Beginnings 3

Before we begin today’s entry, I’d like to thank everyone who is reading this and commenting. I appreciate the additional memories, which will help when I eventually pull this all together and format it as a regular book. To those who have written and asked about my other books, I refer you to the “About” section at the top of the blog, which has links to my novels. All of which are for sale! Also, does anyone besides me find this typeface too dim? If so, let me know and I’ll use a different template. They won’t let me just change the color of the font. Also, the comment thingy at the bottom doesn’t work right, so if you comment there and it doesn’t come up, I probably saw it on my end but it didn’t make it into the blog. I can always be reached through my email, Now, as they used to say on the Lone Ranger, let us return to those exciting days of yesteryear…

This is not Uncle Oke. This is Gorgeous George.

Back to Uncle Oke.

When I had earaches, and I often had earaches — some sort of West Virginia congenital defect like flat, oversize heads with pale, wispy blond hair, like the kid who plays the banjo on the porch in the movie Deliverance — Oke would fire up a cigar, put me on his lap and blow a steady stream of smoke into my afflicted ear, over and over until the pain faded away. Go ahead and laugh, but it worked.

Antibiotics were still fairly new, at least in West Virginia, so we didn’t get them for my earaches. Later, yes, but not then. My mother had been prey to earaches as a child, so she knew how much pain I was in when I was caught in the demonic clutches of one. Unfortunately she didn’t smoke cigars, and my father was out of town during the week, so I would lay in my bed and suffer. And suffer I surely did. Later when Penicillin became available, we would get a shot for everything that ailed us. At the first sign of a sniffle or earache it was off to see Doctor Leeson in his home office where he would take a look at you and whip out his hypodermic needle and give you a shot in your right buttock. His office looked like one of the illustrations in the Life magazine series, Great Moments in Medicine. Not the ones showing ancient Egyptian doctors plying strange medical methods like drilling holes in their patient’s heads to let out devils, but the drawings of doctors in Victorian times, complete with sterilizers sitting atop gas burners. Dr. Leeson had white porcelain trays with hypodermic needles boiling away, just like the drawings. Remember, this is West Virginia in the 1950’s. In many ways we weren’t all that far away from Victorian England.

Another example of our medical backwardness was one of the kids in the band, Bob, a clarinet player, often came to school with an assafidity bag around his neck. Assafidity is spelled many different ways, the Internet tells me. This was an old timey prescription for defeating colds and the flu. Very strong smelling herbs were put in a little leather bag on a leather necklace that was worn around the neck to ward off whatever evil it was that gave you these diseases. The smell was not restricted to the wearer; everyone else in class was aware of it. Bob was embarrassed about it, but not enough to go against his mother’s wishes. I don’t remember anyone ever making fun of him for it, we just knew that parents were odd but when they told you to do something you did it. Most of the time.

Dr. Leeson wasn’t our first doctor, that would be Doctor Jones, a short quiet, no-nonsense pediatrician who taught me my first painful lesson about being lied to by an adult.

This is a good time to introduce my sister, Sandy.

My sister is two years older than I am. My mother always said we were a unit when we were little, referred to as SandyandAllen or AllenandSandy – one word. She looked out for me, except that time she convinced me that it would be a tasty treat to eat a giant spoonful of sand when we were in the sandbox, though I have forgiven her for that. She was always the smart one who could do anything she put her mind to, she got good grades and could draw, paint, write and act, skills she carried through adulthood and up to today. She once leapt on the back of Doctor Jones as he was giving me a shot, screaming “Don’t you hurt my brother!” Which brings me back to the Doctor Lie.

I was really young, three or four, and I was sitting on the examining table, there once again for one of my earaches. I watched Dr. Jones, who had the appearance of a Saturday Evening Post cover of a kindly country doctor, as he fussed around with some arcane piece of medical apparatus. He was just going to place something in my ear, would it hurt? I asked, No, it’s not going to hurt, he said. Which is when he stabbed me in the ear with a giant hypodermic needle to lance whatever infection lurked there, and it hurt like a motherfucker. Along with the physical pain, was the Damned Lie. No it’s not going to hurt. It probably wasn’t the first time an adult had lied to me, but it was the first time that resulted in physical consequences, and I was confused and felt betrayed, which was a brand new emotion. I never trusted him again, and felt that I was in new territory, a new, harsher world, where I could never completely trust an adult ever again. Too much weight to put on such young shoulders? Possibly. But I can still remember, still feel that disappointment and loss.

