I wasn’t even going to think about the appetizer section – a quick search showed me they didn’t sell frogs legs, so there was not going to be an easy out for me. Wise Mr. Shattuck, sensing my stupidity and hesitation, suggested that the steak was very good there.

Steak! I knew what steak was! On rare, ceremonial occasions my dad would cook steaks at home, always T-bones. It was one of the few foods that he alone prepared, along with grilled hamburgers and hotdogs, baked banana bread and showing us how to eat sardines on crackers, which my mother loathed. We were only permitted to eat sardines after she had gone to bed on the weekend.

I found the steak section on the menu. My mind boggled at the prices. I decided that I would order ground steak, whatever that was, because it was the cheapest steak dish offered. Wasn’t this the way a good guest should behave?

When the waiter came to take my order, I ordered the ground steak, which came with green beans and a baked potato. I was on pretty solid ground with green beans and a potato. After I told the waiter my selection, Mr. Shattuck said, quietly, while pretending to scrutinize the menu, “I’m sure the ground steak is very good, Allen, but might I suggest that you try the rib steak? I’ve had it here many times, and I think you’ll like it.”

I understood he was tossing me a lifeline, so I grabbed it, nodding sagely to the waiter, agreeing to the rib steak, grateful to Mr. Shattuck for being a host who treated me with the utmost generosity, delicacy and tact. Gratitude washed over me.

When I cut into my thick, juicy, rare steak — my father taught me that we Appels always ordered our meat rare, our liquor straight, and our iced tea unsweetened — I suddenly understood that in the realms of the moneyed classes and in the larger world that existed beyond Maxwell Avenue, a steak was not just a steak. The T-bones my dad brought home were good, yes, but they were thin, poor relations to this beauty that sat on my plate, swimming in its ruby red juices. It was a marvel to me. Each bite was a new experience. I could have closed my eyes and wept.

But we are not yet done with this amazing meal.

We were all sawing away at our steaks except Bill’s mom, who was smoking a cigarette and drinking a martini. She was a tall, (dear reader, I’m sorry I always begin my physical descriptions with the word tall, but by now you know why) thin, elegant woman who I never saw eat anything. I think she was far more interested in the martini than the food. I had never seen a person in real life drink a martini.

I saw Bill, across the table from me, butter up his baked potato and slather on a thick white substance that was in a small bowl in front of us. “What’s that?” I asked.

“Sour cream,” Bill said, piling some more on. “Try it, it’s good.” If he was mystified at my ignorance, he didn’t show it. Maybe they had a pre-meal meeting where everyone discussed how to treat me, the ignorant simpleton dressed in his clown coat of many colors, without hurting my feelings. At any rate, no one laughed. I hesitantly spooned a dollop of sour cream on my potato.

Oh, God, it was delicious, the sour mixing with the sweet butter to flavor what was just an ordinary potato, lifting that simple vegetable onto a new, unknown to me, level of foodness.

As I sat there, eating my potato, I wondered how on earth something that was soured, this cream, could be so exquisite. Didn’t soured mean spoiled? Not for the first time, I wondered what else was out there in the wide world that I had absolutely no knowledge or experience of. Well, it turns out there was, and is, still a hell of a lot out there.

I have since eaten in some of the greatest restaurants in the world. My son is a chef in a three star Michelin restaurant, and he has cooked things for me that would astonish anyone.

But that simple potato, served to me back in Parkersburg, West Virginia, 55 years ago, remains the greatest food that I have ever eaten.

 

#18 You Want to Fight?

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One of the trips my first year in the band, fall of 1959, was a bus trip to some small high school with a ramshackle stadium, and, probably, a hapless football team that was destined to be steamrolled by the juggernaut that was the Big Red football program. I have forgotten what the school was named or where it was, but I remember their stadium as being sad, old, and beat-up. Of course no stadium looked as good as PHS in those days. In the next three years we never went back to wherever this was. I wonder if it was because of what went on with the band after the end of the football game.

We were forming up on the cinder track, getting ready to go on at halftime. We were down at the end of the field, a good distance from the sparsely attended ramshackle bleachers. There was a chain-link fence that separated us from a dimly lit parking lot. As we were waiting, a gang of around a dozen young men sauntered up out of the parking lot, scattered along the chain link fence and started yelling at us. I can’t remember the threats and curses of the time, but it’s a safe bet the word “queers” was somewhere in there. Frank said something to the head drum major, and he whistled us into formation and attention. Frank gave us an “eyes front,” so we weren’t looking at the gang. We knew better than to break formation or say anything. We waited. We ignored their taunts. Frank stood in front of the band.

A loud clang rang like a brass bell as a rock struck one of the big sousaphones. Frank came trotting back beside us at the fence. The following conversation took place. Maybe not in these exact words, but this is the way I remember it.

Frank: “What do you guys want?”

These guys were what we called greasers or hoods, a term I’ve explained earlier. They weren’t high-schoolers, were probably drop-outs, but they weren’t really functioning adults yet either. They had hood hairstyles, long greasy hair swirled into pompadours or the ever-popular buzz cut. They wore hood clothes: leather jackets, white T-shirts, cuffed blue jeans and heavy black boots. James Dean-style hoods.

Gang leader: “We want to kick your queer asses.”

Frank: “We’re not interested. We’re busy.” He glanced over at the field and saw that the home team band was finishing up whatever pathetic drill they had put on, (they were the sort of band who allowed girls as members and carried their music on their arms) and that we needed to get into place behind the goalposts. He turned away and trotted back toward the front of the band.

