My Orbiting Grandmother and Other Improbable Stories
of Growing Up in Columbus, Ohio
By Tom Thomson I am a time-traveler, a genetic visitor to this planet,bewildered, bemused, and saddened. Prologue I Love on the Run
My mother and father were married in Chicago at the Hyde Park Presbyterian Church, which was located on Dorchester Avenue off 53rd Street. Afterwards, there was a reception at the Chicago Beach Hotel.
Once, years later, my brother David was spending the summer with his grandmother who still lived in Chicago. She told him the following account of my mother and father's wedding night. David never got around to telling me this story until after our mother passed away.
When the reception was over, the bride and bridegroom left for an apartment, they had rented a few weeks previously and were still in the process of furnishing.
About two o'clock the following morning, my father was back at his parents] apartment, knocking on their front door. When his mother let him in she could see that he was in a state of great agitation.
"What on earth is the matter, darling?" she asked him in her Texas drawl.
Instead of answering her, he made his way through the darkened rooms to the kitchen where he slumped down in a chair at a little porcelain table.
He buried his face in his arms and started crying. Every once in a while, he lifted his head and sobbed out, "Gawd damn!" His mother looked at him nervously, wondering what was going on.
After futilely trying to soothe him, she started asking him questions.
"Is Lucille alright?" she asked. "Where is she?"
Over and over she asked the same questions, sometimes rephrasing them, hoping to get some kind of a response, but he was like in a stupor.
She was really worried now, maybe thinking in the back of her mind that her son had done harm to his bride.
Again she asked, "Is Lucille alright?
"Oh, she's alright", my father finally moaned, "You can count on that!"
To accent what he had just proclaimed, he slammed his fist down on the little table top so hard that the little cut-glass sugar bowl danced a jig.
"Well, I'll never know what the trouble is until you tell me," his mother exclaimed, a note of exasperation in her voice. "Goodness me, I can't imagine what has gotten you in such a state."
By now, she was walking in circles around the kitchen, and nervously biting her lip.
Finally, in desperation, she said, "Ill warm you up a cup of coffee. That will do you some good."
She lit one of the gas burners with a wooden matchstick and pushed a half-filled coffeepot onto the blue flames. Then she walked over behind her son and placed both her hands on his back. Gently she rubbed the tense, scrunched up area between his shoulder blades and neck.
By now he had quit sobbing and muttering to himself. He lifted his head up off his arms, and looked around like he had just awakened. His mother was hopeful that she would soon find out what the problem was.
In a few minutes the coffee was perking and she poured her son a cup of the hot black brew.
"Now you just tell me what the trouble is," she cooed in her most soothing Texas drawl.
"Whereupon, my father blurted out, "Momma, she wouldn't give me my rights."
He repeated this statement several times, as if he were in a trance or maybe, like he couldn't believe that he was telling his mother this bedroom confession. He looked up at here with imploring eyes. "Did you hear what I said, Mamma? My wife and my bride wouldn't give me my rights!"
"There, there," she responded, as at last the truth dawned on her. Why she hadn't understood sooner is anyone's guess. But when you stop and think about it, how often have you ever heard of a similar situation? Well, maybe if it had been a daughter fleeing home from her wedding bed in a terrified frenzy &endash; that might bed understandable. Maybe.
His mother shook her head to clear the middle-of-the-night cobwebs. She was thinking that such goings-on never would have happened back in Port Lavaca where women were women and men were proud of it.
Well, my father ended up drinking his coffee, then sleeping the rest of the night on the couch.
About noon a telegram arrived, delivered by a Western Union boy. It was for my father and it was from my mother.
My father sat up on the sofa, rubbed the sleep from his eyes, and opened the envelope.
He unfolded the message which consisted of printed out words pasted on a yellow Western Union form. He read the words half a dozen times before handing it to his mother.
Here is what she read: "Dining room suite to be delivered today. Stop. Need you to arrange furniture. Stop. Sorry about last night. Stop. Love Lucille."
"I guess I better get over there," my father said. "She's going to need me to move all that heavy stuff around."
"Good luck, son," she said softly.
As he was headed for the door, my father turned around for a moment. "Thanks for the night's lodging, Momma," he said somewhat sheepishly.
"You're always welcome, David," she replied. "I have an idea you won't need the sofa tonight. Bye, dear!
A smile crossed my father's face. "Well, I better get going. You know how women need help in arranging things."
When my brother told me about that night, I couldn't believe my ears. That was our mother alright, was the first thing that came to my mind. She was always good at arranging things and not always to everyone's satisfaction. But then my outlook brightened and I looked at David.
"Well, I guess they worked things out, huh?"
My mother, in Chicago, before I was born.
The Night My Father Died II
Samuel Clemens intimated that life is a dream. Perhaps it is, I don't know. All I know for certain is that my father, David Drury Thomson, went on a business trip and never came back. He fell to his death from a tenth-floor window of the Roosevelt Hotel in Pittsburgh. I was four years old.
So, I have constructed a fictional narrative in which I imagine the details of his last two days alive. Maybe he is speaking through me. After all, I am the carrier of his genes.
No one knows how or why my father fell from that window or anything about the events leading up to the tragedy. Since the coroner couldn't prove his death was a suicide - there was no note or any other suggestion of such a self-destructive urge - they tried to determine that he had been drinking. So far as I know, it was never shown that he had more than a couple of beers. One of the bellboys and an elevator operator remembered he had gone to his room before 9:00 pm. After a lifetime of wondering what really happened, the following account is probably as close to the truth as any.
When my father drove his Franklin across the Monongahela River bridge heading for downtown Pittsburgh that long-ago August evening, he had the world by the tail. His good fortune included a faithful wife, Lucille, and two children. As I said, I was four and my brother David was eleven or twelve at the time. My father had a new job that held the possibility of a rise into management, an attractive apartment in Grandview, a suburb of Columbus. Ohio, good health, a positive outlook on life and, of course, his shiny new black car with its imposing hood. Everything was coming up roses, everything, that is, except one or two annoying items that seemed beyond his control.
By the time the bellboy had taken him to his room on the tenth floor of the Roosevelt Hotel at Penn Avenue and Sixth Street, he was probably exhausted. The day had become hot and muggy after the morning storm, making it a long drive from Columbus along the old National Road through the hills of eastern Ohio and on through the mountainous terrain of West Virginia and western Pennsylvania.
The memory of a heated argument with my mother that morning nagged at the back of his mind most of the way to Pittsburgh. That was one of the items. Lucille could be impossible, he decided. She was a carbon copy of her mother, that much was for sure. She was strong-willed, never failing to speak her mind. The least little aggravation would spark her anger.
My mother had been upset because he was going on a business trip over the weekend. He could understand her feelings, but she didn't seem to realize that Saturday was a good day for him to talk to some of his important building material customers. In fact, the only day for some of them. How many times had he told her that?
It also infuriated him that she used the children in her arguments against him. Time and time again she would do that. It wasn't as if he didn't love the boys, his own flesh and blood. He loved them more than life itself. He spent all the time he could with them. When David was only seven years old, hadn't he taken him on a sales trip down to Ironton on the Ohio River? He brought home educational books and sporting equipment for David. And as for little Tommy, he had more toys than he knew what to do with.
It was terribly, terribly sad, he thought. My God, the argument that morning had been almost Wagnerian.
Lucille screaming accusations at him, his shouting back at her. All of this going on as an August thunderstorm raged outside. Sheets of rain rattled the windows, bolts of lightning momentarily lit the mid-morning darkness, and claps of thunder reverberated across the sky. David had been at school, thank goodness, but hadn't little four-year-old Tommy cried out for them to stop? The memory wrenched his heart.
There was yet another source of unease between them, one that Lucille refused to discuss, but it was always there, at least for him, the issue constantly gnawing away at his gut. The truth was, he wasn't getting enough sex and he didn't know what to do about it. That was the plain truth. But then he chuckled to himself. Seemed that was a common complaint of most of his married friends.
The other concern, the second item: he wasn't getting any younger. Thirty-five wasn't exactly old, but then again it wasn't young either. Time was passing. And he was getting bald. No, he was bald. Hair around the sides and back but none on top. Damn, he hated the baldness! That was item Number Three, if you didn't count it as part of Number Two. Who the hell did I inherit my baldness from, he wondered?
His own father wasn't bald. He had a good head of hair. As for his other male relatives, he hadn't seen them for so long he didn't know whether they had hair or not. In their photographs they sported a full head of hair, running down their faces in sideburns, erupting into bushy beards. No telling though, those pictures were taken years ago. Today they might be bald as turkey buzzards!
He crossed the Ohio River about noon and by that time, he had pretty much dismissed his problems, including the argument with Lucille. I'll make it up to her when I get home, he thought. I'll get her something nice. A gift. A token of my love.
