Arf Arf!

For those who have written asking whatever happened to the parts about the Big Red Band, I’ll get back there shortly. Those of you who know me and my writing understand that I tend to wander around a lot on the page

Where was I? Oh, yes, many pages ago I was buying a flute, which meant a trip to the music store in downtown Parkersburg to look at a catalogue. As those of you have kindly pointed out, I got all the info about the music store wrong in an earlier entry. It seems the name of the store was Shroeder’s, (no relation to our esteemed band leader, Frank Shroeder). One of the pleasures of writing this memoir is knowing that my West Virginia friends out there will correct all the parts I get wrong. Thanks to everyone who is helping me.

The music store downtown… But first, allow me one of my digressions. For some reason, I remember that this store always reminded me, when I walked in the door, of the country store we used to hike to in Walker, and other West Virginia country stores of that time. I’ll bet many of you remember these stores. Old places built of, on the outside, grey, weathered wood. Inside they smelled of wooden floors, wooden counters and shelves, and dust, usually something fruity, maybe a barrel of apples or bushel of peaches, depending on the season. There was often a giant wheel of cheddar cheese, sometimes covered with cheesecloth. The cheese would sweat small beads of oil, and you could order a slice, which would be wrapped in butchers paper and tied with a string and it was delicious. The soda was in a large cooler, bottles jammed down in drifts of ice: orange crush, grape or other fruits that you never see any more, Cokes and Pepsis. You could buy about anything in those stores, and the old ladies and gents behind the counter were always nice to us kids with our nickels and dimes clutched in our grimy little fists.

The music store didn’t sell produce or cheese, but I remember it having long wooden floors, wooden shelves and wooden counters that had their own comfortable smell of age. They sold instruments, mostly guitars, in the front, records in the middle and in the back were glass booths where you could play records and make a decision on which you wanted to buy. No one seemed to care that you would go in a booth and spend an hour listening to records and come out and not buy anything.

Music was in the air much of the day around our house. My mother kept the radio on, a small, white plastic model that sat on a shelf in the kitchen, while she worked around the house. When my dad was home on the weekends, it was tuned to big band music; during the week my mother listened to a local, top-ten station. Some of the songs I remember clearly, many of which are still played today, were Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, A Teenager in Love, Lonely Boy and Lipstick On Your Collar. Well, maybe they don’t play them much anymore other than on oldies stations.

It was around this time, seventh or eighth grade, when my passion for classical music was born. It must have been a hot Saturday in the summer. Saturday, because my dad was home. We – my sister, mom and dad and I — were all in the kitchen. My dad was sitting at the white metal/porcelain kitchen table. He had on his weekend pants and a no-sleeve undershirt, what we now refer to as a wife-beater. We were kidding around, and the radio was playing a big-band show. The announcer said they were going to have a contest. He would play an old big-band tune, and the first person to call in and name the band would win a prize, which was an LP — a long playing record — and a case of soda. The tune started and my dad immediately said, Tommy Dorsey; I called the station and told them, and we won.

This was astounding. As far as I know, we had never won anything. The radio people took the information and sent us the paperwork. The next weekend, my dad drove to the grocery store and picked up the soda, a case of coke, and dropped me off at the store to pick out a record. And why did he drop me off? The store involved in the contest was our nemesis, J.C. Penny. Thank God it wasn’t Monkey Wards. Dad wouldn’t go in, but he figured that we would take the free record because giving it away would probably harm Penny’s and make them more vulnerable in the ongoing war that was Sears against Penny’s and Wards. (See earlier entries for more on Sears Roebuck.)

I had to ask directions to the record section because it was hidden away at the very back of the second floor of the store, behind the lady’s underwear section, which was mortifying, but oddly fascinating to walk through. I fought to keep my eyes straight ahead as I made my way through ranks of bras and underpants. Two bins held around fifty records, divided up into a popular music section and a much smaller selection of classical music. For some reason, I was seized with the notion of buying a classical record. I knew what classical music was, I had seen orchestras, dimly, on the neighbor’s television, and I had heard orchestras on the radio. Many cartoons of the time showed orchestras. I knew it was music that smart people listened to, rather than popular songs like How Much Was that Doggy in the Window. I thought if I listened to classical music, I too would become a smart person. I pictured myself sitting in a fancy living room, maybe smoking a pipe (I was an adult in this image) reading a book and listening to this type of music. Off to the side, sitting on the sofa would be my lovely imaginary wife, dressed only in a bra and panties.

No! That was a joke! I didn’t think that at all!

