A preview: Her name was Joyce, the train ride was from Memphis to Washington, D.C. and the bike was blue.
Events leading up to the three firsts . . .
Sometimes when I look back over my shoulder the past is shrouded in the mists of time, and dates and places and people and events appear crowded together and all trying to be in the front row, hoping for recognition and a trip from the past to the present. Some things are irrevocably fixed in my memory but others are hazy and must be tailored to adapt to whatever story I’m telling at the time. An astute reader may find that some dates overlap—in some instances I may have the cart before the horse, but the error is inadvertent, and I will place a standing apology for such errors—hey, I’m almost 78 years old—I have earned the right to err occasionally.
For several years my wife and I collected gnomes, small statues created by Tom Clark, a retired priest that lives and creates in North Carolina. Folklore has it that the gnomes move around during the night, visiting other gnomes, and sometimes do not return to the place they left. Several times over the years I have found a gnome at a place different than I remembered it had been. Memories are very similar—we search for a thought in the place we believe it should be, but eventually find it in another by relating it to something different—if we find it at all!
I believe that we—my mother, my sister Dot and I—left Columbus, Mississippi in the winter of 1944 when I was twelve and traveled by bus to Durant, Mississippi, a small town northeast of Jackson. My mother was an LVN, a licensed vocational nurse, and for a year or two she tended a bedridden elderly widow in Durant. My mother’s compensation for that task was the income generated by a large house owned by the invalid, a house that had been converted into several apartments. Her patient also lived there and my mother furnished around-the-clock nursing care for her.
Our family had a furnished apartment at no cost with all utilities paid, and my mother managed the facility. She rented the apartments, collected the rents and maintained the house—anything left over was hers, part of the salary agreement between her and the widow’s son—when the rents fell short of their agreement, he supplemented her salary as necessary.
Our move to Durant was during a period of a forced separation from our stepfather, one created by him as were all the other times we were thrown out to continue our lives as best as we could. A few weeks earlier we were living on a forty-acre farm some 12 miles from Columbus, Mississippi. My sister and I bolted out of the house one morning following an altercation with our stepfather. We ran out to the middle of the road, and he called us back to the house from the front porch. When we refused, he said he was going for his shotgun and we left at top speed, running toward the woods bordering the graveled road we were running on. We stayed hidden in the woods while our mother and stepfather rode back and forth in the car calling us to come back home. We remained hidden until they finally gave up on us. Click here for a detailed explanation of the incident. We left the farm that morning and never went back.
My first kiss . . .
Now on to the salacious stuff—no, nothing x-rated. I refer specifically and respectfully, to my first real kiss-in-the-face, a memorable kiss bestowed on me by a girl that was a bit taller and a few months older than I, and here I will hasten to add that while it was my first osculation, it was far from her first—in retrospect and in view of subsequent similar situations, I would have to give her a perfect 10 in the art of kissing.
Her name was Joyce, and her father owned and operated a small radio repair shop just off Main Street in Durant. Her house was only a few blocks from the shop, and I was invited to a party there. When I arrived the guests—all teenagers and no adults present—were playing a game called Spin the Bottle—the name of the game was familiar, but in all my twelve years I had never played the game, simply because I had never had the opportunity.
All the players stood around in a circle and one player placed a bottle on the floor in the center of the circle and gave it a hard spin. When the bottle stopped spinning, the spinner and the pointee were required to kiss—not a cheek kiss or an air kiss, but a real kiss-in-the-mouth kiss. No, there was none of that same-sex stuff. If the spinner was a girl and the bottle pointed at another girl, the spinner kept spinning until it pointed at a boy, and if the spinner was a boy—well, you get the picture. Yes, we were having a gay old time, but in those days gay meant something very different than it does today. And yes, we were all high, but from the salt on potato chips and the sugar in Pepsi—those were the good old days! Pot was something my mother used for cooking, and crack was—well, crack, whether the verb or the noun, certainly meant things other than cocaine crystals!
I joined the game as one of those in the circle, and Joyce was in the center when I joined. It was her floor and her bottle, and I’m reasonably sure that she had played the game before and knew how to control the bottle’s revolutions, just like the people running the roulette wheels in Las Vegas. She gave the bottle a spin and when it stopped it was pointed at me, and the rest is history.
I would like to say that with that first kiss I heard angels singing, a mighty host on high, but the only thing I heard was Joyce groaning during the kiss, low-voiced but clearly audible, a long string of low voiced uumm, uumm, uumms, etc. I was there, of course, but Joyce had a firm grip on my head and both my ears, and she used my mouth and my lips and my tongue in bestowing the kiss, but I had absolutely no control over any part of the process. I would like to say that I tingled all over, in places that I had never before tingled, but I can’t say that—well, I had tingled all over before, but never from a kiss.