Clang! Another rock hit a sousaphone, and Frank went into full Teutonic, V-2 rocket mode. He ran back to where the hoods were.

“OK,” Frank yelled at the leader, “You want a fight? You’ve got it. We’ll meet you back here after the game. You’d better round up some more guys, because we are going to kick your asses. Right here! After the game!” He whirled around and blew his whistle and the drum major blew his and the drummers got us marching to our position. We did the drill and went back to the sidelines where the rest of the football game played out. Nobody talked about what Frank had said. He stood off to the side by himself, which is where he always stood, dealing with his fingernails as always, but you could tell he was really pissed off. The game ended. Frank came to the front as we were getting up from our chairs.

“Leave your instruments, we’ll get them later. Form up on the track and get into position. Some guys want to fight us, so we’ll fight. Nobody throws rocks at the Big Red Band. The older guys will tell you what to do.” He walked over to the cinder track and waited.

This was pretty thrilling. Good thing I couldn’t see myself — there I was, this tiny kid putting his piccolo down and turning to one of the older guys. A few of us gathered around him (clarinet) and he gave us a demonstration. The rest of the guys were huddled in small groups.

“Take off your belt,” the older boy said. We wore what is called a Sam Brown belt. The always helpful Wiki tells me it was named for its inventor, Sam Brown — what a surprise — who was a soldier who had had his left arm cut off in a sabre fight and needed a way to keep his blade from clanking around when he was running into battle, one-armed. What typifies the belt is a smaller belt that runs from left to right over the shoulder, which allows the waist belt to hold up any amount of equipment that you want to pile on. The main part of our belt, the part that goes around the waist, was four inches wide, white, and had a very large, square, brass buckle in the front. I see from videos of today’s Big Red Band the belts now have two crosspieces over each shoulder. The older guy showed us how to wrap the belt around your fist so that the belt buckle ended up on the knuckle portion of your hand. That way when you punched someone the buckle did some serious damage, especially if the prong thing happened to be sticking forward when the punch was thrown. Let it be noted that belts of this type could also be usefully employed in a fight by swinging them overhead and smashing them into opposing faces, but we, the band, did our fighting in close formation and didn’t have room to swing anything without possibly hitting our own guys.

I wrapped my belt around my tiny fist and was inordinately proud. I was a warrior, going into my first battle. The drum major whistled us into close formation, four abreast, on the narrow cinder track.

Being the drum major of the band was an extremely important position. Traditionally, the DM is, physically, a big guy. Historically, and by that I mean back in history, part of the DM’s job was to preside over any flogging that had to be done, not that there was any flogging being done in the Big Red Band. Just ass kicking. That year, my first year in the band, our drum major was really tall (especially when I stood next to him) and really tough. He wore one of those beaver fur hats, the sort that the guards at Buckingham palace wear only white, and he carried a long, heavy baton, which he could use to beat the shit out of people. With the hat, our guy stood around eight feet tall. Picture him at the front of our Big Red phalanx as we marched into battle.

We had to exit the stadium, which by now was largely empty, and make our way around back to the dark parking lot. I’m sure that Frank was hoping for a certain amount of discretion on our part, as what we were about to do would surely be frowned on by any authorities. We were in a really hick burg; who knows what side the cops would be on? Even Frank wasn’t about to take on guys with guns.

Today, what we were about to do would be considered insane, especially because the gang we would be going up against would be armed with street weapons featuring names like Glock and Beretta. Back then there were knives and whatever clubs could be picked up along the way.

One of the many things that struck me as we went about getting ready for the fight was how calm and matter-of-fact everyone was. The new guys kept their mouths shut because they knew they had nothing to add and everything to learn by paying close attention, and the older guys acted like it was completely familiar and nothing to get excited about, as if they had made these preparations many times before. And perhaps they had, I didn’t know, this was my first year. As always, everyone seemed perfectly confident that the band would prevail.

Picture it. We were drawn up in a solid, tight formation, red uniformed phalanx. In front was the head drum major, an eight-foot giant wielding a long metal pole. There were a couple of slightly smaller drum majors just behind him. And by his side was our stone-faced, very pissed off German leader, Never-Throw-Rocks-At-My-Sousaphones, Frank. Frank tossed out a command, “On the rim.” The drum major lifted his baton and brought it smartly down and the drums began the cadence.

“On the rim” meant the drummers used the wooden rim of the drumhead, rather that the drumhead itself. This was employed when we wanted to get someplace fairly quietly, but still needed the cadence to stay in step. It produces an odd sound, and on this night, lit by the stadium lights behind us and headed for a dark parking lot, it sounded like the rattle of old, dry bones. Our shoes crunched in unison on the cinder track. Other than these two sounds there was complete silence.

As we approached the lot, we saw the gang appearing out of the shadows. They had indeed called up some reinforcements. Twenty or thirty of them were walking slowly toward us. Some of them were carrying baseball bats and lengths of wood. I was scared shitless but marched along in step with everyone else.

Frank nodded at the drum major who blew a long, very loud blast on his whistle, and the drummers switched from the rim to the head of the drums. After the ominous clacking of the rims, the effect of the massed drums was thundering. I wish I could have stepped aside and just watched this sight: the solid band of red-uniformed young men, belt-wrapped fists, the roaring of the drums. I’m sure it was impressive. Even now it gives me a slight chill remembering it.