I'll get a couple of presents for the boys. He remembered a wonderful old music store in downtown Pittsburgh he had wandered into on his last trip. That's what I'll do, he decided. I'll buy Lucille some sheet music for her piano playing, something she'll really like. I'll get a big harmonica for David and a smaller one for Tommy-boy. He felt relieved, as if everything was settled.
He began to notice the countryside as he whizzed along the macadam road: the herds of Holsteins and Jerseys grazing in the valleys, a little herd of harlequin-patterned goats all bunched up close together, fields of ripening corn in the bottomlands, the plants heavy with upright tussled ears almost ready for picking.
Everywhere along the roadside were the colorful roadside flowers of late summer: the yellow splash of black-eyed Susan's, the bright purple of Ironweed, the dazzling white of Queen Anne's lace, and the nice mauve color of the tall Joe-Pye weed plants, some of them surely seven feet tall, And when the road had climbed up into some of the higher elevations, he noticed the first bright golden spangles of goldenrod blooming, even though it was only mid-August. There were other flowers, ones he didn't know, and he made a resolution right then and there that someday he would learn them.
He was curious to know the kinds of birds there were too. In a little town in West Virginia, he stopped for gas; and while the attendant was filling the tank up, he went to the restroom. As he came back out the door, a brilliant orange bird flew out of a nearby elm tree. He thought it might be an oriole but he wasn't sure.
My father, David Drury Thomson III The soil is mixed with loam and clay, In rugged rocks and silt and sand; Here life suspended humbly lay, American dust and soil and land. - Lines reconstructed from my father's notes on hotel stationery
Sometimes the two-lane road cut along the sides of massive mountains, exposing a layered strata of conglomerate rocks and shale and seams of coal. Thinking back on it after he got settled in his hotel room, he decided that's what he liked best. The mountains! The freedom of space. And, here and there, where left undisturbed, towering trees paraded up the sides of those cuts, extending up the slopes until they seemed to reach the sky.
My father felt elated, almost euphoric that August evening. It had been exhilarating being on the road, driving across the undulating landscape. It was the only way to see the greatness of the American land and keep in touch with its people.
Sitting in the hotel room, his mind wandered to what he would do the next day. He looked forward to the calls he would make. There was one lumber supply company he hoped might give him a substantial order.
Once the bellhop left, my father took off his wilted shirt, then the rest of his clothes, ran a tub full of hot water, checked the temperature with his toes, stepped into the porcelain. Carefully, he lowered himself into the tub, then slowly slid under the water until most of his body was submerged. He gave a great sigh of relief and pure contentment.
He loved to soak in a tub full of hot water and soapsuds. It was one of the few things you could count on in life, a great boon to civilization. Contemplating his legs and thighs stretched out in front of him, he reassured himself that he was still reasonably fit for a man his age. Soaking in a tub like this always made him feel young again, almost like a boy. When you washed away the sweat and grime along with the cares of the world, he thought, you washed away the years.
With the little bar of hotel soap, he lathered himself, rubbing the sliver of soap back and forth across his stomach, pressing it into the soft flesh around his navel, soaping the fine light hair on his stomach, his hand inducing his body and his mind into a state of complete relaxation.
What strange things navels are, he reflected. Belly buttons. Little inverted knots neatly affixed to every person like badges that say you're a member of the club. Well, at least for most people they're like that, but he remembered back to his school days in Dallas when there were a few boys with belly buttons that stuck out. He always thought they were ugly when they protruded like that, sort of unfinished looking. But what did he know, he thought with an inward smile.
Yes, and there had been a woman, a dark-haired girl, a prostitute at Rosie's place. Her belly button stuck out. He recalled how she would make fun of herself, laugh and say she had been born at home and her drunken father bit the umbilical cord off with his teeth and tied a granny knot in it. He laughed to himself as he thought back to those long-gone days.
His mind wandered back to the beautiful countryside he had been driving through that day. If only he could get his feelings down on paper. Maybe he could write a poem about the grandeur of the American continent.
That would be something worthwhile to do. Ever since high school he entertained the idea that he might have a talent for writing, that someday he would try his hand at a novel, or maybe write poetry.
He liked the work of that new fellow, the poet, what was his name? Oh, yes, Robert Frost. He liked him better than any of the other American poets he had read, except maybe for Walt Whitman. Walt was good but Frost was better, he decided. Easier to understand. His voice was that of the common man, you could sense he loved the American land with all his heart and soul. You could bet your last dollar on that, he grunted to himself.
"Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" was just fine. The words themselves were like harness straps and tinkling bells and snowflakes, but there was a deeper and darker meaning, he thought. The words turned in upon themselves, revealing the poet's awareness of mortality. Maybe, too, against that somber backdrop, the words revealed a determination to pursue one's own personal destiny. My God, I wish I could write like that, he thought, as he brought the washcloth dripping with hot water up to his face.
I must have gotten my interest in literature from my father, he figured. He was well informed, read all the time. Kept a lot of books around the house. Yes, he was a good influence. It was probably his influence that got me into reading good books. And maybe it was Momma's artistic talent, too. All the arts are connected, and that includes writing. His mind thus engaged, he continued to relax.
He recalled the time his father gave him a copy of Plutarch's Parallel Lives and how much he enjoyed reading about the exploits of the ancient Greeks and Romans. All these years he kept the book, and just last year gave it to his eldest son, David on his tenth birthday. He took to it like a duck to water. That boy certainly liked to read, maybe too much. Wish he was more interested in sports. On the other hand, maybe he's going to be a scholar. David has the brains for anything he sets himself to.
After he finished his bath, he sat down at the little mahogany desk in his room, determined to at least start a poem. With his orange and black Parker Brothers fountain pen, he scrawled what he thought might make a promising title.
"The American Land," is what he wrote, and he proceeded to fill several pages with poetic impressions of what he had felt that day, then frustrated with his inability to capture the dream-like beauty of the land and his response to it, he ended up scratching out most of what he had written.
He got up from the desk, and for a moment he looked out over the smoky haze of the city through the big window in his room. Then he opened up his garment bag, selected a light blue shirt, a white collar, and a red and blue striped tie. Standing in front of a mirror, he put the shirt on, tugged the collar into place, slipped the tie under the collar, carefully tied a Windsor knot, attached the collar buttons, pulled on the pants to his seersucker suit, and finally put on the jacket.
The exertion of dressing had brought beads of perspiration to his face. God almighty, it's one hell of a hot day, he thought as he locked the door to his room and walked down the slightly cooler hall toward the elevator. He was hungry and the hotel dining room served excellent food. After dinner he realized he was tired, so he returned to his room, undressed, and slipped into bed. Tomorrow was going to be a busy day with a lot of calls to make.
IV Our lives of love, the perfect fruit, Though soon will ripened be: Then may they fall together down- Sweetheart, grow old with me. And fallen, may the gardener Fate Keep them from parting free; Let us be gathered side by side &endash; Sweetheart, grow old with me! - Poem my father mailed to my mother from the Hotel Roosevelt on another
trip he had taken to Pittsburgh several weeks before his death.
Saturday he made his business calls and toward afternoon he drove to the music store that was just a few blocks from the hotel. He purchased two harmonicas as gifts for his sons, the larger one with a double bank of reeds, the other a small one with a single row.
"Made in Germany, wonderful crafts-manship," the clerk, a frail looking man with a green eye-shade, informed him.
From a display of sheet music, my father selected the aria, "My Heart at Thy Sweet Voice," from Samson and Delilah, by Saint-Saens. That should please Lucille, he thought to himself. He smiled inwardly as he recalled the love poem he had written and mailed to her on his last trip to Pittsburgh.
After he left the music store, he went to a Walgreen's Drug Store. He sat on a stool at the counter where he could feel a breeze from the big floor fan. "I'll take a chocolate milkshake," he told a freckle-faced waitress with red hair. When the frothy confection was set down in front of him, he sipped it slowly through a straw and stared out the plate glass window behind the soda fountain past a cut-glass bowl of oranges and bananas. The late afternoon street was almost devoid of pedestrians. A street- car the color of ripe red plums rattled by, expressionless faces peering from the windows. A distraught woman dragged a squalling little boy along by his arm.
"It's so hot out there, the redheaded waitress smiled grimly, "you could fry an egg on the sidewalk."
He finished his shake and walked outside into the sweltering heat. By the time he had parked his car and gotten back to his room, he was bathed in sweat. He took a bath in the footed bathroom tub, stretched out on the bed and didn't wake up until almost seven o'clock. It was still light out, and from the big open window at the end of the room, the sounds of traffic eddied up from the street below like spiraling flocks of pigeons. He dressed, took the elevator down to the lobby and headed for the hotel dining room.
