Part of our regular band uniform was the pair of white buck shoes that you had to buy. Even Sears sold the same brand that everyone bought, so I was OK there. They were blinding white “buckskin” with red rubber soles. No one would ever buy a pair of white bucks unless it was part of the band uniform as they were considered totally dorkey, at least on guys. Pat Boone wore white bucks, which gives you some idea about how stupid they were. (I can’t remember if we had the word “dorkey” back then. Wikipedia says it was in popular parlance in the mid fifties, so maybe we did. I can’t remember what else we would have said. Nerdy? I don’t think that word was in use then either.) I should amend the above paragraph to read, “no one would ever buy and wear a pair of white bucks except me.” If you scroll down to an earlier entry where the picture is of me wearing The World’s Worst Sport Coat you will see I am indeed wearing white bucks. And I’m not even in my band uniform. They make my feet look about the size of your average clown shoe.
It was mandatory that we kept our band white bucks in pristine condition. Since we only wore them once a week when we were in uniform, this wasn’t really a problem. The way you touched them up was by using an accessory that came with the shoes, a small white bag of powder, called a “bunny bag,” that you used to pat on any scuff marks to cover them up. Losing your bunny bag or having scuffed bucks could get you a kick in the ass, so we were all careful about that.
The band usually traveled to the away football games on busses. We’ll get to the special trains at the end of this blog. (Not the end of this entry, but the end of the blog itself. That’s probably a couple of months down the road.) It took two busses to get the band to games, (didn’t it? I can’t remember.) but these trips were a lot of fun. The older guys played poker and strummed guitars while the younger guys just goofed around. One of the fun activities was setting yourself on fire. We wore heavy white wool socks with our uniforms and if you touched these socks with the open flame of a butane lighter they would catch fire and burn with a slow-moving, eerie blue glow. The trick was to slap out the fire before it took serious hold. There was plenty of burned leg hair until you got the hang of it. The other use for butane lighters was lighting farts. Anyone who felt one coming on would grab a lighter, hoist a leg, flick on the flame in close proximity to your butt and let ‘er rip. The methane gas would ignite and flame would jet out as much as six or eight inches. To the general hilarity of anyone watching. Fun days. Rampant stupidity.
Summer band practice had taught us new guys the basics and we were ready to learn the drill for the first football game of the season. The weather had cooled, and we were no longer sweating through August heat. We would hit the field after school for an hour or so, then head home for dinner. We had band practice a couple of hours during the week during the school day when other kids were going to the library or having homeroom. We would assemble in our homeroom and then be dismissed to go to the band room, behind the school underneath the football stadium.
After several weeks we had the music memorized and the drill down to perfection. Soon the big day, or night, came. I put my uniform on, and my parents took my picture standing in the living room in front of the mantel, where we took all our pictures. (See above.) When I came out to get in the car, the neighbors sitting on their porches clapped their hands and cheered. I waved, modestly. The power of the Big Red Band.
In the band room, we sat in our usual chairs while Frank gave us some last minute advice that no one paid any attention to. We tuned our instruments. This was accomplished by Frank telling the first chair flute/piccolo to play an A note, whereupon the rest of the band tuned on this note. Just another of the godlike responsibilities of being a piccolo player. Because I did this for so many years, to this day I can hum a perfect A. Then we sat around and joked until Frank finally said to form up and head into the stadium.
The opening drill, which we had practiced many times, was very simple: The spectators would be in their bleacher seats and the two football teams were on benches along the sidelines. The band would form up outside the stadium, march in quietly, and stand in the end zone in 12 rows of eight players. When the head drum major gave the signal on his whistle, we would break into the first march and after a few bars head off down the field in perfect step, march to the other end of the field, stop in front of the goal post and wait while the US flag was raised up the flagpole. When it hit the top, we would play the Star Spangles Banner. When this was finished, we would march off the field, playing, and head back to our seats – folding metal chairs — on the sidelines. As I said, simple. Just like we had practiced a hundred times before.
On the night of our first game and performance, right before we started to march into the stadium, our lead guy down at the far end of our row looked over at us and said, just loud enough for us to hear, “Listen. When you get out there, no matter what happens, Keep playing!” I could hear this advice being repeated up and down the ranks: Keep playing! Keep playing!
