Yo-yos; Soap Box Derby; Piccolos

                   Not me.

I’ve noticed that in the course of writing these memories I often find my young self “astonished” and “amazed” at various points. I feel as if I’m coming across like one of those lost tribes you read about, where scientists discover an indigenous tribe in the deep forests of Africa or South America where the people have never been exposed to civilization. Often I point out in these instances that I wasn’t particularly “stupid,” that I’d at least heard of some of these things, but I often didn’t have actual experiences with them. That came up when I was thinking about yo-yo’s.

I said in the last entry that there were “seasons” for various activities during grade school. Playing marbles, was one of them. Suddenly, as if by mental telepathy, kids would bring their bags of marbles to school and at lunch and recess and after school great circles would be drawn in the dirt and we’d all be hunkered down trying our best not to lose all our marbles to the guys who were really good at the game. I don’t know if girls had any of these seasons, maybe someone out there will educate me.

One day it was announced that there would be a special program in the auditorium. We dutifully filed in and there on the stage was a bunch of kids playing with yo-yos. These shows must have been put on by the Duncan Yo-Yo company, because I just looked them up on the Internet and sure enough, they’re still sending “crews” around to schools putting on yo-yo programs! All the boys in our gang, on Maxwell Avenue, had at least one yo-yo. They were cheap enough that everyone could afford one. Duncan made fancy ones, but the basic model, just painted wood, only cost a dollar or two, if even that. The Duncan website today sells those like we had as “vintage” models for $12.95, so if you want a good gift for a kid or grandkid, you can order one “Just like grandpa had when he was a boy” and show off your skills.

Everyone could do at least a few basic tricks like Walking the Dog or Rocking the Baby in the Cradle or flinging it Around the World. You’d do these tricks while you were nonchalantly standing around talking to your friends, who would also be working their yo-yos. Sometimes there would be small disasters like getting strings crossed and tangled while attempting to do Around the World at the same time. Sometimes you’d get bashed in the head by someone screwing up this particular maneuver.

Back to the auditorium… As we settled into our seats, I remember being — here it comes — astonished that all the boys in this Duncan crew were Japanese… (I just had to put this blog on hold to call my son and ask what we’re supposed to say these days when referring to what I was about to write – “Orientals.” He says that this word is a pejorative, and we are supposed to say “Asians.” Ok, ok.)… or if not Japanese, Asians of some variety. To us kids, these yo-yo whiz kids were Japanese, though we had never actually seen an O… oops, Asian… in real life. This is what I mean by sounding like we were a tribe living in the dense jungle, away from civilization. Never seen a real live Japanese person? But that was the case back in West Virginia circa 1955. Of course these kids onstage were fabulous yo-yoers, and for a few brief minutes we had visions of standing on the street corner, yo-yo dancing through the air, surrounded by children and adults, all applauding our performance. Then reality set in, and we realized that we would never really be very good because you had to practice long hours to get to anything beyond our basic level. Besides, Soap Box Derby Season was right around the corner.

And so was another special program in the grade school auditorium. Sometimes it feels like we barely went to school at all, that the day was spent trekking back and forth to the auditorium to listen to adults tell us about one thing or another that seemed really interesting until we realized we weren’t going to be buying whatever it was that they were selling. In this case, Soap Box Derby Wheels.

They would show pictures (had the slide projector even been invented yet?) of kids lined up on top of hills, then racing down in their cool Soap Box racers. They, the adults, would talk, we would dream, thinking maybe, just maybe this was possible, attainable, there was always plenty of scrap wood laying around, then it would all come crashing down when they said you had to buy a set of Official Soap Box Derby Wheels which was going to cost $20. End of dream. No one had $20. No one’s parents had $20, at least not to buy wheels. We would sit through the rest of the program, but by now we hated the adult who had dangled this dream in front of us, and then crushed us. We would show him, we would build our own racers. We didn’t need special wheels.

And we didn’t. As I said, there was always scrap lumber lying around, and wheels of some sort, from busted up wagons if nothing else. We would borrow some tools – hammers, saws, nails, pliers — from our dads, without telling them of course, which was easy for me because my dad was out of town all week. The hard part was remembering to put the tools back before he found out I was using them, which sounds easy but nearly always resulted in forgetting a pair of pliers that would lay hidden in the grass, silently rusting away until dad ran over it with the lawn mower at which point there was hell to pay.

So we built these carts, as we called them, which were usually nothing more than a wide board to sit on and two cross boards to attach the wheels to. The front board would be put on with a bolt so it could swivel back and forth. The steering was provided by a rope tied to the ends of the board that you pulled back and forth to steer. Sort of.

At one end of Maxwell Avenue was the 19th Street Hill, which was a fairly steep hill and much used in the winter for sleigh riding and when we had a cart for downhill races. The adults in the neighborhood knew to be careful because there would often be a kid who was learning to ride a two-wheeler by plunging down 19th street, or a cart, or a kid on roller skates or some other form of childhood death about to happen. Sometimes strangers in cars would come over the hill and have to slam on the brakes or swerve violently to avoid killing a kid.

When we got a little older, in Junior High, we would find old gasoline motors and affix them to our carts. The few times these things actually worked, we’d get a ride that would scare the crap out of you before you ended up flipping over a curb, or, if you were lucky, crashing into a hedge. I can remember the neighborhood fathers standing around watching this mayhem, laughing at us. None of them thought to tell us to stop, and, in fact, they would use the occasion to relate their own stories of death-defying behavior that if allowed to happen today would have had all the parents thrown into jail and the kids put into foster homes. Today you get arrested for letting your kids walk home from the park alone.

