#19 Leave it to the Beaver



We didn’t eat out often; we didn’t have the money for it, and my dad ate out in barrooms every night during the week, so when he came back to Parkersburg he wanted home-cooked food. Even so, there were a few places we went to. My favorite, and where we went with regularity, was The Clam House on 7th street. We would always walk through the dimly-lit first floor dining area and head upstairs where there were booths and a colorful, bright jukebox. There was usually no one up there besides us, which my parents liked because my sister and I could walk around, play the jukebox and goof off while my mom and dad enjoyed their own company. Did they serve alcohol there? I can’t remember. If so, my dad would have been drinking a beer.

My sister and mom usually ordered the shrimp, I can’t remember what my dad ate, and I always had the frog’s legs, a delicacy that you don’t find in restaurants much these days. When I do locate it on a menu and order it, I don’t find it nearly as exotic or delicious as I did back then.

As I would eat my frog legs, my dad would sometimes tell stories of when he was a young man and worked during the summers in the Adirondack Mountains at a resort for wealthy vacationers. One of the unusual tasks assigned to him was to take the young ladies of the gentility out in little rowboats where they, the ladies, would sit in the front of the boat as he rowed them along the banks. When they spotted a bullfrog, the ladies would take shots at them with miniature, silver-plated BB guns. It was an image we always remarked on: silver BB guns! Who could imagine such a thing? Surely these must have been the richest people in the world. If they hit the frogs, Dad collected them and the catch was brought back to the kitchen and would be served later that evening to the huntresses for dinner. And isn’t that a vision of a world long gone?

It was at the Clam House that I had another of my revelations into the pain of being not believed by adults. The Clam House had a garden beside the restaurant, situated between the restaurant and another building about fifteen feet away. There was a small artificial stream that meandered along in a concrete gutter in this little garden. There were a few decorations, primarily a walking bridge over the concrete stream and a four-foot tall windmill of the type you might find at a miniature golf course. Were there goldfish in the stream? Probably not, but maybe. While waiting for our food to arrive, I would be allowed to go downstairs and walk around this mini-garden. One afternoon, I must have been six or seven, I came face to face with a “beaver” sitting on the little bridge. No one else was around. We locked eyes, boy and beaver. Surely this was a tame animal, brought in by Old Captain Doug to lend some realism to the garden? Would he (the beaver, not Captain Doug) dam the concrete stream with concrete logs and create his own pond right here next to the Clam House?

I approached the bridge where the little fellow was sitting up on his hind legs, staring at me. Maybe I could I pet him.

Suddenly he charged straight at me and before I could dodge the attack, he bit me savagely on the shin and ran off. I was stunned. I ran back upstairs, blurted out my story and showed my parents the two angry red beaver bite marks on my shin. There was no blood, but there were a couple of serious red dents. Everyone laughed at me. Beavers! they exclaimed, there are no beavers at the Clam House!

I was crushed. Mortified. When our dinner orders arrived my frog legs were as ashes in my mouth, and I was close to tears. Every once in awhile I checked my beaver bite. The two teeth marks, and the pain, slowly faded. But the humiliation remained.

On thinking back now I guess I had confronted a groundhog, not a beaver, but surely someone should have believed this small boy. But no, they did not, and one more black mark against unfair, disbelieving adults was chalked up on my growing list of grievances.

There may have been fancier restaurants in town, but we didn’t frequent them. I remember spaghetti joints and home-cooking places and barrooms that served food as well as beer.