After dinner, he walked a couple of blocks over from Sixth Street where the hotel was located to a speak-easy he had been to several times. It was a place called Joe's, a fairly high-class spot where newspapermen, off-duty police-men, politicians, lobbyists, and more than a few good looking women hung out, along with anyone else who knew a good thing when they saw one.
During that Prohibition year of 1928, it was one of the most popular watering holes in Pittsburgh. I should mention that the 18th Amendment to the Constitu-tion had ushered in Prohibition across the entire country. That meant that the manufacturing, distributing, and selling of alcoholic beverages was prohibited by state and federal law. No whiskey, no wine, no beer. Period. And, much of the zealous, almost religious, fervor had originated right here in Ohio, the home of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. The spirit of Carry Nation had won the day.
Joe's had been a popular establishment in other more carefree days when bars were legitimate But even so, with city and police officials looking the other way, such places were still doing a booming business, and the money - and payoffs - flowed like wine.
A handsome mahogany bar seating at least thirty persons ran down one side of the room; lots of tables with red-checkered tablecloths surrounded a saw-dust covered dance floor in front of a small raised bandstand. A Negro chef by the name of Woody was famous for some of the best broiled t-bone steaks in town. He kept the kitchen open until midnight so he was much appreciated by the regulars.
Outside the door, my father pressed the buzzer, said the obligatory "Joe sent me" to a hidden face behind the door and once inside gave his straw hat to the pretty hat check girl before striding into a Saturday night shindig in full swing.
The tuxedoed forms of five sweating jazzmen were swaying and bending to the sultry beat of The Saint James Infirmary Blues. Through a haze of cigarette smoke he glanced around the spacious room. On the small dance floor in front of the bandstand a couple was dipping and twirling, a green silk dress clinging to the girl's curvaceous figure. Her partner, a handsome blond-haired youth probably not more than twenty-one, was obviously tipsy. Together they swirled and stag-gered, bumping into tables, apologizing like mad to people they collided with as they twirled about, the girl's head thrown back, showing her white teeth, laughing and shrieking as if she were riding the Whip at the State Fair.
My father, a smile already on his face, looked around for a seat at the bar. He had made up his mind to have one beer and no more.
A stunning little brunette in a red knit dress was the only woman seated at the crowded bar in the speakeasy. Her bobbed hair framed a coquettish face, emphasizing painted lips and quizzical blue eyes. She was turned around on her bar stool facing three or four men standing behind her. She wore black net stockings, her legs crossed in such a way that her skirt had crept up above her knees, revealing an exciting curve of white thighs above red garters.
The night was steaming, so most of the men were in their shirtsleeves. Some had dispensed with their neckties or pulled them down, opening up their shirt collars. Many wore suspenders instead of belts. A gray-haired man with glasses, a reporter for one of the Pittsburgh dailies, was singing along with the band, a drink in one hand, waving his straw hat in time to the music with the other.
My father watched as one of the bartenders poured his beer from a chilled amber bottle beaded in sweat. I'll have to come here more often, he thought, meet more of the regular customers, get on a first-name basis with the bartenders. That's what drinking is all about. The sociability. Passing the time in friendly conversation with other men and having the opportunity to look at a pretty face once in a while. You leave all the problems of everyday life at the door, check them with your hat.
He realized he was rationalizing. Alcohol was the ruination of many a good man. He knew that. The thought reminded him that he had to start saving a little money. One of these days, he would buy a house for the family. Been married now a dozen years and still renting. That's no good. He continued sipping his beer.
He was feeling relaxed, entertaining himself with his thoughts, but enjoying the activity all around him. He glanced down the bar to see if the girl in the red dress was still there and discovered that she and her companions had left. It was getting on toward nine o'clock when he ordered a second beer from the bartender.
A pleasant fellow was sitting next to him, gabbing away with a couple of his friends, talking mostly about business and the people they worked with, or so he guessed from the small bits of conversation he overheard. They had gone
through God knows how many pitchers of beer, probably five or six at least. Every once in a while, they interrupted their own conversation to talk to him, tell him a joke, or share some humorous anecdote from their day at the office.
In between these diversions, his mind was free to roam wherever it willed. That was what he liked about bars. Even when alone, maybe mostly when you were alone, your mind sort of unloosed itself from its moorings. You hoisted your sails to catch
whatever prevailing wind happened along. He began to think about his drive back to Columbus the next day. Briefly, he recalled the argument with Lucille the morning of his departure, but just as quickly, dismissed it.
He looked forward to returning to Columbus with the purchases he had made, the two harmonicas for the boys and the sheet music for Lucille. The new piano he had given her, an A.B. Chase parlor grand, had set him back a thousand dollars, but it was worth it. Lucille was a gifted pianist with a lovely voice, and maybe the children would learn to play.
Lifting the glass to his lips, he savored the hearty taste of the brew, reminiscing about his college days in Dallas when he and his friends would go out on the town, bold and rambunctious as they chug-a-lugged tequila down with their beers. His friends would swig their drinks down, but he always preferred to make them last. He would lick the salt on the back of his hand, and then suck on a slice of lemon. Even when his best friends kidded him about it, that's what he would do.
The contrast between the beer and the tequila reminded him of the early spring storms that swept across the plains when hot and cold air collided. He had seen a lot of them, tumultuous clouds spread across the horizon like Furies, so black they looked as if they were full of India ink. Now and then they would spawn a twister that ripped up everything in its path. Same way with beer and liquor. You've got to treat them with respect.
He was thinking of those great storm clouds over Texas when his mind jumped to a tragic event that had occurred in Ohio just a few years previous. The U.S. Navy dirigible Shenandoah with a crew of 43 men on board had been caught up in the maws of a violent storm, which caused the 682-foot long craft to split apart and fall to the ground in Noble County with a loss of 14 lives. And, incredibly, he had witnessed the aftermath - within a day of the disaster.
There were several large electric floor fans at Joe's, which circulated the air and provided something of a breeze. It was probably a well-insulated building because even though it was hotter than blazes outside, the place wasn't too uncomfortable.
My father was sitting at the crowded bar, occasionally talking to people next to him, but basically alone, a traveling salesman, a stranger in town. In between snippets of conversation with the fellows next to him, his mind wandered back and forth between his wife and the two boys back in Columbus and other incidental thoughts such as the joys and dangers of alcohol, and the great storms he had often witnessed as a youth in Texas. Many had been killers wreaking death and destruction in their wake. The thought of those storms suddenly brought to mind the aftermath of a tragic event he had witnessed several years before.
He had been on his way to Marietta in 1925 on a business trip when he stopped at a little restaurant in Cambridge, Ohio. As he sat at the counter looking at the luncheon menu, he became aware of a heightened sense of excitement in the air. It seemed as if everybody in the place was talking to everybody else all at the same time, and he began to pick up phrases like "You don't mean to tell me!" and "It was an act of God, there's no doubt about that," and "It's hard to believe somethin' like that happenin' around these parts."
He asked the plump waitress what had happened.
"You ain't heard?" she said, her eyes growing wide as she wiped her hands on her white apron. "Why, a big dirigible done crashed down at Ava in Nobel County. I don't know how many men were killed. They say a dozen or more."
"A dirigible?" he repeated. "Are you sure about that? What was the name of it?"
"Land o'goshen," she exclaimed, "I can't remember the name of it." She turned to a gray-haired man in overalls sitting at the lunch counter a couple of seats away. "Bill, what was the name of that there dirigible?"
"Shenandoah," the man replied, turning in his seat to face them. "The United States Navy airship Shenandoah. Crashed about four, four-thirty this morning, part of it on the Nieswonger place, part of it over at the Nichols' farm, and other pieces God knows where. Someone said the control car and the men that were killed fell at Andy Gamary's."
"Does anyone know what happened?" my father asked.
"Crashed this morning just before sunup," Bill answered. "Just broke up and fell out of the sky in two or three pieces. They say it must have run into a storm south of here."
My father couldn't believe what he was hearing. For some reason he had felt a special kinship with that particular airship and the men who flew her. He had read numerous newspaper stories about the Shenandoah. Right then he decided he would try to find where it crashed.
After getting directions, he hastened to the register and placed a crisp dollar bill on the counter before heading out the door. He drove south out of Cambridge until he came to Route 78. From there on it was easy. All he had to do was follow a steady stream of cars that were headed for the crash sites.
The first place he stopped at was the Nichol's farm that was right off the highway. There were so many cars parked along the side of the road, he had to walk damn near a quarter mile before he got there. He noticed that most of the men and boys going back to their cars were carrying silvery swatches of fabric. Some of them were lugging pieces of the airframe and other parts of the airship he couldn't identify.
He quickened his steps thinking with a laugh there wouldn't be anything left for him to see if he didn't hurry. Then he saw it! It was just this side of an angular tree line, the grayish-silver hulk of the bow section, lying there like a butchered whale in a field speckled with yellow flowers, misshapen, crookedly tilted to the sky. At least a hundred people, maybe more for all he knew, swarmed around the fallen craft.