But how would I know what record to buy? For some reason, I decided that the best classical composers would be the ones with the longest, most foreign-sounding names. It turns out that this was not a bad way to choose, as I left the store with Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto #2 in C minor, one of the world’s great romantic pieces.

At home, my sister was disappointed by my selection. And it was then that we faced the next hurdle: we didn’t own a record player. Or at least we didn’t as far as I knew. Dad took us into the living room.

There was a large piece of furniture that I assumed was there mostly to hold a lamp and a couple of vases. I knew there was a radio in there, but we hadn’t listened to it for years, not since we got the small white plastic one. This was the sort of radio that when you turned it on it took some time to warm up. The sort of radio you could smell as it emitted a familiar (and somehow comforting) odor of dust and hot tubes. Dad opened the radio part, then from underneath he rolled out a regular turntable. I didn’t even know it was in there. We didn’t own any records other than the new one I had just bought. Well, actually we did, we had a half-dozen Disney records that we listened to when we were smaller. What did we play these on? I don’t remember.

Dad turned everything on, and we sat down to listen. Those first, brooding chords of the Rachmaninoff began and in seconds I was enthralled. I have no recollection of what anyone’s else’s reaction was, but I felt an entire world opening, a world that, like the record turntable, I had not known existed.

The next Saturday we won again. This time we picked up a case of orange soda, and my sister got to choose the record. She went with Frank Sinatra, which I didn’t have any interest in, you could hear him anytime on the radio, but I have a feeling the rest of the family was pleased with the choice.

The next week we won again and were permanently banned by the radio station from ever entering the contest again. This time the soda was root beer, and I was back at Penny’s facing the record bin. I employed my tried and true method and came home with Shostakovich’s (the longest foreign name in the bin) Preludes and Fugues. I put the record on, expecting Rachmaninoff, which is not what I got. The pianist started off innocently enough, but soon was hitting what even I knew were “wrong notes.” The rest of the record was the same and after listening to both sides, I was completely confused. I know now that this was the first time I had encountered dissonance in music, but I didn’t know that word and neither did anyone else in my family, at least when it was used as a musical term. I asked my father, who understood what I was talking about. He explained that once, years before, he had attended an Erroll Garner concert, a black jazz pianist who played in somewhat the same way. Dad said Garner was the man “who played the right wrong notes.” Making music that might sound wrong, but who, after awhile, made those wrong notes work. This was jazz, my father said, but the idea was the same with the Shostakovich. Give it time, listen and learn.

I wish I could say that I sat back down and listened to the Shostakovich again and the scales fell from my eyes, and ears, but it wasn’t so. I wore out the Rachmaninoff record, but the Shostakovich, not so much. I think I learned to appreciate it, and came to somewhat understand modern classical music, but it didn’t fill me with the same yearning that Rachmaninoff and other romantic composers did.

We ended up giving most of the sodas away. We almost never drank soda at home. I don’t know if it was because we were too poor to afford it, or that my mother didn’t think it was good for us. My parents didn’t drink any of it, and after a half dozen bottles of the various flavors my sister and I had no interest in it either. For some reason this was vastly different from those rare sodas we drank after walking miles down a dirt road, the sodas from the old country stores. There was so much of it, three cases stacked one atop the other in our kitchen, and it was so sweet to us that I remember drinking a couple of bottles, the way I’d seen other people drink them, and then feeling sick. I’ve hardly ever consumed a commercial soda since. Thank you, radio station. You turned me into a classical music lover and made a big contribution to my health all at the same time by teaching me to dislike soft drinks.

And because I love to get songs stuck in other people’s heads, here are the lyrics to How Much Is That Doggie in the Window. You remember the tune. Sing along to it, and make sure you add the “arf arf” at the end of the chorus.

How much is that doggie in the window?

The one with the waggly tail

How much is that doggie in the window?

I do hope that doggie’s for sale

I must take a trip to California

And leave my poor sweetheart alone

If he has a dog, he won’t be lonesome

And the doggie will have a good home

How much is that doggie in the window?

The one with the waggly tail

How much is that doggie in the window?

I do hope that doggie’s for sale

I read in the papers there are robbers

With flashlights that shine in the dark

My love needs a doggie to protect him

And scare them away with one bark

I don’t want a bunny or a kitty

I don’t want a parrot that talks

I don’t want a bowl of little fishies

He can’t take a goldfish for a walk

Arf! Arf!

#8 Floods!

Mr. Mason

That’s the legendary Mr. Mason in the middle, between his two brothers. You can’t see his wooden leg.

