#19 Leave it to the Beaver



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But we are not yet done with this amazing meal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


#17 Rocket Boys

allen and Rusty science fair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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



You Always Remember Your First Time

allen band uniform 1

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.

Keep playing!

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.

It was the most exciting moment of my life.

Arf Arf!

For those who have written asking whatever happened to the parts about the Big Red Band, I’ll get back there shortly. Those of you who know me and my writing understand that I tend to wander around a lot on the page

Where was I? Oh, yes, many pages ago I was buying a flute, which meant a trip to the music store in downtown Parkersburg to look at a catalogue. As those of you have kindly pointed out, I got all the info about the music store wrong in an earlier entry. It seems the name of the store was Shroeder’s, (no relation to our esteemed band leader, Frank Shroeder). One of the pleasures of writing this memoir is knowing that my West Virginia friends out there will correct all the parts I get wrong. Thanks to everyone who is helping me.

The music store downtown… But first, allow me one of my digressions. For some reason, I remember that this store always reminded me, when I walked in the door, of the country store we used to hike to in Walker, and other West Virginia country stores of that time. I’ll bet many of you remember these stores. Old places built of, on the outside, grey, weathered wood. Inside they smelled of wooden floors, wooden counters and shelves, and dust, usually something fruity, maybe a barrel of apples or bushel of peaches, depending on the season. There was often a giant wheel of cheddar cheese, sometimes covered with cheesecloth. The cheese would sweat small beads of oil, and you could order a slice, which would be wrapped in butchers paper and tied with a string and it was delicious. The soda was in a large cooler, bottles jammed down in drifts of ice: orange crush, grape or other fruits that you never see any more, Cokes and Pepsis. You could buy about anything in those stores, and the old ladies and gents behind the counter were always nice to us kids with our nickels and dimes clutched in our grimy little fists.

The music store didn’t sell produce or cheese, but I remember it having long wooden floors, wooden shelves and wooden counters that had their own comfortable smell of age. They sold instruments, mostly guitars, in the front, records in the middle and in the back were glass booths where you could play records and make a decision on which you wanted to buy. No one seemed to care that you would go in a booth and spend an hour listening to records and come out and not buy anything.

Music was in the air much of the day around our house. My mother kept the radio on, a small, white plastic model that sat on a shelf in the kitchen, while she worked around the house. When my dad was home on the weekends, it was tuned to big band music; during the week my mother listened to a local, top-ten station. Some of the songs I remember clearly, many of which are still played today, were Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, A Teenager in Love, Lonely Boy and Lipstick On Your Collar. Well, maybe they don’t play them much anymore other than on oldies stations.

It was around this time, seventh or eighth grade, when my passion for classical music was born. It must have been a hot Saturday in the summer. Saturday, because my dad was home. We – my sister, mom and dad and I — were all in the kitchen. My dad was sitting at the white metal/porcelain kitchen table. He had on his weekend pants and a no-sleeve undershirt, what we now refer to as a wife-beater. We were kidding around, and the radio was playing a big-band show. The announcer said they were going to have a contest. He would play an old big-band tune, and the first person to call in and name the band would win a prize, which was an LP — a long playing record — and a case of soda. The tune started and my dad immediately said, Tommy Dorsey; I called the station and told them, and we won.

This was astounding. As far as I know, we had never won anything. The radio people took the information and sent us the paperwork. The next weekend, my dad drove to the grocery store and picked up the soda, a case of coke, and dropped me off at the store to pick out a record. And why did he drop me off? The store involved in the contest was our nemesis, J.C. Penny. Thank God it wasn’t Monkey Wards. Dad wouldn’t go in, but he figured that we would take the free record because giving it away would probably harm Penny’s and make them more vulnerable in the ongoing war that was Sears against Penny’s and Wards. (See earlier entries for more on Sears Roebuck.)