There were old men hobbling around as fast as their arthritic joints would take them. Women with babies in their arms and young children tagging behind them stood about gaping at the incongruous sight. Older boys and men in caps and summer straws either stood back a ways looking at the spectacle in awe or rushed right up to it, knives in hand, cutting, ripping, and tearing at the fabric in light-hearted abandon.
Many of the men were farmers, wearing suspenders, ruddy-faced from work in the sun, laughing and swearing as they stripped the fabric from the twisted framework. He couldn't believe his eyes. These damned people were dismembering it right out here in broad daylight, in front of God and everybody else. They were like ants crawling around a dead animal.
He wondered where all the authorities were, the sheriffs and the National Guard. He had noticed only one man with a badge, a heavyset fellow who looked like he might have been a constable or maybe a deputy sheriff, standing around laughing and talking to friends. He stayed there maybe twenty minutes, then feeling sick at heart, walked back to his car and headed for the Neiswonger farm.
All of these thoughts tumbled through his mind as he nursed his beer at Joe's speakeasy that hot August night. From the bandstand across the room, a voice was crooning "Toot-toot-tootsie, good-bye. Toot-toot-tootsie, don't cry."
The scene shifts from Joe's, a speakeasy in downtown Pittsburgh to the Roosevelt Hotel where he is staying.
Looking at his pocket watch, my father saw that it was nearing midnight and he wondered where all the time had gone. He felt like a time and space traveler out of an H. G. Wells book he had once read.
Here he was in a speakeasy in Pittsburgh, yet in one way he had hardly been here at all. His mind had been everywhere else but here. There are many mysteries in this life, he mused, maybe even dimensions of the mind that we know nothing about. He smiled to himself with this secret thought as he paid his check, left a tip, and said goodbye to the people he had exchanged pleasantries with. Then he was out the door and into the shadowy streets of the hushed city.
The hotel lobby was almost deserted. The cigar stand, flower shop, and dining room were all closed for the night. He chatted with the uniformed elevator operator as they ascended to the tenth floor, then made his way down the hall to his room.
Even though the window was open, the room was unbearably hot. It smelled of freshly laundered linen, furniture polish, maybe a whiff of lavender.
He stripped down to his underwear, went into the bathroom, turned on the faucet, brushed his teeth, bent over the basin and splashed his face with handfuls of cool water. As he looked in the mirror, he smiled wearily, and considered for a moment the idea of checking out of the hotel, driving home, and getting there before noon. No, I better not do that, he immediately decided. Too many mountain roads. Anyway, I'm tired. Might as well try to get a good night's sleep and leave in the morning. He turned out the bathroom light, walked over to the bed, pulled the covers back and lay down.
One time he almost drifted off, but the heat was so oppresive it was impossible to sleep. He got up, padded in his bare feet over to the dresser for his pack of Camels and an ashtray and took them over to the low window seat. Pushing back the heavy blue curtains, he leaned back against the window frame and lit a cigarette.
The office buildings across the way, their windows darkened, bereft of workers, were like high-rise tombs. He looked past them, through the haze, over in the direction of one of the broad rivers that delineated the city. Somewhere far out there, his ears picked up a familiar sound. It was the long drawn-out whistle of a train, so far away it came to him like something imagined than actually heard, echoing in his sub-conscious like a blues note that had followed him home from the speakeasy.
Sheet lightning played hide-and-seek with the low-lying clouds on the horizon, outlined them every few minutes, turned them into momentary shapes of whales and elephants.
Tomorrow morning, he thought, I will take the unfinished poem I scribbled on the hotel stationery home with me. On the drive back to Columbus, I'll stop now and then, soak up the atmosphere, write down some more impressions of the countryside. I'll write it for the boys so they will grow up to appreciate this great country. I'll call it "The American Land."
Tomorrow that is what I will do. But even as he was thinking these things, a humorous inner voice reminded him that it was already tomorrow. It was August 25, 1928. About then, the beginning of a dream entered his mind. Was it something about the Shenandoah? Yes, it was the Start Daughter! He could see her now, nosing through the dark clouds that were sharply illuminated now and again by flashes of lightning. She was being buffeted about by the wind and he reached out a hand as if he could steady her. Those were the last thoughts he had - except for the sudden sensation that he was falling, falling . .
My father was only 34 years old when he died. Way too young to leave this earthly vale. It's quite possible he was a victim of prohibition, because thousands of men and women died from the rot-gut they drank during those tumultuous times.
He left behind a grieving and guilt-stricken wife and two young sons. In fact, I can barely remember him. All I have are disconnected snippets of memory, like pictures in an aging scrapbook. When his Franklin was returned to Columbus, the sheet music he had purchased for my mother was still in the car, as well as two harmonicas, a large one for my brother, a smaller one for me.
I thank you for bearing with me while I told this tale. Writing it has been comforting, and even though all of this happened many years ago - I am still my father's son.
1 My Orbiting
My memory was just catching hold when my father died. Like a handful of aging photographs in an old album. That's all I have, but I will share them with you.
Da, my orbiting grandmother on my mother's side, was always somewhere in the background. The truth is, for the first year or, after the death I spent quite a bit of time at her house. I wasn't in school or anything, and I guess I was pretty easy to take care of. I think, even way back then, I had an attitude that I wanted to make life as easy and pleasant as possible for the people around me. So help me, it's true.
I probably should mention that right after my father's death, my mother was running around to a lot of fortune tellers, spiritualists, and what not. Little wonder she parked me at Da's so much, but I didn't mind. I was leading the good life of having people wait on me hand and foot. Da was a really good cook, she had to be, you know, because she was from the South. I remember everyday as being a culinary adventure. Sometimes it would be fried apples, or baked apples, or fudge, or cookies, delicious gumbo soups with okra in them. When she cooked chicken &endash; fried or baked &endash; she would make corn meal dressing to go with it. Oh, so good!
My grandfather lived there too, but my memories of him are limited. I just remember I learned to stay far enough away from his so that he couldn't swipe me with his cane. I think he was already suffering from a series of small strokes that would eventually takes his life ten years later. He was mostly retired, but made a little pocket money as a salesman from a variety of products he sold to stores around the neighborhood. A lot of the money he made went for booze. I know this from hearing some of the wild and wooly stories about his madcap escapades.
More than once, Da would collar him in some downtown saloon and take him home in a taxi. Sometimes when I think back on those times, I can't help but wince and feel sorry for the old gentleman because Da had a quick temper that matched her high contralto voice. Little wonder the old gentleman suffered from high blood pressure!
One time my grandmother arrived on the scene too late. My grandfather must have made a big sale that day because he went to one of his favorite downtown watering holes, struck up a friendship with a woman I have heard variously described as a frowzy blonde, at best, to a whore, at worst, hopped a plane and flew out to Iowa.
Drunken tongues are loose and it was no great trick for Da to find out where the amorous couple had gone. As you might guess, she was on the next plane west. I hate to think of the confrontation that occurred out there, in some little hotel room in Sioux City, Iowa, but I would guess it must have been like an atomic bomb going off. Some things are probably best not thought about.
Anyway, when I appeared on the scene, his traveling days were long over, and his drinking, if any, was sharing a bottle of Dago Red once in a while with some of his pals around the neighborhood or, maybe when he was really lucky, sneaking a pint of whiskey into the house and hiding it where Da couldn't find it. Of course, there would be hell to pay when she caught a whiff of booze on his breath.
Looking back on those days, it was plain to see that my grandmother was the power and the force in that household. She paid the bills, did all the housework, the shopping and the cooking, took care of her husband when he was debilitated, and tried to keep him in tow when he wasn't.
It's a mystery to me where their money came from at that time. Maybe Da had socked some away for a rainy day from the days when my grandfather was in his prime. I don't know. He had been a traveling salesman and a manufacturer's representative for a long time. When his health started to fail she undertook a number of enterprising ventures that included making divinity fudge and selling it to several shops and restaurants, and at one point, she even started a little tearoom in her home. I don't think it was very successful, but I do remember a bunch of women bridge players invading the premises on several occasions. Looking back on it, I can't believe what an entrepreneur my grandmother was.
In all of these endeavors, Da had the help of a loyal and hard working black man named James. He did the yard word, drove her around in her Chevy because she had never learned to drive, waited table with a big, wide, polite smile in her little tearoom, and even washed dishes when she was lucky enough to have any business.
James was light-skinned, lanky and likeable, and his services were more or less on call. I remember that he would pour pancake syrup on his fried eggs. I also remember him making a remark to my grandmother after the members of a bridge club had finished lunch and left.
"Miz Page ," he had said, "those ladies sure liked the food you fixed for 'em. From the looks of their plates, they must have licked 'em off with their tongues. They hardly needed washing at all!"