My one experience of fine dining came courtesy of my band friend Bill Shattuck’s father. I’m not going to give him a fake name because I admired him so much. He was a tall (of course everyone was tall to me) handsome man who had a commanding air about him, which befitted his status as an executive at one of the chemical plants that lined the nearby Ohio River. Mr. Shattuck liked me, though I have no idea what he saw in this undersized, teenaged West Virginia rube. Maybe he thought of me as something of a “project,” in that I was a nice kid who didn’t have many opportunities of the type his son, my friend, enjoyed and that he would, graciously, give me some and pointers. Whatever reason, he was one of the kindest men I have known. He actually once took me along on a business trip to Chicago even though Bill decided he didn’t want to go. I’m sure I embarrassed him by standing on the broad avenues, slack-jawed, staring in wonder at the towering buildings around me. We flew in an airplane (I know, what else would we fly in?) to get to Chicago, obviously my first airplane ride. I remember it vividly. The plane was a DC-3, a plane that saw much service in WWII. If I had examined the fuselage I might have found patches indicating where the plane had been hit by flack while attempting a bombing run on some Nazi outpost. It had two prop engines and since the back wheel was much smaller than the front it sat back on its tail. You entered through a hatch toward the rear of the airplane and had to climb up what seemed like a fairly steep incline to get to your seat. The thing I remember most about this airplane was that there was a handrail that ran down the center of the aisle that you used to help haul yourself up. This handrail was made of a piece of pipe just like the ones in the basement of our house that carried the hot and cold water. It had regular pipe fittings at the ends and was attached by bolts at the bottom on the floor of the plane. Even to one as inexperienced as myself it seemed like a pretty crude solution to the problem of putting in a handrail. I had a moment’s worry when I saw this, wondering if that’s what I could see, what else was in this plane that I couldn’t see? Were the engines held on by 2×4’s hammered in with ten-penny nails? Anyway, it took off just fine and we made it to Chicago and back without trouble.

Around the time of my joining the band, my first year in high school, the Shattucks invited to me to dinner at the country club they belonged to. This was standard fare for Bill, but for me it was a special, and daunting occasion. We sat down at an elegant, to me, table with a white tablecloth, crystal clear drinking glasses and lots of silver implements. Of course I was in my best clothes, yes, that damned striped Sears and Roebuck clown coat. I was handed a menu the length and breadth of which I had never seen before. Once again I have to repeat, I wasn’t stupid, I had read a ton of books and seen plenty of movies where fancy people sat down in fancy restaurants and ordered fancy meals, it was just that I wasn’t one of those people. I could read, yes, make sense of the menu offerings, yes, but the etiquette challenges in this undertaking were a vast looming chasm, on the brink of which I precariously balanced. After I found the entrees — I wasn’t even going to think about the appetizer section – a quick search showed me they didn’t sell frogs legs, so there was not going to be an easy out for me. Wise Mr. Shattuck, sensing my stupidity and hesitation, suggested that the steak was very good there.

Steak! I knew what steak was! On rare, ceremonial occasions my dad would cook steaks at home, always T-bones. It was one of the few foods that he alone prepared, along with grilled hamburgers and hotdogs, baked banana bread and showing us how to eat sardines on crackers, which my mother loathed. We were only permitted to eat sardines after she had gone to bed on the weekend.

I found the steak section on the menu. My mind boggled at the prices. I decided that I would order ground steak, whatever that was, because it was the cheapest steak dish offered. Wasn’t this the way a good guest should behave?

When the waiter came to take my order, I ordered the ground steak, which came with green beans and a baked potato. I was on pretty solid ground with green beans and a potato. After I told the waiter my selection, Mr. Shattuck said, quietly, while pretending to scrutinize the menu, “I’m sure the ground steak is very good, Allen, but might I suggest that you try the rib steak? I’ve had it here many times, and I think you’ll like it.”

I understood he was tossing me a lifeline, so I grabbed it, nodding sagely to the waiter, agreeing to the rib steak, grateful to Mr. Shattuck for being a host who treated me with the utmost generosity, delicacy and tact. Gratitude washed over me.

When I cut into my thick, juicy, rare steak — my father taught me that we Appels always ordered our meat rare, our liquor straight, and our iced tea unsweetened — I suddenly understood that in the realms of the moneyed classes and in the larger world that existed beyond Maxwell Avenue, a steak was not just a steak. The T-bones my dad brought home were good, yes, but they were thin, poor relations to this beauty that sat on my plate, swimming in its ruby red juices. It was a marvel to me. Each bite was a new experience. I could have closed my eyes and wept.

But we are not yet done with this amazing meal.

We were all sawing away at our steaks except Bill’s mom, who was smoking a cigarette and drinking a martini. She was a tall, (dear reader, I’m sorry I always begin my physical descriptions with the word tall, but by now you know why) thin, elegant woman who I never saw eat anything. I think she was far more interested in the martini than the food. I had never seen a person in real life drink a martini.