After standing their ground for about five seconds, the gawking gang melted away back into the darkness. In another five seconds they were gone. The drum major whistled us to a halt, and we stood there, in the dark, at attention, in complete silence. After a minute, Frank said, “At ease. Go get your instruments and get on the bus. It’s over.”

And it was.

Here’s a lesson about Frank Schroeder. He was never a friend to any of us. He was hard man and took no crap from anyone. He would kick your ass if you screwed up. He demanded as much perfection as he could wring from 80 high-spirited, young men. And he got very angry when anyone threw stones at his sousaphones. You may not have liked him, but by God, you feared and respected him.

 

#17 Rocket Boys

allen and Rusty science fair

The picture is of me on the left and Rusty on the right in Rusty’s basement with our science project. We were converting electricity through heat. Our pal Stoney was involved with the project as well. Are there two more dorkey-looking teenagers in the entire world? If you don’t know who Rusty is, read the entry, #15 The Carnegie Library, Den of iniquity.

Rusty and I found each other in the first year of the band. He wasn’t much bigger than I was, we shared a love of books and classical music, and we were equally inept at finding girlfriends. Rusty was shyer than I, but he was far smarter. Where I maintained a straight C average, (with other highs and lows) he received mostly A’s. He studied; I didn’t. We teamed up to be in the Science Fair together and won one of the top prizes. In a pale imitation of the young man who wrote the bestselling book, Rocket Boy, the writer Homer Hickam from Coalwood, West Virginia, we even crafted an elegant model rocket. More on that adventure below. After reading Hickam’s excellent rocket book many years later, my mother would tell anyone who would listen that Hickam had stolen the idea of building rockets from her son’s foray into that field.

Rusty lived about twenty miles outside of town, so we mostly hung around together in school. His father was a silent, gruff, tough man who scared the shit out of me. It was clear (or at least I thought it was clear) that his father didn’t much care for Rusty’s pursuits – playing classical piano, reading, getting good grades, being in the band and hating all sports – and he didn’t like me. When he spoke to us at all the tone was slightly scornful, a tone that made me feel even smaller than I was.

His mother, on the other hand, liked me. Even more than my other friend’s mothers, she was quiet, and I never could tell what she was thinking. She was an attractive blond and when we were at Rusty’s house you never knew where she was, always sitting quietly by herself in one of the rooms of her impeccably clean house.

One day I was headed to the bathroom, coming upstairs from the basement where we hatched all of our science and other projects, and I heard a bird singing in the house, loudly, unlike any bird I had ever heard. I came into the kitchen and found Rusty’s mother sitting at the kitchen table, looking at a bright yellow canary in a domed wire cage. (I almost wrote “doomed wire cage.”) The bird continued to sing, and Rusty’s mom smiled at me. The birdsong was beautiful — clear, liquid. I think this moment sparked my lifelong interest in canaries and birds in general. As an adult I raised them and became an avid bird watcher. I didn’t say anything, not wanting to break such an obvious spell. I smiled back and walked through the living room to the bathroom. When I came back out I stood in the living room for a minute, watching Rusty’s mother. She didn’t see me in the other room. The sun had come out from behind a cloud and light streamed through the kitchen window directly on her and the canary. The scene was splashed a golden yellow: her hair, the bird, the table. Her smile had vanished, replaced by the saddest, most faraway look that I had ever seen on an adult. Once again, the symbolism is obvious as I write about this moment — the lonely wife, the taciturn, remote husband who kept her trapped — not in the tower of a castle — but in this ordinary suburban home.

Remember, I was a very young man and had grown up reading romantic adventure books where such heroes, heroines and villains were commonplace. Life then (my real life) was a series of events that occurred one after another, and I encountered them, dealt with them and moved on to the next. There’s not much room for introspection in a fourteen-year-old boy’s mind.

I went downstairs and continued whatever project Rusty and I were working on. But I have never forgotten the image of that moment, and the story that my mind made up about it. The only thing missing was a hero to come riding in to rescue the Princess. I wonder if somehow that moment was a seed, implanted in my subconscious that many years later bloomed into my garden of novels. All of which, God help me, hew fairly closely to that old formula: Villain, Hero, Doomed Princess.

Can a single moment shape a future? I don’t know. But I think, from this 50-year distance, that it’s possible that just such a moment can color a future. Ah, it’s so hard to say, to guess, to make these connections. All we have are our memories. Who can say what they mean?

 

OK, the rocket mentioned above. In a less science-inspired moment, Rusty and I decided to build a small rocket that we would fire off in some as yet thought of location. At the expense of once again sounding like an old geezer, (“By cracky, I remember helping the Wright boys get that damn contraption into the air.”) you might remember this was just around the time that Russia launched their Sputnik into space. Even West Virginians were excited about the possibilities of space flight.

Our “rocket” was far from Homer Hickam’s elegant flyers. I’m not trying to convince you we were anything special when it came to rockets or science. The real point of this story is to relate one more example of kids doing things back then that could have easily resulted in death. Trying something like this today would result in jail time for anyone involved, even a well-meaning adult like my dad.

The rocket was a fifteen-inch section of aluminum pipe with a balsa wood nosecone, a rear nozzle carved out of a piece of asbestos, and sheet-aluminum stabilizing fins. I can remember leaning in close to my bench clamp, filing away at a chunk of grey asbestos, fashioning it to fit the rocket. Of course I didn’t know that I was probably inhaling a lethal dose of cancer-causing particles in the process.

