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Second letter to Larry, my brother (1919-1983) . . .

Dear Larry,

Next month will mark the twenty-seventh year that has passed since that October day in 1983 when you, as Shakespeare has so poignantly observed, “shuffled off this mortal coil.” As you probably are aware, I did not attend your funeral, but I can make no apology for that—when the call came with the news, I was en route to Washington’s National Airport to take a flight to Miami for an assignment that was critical to my job with the U.S. Customs Service.

I had prepared for the flight for several weeks and could not afford to miss it. I’m sure you understand—the bills were still arriving with monotonous regularity—I know it’s trite to say, but I needed to be able to “put food on the table and shoes on the baby’s feet.” Please know that I was there with you in spirit—I thought of little else on the flight to Florida.

I’ve written letters to two of our sisters, Hattie and Jessie, and I plan to write to Dot and Lorene, our other two sisters, and possibly in the future to our mother, our father and even to the stepfather our mother unwisely allowed into the family in 1942. All are gone now, but I trust and would like to believe that you are in communication with them. I have serious doubts that the stepfather is available—he may be somewhat lower on the metaphysical level of existence than the others.

I would like to couch this letter in terms of us remembering certain times when we were together. My memories are still just as fresh as they ever were, and I hope yours are also—I would not want to talk about happenings that you may not remember.

I remember vividly the fishing trip you took me on when I was about four, perhaps five years old. We lived at the old Box place in Vernon, Alabama, and we went fishing in Yellow Creek near the house. My float went under and I snatched the hook out of the water and snagged it on an overhead branch. I thought I had a really big fish until you reached up to remove the hook—I was really disappointed, but at least you had a good laugh.

You were at home on leave from President Roosevelt’s CCC—the Civilian Conservation Corps—a respite from helping build in Utah what you described as“ roads that started nowhere and ended nowhere.” The family had a homecoming party that included a washtub filled with ice and beer. Someone left a partially filled can on an inside table and I drank some of it, and a short while later I stood on the top step of our front porch and barfed it up in view of the entire family. Shades of child abuse!

Do you remember taking me on a rabbit hunt on a snow-covered day just a year two later when I was in the first grade? We were living on Eleventh Street South in Columbus, Mississippi and you were home, once again, from Roosevelt’s CCC. We only found one rabbit that day, but that one generated memories that are burned into my psyche—memories of the rabbit, a nylon stocking and a bedpost that will always be there. A click here will refresh your memory and will create a memory for any potential viewer of this letter.

Do you remember when I was living with you and your wife Toni and your two boys in Suitland, Maryland and I broke my right leg sliding in to home plate in a ball game? I had a full cast from my toes to mid-thigh, with a forty-five degree angle at the knee, and you bought a set of crutches for my use. Long before the cast came off, I used one of the crutches in an attempt to kill a pesky bee and broke it—the crutch, not the bee—the bee escaped unharmed. In spite of my pleas, you refused to replace the crutch, saying that what I did was dumb, that it’s impossible to buy just one crutch and you told me to manage with the remaining crutch—I managed.

I wrote a long-winded story, more than a bit fictional, of that broken leg, a tale that was told and can be found here. The tale tells how I and my Little League team won the national and international championship that year.

You bought me my first bicycle, a beautiful item that needed only the pedals, seat and handlebars installed to make it complete, but you made me disassemble it right down to the wheel bearings which I cleaned and repacked with the special grease you used on your fleet of trucks. I followed orders with some resentment, but I realize now that your method contributed to the bike’s longevity and to my safety. Click here for the full story of my first bike, first kiss and first train ride.

You may have put this memory aside, but I remember coming home late one evening and you were seated in the living room with a half-full pint of whiskey, and Toni was crawling around on her hands and knees on the floor, groaning and moaning and mumbling. You explained that you had caught her at a place where she should not have been, with a person she should not have been with. You said she had swallowed a lot of sleeping pills and that you would take her to the hospital to have her stomach pumped out after she went to sleep. Toni was mumbling something over and over that sounded suspiciously like he hit me, but I couldn’t be sure—it could have been my imagination.

Being a young fellow of at least average intelligence, I took my leave and returned to the apartment in Suitland that our mother and our sister Dot were renting from month-to-month, and stayed there until things quieted down. We never discussed the incident after that evening—I don’t know whether you took her to the hospital or to a doctor. I’m guessing that she did the same thing with the pills that I did with the beer I drank at that party some ten years earlier. That would probably have rendered a trip to the hospital or to a doctor unnecessary.