Ah, I’m sounding like an old geezer again. That’s because I am an old geezer.

Let us now return to the infamous grade school auditorium for yet one more presentation where Mr. Flint, the music teacher, was demonstrating instruments. He played the trumpet, the clarinet, and the drums, which drew the most interest, particularly from the boys. Then he went through some others — various string instruments, and finished up with a demonstration of a piccolo. I figured I would be a trumpet guy, like my dad in high school, until Flint picked up this tiny, silver instrument and said, “This is the smallest instrument in the band, and yet it is the loudest.” He played it, though I didn’t really hear what it sounded like, I could only hear the words which seemed echo in my head and drill down to my very core: “Smallest and yet the loudest.”

That was me.

So I went home and told my parents I wanted to play the piccolo. I’m sure they were dumbfounded by this, but once again, they didn’t say a discouraging word, simply went to the Sears and Roebuck catalogue, which is where we bought everything, and looked up piccolos; sure enough, there they were, so we sent away for one.

I know I was an anomaly. The vast majority of piccolo players start out as flute players. The piccolo is usually added to the flute as almost an afterthought. Aside from marching bands, it’s not a very widely used instrument and hardly heard at all in orchestras. I went the other way around and didn’t get a flute until a year or so later, after I learned to play the piccolo. We went back to the Sears catalogue for the flute as well, even though the usual route would have been to go to the music store in town and order an instrument through them. Let me explain.

My father worked for Sears and Roebuck. The official name was/is Sears, Roebuck, though we always put the and between the two names. Dad wasn’t a salesman nor did he work in the Sears store in our town. His job was to drive to an existing store in his assigned area that was due for renovation. His “beat” was the mid-east states.

He would show up at the assigned store, almost always in West Virginia or some other nearby state – Ohio, Kentucky, even Indiana — with vast sets of blueprints supplied by corporate headquarters, and his battered briefcase. He would check into a local hotel or motel. All meals were taken in various barrooms with the other guys, a regular crew he always hired to do the carpentry work. After I was ten years old I used to go with him in the summer to one of the jobs for a week or two. I loved it. I got to ride in the front seat of the car; there were no seat belts in those days, so I could really move around. The trips took hours and hours and we would spend our driving time checking gas stations for the best prices, often finding a locale in the midst of a “gas war,” something that no longer happens and hasn’t for many years, where the price could drop down to 15 cents a gallon. I loved eating out for every meal, and was astonished to find that I could have a cheeseburger with lettuce and tomato every day for breakfast; my dad didn’t care and the short order cooks seemed happy to oblige.

My father worked this way his whole career, beginning long before he met my mother. There was a scrapbook in our house that showed what life on the road was like in those days, and it was certainly a time unlike any today. His crew was all young men who would sleep in one room, three or four to a bed, to save money on their expense accounts. There were pictures of three of them in the bathtub at the same time, throwing soapsuds around and goofing off for the camera. Today’s homophobia would never allow close contact like that between young men without people thinking they were all gay, but that was not the case. Many nights they all slept on tables on the job when they were up against a deadline, my dad saying there would only be a few hours to spare so they had to “sleep fast.”

One of the perks of this nomadic motel lifestyle was that Dad could gather up all the little extra soaps in the bathrooms and bring them home for us to use. Ditto the towels. I was in high school and staying over at my friend Freddy Klein’s house when I discovered that soap came in a large size, which seemed ridiculously enormous to me. And the towels! I didn’t know that towels could be that thick and luxurious. Ours were thin and small and rough. But instead of making me want thick and luxurious, I’ve only been happy with really cheap towels my entire adult life. When my mother went into a nursing home at the age of 90, I was clearing out her apartment and came across a large plastic bag of those soaps, each one with a printed ad on the wrapper for a cheap motel. I couldn’t bring myself to throw them away.

When the Sears store my dad was working on was finished with their extensive renovations, usually after several months, he and his crew moved on to another store. This meant he was away from home all week, coming back only on the weekends or every other weekend. It was an odd sort of life for my mom and dad, different from all my friends in the neighborhood, but because he actually wore a coat and tie and carried a briefcase he was seen as something of an executive type and looked up to. Everyone else’s dad wore a work uniform: auto or some other type of repairman, guard at one of the big chemical factories down on the river, policeman, etc.

One really important thing for our family was the Sears job came with a 10% employee discount, which meant we bought every stitch of clothing and everything else from either the Sears store in town or through the catalogue. My father was extremely loyal to the company and never worked for anyone else. He always said he would never lose his job at Sears even if there were another big depression because everyone would always need toilet paper and tractors, so the company would never go out of business.

We never shopped for clothing at the high-end department store downtown, Dils Brothers, because we were too poor for that. I didn’t know at the time, particularly when I was younger, but our clothes were pretty cheesy, which didn’t matter much because everyone else’s clothes in our neighborhood were cheesy as well. Remember being either Ford or Chevy people? This was another example of that sort of brand loyalty; you were either Sears or, J.C. Penny, or Montgomery Wards people. Of course we always hilariously referred to Montgomery Wards as Monkey Wards. Monkey Wards was our mortal enemy, Sears and Roebuck’s enemy; we would never even step foot in that store. The result was any “formal” clothes I had — church clothes — were just a little too loud, the material was a little too rough, or a little too shiny, or a little too something. But the play-outside-clothes and the work clothes were fine. Sears and Roebuck was the king of play and work clothes.

