#10   Here Comes Peter Cottontail; the City Park; Fuff 

Lilly Pond in the City Park. Picture from Roger Mackey

The new members of the Big Red band were given a packet of music – marches — to learn. Many were by John Philip Souza, not much of a surprise there, and others were by composers I had never heard of. These were packaged in small portfolios, around eight inches by six inches, enclosed in a snap package with a clear plastic front, which made them pretty much waterproof. I’ve said that some bands mounted these music portfolios on special music stands strapped to their arms so they could read the music as they marched. We sneered at any band that resorted to this method. Pussies. We memorized the marches. The drills were too complicated to perform if we were looking at music as well. So we, the new boys, memorized the marches. And woe betide anyone who couldn’t play every one of them from memory.

Everyday in the summer we went to the grassy lawn in front of the high school for marching practice. Before going out front, we would warm up by playing the marches in the band room for fifteen minutes or so. If Frank thought someone, a new guy, was faking his way through the music, he would stop the band, point at the offender, and say, “Turn your music over.” Which meant you then had to play the march, from memory, all by yourself, without the psychic and practical help of an entire band around you. These were terrifying moments, and you could get reduced down the ranks for a bad performance. If you flunked one of these challenges, once out of the band room you knew someone was going to kick your ass all the way down to the practice field. I saw this happen on several occasions, so I broke my usual lethargic practice schedule and learned the marches well enough that Frank, who seemed to have a preternatural ear, couldn’t hear me faking my way through a piece of music.

Semper Fidelis, The Washington Post, The Thunderer, El Capitan, are all classic marches that we would play while executing drills. If you listen to recordings of them today, (they’re all on the Internet) one thing you will notice that is common to all of them is the one instrument you can actually hear individually is the damn piccolo. The masses of brass, lead by the cornets and underpinned by the trombones and sousaphones take the lead, with the reeds — the clarinets and the saxophone filling out the wall of sound — and over it all, flitting, dancing, is the piccolo. You don’t need a whole section of them, one will do, just as that music teacher told me years ago in grade school, it is the littlest, but it is the loudest.

There were three broad lawns that stretched in front of the high school down to the street. A giant horseshoe drive arced up and around the front of the school. We practiced through the month of August, two times a day, two hours morning and late afternoon, on the right-hand lawn, as you looked from the street toward the high school. If the first two weeks of the month was a sort of hell because you were getting your ass kicked, the last two weeks were another sort because of the heat. Even though we worked in the morning and the late afternoon/evening, it was still hot.

The grass was laid out with limestone lines exactly like those on the football field. There was a kid who did this, limed the practice field, and redid it every time the rain washed the lines away, or we wore them away by walking on them. Looking back now I see him as a sort of unsung worker hero who probably never got the appreciation he deserved.

The evening practices had a magic to them. You have to remember this was a small town, West Virginia, in the late 1950s. I’m sure there were the usual bad aspects to our life — poverty, inequality, stupidity — but we, or at least I, didn’t seem to worry about any of that. Maybe the adults were worrying about the Korean War, racism, the atom bomb and other societal ills, but we weren’t. Everyone had enough money to live on and even those who had a lot of money didn’t live very differently from the rest of us. The band was a great leveler: you learned your music, the drills and you did your best. If you didn’t, you got your ass kicked. Outside, there was another world, but we didn’t live in it. The social revolution of the 60s had not yet befallen us; we existed in a lovely haze of hot, halcyon summer days, golden evenings and privilege.

There wasn’t a lot to do in Parkersburg. One of the main attractions was the large city park just a block from our house. You would go there to swim in the pool, fish and feed the ducks in the pond (the Second Largest Man-Made Lily Pond in the World, it was said. Really? The question always in my mind was why was it the second largest? Where was the first largest? It was rumored to be in Japan, but no one really knew.) In the winters the pond froze over, and we ice-skated on it, building bon fires, roasting marshmallows and skating until we were exhausted. When we got back home there was always hot chocolate. We picnicked in the park, played on the swings, and climbed the memorial aircraft gun commemorating the dead from WWII. There was a log cabin museum in the park which never seemed to be open. And a band shell where members of the band would sometimes play concerts on the weekends; the townsfolk would bring blankets and sit on the grass and enjoy the music while little kids ran around. There was a small zoo. I related in an earlier entry that one year a drunken hunter climbed over the fence and shot one of the deer and was caught by the cops trying to drag it over the six-foot, chain-link fence. As my friend Butch reminded me after I posted that entry, the fact that the hunter was a city councilman made this crime even more amusing.