I saw Bill, across the table from me, butter up his baked potato and slather on a thick white substance that was in a small bowl in front of us. “What’s that?” I asked.

“Sour cream,” Bill said, piling some more on. “Try it, it’s good.” If he was mystified at my ignorance, he didn’t show it. Maybe they had a pre-meal meeting where everyone discussed how to treat me, the ignorant simpleton dressed in his clown coat of many colors, without hurting my feelings. At any rate, no one laughed. I hesitantly spooned a dollop of sour cream on my potato.

Oh, God, it was delicious, the sour mixing with the sweet butter to flavor what was just an ordinary potato, lifting that simple vegetable onto a new, unknown to me, level of foodness.

As I sat there, eating my potato, I wondered how on earth something that was soured, this cream, could be so exquisite. Didn’t soured mean spoiled? Not for the first time, I wondered what else was out there in the wide world that I had absolutely no knowledge or experience of. Well, it turns out there was, and is, still a hell of a lot out there.

I have since eaten in some of the greatest restaurants in the world. My son is a chef in a three star Michelin restaurant, and he has cooked things for me that would astonish anyone.

But that simple potato, served to me back in Parkersburg, West Virginia, 55 years ago, remains the greatest food that I have ever eaten.


#18 You Want to Fight?



One of the trips my first year in the band, fall of 1959, was a bus trip to some small high school with a ramshackle stadium, and, probably, a hapless football team that was destined to be steamrolled by the juggernaut that was the Big Red football program. I have forgotten what the school was named or where it was, but I remember their stadium as being sad, old, and beat-up. Of course no stadium looked as good as PHS in those days. In the next three years we never went back to wherever this was. I wonder if it was because of what went on with the band after the end of the football game.

We were forming up on the cinder track, getting ready to go on at halftime. We were down at the end of the field, a good distance from the sparsely attended ramshackle bleachers. There was a chain-link fence that separated us from a dimly lit parking lot. As we were waiting, a gang of around a dozen young men sauntered up out of the parking lot, scattered along the chain link fence and started yelling at us. I can’t remember the threats and curses of the time, but it’s a safe bet the word “queers” was somewhere in there. Frank said something to the head drum major, and he whistled us into formation and attention. Frank gave us an “eyes front,” so we weren’t looking at the gang. We knew better than to break formation or say anything. We waited. We ignored their taunts. Frank stood in front of the band.

A loud clang rang like a brass bell as a rock struck one of the big sousaphones. Frank came trotting back beside us at the fence. The following conversation took place. Maybe not in these exact words, but this is the way I remember it.

Frank: “What do you guys want?”

These guys were what we called greasers or hoods, a term I’ve explained earlier. They weren’t high-schoolers, were probably drop-outs, but they weren’t really functioning adults yet either. They had hood hairstyles, long greasy hair swirled into pompadours or the ever-popular buzz cut. They wore hood clothes: leather jackets, white T-shirts, cuffed blue jeans and heavy black boots. James Dean-style hoods.

Gang leader: “We want to kick your queer asses.”

Frank: “We’re not interested. We’re busy.” He glanced over at the field and saw that the home team band was finishing up whatever pathetic drill they had put on, (they were the sort of band who allowed girls as members and carried their music on their arms) and that we needed to get into place behind the goalposts. He turned away and trotted back toward the front of the band.

Clang! Another rock hit a sousaphone, and Frank went into full Teutonic, V-2 rocket mode. He ran back to where the hoods were.

“OK,” Frank yelled at the leader, “You want a fight? You’ve got it. We’ll meet you back here after the game. You’d better round up some more guys, because we are going to kick your asses. Right here! After the game!” He whirled around and blew his whistle and the drum major blew his and the drummers got us marching to our position. We did the drill and went back to the sidelines where the rest of the football game played out. Nobody talked about what Frank had said. He stood off to the side by himself, which is where he always stood, dealing with his fingernails as always, but you could tell he was really pissed off. The game ended. Frank came to the front as we were getting up from our chairs.

“Leave your instruments, we’ll get them later. Form up on the track and get into position. Some guys want to fight us, so we’ll fight. Nobody throws rocks at the Big Red Band. The older guys will tell you what to do.” He walked over to the cinder track and waited.