My sister bore the brunt of the Sears clothing mandate. Everything she had was plain and ordinary. Very tough for a young girl in those times. But when it came to clothes, I didn’t know any better. Which was the reason I ended up with The World’s Ugliest Sport Coat.

Breasts, Marbles and Heidi

Looking back from today’s world to the mid 1950s in the twentieth century is instructive. Throughout the school system, from kindergarten to high school, there was a strong arts program that featured daily music and art classes. The pace of the regular classes was slower than it now is, or slower than what my kids experienced in grade school. Every Friday our teacher, Mrs. Burgey, (can’t remember how to spell her name) who was a real harridan, would read aloud to us. The book was Heidi, and I learned that though I thought that the idea of hearing a story about a little girl in the mountains of Switzerland was going to be unbearably boring, I found that just such a story would turn out to be riveting, not just to me, but to all of us as we sat utterly quiet, enthralled by the tale of a little girl and her kindly grandfather in a far away country. I wasn’t reading novels yet, and didn’t understand the power of an extended story, in this case one that was played out over weeks. It made me want more, more books, more stories. It wasn’t long after that my mother gave me my first Hardy Boys book.

The kids in my neighborhood walked to our grade school — which was about ten blocks from our house — without any parents hovering over us. Many kids rode their bikes. The only threat, and we didn’t see it as a threat, though many would today, was the one lone, poor, retarded kid – he must have been in his twenties – who rode his bicycle alongside us as we walked. His name was Benny Boots, a big, heavy, doughy kid/man with short scruffy brown hair and a five o’clock shadow on his thick jowls. He was clean, or at least his clothes were clean, so someone must have been taking care of him though no one ever seemed to think about that. Benny, and others like him, the mentally afflicted, were fixtures in small towns everywhere, free to roam the streets and live on the fringes of “normal” people, often the butt of jokes although I never saw anyone treat him in a mean way. He wore a baseball cap that some wag had made and given to him with the letters MT embroidered on the front. Get it? Empty. Sometimes if you were walking home alone, Benny would ride up beside you and say in his slow, low, labored voice, “Want a blowjob?” The answer was always a polite no, because, first of all, none of us kids had any idea what a blowjob was, and second, we had all been taught to be polite to the mentally retarded.

There were other unfortunates in our town. There was an elderly bi-racial couple, a white man and a black woman, who walked around town hauling a small red wagon behind them. They always seemed to me to be wearing too many clothes, jackets beneath coats and pants – the lady wore pants – while they picked up soda bottles and other cast-offs that they sold somewhere.

And there was Karen, in my sixth grade class. People said she was mongoloid, which we now call Down Syndrome, and I have no idea how old she was except she was taller than the rest of us, way taller than me. She looked like a thick, smallish adult, and in my memory she does not have the usual physical characteristics of that disorder. She sat at the back of the classroom and at recess she would offer, to the boys, to go into the cloakroom and show you her breast for a nickel. For another nickel she’d let you touch it. She was very well built, meaning she had large breasts, so she must have been at least a teenager. I never had an extra nickel, and, truth be told, I didn’t have a whole lot of interest in seeing her breast. A few years later, yes, I would have gladly paid a nickel to go into the cloakroom to see her breast, and counted it as a real deal for the price and probably would have coughed up another nickel to touch it.

Does anyone remember cloakrooms? They, at least at the Park School in Parkersburg, WV, (it was later torn down and a CVS built on the land) were rooms that were long and not very wide that ran off the side of the actual classroom. There was a low bench along one wall where you sat and took off your galoshes, those black rubber boots with two or three hundred jangly clasps. You stored them under the bench beneath where you hung your winter coat on the big hooks. Kids who were “bad,” which usually meant you were talking in class, were often banished to sit in the cloakroom until the end of class.

One day in sixth grade, the odious Mrs. Burgey said to Karen, who was in her seat at the back of the class, “I’ll see you on Saturday, Karen.” This completely mystified me, and at recess I asked Karen what she was talking about. Karen said every Saturday she went to Mrs. Burgey’s house and cleaned it and did her laundry. I never said anything to anyone, but this struck me as totally wrong, though I didn’t know if it was because Karen was retarded or that she was probably getting screwed on the payment end of things. I just knew it was wrong for a teacher to hire a retarded student to clean their house. Right? And pardon the use of the word retarded.

Early in the fourth grade, we were assembled in the auditorium for a program put on by a music teacher, Mr. Flint, who taught in junior high. He was still working for the school system when I joined the band in high school and in fact was the teacher who recommended to Frank that Bert, the Boy With A Flute Who Shit His Pants, be put in the band. Mr. Flint was there to introduce us to a wide variety of musical instruments, which he demonstrated by playing a bit on every one of them. I remember his words and can hear the instruments even now.

Now that I think about it, he was just one of many experts who came to schools and demonstrated various things. There were “seasons” for our activities, nothing noted on calendars, but seasons just the same. One day a kid would show up at school with a bag of marbles, and everyone would know that marble season had arrived, and you would bring your cloth, drawstring sack of marbles to play with during recess. Sometimes marble playing experts, older boys out of high school, would come to the grade school and put on exhibitions. Their purpose was to sell whatever brand of marbles were sold in toy stores, though no one in Parkersburg ever bought marbles in the store. Glass was a big industry in West Virginia in those days, and there were a couple of marble factories and it wasn’t hard to coerce your parents into driving over to one where they would browse the gift shop while we kids would scour the gravel driveways and piles of raw glass for marbles that were defective in some way and we’re destined to being melted down and remade again.

