#6 Grandma — Woman of Mystery

grandma Emma

Grandma Emma on the right.

I have begun numbering these entries, as it’s getting confusing on my end keeping track of The Big Picture. On a “housekeeping” note, I’ve found that every once in awhile messages to me get lost between my iPhone and my computer. If anyone has written to me and I haven’t responded, please resend. I respond to everyone. Dianne Wolfe, did I see a note from you that disappeared before I could get back to you? Anyone else?

Now we have come to The Mystery of this narrative. When I decided that I would write this “memoir” (I really wish there was a better, less pretentious word for this genre of writing. Somehow “memoir” and “West Virginia” just don’t go together in the same sentence.) I thought I would read a few of them to get the idea. Russell Baker’s Growing Up is considered one of the classics, a book I read years ago and liked, but on rereading I found it kind of boring. Bill Bryson’s The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, is a terrific book, very funny, but the similarities of some of Bryson’s experiences to my own were frightening. I think that came about because small American towns in the same era, the 1950s, offered the same sorts of experiences to young boys, except maybe the Big Red Band. I particularly liked a memoir by a friend of mine, Mary Bonina, whose My Father’s Eyes tells the story of her growing up and being her father’s “eyes” as he slowly went blind. Mary writes with a grace that I will never achieve, a style that is perfect for her story. I’m afraid you’ll find little of Mary’s grace in these pages.

After reading these three books, I decided to hell with it and just plunged in.

I’ve always felt that memoirs are supposed to deal with larger themes: a mystery, a great wrong, a great evil, a great personality, a search, a loss, something larger than what “regular” people experience in a lifetime. Well, you won’t find that here. Getting kicked in the ass hardly measures up to being beaten and abused by one’s wicked stepfather. Hardly anyone went to jail in Parkersburg in those days, or at least for crimes that rose above stealing cars or chainsaws, though one day we awoke to read in the paper (there were two papers, a morning and an afternoon edition) a story on the front page about a local hunter who had gotten drunk, crawled over the fence in the city park into our small zoo and killed the only animal inmate there, a female deer. I believe the trail of blood pointed the authorities to his nearby home. Murders, of people rather than deer, were rare and usually fueled by alcohol and family grudges.

I have only one small mystery to offer. The mystery of my grandma and The Great Pretender.

As a child, I heard the following story several times, but when I asked my mom about it when she was in the nursing home she said she had no idea what I was talking about. Which doesn’t really surprise me. By then she was recounting stories of people coming in during the night and taking showers in her bathroom and conducting Dionysian revels there. Often they abducted her, and she ended up abandoned by the side of the road. To say that her memory was by then unreliable is a laughable, or pitiable, understatement.

In the mid 1950s, Life magazine published a long article about an incredible man, Ferdinand Waldo Demara, who had led an amazing life. Demara had spent years inventing himself as many different men in many different occupations, none of which was the real Demara. Much like Don Draper in Mad Men acquiring his Army buddy’s name and life, only many, many times over. Demara was known as The Great Imposter, or sometimes The Great Pretender, and there eventually was a movie made of his adventures with Tony Curtis playing the title role.

Demara, or Fred, as he was known, presented himself over the years as a master of many occupations. He was a Roman Catholic, so he started out as a Trappist Monk. He left the monastery and joined the Army in 1941, then falsified a buddy’s name and went AWOL. He joined the Navy, faked a suicide and turned up as a religious psychologist. He was arrested for desertion and did 18 months in a federal prison. After that, he invented himself as a civil engineer, a sheriff’s deputy, a prison warden, a psychologist, a hospital orderly, a Benedictine Monk, an editor, a cancer researcher, and a schoolteacher. His finest moment came when he was working as a doctor (he had no medical training) during the Korean War aboard the HMCS Cayuga and was faced with 16 wounded soldiers who all needed medical care, some of them in dire straits. Fred had the men prepped for surgery, went to his cabin and boned up on proper surgical technics from a textbook, returned to the operating room and worked on the bunch of them, including a fellow who needed extensive chest surgery. They all survived.

