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Meet Papa John (not the pizza man) . . .

Meet Papa John . . .

Papa John, my stepfather, is a recurring figure in many of my postings, and he looms just as large in my memories as he did in life. For good or for otherwise, he was part of my life for some 28 years, from the time of his marriage to my mother in 1942—the first of their two marriages—until the time of his death in 1970. I trust that el Hombre ariba—the Man above—will forgive me for saying that his death coincided with one of the best things that ever happened to me.

Actually, it was not a coincidence—his death brought about one of the best things because it got me out of Vietnam and home with my family for a month. I had to return to Vietnam to finish my scheduled tour, but those thirty days at home were priceless. That month brought me out of the darkness of the Vietnam war and into the bright light of my wife and my children—the time with my family restored my faith and my sanity and allowed me to return, unwillingly of course, and finish my assignment with renewed vigor.

The military did not want me to have the thirty days at home—evidently my presence in Vietnam was critical to the war’s success. While I was honored that I was so important to the war effort, I managed to convince the brass to honor my right to be at my mother’s side following the death of my stepfather, and I recorded the events leading up to my return to the US in a prior posting. Click on the following URL for more details: https://thekingoftexas.wordpress.com/2009/06/09/554/

With my mother’s marriage to my stepfather, my family was reduced to four—mother, stepfather, son and daughter. The older son and the two older daughters were safely outside the family, and were influenced by Papa John only through observation and interaction with my mother, my younger sister and me.

My stepfather had a rudimentary education, but over the years he became a skilled carpenter and cabinetmaker. His talents were in demand during the years of World War II, but those demands ebbed and flowed and required several re-locations, from Mississippi to Tennessee on two separate occasions, and eventually to Texas.

Between his job assignments and the dissolution of the family for one reason or another, mostly caused by his alcoholism, we always returned to Columbus, Mississippi. From my birth until the age of nine, I lived in six residences in two states, Alabama and Mississippi. In the seven–year period between the ages of nine and sixteen, following my mother’s marriage to Papa John, I lived in 17 different residences in five different states—Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, Texas and New York. My travels involved living in eleven different places in three Mississippi cities—one in Durant, one in Long Beach and nine in Columbus.

I spent 22 years in military service and another 26 years in federal service as a law enforcement officer, and in that 48 years I traveled all over the United States and several foreign countries. Is it any wonder that I don’t like to travel now? And if I do leave home, for whatever reason, I desperately want to be back home before dark!

Forgive me for digressing from the purpose of this posting. My intent here is to talk about some of Papa John’s idiosyncrasies, some of his peculiarities that we quickly learned and adhered to—I’ll mention only a few but not all, because I would soon exhaust my ink supply. He was fifty when he married our mother, so his habits were firmly ensconced.

He saucered his coffee. He would pour a bit from the cup to the saucer and when it cooled, he sipped from the saucer. We were told we could do that when we turned fifty.

He drank directly from his cereal bowl to drain the last vestiges of milk. We could do that at the age of fifty.

He allowed no pets unless they worked, hunting dogs for example, and no cats except for rat and mouse control. For his idea of pets, click here to read about his promise of two dogs for my sister and me as pets for Christmas presents. Click on the following URL for the details: https://thekingoftexas.wordpress.com/2010/06/27/two-pets-for-christmas/

He was prone to produce intestinal gas in prodigious amounts, and was always polite when he released it. He always excused himself and left the table when the occasion demanded it, but no matter where we lived there was no place in the house that would do much more than muffle the sound. This was a source of mirth for me and my sister, but as we grew older the mirth waned rapidly. Our mother’s response, whether the explosions came while watching television, dining or  after retiring for the night, she never deviated from an exasperated exclamation: My God, John!

He did not use swear words, nor did he allow us to use them. His favorite expression was to refer to a person as a peckerwood, a corruption of woodpecker, I suppose. However, the way he pronounced that word left no doubt that the person was at least some of the swear words that describe people in scathing terms.

He used prodigious amounts of aftershave lotion and talcum powder, so he always smelled good—well, almost always. His use of talcum powder caused one of our family breakups, one that took us from an idyllic life on a farm in Mississippi—talcum powder was the immediate cause, but the underlying cause ran much deeper—my guess would be that he used the talcum powder incident as a reason to dissolve the family so he could pursue activities more desirable than managing a small farm. For a reading of that breakup, click on the following URL: https://thekingoftexas.wordpress.com/2010/02/25/sid-looney-and-a-model-t-ford/

He was an inveterate gambler, and when enough money had been accrued to constitute a grubstake, he usually returned to Midland, Texas where he was a member of the Fraternal Order of Eagles, an organization that was legally authorized to conduct gambling in a state, county and city where gambling was illegal. When the money ran out—and it always did—he took the necessary steps to reassemble our family, ostensibly having seen the light and turning over a new leaf, but actually to build another grubstake. For a comprehensive posting of the Fraternal Order of Eagles and life in Midland, and a recount of my brief stint as a cocktail waiter, click on the following URL:https://thekingoftexas.wordpress.com/2010/03/03/my-brief-stint-as-a-cocktail-waiter/

There is more to tell about Papa John—if I appear to be dwelling on his less than acceptable manners and his pursuits outside the family, it’s because those are among my most vivid memories. Papa was not all bad—there were good times—it’s just that the other than good times outweighed the good times. There were periods of genuine affection among our small family, but they were darkened by times of affliction. Just one instance of someone inflicting pain, distress and grief on another person or persons, whether physical or mental, is one too many, and Papa John was guilty of such actions repeatedly over the years, particularly on my mother.