There was a curious bunch of men who would hold meetings in the park at least once or twice a summer where they would bring motors, noisy gasoline engines of all sizes, and set them out on the grass and start them up and leave them running for hours while they sat around in lawn chairs and listened to the infernal racket of the popping, sputtering engines. Why? I had no idea, but they always seemed to be enjoying themselves.

At least once a year, usually twice, small carnivals would set up for the weekend. There would be rides and games and carnival workers who appeared very exotic to us, leathery, thin, tanned sly-looking people, men and women, who tried to cajole you into tossing rings, firing BB guns, or pitching ping pong balls into small glasses with goldfish. No kid’s mother was ever pleased to see you come home with a goldfish. If you won one it would surely be dead within a couple of days. No one ever won any of the decent prizes.

In the summer the park was filled with picnickers and extended families holding annual family reunions. There were long covered shelters with end-to-end picnic tables where these reunions were held, much coveted, sheltered spaces because of the possibility of rain. On a summer weekend when a reunion was scheduled a member of the family would be assigned the job of going over on a Friday night and sleeping on one of the picnic tables in a shelter so no one else could grab it the next day for their own reunion. I hated our reunion, the Bush family reunion, mostly because as a kid you were continually besieged by at least three or four hundred (no, I am exaggerating) very large aunts who were all enormously fat with arms the size of smoked hams where the skin of the upper arm flapped heavily, bosoms that threatened to smother you and facial hair that tickled and prickled when they gathered you up and gave you kisses. Acres of country dishes were spread out on the tables with several grills nearby pumping out platters of grilled chicken and hamburgers and hotdogs. The men worked the grills and played horseshoes, and the kids just ran around and around. As much as I hated it, I also loved it.

We went to the swimming pool almost every day in the summer. We had books of tickets, one of which you would hand over to the bored teenager at the entrance who would give you a basket that had a number on a small metal plate and a giant safety pin with the corresponding number attached. You’d go into the appropriate dressing room, change your clothes and stash them in the basket and hand it to another attendant behind a beat-up, wooden counter on the way out. The safety pin was attached to your swimming suit. You would give it back to the attendant as you left the pool, and it would be matched with the basket with your clothing so you could change into your clothes and head home for dinner. We would be at the pool for hours and hours and usually had the sunburn to prove it.

One year when I was very young, my Aunt Mary was in town, and she took me to the pool. Because I was so young she dragged me into the women’s side to change my clothes. There were no cubicles there, just benches with all the women stripped down as they were changing. Beside me, an enormous fat woman, and I mean really enormous, stark naked, bent over to put her suit on and her giant behind was so close to me I was severely traumatized; I told my mother I would never go in the women’s side again, no matter what, and I never did. I went in alone on the men’s side and changed by myself; if a pervert had kidnapped me and made me his sex slave I would have preferred it to ever having to see another fat woman’s ass the size of a Volkswagen bus.

Here’s a city park story.

The summer I joined the band I was fourteen; most of my friends were fifteen. By the next summer, the oldest would have their driver’s licenses, which greatly expanded our roaming range. But this summer we were on foot except when our parents gave us rides to wherever we were going. The city park was centrally located to the houses of our small gang that met there at night on the weekends. We certainly weren’t going to have our parents drive us to the park for these revels, nor did we need them to.

These were pre-mall days. In many ways having malls to drop young teens off is a godsend for parents. They’re indoors, climate-controlled, patrolled by their own police forces, clean, have food and drink and provide all sorts of legal entertainment. The city park, on the other hand, was dark and provided plenty of semi-hidden places for small groups of young men up to no good to gather.

There were usually three or four of us: me, (piccolo); Jim Green, (cornet — his brother Dave was first trumpet and one of the leaders of the band); Steve Telemeyer, (drummer — his brother was first clarinet, another leader); Bill Parker, (drums) and Bill Stone, known as Stoney, another drummer. My closest friend Jake Patterson, clarinet, and my neighbor, the aforementioned Butch McGee, drum major. Not that we ever took our instruments to the park with us. Well, actually we did. One night very late we sneaked over to the park and sat in the dark in the band shell and played marches. No one seemed to notice. Or perhaps they did, the music floating in through half-opened windows, causing sleepers to stir and dream of Friday night football games and marching bands.