The story I was told… Actually, I’m not sure anyone actually ever told me this story. This is the sort of tale I probably heard while sitting on the porch on a summer evening, unnoticed as the grownups talked about the family. Listen for the crickets, the soft squeak as the glider swung back and forth, the sound of the wooden rocking chair on the wooden porch, the low voices of moms and dads, grandmas, aunts and uncles.

One day, as near as I can narrow it down, around 1950, a man appeared in Parkersburg, on Maxwell Avenue, and knocked on the door of the pebble house. I ask myself, was Grandma Emma living there alone? It had to be shortly before we – me at the age of four or five and my family — arrived from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to take up residence. Grandma refused to let this man in, it was said, and went out to the street and talked to him there. They stood in the street, at the intersection of 18th and Maxwell. They had a long conversation, and eventually the man was sent away. At that point in the story it was revealed that this man was Fred Demara, The Great Imposter himself, and that he had arrived in our town to ask Grandma to come away with him. She refused.

Whaaaa? One of my touchstones, as a non-fiction and fiction writer, is that if a story is too crazy to be true, it probably is true. Why, how, could anyone make up such a whacky story? What would be the purpose? Trust me, such wild inventiveness is beyond my humble progenitors in Parkersburg. I have no idea what to make of it. I have researched it and have come up with no corroboration. I am continuing my research, meaning I have recently read the two old books written about Demara, (God bless Amazon.com and the Internet) but there is nothing about my grandma or West Virginia in either of these biographies. I have a feeling I’ll never know the answer. Grandma Emma — short, round, apple-cheeked Emma of the iron will — the love interest of an international man of mystery? How could this be?

I have no idea. But I also have no idea how it could not be true. Why would they have said it? Is this another of my false memories. AM I INSANE?

It’s often been said that all families have mysteries, but I wonder if that’s really the case. Anyone out there have a family mystery that they would like to relate?

Mistakes Were Made… Grandma

allen david sandy 2 jpeg

Note the picture, showing another view of The World’s Worst Sport Coat. The photo is dated July, 1958, which was the summer before I began high school in the 9th grade. This is the sport coat I was wearing in my first debate, which I wrote about below in the August 9th entry. Remember, this coat was striped in various shades of purple. What a thing of beauty. This had to be taken at the same time as the picture in the blog entry below because no one could look as stupid as I do on two separate occasions. The little fellow in the middle is my brother David, resplendent in perhaps the dorkiest outfit I have ever seen on a child, and my sister Sandy, well, perhaps she’ll write in and explain her outfit. We must have been going to church.

Before launching into today’s entry featuring my grandma, I’d like to point out a couple of errors I have made so far. The first is really stupid: in the July 30 entry below, I say we used to race down the 19th street hill, when I meant the 18th Street hill. I had several people correct me, thank you, it was a slip of the pen. More seriously, in the same entry I tell the story of Butch McGee (not his real name) who lived in the neighborhood, and how his father would go through his pocket change and throw all his Roosevelt dimes on the ground because he hated FDR so much. Well, Butch himself has written in and said not so, that his father was a proud Democrat, and Roosevelt was a God in his house. So where did I get that story? I haven’t the slightest idea. I have a clear picture in my head of Butch telling it to me, but evidently it is a false memory. Working on this memoir has unearthed interesting questions on the nature of memory, and at the most extreme, truth itself. Questions that I have no answers for. All I can do is tell it like I remember it. Mark Twain said… “When I was younger, I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not; but my faculties are decaying now and soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the things that never happened.” Perhaps that’s me, now.

On to Grandma.

Emma Mason, formerly Emma Bush, was my mother’s mother. She owned the house we lived in on Maxwell Avenue and the one behind us, which was really a very large garage with an apartment overtop which was rented out. Our house was made of stucco, though I never heard anyone say that word back then. It was sheathed in grey concrete with small round pebbles mixed in, so we just called it the Pebble House. It was very small, and in later years my grandma lived there by herself.