I have a sneaking suspicion that with my writings I am saying some of the things I would have liked to say to Papa while he was alive—and should have said—but prudence coupled with fear forbade me doing that.

I hope he’s listening now.

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

 

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19th Street South—a goose for Thanksgiving . . .

The word goose in the above title is not intended to be a verb, one that refers to the application of one’s hand, normally using the middle digit, to the derriere of another person, a motion that can be applied lightly, forcefully, brutally, playfully, laughingly, meaningfully or enjoyably but never accidentally. If one has goosed or has been goosed, both gooses were delivered purposefully and received unwittingly without choice—no, in this usage the plural of goose is not geese.

The word goose in the above title is a noun, the name for a large bird that exists in large numbers in the wild, but a bird that is also domesticated and raised for its food and feathers. In this case the plural of goose is geese—the birds shown on the right are geese.

When I was a child in Columbus, Mississippi we lived some thirty miles from our relatives in Alabama, and on Christmas and Thanksgiving holidays we traveled to Alabama to celebrate the day or they traveled to Columbus for the same reason. I can vividly remember a Thanksgiving that was celebrated at our house. a celebration that featured a large cast-iron wash pot and a large not-cast-iron goose.

On the day before Thanksgiving the men fashioned a tripod using lengths of 2×4 lumber similar to the method used by Indians to erect a tepee (also spelled tipi). A fire was laid in the center of the circle formed by the structure but not immediately lighted, the iron tub was firmly suspended from the apex of the tripod and filled with water and the goose, nicely cleaned of everything deemed not edible, went into the pot along with requisite other items—onions, potatoes, carrots and everything else that goes good with goose, and the fire was lighted and the goose was cooked—in fact, one could say truthfully that the goose’s goose was cooked—-just a bit of humor there!

The fire was tended for the remainder of that day and far into the night while the goose cooked and we children played, but never beyond the light supplied by the fire and by lights mounted on the sides of the house. The women sat and talked about everything and everybody except themselves and sang gospel songs, and the men talked about hunting and farming and fishing—occasionally one of the men would walk away just outside the circle of light and tilt a bottle up toward the moon to take a quick swig of its contents—they seemed to be taking turns at that—I’m unsure whether it was the same bottle, but I imagine there was more than one among the group

I was away from the scene and tucked in for the night long before the contents of the pot were removed and taken to the kitchen to await the next day’s carving and dining, kids playing, women gossiping and singing more church hymns and the men taking frequent short walks behind the house with a not-so-mysterious bulge in their shirt or hip pocket.

That goose—the bird, not the verb—was gifted by one of the visiting Alabama relatives that kept a flock of geese around the house for food purposes and to a lesser extent for watch purposes—yep, geese make good watchdogs and will sound the alarm when necessary—actually sound the alarm when anyone is near, whether friend or foe—it’s in their nature.

We lived next door to one of my mother’s sisters, a family of four—counting that four, our five and the relatives from Alabama there was a real gaggle of people gathered for Thanksgiving dinner, and we needed a lot of goose. To emphasize the number of people, picture a flatbed two-ton truck with no sideboards and its flatbed covered with passengers, folks lined on three sides with legs dangling and with more riders seated in the center plus several standing at the rear of the truck’s cab and several more in the cab. The dangling legs belonged to adults—the children were safely ensconced in the center of the flatbed.

The image above shows the actual gathering on that Thanksgiving day. It’s a painting made from a quick sketch by one of my uncles and later put on canvas—acrylic, I believe. The other image, by the same uncle, is a painting of my mother presenting the cooked goose to the diners—the fellow behind her is her boyfriend.

Hey, I knew I couldn’t fool my readers—you’re right—that image is a painting of the first Thanksgiving created by American artist Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863–1930), and that is not my mother in the other image, nor is that her boy friend. That’s a painting by Norman Rockwell (1894–1978), one of the Four Freedoms series painted by one of America’s best-loved and most-collected artists—this is his conception of Freedom from Want. The others are Freedom of Speech, Freedom from Fear and Freedom of Worship.

The truck was overloaded when it arrived, but somehow when it left late in the afternoon on Thanksgiving day it accommodated all that had arrived on it plus me and my youngest sister and all the leftovers from our Thanksgiving dinner, including a considerable amount of goose and goose dressing—yes, that was one large goose and a monumental amount of goose dressing.