There’s a lot of water in West Virginia. Grandma and Mr. Mason always lived near creeks and rivers. Sometimes the creeks — Grandma pronounced the word “crick” — were small to tiny, the sort that could be dammed with rocks by small children and hunted for crawdads, minnows and tadpoles. We would keep our captured prey in big quart Ball jars, and they would live longer than you might think until we forgot to change the water and they would die. We watched many a tadpole turn into a frog. There were bigger creeks where you could wade across though the rushing water which might come up to your knees and threaten to knock you over. And not just threaten; it would knock you over and coming home totally soaked was not unusual, or cause for much concern from any adults. Then there were the rivers, the wide, deep slow ones and the rocky rapid ones. I don’t remember anyone having a boat, even a rowboat, but you could go swimming and fishing from the shore. My mother loved to tell stories about living for several years as a child on a houseboat down on the Ohio River.

The one thing these various iterations of running water had in common was a propensity to flood, to overflow their banks and creep up on us until they were, often, at our doorstep. Or in the house.

We were visiting Grandma when several of these floods occurred.

In Beatrice, it became obvious why the house was built on brick pillars. I remember these pillars as being giant — at least twenty feet tall — but surely that’s a matter of a child’s imagination. In the Beatrice days, I was less than two feet tall; everything seemed giant to me. They probably were six or seven feet high, but not high enough, evidently, as I remember someone pointing out to me on the wallpaper where the water had come up inside the house during past floods.

My memory of the Beatrice flood is tattered, fragmented, fluttering images, muted, the colors muddy shades of sepia, like remembering a stuttering old foreign film I might have seen years ago and only dimly remember. The rain came, torrential, for several days as the river behind Grandma’s house — the Internet tells me this was probably the Hughes River — overflowed and began creeping up the flat field behind the house. Or at least this must have been the case, because my first real memory of the event was of my sister and I, holding hands, crossing the swinging bridge in front of the house in a line behind the adults. Two men were carrying an old sofa that usually sat on the front porch. It’s still raining. We trek across the dirt road in front of the house and slog up a low hill. On the top of the hill, the sofa is put down facing the house and the rising floodwaters. We all sit on the sofa, in the rain, and watch the water rise.

Could this be true? I’ll have to ask my sister.

The memory of the flood at the Walker house is clearer as I was older when Grandma and Mr. Mason lived there. We would drive to Walker at least several Sundays every month, every season except winter. I think of that drive, as a child, as taking a long time, but it was probably only a half an hour away from Parkersburg, or a bit longer because it was on dirt roads that cut through the mountains and hollows. (Pronounced “hollers.”) My sister and I loved going to Walker when we were kids. When I was older it wasn’t as much fun. I once spent a couple of weeks there by myself when I was in high school or junior high after a bout with Scarlet Fever, a disease you don’t hear much about these days. I’ve pointed out elsewhere that antibiotics, which can now quickly cure Scarlet Fever, were not as prevalent in West Virginia in those days as they are now, if they were available at all. I was really sick with a high fever, red rash and coated white tongue that is the signature of this disease. After the worst was over – it was still quite possible to die from this disease — it was decided that I would be sent to Grandma’s to recover in the fresh country air. I remember these couple of weeks as me lying on an old army cot in the sun, reading many science fiction books. By then I was an inveterate reader, so I appreciated the reading time, but with no other kids around it was pretty boring.

The flood I remember was years before this. The Walker house was small, two bedrooms on the first floor, one bedroom upstairs, kitchen and dining room. The flood was before Mr. Mason had installed indoor plumbing, so there was no bathroom, just the privy outside the house. We got our water from a red hand pump outside the kitchen door. Every time I used that pump I remembered Mr. Mason’s joke and being pissed on by the cow. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you need to go back and read the earlier entries.

The flood. Night. My sister Sandy and I were in the downstairs bedroom, our parents upstairs. I am sleeping. My sister shakes me awake. She is standing beside the bed and says, “Allen, wake up. Do you want to come outside and watch the flood?” I had no idea what she was talking about, so I said no. She walked away, and I heard her sloshing through water. I looked over the edge of the bed and saw two inches of water on the linoleum floor. I could make no sense of this, so I went back to sleep.

The next day the water had receded from the house, but, sure enough, just beyond the yard where the dirt road used to be there was now a new, fairly large river. I don’t remember anyone being particularly upset; men and women like Grandma and Mr. Mason took events like this in stride. These things were acts of nature, unavoidable regular occurrences, part of country life and would soon pass, as they always did.