I had to ask directions to the record section because it was hidden away at the very back of the second floor of the store, behind the lady’s underwear section, which was mortifying, but oddly fascinating to walk through. I fought to keep my eyes straight ahead as I made my way through ranks of bras and underpants. Two bins held around fifty records, divided up into a popular music section and a much smaller selection of classical music. For some reason, I was seized with the notion of buying a classical record. I knew what classical music was, I had seen orchestras, dimly, on the neighbor’s television, and I had heard orchestras on the radio. Many cartoons of the time showed orchestras. I knew it was music that smart people listened to, rather than popular songs like How Much Was that Doggy in the Window. I thought if I listened to classical music, I too would become a smart person. I pictured myself sitting in a fancy living room, maybe smoking a pipe (I was an adult in this image) reading a book and listening to this type of music. Off to the side, sitting on the sofa would be my lovely imaginary wife, dressed only in a bra and panties.

No! That was a joke! I didn’t think that at all!

But how would I know what record to buy? For some reason, I decided that the best classical composers would be the ones with the longest, most foreign-sounding names. It turns out that this was not a bad way to choose, as I left the store with Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto #2 in C minor, one of the world’s great romantic pieces.

At home, my sister was disappointed by my selection. And it was then that we faced the next hurdle: we didn’t own a record player. Or at least we didn’t as far as I knew. Dad took us into the living room.

There was a large piece of furniture that I assumed was there mostly to hold a lamp and a couple of vases. I knew there was a radio in there, but we hadn’t listened to it for years, not since we got the small white plastic one. This was the sort of radio that when you turned it on it took some time to warm up. The sort of radio you could smell as it emitted a familiar (and somehow comforting) odor of dust and hot tubes. Dad opened the radio part, then from underneath he rolled out a regular turntable. I didn’t even know it was in there. We didn’t own any records other than the new one I had just bought. Well, actually we did, we had a half-dozen Disney records that we listened to when we were smaller. What did we play these on? I don’t remember.

Dad turned everything on, and we sat down to listen. Those first, brooding chords of the Rachmaninoff began and in seconds I was enthralled. I have no recollection of what anyone’s else’s reaction was, but I felt an entire world opening, a world that, like the record turntable, I had not known existed.

The next Saturday we won again. This time we picked up a case of orange soda, and my sister got to choose the record. She went with Frank Sinatra, which I didn’t have any interest in, you could hear him anytime on the radio, but I have a feeling the rest of the family was pleased with the choice.

The next week we won again and were permanently banned by the radio station from ever entering the contest again. This time the soda was root beer, and I was back at Penny’s facing the record bin. I employed my tried and true method and came home with Shostakovich’s (the longest foreign name in the bin) Preludes and Fugues. I put the record on, expecting Rachmaninoff, which is not what I got. The pianist started off innocently enough, but soon was hitting what even I knew were “wrong notes.” The rest of the record was the same and after listening to both sides, I was completely confused. I know now that this was the first time I had encountered dissonance in music, but I didn’t know that word and neither did anyone else in my family, at least when it was used as a musical term. I asked my father, who understood what I was talking about. He explained that once, years before, he had attended an Erroll Garner concert, a black jazz pianist who played in somewhat the same way. Dad said Garner was the man “who played the right wrong notes.” Making music that might sound wrong, but who, after awhile, made those wrong notes work. This was jazz, my father said, but the idea was the same with the Shostakovich. Give it time, listen and learn.

I wish I could say that I sat back down and listened to the Shostakovich again and the scales fell from my eyes, and ears, but it wasn’t so. I wore out the Rachmaninoff record, but the Shostakovich, not so much. I think I learned to appreciate it, and came to somewhat understand modern classical music, but it didn’t fill me with the same yearning that Rachmaninoff and other romantic composers did.

We ended up giving most of the sodas away. We almost never drank soda at home. I don’t know if it was because we were too poor to afford it, or that my mother didn’t think it was good for us. My parents didn’t drink any of it, and after a half dozen bottles of the various flavors my sister and I had no interest in it either. For some reason this was vastly different from those rare sodas we drank after walking miles down a dirt road, the sodas from the old country stores. There was so much of it, three cases stacked one atop the other in our kitchen, and it was so sweet to us that I remember drinking a couple of bottles, the way I’d seen other people drink them, and then feeling sick. I’ve hardly ever consumed a commercial soda since. Thank you, radio station. You turned me into a classical music lover and made a big contribution to my health all at the same time by teaching me to dislike soft drinks.