What was he talking about? What else was I going to do? I’d been practicing this moment for weeks; I knew the music, I knew the drill, I was nervous but pretty damn confident.
We started off, the drummers playing “on the rim,” which means they were not using the head of the drum, but just quietly drumming on the rim, just loud enough for us to hear and march to.
We formed up in the end zone and straightened our lines. The night was clear; clouds of insects dive-bombed the towering stadium lights. The audience in the bleachers was on their feet, completely silent.
The drum major raised his long baton, blew a piercing blast on his whistle, lowered the baton and we broke into whatever march we had been assigned. A few bars into it, the drum major blew his whistle again and we stepped off as one, out onto the field. A few bars after that, about the time we hit the exact middle of the football field, all ten thousand spectators began cheering and clapping and stomping their feet.
It was the loudest sound I had ever heard in my life.
I was stunned.
I immediately stopped playing.
Which I knew was wrong.
I could see some of the other first-year guys, and they were as shocked as I was. Really, no one told us about this. Even if they had, we wouldn’t have believed how loud the crowd sound was down on the field. The veterans were playing, covering up the fact that we new guys were struggling to get back into synch with the rest of the band.
I began playing, a kind of feeble tweeting noise that only vaguely resembled the notes I should have been playing. I was gasping for breath, trying to get back some semblance of control. At least I had the presence of mind to see where I was, where I was approaching, and to hit my “mark” and stop moving forward. I regained enough control to play the notes of the march, which finally ended, thank God.
We stood in silence. Except for the thudding of my heart.
The head drum major whistled us into the opening bars of the Star Spangled Banner. I got it together and played my part. We finished, there was a moment of silence, then the crowd broke into cheers and stomps again. We started into another march, about-faced, and marched back down the field and over to where our seats were.
I was sitting on the couch in my living room the other day reading a book. I looked at the mantel over the fireplace where we have a thick scattering of old pictures and unusual knick-knacks. There’s an old photograph of me, taken the day of my christening, seventy years ago. My grandfather, who was a Lutheran minister, is holding me. My father — young, slicked back hair, handsome — is standing with us. I notice how tall my father is. And how short my grandfather was. And I realize that my father wasn’t tall at all. He was actually shorter than I am now, so he must have been around five feet six inches. Or less. My grandfather comes up to around my father’s chin.
Jesus, I thought, he was really short. What? Five feet tall? Less than that?
Why have I never realized this about my grandfather before? I’m sure, dear reader, you are probably sick of my coming to these size-related epiphanies after seventy years of the blatantly obvious. But there they are. I’m mystified at my own cluelessness as well.
Some of my first real memories were occasioned by my Grandfather Appel. I understand that some of what I’m putting down here is probably false, or at least tinged by recollections that I heard from other family members or just made up in my own head. I’m trying to keep it as honest as possible, but honesty is probably, at least in a remembrance like this one, not going to be strictly possible. Or even necessary. Or valuable.
My grandparents, my father’s parents, lived in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. I remember their house as vast, with grounds that extended in the back to a sylvan woods and garden, choked with rose bushes and grottos where you could sit on shaded benches, peering out through lush vegetation, seeing, but not being seen. Years — many years later — on a trip with my mother back to Bethlehem, we found their little house, and I would realize, once again, that it was me that was so small, not that the house was so large. The yard looked to be simply a yard, not the bosky gardens that I remember.
My tiny grandfather was a Lutheran minister. His wife, my grandmother, was a thin dour lady who would later contract diabetes and spend her waning years sitting in one of the first recliner chairs I had ever seen. In those years she lived with my aunt and uncle in Bethlehem. We would travel there on vacation for a week every year and stay at their house. It was a cheap vacation, all we could afford, and it never seemed to me that they were ever all that happy to see us roll up in the Chevy station wagon. Shortly after arriving we would have to go and sit with sourpuss grandma for a few minutes and ask her how she was doing. This was excruciating to us kids. We had no idea what to say to her, and she was as old as God and smelled as sour as she looked. I’m sure she enjoyed it no more than we did. Even my dad looked pained as he sat and attempted to make conversation with her.
“So, how are you doing, Mom?”
And she would give him a look that showed just how stupid she thought the question was.