2 A Driving Lesson
James played a major role in an episode I will never forget as long as I live. As part of her divorce settlement, my mother found herself the owner of shiny new car. I think it was a stick-shift Ford, but I'm not sure of the model or the year. Anyway, she asked James to give her driving lessons, and they took me along for the first lesson. Don't forget, I was only four and a half years old. And, don't forget my mother - the decidedly high-strung type - had never been behind the wheel of a car in her life.
Whatever model Ford it was, to my youthful eyes it was an imposing vehicle, bright and shiny, red colored with black upholstery. Very sharp.
The car was parked in the garage behind the house, and with an air of confidence, my mother took her place behind the steering wheel. James climbed into the front passenger seat, and they stuck me in the back
Hanging over the front seat, I intently watched every change of expression that passed across my mother's face as James told her to push down the clutch pedal with her left foot, then turn the ignition key with her right hand. She followed his instructions and the car came to life with a roar, not to speak of a lot of shrill squealing sounds as she continued to earnestly turn the ignition key.
"Easy does it, Miz Page," James said. "You can quit turning the ignition key now." Mother's expression had momentarily turned to one of alarm because of the discordant sounds that emanated from the car's entrails.
Now James was telling my decidedly edgy mother about the gear shift and how to back the car up by putting it into reverse and then slowly letting the clutch pedal out and gently stepping on the gas pedal. Mother's face paled. Her left leg was still doggedly stuck out in front of her, holding down the clutch pedal as if her life depended on it. One white-knuckled hand gripped the steering wheel, the other clutched the gearshift knob, and from what I could tell, she seemed not to be hearing James. Even to my childish mind what had started out as a lark was rapidly becoming a life-threatening situation - and we weren't even out of the garage yet.
With wide eyes, I watched my mother's right hand, the one tightly wrapped around the gearshift. I had ridden with my father enough to know intuitively that a smooth movement to the upper left would get the car rolling backwards.
I also aware that if she accidentally put it into first gear, we would take out the back end of the garage. I also knew that the cramped space between the front of the car and the back wall of the garage was a storage space for a haphazard collection of gardening tools, including hoes, rakes, and a lawnmower, not to speak of an old bicycle with two flat tires and a step-ladder. Furthermore, hanging from nails and pegboards were pieces of hose, a variety of hats which had seen better days, hedge trimmers, and abandoned coats and jackets, one of which had a bird nest in a pocket . On the floor there were a dozen or more paint cans, a heavy metal toolbox, a cardboard box of Christmas decorations, a stack of old magazines, and who knows what else?
In spite of my apprehension and impending sense of doom, another thought flashed through my childish mind. If Mother put the gearshift into the wrong position, and the car crashed through the back of the garage sending all that stuff flying in all directions, what a great story I would have to tell Daniel and the guys he hung out with!
But then a shudder ran through my body. What if I died? What if my head got cut off by those hedge trimmers? Argh! What if my head rolled out of the driveway and down the street? Then I thought of something very funny. I was familiar with some of the words to a song that started out : "I ain't got no body." Maybe my head would say that when they picked it up. I giggled to myself as I thought about it.
I was brought back to reality when I heard James talking to my mrother earnestly, repeating his instructions, his voice remarkably unemotional, but I could tell by his eyes that he was as scared as I was.
Suddenly mother released the clutch pedal - all at once - and the Ford gave a little shiver, lurched backwards out of the garage, then stalled. To my mother's credit, she started the car again, backed it out onto the street, stalled it again, somehow got it started once more, and in spite of several inconsiderate motorists honking at us, haltingly drove it down the street and around the corner.
After a couple of blocks of clear sailing, we came to a downhill grade, proceeded swiftly but uneventfully to the bottom of the hill where the traffic light was green, careened around the corner and headed toward the next corner, where the plan was to go back up the hill.
With tires squealing , Mother navigated that corner which, fortunately, had no traffic light , and we started uphill. I was studying my mother's face again, this time in the rear-view mirror. I thought I detected a crazy glint in her eyes as we started up the hill.
"Change gears," James started saying. "Change gears, Miz Page." His voice kept rising in pitch. "For God's sake, put it in second, Miz Page!"
That's when Mother froze up again, went rigid as the proverbial ramrod, and in the rear-view mirror I could see an agonized look of desperation in her eyes.
James was now screaming, "Put it in first! Miz Page, put it in first!" His hand went to his face and I think I saw real terror written there.
We had proceeded about half way up the hill and I couldn't understand why James was suddenly so excited. At my young age, I guess I had never heard the old expression, "What goes up has to come back down."
That afternoon, as it turned out, gravity defeated momentum and inertia might have been the winner over energy. The car shuddered to a stop, shook itself like a huge St. Bernard, gave a sigh, and died.
My mother's foot should have been searching for the brake, but I think at this point, her mind had gone blank, and the car started rolling backwards down the hill
"Put on the brake! Put on the brake, Miz Page!" James was now shouting. "No! No! That's the clutch! "Use your other foot! Oh, Lord! Get it over on the brake!" He was halfway on his knees now, trying to lift my mother's right foot onto the brake pedal. Evidently her legs had turned to rubber, so he shoved them out of the way and tried to find the brake with his hands.
The car was now rolling backwards down the hill faster than ever and had started to zigzag, which is probably what saved our lives. Mother had an iron grasp on the steering wheel, and seemed more intent on tugging it from left to right than anything else. She seemed oblivious to anything on the floor of the car, including James, who I think was now getting kicked in the face by her heavy oxfords. It was evident that Mother didn't comprehend how anything down there on the floorboard could be useful in driving a car.
In the meantime, and I am talking mini-seconds, in the rear view mirror I saw a car coming up the hill toward us. James couldn't see it because he was still down there on the floor groping for the brake prdal and fighting off my mother's feet. My mother, of course, didn't see the approaching car either. Her eyes were riveted straight ahead as if she was hypnotized. I think James had probably forgotten to tell her about the rear view mirror and the function it played.
"Mummy, I think a car's coming up the hill behind us," I whispered in her ear.
"Oh, my God, " she shrieked, and without once looking back, she yanked at the steering wheel with all her strength. I ducked my head as I saw a utility pole whiz by within inches of the front fender. Finally, our car lumbered up onto a sidewalk and ground to a stop, its front end protruding into someone's bushes. James had finally gained supremacy over my mother's feet and was pushing down on the brake pedal with both hands. I think I was the only one who saw the red-faced man who had been behind us wildly waving a clenched fist in our direction as he drove by.
As James extricated himself from the floor and climbed out of the car, Mother, looking like she might faint at any moment, got out her side. "James," she said in a faltering voice, "I think you better drive us the rest of the way home," and with that she climbed into the back seat with me. When James slid behind the steering wheel and was starting the car up, she added, "And, another thing, James, don't mention a word of this to anyone, do you understand?"
"Yes, Miz Page, I understand," James replied. Within my childish head, I was thinking, "Oh, sure, I'll bet. By this time tomorrow, the whole neighborhood will know all about this wild ride." James's was blinking his eyes like he couldn't believe everything that had happened. I also saw his lips moving like he was saying a prayer to himself. Then he maneuvered the car back onto the street and drove us home.
Well, that's the story of my mother's first driving lesson and, would you believe me if I told you she never drove a car again?
3 The Throne
After a few months and the shock of my father's death receding,, my mother began what would turn out to be one of many household moves that would continue until I finally left home years later.
The first of these moves was to an apartment building not more than three blocks away. There were two bedrooms, a living-dining room, kitchen and bath, Daniel and I shared one bedroom. He had a regular bed. I had a little daybed. Mother had the other bedroom. About half our furniture was put in storage. I was five years old.
Within a few months, we had moved to another apartment building in the same block, probably because the rent was cheaper. Da, our orbiting grandmother and Gran, our ailing grandfather, still lived in their spacious home which was not far away and I was a frequent visitor.
I was aware that a lot of things were going on in our lives because Mother would explain everything she was doing, even if we didn't really understand a lot of what she was talking about. Well, maybe Daniel would understand more than I did. But I wasn't dumb. I would usually get the general drift.
One of her major decisions was to get a job to supplement the child support she was receiving from my father who was just getting started in his practice. Getting a good job was going to be a case of easier said than done, because she had absolutely no experience in the workplace. The most logical - and the most abundant - kind of job would have been secretarial, but she was devoid of any skills in that direction and she showed no inclination to attend a business school. Her other best bet would have been something in the retail field, but she seemed dead set against that. "Too many hours on my feet," she would explain. So you can see, finding a job that she felt capable of doing, and one that wasn't below the high standards set by her pride, and my grandmother's advice was going to prove a formidable undertaking.