Grandma never lived permanently in town until she was old. She was a country person, and I remember her living in two houses over the years. One was in Walker, WV, and the other, the first house, was in Beatrice, WV. The Beatrice house was a full working farm with crops and a barn with cows in it, a coop with chickens, and I remember a few pigs. The house was curious in that it was built high on brick pillars and was accessed from the road by walking across a swinging bridge that my mother hated. Whenever we started across it we kids would push from side to side making the bridge swing and my mother shriek. So when you were in the house you were up high. I could, and did, look out my bedroom window and watch Grandma catch chickens, chop their heads off and let them run around for awhile, headless. She then hung them by their feet on the clothesline until they bled out. We would have them for lunch.

One of my very earliest memories was from this house, or rather the barn. I couldn’t have been more than four years old. I was in the barn with Grandma’s husband, Mr. Mason – I’ll get to him in a minute – and it seems I remember other men standing around. Mr. Mason was milking one of the cows. He showed me how to do it, then told me to go around behind the cow and take hold of the tail and pump it like he used the outdoor pump to get water. There was no indoor plumbing in this house. That, he assured me, would produce more milk. Being a trusting, dutiful boy, I went behind the cow, lifted up the tail and began pumping. The cow immediately pissed on me, which everyone thought was hilarious. I jumped out of the way, but not before getting liberally sprinkled. I remember being vaguely aware that I was being made fun of, that Mr. Mason, and probably everyone else, knew that if you fooled with a cow’s tail the cow would piss on you. But I also remember feeling that while it wasn’t funny to me, it was done without meanness. Thus averting a painful reaction to an event that could have put me on an analyst’s couch in later years.

Mr. Mason was grandma’s husband, as I have said, but we didn’t ever call him Grandpa. Grandma had been married before to a man no one ever mentioned until many years later. This man’s name was Bush, and when anyone spoke of him the speaker would always mention that he was as bald as an egg and always had been as bald as an egg as far as anyone knew. Even as a child he was said to be hairless. He was also a drunk who would go off on “toots” a couple of times a year where he would disappear for days at a time and then show back up looking like he’d been on, well, a toot. Grandma was tough, so when she’d had enough, she kicked him out and divorced him. Some said she had the first divorce ever granted to a woman in the state of West Virginia. Remember, I keep saying that West Virginia in the early part of the 20th century was closer to Victorian England than it was to the rest of the civilized world.

But my mother, when she did speak of her father, the bald Mr. Bush, did so with fondness. The family lived for a time and ran a hotel known as The Yew Pine Inn, where Mom remembered playing in the long dark hallways and watching burlesque performers practicing their acts before putting on shows in local venues. After Grandma kicked Mr. Bush out, he returned and took my mother away with him; mom lived with him for a while before Grandma came and took her back. Mom thought Grandma took her back not out of any love for her, but that she just couldn’t stand for Mr. Bush to have anything that she considered hers.

In later years, after Grandma was widowed, she moved back into town to the pebble house. By then we had moved across the street into my friend Francis’ house. Francis is perhaps my oldest friend and married my sister, years later in New York City.

Grandma went to work as a health aide to a rich old lady who lived in another part of town. From what I know now, it sounds like she was more slave than aide, having to live in the house and do all the work for the invalid, who was probably younger than she was. I’ve said Grandma was tough and by that I mean she was West Virginia tough. Aside from snakes, she feared nothing and worked until Alzheimer’s or whatever mental disease crippled her made it impossible to live on her own. When I turned 16 and got my driver’s license, it was my job, every Sunday morning, to go pick up Grandma at work and bring her home to her house. For this she would give me a dime. I would spend an hour or so with her while she would read me the newspaper, a long, painful process because she had never gone beyond grade school, if that. We would talk about the articles she read because she was mystified by most of them. These discussions were usually fairly bizarre.

She bought a TV, a tiny, round-screened model, and would sit and watch her favorite game shows. One day she told me she was thinking of getting a new set with a bigger screen because she knew there’s was a lot more going on behind the edges of her screen that she was missing. As I tried to explain that a bigger screen simply meant the same picture would just be bigger, she smiled gently at me in the manner of a parent smiling at a child who was generally recognized as being a fool.

