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19th Street South and mumps for Christmas . . .

Christmas morning dawned clear and bright in my town in 1939. I was seven years old that year, an adventurous second-grader that had wished for a cowboy outfit from the Sears catalog, one complete with a gun belt hosting rows of silver bullets and two guns in their holsters, tied down at mid-thigh to facilitate quick draws, sheepskin chaps, a colorful bandana, genuine imitation leather cowboy boots and a genuine high-crowned western sombrero that would shield me from the heat of the western sun and serve as a tool to beat dust from my clothing after an arduous trail drive of cattle to the rail head for shipment to the hordes of people in Chicago longing for western beef and also serve as a drinking vessel for my horse as shown in Hollywood movies.

Evidently Santa was unaware of my wish, or else he mistakenly gave my cowboy outfit to some other kid. Instead I got a drum and a toy train and mumps. Yep, mumps—I awoke Christmas morning with a headache and two serious lumps, one behind each ear. I don’t remember going to a doctor for diagnosis and treatment recommendations. In those days mumps, measles, whooping cough, chicken pox and a host of other childhood diseases were diagnosed by elder family members, relatives, friends and neighbors. Given the fact that I was at one time or another afflicted with most of those conditions and survived, that system apparently worked, at least in my case.

Each of my two gifts had problems. The drum arrived sans drum sticks. We searched frantically through the discarded Christmas wrappings and boxes but found no drum sticks, not even one.

I improvised with a pair of kitchen spoons, but the substitutes lacked any semblance of authenticity. When I wielded those spoons I neither felt like nor looked like Gene Krupa or Spike Jones—I felt like a dork and looked like a dork. Or perhaps I did look like Spike Jones—that’s Spike on the left, the one with the dorky hat.

Now on to my train and its deficits—it consisted of a really small locomotive with a coal tender, one passenger car, a little red caboose and a rather truncated circular track, one estimated to be no more than 18 inches in diameter. The locomotive was not powered by electricity, not the plug-in kind or the kind produced by dry-cell batteries—nope, not my train.

My train was a windup train—one held the locomotive in one hand and with one’s other hand wound up a steel spring that was inside with a key that projected from its side, similar to opening a can of sardines,  then one placed it on the tracks and released it and clickety clack, clickety clack, until the spring wound down. Clickety clack is the sound that real trains made in those days as they traversed narrowly spaced rail joints,but my train never made that sound.

Nope, no clickety clacks for my train—the key was already wound tight and could not be budged. It arrived tight and remained in that condition as long as I had the train. I was reduced to pushing it along and vocally sounding the clickety clacks. Bummer!

Nowadays train rails run seamless for a mile or more—passengers still hear an occasional clickety but the clack is still a mile away. The rhythm is gone—rather than lulling one to sleep, the anticipation of the next clickety and clack denies fulfillment to passengers longing for and reaching for the arms of Morpheus—the unrhythmic sounds of modern rails actually prevent sleep. Note: Unrhythmic may not be a real word, but it looks good and sounds good so I’ll use it.

I spent the Christmas of 1939 incarcerated in my own home, playing a drum with two kitchen spoons and pushing a toy train around a small circular track, writhing in pain produced by an extreme case of double mumps—not really—I had no pain at all, just lumps, and they vanished a few days later.

In retrospect, I suppose I should feel blessed. While I was housebound with mumps—double mumps, so to speak—I heard a phrase several times, whispered between the adults in my family, something similar to this: I hope they don’t go down on him. It sounded so sinister that I also hoped that they would not go down on me—they didn’t. Fast forwarding to today’s medical terminology, I imagine that parents probably whisper to one another that they hope the mumps will not descend—sounds a bit better, right? Right? Right!

That’s my Christmas story and I’m sticking to it!

 
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Posted by on June 27, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

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More on Midland + country bands + baseball . . .

As I mentioned in an earlier posting, when our family had accumulated a sufficient amount of capital, enough for our stepfather Papa John to live his life in the manner to which he had become accustomed, a life to which he longed to return, he would take the necessary action. When he deemed that capital to be sufficient, he would find an excuse to dissolve our family. He would then go his way and we would go ours. This posting will discuss the spark that led to another conflagration in our family.