Our families stretched across the social strata; they knew each other, but didn’t really socialize. The band was the only connection for the adults. Jimmy Greens father ran a dump truck, dirt-hauling business and was rumored to have spent many years traveling across the United States in carnivals before creating his trucking empire. The Greens lived in a new one-story house that was unlike the older homes that the rest of us lived in. His mother was young, and even we, callow youths, knew she was very beautiful. Jimmy’s father was tough and took absolutely no crap from his three boys. Or, we were afraid, his beautiful wife. The oldest brother raced stock cars on mud tracks. Sometimes we went to see him race, and everyone in the audience hated him and booed him, but as far as we were concerned, he was a hero.

Steve Telemeyer’s father was a respected doctor. They lived on a beautiful, tree-lined street of stately homes. We never saw his father, and his mother seemed to exist only in the semi-darkness of their brick home: quiet, frail, delicate. She always seemed faintly amused at our group of boys.

Bill Parker’s father was the head of one of the sprawling chemical plants that lined the Ohio River near our town. He was a big-deal kind of guy, but was hearty and helpful, willing to drive us when he was free, a wonderful father who bought me my first decent steak. More on that later. Bill’s mother was a tall lady, privileged, aristocratic (for West Virginia) probably bored, another mother who observed us with calm bemusement. We liked her. Jake lived fairly far out of town though I was at his house often; more on his parents later.

My mother was much closer to my friends than these other ladies, a sort of den mother who was always willing to pitch in on whatever project — no matter how whacky — we had thought up and needed help executing. She could also be counted on to feed anyone who happened to show up at mealtimes.

I was surprised at one time, back then, when we thought up a really twisted stunt and enlisted her help and she pitched right in. In fact I’m still surprised at it.

Easter was coming. One of the Parkersburg traditions was the annual Easter egg hunt in the city park. As a child attending, in previous years, I had noticed that most of the eggs were snagged by aggressive parents who raced into the park at the given signal, children following, sometimes far behind, and scooped up all the obvious eggs and handed them over to their kids.

That year, the first year in high school, I came up with a plan. I believe it was Stoney and Jake who joined me in this endeavor of revenge. I decided that we three would pose as Easter Egg “Police.” Armed with clipboards, we would go up to every adult we could find grabbing eggs ahead of the children and take their names and addresses, telling them that the city would be sending them a ticket in the mail for breaking the rules of the hunt. I told my mother we needed three clipboards, told her what we intended to do, and asked if she could get them for us. She heard me out and decided it was a funny idea and went out and bought the clipboards and pads of paper for them. Not once did she say,” Someone is going to punch you in the nose,” or, “you’re going to get into trouble.” She just handed over the clipboards the night before the big egg hunt.

The next day, armed with the clipboards, we headed over to the park. There were probably 50 or 75 kids and adults, all formed up around the band shell, waiting for the starting bell to begin. Around us, in the nooks of trees, beneath bushes, nestled in the grass, were the plastic eggs that held small plastic trinkets. A public address system had been set up in the band shell. The announcer, I believe he was a dj for one of the local radio shows, whipped the crowd into a frenzy, called down the count and the egg hunt was on!

And the adults did what they always did.

We did what we had come to do.

Me. “Excuse me, sir?”

Man with small child in tow: “Yes.”

“Did you just pick that egg up from underneath that bush and give it to your child?”

“Well, yes.”

“Do you know that’s an infraction of the rules, which clearly state that the children are supposed to find the eggs on their own?” I tap on my clipboard as if I have a copy of the Official Rules right there.

“I was just helping her.”

“I think it was quite clear that you found the egg, not the little girl. Isn’t that right, little girl?” The little girl hides herself behind her father’s leg.

“I’m going to have to take your address. The city will send you a ticket in the mail.”


“What is your name and address, sir?”

Here’s the crazy part — every adult actually gave us their names and address. We each corralled five people and the result was the same for each of us. The adults looked sheepish and trotted out their names and addresses without any more prompting or whining on their part. They’d been caught, and by God they would suffer the consequences. After five people each we called it quits, partially because we had proved our point and shamed the adults who were snatching up the eggs, and mostly because it didn’t cause any fuss at all and soon became boring. Can you imagine pulling a stunt like that today? We’d have been shot, stabbed or beaten by every “wrongdoer” we approached.

