I was sitting on the couch in my living room the other day reading a book. I looked at the mantel over the fireplace where we have a thick scattering of old pictures and unusual knick-knacks. There’s an old photograph of me, taken the day of my christening, seventy years ago. My grandfather, who was a Lutheran minister, is holding me. My father — young, slicked back hair, handsome — is standing with us. I notice how tall my father is. And how short my grandfather was. And I realize that my father wasn’t tall at all. He was actually shorter than I am now, so he must have been around five feet six inches. Or less. My grandfather comes up to around my father’s chin.
Jesus, I thought, he was really short. What? Five feet tall? Less than that?
Why have I never realized this about my grandfather before? I’m sure, dear reader, you are probably sick of my coming to these size-related epiphanies after seventy years of the blatantly obvious. But there they are. I’m mystified at my own cluelessness as well.
Some of my first real memories were occasioned by my Grandfather Appel. I understand that some of what I’m putting down here is probably false, or at least tinged by recollections that I heard from other family members or just made up in my own head. I’m trying to keep it as honest as possible, but honesty is probably, at least in a remembrance like this one, not going to be strictly possible. Or even necessary. Or valuable.
My grandparents, my father’s parents, lived in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. I remember their house as vast, with grounds that extended in the back to a sylvan woods and garden, choked with rose bushes and grottos where you could sit on shaded benches, peering out through lush vegetation, seeing, but not being seen. Years — many years later — on a trip with my mother back to Bethlehem, we found their little house, and I would realize, once again, that it was me that was so small, not that the house was so large. The yard looked to be simply a yard, not the bosky gardens that I remember.
My tiny grandfather was a Lutheran minister. His wife, my grandmother, was a thin dour lady who would later contract diabetes and spend her waning years sitting in one of the first recliner chairs I had ever seen. In those years she lived with my aunt and uncle in Bethlehem. We would travel there on vacation for a week every year and stay at their house. It was a cheap vacation, all we could afford, and it never seemed to me that they were ever all that happy to see us roll up in the Chevy station wagon. Shortly after arriving we would have to go and sit with sourpuss grandma for a few minutes and ask her how she was doing. This was excruciating to us kids. We had no idea what to say to her, and she was as old as God and smelled as sour as she looked. I’m sure she enjoyed it no more than we did. Even my dad looked pained as he sat and attempted to make conversation with her.
“So, how are you doing, Mom?”
And she would give him a look that showed just how stupid she thought the question was.
But Grandpa Appel was a wonderful man. I must have been five or six years old when he died, but I clearly remember some of our visits there. Every evening we, my sister and I, would be given baths in the same tub, then dried and put into pajamas, and then Grandpa would come in the bedroom with tiny glasses of grape juice, the glasses being the ones he used in the communion ceremony, as was the grape juice “wine” for our midnight snack. After which we would go to sleep in the same room that my father lived in when he was a child.
When we were a bit older, my dad would tell us a story of lying in bed in this room, recovering from typhoid fever, when the First World War ended, November 11, 1918. (I just looked it up. It was the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Isn’t it interesting that I have the exact date and time that my father had this experience.) He would have been seven years old, and hearing the church bells throughout the city of Bethlehem as they chimed to mark the end of the war. At the same moment as he watched out the window a horse that was hauling a wagon fell in its traces and sprawled in the street, unable to get up. The driver shot and killed the horse. This image – my father watching this scene out the window, the bells pealing — sat in my child brain with little or no adornment. I had no idea what to make of it. I still don’t know what to do with it, except it would probably make a great opening for a novel.
One day as a child I was sitting on the floor in the living room in Bethlehem, and I heard Grandpa Appel answer the telephone. He began speaking in a language I didn’t understand. I had no idea what a foreign language was. I would later learn that Grandpa was speaking Pennsylvania Dutch, which was common at the time. I thought that somehow he had gone insane, not that I understood what going insane was. All I knew was that I was terrified. This memory is interesting because I had absolutely no context to explain it. My Grandfather was simply jabbering, as if he were a baby. As I said, it terrified me.
On Sunday mornings we would lay on the floor and “read” the Sunday comics, which meant a man on the radio would read the comics as my grandfather would point out the correct strip and the correct panel while the man read. Dick Tracy, Orphan Annie, The Katzenjammer Kids. I remember them clearly. I remember being told that the man reading the comics was the mayor of New York, Fiorella LaGuardia. I just looked this up. Wikipedia says that this did indeed occur, Fiorella LaGuardia reading the comics over the radio every Sunday, but it was during a newspaper strike on August, 1945, at which point I would have been eight months old, so this is a “false” memory. I think I was three or four years old and Grandfather Appel was doing the reading and the pointing. I believe that this “reading” the comics led to my love of reading comic books and instilled in me a desire to read everything else, instilled a love of stories that stayed with me until I became the man who writes novels and this memoir.