Oke would take me to the wrestling matches in town. He’d drive over to our house, drop Emma, my grandma, and her sister Jane, my aunt, off for a visit with my mother while he and I went to the matches in the early evening in downtown Parkersburg at the Coliseum, a huge room over a car dealership. The Coliseum hosted a number of venues besides the wrestling: band concerts, ballroom dances, public dinners and when I was older, it was a roller skating rink. I have only a vague recollection of the wrestling setup, a regular ring surrounded by folding metal chairs, but I think this is a generic memory, one not based on reality. What I actually remember is not the wrestling matches, but the bar we would go to, Oke and I.

I think now that we never really went to a wrestling match at all because I have a very distinct memory of sitting on a barstool drinking Coca-Cola (I’m sure it was the first coke I ever tasted) and eating pickled eggs while Oke drank whisky and bullshitted with the bartender. In my mind today, the image of the wrestling ring is very dim, but my memory of the barroom is bright and clear. This establishment must have been very near the wrestling venue because we were sitting there one night when the famous wrestler, Gorgeous George, came in and swept around the room like the King of England, or the President or the pope, shaking hands with the peasants. George was probably the most famous wrestler of this era — the highest paid athlete of his day. My parents were very impressed when Oke brought me home and told them I shook the Great Man’s hand.

I remember George very clearly because I had never seen anything like him. He wasn’t memorable because he was particularly tall or broad or muscular, not like wrestlers of today, but because he had long bleached blond hair that hung down the back of his head in greasy ringlets. He was wearing a very colorful cape, red I believe, with a high stiff collar. He swanned around the barroom, nodding and bowing, blowing kisses, acting in what I would later know was an effeminate manner, keeping his nose high in the air as if he was a nobleman forced into a roomful of peons. Which he was, sort of. It was all part of his stage personae, one of the first wrestlers to establish an outrageous character that was designed to set him apart from every other wrestler and piss off the men in the audience. The fans would get all worked up and scream at him, jeering him for being stuck-up and girlish and acting better than everyone else. He was also the first wrestler to use entrance music: he would stroll down the aisle and into the ring, lofted along on the strains of Pomp and Circumstances, followed by his valet, Freddie, who carried a large silver mirror and tossed rose petals under George’s feet. Once in the ring, Freddie would go around spraying perfume into the air, which he pointed out was made from the famous Chanel Number Five. George always chimed in that the liquid being sprayed that night was actually Chanel Number Ten, “Because why be half safe?”

But I have strayed from Oke and my long road to the band.

Beginnings 2

jimmy's cadillac

It all began with my Uncle Oke. He was married to my grandmother Emma’s sister, Jane. He was a tall man with a long face. Decidedly different from my mother’s side of the family, who were all, to a man or woman, short and round. In later years my mother would always characterize her people as “hobbits,” and it was an apt description. We didn’t see Oke and Jane all that much, but when they came around it was an occasion for me. For some reason, Oke liked me. I don’t believe he and Jane had any children of their own. When I was in the first grade, five years old, (I started school early, not because I was smart, but because my mother got tired of hearing me complain about being left behind when everyone else in the neighborhood trooped off to grade school.) Oke would pick me up and we’d go for a ride in his big car, which resembled an upside-down bathtub. The car — gunmetal grey — had a huge white steering wheel; I’d sit on Oke’s lap and steer while he worked the pedals as we motored down Maxwell Avenue, the street in front of our house. And I would really steer; he’d keep his hands off the wheel as I swerved down the street, lurching back and forth from lane to lane with Oke never intervening until we were milliseconds away from head-on crashes.

I said Oke’s car resembled an upside-down bathtub. I don’t remember for sure, but it must have been a Chevrolet, because the members of our family were all Chevy people. Our neighborhood — middle class working folks — was made up of either Chevy people or Ford people. There were no Buicks or Oldsmobiles because those were cars owned by people who had more money than we did.