This was pretty thrilling. Good thing I couldn’t see myself — there I was, this tiny kid putting his piccolo down and turning to one of the older guys. A few of us gathered around him (clarinet) and he gave us a demonstration. The rest of the guys were huddled in small groups.

“Take off your belt,” the older boy said. We wore what is called a Sam Brown belt. The always helpful Wiki tells me it was named for its inventor, Sam Brown — what a surprise — who was a soldier who had had his left arm cut off in a sabre fight and needed a way to keep his blade from clanking around when he was running into battle, one-armed. What typifies the belt is a smaller belt that runs from left to right over the shoulder, which allows the waist belt to hold up any amount of equipment that you want to pile on. The main part of our belt, the part that goes around the waist, was four inches wide, white, and had a very large, square, brass buckle in the front. I see from videos of today’s Big Red Band the belts now have two crosspieces over each shoulder. The older guy showed us how to wrap the belt around your fist so that the belt buckle ended up on the knuckle portion of your hand. That way when you punched someone the buckle did some serious damage, especially if the prong thing happened to be sticking forward when the punch was thrown. Let it be noted that belts of this type could also be usefully employed in a fight by swinging them overhead and smashing them into opposing faces, but we, the band, did our fighting in close formation and didn’t have room to swing anything without possibly hitting our own guys.

I wrapped my belt around my tiny fist and was inordinately proud. I was a warrior, going into my first battle. The drum major whistled us into close formation, four abreast, on the narrow cinder track.

Being the drum major of the band was an extremely important position. Traditionally, the DM is, physically, a big guy. Historically, and by that I mean back in history, part of the DM’s job was to preside over any flogging that had to be done, not that there was any flogging being done in the Big Red Band. Just ass kicking. That year, my first year in the band, our drum major was really tall (especially when I stood next to him) and really tough. He wore one of those beaver fur hats, the sort that the guards at Buckingham palace wear only white, and he carried a long, heavy baton, which he could use to beat the shit out of people. With the hat, our guy stood around eight feet tall. Picture him at the front of our Big Red phalanx as we marched into battle.

We had to exit the stadium, which by now was largely empty, and make our way around back to the dark parking lot. I’m sure that Frank was hoping for a certain amount of discretion on our part, as what we were about to do would surely be frowned on by any authorities. We were in a really hick burg; who knows what side the cops would be on? Even Frank wasn’t about to take on guys with guns.

Today, what we were about to do would be considered insane, especially because the gang we would be going up against would be armed with street weapons featuring names like Glock and Beretta. Back then there were knives and whatever clubs could be picked up along the way.

One of the many things that struck me as we went about getting ready for the fight was how calm and matter-of-fact everyone was. The new guys kept their mouths shut because they knew they had nothing to add and everything to learn by paying close attention, and the older guys acted like it was completely familiar and nothing to get excited about, as if they had made these preparations many times before. And perhaps they had, I didn’t know, this was my first year. As always, everyone seemed perfectly confident that the band would prevail.

Picture it. We were drawn up in a solid, tight formation, red uniformed phalanx. In front was the head drum major, an eight-foot giant wielding a long metal pole. There were a couple of slightly smaller drum majors just behind him. And by his side was our stone-faced, very pissed off German leader, Never-Throw-Rocks-At-My-Sousaphones, Frank. Frank tossed out a command, “On the rim.” The drum major lifted his baton and brought it smartly down and the drums began the cadence.

“On the rim” meant the drummers used the wooden rim of the drumhead, rather that the drumhead itself. This was employed when we wanted to get someplace fairly quietly, but still needed the cadence to stay in step. It produces an odd sound, and on this night, lit by the stadium lights behind us and headed for a dark parking lot, it sounded like the rattle of old, dry bones. Our shoes crunched in unison on the cinder track. Other than these two sounds there was complete silence.

As we approached the lot, we saw the gang appearing out of the shadows. They had indeed called up some reinforcements. Twenty or thirty of them were walking slowly toward us. Some of them were carrying baseball bats and lengths of wood. I was scared shitless but marched along in step with everyone else.