My dad volunteered to help Rusty and me fire off the rocket. I guess he might have offered so he could keep us safe in the process, but I think he was just interested in seeing what would happen. We had all seen countless film clips on television of rockets roaring into space, this could be just as majestic, except on a much smaller scale. Right?

Our fuel was gunpowder, so you’d think we would have some notion what was going to happen. And where did we acquire enough gunpowder to load a 15-inch metal tube? Well, boys and girls, back then the basic materials were pretty easy to come by. The drug store would sell you saltpeter, (potassium nitrate) which was the primary ingredient. Charcoal was next, which we obtained by grinding up briquettes. And sulphur, which we didn’t need much of… well, I can’t remember where we got that. Just picture it: two fairly clueless boys down in their basement workshop, grinding up gunpowder and tamping it into a metal tube. Upstairs, even more clueless parents, watching TV, going about their daily lives, unaware that the house was only inches away from being blown to smithereens. And remember, we were the smart kids, the future scientists, geeky science nerds, the good kids. And experts today think that little Johnny in his room playing on the Internet is in some sort of danger?

It’s a miracle that any of us ever survived.

Launch day arrived, it must have been a Saturday because my dad was home, and we piled in the car: Rusty, me, and our pal Butch who had joined the adventure. We drove to Butch’s family’s farm outside of town. This modest farm was jocularly known as “Oleo Acres.” The name, Butch would say, came about because it was “One of the cheaper spreads.” Har har.

We found a likely spot, which means it had no observable cows, people or homes in the immediate area. We set the rocket up and ran about a hundred feet of bell wire we intended to attach to a dry cell battery. We lay down behind a low berm and attached the wires to the battery and waited. There was no countdown as we had no idea how long it was going to take before the wires heated up and…

KABLOOM!

It scared the shit out of us. I had the impression that the thing, after smoking for a minute or so, actually achieved vertical lift-off of about 12 inches or so before blowing up. We were a little shaky, but we got to our feet and went to the remnants of the bomb… er, rocket… which now resembled one of those exploding cigars you used to see on cartoons: bottom half missing, metal peeled back like a banana skin, nosecone still intact. We scouted around for a minute looking for any shards of metal but gave it up quickly because everyone agreed it might be best to get out of the area before anyone came to investigate the impressive explosion.

The mood in the car on the drive home was fairly euphoric. Sure, the rocket failed, but we were used to seeing many rocket failures on television. But that explosion, well, it was awe-inspiring. If we had been better people, like Homer Hickam and his rocket boys, we would have retreated to our basements and worked up a new version, incorporating the lessons learned from our failure. But we weren’t, we were just kids, and we had just blown something up and almost died in any number of ways. Even dopes like us knew that was pretty cool.

 

 

#15 The Carnegie Library: Den of Iniquity

Stop! Warning! The following blog entry contains material of a sexual nature! Those who continue reading will find tales of the sexual education of a twelve-year-old boy. Evidently, this is way too hot for some of you. My last entry, which included the word “sex” in the title and told of the widespread reading of the novel Peyton Place among the mothers in Parkersburg WV, was too much for some of you. I received shocked! comments and Roger, the keeper of the blog about several early WV history sites, where I had put up a notice of the blog entry, was told it was porn and had to be removed from his site, which he did. I am so proud to have been kicked off the Internet for being Too Hot To Handle. I spoke to Roger, a prince of a man, really, who told me he just figured I had been hacked by a porn site so he took the notice down. Roger knows this is not unusual because he has to deal with these porn hackers all the time, so he was right to take it down. But really, people, anyone who actually read the entry would have found it to be pretty tame stuff.

Not so this next one. So let me repeat, if you are offended by material of any level of a sexual nature, please, click back to a site where you are comfortable. If, on the other hand, you want a laugh or two, venture on, faithful reader, and join me 65 or so years ago in The Carnegie Library: Den of Iniquity!

The Carnegie, as we always called it, (“Mom, I got to go to the Carnegie tonight!”) will forever be remembered as a place of refuge and wonder to me and many of my generation in our town. Wiki tells me that 2,509 libraries were built on grants from Andrew Carnegie, and the one in Parkersburg, West Virginia, was a beauty. It always reminded me of an Egyptian temple, one that might have a giant Sphinx nearby and be manned, (womanned) by slave girls dressed in Egyptian slave-girl garb. The librarians actually wore standard librarian clothing, and they were always nice, especially after they figured out that you were a smart little bugger who was reading way beyond his age level. Once you established these bona fides, they were happy to recommend adult novels and let you take home as many books as you could physically carry.

The library as refuge. There was some unwritten law back then that said if a child wanted/needed/demanded to be driven to the library (it was too far to walk) any available adult had to take them. When we were younger, and my mother didn’t have a car and dad was working out of town, we would take the bus and she would go with us. But this was only during the day, usually on the weekend. When we were older and we had two cars, mom would drive us after dinner, drop us off and pick us up a couple of hours later. During that time we were expected to research whatever topic we were working on, check out pertinent books and any novels that caught our fancy, and work at our papers on the long communal library tables. Of course we did this — we actually did — but there was a lot of off-topic exploration as well.

For me, the Carnegie was a hot-bed of sex.