And because I love to get songs stuck in other people’s heads, here are the lyrics to How Much Is That Doggie in the Window. You remember the tune. Sing along to it, and make sure you add the “arf arf” at the end of the chorus.

How much is that doggie in the window?

The one with the waggly tail

How much is that doggie in the window?

I do hope that doggie’s for sale

I must take a trip to California

And leave my poor sweetheart alone

If he has a dog, he won’t be lonesome

And the doggie will have a good home

How much is that doggie in the window?

The one with the waggly tail

How much is that doggie in the window?

I do hope that doggie’s for sale

I read in the papers there are robbers

With flashlights that shine in the dark

My love needs a doggie to protect him

And scare them away with one bark

I don’t want a bunny or a kitty

I don’t want a parrot that talks

I don’t want a bowl of little fishies

He can’t take a goldfish for a walk

Arf! Arf!

#7 — Searching for Crawdads and Mr. Mason


Above image: Sandy and Allen, turning over rocks and catching crawdads.

Some time after Grandma Emma received her divorce from Mr. Bush, the man who was a bald as an egg, this was many years before they sent her to the nursing home back when she was young and vigorous, she married Mr. Mason. We never called him Grandpa. He was always Mr. Mason.

Mr. Mason was an almost mythic figure. My father always said of him, with great fondness and respect, that he was “a man’s man,” though at the time I couldn’t puzzle out what that meant at all. I remember him as a giant with dark leathery skin; he appeared to me to have been hewn from an old log. (Which was close to being true, as you shall see.) He was always dressed in one of two outfits: denim coveralls and a pale blue workshirt for working around the farm, or a matching khaki shirt and pants for Sunday dinner and sitting with us or other company. Here are a few Mr. Mason images.

I would watch Mr. Mason get up on Sunday mornings when he and Grandma were living at Walker, WV. My bedroom that I shared with my sister was across the dining room from his bedroom, and while lying in bed in the early morning I could easily see him when he heaved himself, with a great creaking of bedsprings, up into a sitting position. Grandma would have been up for hours preparing a tremendous breakfast. He would laboriously pull his coveralls up over his long johns, which he wore year-round. Then he would sit on the edge of the bed and take a big old brown bottle of his SSS tonic and pour the first of four large tablespoonfuls of the dark liquid into a battered cooking spoon he kept by his bedside. My father laughed when I asked him about this medicine; I thought maybe Mr. Mason might be sick. He told me in later years that Mr. Mason needed the Triple S to get himself going in the morning as it had a high alcohol content. (A quick stroll over into Google-land tells me that they’re still making the tonic and you can buy it at your local Walgreens! And that yes indeed, it is 12.5 % alcohol, so that makes it 25 proof, which is higher than wine or beer by far. So after his tonic and sitting on the edge of the bed a bit longer, Mr. Mason would tug on his battered boots, go visit the outdoor privvy and come back in for breakfast. His favorite breakfast food was two boiled chicken feet that stood upright and alone in the center of his plate. They were always there when he sat down at the table. He would gnaw on these before tucking into the eggs, biscuits, ham, more chicken, gravy and all the other regular breakfast fare that Grandma always served.

One day, long before I was born, a man came by the farm and gave Mr. Mason a slice of cantaloupe. Evidently no one in this rural area of West Virginia had ever eaten a cantaloupe. The man said they grew all over down in Florida. Mr. Mason finished his slice, turned away, walked to his truck, fired it up and drove off. Three days later he was back with an entire truckload of cantaloupes, which he drove around giving to neighbors on other farms. He had driven straight down to Florida and back without stopping, which was the kind of man that Mr. Mason was.

We would sit on the porch of an evening at grandma’s. The grown-ups sat in rocking chairs and talked, and the kids — my sister and I and various cousins — lounged around on the grey-painted, wooden porch floor listening and playing. After a while, Mr. Mason would cross one leg over the other and take out his penknife. As I watched, surely with bulging eyes, Mr. Mason would slowly open his knife and draw the blade up his lower leg, shaving off long, paper-thin slices of… skin?