Frank nodded at the drum major who blew a long, very loud blast on his whistle, and the drummers switched from the rim to the head of the drums. After the ominous clacking of the rims, the effect of the massed drums was thundering. I wish I could have stepped aside and just watched this sight: the solid band of red-uniformed young men, belt-wrapped fists, the roaring of the drums. I’m sure it was impressive. Even now it gives me a slight chill remembering it.

After standing their ground for about five seconds, the gawking gang melted away back into the darkness. In another five seconds they were gone. The drum major whistled us to a halt, and we stood there, in the dark, at attention, in complete silence. After a minute, Frank said, “At ease. Go get your instruments and get on the bus. It’s over.”

And it was.

Here’s a lesson about Frank Schroeder. He was never a friend to any of us. He was hard man and took no crap from anyone. He would kick your ass if you screwed up. He demanded as much perfection as he could wring from 80 high-spirited, young men. And he got very angry when anyone threw stones at his sousaphones. You may not have liked him, but by God, you feared and respected him.


#17 Rocket Boys

allen and Rusty science fair

The picture is of me on the left and Rusty on the right in Rusty’s basement with our science project. We were converting electricity through heat. Our pal Stoney was involved with the project as well. Are there two more dorkey-looking teenagers in the entire world? If you don’t know who Rusty is, read the entry, #15 The Carnegie Library, Den of iniquity.

Rusty and I found each other in the first year of the band. He wasn’t much bigger than I was, we shared a love of books and classical music, and we were equally inept at finding girlfriends. Rusty was shyer than I, but he was far smarter. Where I maintained a straight C average, (with other highs and lows) he received mostly A’s. He studied; I didn’t. We teamed up to be in the Science Fair together and won one of the top prizes. In a pale imitation of the young man who wrote the bestselling book, Rocket Boy, the writer Homer Hickam from Coalwood, West Virginia, we even crafted an elegant model rocket. More on that adventure below. After reading Hickam’s excellent rocket book many years later, my mother would tell anyone who would listen that Hickam had stolen the idea of building rockets from her son’s foray into that field.

Rusty lived about twenty miles outside of town, so we mostly hung around together in school. His father was a silent, gruff, tough man who scared the shit out of me. It was clear (or at least I thought it was clear) that his father didn’t much care for Rusty’s pursuits – playing classical piano, reading, getting good grades, being in the band and hating all sports – and he didn’t like me. When he spoke to us at all the tone was slightly scornful, a tone that made me feel even smaller than I was.

His mother, on the other hand, liked me. Even more than my other friend’s mothers, she was quiet, and I never could tell what she was thinking. She was an attractive blond and when we were at Rusty’s house you never knew where she was, always sitting quietly by herself in one of the rooms of her impeccably clean house.

One day I was headed to the bathroom, coming upstairs from the basement where we hatched all of our science and other projects, and I heard a bird singing in the house, loudly, unlike any bird I had ever heard. I came into the kitchen and found Rusty’s mother sitting at the kitchen table, looking at a bright yellow canary in a domed wire cage. (I almost wrote “doomed wire cage.”) The bird continued to sing, and Rusty’s mom smiled at me. The birdsong was beautiful — clear, liquid. I think this moment sparked my lifelong interest in canaries and birds in general. As an adult I raised them and became an avid bird watcher. I didn’t say anything, not wanting to break such an obvious spell. I smiled back and walked through the living room to the bathroom. When I came back out I stood in the living room for a minute, watching Rusty’s mother. She didn’t see me in the other room. The sun had come out from behind a cloud and light streamed through the kitchen window directly on her and the canary. The scene was splashed a golden yellow: her hair, the bird, the table. Her smile had vanished, replaced by the saddest, most faraway look that I had ever seen on an adult. Once again, the symbolism is obvious as I write about this moment — the lonely wife, the taciturn, remote husband who kept her trapped — not in the tower of a castle — but in this ordinary suburban home.

Remember, I was a very young man and had grown up reading romantic adventure books where such heroes, heroines and villains were commonplace. Life then (my real life) was a series of events that occurred one after another, and I encountered them, dealt with them and moved on to the next. There’s not much room for introspection in a fourteen-year-old boy’s mind.