We sat on the porch, watching stuff float by in the river — outhouses, trees, drowned cows with all four legs in the air, chickens on floating branches, dogs and cats on debris — while life went on pretty much normally. There was no electricity, but there wasn’t much electricity nor the need for it at the best of times. The outhouse in the side yard was high enough to remain functional and firmly grounded. The pump worked. Grandma was able to cook on the woodstove as usual. Mr. Mason rocked in his rocker on the porch and shaved strips off his wooden leg. Just another weekend at Grandma’s.

These two flood memories…

The first flood, Beatrice, may be some sort of false composite cobbled together in my mind from stories I heard, but I am fairly sure about the Walker flood. What strikes me is that when I’m gone, (dead) and my sister is gone, (dead) that these memories will be gone as well. I am aware that this is another of my hopelessly banal conclusions, platitudinous and startlingly unoriginal, but it keeps gnawing at me. These are pieces of a past that my children will never experience. Does anyone care? Are they of any worth? These memories tell me that we now make too much of the small discomforts that come of heavy snows, electrical outages, minor flooding, oh no! the Internet is out! — our modern small disasters. Back then folks took the time to sit and watch the dead cows float by, knowing that the water would soon recede and life would go on pretty much the way it had before. The continuum… well… continues… doesn’t it? Maybe they lost some stuff, but they didn’t have much to loose in the first place, so it didn’t bother them very much. I feel a musical theme or themes coming on here: first it’s Annie singing Tomorrow, now it’s Janus Joplin singing Freedom’s Just Another Word, and in the end of Gone With the Wind, Scarlett O’Hara standing in the barren field and announcing, ‘Tomorrow is another day.”

I have warned you before, Dear Reader: If you are searching for complex philosophy, soaring images and deep thoughts, look not to these pages.

I have only stories to tell.

#7 — Searching for Crawdads and Mr. Mason


Above image: Sandy and Allen, turning over rocks and catching crawdads.

Some time after Grandma Emma received her divorce from Mr. Bush, the man who was a bald as an egg, this was many years before they sent her to the nursing home back when she was young and vigorous, she married Mr. Mason. We never called him Grandpa. He was always Mr. Mason.

Mr. Mason was an almost mythic figure. My father always said of him, with great fondness and respect, that he was “a man’s man,” though at the time I couldn’t puzzle out what that meant at all. I remember him as a giant with dark leathery skin; he appeared to me to have been hewn from an old log. (Which was close to being true, as you shall see.) He was always dressed in one of two outfits: denim coveralls and a pale blue workshirt for working around the farm, or a matching khaki shirt and pants for Sunday dinner and sitting with us or other company. Here are a few Mr. Mason images.

I would watch Mr. Mason get up on Sunday mornings when he and Grandma were living at Walker, WV. My bedroom that I shared with my sister was across the dining room from his bedroom, and while lying in bed in the early morning I could easily see him when he heaved himself, with a great creaking of bedsprings, up into a sitting position. Grandma would have been up for hours preparing a tremendous breakfast. He would laboriously pull his coveralls up over his long johns, which he wore year-round. Then he would sit on the edge of the bed and take a big old brown bottle of his SSS tonic and pour the first of four large tablespoonfuls of the dark liquid into a battered cooking spoon he kept by his bedside. My father laughed when I asked him about this medicine; I thought maybe Mr. Mason might be sick. He told me in later years that Mr. Mason needed the Triple S to get himself going in the morning as it had a high alcohol content. (A quick stroll over into Google-land tells me that they’re still making the tonic and you can buy it at your local Walgreens! And that yes indeed, it is 12.5 % alcohol, so that makes it 25 proof, which is higher than wine or beer by far. So after his tonic and sitting on the edge of the bed a bit longer, Mr. Mason would tug on his battered boots, go visit the outdoor privvy and come back in for breakfast. His favorite breakfast food was two boiled chicken feet that stood upright and alone in the center of his plate. They were always there when he sat down at the table. He would gnaw on these before tucking into the eggs, biscuits, ham, more chicken, gravy and all the other regular breakfast fare that Grandma always served.

One day, long before I was born, a man came by the farm and gave Mr. Mason a slice of cantaloupe. Evidently no one in this rural area of West Virginia had ever eaten a cantaloupe. The man said they grew all over down in Florida. Mr. Mason finished his slice, turned away, walked to his truck, fired it up and drove off. Three days later he was back with an entire truckload of cantaloupes, which he drove around giving to neighbors on other farms. He had driven straight down to Florida and back without stopping, which was the kind of man that Mr. Mason was.

We would sit on the porch of an evening at grandma’s. The grown-ups sat in rocking chairs and talked, and the kids — my sister and I and various cousins — lounged around on the grey-painted, wooden porch floor listening and playing. After a while, Mr. Mason would cross one leg over the other and take out his penknife. As I watched, surely with bulging eyes, Mr. Mason would slowly open his knife and draw the blade up his lower leg, shaving off long, paper-thin slices of… skin?