But Grandpa Appel was a wonderful man. I must have been five or six years old when he died, but I clearly remember some of our visits there. Every evening we, my sister and I, would be given baths in the same tub, then dried and put into pajamas, and then Grandpa would come in the bedroom with tiny glasses of grape juice, the glasses being the ones he used in the communion ceremony, as was the grape juice “wine” for our midnight snack. After which we would go to sleep in the same room that my father lived in when he was a child.
When we were a bit older, my dad would tell us a story of lying in bed in this room, recovering from typhoid fever, when the First World War ended, November 11, 1918. (I just looked it up. It was the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Isn’t it interesting that I have the exact date and time that my father had this experience.) He would have been seven years old, and hearing the church bells throughout the city of Bethlehem as they chimed to mark the end of the war. At the same moment as he watched out the window a horse that was hauling a wagon fell in its traces and sprawled in the street, unable to get up. The driver shot and killed the horse. This image – my father watching this scene out the window, the bells pealing — sat in my child brain with little or no adornment. I had no idea what to make of it. I still don’t know what to do with it, except it would probably make a great opening for a novel.
One day as a child I was sitting on the floor in the living room in Bethlehem, and I heard Grandpa Appel answer the telephone. He began speaking in a language I didn’t understand. I had no idea what a foreign language was. I would later learn that Grandpa was speaking Pennsylvania Dutch, which was common at the time. I thought that somehow he had gone insane, not that I understood what going insane was. All I knew was that I was terrified. This memory is interesting because I had absolutely no context to explain it. My Grandfather was simply jabbering, as if he were a baby. As I said, it terrified me.
On Sunday mornings we would lay on the floor and “read” the Sunday comics, which meant a man on the radio would read the comics as my grandfather would point out the correct strip and the correct panel while the man read. Dick Tracy, Orphan Annie, The Katzenjammer Kids. I remember them clearly. I remember being told that the man reading the comics was the mayor of New York, Fiorella LaGuardia. I just looked this up. Wikipedia says that this did indeed occur, Fiorella LaGuardia reading the comics over the radio every Sunday, but it was during a newspaper strike on August, 1945, at which point I would have been eight months old, so this is a “false” memory. I think I was three or four years old and Grandfather Appel was doing the reading and the pointing. I believe that this “reading” the comics led to my love of reading comic books and instilled in me a desire to read everything else, instilled a love of stories that stayed with me until I became the man who writes novels and this memoir.
How far I have strayed from my band days. Band uniforms. From what I gather from reading the Facebook, Once a Big Red, Always a Big Red site, band members today must buy their own uniforms. Ours were on loan to us throughout our four years and then turned back in on graduation. Here’s my memory of picking out our uniforms. We’re in the band room, and Frank has dragged out racks of uniforms for us, the new crop of freshmen, to try on. This memory is actually less clear than lying on the floor and listening to the Mayor of New York read me the comics. Anyone out there who is reading this, I’d appreciate knowing if I have it right, this trying on of uniforms. Where did these uniforms come from? I think now that there was a warren of rooms under the stadium that were band-connected, where the uniforms were stored. We tried on pants and jackets in a chaotic manner, and Frank sat at his desk and watched and cleaned his fingernails. It must have been a fairly simple procedure with racks of uniforms arranged by size. The problem was, yes, the smallest pants on the rack were way too large for me. I was terrified, but I had to ask for Frank’s help. Picture me, this little boy, probably in my underpants, holding up a pair of uniform pants that were far too large. He left the room and went in the back, and after awhile he came back with a pair of pants that dated from an earlier generation of uniforms, pants that were slightly off-color and with a slightly different color of stripe running down the side. They still didn’t fit, but these were evidently the smallest pants to be had, so Frank said to take them to my mother and she’d have to make them fit. This was before the pegged pants incident, so I had no idea what I was going to do.
Fortunately, I found a jacket and belt that fit fairly well, so I wasn’t completely humiliated. I took the pants home and my mother must have taken them to a tailor. I think the amount of work to get them to fit me was beyond even her talents. The entire four years in high school I never asked for a larger size. It seems I didn’t grow. As usual, I didn’t notice.
OK, one more uniform story.