That’s my story of a memorable Thanksgiving day when I was a boy, and I’m sticking to it!


 
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Posted by on June 30, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

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My brief stint as a cocktail waiter . . .

I returned to the United States in February of 1952 following a twenty-two month tour of the Far East. I enjoyed the first nine months in Japan—the other 13 months were spent, with far less enjoyment, in South Korea at the height of the Korean conflict. At the conclusion of a two-week boat ride on a US Navy troop transport ship that finally docked in San Francisco (click here for a description of that landing and numerous other fascinating vignettes), I traveled to Midland, Texas to visit my mother and my stepfather now residing in that city—my mother was employed as a nurse and my stepfather hawked commercial advertisement items such as matchbooks, calendars and other items imprinted with the names of various businesses. He did a very small amount of that, and a large amount of poker playing at a local establishment—he viewed himself as a high-roller, but I doubt that any others viewed him in that light.

Papa John, my stepfather, was a dues-paying member of the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Eagles (F.O.E). He was a rather committed poker player, and the F.O.E. made it possible for him to indulge in such activities regularly—nightly, and often till well past the witching hour. According to my mother, he spent almost as much time there as he spent at home. I did not linger in Midland long enough to either doubt or refute that, but I have reason to believe her.

I had just returned from a combat tour in Korea. My stepfather was inordinately proud of me for having contributed to our efforts in the war against communism and the invasion of South Korea by North Korean army regulars and elements of communist China’s enormous armies. He discussed my return with an F.O.E. personage, one that sported the title of Grand PooBah, or something on that order. They agreed, in my absence, mind you, that it would be beneficial to the organization and its members for me to bring them up to date on the progress of the Korean war.

I reluctantly accepted the invitation to speak, and Papa John insisted that I appear on stage in uniform. I appeared in uniform on stage and addressed a large banquet hall filled with comfortably seated people. I struggled through an impromptu no-notes speech, a speech that I will not attempt to recreate here. Suffice it to say that I received a warm welcome and a warmer round of applause. Texans, and Midlanders especially, possess and display many different characteristics, not the least of which is patriotism—it’s embedded in their characters and they give voice to it proudly and openly. I probably would have received the same applause had I stood and recited Mary had a little lamb, its fleece was white as . . . etc., etc.

Now on to my brief—very brief—stint as a cocktail waiter:

On the same evening shortly after I gave the club  members my version of the Korean War, Papa John retired to the back room to play poker. I went with him and stood around kibitzing—however, I did not attempt to give unwanted advice, something that kibitzers usually do—no, and not just no, but hell no—I knew better than to even contemplate it. As the game progressed, its seven players quickly drained their various bottles and glasses of various types of spirits, and the house called for another round of drinks for the players. Note: the house is the non-player that runs the game and takes a percentage of each pot for the organization—hey, they have to pay rent!

When the house started to send for a waiter, Papa John volunteered me for the job. The house said sure, and I silently said—well, what I said matched what the house said, but only in the number of letters—its pronunciation was different. I will try to finish this quickly because to linger will just bring up more unhappy memories of that evening.

I took the written list of drinks to the bar. The bartender obligingly filled the order, placed numerous containers on a very large tray and said There you go. The tray held more than seven containers, because some players had ordered such drinks as boiler-makers—that’s a shot of whiskey with a beer chaser—or is it a shot of beer with a whiskey chaser? I can never remember which.

As I threaded my way between tables and booths en route to the back room, with the tray held firmly in both hands at waist level, I noticed that other waiters held their trays well above their heads, with just one hand supporting the tray at that height with its expensive cargo.

Yep, you’re way ahead of me. That posed a challenge for me, one that my character could not resist—I splayed my right hand and placed it palm up beneath my tray and elevated it, just as the others were doing. I found it quite easy to do, and actually danced around and twitched my hips a bit while transiting the room full of diners and drinkers, and arrived at the poker table with out incident. However, at the exact moment I began to lower the tray, things went awry—something slipped and caused a complete dump of the trays’ load—I managed to hold on to the tray, but everything on it hit the floor with a combined sound of liquid sloshing and glass breaking. Bummer!

I was not allowed to pay for the lost lubricants, nor was I allowed to fill a second order. I rendered my I’m sorries, my thank yous and my good nights shortly after the incident and managed to exit the building without running into anything or tripping over something.

That’s it. That’s my version of The Night That a Teenage War Veteran Dropped the Drinks, a tale of tragedy comparable to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a notable work by Samuel Taylor Coleridge that also involved a tremendous amount of liquid. The main event of that night is a tale that is probably still being told to younger generations of Midlanders, especially those that may be groomed for employment as a waiter at the local Fraternal Order of Eagles. I can’t vouch for that, because I put Midland in my rear view mirror several days later and have never returned.

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

 

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