Next up? Yo-yo season and the pain of the soap box derby.

Beginnings 4

silver dollar

Before beginning today’s story, I’d like to comment on some of the questions folks have been sending in, particularly why I am changing the names of people. Coach Eber in particular. I could look up his real name, but it pains me to call him a dope, though back then I thought he was, publicly, so I’m taking the coward’s way out and giving him a pseudonym. I’m sure there are many Big Red football players who revered the man as a God, which is fine, let them write their own stories. And while it seems silly even to me to change my friend’s names, I have learned over the years as a writer you can never know what someone is going to consider an insult. I might think a funny story about someone is completely innocent and have them, to my surprise, howl with indignation at being portrayed thusly. So everyone’s name gets changed, across the board. Except Frank.


As I said some time ago, it all began with Uncle Oke…

One summer day, we, Oke and I, were on the front porch of our house, alone, sitting on the green and white metal glider. Oke, looking far more serious than he usually did, pulled out a silver dollar and handed it to me. I could not have been more than eight years old. Oke said, “This is for you, but you have to promise me one thing.” I took the coin, which was to me a magnificent object: heavy and bright. I looked up at Oke, and he said, “ You have to promise that when you get to high school you’ll be in the Big Red Band.”

I promised.

The next year, in fourth grade, I started taking music lessons.

To make the Big Red Band you had to try out in front of Frank. This would happen the summer after you graduated from what they now call middle school but was then called junior high. Your parents took you to the band room, dropped you off, you went in and played something for Frank, and he told you if you were in. I was pretty good, so I wasn’t really worried. I played something, I don’t remember what, Frank said I was in, I was back outside in the car ready to ride home in ten minutes. I can’t remember if my parents were happy about this, but I assume they were. Actually, the trying out for Frank scene, now that I’ve written it, sounds like I imagined rather than remembered it. I have been trying to be careful to not do that. When I’m unsure, I’ll point it out. Maybe we were just shunted along through music class until we reached high school and were recommended to Frank. At any rate, for me it was a forgone conclusion since everyone had been telling me that was what was in store for me ever since I began playing my piccolo in the fourth grade. Eventually I’ll get to why I chose the piccolo as my instrument.

Back then, the summer before beginning my freshman year, our vacation was three months long, and the band practiced two times a day every weekday for the entire month of August. You did not go on vacations during August; there were no exceptions. You went to practice every day unless you contracted infantile paralysis or some other dread disease of the day. So the first week in August I was dropped off at the band room. I went in with all the other guys, a few of whom I knew from junior high, and Frank got us seated in the right places. Different sections of instruments sat together. The clarinets sat on my right, up front, trumpets on the left, the flutes/piccolos in the center in the first row and the rest of the band behind us. The best player in each section sat in the First Chair, the second best in the Second Chair, the third in Third and all the rest in unnamed descending order in accordance with their ability. The First Flute, my section, was a tall, lanky senior with an extremely pale, acne-riddled face. We’ll call him Boris because I can’t remember his name, and he reminded me of Boris Karloff. He didn’t talk much, and in fact was consistently distant to the point of unfriendliness to anyone he considered beneath him, which was everyone except the First Trumpet, John Green and the First Clarinet, Roddy Glenmeyer.

We were four flutes, or rather piccolos, (we only played flutes during concert season) in our section: Boris first; a junior named Bobby, second; me, third, and a kid named Bert at the end of the section on my right. Bert lived up the street from me, though he was never really one of the regulars on Maxwell Avenue. On the first day of school, in the first grade, Bert walked to school in the morning with us, but he did not walk home with our gang. My mother loved to tell the story of standing at the front window, looking outside while we kids ate our after-school snack. There came Bert, slowly waddling up the sidewalk in front of our house, headed home, crying, with a giant load of shit in his pants. This happened every day for the entire first week of school.

That summer before starting our freshman year, in the band, Bert made it through two weeks of ass kicking until he couldn’t take it any more. What came to be his last day of practice, he showed up with a book stuffed down the back of his pants, a trick he probably picked up from reading Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer or a comic book, as if he thought no one would notice. Of course he got kicked repeatedly that day because of the book, until Frank must have decided he was going to get killed and told him his days in the Big Red Band were over. Bert was a terrible player anyway, so it was no loss to the band. Shortly after this we were setting up for practice in the band room and I could see Frank having a meeting with the junior high music teacher who had sent Bert to the band. Frank’s office was right in front of where I sat, and I could hear him shouting about Bert, “You didn’t send me a flute player, you sent me a boy with a flute!” Which at the time struck me as the epitome of sarcastic humor.

The fellow who sat on my left, Robby, was nice. He was an effeminate kid, though we didn’t know or use that word — effeminate — back then. All I knew was he never kicked my ass, or anyone else’s, and I was grateful for that. Boris, the first chair, on the other hand, seemed to take great pleasure in kicking any Scum who he saw doing anything wrong. Since I sat and marched about five feet away from him every day, he kicked me plenty of times, always putting everything he had into it. I hated him. There was a cruelty about him, enjoyment at the pain he caused, an attitude I had never really experienced before.