I believe Papa John always knew his ultimate destination in these circumstances, but we never knew ours until shortly before or shortly following the dissolution of our family. I never knew for certain in this instance, but I have a strong suspicion that he remained in Midland.

He was a skilled poker player, or at least professed to be such, and the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Eagles—F.O.E—hosted such activities nightly, up to and sometimes beyond the witching hour. Gambling was illegal in the state, but the state apparently considered poker playing similar to the game of canasta, or perhaps bridge, but I was a witness to some of the games—they usually involved seven players, too many for either canasta or bridge.

Now that I think of it, Midland was in a dry county at that time, and whether in search of beer or other alcoholic beverages, Midland’s residents journeyed to the city of Odessa, some eighteen miles to the west and smuggled their purchases into the city of Midland.

The F.O.E, however, served up myriad alcoholic beverages on demand, with that demand met by a demand for remuneration. A supposition could be made—and I do suppose such—that bending of the liquor law was allowed because the F.O.E  is a fraternal social club for members only—ordinary non-member drunks, however thirsty, are not allowed.

I have a separate posting in mind pertaining to the F.O.E and will follow up shortly with that posting unless I forget—I’ll never forget the incident, but I may well forget to post it. If it doesn’t appear soon, perhaps a visitor to my blog will remind me of my promise to post it.

As with any gambler, Papa John’s luck ebbed and flowed with the tide. When his luck turned sour and the tide was at its lowest, he would make up with my mother and take the measures necessary to reassemble our family. My mother never volunteered to brief my sister and me on the actions of our fickle but predictable stepfather and we never asked—we became experts at testing the wind, and usually could see the breakup coming down the pike.

Now to the crux of this posting:

The four of us were crowded into a single motel room on the outskirts of Midland. Ours was termed a kitchenette, a room equipped with a stove, refrigerator and an area for dining. One corner was walled off from the rest of the room and equipped with a small combination tub and shower, a small commode and a small sink.

Yep, everything was scaled down to fit in a very small area. The walls of the bathroom consisted of sheet rock on both sides with no sound proofing in between. The room had only one bed—a sleeping area for me and my sister was provided by placing the top mattress on the floor, thus leaving the bottom unit on the bed for our mother and our stepfather.

Yep, my sister and I shared that mattress, but I hasten to say that even though we were products of the deep South we did not conform to the popular notion that siblings in that area share a mutual physical attraction. There are some from the northern climes, particularly those attracted to novels such as God’s Little Acre, Tobacco Road and The Journeyman, that probably believe that such siblings are always physically attracted to one another and many, perhaps most, indulge in that mutual attractiveness.

Nope, not my sister and not I—we stayed on our respective sides of the mattress. My sister did not appeal to me and I can truthfully state that I did not appeal to her—for most of the limited time we were together during our teen years, we fostered and fed an intense dislike for each other.

The motel was adjacent to the city baseball park, and visiting baseball teams often housed players in the same motel. Also in proximity to the motel was a really swinging country music dance hall, one that attracted well known, little known and unknown country bands to perform there. As with the baseball players, the motel frequently hosted band members during their gig in Midland.

As the bard would say, “Ay, there’s the rub!” My sister was almost eighteen years old and apparently was considered quite comely, both by baseball players and country band members. I hasten to add that I was nowhere in agreement of their assessments of my sister’s comeliness, but I also confess that she and I shared only a modicum of respect and liking for each other—that mutual modicum figured prominently in my assessment of her comeliness.

Be that as it may, she was quite popular with the young men that called our motel home while in the city. On most evenings she could be found in a communal area directly in front of our room, an area that offered seating, umbrellas for shade in the daytime, a barbecue pit and lighting—very subdued lighting, subdued to the point that Papa John had to strain to effectively observe activities after nightfall. His observations frequently led to criticisms and warnings to my sister, prophecies that terrible things could come of her penchant for visiting with the visitors. He always ordered her in at an early hour, but my sister never came in at his first order—it always required repeated calls from our doorway, and often I was required to take the message to her.

My sister was a rebel, a modern day female Thoreau—she ultimately went her own way by going over, under, around or through any obstacles placed in her path. She responded to Papa John’s remonstrations with humor, none of which set well with our stepfather.

