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Cowboys, coffee shops and overnight in jail . . .

The year 1948 was a really busy one for me. I began the year in high school in the second semester of the tenth grade, but I left school to travel with my family—stepfather, mother and sister—from Mississippi to Midland, Texas. Although dropping out was not my decision, I must honestly say that I was not too upset.

As a preteen and teenager, I was a voracious reader of adventure novels—Zane Grey was and still is one of my favorite authors.  I looked forward to being in the land of wild Indians and cowboys, horses and rustlers, crooked bankers and comely maidens, cattle drives to the rail head, stampedes and shoot-outs, fast-draw sheriffs and outlaws, snake-oil peddlers and bible-thumping circuit riders—I was not obsessed with all things western, but I was an avid—okay, rabid—fan.

I spent the rest of the year, at various times traveling, living and working in Midland, Texas and El Paso, Texas. In September of that year I traveled by auto with my older brother from El Paso to New York City, with a Sunday overnight stay in jail in Valley Park, Missouri, a small city a few miles west of St. Louis—it has probably grown a lot since then. On release from jail, we paid a brief visit in St. Louis to my stepfather’s sister and her husband in an effort to borrow gas money to get to New York.

They declined to help out, saying they couldn’t be certain that we were who we said we were—some really cautious people there. We only asked for $20 (gas was twenty-six cents a gallon in 1948) but they were adamant and refused. And here I will be just as cautious as they were by offering my apologies in advance if some are offended when I say that their refusal to help two people adrift on a sea of uncertainty may have been based on the husband being of a certain ethnic persuasion—if you catch my drift. Hey, give me a bit of credit—I’ve already apologized for the slut—oops, I meant slur.

The fact that my stepfather’s sister and her husband apologized to my stepfather and my mother at a later date does little to soften their refusal to finance the remainder of our trip to New York. Twenty dollars? The couple owned and operated an upscale coffee shop in one of the finest hotels in St. Louis. They could not possibly have believed that my brother and I were anyone other than who we professed to be—I told them things about my stepfather, both pro and con, that I could only know from having lived under his rule for some seven years.

Here’s a not-so-brief discussion of our futile chase of a wife, a bus and a train enroute to New York City. While my brother was at work at the El Paso Smelting Works (we lived in one of the company houses on-site), his wife took his wallet, his car and their two children to town, ostensibly on a shopping trip. Around noon on that day, a Friday, we received a call from a parking lot attendant in downtown El Paso. He said the woman that left it there told him to call her husband to pick up the car. My brother called a taxi and asked me to go with him to pick up the car. I unwisely agreed to go—big mistake.

We retrieved the car and immediately headed east. My brother had checked the Greyhound bus schedules and said that she had probably taken the bus and we could catch her in Dallas, more than 600 miles distant. He neglected to ask me if I wanted to go with him—he simply pointed his 1942 Mercury coupe, the one with the steering wheel lock hack-sawed off and the ignition system hooked up to the fog lights—yep, it was hot wired—turn on the fog lights and the engine could be started. We left El Paso and headed for Dallas with my brother driving—I was riding shotgun.

The Greyhound had a fair start on us, but we arrived in Dallas before it did. His wife and children were not on it. My brother then checked the train schedules out of El Paso and decided that she must have taken the train to New York. He said that we could beat the train to St. Louis, so we headed for St. Louis, another 6oo miles away.

A funny thing happened to us on that leg of our journey. We were only 27 miles from St. Louis, and had our forward motion not been impeded, we would have beaten the train from El Paso. However,  around noon on that Sunday in Valley Park, Missouri, a small town (then) just 27 miles west of St. Louis, we passed a drive-in restaurant where two uniformed city police officers were having lunch in their police cruiser, with an attractive young short-skirted female carhop leaning into the driver’s window. We were in slow-moving city traffic as we passed, so we had time to admire the rear view of the carhop, and that was probably a fatal mistake. The cops dismissed her and scattered gravel as they dug out in hot pursuit of us, siren blaring, red lights flashing and a bullhorn roaring Pull over! Just as in the old black-and-white Boston Blackie, Charlie Chan and James Cagney movies.

Following the stop and a few questions and answers, my brother and I were arrested, patted down and placed in the city jail. We were suspected of auto theft, and the police posed the probability that we were guilty and possibly had kidnapped and murdered the owner of the car—yes, they used those words, and repeatedly asked us what we did with the gun and where had we hidden the body of the person we murdered after stealing the car.