When we got back to my house and told our story, my mom had a good laugh and declared it a successful prank and served us all a slice of her famous chocolate pie with whipped cream. She didn’t actually whip the cream, but squirted it out of a can, which was a fairly new product for the time. We called the whipped cream “Fuff” because of the sound it made coming out of the spray nozzle. As in, “Would you like some more Fuff on your pie?”

We had another slice of pie and told the story again and laughed. I believe my mom laughed the hardest of us all.

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.

#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.

Yo-yos; Soap Box Derby; Piccolos

                   Not me.

I’ve noticed that in the course of writing these memories I often find my young self “astonished” and “amazed” at various points. I feel as if I’m coming across like one of those lost tribes you read about, where scientists discover an indigenous tribe in the deep forests of Africa or South America where the people have never been exposed to civilization. Often I point out in these instances that I wasn’t particularly “stupid,” that I’d at least heard of some of these things, but I often didn’t have actual experiences with them. That came up when I was thinking about yo-yo’s.

I said in the last entry that there were “seasons” for various activities during grade school. Playing marbles, was one of them. Suddenly, as if by mental telepathy, kids would bring their bags of marbles to school and at lunch and recess and after school great circles would be drawn in the dirt and we’d all be hunkered down trying our best not to lose all our marbles to the guys who were really good at the game. I don’t know if girls had any of these seasons, maybe someone out there will educate me.

One day it was announced that there would be a special program in the auditorium. We dutifully filed in and there on the stage was a bunch of kids playing with yo-yos. These shows must have been put on by the Duncan Yo-Yo company, because I just looked them up on the Internet and sure enough, they’re still sending “crews” around to schools putting on yo-yo programs! All the boys in our gang, on Maxwell Avenue, had at least one yo-yo. They were cheap enough that everyone could afford one. Duncan made fancy ones, but the basic model, just painted wood, only cost a dollar or two, if even that. The Duncan website today sells those like we had as “vintage” models for $12.95, so if you want a good gift for a kid or grandkid, you can order one “Just like grandpa had when he was a boy” and show off your skills.

Everyone could do at least a few basic tricks like Walking the Dog or Rocking the Baby in the Cradle or flinging it Around the World. You’d do these tricks while you were nonchalantly standing around talking to your friends, who would also be working their yo-yos. Sometimes there would be small disasters like getting strings crossed and tangled while attempting to do Around the World at the same time. Sometimes you’d get bashed in the head by someone screwing up this particular maneuver.

Back to the auditorium… As we settled into our seats, I remember being — here it comes — astonished that all the boys in this Duncan crew were Japanese… (I just had to put this blog on hold to call my son and ask what we’re supposed to say these days when referring to what I was about to write – “Orientals.” He says that this word is a pejorative, and we are supposed to say “Asians.” Ok, ok.)… or if not Japanese, Asians of some variety. To us kids, these yo-yo whiz kids were Japanese, though we had never actually seen an O… oops, Asian… in real life. This is what I mean by sounding like we were a tribe living in the dense jungle, away from civilization. Never seen a real live Japanese person? But that was the case back in West Virginia circa 1955. Of course these kids onstage were fabulous yo-yoers, and for a few brief minutes we had visions of standing on the street corner, yo-yo dancing through the air, surrounded by children and adults, all applauding our performance. Then reality set in, and we realized that we would never really be very good because you had to practice long hours to get to anything beyond our basic level. Besides, Soap Box Derby Season was right around the corner.

And so was another special program in the grade school auditorium. Sometimes it feels like we barely went to school at all, that the day was spent trekking back and forth to the auditorium to listen to adults tell us about one thing or another that seemed really interesting until we realized we weren’t going to be buying whatever it was that they were selling. In this case, Soap Box Derby Wheels.

They would show pictures (had the slide projector even been invented yet?) of kids lined up on top of hills, then racing down in their cool Soap Box racers. They, the adults, would talk, we would dream, thinking maybe, just maybe this was possible, attainable, there was always plenty of scrap wood laying around, then it would all come crashing down when they said you had to buy a set of Official Soap Box Derby Wheels which was going to cost $20. End of dream. No one had $20. No one’s parents had $20, at least not to buy wheels. We would sit through the rest of the program, but by now we hated the adult who had dangled this dream in front of us, and then crushed us. We would show him, we would build our own racers. We didn’t need special wheels.