One evening when she came in just before midnight, considerably later than usual, Papa John told her that she should stay away from the baseball and band gangs, that  they were n’er-do-wells with nothing in their jeans. My sister responded laughingly that, “Oh, they sure do have something in their jeans.” Papa John was obviously thinking of money in their jeans, but my sister’s thoughts were elsewhere.

And that incident was, I believe, the catalyst that sparked the dissolution of our family. The tinder caught fire that night, a fire that would smolder for several days and then erupt into a full blown four alarm fire. The cataclysm that ensued was the result of a clever rejoinder my sister made to a cautionary remark made by our stepfather, a rejoinder that I considered hilarious—not that I laughed at the time, but I joined my sister in laughter later.

A few days later Midland and the summer we spent there was history—our kitchenette was vacant, Papa had disappeared and my mother, my sister and I were on a bus headed for El Paso, watching the motel, the ball park, the dance hall and the city of Midland recede through the back window of the bus. We were on our way to join my older brother and his family.

Our stay in El Paso would prove to be of short duration.

I’ll get back to you later with more details.

 

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Go west, young man, and grow up . . .

Go west, young man, and grow up with the country, a quote attributed, perhaps wrongly, to Horace Greeley, founder of the New York Tribune. Regardless of the quote’s origin, my mother’s youngest son followed that advice—not voluntarily but certainly not reluctantly—the mere thought of going west was exciting. By the age of 12 I had read every Zane Grey western novel, and I fancied myself a fine candidate for the title of cowboy.

Click here for an interesting article dealing with Horace Greeley and the development of our country. Be forewarned—every time the author used an apostrophe or quotation marks—and they are numerous in the article—they printed out as a question mark on a black diamond background such as this:

Now on to my great adventure:

I made the trip from the deep South—Mississippi—to Midland, Texas, as a passenger in the rear seat of a 1939 Plymouth four-door sedan. The youngest of my three sisters, just eighteen months older than I, shared the rear seat with me, and my mother and our stepfather—Papa John—filled the front seat.

It took an interminable time to complete the journey. Our interstate highway system was in its infancy at the time, and most of the trip was along two-lane roads—paved, of course, but not conducive to getting anywhere anytime soon. Papa John, dressed in his trademark khakis, shod with hand-stitched Texas style boots, with a wide-brimmed Stetson hat set squarely and firmly atop the ensemble, served as our driver. He sat rigidly upright with both hands on the wheel, positioned at two and ten o’clock, and hurtled us toward our destination at a hair-raising speed of forty-five miles per hour—exactly. I gave him credit for getting us to Midland safely along treacherous roads, but gave no kudos for making good time—both comments made inaudibly, of course—I couldn’t afford to tempt fate!

My time in Midland lasted just over three months. It began in March and ended in late June when Papa John, once again weary of shepherding our small family, found an excuse to throw a tirade–or pitch a fit, as my sister put it—and send us packing, off on another great adventure. My mother, my sister and I wound up in El Paso with my older brother who lived and worked at the El Paso Smelting Works. We made the trip on a Greyhound bus, one that we hastily boarded after hastily packing our meager clothing.

Our stay in El Paso was of short duration, and that stay will form the basis for a subsequent posting. As a preview of things to come, I’ll say that my arrival in El Paso was followed by travel by my brother and me, from El Paso to Dallas and on to Valley Park, Missouri for an overnight stay in jail on a Sunday—my sixteenth birthday—then on to St. Louis and New York City for a brief stay at 21 University Place in that city’s Greenwich Village.

Here’s a teaser: My brother and I were hot on the trail of his wife, a native New Yorker that had left home with their two children, shortly after he left for work, on the pretext of a shopping trip to downtown El Paso—that pretext took them all the way to New York City.

Stay tuned– more details of our pursuit will soon follow. The pursuit proved fruitless, but provided significant adventures for my brother and me, not the least of which was our overnight stay in a Saint Louis suburb. Our sleeping accommodations were rather sparse with no freebies, but were provided by the city at no cost to us.