I enrolled in West Virginia University as a freshman in 1962. I was 17 years old. WVU was, and may still be, a Land Grant College. I’ll spare you the long version, but Land Grant College legislation was enacted by the government in 1862 to allow poor people like me access to an affordable college education in which we were taught the values and techniques of agriculture and military science. By the time I arrived at WVU, that meant you had to take ROTC your freshman year. ROTC means Reserve Officer Training Corps. Excuse me if this sounds like I’m talking to a fourth grader, but I have a feeling there are plenty of people out there who don’t know what ROTC was. You had to take one year of military classes; if you re-upped for a second year after graduation you would automatically go into the US Army in the officer training program and come out the other end as a Second Lieutenant. And in my day that meant you would be headed straight to Vietnam. This was before the lottery system.
All the male freshmen were required to take ROTC. This meant we had classes a couple of days a week, learned to march, some basic military theory, how to take an M1 rifle apart and put it back together. Not that we ever got to shoot one.
OK, review the last paragraph. One of the things we had to learn was how to march. And who was the best marcher in the entire freshman class at WVU? Yup.
After all, I had four years of practice and had gotten my ass kicked enough times to drill the basics into me until they were engrained in every fiber of my body.
Early in the semester, we reported to the guys who handed out army uniforms for the ROTC class. I know you can see this coming. After a frustrating half an hour – frustrating for the poor guy who was handing out the uniforms – I was told to leave without a uniform and expect to be called back in later. Eventually, I received a notice that I had to see the head of the ROTC program. This meeting took place in the campus armory, where we had our ROTC classes. The armory was a big, old wooden building that smelled of wool uniforms, gun oil and dust.
I dutifully reported to the commanding officer’s office. The craggy, buzz cut, grey-haired US Army officer looked up from a stack of papers. I didn’t know if I was supposed to salute, so I just stood there in a parade-rest attitude.
“Son,” the officer said, sadly, “I’m sorry to have to report that we did a thorough search and there is no uniform in the entire United States Army that is small enough to fit you. I’m afraid that you’ll have to take part in all the normal activities that come with being an ROTC (pronounced Rot-see) cadet, only you will be wearing your street clothes.” He looked like he expected me to be crushed by this news. I put on what I hoped was a mournful look, saluted and left the office.
So I attended all the normal duties — marching, etc. — except I got to laugh at all the poor bastards who had to wear their US Army uniforms all day the two days a week we had ROTC classes. Hot wool uniforms, winter and summer, and you had to wear them from morning till night, not just to class. This culminated in a year-end military graduation ceremony that was held on the football field in front of a reviewing stand. There I was, leading my freshman ROTC class, complete with flying flags and a rifle-carrying honor guard down the field as I piped out the marching orders in my high clear voice. Dressed in my street clothes. It must have been quite a sight: the tiniest man/boy in the US Army.
After the review, the head officer, the man who told me there was no uniform for me, called me into his office again and tried to convince me to enroll for a second year in the program. He was sure a growth spurt would hit me at some point in the next four years (it turned out he was correct) and that a smart fellow like myself who could march so well, lead the troops on field and got good grades in his military studies (it wasn’t particularly difficult to manage that) would have a fine future in the US Army. And they would pay for my education. I turned him down.
I never told my parents of the offer. They would have pressed me to accept. I knew it wasn’t easy for them to come up with the money for both me and my sister to go to school, but, as we used to say, the times they were a-changing and the hippie days were descending upon us even in West Virginia, and the antiwar movement was beginning to build. Several years later I learned how smart my not joining up was.
One of my friends in the band, Mike Reeler (saxophone) went to Ohio State University after high school on a Navy ROTC scholarship and hated it. Or at least he hated the ROTC part. But he was a kid without a lot of money and needed the scholarship. Towards the end of his senior year, he was doing badly in one of his military classes because he mostly skipped going to class and was warned that if he didn’t pull his grade up he would lose his scholarship and wouldn’t be allowed to go into the Navy! He saw this as his ticket out of the program and proceeded to flunk the course on purpose, which infuriated his officers. They vowed revenge. Two weeks after he graduated he was drafted into the Army, two weeks after he graduated from boot camp he was sent to Vietnam and two weeks after that he was dead. A sad end to a great guy.
I didn’t get drafted when I eventually graduated, but that’s another story for another time.