As I said, the architecture of the building was more King Tut than the usual Roman Empire influence in public buildings. You walked up broad steps and entered the main room where Nefertiti, er, the head librarian, presided behind a circular kiosk surrounded by a high counter. My memory is of always having to hand my slips in by reaching high and sliding the slip toward this looming lady but surely at some point I must have been tall enough to, more or less, conduct my business without the librarian having to loom over the counter to speak to me. But maybe not. There were marble staircases on one side of this front area that led to an upstairs that was mostly used for storage and was off-limits to the general public. We never went up those steps. God knows what sort of library hi-jinx went on up there.

As you circumnavigated the center island and walked to the back of the large room, you came to the area where the books were shelved. It was four stories high beneath giant glass skylights, the floors made of thick, misty opaque glass panels and accessed by a massive wrought iron spiral staircase that projected, Nautilus-like, up through the center of this vast atrium of knowledge.

The standard drill was you went to the card catalogue, (oh, how I could go on about the wonders of the card catalogue, a resource now sadly missing from libraries everywhere) looked up your subject and found books that hopefully pertained, filled out a call slip with the little pencils that had no erasers they provided, the same pencils handed out at miniature golf facilities, turned your slip in at the desk and someone, apprentice librarians, not the Head Librarian, would go and retrieve your books for you. This waiting period was profitably spent perusing the newest popular novels that were shelved around this front room. When you received your books, piled on the counter with your call slip, you hauled them to the table where you set up camp. You then either studied them and took notes, or you leafed through them to find those that would be of the most use to you.

When I was a little older, and after having established myself as a solid, honorable, book-loving child, I was allowed to roam the four story stacks on my own.

One magnificent evening, I don’t remember how old I was – old enough to care – I started up the spiral staircase. This was the only such staircase I had ever seen, and because the steps varied in size, small where they attached to the center pole, wider at the outer edges, it took a certain amount of concentration to climb them. Not a lot, I wasn’t an idiot, but enough that you had to pay attention to where the handrail was, where you were putting your feet, always checking upward to see where you were going. On this glorious night, I looked up and realized I could look straight up the dress of a high school girl who was ten steps or so ahead of me. And I mean all the way up her dress. I almost fell down a couple of flights of stairs.

I was shocked and had to fight the immediate urge to peer back up at the sight . At the same time I was shamed by the fact that I not only could see the young lady’s underwear, but by the overwhelming urge to do so, forever, or until she found her floor and moved off the steps. Is there any sexual imperative greater for a young pubescent male than to see young women in their underwear? Well, seeing them without their underwear, yes, but that slightly frightening possibility was some years in the future.

I went about my usual library business that night, but my time at the Carnegie was changed forever. I was smart enough to understand that I could not spend my hours there skulking up and down the stairs every time I saw a young woman in a dress headed to the upper floors, that I would surely be found out, arrested and taken to jail, or sent to the dreaded Pruntytown. Pruntytown was a correctional facility in West Virginia where they sent kids who had fallen afoul of the law. Every kid’s mother had said at one time or another when you had done something wrong, “Keep that up and you’ll be sent to Pruntytown!” A visit to Google tells me that Pruntytown still exists and is home to 369 minimum and medium custody male inmates. In my day we envisioned the facility to be filled with children who had been sent there by their parents because of intractable criminal behavior such as looking up girls’ skirts and generally not obeying the rules. In my mind it resembled etchings and lithographs I had see in old books about Victorian insane asylums.

But I must admit, if I was just happening to be headed up the staircase and there just happened to be a female ahead of me I would take the opportunity for a quick peek as I was making sure of my progress up those difficult stairs. Sure, I knew I was risking a two-year stretch at Pruntytown and public humiliation, but it was worth it.

The next brick in the shaky edifice of my sexual education was found again up those same library stairs, on the fourth floor. No one ever went to the fourth floor, or hardly anyone. I don’t know why I was up there that first time, probably nothing more than book curiosity, the drive to see every book that was available to me. But it was there, one day, when I was browsing for nothing in particular, when I pulled out a large medical book on forensic medicine. I probably took it down because I didn’t know what the word forensic meant.

It turns out that it meant that this was a book filled with pictures of dead people, victims of accidents and homicide, and by golly some of them didn’t have a stitch of clothing on. Usually these deceased had some visible disease or wound, but more times than you might imagine, these were minor disfigurements that could be easily ignored, what with all the nakedness to take in. It was pretty easy to just pretend that these were normal everyday people, women — I wasn’t interested in the men — who had simply crawled up on a coroner’s slab, naked, to take a nap.

Surely the most influential photograph was that of a woman’s vagina, complete with a thatch of bush, in Bobby Huffman’s parlance, (if you’ve forgotten, see Entry #9, aptly titled Naked Ladies) that totally blotted out Bobby’s best efforts with the Sears catalogue and a piece of tracing paper. The picture was striking in its detail, and I looked at it, astonished, just as I would be astonished the other three or four thousand times I would climb those stairs, take the book down and furtively stare at it on that lonely fourth floor of the Carnegie Library. Thank God no one ever came up there to see what the hell I was doing, for if they had done so I would have been immediately sent to Pruntytown and locked up for the next ten years in the sexual deviant’s wing. The caption stated (this must have been the forensics’ part) that the vagina was that of a woman who was a prostitute and thus an example of the stretching and general looseness that was sure to afflict the body parts of women in that profession. Since I had never seen one in an unstretched condition, I had nothing to base an opinion of this one on, but it looked perfectly fine to me. What the hell did I know? I wish I could say that I was repulsed by this experience, but if I did I would be lying. One thing I’m pretty sure of is that the editors of that book were full of crap when it came down to the whole stretched diagnosis. I think they just wanted to put a dirty picture in their book in the hopes it would increase sales.