Had I the talent and the inclination (I have neither), I could write a book on my experiences during that summer in Texas—not just a short story but a lengthy tome. Just as a teaser, I’ll say that in that interval of time I acquired a Social Security card—illegally—I was fifteen and the minimum age requirement at that time was sixteen, and subsequently had two paying jobs while in Midland. That card enabled Papa John to hire me out, first to a self-service laundry as an indentured servant—so to speak—and then as a clerk in a retail hardware store.

In addition to swamper duties—mopping, sweeping, cleaning windows, etc., my job at the self-service laundry included bringing in dry soiled clothing from conveyances and taking out newly laundered wet clothing to the same. The bringing in was no problem, but the taking out was a serious problem because the laundry had no dryers. Customers took their wet clothes home and hung them out to dry on lines mounted in their back yards—ah, for the good old days!

Picture this: A #2 tin washtub piled high with wet clothing carried by a 100-pound teenager—I’m here to tell you that the job got old quickly. My usual sequence for outside delivery was to squat, take a deep breath, lift the tub with a loud grunt (the grunt was mine, not the tub’s) and hasten with short steps, almost running, to the proper conveyance, be it an auto, a child’s wagon or a wheelbarrow—all three modes were used at that time in that place.

Following a brief period of hauling in soiled clothes for women and returning wet clothes to the proper conveyance, Papa John thoughtfully secured a position for me as a clerk in a combination lumber yard and retail hardware store—I’ll hold that story in reserve for a future posting.

One final note on my adventures in Midland, Texas—no, belay that—this may not be the final note—there may be more to come, because writing of one aspect of our sojourn there tends to awaken more memories, many well worth separate postings.

Now to continue with my not so final note on Midland:

As in all locations in which I earned money while under the tutelage of my stepfather, my take-home pay in Midland was not subjected to discussion but was, as always, subjected to division. One half went to my mother for my room and board, and I was allowed to retain a pittance for my use—the rest went for the purchase of federal savings bonds in my name, documents that were termed war bonds during World War II. I suppose I should feel indebted to Papa John for instilling good saving habits in me, but at the time I did not appreciate the continued division of my labors, with the smallest amount left available for my use, an amount not determined by me.

Bummer!

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

 
 

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Second marriages, stepfathers, travel and travail . . .

Before beginning this post I offer the following quote in defense of my babbling on interminably about myself—it’s by a writer that, for many years, has been one of my favorites:

“I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.” Walden—Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

This posting is extracted from the plethora of memories I’ve retained of my mother’s second marriage and of the stepfather she allowed to enter my life. I relive those events frequently in my memories, and I feel that many, or at least some, may strike a chord in the memories of any viewers who might stumble upon my blog. Some of the memories are pleasant but others are painful—whether pleasant or painful, they’re my memories and I’m stuck with them. By relating and passing them on to others, perhaps I can enhance some of the pleasant memories and diminish some of the hurtful ones.

I must say, as always in the interests of full disclosure, that viewers will need to accept the accuracy of my memories as I relate them—in some instances none remain to support or deny them, and none is left who can, with any certainty, diminish or embellish them.

All are gone.

They exist only in my memories.

I am the last one standing.

When I was born, “I came into this world cold, naked, wet and hungry, and things have been downhill ever since.” I would cheerfully attribute that lament to the comic who said it, but I don’t remember who it was.

My birth occurred soon after my mother (Mama) divorced my father—at any rate that’s how the story goes. I accept that because I have no way of disputing it. I have documentary proof of my birth-date, when and where and to whom I was born, but I have no way of knowing when, or even if, the marriage was officially dissolved.

I suppose that since I was born out of wedlock, I came into the world, at least technically, as a little bastard (according to the accounts of some, I still am). In fact, during the early years there were various times when I disobeyed Mama and engaged (and got caught) in some forbidden enterprise, and she would sometimes exclaim in exasperation, “Oh, you little bastard—even if I must say such a word!” The exclamation was forcibly voiced, but always stemmed from pure love and was voiced with pure love, with humor lurking in the background.

Hester&JohnMama was 44 when she married her second husband. He was 48, a big man with a big stomach which significantly preceded him. He usually dressed in khaki pants and long-sleeved khaki shirts, with a black or brown tie held in place with a western-motif tie clip. The ensemble was grounded by western-style boots and topped with a broad-brimmed Stetson hat. He was 6-feet tall without the boots and Stetson—with them he presented a formidable appearance and took up a lot of space. He was born and grew up in Alabama, so his affinity for western garb probably stemmed from having lived and worked for several years in Texas, a state to which he would return a few years later with his new family.