Another big event the occurred about this time was my grandmother's decision to sell her house &endash; and this was probably the biggest mistake she ever made, one reason being property values were at a low ebb
The next thing she did was strike a deal with a couple of painters to paint her house in return for her Chevy. Even at my tender age, I knew this was a dumb deal. I couldn't believe her getting rid of her really nice car for a stupid paint job, even though she couldn't drive. She could always try to learn, I figured.
I've seen pictures of my grandmother that were taken when she was nineteen or twenty years old. She was an attractive blonde, slender and pretty, and you could tell just by looking at the photographs that she was high-strung and irascible. The same traits she passed on to my mother, even though my mother was a brunette.
Now, I'll tell you a strange little story that has stuck in my memory over all these years like the memory of a first kiss.
After my grandmother had decided to sell her house, she probably advertised it someplace. Don't ask me where, probably in the newspaper. At any rate, I was staying with her one day and having a good ol' time just not doing much of anything. Living on the fat of the land, you might say, Remember, I was only five years old.
My grandmother's house had an interesting back yard with a cherry tree and a grape arbor, so I was probably playing out there part of the time. Anyway, I remember it was right after we had eaten lunch that a young married couple stopped by to look at the house. They were from out of town and the man was a junior executive with a large insurance company. His wife was about twenty-three and breathtakingly beautiful of face and figure.
How was I savvy enough to appreciate those qualities at the tender age of five? Don't ask me. I have no idea how I knew. I just knew. I couldn't keep my eyes off her. All of her. Her face, her long hair, her slender neck, the swell of her breasts, her shapely buttocks, her marvelous legs.
Neither had I been exposed to any kind of sexuality of any kind. I had absolutely no idea of the concept of sex. I was totally unaware of sexual gratification of any kind. My mother was attractive, but in a very subdued way and not at all like this marvelous female who so entranced, charmed, and beguiled me.
Perhaps such an awareness on the part of a young boy is innate, something you're born with, a quality that is transferred genetically from one generation of males to the next. I don't know.
This is the very reasonable argument of homosexuals. In the great majority of cases, they "don't become," they are already that way. I believe it. Granted, having all those awakening hormones at the ago of five might be unusual, but proves to me that I was pointed in a heterosexual direction. But, just wait. The best part is still to come!
However it came to be, I knew I was in the presence of a goddess-queen, a woman so beautiful and desirable that I was transfixed. Like a little shadow, I followed her from room to room as she and her husband inspected the house.
As I look back on this episode, I can see how laughable it is. Me five. In short pants. Mesmerized. My heart stolen away. My eyes soaking up every detail of her lovely body, deeply inhaling her perfume, on the verge of swooning.
At one point in their tour of the house, the lady of my dreams excused herself to go to the bathroom. "Oh, my gosh, she's human!" I thought to myself. "She has to go to the bathroom!"
I would like to have accompanied her, but since that was out of the question, I posted myself at the bottom of the staircase and watched her as she ascended, my eyes glued to her behind.
What can I tell you? That's what I did, and I must have been smart enough that my behavior wasn't obvious. And, there I stood my ground. No way was I going to miss a moment of her reappearance and her descent down the steps. To my five-year-old mind, she was Aphrodite.
Suddenly, I heard the faint flushing of the toiled and a minute later the opening of the bathroom door. Then, there she was!
Down the steps she came, gracefully, and I drank in her delicious beauty, my eyes on the mysterious swelling under her blouse, her trim waist, the wonderful way everything seemed to come together below that: the tight roundness of her buttocks and, in my imagination, I speculated on how magnificent her upper legs and thighs must be at their conjunction with the rest of her.
There was more talk about the terms of the sale, and then suddenly they were gone.
They were hardly out the door when, unobtrusively, I went upstairs, entered the bathroom, and locked the door behind me. Quickly, and without thinking, I knelt down and bestowed a kiss on the sweet and blessed toilet seat.
That was the first and only time I ever saw my Earth Mother.
As it turned out, she and her husband bought the house and a month or two later my grandmother moved out.
But, like Christopher Columbus, I had discovered America. And, like him, I wasn't aware of the vast extent of what I had discovered. And, by the way, it is my firm *belief, as this little story demonstrates, that in the vast majority of cases, sexual preference is inborn.
A strange little episode, huh?
It would be several years before an older boy showed me how to masturbate while looking at magazine ads of sexy looking women. It would be ten years before I discovered the intriguing beauty of birds. And, as you can see, I was a receptacle, ready to receive these gifts when they came along.
4 The Cambridge Arms
My mother was a courageous woman, as well as a survivor in the truest sense of the word. I say this in spite of the fact that she was a chronic worrywart and, in her last years on Earth, fearful of the inevitable end - even though she was an extremely religious woman, brought up as a Carmelite, a fundamentalist religious sect of the South. My feeling is that none of us ever figures out every nuance of what another person's life is about, not to speak of our own.
"When the going gets tough, the tough get going," the old adage says, and my mother fit that description to a T. Widowed when she was in her early thirties with two young boys to care for, and little in the way of money, she soon demonstrated that she was capable of making her own way in this world.
My mother's name was Lucille Page Thomson. She was brought up in Nashville, Tennessee, and went to Ward-Belmont, a girls' finishing school. There she learned the rudiments of proper English and all the social graces, but not much else. Don't forget, in those days not many women pursued careers outside the home.
Fortunately, soon after my dad died, she heard that the owners of an apartment building on First Avenue in Grandview were looking for a manager. In spite of the fact she had absolutely no work experience, on sheer gumption, she applied for the job, and got it. A rent-free apartment went with the modest salary, and she was on her way to self-support.
And, guess what?
She did such a good job that the owners of the building, the Huntington National Bank, offered her a much better position at their newly acquired Parkview Apartments on East Broad Street, opposite Franklin Park. It was a pretty spiffy place in those days. Dr. Melvin Croaty, the famous goiter specialist lived right next door to the building we lived in. And Webb Huntington and his family lived in the apartment below us.
This was a big step up. A nicer rent-free apartment with utilities paid, a better salary, and other amenities such as complimentary laundry service, and dairy and bakery products.
Well, she did such a good job that she attracted the attention of the John Hancock Insurance Company which had just purchased the Cambridge Arms, Columbus' premier high-rise apartment building at the time. So we moved again.
The building was owned by the John Hancock Insurance Company, and was surely Columbus' most exclusive high-rise apartment building at the time. Along with her salary, a beautiful two-bedroom apartment went with the job. How lucky she was to have that job when millions of people were out of work. And, they were lucky to have her, because she was hard working and talented. She made a good impression on the tenants, and she oversaw the maintenance and interior decorating of the apartments, the financial leasing arrangements &endash; all of that in addition to raising two boys by herself. As the years roll by, I am ever more aware of what a great woman she was. Sometime soon, I'm going to tell you more about her.
The structure is still there at 926 East Broad Street, but I fear it is no longer the fashionable place it once was. In the days I'm speaking of, there was a tearoom off the lobby, uniformed bellmen, and a roster of residents that included some of Columbus' wealthiest and most influential families. Among these elite tenants were two young married couples of the Wolfe family. Richard Wolfe and his bride in one wing of the building, Preston Wolfe and his bride in the other.
The nine-story building featured a tearoom off the lobby, uniformed bellhops, automatic elevators, a two-level parking garage, and an easily accessible rooftop from which I could look out over the city in all directions. I would take it all in: Beyond the surrounding houses, past the church steeples along Broad Street, all the way to the AIU Building, which the Lincoln-LeVeque Building was called in those days. I swear I could see all the way to the fairgrounds and the buildings on the Ohio State University campus.
Boy, did I ever have fun while we lived there. Plenty of action. I got to know the bellhops and I would be all ears when they'd gossip about the tenants.
I went to Douglas Elementary School, which I liked a lot. The old red brick building had a big cylindrical fire escape attached to one wall. Thank goodness, I never had to slide down it.
James Thurber once attended school there.
Because I wanted a paper route but I was too young to go to a sub-station to pick up my papers from a sub-station, Mother called up the Circulation Department of the Columbus Dispatch and talked to the manager, a Mister Thomas.
Soon a Dispatch delivery truck was dropping off a roll of papers every day in front of the building.
I had a paper route! Not a big one, but a paper route, all the same. My route consisted of the apartments in the building and the stately homes along East Broad Street for a block or two in each direction.
Thus, I began delivering newspapers when I was eight years old, and I've been in one or another type of journalism ever since.
I delivered to the people who lived in the building and up and down Broad Street for about a block and-a-half in each direction.
So it was that one wintry evening, after delivering my route, a few leftover papers under my arm, I got on the automatic elevator to go up to our second floor apartment. Right on my heels, destiny stepped into the elevator car in the form of a tall burley man bundled up in a heavy overcoat wearing a Stetson hat. He pushed a button for one of the upper floors and acknowledged my presence with a nod.
I immediately recognized that I had a prospect here - better yet, a captive audience - for one of my leftover papers. This guy was trapped in an elevator car with the paperboy from hell!