I don’t remember what we told our parents we were going to do on those weekend evenings when we announced we were headed over to the city park. Maybe we just said we were going to the park. No one cared. This was simply an extension of the freedom we had known since we were able to get ourselves out the front door in the morning and into the neighborhood on our own. All the mothers in the neighborhood were there if something dire happened, to staunch any bleeding and drive us to the emergency room, but they certainly didn’t keep watch over us. We were always far out of sight anyway.
We, perhaps the last generation who enjoyed this type of upbringing, are always yammering on about how free and idyllic those days were, I’m sure to the irritation of today’s parents, who have to keep ever-vigilant eyes on their children and short leashes used to drag them out of the dangers that await them on every street corner, primarily sex perverts and serial child killers.
Each time we met up in the park, one of the gang, usually the same three or four guys, was assigned the duty of bringing the evening’s liquor. This was a revolving responsibility that fell to each in turn. Everyone’s father had a liquor cabinet of some sort. Ours was in a large cabinet that held decorative dishware. The booze was underneath the glass part where the plates, small porcelain statues and other items were displayed. In the bottom cabinet there were bottles of various liquors that were hardly ever touched. Nobody drank much in our neighborhood, or rather they drank one thing and the old dusty bottles like the Rock and Rye and the Manischewitz remained undisturbed for years at a time. (Although the Manischewitz was dragged out when we had a sore throat or bad cough. Miraculous medicinal qualities were attributed to it by my father. We kids hated it when he had us drink a small glass of this sticky sweet wine.)
So we would find an empty soda or liquor bottle and pour a little bit from all the other bottles into it – wine, whiskey, gin, anything that was there — mixing them without any thought as to taste. Then we would bring this to the park.
Darkness. We would meet near the tennis courts where there were lights, though we hung around on the edges of the illumination, in the shadows. We would sit on a picnic table and pass the bottle of mixed liquor between us. It should have tasted horrible — it no doubt tasted horrible — but I don’t remember anyone ever complaining about it. After a while we’d be pretty drunk. That’s when we played our game.
Steve (drums) had a small derringer pistol he had found in his father’s belongings. It was quite beautiful, engraved, silver and gold.
Let me pause here to insert a quick tutorial of guns and other weapons we kids possessed. For most of us, that would be none. Buying a handgun was an impossibility, particularly because as far as I know there weren’t any. I imagine some fathers smuggled pistols back from the war, and cops had sidearms, but the general public walked around the streets of Parkersburg, West Virginia, pretty much completely unarmed if you don’t count pocketknives. Dangerous knives, as opposed to pocket knives, were on our wish list, particularly switchblades, which we assumed were carried by every hood in town, though we only saw them in comic books and not in real life. The Movie, Blackboard Jungle, had been released a few years before and while I don’t remember if it ever played in Parkersburg, though I’m sure it must have, there were enough popular references to it and images from it that everyone knew what a switchblade was supposed to look like and the damage you could do with it. Even just the pulling it from a pocket and opening it one-handed with an ominous snick would be enough to scare away the toughest hoods. Everyone wanted a switchblade — black, sleek, deadly — though nobody knew where to buy one.
When the band went to New York for a competition we had our chance. Since our seedy “hotel” was located around Times Square, we quickly found many pawnshops and small stores that featured knives of all sorts. And there they were, the classic switchblades that we lusted over. Unfortunately, they were for display purposes only because the Switchblade Knife Act of 1958 (brought about by the furor over Blackboard Jungle) prohibited their sale. There was a general understanding that indicated that you could buy one of these display knives if you really wanted to, but you had to be 21 and they were too expensive for us anyway. The dream died, and we returned home, defenseless.
One of the guys in our group, I can’t remember who, had a cousin from Philadelphia who turned up one summer for a couple of weeks. Let’s call him Ernie. He was our age, and he had a reputation as being a member of a real, organized street gang, and, best of all, he was armed. He was the proud owner of a gravity knife, which he called a flick knife. It looked like a large pocketknife and opened when you flicked your wrist, whereupon the blade would snick open and lock into position. It sounded cool, and the little wrist twist looked cool. He laughed at our quaint notions of switchblades, and asked up why anyone would want to carry a knife in his pocket that could flip open if you accidently bumped the button on the handle. What would happen then, he asked with a leer? We all nodded solemnly, paling slightly at the mental image of a knife blade flashing through thin pocket material and into your penis and scrotum. No more switch blades for us! Now we all wanted a flick knife. Not that we were any closer to finding where we could acquire one.