And we didn’t. As I said, there was always scrap lumber lying around, and wheels of some sort, from busted up wagons if nothing else. We would borrow some tools – hammers, saws, nails, pliers — from our dads, without telling them of course, which was easy for me because my dad was out of town all week. The hard part was remembering to put the tools back before he found out I was using them, which sounds easy but nearly always resulted in forgetting a pair of pliers that would lay hidden in the grass, silently rusting away until dad ran over it with the lawn mower at which point there was hell to pay.

So we built these carts, as we called them, which were usually nothing more than a wide board to sit on and two cross boards to attach the wheels to. The front board would be put on with a bolt so it could swivel back and forth. The steering was provided by a rope tied to the ends of the board that you pulled back and forth to steer. Sort of.

At one end of Maxwell Avenue was the 19th Street Hill, which was a fairly steep hill and much used in the winter for sleigh riding and when we had a cart for downhill races. The adults in the neighborhood knew to be careful because there would often be a kid who was learning to ride a two-wheeler by plunging down 19th street, or a cart, or a kid on roller skates or some other form of childhood death about to happen. Sometimes strangers in cars would come over the hill and have to slam on the brakes or swerve violently to avoid killing a kid.

When we got a little older, in Junior High, we would find old gasoline motors and affix them to our carts. The few times these things actually worked, we’d get a ride that would scare the crap out of you before you ended up flipping over a curb, or, if you were lucky, crashing into a hedge. I can remember the neighborhood fathers standing around watching this mayhem, laughing at us. None of them thought to tell us to stop, and, in fact, they would use the occasion to relate their own stories of death-defying behavior that if allowed to happen today would have had all the parents thrown into jail and the kids put into foster homes. Today you get arrested for letting your kids walk home from the park alone.

Ah, I’m sounding like an old geezer again. That’s because I am an old geezer.

Let us now return to the infamous grade school auditorium for yet one more presentation where Mr. Flint, the music teacher, was demonstrating instruments. He played the trumpet, the clarinet, and the drums, which drew the most interest, particularly from the boys. Then he went through some others — various string instruments, and finished up with a demonstration of a piccolo. I figured I would be a trumpet guy, like my dad in high school, until Flint picked up this tiny, silver instrument and said, “This is the smallest instrument in the band, and yet it is the loudest.” He played it, though I didn’t really hear what it sounded like, I could only hear the words which seemed echo in my head and drill down to my very core: “Smallest and yet the loudest.”

That was me.

So I went home and told my parents I wanted to play the piccolo. I’m sure they were dumbfounded by this, but once again, they didn’t say a discouraging word, simply went to the Sears and Roebuck catalogue, which is where we bought everything, and looked up piccolos; sure enough, there they were, so we sent away for one.

I know I was an anomaly. The vast majority of piccolo players start out as flute players. The piccolo is usually added to the flute as almost an afterthought. Aside from marching bands, it’s not a very widely used instrument and hardly heard at all in orchestras. I went the other way around and didn’t get a flute until a year or so later, after I learned to play the piccolo. We went back to the Sears catalogue for the flute as well, even though the usual route would have been to go to the music store in town and order an instrument through them. Let me explain.

My father worked for Sears and Roebuck. The official name was/is Sears, Roebuck, though we always put the and between the two names. Dad wasn’t a salesman nor did he work in the Sears store in our town. His job was to drive to an existing store in his assigned area that was due for renovation. His “beat” was the mid-east states.

He would show up at the assigned store, almost always in West Virginia or some other nearby state – Ohio, Kentucky, even Indiana — with vast sets of blueprints supplied by corporate headquarters, and his battered briefcase. He would check into a local hotel or motel. All meals were taken in various barrooms with the other guys, a regular crew he always hired to do the carpentry work. After I was ten years old I used to go with him in the summer to one of the jobs for a week or two. I loved it. I got to ride in the front seat of the car; there were no seat belts in those days, so I could really move around. The trips took hours and hours and we would spend our driving time checking gas stations for the best prices, often finding a locale in the midst of a “gas war,” something that no longer happens and hasn’t for many years, where the price could drop down to 15 cents a gallon. I loved eating out for every meal, and was astonished to find that I could have a cheeseburger with lettuce and tomato every day for breakfast; my dad didn’t care and the short order cooks seemed happy to oblige.