As I said, in August we practiced twice a day, two hours each session, morning and evening, marching up and down the campus if front of the school, learning the basics of military drill. Those days were tough. Some days I, and plenty of other guys, could hardly walk after practice. One night my mom said to me after dinner, “I was doing the wash today; there’s blood in your underpants and on your sheets. Do you want to show me?” Face burning, head hanging, we went upstairs to my room, and I turned around and dropped my pants and my underpants. She didn’t gasp, didn’t say a word. She went to the bathroom, came back with a tube of ointment and handed it to me. “Put this on, it should help.” She left the room and never mentioned it again. I assume she told my father, though he didn’t mention it either. I was bruised and bloody, but everyone understood it was going to be tough, no one complained. Today, Frank probably would have gotten a couple of years in the state penitentiary for allowing the hazing. A bunch of kids dropped out, along with Bert, and no one blamed them.

It was just the price you paid to be in the band.

Beginnings 3

Before we begin today’s entry, I’d like to thank everyone who is reading this and commenting. I appreciate the additional memories, which will help when I eventually pull this all together and format it as a regular book. To those who have written and asked about my other books, I refer you to the “About” section at the top of the blog, which has links to my novels. All of which are for sale! Also, does anyone besides me find this typeface too dim? If so, let me know and I’ll use a different template. They won’t let me just change the color of the font. Also, the comment thingy at the bottom doesn’t work right, so if you comment there and it doesn’t come up, I probably saw it on my end but it didn’t make it into the blog. I can always be reached through my email, appelworks@gmail.com. Now, as they used to say on the Lone Ranger, let us return to those exciting days of yesteryear…

This is not Uncle Oke. This is Gorgeous George.

Back to Uncle Oke.

When I had earaches, and I often had earaches — some sort of West Virginia congenital defect like flat, oversize heads with pale, wispy blond hair, like the kid who plays the banjo on the porch in the movie Deliverance — Oke would fire up a cigar, put me on his lap and blow a steady stream of smoke into my afflicted ear, over and over until the pain faded away. Go ahead and laugh, but it worked.

Antibiotics were still fairly new, at least in West Virginia, so we didn’t get them for my earaches. Later, yes, but not then. My mother had been prey to earaches as a child, so she knew how much pain I was in when I was caught in the demonic clutches of one. Unfortunately she didn’t smoke cigars, and my father was out of town during the week, so I would lay in my bed and suffer. And suffer I surely did. Later when Penicillin became available, we would get a shot for everything that ailed us. At the first sign of a sniffle or earache it was off to see Doctor Leeson in his home office where he would take a look at you and whip out his hypodermic needle and give you a shot in your right buttock. His office looked like one of the illustrations in the Life magazine series, Great Moments in Medicine. Not the ones showing ancient Egyptian doctors plying strange medical methods like drilling holes in their patient’s heads to let out devils, but the drawings of doctors in Victorian times, complete with sterilizers sitting atop gas burners. Dr. Leeson had white porcelain trays with hypodermic needles boiling away, just like the drawings. Remember, this is West Virginia in the 1950’s. In many ways we weren’t all that far away from Victorian England.

Another example of our medical backwardness was one of the kids in the band, Bob, a clarinet player, often came to school with an assafidity bag around his neck. Assafidity is spelled many different ways, the Internet tells me. This was an old timey prescription for defeating colds and the flu. Very strong smelling herbs were put in a little leather bag on a leather necklace that was worn around the neck to ward off whatever evil it was that gave you these diseases. The smell was not restricted to the wearer; everyone else in class was aware of it. Bob was embarrassed about it, but not enough to go against his mother’s wishes. I don’t remember anyone ever making fun of him for it, we just knew that parents were odd but when they told you to do something you did it. Most of the time.

Dr. Leeson wasn’t our first doctor, that would be Doctor Jones, a short quiet, no-nonsense pediatrician who taught me my first painful lesson about being lied to by an adult.

This is a good time to introduce my sister, Sandy.

My sister is two years older than I am. My mother always said we were a unit when we were little, referred to as SandyandAllen or AllenandSandy – one word. She looked out for me, except that time she convinced me that it would be a tasty treat to eat a giant spoonful of sand when we were in the sandbox, though I have forgiven her for that. She was always the smart one who could do anything she put her mind to, she got good grades and could draw, paint, write and act, skills she carried through adulthood and up to today. She once leapt on the back of Doctor Jones as he was giving me a shot, screaming “Don’t you hurt my brother!” Which brings me back to the Doctor Lie.

I was really young, three or four, and I was sitting on the examining table, there once again for one of my earaches. I watched Dr. Jones, who had the appearance of a Saturday Evening Post cover of a kindly country doctor, as he fussed around with some arcane piece of medical apparatus. He was just going to place something in my ear, would it hurt? I asked, No, it’s not going to hurt, he said. Which is when he stabbed me in the ear with a giant hypodermic needle to lance whatever infection lurked there, and it hurt like a motherfucker. Along with the physical pain, was the Damned Lie. No it’s not going to hurt. It probably wasn’t the first time an adult had lied to me, but it was the first time that resulted in physical consequences, and I was confused and felt betrayed, which was a brand new emotion. I never trusted him again, and felt that I was in new territory, a new, harsher world, where I could never completely trust an adult ever again. Too much weight to put on such young shoulders? Possibly. But I can still remember, still feel that disappointment and loss.

Oke would take me to the wrestling matches in town. He’d drive over to our house, drop Emma, my grandma, and her sister Jane, my aunt, off for a visit with my mother while he and I went to the matches in the early evening in downtown Parkersburg at the Coliseum, a huge room over a car dealership. The Coliseum hosted a number of venues besides the wrestling: band concerts, ballroom dances, public dinners and when I was older, it was a roller skating rink. I have only a vague recollection of the wrestling setup, a regular ring surrounded by folding metal chairs, but I think this is a generic memory, one not based on reality. What I actually remember is not the wrestling matches, but the bar we would go to, Oke and I.