Right away I pounced. "How about a Columbus Dispatch, Mister? It's Ohio's Biggest Home Daily! Not only that, it's got all the local news, national news, international news, stock market reports, sports, business news, who was born, who died, the weather, radio listings, movie reviews, comics"- almost out of breath, I gasped, "You need one to make your life complete!"
The man smiled and said, "I'll take one." He reached in his pocket, withdrew his wallet, took out a one-dollar bill and put it in my hand. "Keep the change," he said. "I own the Dispatch and that's the best damn sales talk I've heard all day."
My eyes grew big as I eagerly grasped the crisp dollar bill. Those were the days when a dollar was a dollar. A dollar would buy twenty candy bars &endash; and bigger ones than the little skinny ones you get today for all kinds of money. Gee, Mister, thanks a lot!" I managed to say. I found out later that my benefactor was Harry P. Wolfe, and he was going up in the elevator to see one of his married children. Oh, by the way, it was so many years ago, I can't be sure if it was Preston or Edgar in the one wing of the building.
That's when I decided to make journalism my career and I did - graduated from Ohio State University's School of Journalism with the a degree in Newspaper Management.
Incidentally, when I lived at the Cambridge Arms, I went to school not more than a block away at Douglas Elementary. That's where James Thurber went to school for a few years. He also worked at the Dispatch off and on. And here I am writing about him every month in the Gazette. Talk about a small world!
By now, Mother had gained a lot of self-confidence and was becoming ever more proficient in her job. She showed apartments to prospective tenants, listened patiently to those who had complaints, hired maintenance people for the endless task of keeping the building functioning properly, and painters every time an apartment needed refurbishing. Not only that, she was becoming ever more proficient at interior decorating, which included everything from selecting wall colors to purchasing draperies and carpeting.
Of course, she also had the never-ending job of running a household for our small family, which meant everything from grocery shopping and cooking, to keeping my brother and I reasonably well-clothed and shod, not to speak of trying to keep some semblance of law and order when my brother and I were fighting over one thing or another.
Those were depression years and up to this point Mother had been unbelievably lucky. But then the axe fell.
To save money, the owners decided to let the tearoom manager show apartments, and Mother was without a job.
So we set about packing. Cups, saucers, and dinner plates were wrapped in newspapers and put in a couple of wooden barrels, along with silverware, bric-a-brac, pots and pans and whatever else that we could tuck in. Books were boxed, linen bundled, clothing crammed in a couple of wardrobe trunks, and - Whew! - we were ready for the moving van.
Hand in hand, we climbed aboard a streetcar and headed for our next adventure. Mother had rented a big house in the University District, and we were going to rent rooms to students.
But, wait! There is one more adventure I want to relate before we left the Cambridge Arms. It's an episode that/s been simmering inside all these many years and I dared not tell it.
5 A Memorable Afternoon
I was eight years old.
My brother, David, was fifteen.
Our mother was thirty-seven.
We were in downtown Columbus, near Broad and High, waiting for a streetcar.
Because it was a beautiful summer day, we had walked downtown from the Cambridge Arms which was located at 926 East Broad Street.
My mother was the manager of that beautiful and prestigious high-rise apartment building. Notable among the residents were two members of the Dispatch Wolfe family and a Mr. Garber, who was a State Senator who had romantic ideas about my mother.
One day he asked her for a date to see a movie at a downtown theatre. Mother said she would love to - and would it be alright to bring her two sons?
He must have said ok because I remember all of us sitting inside the old Grand Theatre on East State Street, near the old Hartman Theatre which is also no longer there - part of the thoughtless destruction that robbed Columbus of much of its heritage.
Anyway, as you can well imaging, Mr. Garber never asked our Mother out again.
The year was 1932 and the country was reeling from the first effects of an economic depression that was to last until World War II. But our spirits were high.
We were on our way to pay a Sunday visit to our orbiting grandmother who at that time lived with our grandfather out on Northwest Boulevard near Goodale Street.
They lived in a duplex next to Mister and Mrs. Hawkins, and a couple of doors down the street on the corner was a small factory that was home to a company the manufactured a cleaning product name Skidoo.
This was a neat scouring paste that came in a little gray tin can with a bright red lid. For some reason unknown to me, it fell by the wayside years ago.
So, anyway, there we were waiting for a streetcar.
Streetcars were really neat, lots more fun to ride than busses. I especially liked the streetcars that were on the Grandview route because they had a lot of wood in their construction. For some reason this made them have a smoother ride than those that were all metal.
You would think just the opposite but, believe me, they had the smoooothest ride you can imagine. They just glided along.
Another thing. Along Goodale Avenue the tracks were not in the middle of the street like they were everywhere else. They were set in the ground on the south side of the street.
There weren't many stops - at least on Sundays &endash; because there were a lot of small manufacturing plants along there. So the motorman could open up the throttle and really let her rip. I can't begin to tell you how exciting it was, gliding and swaying along for blocks on end without stopping.
All of the streetcars were electric . That is, they had trolleys that extended up to overhead wires, For that reason, they didn't pollute the air like busses do.
They also had two-man crews: a motorman up front, a conductor at the rear.
Back then not all that many people had cars. So lots of people rode the streetcars &endash; and took cabs.
It cost five cents to rise the streetcar. Less than that if you bought a strip of tickets for a quarter. The cabs were a bit more, but really not all that much considering that they would take you right to the door of where you were going.
Some of them might have had meters, but during those depression days when they were competing for business they had all kinds of other payment plans. The one I remember the best was a map they had posted in the back seat that had the city divided up into zones and it was five or ten cents every time you went from one zone to another.
There were probably half a dozen cab companies. The ones I remember were Hill's, which my mother like best, and Green Cabs and Radio Cabs.
So, on this particular day my mother had evidently decided that we would take the streetcar. Probably to save a few cents because, after all, it was quite a way out to Grandview.
We were standing in front of Howard's Furniture Store.
Back in the 1930's the two leading furniture stores in Columbus were Carlisle's and Howald's.
Howald's was located downtown on the east side of High Street between Gay Street and Broad Street.
Carlisle's was actually my mother's favorite furniture store. It was located on the corner of North High Street and Vine Street a short distance north of downtown, hence it came to be called "the Short North" by taxicab dispatchers.
How well I remember wandering around inside that store while my mother ordered drapes and various items of furniture.
Although most of the apartments at the Cambridge Arms were unfurnished, a few were furnished
6 Fire! Fire! Fire!
While we were waiting for a streetcar I was fidgeting around like any eight-year-old would do, I was also keeping a eagle eye on my brother/.
In case you forgot, we were standing in front of Howald's Furniture Store which was located at 34 N. High Street in downtown Columbus.
The year was 1932.
Waiting for a streetcar, that's what we were doing. My mother, my brother, and me.
David was in the ninth grade at Franklin Junior High School.
I was in the third grade at Douglas Elementary.
David brought home all A grade cards, Mine were spotted with a few B's and C's &endash; especially in arithmetic.
Even at that age, I was in awe of my brother's intellect. Like I've said before, I was behind the door when the brains were passed out.
All of his teachers recognized that my brother was something special.
And, my mother! Oh, my God!
My mother thought he could do no wrong.
Now, don't get me wrong. I was well loved, well-fed, well-clothed,and well-shod.
My biggest worry was that I might have smelly feet.
Speaking of feet, our mother used to take us to Gilbert's Shoe Store which was on East Town Street in the Central Market District. They even had an x-ray machine to make sure yoir new shoes were a good fit.
Some more thoughts about my brother just danced into my head.
He would not only religiously bring home his school books every day, he would lug arm loads of books from the school library. Biographies and books about famous philosophers, and he would talk to our mother about them and they would read them together.
Many a night I would go to bed with the droning of their voices in the other room lulling me to sleep.
I'll tell you how smart my brother was - and remember we're talking about a fifteen year old kid.
My brother, David, now grown old and deceased, could whistle the exact notes from dozens of symphonies and operas.
Our mother knew she had something special on her hands. That's why I didn't resent any special treatment he might have gotten.
I swear she probably thought he was going to grow up to become president of the United States, or maybe become another Albert Einstein - or, at the very least, a university professor at some famous university like Yale or Harvard.
I guess I was just going along for the ride.
Even way back then, I found out that there are many advantages in not being the center of attention.
I wouldn't have had it any other way.
While my brother was basking in the limelight, I would just go off by myself with a Big Little Book or a pulp magazine. Or, more than once, I would find a newspaper or magazine with ads for women's fancy undergarments and do what I did best of all.
Well, I've been digressing too long.
It was a cloudless summer day and so hot you could fry an egg on the sidewalk.
That was one of my grandmother's favorite expressions, and that was where we were headed, to pay my grandparents a Sunday visit.