The part of the kiss I remember most is the tongue—mine, not hers. I thought my tongue was a goner, but I finally managed to extract it with only a small hickey at the tip, and I talked with a slight lisp for several days afterward—I also walked with a slight limp. At this point, in the interests of self-preservation and showing the proper respect to the fairer sex, I’ll have nothing more to say on the subject of Joyce and my first kiss.
My first train ride . . .
Around Christmas time in 1946 I stuffed my pitifully sparse wardrobe into a small metal trunk, loaded it into Papa John’s 1939 Plymouth sedan in mid-afternoon and left Durant in the rear view mirror, en route to Memphis, Tennessee, a distance of 152 miles. With us hurtling along at 45 miles per hour, the trip took four hours. Papa’s plan was to spend the night in Memphis and put me on a train to Washington, D.C. early the next morning. I could have traveled to Memphis by train, but that would have required a change in Memphis—I have no doubt that my mother insisted on the trip by auto—Papa would have cheerfully waved goodbye to me had the train been headed west to California.
We arrived in Memphis in late afternoon and checked in at a hotel for the night. When we walked in, Papa strode to the front desk, an imposing figure dressed in a long-sleeved western-cut khaki shirt with a black tie held in place with a gold-and-silver tie clasp of a western boot spur and rowel, khaki western-cut trousers, tan sombrero and cowboy boots, twirling a stout cudgel he laughingly called a walking stick, and said, Good afternoon, my good man, I would like to speak to the manager. The clerk obligingly stepped to the back and returned with a person he introduced as the manager.
Papa told the manager that we would be in his fair city overnight and required accommodations for two. Yep, a third-rate hotel located near the train terminal in a seedy rundown section of the city, and he acted as though it was the Waldorf-Astoria. The manager personally made the room assignment, probably with the full belief that he was dealing with a Texas tycoon. As you may have already guessed, Papa put on a good show.
Now fast forward to my arrival in Washington at Union Station where I was met by my brother. I say fast forward because I have no recollection of the rest of my stay in Memphis, nothing of the room or a restaurant that evening or the next morning, or of boarding the train early the next morning—if it’s still in my memory banks they refuse to give it up. I hasten to add that I have not suppressed any memories because of any calamitous event—it’s simply that the interval between the conversation at the front desk and my arrival at Union Station is unmemorable—even though it was my very first train ride, I have retained no memories of it—I remember well and can clearly visualize my arrival at Union Station, me brother meeting me and the drive to my brother’s house.
In the seven years between my mother’s marriage to my stepfather and my enlistment in the military, I was little more than a tumbleweed, moved hither and thither at the whim of the prevailing winds. A shift in the breezes and I was off a tangent or reversed direction, bound for one state or another, one city or another, put off—or put on, perhaps—one relative or another for one reason or another. To put it another way, I was a rolling stone, but believe me, I gathered lots of moss in the form of memories that lurk in the recesses of a brain approaching the end of its eighth decade of compiling and filing people, places and particles of thought.
My first bicycle . . .
The bicycle was new, blue with cream accents, packed in a huge cardboard box, fully assembled except for the handlebars and pedals. My brother brought it home early in the evening, and I removed it from the box and started putting on the pedals and the handlebars, but my brother stopped me. He told me to take the bike apart, in as many pieces as I could, to clean the wheel bearings of their prepacked factory grease and replace the grease with a special brand he used on his fleet of trucks. Then I could reassemble the bike and ride it. I grumbled mightily, but I did as I was told—I learned early on that my brother didn’t back down on any orders he gave.
By the time I broke the bicycle down into its smallest pieces, cleaned and repacked the bearings and reassembled everything it was after 10 pm, but I put the bike through its paces, and rode around the neighborhood for more than an hour. I don’t believe that any gift I have ever been given, or any gift that I have given myself, has ever given me as much pleasure as I experienced that night—well, I suppose there are things that have given me, and still give me, as much pleasure, but they don’t last nearly as long as that bike’s did! And I brought it home to Mississippi, lashed to the rear bumper when Larry and I left Maryland.
Our leaving Maryland is a story in itself—our departure was the result of events that included an illicit tryst of a couple at a drive-in theater, each married to another person, the discovery of that tryst by the husband of the woman, a bottle of sleeping pills and a pint of whiskey, events and elements that resulted in a separation and ultimately a divorce and a division of properties and the custody of two children given to their mother. I’ll get back to you later with more details.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!