I think now that we never really went to a wrestling match at all because I have a very distinct memory of sitting on a barstool drinking Coca-Cola (I’m sure it was the first coke I ever tasted) and eating pickled eggs while Oke drank whisky and bullshitted with the bartender. In my mind today, the image of the wrestling ring is very dim, but my memory of the barroom is bright and clear. This establishment must have been very near the wrestling venue because we were sitting there one night when the famous wrestler, Gorgeous George, came in and swept around the room like the King of England, or the President or the pope, shaking hands with the peasants. George was probably the most famous wrestler of this era — the highest paid athlete of his day. My parents were very impressed when Oke brought me home and told them I shook the Great Man’s hand.

I remember George very clearly because I had never seen anything like him. He wasn’t memorable because he was particularly tall or broad or muscular, not like wrestlers of today, but because he had long bleached blond hair that hung down the back of his head in greasy ringlets. He was wearing a very colorful cape, red I believe, with a high stiff collar. He swanned around the barroom, nodding and bowing, blowing kisses, acting in what I would later know was an effeminate manner, keeping his nose high in the air as if he was a nobleman forced into a roomful of peons. Which he was, sort of. It was all part of his stage personae, one of the first wrestlers to establish an outrageous character that was designed to set him apart from every other wrestler and piss off the men in the audience. The fans would get all worked up and scream at him, jeering him for being stuck-up and girlish and acting better than everyone else. He was also the first wrestler to use entrance music: he would stroll down the aisle and into the ring, lofted along on the strains of Pomp and Circumstances, followed by his valet, Freddie, who carried a large silver mirror and tossed rose petals under George’s feet. Once in the ring, Freddie would go around spraying perfume into the air, which he pointed out was made from the famous Chanel Number Five. George always chimed in that the liquid being sprayed that night was actually Chanel Number Ten, “Because why be half safe?”

But I have strayed from Oke and my long road to the band.

Beginnings 2

jimmy's cadillac

It all began with my Uncle Oke. He was married to my grandmother Emma’s sister, Jane. He was a tall man with a long face. Decidedly different from my mother’s side of the family, who were all, to a man or woman, short and round. In later years my mother would always characterize her people as “hobbits,” and it was an apt description. We didn’t see Oke and Jane all that much, but when they came around it was an occasion for me. For some reason, Oke liked me. I don’t believe he and Jane had any children of their own. When I was in the first grade, five years old, (I started school early, not because I was smart, but because my mother got tired of hearing me complain about being left behind when everyone else in the neighborhood trooped off to grade school.) Oke would pick me up and we’d go for a ride in his big car, which resembled an upside-down bathtub. The car — gunmetal grey — had a huge white steering wheel; I’d sit on Oke’s lap and steer while he worked the pedals as we motored down Maxwell Avenue, the street in front of our house. And I would really steer; he’d keep his hands off the wheel as I swerved down the street, lurching back and forth from lane to lane with Oke never intervening until we were milliseconds away from head-on crashes.

I said Oke’s car resembled an upside-down bathtub. I don’t remember for sure, but it must have been a Chevrolet, because the members of our family were all Chevy people. Our neighborhood — middle class working folks — was made up of either Chevy people or Ford people. There were no Buicks or Oldsmobiles because those were cars owned by people who had more money than we did.

No, that’s not right. Directly across the street from our house there was a Cadillac. It was owned by Johnny Holt, who lived alone. He was middle-aged, I guess, though children are always terrible at knowing how old adults are. Johnny was a character; I knew that because that’s what my father would say: “That Johnny Holt, he’s a real character.” Johnny would come home drunk on a Saturday night and run his Cadillac up on his lawn, climb out and stagger into his house. If I was lucky, I’d see him do this. In the summer — we had no air conditioning and neither did anyone else — I would switch directions on my bed and lay at the end where my feet usually were, with my head on my pillow up on the windowsill where I could catch any breeze that happened by. I could see the night sky, and the trees and hear my parents listening to the radio and later the TV downstairs until I fell asleep. I would wake up when Johnny hit the curb with a squelch of rubber tires and watch while he steered the big white Caddy up onto the lawn, braked to a halt just inches from his front steps, climbed out and staggered into the house. He usually left his car door open and over the course of the night the dome light would slowly fade until his battery was completely run down. The next day my parents would stand on our porch and shake their heads at the sight of the big Caddy up on the lawn. But Johnny was more a source of amusement than anger. He had another habit, though, that my mother really didn’t like.

On weekend mornings, early, even after a late-night struggle with the bottle and his car, Johnny would come out in his bathrobe to feed the birds. He would stand at the edge of his porch and throw torn-up pieces of bread into the yard, all the while calling out, “Here buddy buddy buddy. Here buddy buddy buddy.” I never understood if he was mispronouncing the word “birdie” or referring to the birds as his buddies. After waiting a bit – no birds ever seemed to take him up on his invitation — he would open his robe and take a piss out onto the yard. Then he’d shake off and go back inside. Like I said, my mother really didn’t like that.

Johnny’s wife, a pale pleasant woman with a long sad face died when I was in junior high school and Johnny, surprisingly, got married again soon after her death. This was surprising because Johnny was not an attractive man, heavyset with a bulbous nose and the annoying habit of pissing off the front porch onto his lawn. And his new wife was a real bombshell.