Ernie, in his brief stay among we rubes, showed us how to build a zip gun, which he said were fairly plentiful in his gang, and very useful in the many street battles he and his brothers were involved in. He drew up a nicely detailed plan on a sheet of typing paper. You took a piece of wood around six inches long and a couple of inches wide and nailed a shorter version of same on the end at a 90 degree angle to produce a gun shape. You found an old sliding bolt brass lock — they were everywhere in those days — and screwed it to the top piece of wood, positioned toward the rear over the handle. Then you broke off a car antenna, something Ernie said he and his mates did as a matter of course just to cause a little trouble, and cut it off so it was four inches long. This you attached in front of the sliding bolt with strong rubber bands made out of sliced-up, thrown-away tire inner tubes. Then you positioned more rubber bands so that they stretched from the front of the top wooden block, back to the little handle on the sliding bolt. Insert 22-caliber bullet into the antenna, pull back the band-powered bolt, release same and the bolt would hit the bullet causing it to discharge.
Simplicity itself. If anyone would like me to draw this up for you leave me a note in the comment section.
After Ernie left, there were long discussions about actually building one of these zip guns, but as far as I know no one actually went ahead and did it. It seemed like an awful lot of work, especially since none of us had ever fought in a street war, or even knew of one in our town. Back to the City Park and Steve’s father’s derringer.
It must have been a 30-caliber or larger, and we had no bullets that actually belonged to it. But Steve had figured out if you put a .22 in the breech on top of a piece of wooden matchstick, the thing would fire. The bullet would rattle out the short barrel and depending on luck and physics be powerful enough to hit anything in a fifty foot radius with some accuracy. That anything being one of us, running, trying to get far enough away so we would not be injured by the bullet.
Could anything have been more stupid?
One minute we’d be sitting on the picnic table, then Steve would shout, “Run!” and we’d be off in three different directions. Steve would decide who to shoot and pull the trigger. Sometimes he missed. It was dark, the bullet was as wrong as it could be, we were running and dodging, drunk, and yet when all the stars aligned correctly that bullet hit you in the back with a punch that hurt like hell. No one was ever really injured, no skin was broken, but it left a giant bruise that you had to hide from your parents. Everyone would laugh and that would be the end of it. Death had been averted. We would finish the bottle and stagger home. No parent ever seemed to notice when we came home in this condition.
After three weeks of summer band practice, the new guys were getting pretty good and things had settled down. The ones who were never going to make it had quit; a few were kicked out by Frank as being too stupid to memorize the music and the drills; the ass kicking had dwindled, though it never really stopped. As a deterrent to bonehead mistakes, it worked pretty well.
Summer in small towns, at least my small town in those days, didn’t offer a lot to do, other than getting shot at with Steve’s dad’s derringer. Summer band practice gave not only the band members something to do, but the town participated as well. I’ve mentioned that we marched on the broad grassy campus to the right of the school, alongside the long horseshoe driveway that circled around in front of the main school building. The building itself looked like a small college, built in a classical, vaguely British style.
Evening practice ran from five to seven PM as long as it wasn’t raining. We would gather in the band room, play a few marches and head out to the field. On those warm summer evenings we would always find a line of cars parked at a 45-degree angle along the side of the horseshoe drive that was closest to the field we marched on. The entire side of the horseshoe was filled with cars and perched on the fenders and sidewalk were those young women and families who had driven to the school to watch the band practice. Which must have been interesting for them in the early weeks when we were still getting kicked with regularity.
There was a sort of hierarchy in the parking, with the girlfriends of the band members positioning their cars on the upper reaches of the horseshoe, nearer the head of the field where we formed up. The line of cars stretching down the horseshoe would devolve into friends of band members and then just native Parkersburgians, moms, dads, and kids who wanted to listen to the music and watch the drills go from total chaos to choreographed precision.
After an hour’s practice, Frank would give us a fifteen minute break. The older guys with girlfriends — the cool guys — would go over and lean on sun-warmed cars and talk to their pretty girlfriends in their pretty summer dresses or fashionable Capri pants. The girls would be sitting on fenders or leaning against polished chrome bumpers and grills. The cars were mostly Chevys and Fords from the design era that was right before the really exotic tail fin, space-ship look.