My father worked this way his whole career, beginning long before he met my mother. There was a scrapbook in our house that showed what life on the road was like in those days, and it was certainly a time unlike any today. His crew was all young men who would sleep in one room, three or four to a bed, to save money on their expense accounts. There were pictures of three of them in the bathtub at the same time, throwing soapsuds around and goofing off for the camera. Today’s homophobia would never allow close contact like that between young men without people thinking they were all gay, but that was not the case. Many nights they all slept on tables on the job when they were up against a deadline, my dad saying there would only be a few hours to spare so they had to “sleep fast.”

One of the perks of this nomadic motel lifestyle was that Dad could gather up all the little extra soaps in the bathrooms and bring them home for us to use. Ditto the towels. I was in high school and staying over at my friend Freddy Klein’s house when I discovered that soap came in a large size, which seemed ridiculously enormous to me. And the towels! I didn’t know that towels could be that thick and luxurious. Ours were thin and small and rough. But instead of making me want thick and luxurious, I’ve only been happy with really cheap towels my entire adult life. When my mother went into a nursing home at the age of 90, I was clearing out her apartment and came across a large plastic bag of those soaps, each one with a printed ad on the wrapper for a cheap motel. I couldn’t bring myself to throw them away.

When the Sears store my dad was working on was finished with their extensive renovations, usually after several months, he and his crew moved on to another store. This meant he was away from home all week, coming back only on the weekends or every other weekend. It was an odd sort of life for my mom and dad, different from all my friends in the neighborhood, but because he actually wore a coat and tie and carried a briefcase he was seen as something of an executive type and looked up to. Everyone else’s dad wore a work uniform: auto or some other type of repairman, guard at one of the big chemical factories down on the river, policeman, etc.

One really important thing for our family was the Sears job came with a 10% employee discount, which meant we bought every stitch of clothing and everything else from either the Sears store in town or through the catalogue. My father was extremely loyal to the company and never worked for anyone else. He always said he would never lose his job at Sears even if there were another big depression because everyone would always need toilet paper and tractors, so the company would never go out of business.

We never shopped for clothing at the high-end department store downtown, Dils Brothers, because we were too poor for that. I didn’t know at the time, particularly when I was younger, but our clothes were pretty cheesy, which didn’t matter much because everyone else’s clothes in our neighborhood were cheesy as well. Remember being either Ford or Chevy people? This was another example of that sort of brand loyalty; you were either Sears or, J.C. Penny, or Montgomery Wards people. Of course we always hilariously referred to Montgomery Wards as Monkey Wards. Monkey Wards was our mortal enemy, Sears and Roebuck’s enemy; we would never even step foot in that store. The result was any “formal” clothes I had — church clothes — were just a little too loud, the material was a little too rough, or a little too shiny, or a little too something. But the play-outside-clothes and the work clothes were fine. Sears and Roebuck was the king of play and work clothes.

My sister bore the brunt of the Sears clothing mandate. Everything she had was plain and ordinary. Very tough for a young girl in those times. But when it came to clothes, I didn’t know any better. Which was the reason I ended up with The World’s Ugliest Sport Coat.

Breasts, Marbles and Heidi

Looking back from today’s world to the mid 1950s in the twentieth century is instructive. Throughout the school system, from kindergarten to high school, there was a strong arts program that featured daily music and art classes. The pace of the regular classes was slower than it now is, or slower than what my kids experienced in grade school. Every Friday our teacher, Mrs. Burgey, (can’t remember how to spell her name) who was a real harridan, would read aloud to us. The book was Heidi, and I learned that though I thought that the idea of hearing a story about a little girl in the mountains of Switzerland was going to be unbearably boring, I found that just such a story would turn out to be riveting, not just to me, but to all of us as we sat utterly quiet, enthralled by the tale of a little girl and her kindly grandfather in a far away country. I wasn’t reading novels yet, and didn’t understand the power of an extended story, in this case one that was played out over weeks. It made me want more, more books, more stories. It wasn’t long after that my mother gave me my first Hardy Boys book.

