#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.

Beginnings 4

silver dollar

Before beginning today’s story, I’d like to comment on some of the questions folks have been sending in, particularly why I am changing the names of people. Coach Eber in particular. I could look up his real name, but it pains me to call him a dope, though back then I thought he was, publicly, so I’m taking the coward’s way out and giving him a pseudonym. I’m sure there are many Big Red football players who revered the man as a God, which is fine, let them write their own stories. And while it seems silly even to me to change my friend’s names, I have learned over the years as a writer you can never know what someone is going to consider an insult. I might think a funny story about someone is completely innocent and have them, to my surprise, howl with indignation at being portrayed thusly. So everyone’s name gets changed, across the board. Except Frank.


As I said some time ago, it all began with Uncle Oke…

One summer day, we, Oke and I, were on the front porch of our house, alone, sitting on the green and white metal glider. Oke, looking far more serious than he usually did, pulled out a silver dollar and handed it to me. I could not have been more than eight years old. Oke said, “This is for you, but you have to promise me one thing.” I took the coin, which was to me a magnificent object: heavy and bright. I looked up at Oke, and he said, “ You have to promise that when you get to high school you’ll be in the Big Red Band.”

I promised.

The next year, in fourth grade, I started taking music lessons.

To make the Big Red Band you had to try out in front of Frank. This would happen the summer after you graduated from what they now call middle school but was then called junior high. Your parents took you to the band room, dropped you off, you went in and played something for Frank, and he told you if you were in. I was pretty good, so I wasn’t really worried. I played something, I don’t remember what, Frank said I was in, I was back outside in the car ready to ride home in ten minutes. I can’t remember if my parents were happy about this, but I assume they were. Actually, the trying out for Frank scene, now that I’ve written it, sounds like I imagined rather than remembered it. I have been trying to be careful to not do that. When I’m unsure, I’ll point it out. Maybe we were just shunted along through music class until we reached high school and were recommended to Frank. At any rate, for me it was a forgone conclusion since everyone had been telling me that was what was in store for me ever since I began playing my piccolo in the fourth grade. Eventually I’ll get to why I chose the piccolo as my instrument.

Back then, the summer before beginning my freshman year, our vacation was three months long, and the band practiced two times a day every weekday for the entire month of August. You did not go on vacations during August; there were no exceptions. You went to practice every day unless you contracted infantile paralysis or some other dread disease of the day. So the first week in August I was dropped off at the band room. I went in with all the other guys, a few of whom I knew from junior high, and Frank got us seated in the right places. Different sections of instruments sat together. The clarinets sat on my right, up front, trumpets on the left, the flutes/piccolos in the center in the first row and the rest of the band behind us. The best player in each section sat in the First Chair, the second best in the Second Chair, the third in Third and all the rest in unnamed descending order in accordance with their ability. The First Flute, my section, was a tall, lanky senior with an extremely pale, acne-riddled face. We’ll call him Boris because I can’t remember his name, and he reminded me of Boris Karloff. He didn’t talk much, and in fact was consistently distant to the point of unfriendliness to anyone he considered beneath him, which was everyone except the First Trumpet, John Green and the First Clarinet, Roddy Glenmeyer.

We were four flutes, or rather piccolos, (we only played flutes during concert season) in our section: Boris first; a junior named Bobby, second; me, third, and a kid named Bert at the end of the section on my right. Bert lived up the street from me, though he was never really one of the regulars on Maxwell Avenue. On the first day of school, in the first grade, Bert walked to school in the morning with us, but he did not walk home with our gang. My mother loved to tell the story of standing at the front window, looking outside while we kids ate our after-school snack. There came Bert, slowly waddling up the sidewalk in front of our house, headed home, crying, with a giant load of shit in his pants. This happened every day for the entire first week of school.

That summer before starting our freshman year, in the band, Bert made it through two weeks of ass kicking until he couldn’t take it any more. What came to be his last day of practice, he showed up with a book stuffed down the back of his pants, a trick he probably picked up from reading Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer or a comic book, as if he thought no one would notice. Of course he got kicked repeatedly that day because of the book, until Frank must have decided he was going to get killed and told him his days in the Big Red Band were over. Bert was a terrible player anyway, so it was no loss to the band. Shortly after this we were setting up for practice in the band room and I could see Frank having a meeting with the junior high music teacher who had sent Bert to the band. Frank’s office was right in front of where I sat, and I could hear him shouting about Bert, “You didn’t send me a flute player, you sent me a boy with a flute!” Which at the time struck me as the epitome of sarcastic humor.

The fellow who sat on my left, Robby, was nice. He was an effeminate kid, though we didn’t know or use that word — effeminate — back then. All I knew was he never kicked my ass, or anyone else’s, and I was grateful for that. Boris, the first chair, on the other hand, seemed to take great pleasure in kicking any Scum who he saw doing anything wrong. Since I sat and marched about five feet away from him every day, he kicked me plenty of times, always putting everything he had into it. I hated him. There was a cruelty about him, enjoyment at the pain he caused, an attitude I had never really experienced before.

As I said, in August we practiced twice a day, two hours each session, morning and evening, marching up and down the campus if front of the school, learning the basics of military drill. Those days were tough. Some days I, and plenty of other guys, could hardly walk after practice. One night my mom said to me after dinner, “I was doing the wash today; there’s blood in your underpants and on your sheets. Do you want to show me?” Face burning, head hanging, we went upstairs to my room, and I turned around and dropped my pants and my underpants. She didn’t gasp, didn’t say a word. She went to the bathroom, came back with a tube of ointment and handed it to me. “Put this on, it should help.” She left the room and never mentioned it again. I assume she told my father, though he didn’t mention it either. I was bruised and bloody, but everyone understood it was going to be tough, no one complained. Today, Frank probably would have gotten a couple of years in the state penitentiary for allowing the hazing. A bunch of kids dropped out, along with Bert, and no one blamed them.

It was just the price you paid to be in the band.