I thought of this photograph years later when reading a biography of the great Victorian art historian, John Ruskin. (born, February 8, 1819; died January 20, 1900) I can almost hear you readers out there sitting up straight and leaning close to these pages, puzzled expressions on your faces, wondering where in hell I’m going with this comparison.

At the age of 30 Ruskin married a childhood friend, Effie Grey. Some years later they divorced and had the marriage annulled. The marriage was unconsummated and Ruskin was accused of “incurable impotency,” by his wife, which he denied. Effie Grey gave this explanation for their non-consummation. These were her words. “… that he had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening 10th April [1848].” What this means is on his wedding night, Ruskin walked into his bedchamber, took one look at his naked wife and almost fainted.

Up to this point, Ruskin’s experience of naked women came only from what he had seen in classical sculpture and painting, in which women were represented with no pubic hair. Remember, he was one of the world’s greatest experts in classical art. When he saw Effie’s pubic region with her natural hair, he was repulsed. And never wanted to have anything to do with her again. Some people dispute this explanation, but most experts agree this is probably what happened. Especially since Effie said so herself. When you take into account that some years later Ruskin fell in love with a ten-year-old girl, it makes even more sense. Fortunately, he didn’t marry the ten-year-old.

My memory, when I read this about Ruskin, flew back to that particular graphic photograph in the medical book, and I thought if Ruskin had ever seen such a thing he would have immediately been struck blind and rendered insane. As for me, I can detect absolutely no overt effect on my psyche, then, over the years, or now. But I still remember it, don’t I?

After this momentous discovery in the library, my sexual education lagged for a number of years until the summer I joined the band. A carnival had come to town, not one of the small ones in the city park, but a big rip-roaring carnival with a giant (to me) Ferris wheel, many scary, vomit-inducing rides, a freak show and lastly, a girly show. The carnival was there from Monday through Saturday and since it was in a large field not far from my house we walked over there a number of times during that week. After taking in the usual sights – the freak show had a bodiless, lady’s head on a table that could carry on a conversation with her viewers, and a bunch of sad animals – a two-headed snake, a two-faced kitten — that were housed in cages that would get them convicted on cruelty to animals charges today. My friends and I would walk by the entrance of the girly show and were told that we were too young to go in. Laughter and loud cheers came from this infamous tent, and strip tease music blared. We knew if we could just get inside we would finally get to see that holy grail, a real, live, naked woman.

On the last night of the show, word was passed around that the girly show would hold one more performance, and the girls would be stripping down to absolutely nothing. But the biggest news was that the guy who sold the tickets at the entrance was no longer concerned about the police busting the operation for allowing minors in. After the last show they would take down the tents and be out of town before the cops could round anyone up. All he wanted was our fifty cents. And he got it.

The tent was pretty full, all men, and it was clear that we were going to have to squirm our way to the front if we were going to be able to see anything at all. I was with my friend Rusty, and we accomplished this maneuver without much trouble. No one behind me was worried about being able to see over me, (Rusty wasn’t much taller than me) so they let us through to the crowd to the edge of the stage.

The last show of the night turned out featured one lone dancer. Maybe she had drawn the short straw and been sent out for this one last performance while the other ladies packed up and prepared to move on.

I don’t remember what the music was, but the dancer shimmied out onto the stage, four feet off the ground, and began dancing around. She wasn’t wearing much, just a bikini bottom, so there wasn’t much tease in the strip. Really, is there any man who really enjoys the long, slow, strip act of a “legendary” performer like Blaze Star? No. Men want to see naked women, and the crowd I was standing with was perfectly happy to forgo the foreplay of a tease.

The lady took off her bikini bottom, waved it overhead and the crowd cheered; this is what they had paid fifty cents to see. She paraded around the stage, bent over, pushed and pulled at her flesh (in a fetching manner) and gave everyone a good show. She was attractive, in a naked sort of way, blond, and shaved, which was a plus in my book. I was happy to see the goods when they weren’t shrouded the way they were in Bobby’s tracings and the photo in the book at the Carnegie library.

As she pranced around, she suddenly seemed to notice Rusty and me at the edge of the stage, leering up at her. I can only imagine what she thought. From up there, I probably appeared around ten years old, and Rusty didn’t look that much older. So she saw us, and crouched down about a foot from my face. It was a revelation, in all senses of the word, to me, which I think she could clearly see. Then she swiveled toward Rusty, who was leaning in close with a maniacal grin. Suddenly, she grabbed his glasses off his astonished face, rubbed them on her lower parts and plopped them back on his nose. The crowd went wild.

I was worried that Rusty might find this somehow, what? Barbaric? Crude? That he was being made fun of? Was he angry?

Nope.

He had the biggest cat-that-ate-the-canary-grin on his face that I had ever seen. The lady stood up, gave a quick bow, and trotted off the stage. The show was over.

As we were filing out of the tent, Rusty turned to me, peering out from his smeary lenses, and said, awe and wonder coloring his words,

“I’m never going to clean my glasses again.”