She was quite a bit younger than Johnny and was built, as we used to say, like a brick shithouse. Why we used to say that, I have no idea. She had large upright breasts, a slim waist and long legs that she would show off in little shorts. And she was extremely ugly. My father would say, “She’s the sort of woman you follow down the street for two blocks and when she turns around you run away screaming.” She was also very nice, though she never hung around with any of the other neighborhood moms. We young boys liked to watch Johnny’s wife, Mrs. Holt, walk around the yard in her tiny shorts. The dads did as well. Johnny’s wife had a positive effect on his character, and the incidences of driving the Caddy up on the lawn fell away to almost never.

About this time Johnny developed an interest in boating and began to build his own boat in the garage behind his house. After working for some months on the boat, he called to a bunch of us neighborhood boys and asked us to come take a look at the boat. We trooped down to the garage where he showed us the powerboat, which he had done quite a lot of work on. Maybe he was using a kit, but it had the skeleton of a boat and you could see he seemed to know what he was doing. This was a Johnny that we had not known. About this time he broke out beers for all of us, we were probably twelve years old, and laid out his plan. We would start a boat-building club where we would gather in the evening and on weekends to work on the boat. Beers were in the cooler. After the boat was built, we would spend many hours motoring up and down the Ohio River. It would be fun and educational.

We sipped our beers, pretending we were enjoying them, and pretending we were giving the idea consideration. Then we told him we’d let him know and went home for dinner.

We told our parents about Johnny’s plan and dumped out the beers because no one really liked them. Our parents were annoyed that Johnny had given us the beer, but none of them marched over and gave him hell about it. Remember, Johnny was a character, but he was harmless and characters were given a lot of leeway back in those days. We assured them that we weren’t going to join Johnny’s club because it was incredibly creepy.

Sometimes Johnny would wave at we boys but he never asked us down to the clubhouse again. He must have been pretty drunk when he hatched his scheme to us, and maybe didn’t even remember. Unfortunately, this story has a tragic ending.

After a couple of years, Johnny actually finished the boat. When the day came to haul it out of the garage, he found that the boat was way too big to fit through the door. Johnny was not to be denied, so he took a sledgehammer and knocked down the back of the garage and freed the boat, which was hauled down to the Ohio River. It floated, and by all accounts performed just the way a boat is supposed to do.

One of the first weekends on the water, his wife — it was said she was sitting on the stern wearing a tiny bikini — fell off the boat and drowned. I told you the story had a tragic ending.

Everyone felt sorry for Johnny, and soon he was back to his old ways: drinking and driving on the lawn. And who could blame him?

So, yes, it wasn’t all Chevy’s and Fords in the neighborhood. There was Johnny’s white Cadillac. I’ll always remember those soft summer nights, laying with my head on my pillow in the window, watching the bulb in the dome light of Johnny’s Cadillac as it faded with the passing hours, listening to the open-door chime grow fainter and fainter until dawn came, and all was quiet.

And I slept.

1. Beginnings



It was about one week into the first summer of band practice when I first had my ass kicked. I had been expecting it, I wasn’t the only one, but it was still a surprise. I was fourteen years old; it was 1959. Wesley Banks kicked my ass. He was a junior at Parkersburg High School; I was a freshman. Wesley was a big guy who played the saxophone. He had blond hair waxed up in a flat top, a style almost everyone sported. Wesley was dumb, at least it seemed so to me, but he could play the hell out of a saxophone.

“Bend over, Scum!” he shouted. He probably didn’t even know my name; we, the freshman, were referred to collectively as Scum. I had done something wrong — I was out of step, missed my mark, something, it doesn’t matter what. Frank, our gimlet-eyed band director, had found some flaw in what we were doing, stopped us, and we were moving back into position to try whatever formation we were working on again. I bent over, as commanded. I stared at my hands on my knees, waiting.

Wesley knew what he was doing. He had plenty of practice and big black shoes. This was before the days when everyone wore sneakers. You had a pair of what we now call Chuck Taylors, but were then known simply as gym shoes and the only place you wore them was to gym class. You certainly never wore them to regular classes or to band practice. Wesley took three or four steps, swung his right foot up and slammed it onto my ass, lifting me off the ground. I flew into the air and landed on my hands and knees six feet away from where I had been standing. If this had been the Olympics, the row of judges would have given Wesley all tens.

 I stood up and brushed myself off. Wesley walked away, laughing with his friends. He’d already forgotten me. It didn’t hurt that much, but I was surprised how far I was thrown. I looked around. No one was paying any attention. Frank certainly didn’t give a shit, if he even noticed. A few of the other freshman watched out of the corners of their eyes, but there was no sympathy on their faces. They were just waiting for their own turn to bend over, which would surely come, if it hadn’t already. We were ninth graders, and we were scum –first year members in what was the most celebrated organization in our West Virginia town.

The Big Red Band. It doesn’t sound like much, does it? Just wait.

And what has brought this on, this looking back? A few weeks ago my oldest friend who now lives in Mexico sent me an email that contained a URL to a YouTube video of the Big Red Band marching in a contest in New York City, circa 1959. Who knew such a thing existed? It was shot on 8mm film, with ragged sprocket holes and no soundtrack. It skittered in places, but there we were, marching down the street, wheeling around corners.

And there I was.

Just for a second. Two blinks and you would miss me. I was beside a sousaphone player, third in from the end, playing my piccolo. Yes, my piccolo. We’ll get to that.