No, that’s not right. Directly across the street from our house there was a Cadillac. It was owned by Johnny Holt, who lived alone. He was middle-aged, I guess, though children are always terrible at knowing how old adults are. Johnny was a character; I knew that because that’s what my father would say: “That Johnny Holt, he’s a real character.” Johnny would come home drunk on a Saturday night and run his Cadillac up on his lawn, climb out and stagger into his house. If I was lucky, I’d see him do this. In the summer — we had no air conditioning and neither did anyone else — I would switch directions on my bed and lay at the end where my feet usually were, with my head on my pillow up on the windowsill where I could catch any breeze that happened by. I could see the night sky, and the trees and hear my parents listening to the radio and later the TV downstairs until I fell asleep. I would wake up when Johnny hit the curb with a squelch of rubber tires and watch while he steered the big white Caddy up onto the lawn, braked to a halt just inches from his front steps, climbed out and staggered into the house. He usually left his car door open and over the course of the night the dome light would slowly fade until his battery was completely run down. The next day my parents would stand on our porch and shake their heads at the sight of the big Caddy up on the lawn. But Johnny was more a source of amusement than anger. He had another habit, though, that my mother really didn’t like.

On weekend mornings, early, even after a late-night struggle with the bottle and his car, Johnny would come out in his bathrobe to feed the birds. He would stand at the edge of his porch and throw torn-up pieces of bread into the yard, all the while calling out, “Here buddy buddy buddy. Here buddy buddy buddy.” I never understood if he was mispronouncing the word “birdie” or referring to the birds as his buddies. After waiting a bit – no birds ever seemed to take him up on his invitation — he would open his robe and take a piss out onto the yard. Then he’d shake off and go back inside. Like I said, my mother really didn’t like that.

Johnny’s wife, a pale pleasant woman with a long sad face died when I was in junior high school and Johnny, surprisingly, got married again soon after her death. This was surprising because Johnny was not an attractive man, heavyset with a bulbous nose and the annoying habit of pissing off the front porch onto his lawn. And his new wife was a real bombshell.

She was quite a bit younger than Johnny and was built, as we used to say, like a brick shithouse. Why we used to say that, I have no idea. She had large upright breasts, a slim waist and long legs that she would show off in little shorts. And she was extremely ugly. My father would say, “She’s the sort of woman you follow down the street for two blocks and when she turns around you run away screaming.” She was also very nice, though she never hung around with any of the other neighborhood moms. We young boys liked to watch Johnny’s wife, Mrs. Holt, walk around the yard in her tiny shorts. The dads did as well. Johnny’s wife had a positive effect on his character, and the incidences of driving the Caddy up on the lawn fell away to almost never.

About this time Johnny developed an interest in boating and began to build his own boat in the garage behind his house. After working for some months on the boat, he called to a bunch of us neighborhood boys and asked us to come take a look at the boat. We trooped down to the garage where he showed us the powerboat, which he had done quite a lot of work on. Maybe he was using a kit, but it had the skeleton of a boat and you could see he seemed to know what he was doing. This was a Johnny that we had not known. About this time he broke out beers for all of us, we were probably twelve years old, and laid out his plan. We would start a boat-building club where we would gather in the evening and on weekends to work on the boat. Beers were in the cooler. After the boat was built, we would spend many hours motoring up and down the Ohio River. It would be fun and educational.

We sipped our beers, pretending we were enjoying them, and pretending we were giving the idea consideration. Then we told him we’d let him know and went home for dinner.

We told our parents about Johnny’s plan and dumped out the beers because no one really liked them. Our parents were annoyed that Johnny had given us the beer, but none of them marched over and gave him hell about it. Remember, Johnny was a character, but he was harmless and characters were given a lot of leeway back in those days. We assured them that we weren’t going to join Johnny’s club because it was incredibly creepy.

Sometimes Johnny would wave at we boys but he never asked us down to the clubhouse again. He must have been pretty drunk when he hatched his scheme to us, and maybe didn’t even remember. Unfortunately, this story has a tragic ending.

After a couple of years, Johnny actually finished the boat. When the day came to haul it out of the garage, he found that the boat was way too big to fit through the door. Johnny was not to be denied, so he took a sledgehammer and knocked down the back of the garage and freed the boat, which was hauled down to the Ohio River. It floated, and by all accounts performed just the way a boat is supposed to do.

One of the first weekends on the water, his wife — it was said she was sitting on the stern wearing a tiny bikini — fell off the boat and drowned. I told you the story had a tragic ending.