The outcome of that incident was a temporary breakup of your family. Toni and the boys went to her mother’s place in New York City, and you and I returned to Mississippi. I have no knowledge of your activities or whereabouts for several years, and just four years later in 1948 I was reunited with you and your family in El Paso, Texas as the result of our stepfather casting me, our mother and our sister Dot aside in Midland, Texas and we managed to negotiate the 300 miles to El Paso on a Greyhound bus.

That refuge was broken up a short while later—our mother and sister returned to Mississippi, your wife and sons took a plane to New York City, and you and I pursued her—our pursuit first took us to Dallas where we met the Greyhound bus you thought she may have taken from El Paso. You said she may have taken the train and we could meet the train in St. Louis. We failed to meet the train in St. Louis because we spent the night in jail in Valley Park, a suburb some 20 miles west of St. Louis. We continued on to New York City and stayed with Toni and the children in her mother’s apartment in Greenwich Village for several weeks, and finally from there back to Mississippi. If your memory is faulty in this instance and you have access to the Internet, click here for the full story of our trip across the continent to New York.

Do you remember the sleeping arrangements in your mother-in-law’s apartment? It was a two-room affair with a tiny bathroom, and we slept, cooked and dined in one large room—pretty crowded but far better than our room in the Valley Park jail. I was accustomed to such luxurious surroundings from years spent in places that either had no bathroom or the bathroom was somewhere down the hall and shared with others.

As for our sleeping arrangements, I remember that the two boys shared a baby bed, and each night we placed the top mattress of the only bed on the floor for you and Toni, and I slept on the bottom mattress on the bed near the window.

I’m sure you remember the night when an intruder threw a leg over the sill of the apartment’s only window! Although we were on the second floor of the building, someone managed to climb up and enter through the open window. The shade was pulled down—yes, windows had shades in those days—and when the intruder straddled the window sill the shade rustled and you awoke and shouted and threw a shoe at the window. One loud curse and the burglar was gone. We never knew exactly how the person climbed up to the window. Evidently the intruder survived the drop, because there was nobody in sight when we finally got up enough nerve to raise the shade and take a look outside.

We finished the night with the window closed, and without the occasional breezes that slipped into the apartment. We had a really uncomfortable night. Nope, no air conditioning in those days, and no fan. I hadn’t slept well before the incident, and it certainly didn’t reduce my insomnia for the remaining nights in that apartment.

I remember you and Toni arguing one morning and you telling her that we were leaving and that you were taking the two children with you. I will never forget Toni running downstairs to the sidewalk, screaming for the police, and returning with two of New York’s finest. The officers said that you and I could leave and take our personal things with us, but nothing else—you were ordered, under the threat of arrest, to not attempt to take the children away from their mother.

You left the apartment before I did, and as I was leaving Toni told me that if I ever needed anything to call her. I never saw her or talked to her again—I know that she remarried, but I never knew her married name or her whereabouts, and to this day I do not know whether she has also shuffled off this mortal coil—if still alive today she would be about 86 years old. I would like to believe that she is alive and well—I have never wished her anything other than well, and whatever the event, I still wish her well.

I doubt that you ever saw the picture I’ve included in this letter. It’s from a 35-millimeter slide, probably taken in the mid-1970s—I’m guessing 1975 because there were some other slides that showed our 1975 Oldsmobile 98—it looks new, and we bought it in that year. The slide was scanned in and printed by Cindy, your niece that lives, loves and works in Alexandria, Virginia. Unless my memory fails me, the black-and-tan hound was named Bugler, and the little Cocker Spaniel in the lower right corner was named Useless.

Larry, there are many things I would like to discuss with you, but this letter seems to have legs. Let me chop them off for now, with the promise of returning soon with a whole new set of reminisces. I trust that you and any potential viewers of this letter will understand my feelings and my reasons for taking them back in time. Some of my memories are pleasant, and I enjoy speaking of them. Not all are pleasant, of course, but in this world of Yen and Yang we must take the good with the bad, and learn to smile with the one and frown with the other.

From your only brother, the only member of our family still standing—all the others are gone.

Mike

Postscript: Regarding the names of the two dogs in the image above, my memory did indeed fail me. My niece in Arkansas, my brother’s daughter, e-mailed me on 9-5-10 to say that the black-and-tan-hound was named Sam and Bugler was his pup, and the Cocker Spaniel I presented as Useless was named Puny. Thanks, Deanna, for straightening the names out for me.

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

 
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Posted by on September 5, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

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First kiss, first train ride, first bicycle . . .

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!

 
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Posted by on August 18, 2010 in Family, trains, Travel

 

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