How far I have strayed from my band days. Band uniforms. From what I gather from reading the Facebook, Once a Big Red, Always a Big Red site, band members today must buy their own uniforms. Ours were on loan to us throughout our four years and then turned back in on graduation. Here’s my memory of picking out our uniforms. We’re in the band room, and Frank has dragged out racks of uniforms for us, the new crop of freshmen, to try on. This memory is actually less clear than lying on the floor and listening to the Mayor of New York read me the comics. Anyone out there who is reading this, I’d appreciate knowing if I have it right, this trying on of uniforms. Where did these uniforms come from? I think now that there was a warren of rooms under the stadium that were band-connected, where the uniforms were stored. We tried on pants and jackets in a chaotic manner, and Frank sat at his desk and watched and cleaned his fingernails. It must have been a fairly simple procedure with racks of uniforms arranged by size. The problem was, yes, the smallest pants on the rack were way too large for me. I was terrified, but I had to ask for Frank’s help. Picture me, this little boy, probably in my underpants, holding up a pair of uniform pants that were far too large. He left the room and went in the back, and after awhile he came back with a pair of pants that dated from an earlier generation of uniforms, pants that were slightly off-color and with a slightly different color of stripe running down the side. They still didn’t fit, but these were evidently the smallest pants to be had, so Frank said to take them to my mother and she’d have to make them fit. This was before the pegged pants incident, so I had no idea what I was going to do.
Fortunately, I found a jacket and belt that fit fairly well, so I wasn’t completely humiliated. I took the pants home and my mother must have taken them to a tailor. I think the amount of work to get them to fit me was beyond even her talents. The entire four years in high school I never asked for a larger size. It seems I didn’t grow. As usual, I didn’t notice.
OK, one more uniform story.
I enrolled in West Virginia University as a freshman in 1962. I was 17 years old. WVU was, and may still be, a Land Grant College. I’ll spare you the long version, but Land Grant College legislation was enacted by the government in 1862 to allow poor people like me access to an affordable college education in which we were taught the values and techniques of agriculture and military science. By the time I arrived at WVU, that meant you had to take ROTC your freshman year. ROTC means Reserve Officer Training Corps. Excuse me if this sounds like I’m talking to a fourth grader, but I have a feeling there are plenty of people out there who don’t know what ROTC was. You had to take one year of military classes; if you re-upped for a second year after graduation you would automatically go into the US Army in the officer training program and come out the other end as a Second Lieutenant. And in my day that meant you would be headed straight to Vietnam. This was before the lottery system.
All the male freshmen were required to take ROTC. This meant we had classes a couple of days a week, learned to march, some basic military theory, how to take an M1 rifle apart and put it back together. Not that we ever got to shoot one.
OK, review the last paragraph. One of the things we had to learn was how to march. And who was the best marcher in the entire freshman class at WVU? Yup.
After all, I had four years of practice and had gotten my ass kicked enough times to drill the basics into me until they were engrained in every fiber of my body.
Early in the semester, we reported to the guys who handed out army uniforms for the ROTC class. I know you can see this coming. After a frustrating half an hour – frustrating for the poor guy who was handing out the uniforms – I was told to leave without a uniform and expect to be called back in later. Eventually, I received a notice that I had to see the head of the ROTC program. This meeting took place in the campus armory, where we had our ROTC classes. The armory was a big, old wooden building that smelled of wool uniforms, gun oil and dust.
I dutifully reported to the commanding officer’s office. The craggy, buzz cut, grey-haired US Army officer looked up from a stack of papers. I didn’t know if I was supposed to salute, so I just stood there in a parade-rest attitude.
“Son,” the officer said, sadly, “I’m sorry to have to report that we did a thorough search and there is no uniform in the entire United States Army that is small enough to fit you. I’m afraid that you’ll have to take part in all the normal activities that come with being an ROTC (pronounced Rot-see) cadet, only you will be wearing your street clothes.” He looked like he expected me to be crushed by this news. I put on what I hoped was a mournful look, saluted and left the office.
So I attended all the normal duties — marching, etc. — except I got to laugh at all the poor bastards who had to wear their US Army uniforms all day the two days a week we had ROTC classes. Hot wool uniforms, winter and summer, and you had to wear them from morning till night, not just to class. This culminated in a year-end military graduation ceremony that was held on the football field in front of a reviewing stand. There I was, leading my freshman ROTC class, complete with flying flags and a rifle-carrying honor guard down the field as I piped out the marching orders in my high clear voice. Dressed in my street clothes. It must have been quite a sight: the tiniest man/boy in the US Army.
After the review, the head officer, the man who told me there was no uniform for me, called me into his office again and tried to convince me to enroll for a second year in the program. He was sure a growth spurt would hit me at some point in the next four years (it turned out he was correct) and that a smart fellow like myself who could march so well, lead the troops on field and got good grades in his military studies (it wasn’t particularly difficult to manage that) would have a fine future in the US Army. And they would pay for my education. I turned him down.
I never told my parents of the offer. They would have pressed me to accept. I knew it wasn’t easy for them to come up with the money for both me and my sister to go to school, but, as we used to say, the times they were a-changing and the hippie days were descending upon us even in West Virginia, and the antiwar movement was beginning to build. Several years later I learned how smart my not joining up was.
One of my friends in the band, Mike Reeler (saxophone) went to Ohio State University after high school on a Navy ROTC scholarship and hated it. Or at least he hated the ROTC part. But he was a kid without a lot of money and needed the scholarship. Towards the end of his senior year, he was doing badly in one of his military classes because he mostly skipped going to class and was warned that if he didn’t pull his grade up he would lose his scholarship and wouldn’t be allowed to go into the Navy! He saw this as his ticket out of the program and proceeded to flunk the course on purpose, which infuriated his officers. They vowed revenge. Two weeks after he graduated he was drafted into the Army, two weeks after he graduated from boot camp he was sent to Vietnam and two weeks after that he was dead. A sad end to a great guy.
I didn’t get drafted when I eventually graduated, but that’s another story for another time.