#14 Reading, Sex, and Hidden Books

One day I was in the band room, in my seat, waiting for practice to start. The band room was a great place, though we didn’t know it at the time. Where else in high school was a specific area set aside for a special group that was off limits to the rest of the students but where you could hang out with your friends without any supervision. Frank didn’t seem to be around much and when he was he sat in his office and worked on papers. Sure, every once in awhile you had to actually practice, but far more time was spent goofing around. One favorite trick, in the winter, was to take a leak on the long radiator in the side room, which would then flood the entire area with a tremendous ammonia stink. Funny. At least we thought so.

I must have been in my seat early as there were only a few other guys there, fooling around with their instruments. I was reading. My mother had taught me one of the foundation rules in my life, a rule my sister and I have passed along to our children:

Always have a book.

Recently, My sister, age 73, was stricken with some sort of sudden illness and ended up in the hospital. He daughter, Emma, my niece, called her and said she was coming to the hospital to sit with her while the doctors tried to figure out what was going on. My sister said to her, “Do you have your book?”

We always have our book.

I had hardly ever seen my mother, when she was sitting down, without a book in her hands. She was the most constant reader I had ever known and have ever known to this day. Failing sight in her nineties killed reading for her, and from that time on, life, on an elemental level, was over for her as well. Reading, for my mother, my sister and for me, was what we did. Always. Even when watching television, my mother had a book in her hand.

Back in the band room. I was reading a Ray Bradbury book of short stories, Golden Apples of the Sun. Science fiction. I was a little embarrassed because it was Science Fiction, but I loved the genre. My mother and I would hand science fiction books back and forth to each other whenever we finished one. She loved them as much as I did. My mother often told the story of her taking me to the first movie I ever saw when I was six years old. We stood in a long line of parents and kids. We got our tickets and walked into the plush lobby, or at least it was plush to me. The vast pack of children all pushed to the left, fighting to get through the doors of Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland. My mother and I, the only ones to do so, peeled off to the right into the dark theater to see The Day the Earth Stood Still, an excellent movie about an alien flying saucer coming to earth. Was this the start of my love of science fiction? Perhaps. I can only say, Klaatu, barada, nikto. And if you don’t know what that means, get the film from Netflix and watch it.

I was reading my Ray Bradbury in the band room. A guy a couple of rows back, one of the clarinet players, an older kid, a junior or senior, leaned over and said to me, “That’s a good book. You ever read his other stuff?” I was slightly shocked; first of all, one of the older guys, one of the leaders, had actually spoken to me as an equal, and secondly, he thought what I was reading was not stupid, and in fact it was good. We had a short conversation, and he recommended I read Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clark as well. By then the room had filled and the noise of everyone tuning up and goofing around made it impossible to talk. I put my book away and felt satisfied that I wasn’t the dope I thought I might be, at least in my choice of reading material. I went on to read everything that Bradbury had written, and all of Heinlein and Clark as well. And scores of other great science fiction authors as well. My mom, as I have said, and I passed them back and forth, and she enjoyed all of them and only gave up on science fiction many years later when the genre changed and cyberpunk became the vision and William Gibson moved it into areas that weren’t as optimistic as the 50s, 60s, and 70s.

Reading saved my mother from the ravages of poverty — intellectual and spiritual as well as economic — of West Virginia. I don’t believe she ever went hungry as a child, but she moved a lot and was handed back and forth between her parents. Her mother, Emma, was a sweet little old lady to me, but she was tough and unrelenting when she was younger. I have written about her in earlier pages of this memoire. Mom could remember being able to read from the time she remembered anything. She read whatever books the neighbors back in the hills possessed. There were few books in her own home, and little money to pay for them. She read voraciously in school.

When she was in the second grade, they lived in the country outside of Salem, West Virginia. Mom heard there was a school there, Salem College, that had an enormous library with thousands of books, so she set out one day without telling anyone, determined to borrow some books. This was a painfully shy child, but her reading obsession overcame her shyness and gave her courage. She walked out of the hills on dirt roads and somehow made it into Salem and was directed to the school and the library. Who knows what the librarians thought about the little girl in threadbare clothing asking if she could please come in and pick out some books, but they sent her away. It sounds like a story out of Dickens, but she had no shoes, and by the time she made it back home her bare feet were raw and bloody. But she had at least seen the library and knew books existed in huge numbers and that someday she was going to have access to them.

When I was sick with scarlet fever, I must have been around ten years old. I was confined to bed and not even allowed to go downstairs to eat dinner. I had read all my Hardy Boys books at least twice and was getting desperate. My mother – understanding I was going through book withdrawal – went into the attic and came down with the first book in the Tarzan of the Apes series. It was a hardback — paperbacks were still fairly new. I remember the look and feel of it clearly, bound in red in a way that tells me now that it must have been a library book. When I finished the first one – read in a day or two – she revealed that she had the entire series, 24 books, stashed in the eaves in the attic. Where had they come from, how had she acquired them and why had she never told me they were there? She never said, and I never thought to ask. But it was clear that she had read all of them and loved them. From that moment on, I didn’t care that I was sick. By then the disease had mostly run its course, and I was just tired, but I was strong enough to hold up my Tarzan book, and that was all that mattered.

