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.