I played the film clip over and over again on my computer, astounded.

Astounded because I now saw something that had never occurred to me 56 years ago. Or since. Until now.

I was tiny. I knew I was short, I’m not particularly stupid, neither then nor now, but I barely came up to the shoulder of the guy next to me. I was dwarfed by his sousaphone. I showed my wife, Sherry, the video clip.

“Those guys are really big,” she said.

“They aren’t big, they’re regular sized,” I shouted. “It’s me; I’m tiny. Not just small, tiny! I never knew. Why didn’t somebody tell me?”

“Maybe they did, and you just didn’t listen. Why don’t you write about it?” Sherry said. “Who knows what else you missed?”

Who knows?

Let’s see.

Here’s the thing. In late 1950’s Parkersburg, West Virginia, a medium-large town situated on the Ohio River, football was big. Thousands of spectators streamed into the stadium behind the massive brick and stone high school on Friday nights to watch the Big Reds football team run, tackle, battle and overpower every other high school team in their league in the state. But unlike any other high school I’ve ever heard of, the thing the audience was waiting for, what they turned out for as much as the football game, was to watch the band perform. We were a strict, military, all-male marching band, where only the toughest, smartest, most talented kids in the town and from surrounding areas made it into the ranks. I wasn’t big, and I wasn’t tough, but I was talented. And I was an excellent talker. Many kids who played an instrument tried to get in, failed and were relegated to the ignominy of the high school orchestra where they sawed and puffed away at their instruments, seated beside girls, suffering the humiliation of not being good enough (or the correct sex) to make it into the band.

Every couple of years the football coach came to the band room to ask our guys to try out for the football team. The problem was, you couldn’t be in both. The band room was underneath the football stadium, behind the high school, three rooms with dusty wooden floors, a big central area where our chairs were drawn up in semi-circle formation, music stands in front of us, a side room where we hung our coats and a smaller side room where we were supposed to go to practice individually, except no one ever did. We were in our seats, waiting for after-school band practice to start. It was just a few weeks into the new school year. Frank stepped up on the platform in front. Frank Shroeder was a tidy man, about 5’ 9,” of German lineage with cool, cruel, grey eyes. He always seemed to be judging you, and he always was.

“Boys,” Frank said, “Coach Eber has something he’d like to talk to you about.” Frank stepped off the podium to the side and began cleaning his nails, his eyes intent on his fingers. Whenever Frank was in resting mode, he cleaned his fingernails. Coach Eber, I hadn’t noticed him standing stolidly near the door of Frank’s office, lumbered up in front of us onto the platform.

I played the piccolo and sat at the very front of the band in the center of the semicircle. I could have reached out and touched Coach if I had wanted.

Coach looked exactly like you would expect the leader of a West Virginia high school football team to look: big, florid face, grey flattop. He would be right at home wearing coveralls, sitting on a John Deere tractor.

“Boys,” he began. “If there’s anyone here who wants to try out for the football team, we’d like to have you.” He glanced at back of the room where the sousaphone players and the drummers stood. He seemed embarrassed. “That goes for you tuba players in particular,” he added, nodding his head. This made him not only pathetic in our eyes, but a dope as well: marching bands used sousaphones, big brass instruments that wrapped around the player’s body, not tubas. There was a long silence. “We’ve got a good team this year, but we could always use some help, especially from you husky boys.” He was watching the outer edges of the circle at the back where the guys who played the bigger, heavier instruments were seated. Instrument size seemed to radiate outward, starting with me, the smallest, and ending with the bass drummer and the sousaphone guys. No one spoke. Frank didn’t look up from his fingernail task.

“Well, Coach.” It was Wesley who broke the silence. He spoke in a West Virginia drawl, lazy, as if he was barely paying attention. We waited. Wesley could always be counted on to be a smart ass. “You’re not going to get anyone to quit the band and join the team.” You could hear the smirk in his voice. Silence. Coach was an ignorant joke who had bullied his players into the state championships for many years. He stood on the platform with his head hung down, red-faced, shamed by his having to come and beg, but he was a simple man who would do anything for his beloved team. I almost felt sorry for him, but he really was stupid.

The board of education had a rule that said that even the football coach had to teach a regular high school class, so Coach Eber “taught” ninth grade science. Every day he would tell us to sit at our desks and read the science book, and every week he would give us a test, which he would then turn over to Don Jones, another freshman, and me to grade for him. Don played trombone in the band.

Of course Wesley wasn’t going to let Coach down easy. We really hated the football players; most of them were dullards and, like their coach, bullies.

“You want to know why we’re not going to join the team?” Wesley asked Coach.

Frank remained silent, examining his impeccable fingernails.

“Because football players are all queers,” Wesley said.

There was a moment of silence, and then everyone laughed. Except Coach and Frank.

I was shocked. And thrilled. Without a word, Coach stepped off the platform and walked out of the room. When we heard the door slam, Frank took his place on the podium and said, “Washington Post,” which was a Sousa march we often played. We shuffled our music onto our stands. He raised his baton. On the downbeat, we broke into this resounding march.

I played the music, sort of, but I was thinking about Wesley’s smart-assed remark, and the way Coach slunk out of the room, and how Frank hadn’t said a word about it. He should have yelled at Wesley — he yelled at everyone — but he didn’t. At that moment, I really understood what had been unsaid, at least to me, for years, what the truth was in my town: if you were in the Big Red Band you could do any goddamn thing you wanted and get away with it.