In later years, Grandma, as I have said, began to exhibit signs of dementia. Alzheimer’s had not yet been “discovered,” but it was clear that Grandma couldn’t take care of herself, so she came to live with us. Since she had been living in the pebble house across the street, this didn’t require much in the way of relocation. By then I was in college, at West Virginia University, a couple of hours away, so I wasn’t home much. When I was, I’d sit in the living room with Grandma watching television. Every once in awhile, she’d shout out to me, “Harness up the buckboard, we got to get to Harmon before nightfall!” And I would say, “Right, Grandma, we’ll go in the morning.” Which seemed to satisfy her.

She drove my dad crazy. She thought he was the hired hand and treated him as such. He could never just go along with whatever nutty thing she was saying, but always tried to reason with her and tell her that we drove cars now and there were no more buckboards. He never understood my attempts to explain to him why it would do no good to apply reason to her pronouncements and the best thing to do was to just go along with her craziness (I was a psychology major at the time) and that she would never understand his rational explanations. After she began trying to light the electric lights with matches, it was decided to put her in a nursing home.

Where she did not do well. On one of my visits home, my mother described one of Grandma’s infractions. It was Christmas. For some reason, Grandma got up in the middle of the night and made her way to the central nurse’s station, where — it apparently was unoccupied at the time — she found the PW system and turned it on. How could she have known how to do this? She must have been quietly observing for some time. She then began to sing the Christmas carol Jingle Bells, except she supplied the lyrics from curse words that none of us had any idea she knew. It went like this (so said my mother): “Fuck fuck fuck, fuck fuck fuck, shit piss goddamn fuck fuck fuck.” Evidently they had to tackle her and drag the microphone out of her hand as she continued to sing. I am not making this up. When I was told this story, the only thing I could think of was, good for grandma.

She died a few years later, though no one told me at the time. I always felt that this not telling me was a kind of betrayal because I loved my feisty grandma, and no one understood that I would have come home from wherever I was to show my respect for her and to help bury her.

Next up: the tantalizing mystery surrounding Grandma.

Naked Ladies; Learning to March

I warned you right up front that this memoir was going to have its R or even X-rated moments. This is one of them. If you’re easily offended, cover your eyes…

Back to Bobby Huffman and his trick with the Sears and Roebuck catalogue. This was pretty nifty. He would take a piece of tracing paper, or any sort of thin paper, lay it over a picture of a woman in the underwear section of the catalogue and trace the outlines of the model’s body and face. He would carefully draw nipples on the breasts then heavily pencil in the area between the model’s legs. When he removed the paper from over the catalogue, he had a nice drawing of a naked woman.

Here’s the way the conversation went when he showed me this trick.

(Bobby does the tracing then holds the resulting drawing up for me to see…)

Me: “That’s pretty good.” (Pointing to what Bobby has heavily penciled in.)    “What’s that?”

Bobby: “That’s her bush.”    (Long silence.)

Me: “What’s a bush?”

Bobby: (Looking at me as if I’m a child. Which I am.) “It’s hair. All women have hair between their legs.”

Me: ! ! ! !

What I have been trying to get around to with this talking about the Sears catalogue is… that when my parents bought anything, including musical instruments, that’s where they went, the catalogue, even though this probably did not ensure the finest quality. But it was a piccolo, and I was in the fourth grade; how good did it have to be anyway?

So I became a piccolo player. I’m sure my father was mystified. As I mentioned earlier, he had been a trumpet player in high school and had regaled us with stories from his experiences in the band. One memorable story was when his high school band marched down the street and came to a bridge, the marchers would deliberately beak step so that everyone was simply walking. The reason? If the band members stayed in step, the resonance of the synchronized marching feet would cause the BRIDGE TO FALL DOWN! Once again, the sheer power of the marching band was revealed to me. I knew that someday I would participate in this godlike magnificence.

I never actually practiced my instrument much because I hated practicing, and I never really had to. All my life I’ve had an affinity for musical instruments; you can hand me pretty much anything and after a bit I’m able to play the first few bars of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, which really isn’t all that hard. Besides, in those early years, everyone around me in grade school and junior high who was honking into and sawing away at an instrument was pretty terrible. Most of them would give up before they got to high school.