Everyone felt sorry for Johnny, and soon he was back to his old ways: drinking and driving on the lawn. And who could blame him?

So, yes, it wasn’t all Chevy’s and Fords in the neighborhood. There was Johnny’s white Cadillac. I’ll always remember those soft summer nights, laying with my head on my pillow in the window, watching the bulb in the dome light of Johnny’s Cadillac as it faded with the passing hours, listening to the open-door chime grow fainter and fainter until dawn came, and all was quiet.

And I slept.

1. Beginnings



It was about one week into the first summer of band practice when I first had my ass kicked. I had been expecting it, I wasn’t the only one, but it was still a surprise. I was fourteen years old; it was 1959. Wesley Banks kicked my ass. He was a junior at Parkersburg High School; I was a freshman. Wesley was a big guy who played the saxophone. He had blond hair waxed up in a flat top, a style almost everyone sported. Wesley was dumb, at least it seemed so to me, but he could play the hell out of a saxophone.

“Bend over, Scum!” he shouted. He probably didn’t even know my name; we, the freshman, were referred to collectively as Scum. I had done something wrong — I was out of step, missed my mark, something, it doesn’t matter what. Frank, our gimlet-eyed band director, had found some flaw in what we were doing, stopped us, and we were moving back into position to try whatever formation we were working on again. I bent over, as commanded. I stared at my hands on my knees, waiting.

Wesley knew what he was doing. He had plenty of practice and big black shoes. This was before the days when everyone wore sneakers. You had a pair of what we now call Chuck Taylors, but were then known simply as gym shoes and the only place you wore them was to gym class. You certainly never wore them to regular classes or to band practice. Wesley took three or four steps, swung his right foot up and slammed it onto my ass, lifting me off the ground. I flew into the air and landed on my hands and knees six feet away from where I had been standing. If this had been the Olympics, the row of judges would have given Wesley all tens.

 I stood up and brushed myself off. Wesley walked away, laughing with his friends. He’d already forgotten me. It didn’t hurt that much, but I was surprised how far I was thrown. I looked around. No one was paying any attention. Frank certainly didn’t give a shit, if he even noticed. A few of the other freshman watched out of the corners of their eyes, but there was no sympathy on their faces. They were just waiting for their own turn to bend over, which would surely come, if it hadn’t already. We were ninth graders, and we were scum –first year members in what was the most celebrated organization in our West Virginia town.

The Big Red Band. It doesn’t sound like much, does it? Just wait.

And what has brought this on, this looking back? A few weeks ago my oldest friend who now lives in Mexico sent me an email that contained a URL to a YouTube video of the Big Red Band marching in a contest in New York City, circa 1959. Who knew such a thing existed? It was shot on 8mm film, with ragged sprocket holes and no soundtrack. It skittered in places, but there we were, marching down the street, wheeling around corners.

And there I was.

Just for a second. Two blinks and you would miss me. I was beside a sousaphone player, third in from the end, playing my piccolo. Yes, my piccolo. We’ll get to that.

I played the film clip over and over again on my computer, astounded.

Astounded because I now saw something that had never occurred to me 56 years ago. Or since. Until now.

I was tiny. I knew I was short, I’m not particularly stupid, neither then nor now, but I barely came up to the shoulder of the guy next to me. I was dwarfed by his sousaphone. I showed my wife, Sherry, the video clip.

“Those guys are really big,” she said.

“They aren’t big, they’re regular sized,” I shouted. “It’s me; I’m tiny. Not just small, tiny! I never knew. Why didn’t somebody tell me?”

“Maybe they did, and you just didn’t listen. Why don’t you write about it?” Sherry said. “Who knows what else you missed?”

Who knows?

Let’s see.

Here’s the thing. In late 1950’s Parkersburg, West Virginia, a medium-large town situated on the Ohio River, football was big. Thousands of spectators streamed into the stadium behind the massive brick and stone high school on Friday nights to watch the Big Reds football team run, tackle, battle and overpower every other high school team in their league in the state. But unlike any other high school I’ve ever heard of, the thing the audience was waiting for, what they turned out for as much as the football game, was to watch the band perform. We were a strict, military, all-male marching band, where only the toughest, smartest, most talented kids in the town and from surrounding areas made it into the ranks. I wasn’t big, and I wasn’t tough, but I was talented. And I was an excellent talker. Many kids who played an instrument tried to get in, failed and were relegated to the ignominy of the high school orchestra where they sawed and puffed away at their instruments, seated beside girls, suffering the humiliation of not being good enough (or the correct sex) to make it into the band.