We, the freshman, could only gaze upon these beauties, these relationships, from afar, or at least as far away as the trees at the head of the field where we stretched out to sit and rest until Frank formed us up again. I will not lie, the scene evokes a time of ease and joy, a quiet before the sixties arrived with all its war, racial strife, political disasters and tumult. As I have said, I knew there were enormous problems loose upon the land, but in the four years I was in the band, these summer practices were simple pleasures that I’m not sure still exist, at least not night after night, year after year. I hear many people — most people — lament their high school years, and I always wonder at it. I’m not stupid, I understand the destructive nature of adolescence, the cruelties those years can bring, but I can’t really join in these lamentations. I can only remember these soft summer evenings, and the pretty girls in their colorful summer dresses.
No cut-off blue jeans. And the shorts were conservative. During the school year the only kids who wore blue jeans were the “hoods” and the really poor kids. Girls wore skirts and dresses, maybe pants that would be called slacks. The boys wore chinos which would be, well, chino colored, or black. Anyone who wore pants of any other color was considered a hick. At least until the pink and charcoal grey craze.
This was about the time that “pegged” pants came into vogue, taking the high school hallways by storm. It would later be relegated back to the hoods, but when it burst upon the scene only the coolest guys were wearing pegged pants. And I was not what you would call a cool guy.
Remember, I was tiny. I wore thick, horn-rimmed black glasses. I was on the debate team. We shopped at Sears and Roebuck. But also remember, I was in the band.
I needed a new pair of pants. Not because I had outgrown anything, but because it had been awhile. My mother took me to the boy’s department in Sears, which I was distressingly well acquainted with. When I was younger we would go there, and I would climb up onto the shoe machine that shot deadly x-rays through your shoes and showed a ghostly image of your feet and bones, all glowing a lurid green. Oh what fun that was. It’s a wonder we all didn’t have foot cancer by the time we were in our twenties.
My mother found me the usual boys pants and sent me into the dressing room, where I would try them on with the usual pathetic results. I was so small I fell between the size hell of Little Boys and Young Men. I refused the boy’s pants, and the Young Men’s were always too big and dragged the ground around my stupid shoes that we bought in the little boy’s department because my feet were as small as the rest of me. No one wore sneakers, just plain tie-up shoes. When I went to college I discovered Bass Weejuns – loafers — but until then it was plain black or brown shoes. Were they Buster Brown’s? I shudder to think that they might have been.
In my new ill-fitting pants, I slunk out of the dressing room and stood in front of the giant, floor-length, three sided Mirror of Shame. The pants sagged, as all the pants did on my undersized frame. My mother said she could hem them. She had to hem everything I bought. She could see I was pretty discouraged about the pants. I told her what pegged pants were, and how they were really cool. But Sears and Roebucks didn’t sell pegged pants. My mother listened and said, “I can do that.”
“I can peg your pants.”
How the hell was she going to do that? We bought the pants and drove home. She went upstairs and worked on her sewing machine for an hour or so then came down and tossed me the pants. “Try them now.”
I went upstairs to my room and pulled the pants on. They did not drag on the ground. They were tight on my legs. I went in to my mother’s bedroom where there was a full-length mirror.
They were pegged.
I looked fabulous.
For the first time in my life, I felt a great sense of admiration, mixed with awe, about my mother. I knew she was a good mother and took care of our family, a tough job because my father was only home on the weekends, but it had never occurred to me that she had skills. Serious skills. I didn’t know much about sewing, actually I didn’t know anything about sewing, but I knew she must have taken the pant legs apart and then sewed them back together again in some way that made them tighter. I went downstairs and showed her.
“They look good,” she lied. I thanked her for doing the sewing. I didn’t say anything about her skills, but I think she could tell I was more than appreciative. She had a small smile that said, See there, there’s more to me than you will ever know. Which was right. That was a lesson I learned and relearned over the years.
So I went to school in my pegged pants. No one mentioned them. Which was probably a good thing. I must have looked pretty foolish, my little self in tight pants with my googly glasses and my stupid shoes.
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?”
“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.
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.
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.
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.