I went downstairs and continued whatever project Rusty and I were working on. But I have never forgotten the image of that moment, and the story that my mind made up about it. The only thing missing was a hero to come riding in to rescue the Princess. I wonder if somehow that moment was a seed, implanted in my subconscious that many years later bloomed into my garden of novels. All of which, God help me, hew fairly closely to that old formula: Villain, Hero, Doomed Princess.

Can a single moment shape a future? I don’t know. But I think, from this 50-year distance, that it’s possible that just such a moment can color a future. Ah, it’s so hard to say, to guess, to make these connections. All we have are our memories. Who can say what they mean?


OK, the rocket mentioned above. In a less science-inspired moment, Rusty and I decided to build a small rocket that we would fire off in some as yet thought of location. At the expense of once again sounding like an old geezer, (“By cracky, I remember helping the Wright boys get that damn contraption into the air.”) you might remember this was just around the time that Russia launched their Sputnik into space. Even West Virginians were excited about the possibilities of space flight.

Our “rocket” was far from Homer Hickam’s elegant flyers. I’m not trying to convince you we were anything special when it came to rockets or science. The real point of this story is to relate one more example of kids doing things back then that could have easily resulted in death. Trying something like this today would result in jail time for anyone involved, even a well-meaning adult like my dad.

The rocket was a fifteen-inch section of aluminum pipe with a balsa wood nosecone, a rear nozzle carved out of a piece of asbestos, and sheet-aluminum stabilizing fins. I can remember leaning in close to my bench clamp, filing away at a chunk of grey asbestos, fashioning it to fit the rocket. Of course I didn’t know that I was probably inhaling a lethal dose of cancer-causing particles in the process.

My dad volunteered to help Rusty and me fire off the rocket. I guess he might have offered so he could keep us safe in the process, but I think he was just interested in seeing what would happen. We had all seen countless film clips on television of rockets roaring into space, this could be just as majestic, except on a much smaller scale. Right?

Our fuel was gunpowder, so you’d think we would have some notion what was going to happen. And where did we acquire enough gunpowder to load a 15-inch metal tube? Well, boys and girls, back then the basic materials were pretty easy to come by. The drug store would sell you saltpeter, (potassium nitrate) which was the primary ingredient. Charcoal was next, which we obtained by grinding up briquettes. And sulphur, which we didn’t need much of… well, I can’t remember where we got that. Just picture it: two fairly clueless boys down in their basement workshop, grinding up gunpowder and tamping it into a metal tube. Upstairs, even more clueless parents, watching TV, going about their daily lives, unaware that the house was only inches away from being blown to smithereens. And remember, we were the smart kids, the future scientists, geeky science nerds, the good kids. And experts today think that little Johnny in his room playing on the Internet is in some sort of danger?

It’s a miracle that any of us ever survived.

Launch day arrived, it must have been a Saturday because my dad was home, and we piled in the car: Rusty, me, and our pal Butch who had joined the adventure. We drove to Butch’s family’s farm outside of town. This modest farm was jocularly known as “Oleo Acres.” The name, Butch would say, came about because it was “One of the cheaper spreads.” Har har.

We found a likely spot, which means it had no observable cows, people or homes in the immediate area. We set the rocket up and ran about a hundred feet of bell wire we intended to attach to a dry cell battery. We lay down behind a low berm and attached the wires to the battery and waited. There was no countdown as we had no idea how long it was going to take before the wires heated up and…


It scared the shit out of us. I had the impression that the thing, after smoking for a minute or so, actually achieved vertical lift-off of about 12 inches or so before blowing up. We were a little shaky, but we got to our feet and went to the remnants of the bomb… er, rocket… which now resembled one of those exploding cigars you used to see on cartoons: bottom half missing, metal peeled back like a banana skin, nosecone still intact. We scouted around for a minute looking for any shards of metal but gave it up quickly because everyone agreed it might be best to get out of the area before anyone came to investigate the impressive explosion.

The mood in the car on the drive home was fairly euphoric. Sure, the rocket failed, but we were used to seeing many rocket failures on television. But that explosion, well, it was awe-inspiring. If we had been better people, like Homer Hickam and his rocket boys, we would have retreated to our basements and worked up a new version, incorporating the lessons learned from our failure. But we weren’t, we were just kids, and we had just blown something up and almost died in any number of ways. Even dopes like us knew that was pretty cool.