Every couple of years the football coach came to the band room to ask our guys to try out for the football team. The problem was, you couldn’t be in both. The band room was underneath the football stadium, behind the high school, three rooms with dusty wooden floors, a big central area where our chairs were drawn up in semi-circle formation, music stands in front of us, a side room where we hung our coats and a smaller side room where we were supposed to go to practice individually, except no one ever did. We were in our seats, waiting for after-school band practice to start. It was just a few weeks into the new school year. Frank stepped up on the platform in front. Frank Shroeder was a tidy man, about 5’ 9,” of German lineage with cool, cruel, grey eyes. He always seemed to be judging you, and he always was.

“Boys,” Frank said, “Coach Eber has something he’d like to talk to you about.” Frank stepped off the podium to the side and began cleaning his nails, his eyes intent on his fingers. Whenever Frank was in resting mode, he cleaned his fingernails. Coach Eber, I hadn’t noticed him standing stolidly near the door of Frank’s office, lumbered up in front of us onto the platform.

I played the piccolo and sat at the very front of the band in the center of the semicircle. I could have reached out and touched Coach if I had wanted.

Coach looked exactly like you would expect the leader of a West Virginia high school football team to look: big, florid face, grey flattop. He would be right at home wearing coveralls, sitting on a John Deere tractor.

“Boys,” he began. “If there’s anyone here who wants to try out for the football team, we’d like to have you.” He glanced at back of the room where the sousaphone players and the drummers stood. He seemed embarrassed. “That goes for you tuba players in particular,” he added, nodding his head. This made him not only pathetic in our eyes, but a dope as well: marching bands used sousaphones, big brass instruments that wrapped around the player’s body, not tubas. There was a long silence. “We’ve got a good team this year, but we could always use some help, especially from you husky boys.” He was watching the outer edges of the circle at the back where the guys who played the bigger, heavier instruments were seated. Instrument size seemed to radiate outward, starting with me, the smallest, and ending with the bass drummer and the sousaphone guys. No one spoke. Frank didn’t look up from his fingernail task.

“Well, Coach.” It was Wesley who broke the silence. He spoke in a West Virginia drawl, lazy, as if he was barely paying attention. We waited. Wesley could always be counted on to be a smart ass. “You’re not going to get anyone to quit the band and join the team.” You could hear the smirk in his voice. Silence. Coach was an ignorant joke who had bullied his players into the state championships for many years. He stood on the platform with his head hung down, red-faced, shamed by his having to come and beg, but he was a simple man who would do anything for his beloved team. I almost felt sorry for him, but he really was stupid.

The board of education had a rule that said that even the football coach had to teach a regular high school class, so Coach Eber “taught” ninth grade science. Every day he would tell us to sit at our desks and read the science book, and every week he would give us a test, which he would then turn over to Don Jones, another freshman, and me to grade for him. Don played trombone in the band.

Of course Wesley wasn’t going to let Coach down easy. We really hated the football players; most of them were dullards and, like their coach, bullies.

“You want to know why we’re not going to join the team?” Wesley asked Coach.

Frank remained silent, examining his impeccable fingernails.

“Because football players are all queers,” Wesley said.

There was a moment of silence, and then everyone laughed. Except Coach and Frank.

I was shocked. And thrilled. Without a word, Coach stepped off the platform and walked out of the room. When we heard the door slam, Frank took his place on the podium and said, “Washington Post,” which was a Sousa march we often played. We shuffled our music onto our stands. He raised his baton. On the downbeat, we broke into this resounding march.

I played the music, sort of, but I was thinking about Wesley’s smart-assed remark, and the way Coach slunk out of the room, and how Frank hadn’t said a word about it. He should have yelled at Wesley — he yelled at everyone — but he didn’t. At that moment, I really understood what had been unsaid, at least to me, for years, what the truth was in my town: if you were in the Big Red Band you could do any goddamn thing you wanted and get away with it.