I hasten to add that the only thing we were guilty of was being stupid enough to first race a Greyhound bus from El Paso to Dallas, and then race a cross-country passenger train from El Paso to St. Louis, all the while driving a hot-wired car with the steering wheel lock hack-sawed off, three different sets of license plates in the trunk, no personal identification and no luggage. Add to that the fact that neither my brother nor I had a scrap of identification on us, and I had a handful of .22 caliber long-rifle cartridges in a pocket of my jeans. We were arrested on Sunday, and after our overnight jailing we were released just before noon on Monday. We were told that we could only be held 24 hours without being formally charged with a crime and booked. We were released after 23 hours in jail, with no apology offered, just an emphatic, Get out of town and don’t come back—just as in those old-time western movies.

We had valid explanations for the hot-wiring, multiple sets of license plates, no identification, no luggage and a pocketful of rifle cartridges, but the officers obviously did not believe us, and told us that none of our story could be checked on Sunday because the offices that could verify our story were closed and inquires could not be made until Monday. We  asked them to call our mother in El Paso and she could verify our story. We also asked them to call the parking lot attendant, but they had no interest in calling either. No computers could be checked, of course, because computers had not yet been invented—well, invented perhaps, but none were in use at the time.

The police station boasted two cells in a metal cage, constructed with flat metal strips rather than bars, located in a back room. Apparently the two sections were bolted together after being placed in the room. Each section was approximately 6 x 10 feet, and each had a steel bunk bolted to the middle partition—just the flat knee-high steel platform—no mattress, no pillow, nothing in the way of bedding.

The only other furnishing was a ceramic toilet with no seat and no lid, filled nearly to the brim with things that defied descripti0n. My brother’s cell was similarly equipped and similarly filled to the point of overflowing. I had a faucet on my side, and early in our stay my brother asked our captors for a drink of water. One of those worthies retrieved a pint milk bottle from a pile of rubbish in a corner, passed it to me and told me to get my brother a drink. The bottle was dirty, so I filled it partially and then shook it in an effort to get it clean, then poured the contents into the toilet, and that was a huge mistake. It stirred up the contents of the toilet and unleashed odors that filled the air and our nostrils for the rest of our stay. I told my brother that I couldn’t get the bottle clean and he wisely decided that he wasn’t really thirsty after all.

The cells were separated by a metal partition—I was placed on one side of the partition and my brother was secured on the other side. We could talk but could not see each other. The room had no lighting—daytime lighting was furnished by one double-sash window on my side, with the lower sash raised and no screen—the back side of my cell was against the wall with the window.  Flies, mosquitoes, sounds and odors entered with ease—sounds and odors seemed to come and go, but the flies and mosquitoes only came and never left. A single overhead naked light bulb mounted near the room’s ceiling far above the top of our cells served for night lighting—it was never turned off while we were incarcerated.

My brother and I were smokers—I had the matches and he had the cigarettes, but we were able to improvise. There were several small holes drilled through the partition, just large enough to pass a cigarette through, so he would pass me a cigarette and after lighting it, I would pass the lighted match through the hole so he could light his cigarette—we thus confirmed the adage that necessity is the mother of invention.

Late in the afternoon nearing dusk, I glanced out and saw a young boy standing outside the window and staring at me—he was probably twelve or so—I asked him if he would run an errand for me, and if he would I would reward him for it. He agreed, so I gave him fifty cents and asked him to bring back two packs of Camel cigarettes. Don’t laugh—in those days with cigarettes at eighteen cents a pack, a half-dollar would buy two packs with fourteen cents left over. With an apology in advance for using the word bastard, the little bastard took my fifty cents and never came back—hey, I said I apologized!

The cops came to us at about dark-thirty and asked what we wanted for supper, saying that sandwiches were available at a nearby restaurant. My brother and I asked for milk and two cheeseburgers each, and I must admit that the burgers were first-rate. As an aside, burger buns and burgers came in one size in those days—small—nothing even approaching the huge ones we enjoy today. We learned later that the food was not furnished by the city—our suppers were paid for with the few dollars they took when they searched us before placing us in our cells. If there was any change left over they kept it, because no money was returned to us.

There’s lots more to tell about our trip, but I’ll save it for another posting—this one has rambled on long enough. I tried to make it brief, but posting is closely akin to eating peanuts, running downhill and having sex—once started it’s hard to stop. Stay tuned for additional information regarding our jail stay, including a discussion involving a length of rubber hose.

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

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

 
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Posted by on April 30, 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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