The kids in my neighborhood walked to our grade school — which was about ten blocks from our house — without any parents hovering over us. Many kids rode their bikes. The only threat, and we didn’t see it as a threat, though many would today, was the one lone, poor, retarded kid – he must have been in his twenties – who rode his bicycle alongside us as we walked. His name was Benny Boots, a big, heavy, doughy kid/man with short scruffy brown hair and a five o’clock shadow on his thick jowls. He was clean, or at least his clothes were clean, so someone must have been taking care of him though no one ever seemed to think about that. Benny, and others like him, the mentally afflicted, were fixtures in small towns everywhere, free to roam the streets and live on the fringes of “normal” people, often the butt of jokes although I never saw anyone treat him in a mean way. He wore a baseball cap that some wag had made and given to him with the letters MT embroidered on the front. Get it? Empty. Sometimes if you were walking home alone, Benny would ride up beside you and say in his slow, low, labored voice, “Want a blowjob?” The answer was always a polite no, because, first of all, none of us kids had any idea what a blowjob was, and second, we had all been taught to be polite to the mentally retarded.

There were other unfortunates in our town. There was an elderly bi-racial couple, a white man and a black woman, who walked around town hauling a small red wagon behind them. They always seemed to me to be wearing too many clothes, jackets beneath coats and pants – the lady wore pants – while they picked up soda bottles and other cast-offs that they sold somewhere.

And there was Karen, in my sixth grade class. People said she was mongoloid, which we now call Down Syndrome, and I have no idea how old she was except she was taller than the rest of us, way taller than me. She looked like a thick, smallish adult, and in my memory she does not have the usual physical characteristics of that disorder. She sat at the back of the classroom and at recess she would offer, to the boys, to go into the cloakroom and show you her breast for a nickel. For another nickel she’d let you touch it. She was very well built, meaning she had large breasts, so she must have been at least a teenager. I never had an extra nickel, and, truth be told, I didn’t have a whole lot of interest in seeing her breast. A few years later, yes, I would have gladly paid a nickel to go into the cloakroom to see her breast, and counted it as a real deal for the price and probably would have coughed up another nickel to touch it.

Does anyone remember cloakrooms? They, at least at the Park School in Parkersburg, WV, (it was later torn down and a CVS built on the land) were rooms that were long and not very wide that ran off the side of the actual classroom. There was a low bench along one wall where you sat and took off your galoshes, those black rubber boots with two or three hundred jangly clasps. You stored them under the bench beneath where you hung your winter coat on the big hooks. Kids who were “bad,” which usually meant you were talking in class, were often banished to sit in the cloakroom until the end of class.

One day in sixth grade, the odious Mrs. Burgey said to Karen, who was in her seat at the back of the class, “I’ll see you on Saturday, Karen.” This completely mystified me, and at recess I asked Karen what she was talking about. Karen said every Saturday she went to Mrs. Burgey’s house and cleaned it and did her laundry. I never said anything to anyone, but this struck me as totally wrong, though I didn’t know if it was because Karen was retarded or that she was probably getting screwed on the payment end of things. I just knew it was wrong for a teacher to hire a retarded student to clean their house. Right? And pardon the use of the word retarded.

Early in the fourth grade, we were assembled in the auditorium for a program put on by a music teacher, Mr. Flint, who taught in junior high. He was still working for the school system when I joined the band in high school and in fact was the teacher who recommended to Frank that Bert, the Boy With A Flute Who Shit His Pants, be put in the band. Mr. Flint was there to introduce us to a wide variety of musical instruments, which he demonstrated by playing a bit on every one of them. I remember his words and can hear the instruments even now.

Now that I think about it, he was just one of many experts who came to schools and demonstrated various things. There were “seasons” for our activities, nothing noted on calendars, but seasons just the same. One day a kid would show up at school with a bag of marbles, and everyone would know that marble season had arrived, and you would bring your cloth, drawstring sack of marbles to play with during recess. Sometimes marble playing experts, older boys out of high school, would come to the grade school and put on exhibitions. Their purpose was to sell whatever brand of marbles were sold in toy stores, though no one in Parkersburg ever bought marbles in the store. Glass was a big industry in West Virginia in those days, and there were a couple of marble factories and it wasn’t hard to coerce your parents into driving over to one where they would browse the gift shop while we kids would scour the gravel driveways and piles of raw glass for marbles that were defective in some way and we’re destined to being melted down and remade again.

Next up? Yo-yo season and the pain of the soap box derby.