After the first month of high school band practice, I was no longer getting kicked in the ass very often. I had memorized all the marches and didn’t need to look at the music, though there was still plenty to learn about marching, in particular the sort of strict military formations and complicated maneuvers – drills — that we performed. We learned at least the rudiments of ten different drills, any one of which would be performed at half time during the Friday night football season, either at home or away in other towns around West Virginia. Some drills were fairly simple, and some were diabolically difficult. There was one, called Providence, that halfway through the band would split up in four cadres, march out to the far corners of the football field then come back into the center with all four units meeting head on and flowing through the ranks like water through a riverbed of rocks, hopefully to exit out of the X structure unscathed. All while staying in perfect step, with all lines perfectly straight while playing a march and keeping an eye on everything going on around you and planning for the next turn, about-face or wheel that would be coming up. The first twenty or thirty times through this maneuver resulted in absolute mayhem in the center as someone inevitably missed a mark and ran into another oncoming player which avalanched into the entire band slamming into someone else. We were told it was named Providence because if you escaped the center alive you thanked providence.

There were technical aspects to marching that we repeated over and over until they were ingrained in us. To this day, 55 years later, I sometimes catch myself adjusting my step so I will be in synch with the person walking next to me. If you get kicked in the ass enough, some things become part of what Mark Twain used to call your “permancies.”

Our band employed a 22-inch march step, eight steps to every five yards. Years later this would be extended by most bands to a 30-inch step, five steps to five yards. Today military bands are mostly a thing of the past; the fashion has become step length that varies with whatever tune is being played, dance moves embedded in routines that are certainly not drills, but masses of performers going through elaborate show routines that are as far from military style as you could get. If we had seen one of these performances in our day, we would have been unable to even comprehend what these bands were doing. This type of marching has become ubiquitous and is based on the show bands that evolved out of the historical black colleges and universities. A great example of this style is showcased in the movie Drumline, a wonderful little film with a predictable but affecting storyline. The dance moves and music of the bands in the movie is modern, but anyone with old-time experience in a military band will recognize the rigorous, competitive, physical traditions that have been passed down from my day to today. People are still getting their ass kicked, or some version of hazing, in the quest to be the best, even if it’s a best that would cause our old, fingernail-cleaning leader Frank, to spin in his grave.

Somewhere along the line, in the eighth grade, I bought a flute, or rather my parents ordered me a flute out of the Sears catalogue. It was an instrument that several years later Frank would sneer at and insist that I should tell my parents that I needed a real instrument purchased from the music store in town. You’d think that my Sears and Roebuck flute had been made by the John Deere tractor people in their off hours. Now that I think about it, I bet Frank received a kickback on all the business that was sent to the music store, which was called Deitz Music as I remember. Though maybe Frank was right, maybe a Sears and Roebuck flute was like a Sears and Roebuck sport coat, slightly off. Not that I could tell any difference.

The music store in downtown Parkersburg was a great place. Oddly enough, it always reminded me of the old-time grocery and sundry stores near wherever my grandmother lived at the time, in the country. Her houses were small houses that I remember as big houses, on dirt roads, no indoor plumbing, just an outhouse that always stank and sometimes, harbored big blacksnakes. A six-foot blacksnake was always a surprise when you had to go and opened the door to the privy and found one curled up on the wooden seat.

I guess this is as good a time as any to talk about my grandma. This will take awhile.

Grandma was terrified of snakes…

The Worst Sport Coat in the World

ugliest sport coat

In the last entry I ended by saying that we bought all of our clothes at Sears and Roebuck, which was not a good thing, especially for my sister. I became acutely aware of this clothing problem about the same time I joined the band: my freshman year in high school. I also joined the debate team, which accepted me into its august ranks not because I was smart, but because I was unusually articulate, could tell stories and make people laugh. Also, the captain of the team was in the band (clarinet) and heard me telling stories and making jokes. Which is a role that little guys often assume: joker. In olden days I would have worn a hat with bells on and played the mandolin while I sang songs and told jokes to the lord and master.