Mr. Mason had a wooden leg, which no one had ever told me about. I don’t remember ever seeing him strap it on in the morning when he would get dressed. Maybe he slept with it on and his long johns covered the attachment. When I was very young, I remember being very confused when he would this thing with his knife, as it looked like a real leg to me. He had made the leg himself, carving it out of a downed tree limb, and it was the same color as his tanned, leathery skin. The story of the wooden leg that my father told me in later years was that Mr. Mason had been an oilman in the early days of the West Virginia oil boom. He had been working high on a rig that began to collapse beneath him, whereupon he leapt off and hit the ground injuring his leg so badly he had to have it amputated. Mr. Mason was philosophical about this and passed along a valuable piece of information to my father which was then passed on to me: “If you’re ever high up on something that starts to fall, do not jump off, ride ‘er to the ground.” I have found this to be very useful advice both in matters of oilrigs and general life conditions. When she starts to fall, never jump, always ride ‘er to the ground.

Both their farms, at Beatrice and at Walker, were quite near small rivers and creeks. Unfortunately, creeks and rivers can become problems when they flood, a not uncommon phenomena in West Virginia at least in those days. I don’t know how many times Grandma and Mr. Mason were chased from their homes by floodwater, but it was often enough that they were pretty blasé about it. We loved playing in the creeks and rivers and would spend entire afternoons looking for crawdads under rocks and building pools and dams. The big river nearby was great for swimming and fishing, and we were allowed to go and play in it whenever we wanted. No adults tagged along to fuss around make sure we weren’t swept away.

On occasion, the members of the local Baptist church would show up, ten or twenty of them, and baptize congregants by fully immersing them in the water. They would sing the hymn, Shall We Gather By the River, over and over as the adults and children were plunged beneath the water by the preacher, to be lifted up and held as the water streamed down their beatific faces and the Holy Spirit bathed them clean of sin. We kept quiet and were respectful and even though we were young children we seemed to be aware of the spirituality of the occasion and the elemental beauty of the ritual and that ragged old hymn.

Mr. Mason was the cause of another of those adult betrayal experiences that I had as a small boy, like the doctor lying to me, though he never knew it. As I have said before, my memories were mostly happy and hopeful, and the confusion and betrayals were few, shallow, and hardly hurtful. But perhaps because of the overall happiness they were, in relation, painful, at least for a little boy.

I, like most all children, loved helping my father, and I loved helping Mr. Mason around the farm. One day, I was probably eight years old, he told me he was going to plant beans in the garden and would I help. Of course I would. He had plowed the kitchen garden, which was quite large, and he went down the long rows piling the rich dirt into mounds. I followed closely along behind him. He showed me how to take three bean seeds and plant them in the hills, equidistant from one another and then cover them with dirt. We worked our way along until we had planted the entire bean field. I don’t know how long we were at it, but I was exhausted by the end of the day. Mr. Mason told me I had done a good job.

That night we were sitting on the porch after dinner. My mom and dad were there, as was my Aunt Betty and Uncle Charlie and their son, my cousin Johnny. My sister and I liked Johnny, though he was younger and littler and the butt of many of our adventures into the hills around Grandma’s house. Everyone was in their rockers, and someone commented on how they noticed that Mr. Mason had got his beans in just that very day. Mr. Mason said, yes, he had, and he could never have done it without his very good helper. I heard this exchange and sat up straight, knowing that I was about to be singled out for praise. Then Mr. Mason continued, saying that he could have done it without the help of young Johnny!

I was stuck dumb. Mr. Mason went on to pile a few more accolades atop Johnny’s head, and all the adults chimed in about how Johnny was turning into a real little man and some day he’d be a real farmer and have his own place to grow beans and wasn’t little Johnny just the best?

No! Wait! Stop! It wasn’t Johnny! It was me! I’m the real little man, someday I would have my own farm!

That was the voice in my head, screaming at the injustice. But I somehow knew that I shouldn’t try and correct the record, that it would be disrespectful to question Mr. Mason, who obviously couldn’t tell one boy from another. And that little bastard Johnny just sat there on the porch playing with his toy cars, unaware of the angst and pain coursing through my body.

See? I told you these memories were small, inconsequential things. But I still remember them, especially these faint betrayals. This was just one more in a bagful that when taken out and lined up on the porch railing become lessons learned, necessary corrections to a child’s notions of the infallibility of adults.

Welcome to the world, Allen.