A special note: The photo above shows Mama and my stepfather in later life, shortly before his death in 1970. I took this picture in 1969 during a visit I made prior to starting a combat tour in Viet Nam. Their on-and-off marriage spanned 28 years, from 1942 until 1970. That 28-year span included several lengthy separations, plus one divorce and one remarriage, all of which are excellent subjects for more postings. Apparently their relationship was one of “can’t live with and can’t live without.” In 1980 Mama died, having lived “without” for another 10 years.

My stepfather had bushy eyebrows, piercing dark eyes, almost black, and an ample nose under which, in permanent residence, was a broad black mustache. He always carried a heavy knob-handled wooden cane—not for support but to use as a pointer, to give directions to someone, for example. If necessary it could be used as a weapon, either for defense or offense. I witnessed its various uses as the years passed, and I noticed early-on that people tended to step aside as he neared them on sidewalks or in hallways, regardless of width.

When Mama’s second husband entered our lives I was nine years old and living in Columbus, Mississippi with my mother and two older sisters. The younger sister was just 18 months older than I—another sister (the eldest of three living sisters) was older and worked outside the home. The third sister was married and living with her husband in south Alabama. Mama’s first marriage yielded a total of seven children—five girls and two boys. One of the girls died at birth or shortly after she was born, and another died under the wheels of an auto driven by a drunk—I have no memories of either child, nor of the auto incident. And finally, there was a brother who would figure prominently in my life at a later date. He was little more than a shadowy figure at the time—I hardly knew him. When Mama remarried, my brother was overseas on duty with the US Navy, continuing a six-year enlistment which began in 1940.

My stepfather’s name was John, but during his brief courtship of my mother he insisted that my sisters and I call him “Uncle” John. My younger sister and I readily acquiesced to the name (there had been other “uncles”), but the elder sisters called him “Mister” (not Mister John, just Mister). They had numerous other names for him which they frequently used in the presence of others, but never in his. After the marriage he told everyone to call him “Papa John,” or “Papa.” I had no problem with the terms but my sisters, except for the youngest one, never used them—they continued to use the term “Mister.” The youngest sister resisted strongly, initially refusing to use any title, but finally became resigned to using “Papa.”

The couple married in summer, at the end of the school term. Soon after the brief civil ceremony, with the required minimum number of people present, the newlywed couple departed on what was, ostensibly, a honeymoon. If I ever knew where they went and how long they stayed I must have forgotten it, but I clearly remember where I went. I was shipped off to a sister who lived with her husband in Pritchard, Alabama, a small town near Mobile. I was told that the visit was my “summer vacation” and I believed it, although I wondered at the time why it was necessary for me to take all my clothing.

I would learn years later that my sister had agreed to accept me in her family in order to relieve my mother’s new husband of that responsibility. He had insisted on disposal of the two minor children, in one fashion or another, as a provision of the marriage—a prenuptial, so to speak, and one to which my mother apparently agreed.

Bummer.

So I was off to Pritchard and my sister, the other minor child to be disposed of, was similarly banished but not quite as far away—her “vacation” trip was to Vernon, Alabama, a small town 30 miles east of Columbus, to live with an aunt, one of my mother’s sisters who had made the same agreement with the newly-weds. Neither my sister nor I had any inkling that we had just been cast away, discarded, left on the side of the road like a couple of unwanted pets.

Our bogus vacations began when our school terms ended, but that status was reversed three months later. Shortly before the next school term began, we traveled to Long Beach, Mississippi, a small town near Gulfport, to join our mother and our new step-father. We thought the move was simply the end of our vacation, but we learned many years later that our mother had violated her “prenuptial agreement” to have us reared by relatives. She insisted that she had to have her children with her—I never knew what promises or threats she used, but they were successful. Her new husband relented and allowed us into the family.

Our travels and travails began in 1942 and would continue until 1949, the year that my youngest sister married and I enlisted in the military.

I’ll get back to you later with more details.

 

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