Mr. Mason had a wooden leg, which no one had ever told me about. I don’t remember ever seeing him strap it on in the morning when he would get dressed. Maybe he slept with it on and his long johns covered the attachment. When I was very young, I remember being very confused when he would this thing with his knife, as it looked like a real leg to me. He had made the leg himself, carving it out of a downed tree limb, and it was the same color as his tanned, leathery skin. The story of the wooden leg that my father told me in later years was that Mr. Mason had been an oilman in the early days of the West Virginia oil boom. He had been working high on a rig that began to collapse beneath him, whereupon he leapt off and hit the ground injuring his leg so badly he had to have it amputated. Mr. Mason was philosophical about this and passed along a valuable piece of information to my father which was then passed on to me: “If you’re ever high up on something that starts to fall, do not jump off, ride ‘er to the ground.” I have found this to be very useful advice both in matters of oilrigs and general life conditions. When she starts to fall, never jump, always ride ‘er to the ground.

Both their farms, at Beatrice and at Walker, were quite near small rivers and creeks. Unfortunately, creeks and rivers can become problems when they flood, a not uncommon phenomena in West Virginia at least in those days. I don’t know how many times Grandma and Mr. Mason were chased from their homes by floodwater, but it was often enough that they were pretty blasé about it. We loved playing in the creeks and rivers and would spend entire afternoons looking for crawdads under rocks and building pools and dams. The big river nearby was great for swimming and fishing, and we were allowed to go and play in it whenever we wanted. No adults tagged along to fuss around make sure we weren’t swept away.

On occasion, the members of the local Baptist church would show up, ten or twenty of them, and baptize congregants by fully immersing them in the water. They would sing the hymn, Shall We Gather By the River, over and over as the adults and children were plunged beneath the water by the preacher, to be lifted up and held as the water streamed down their beatific faces and the Holy Spirit bathed them clean of sin. We kept quiet and were respectful and even though we were young children we seemed to be aware of the spirituality of the occasion and the elemental beauty of the ritual and that ragged old hymn.

Mr. Mason was the cause of another of those adult betrayal experiences that I had as a small boy, like the doctor lying to me, though he never knew it. As I have said before, my memories were mostly happy and hopeful, and the confusion and betrayals were few, shallow, and hardly hurtful. But perhaps because of the overall happiness they were, in relation, painful, at least for a little boy.

I, like most all children, loved helping my father, and I loved helping Mr. Mason around the farm. One day, I was probably eight years old, he told me he was going to plant beans in the garden and would I help. Of course I would. He had plowed the kitchen garden, which was quite large, and he went down the long rows piling the rich dirt into mounds. I followed closely along behind him. He showed me how to take three bean seeds and plant them in the hills, equidistant from one another and then cover them with dirt. We worked our way along until we had planted the entire bean field. I don’t know how long we were at it, but I was exhausted by the end of the day. Mr. Mason told me I had done a good job.

That night we were sitting on the porch after dinner. My mom and dad were there, as was my Aunt Betty and Uncle Charlie and their son, my cousin Johnny. My sister and I liked Johnny, though he was younger and littler and the butt of many of our adventures into the hills around Grandma’s house. Everyone was in their rockers, and someone commented on how they noticed that Mr. Mason had got his beans in just that very day. Mr. Mason said, yes, he had, and he could never have done it without his very good helper. I heard this exchange and sat up straight, knowing that I was about to be singled out for praise. Then Mr. Mason continued, saying that he could have done it without the help of young Johnny!

I was stuck dumb. Mr. Mason went on to pile a few more accolades atop Johnny’s head, and all the adults chimed in about how Johnny was turning into a real little man and some day he’d be a real farmer and have his own place to grow beans and wasn’t little Johnny just the best?

No! Wait! Stop! It wasn’t Johnny! It was me! I’m the real little man, someday I would have my own farm!

That was the voice in my head, screaming at the injustice. But I somehow knew that I shouldn’t try and correct the record, that it would be disrespectful to question Mr. Mason, who obviously couldn’t tell one boy from another. And that little bastard Johnny just sat there on the porch playing with his toy cars, unaware of the angst and pain coursing through my body.

See? I told you these memories were small, inconsequential things. But I still remember them, especially these faint betrayals. This was just one more in a bagful that when taken out and lined up on the porch railing become lessons learned, necessary corrections to a child’s notions of the infallibility of adults.

Welcome to the world, Allen.

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.

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.