At our first public debate in another West Virginia town — I believe the topic was on labor unions and the Taft Hartley act — I experienced a moment of brain freeze that I have never experienced before or since. Well, it happened once before; I’ll get to that in a minute. I was speaking, reading my notes off our carefully printed three-by-five cards, and I came to the word prohibit. I stared at the word, but I had no idea how to pronounce it. No idea at all. I knew what it meant; I just had no memory of ever saying it before this moment, even though I had, of course, said it many times and was quite familiar with it. I gave it a few feeble stabs. Pro-hi-bit. Pro-hibit. People in the small audience looked away as I tried to pronounce the word. After a few tries I stood there in silence, staring at the damned three-by-five card, blushing furiously. I moved on, shamed forever, struggling through the rest of my minutes at the podium and sat down beside my partner, the aforementioned captain of the debators who had graciously put me on the team and taken me under his wise wing. He pushed a slip of paper toward me. I picked it up and read it. He had carefully written, in large block letters, the word: Pro-hib-it.

I knew that! Why could I not say it? Mortifying. But not as mortifying as what would come a few days later.

May I draw your attention to the photo at the top of the page? That’s me wearing The World’s Ugliest Sport Coat and my White Buck shoes minutes before heading out to take part in my first public debate as a member of the Parkersburg High School team. Sure the coat doesn’t look too bad in black and white, but you had to see it in its maroon glory to get the total effect. Before every momentous occasion of this sort my proud parents would take a picture of me in front of the living room mantel. Now this mantel is of a normal height, meaning a regular-sized person could put his arm on it and lean comfortably on it. My size in relation to it shows how small I was.

After this first debate, the captain of the team took me aside (my face flushes with embarrassment again, even now) and very kindly told me that my maroon and black-striped Sears sports coat was very nice, but that a championship debater (we won the state title every year throughout my four years of high school, and I went to West Virginia University on a speech scholarship) would normally dress in a black or dark grey suit, white dress shirt, black tie and black dress shoes. At least I got the white shirt right but, in general, with my striped Sears jacket and bright white shoes I’m pretty sure I looked more like a clown in the circus than a serious debater concerned with the complicated details of the Taft/Hartley Act. I’m also sure that before I got in the car to go to the debate my mom probably inspected me and said, “My, don’t you look spiffy.”

How could we have been so clueless?

After receiving this gentle but mortifying advice about my clothing, I told my mom what the captain of the team had said, and, as always, without a word, she collected her purse and off we went to Dils — the upscale department store in town – where she bought me a nice black suit, white shirt and subdued tie. And there was no complaining about not getting a 10% discount, at least not to me.

We always had a bunch of Sears catalogues. My friend Bobby Huffman (he lived down the street; his dad was killed in WWII) showed me a neat trick you could do with a Sears catalogue.

Since Bobby’s father was dead, his mother had to work full time, which left Bobby free to roam the neighborhood from dawn till dusk and get into trouble. He was the Huck Finn of the neighborhood, and even though he was always causing some sort of ruckus, all the adults looked out for him because he had no father. One day – this is not the trick I’m going to tell you about in a minute – Bobby took a couple of us kids inside and showed us how to make a fried baloney sandwich. He was very nonchalant about it, as if he made one every day for lunch, which he probably did, but the idea of a kid being able to operate a gas stove without supervision was unheard of. We were in awe of his audacity and skill.

Bobby never talked about his dad being dead, and in fact none of the men who were in the service ever talked about it, at least to us kids. Remember, this was only six or seven years after World War II. Playing war was a big pastime for us because we had a lot of actual war gear that the dads brought home. There were Nazi helmets, bayonets, lugers with the firing pins filed off, a couple of M-1s with the bolts removed, flags, pieces of German uniforms, all of which we’d pick up or put on and head out into the streets and alleys, running, shooting and hollering. It was great fun. I don’t think anyone ever gave a thought to how this might have made Bobby feel because his father perished overseas. He never mentioned it if it bothered him, and of course we kids never gave it a moment’s thought.