During another sickness, mumps, or maybe when I had pneumonia (I know it sounds like I was a feeble child, but back then big diseases were more common) she went upstairs and came down with another book. I heard her in the hallway outside my room talking with my Aunt Betty, and she was saying, “Should I give it to him? Do you think he’s old enough for it?” She came in and handed me a book: She, by H. Rider Haggard, bound in the same red cloth as the Tarzan books. Had my mother stolen all these books from a library? She, the book, not my mom, was considered mildly scandalous, written in 1866, and, as Wikipedia tells me, is one of the biggest selling books of all time with 86 million copies floating around. It’s a story of a lost civilization in the heart of darkest Africa. There is a primitive tribe, led by Ayesha, a white, warrior woman known as She. I devoured it, but then I devoured almost every book I read. I don’t remember any particular sex scenes – I’m sure there was nothing overt – but the entire book was soaked in a kind of sweaty, off-page sexuality that was definitely disturbing to a young male reader. Me. Disturbing in a good way.

Several years after this, I found my mother’s copy of Peyton Place, a legitimately dirty novel written by Grace Metalious, a book so steamy that the words Peyton Place have established themselves in the vernacular as a town where sex runs rampant among the inhabitants. This was one book that my mom didn’t pass along to me to read. Where had she hidden it?

In our dining room there was a tall cabinet that held some knick-knacks that had sentimental value for my mother. Among them was a bud vase I bought for her at Tiffany’s when I was in New York City with the band for a competition that began this… whatever it is… memoir, remembrance.

I would have known about Tiffany’s because the Truman Capote book, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a novella with a couple of other short stories, had come out in 1958. I remember the book, a paperback, with a picture of Capote on the back, impossibly young, fair, fey, reclining on a couch. I read it because my sister had a copy; she was always two or three years ahead of my mother and me in our reading. For her, the picture of Capote promised a life beyond West Virginia. I don’t remember what the book meant to me, other than there was life elsewhere. New York, in particular. My sister eventually made it to New York and lived in the city and its environs for many years.

When we were in New York for the band competition, we had some free time to ourselves and could go anywhere we wanted. I found myself on Fifth Avenue standing in front of Tiffany’s. I wanted to buy something for my mother. I had already purchased a small model of the empire State building for my grandma. She treasured that cheap trinket and kept it in a place of honor in her house. She and I would have conversations about it, the Empire State building, and I would try to explain how big it was. I’m pretty sure she never really understood.

I knew I had to do better than a tourist souvenir for my mother. I went into Tiffany’s. I must have looked like real rube to the clerks, but I don’t remember anyone being rude to me.

I walked around the first floor, gawking at the jewelry in the cases. The store was smaller than I had imagined. Of course everything was wildly expensive. Finally I found a case on a wall that held cut-glass vases and figurines. There was a bud vase, simple, six inches tall, with a single, elegant bubble in the base. How much did it cost? I remember fifty dollars, which meant pretty much every cent I had, all the money that was supposed to keep me alive the entire time I was in New York. I bought it out of stupidity and pride, a combination that has not been particularly kind to me over the years. I took it home and gave it to my mother. She loved it and kept it in the tall, glass-fronted cabinet in our dining room. I think my niece has it now.

Which was where I found her copy of Peyton Place.

I’ve written before about how the cabinet had a bottom area where my father stored his liquor supplies, such as they were. In those days that meant a dusty (they were all dusty) bottle of Manischewitz wine (I’ve mentioned the medicinal value of the Manischewitz before) a bottle of Rock and Rye, which you can still buy today and a couple of fifths of bourbon in commemorative bottles that no one ever opened and drank. Oh yeah, and a bottle of Cutty Sark scotch that they actually drank on occasion.

Then one year the liquors were taken out and replaced by one of their greatest Christmas present fails ever: the World Book Encyclopedia.

I’ve said in our neighborhood there were Chevy people and Ford people, and Sears people and Monkey Wards people. I would like to say there were World Book Encyclopedia people and Encyclopedia Britannica people, but there weren’t. There were World Book people, which was the cheap version, and the other people who had no encyclopedia at all.

We opened our gifts on Christmas morning, as opposed to some rich people who opened theirs on Christmas Eve. We’d receive an assortment of stuff like underwear, pajamas, maybe a shirt and then one “big” present. One year, it was announced that my sister Sandy and I would share the big present, which was, Ta-Da! our very own edition of the World Book Encyclopedia. You can imagine how thrilled we were with that, though I’m sure my sister and I — or at least me, she was always a far better person than I was — tried to look as if this was anything but the Worst Christmas Present Ever. Though we did come to rely on the set over the years for our various papers both in high school and junior high. Remember, kids, there was no Internet in those days and we had to turn actual pages of books to steal our essay information.

Mom hid her copy of Peyton Place on top of the encyclopedia. She didn’t even bother stashing it behind the books, knowing that this, the encyclopedia, was the last place we were going to voluntarily go. By then when we needed to do research for school, we would head off to the Carnegie Library. A trip to the Carnegie meant you could wander through the entire library and take out all the novels that you wanted. And you were on your own, dropped off and free until you called to be picked up and taken home.

So there, on top of the encyclopedia, was the dirtiest book the general reader in the 1950s had access to. For many months, when left home alone, I’d take out Peyton Place and read, searching for the sex parts. And there were plenty of them. This was a time when pretty much anyone in the United States would recognize various quotes from Peyton Place, and catchphrases like “Is it up, Rod?” could bring on gales of laughter.

Hot stuff. Now pretty much long forgotten.

Coming up next. More hot stuff: I learn about sex from the Carnegie Library.