My father had not been in the war. He and my mother had my sister and they lived in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where my dad worked in the steel mill. He drove a train, and in a box of old photos there was an 8 x 10 photo of him sitting in the cab of a giant locomotive, his arm resting on the edge of the window, smiling for the camera. I was very impressed with this picture, and felt his job was at least as important as being an Army man and killing Nazis. Evidently the government felt the same way, exempting him from the draft. I wish I knew where this photo was now; I spent hours looking at it as a child.

The only kid whose father I knew had been in the shooting war was my friend Butch McGee, who lived three blocks away. This was considered the outer limit of our close neighborhood, so Butch didn’t play with us as much as the kids who lived on our actual street, Maxwell Avenue. Butch’s father was crippled, and walked, haltingly, with a cane. We all thought he had been shot by a Jap, but it later turned out that he’d had a stroke at the end of the war. He was the only father in the area who was home in the day. He would sit in the darkened house, smoking, only occasionally saying something to one of us kids. It must have been terribly boring for him, but it never occurred to us to stop and talk to him more than just a hello though I think now that he would have appreciated being involved in some of our schemes.

Butch told us how he would tag along after his dad when he would struggle down to the local store to buy cigarettes. When he got his change, Butch would wait expectantly for him to go through his coins. If he found a dime – they had Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s portrait on them — he would curse and throw it on the ground, whereupon Butch would snatch it up for his own. Butch’s father hated FDR, though I don’t know why, and never thought to ask. In high school Butch became one of the drum majors in the band.

Death, either of adults — in the war or of natural causes — or children, was never much on our minds. There was the polio plague that haunted those years, but with polio you often didn’t die, you were just condemned to a lifetime of laying in an iron lung where you read comic books by turning the pages with a stick you held in your teeth. We often read stories in Life Magazine about these plucky boys and girls who lived in iron lungs and how they made the most of their confined lives. If you didn’t end up in an iron lung, polio could still cripple you, and you had to wear complicated braces on your legs and walk, painfully, with metal crutches that fit on your arms. My Aunt Belle was one of these people, though she was an adult. She was enormously fat and Uncle Oke, his wife Jane was her sister, would sometimes drive her over to our house where the enormously difficult task of hauling her up our front steps and onto our porch was undertaken by Oke and my dad. She would swing her useless, pale, stick-like legs out the door of the car and hoist herself up on her precarious, clacking braces and sticks, and I would groan to myself, knowing there was worse to come when she got to the small hill of steps that ran up to our front porch. This was one time being small was an advantage, as everyone seemed to wordlessly understand that I should stay far away from this excruciating undertaking. First of all, I would have been absolutely no help, she must have topped out at three hundred pounds once you added up all the metal that was attached to her body, and, secondly, had she fallen on me I would have surely been killed. Oddly enough, or at least oddly to me, she was actually a sunny sort of person who could carry on a conversation just like everyone else. I guess I felt that polio would have withered her mind as well as her legs, but this was obviously not so. Getting down the steps at the end of the visit was just as arduous and fraught with danger. She didn’t come to visit very often.

In general, the adults who lived on Maxwell Avenue were young, in their thirties, and most of them had young families like ours. Death among us was pretty random, though I guess most death, except for the aged, is always pretty random unless you live on a superfund site. Yes, that’s another one of my pithy and unoriginal observations: death is random.

One summer day a girl who lived further up the street was hit by a car at the end of the block. There were a lot of sirens and all the kids were called home where we had to spend the afternoon on the porch, knowing only that a little girl who we knew only slightly had been killed. Of course Bobby Huffman, who didn’t have to sit on the porch, ran up and looked and reported back that her brains had been splattered all over the street, which may or may not have been true. Then a year later a good friend a few houses down from our house, a girl the same age as my sister, caught some sort of rare tropical disease — her skin turned very dark and the moles on her arms turned even darker and she died. I don’t know how she could have caught a tropical disease, West Virginia was about as far from the tropics as you could get.

As noted, we didn’t think about these deaths much. I don’t know about our parents, but we kids didn’t worry about much of anything.

Oh, yeah, Bobby Huffman and his trick with the Sears catalogue. We’ll save that for the next entry.