And, as I was trying to say before I kept interrupting myself, I was keeping a close eye on that fifteen-year-old brother of mine.
He was standing close to one of the store's plate glass windows, with his back to me, and he had taken something out of his pants pocket .
He was acting as if he didn't want me to see what he was doing.
That just made me all the more curious, of course, and I moved around to the other side of him to get a better look.
Then I saw what he was doing. He had a little magnifying glass - the kind that came with stamp collecting outfits - and he was focusing a ray of bright sunlight onto the drapes that were hanging inside the show-window.
Suddenly, a brown spot appeared on the cloth and as I watched with widening eyes it became black and emitted a wisp of smoke.
Oh. My God! A tongue of flame appeared out of nowhere, instantly grew bigger, all red and orange and yellow with evil looking streaks of blue.
Then without warning, the flames raced up the drape, jumped to other drapes that were framing the display of furniture &endash; and suddenly the entire window was on fire.
A passerby, a slender Thurberish-looking young man took one look at the conflagration, then ran down the street yelling "Fire! Fire! Fire!" at the top of his voice.
7. The Fure's Aftermath
The Thurberish looking man ran down the street to a fire alarm box, all the while yelling "Fire! Fire! Fire!" at the top of his lungs.
My mother who had turned deathly pale was hissing at my brother to follow her up High Street to the next streetcar stop.
Then she almost jerked my arm out of its socket as she pulled me along after her.
Luckily, our streetcar cam along just in the nick of time. We were climbing aboard as the first fire engines came racing past us.
My face was pressed to the window as more and more of them went careening by. They seemed to bed coming from all directions: pumpers, hook-and-ladders, fire chief cars. The whole shebang.
Our streetcar kept grinding to a stop as new equipment kept arriving.
What a blast for an eight-year-old kid to be at the scene of the fire &endash; right in the middle of things, you might say. .
Finally, we left all the hubbub behind us and it was clear sailing out Goodale Avenue to Northwest Boulevard.
Being a Sunday, we practically had the car to ourselves.
My mother was distraught looking and tight-lipped during the entire ride.
She was obviously confronted with a situation she had never imagined happening in her wildest dreams. The result was none of us said anything. After all, what was there to be said?
For my part, I had a lot to think about, including the fact that sometimes it wasn't all that bad being the younger brother.
When we arrived at our stop, we got off and walked the short distance up the street to my grand parent's duplex,
"I'm a nervous wreck!" were my mother's first words to my grandmother."
"What on earth's the matter, Lucille?" my grandmother responded with obvious concern.
"Let's go in the kitchen and I'll tell you all about it" my mother said with a great sigh/
They went in the kitchen, my brother had disappeared somewhere with one of his beloved books, and I was left for the time being in the connecting living and dining rooms with my grandfather.
I should explain something about him.
Bootleg whiskey and cigarettes had don him in when he was only in his mid-fifties.
From a handsome and debonair traveling salesman, a series of strokes had reduced him to a pitiful shell of his former self.
When he wasn't in bed, he could barely hobble to the bathroom with the use of a cane. The rest of the time, disgruntled and distraught, he spent slouched in an easy chair in the living room.
I had experienced the whack of his cane on the back of my legs more than once, so I was especially careful to give him wide berth.
I knew I had to get out of there or go bonkers, so I headed for the front porch and some fresh air.
I had a lot to think about.
The fire, of course. My grades at school. My financial situation. At the time, I think it was about fifty cents. More or less.
And, there were other things equally important like whether my feet smelled bad. That was always high on my list of things to worry about. And whether my stockings had holes in the heels.
Don't think little kids don't have their worries. They surely do.
After we ate dinner, we said goodbye to my grandparents and took a streetcar back downtown.
There were still a couple of fire engines hanging around the still smoking front end of the furniture store.
The Journal Night Greenm had just hit the streets and the newspaper men were yelling: "Read all about the four alarm fire downtown."\
We bought a paper, jumped in a taxi and rode home in silence.
So, that's pretty much the story of the mysterious furniture store fire in downtown Columbus.
The authorities never figured out what started the blaze, but they came close. They speculated that it might have been caused by faulty wiring, or the late afternoon sun.
Close, but close only counts in horseshoes.
Maybe some good came from the fire. Maybe, in its aftermath, they had a big fire sale and made a lot of money.
Who knows? After all, those were depression days.
The above events happened when I was barely eight years old. But I remember them as vividly as if they had happened yesterday.
And, I wouldn't be telling this little story if my brother was still alive.
I wouldn't have dared.
8 Beating the Great Depression
The Great Depression didn't scare my plucky mother one bit. Once we moved up to the University District, she set about renting our spare rooms to students. In the big houses that we usually lived in, that meant as many as two or three rooms rented out, maybe more if the house had a finished third.
From my point of view, it was pretty exciting having all these strangers come and go. Most of them were undergraduates, but occasionally we would get somebody working on a Masters or a Ph.D. Mostly they were men, but every once in a while a woman would settle into a room. And, of course, if she was pretty, I would fall in love with her, although I probably would have fainted if she had asked me what time it was because I was so bashful.
We even had professors, mostly quiet intellectual types, but I do remember a couple of oddballs, including one who drank too much, so Mother eventually had to ask him to leave.
Until I became old enough to acquire a paper route, I settled for selling packages of seeds door-to-door, and magazines such as Collier's, the Saturday Evening Post, and Ladies' Home Journal.
Evenings we would gather around our faithful Clarion radio and listen to all the bad news about unemployment and World War I veterans selling apples, and the latest measures that President Roosevelt was proposing to combat the bad times.
To tell the truth, the never-ending news of people killing each other around the world made for more exciting listening.
Back in the '30s, Japan was rampaging through China, Italy invaded Ethiopia, and the Spanish Civil War was draining the vitality of that nation - all of this bloodshed over territory and to gain economic advantage, or to put down a rival religion, or to force their own national creed down somebody else's throat. I still have the war scrapbooks that I faithfully kept for many years.
For relief from all this bad news, after dinner we would listen to our favorite shows, the likes of Amos 'n' Andy, The Shadow, Fibber McGee and Molly, and the Green Hornet. And, I dare not forget to mention some of the other great comedians of that era, such as Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Jack Benny, and Joe Penner, to name a few.
I swear my mother must have had Gypsy blood. If she wasn't entirely pleased with one house, we would up and move to another. Maybe live there for a year or two, then move somewhere else.
In such a fashion, we lived in two separate places on Neil Avenue, two on West Tenth Avenue, one on Hunter Street, and two on West Tenth Avenue. Those are the ones I remember.
Off and on, if we had a spare room, my orbiting grandmother, "Da," would live with us for awhile. She was a stern disciplinarian, so I was careful never to get her riled up. I remember one time I must not have been careful enough because she bent my arm behind my back and wrestled me to the ground - all the while chewing me out for whatever it was I had done. Come to think of it, my magazine manager had stopped by to collect and I didn't have quite enough money to pay him in full. Must have spent a little too much for candy that week.
My grandmother was a very superstitious woman. I can remember she and my mother screaming and yelling at each other one time because my mother wanted to start a trip on a Friday. She wanted to take my brother and me up to Chicago to see our paternal grandparents.
"You'll never make it back to Columbus alive!" my grandmother wailed.
"Don't be silly," my mother laughed, "the trains are perfectly safe."
"The children will be killed," Da shot back, "Or kidnapped!"
And so it went, their voices rising by the minute, until they were standing there face to face screaming at each other.
I can't even remember now whether we left that day or not. Chances are we didn't. Chances are my mother gave in to ignorance and superstition just to quiet Da down.
I forget most of my grandmother's other superstitious fears, but I do remember that if you have to return home for something you have forgotten, it's important to sit down before you leave again. It might even help to toss a dash of salt over your shoulder.
Never walk under a ladder, and of course, she would have added that it was just plain common sense not to let a black cat cross your path.
I'll say this for my grandmother though. True to her southern heritage, she was a mighty fine cook, and she passed a lot of that cooking knowledge on to my mother.
Fried apples, a breakfast specialty of hers, were so good they'd make your mouth drool just thinking about them.
9 The Boy Gourmet
Some of my fondest boyhood memories are of my mother's cooking.
Picture this: A platter of spareribs , browned to perfection, the succulent meat so tender it is practically falling off the ribs. On the side, baked sauerkraut, tart and tasty but sweetened with a dash of brown sugar, In a casserole dish, homemade scalloped potatoes, creamy, golden brown and, oh, so good. Another dish was heaped with broccoli, or maybe green beans. For dessert, there would be a thick slice of ripe Honeydew melon.
For Easter dinner we frequently had leg of lam with the traditional mint jelly, and for sides something like a baking dish of scalloped corn and, maybe another dish of candied carrots.
For Thanksgiving there would be a small turkey, basted in its own juices, roasted until succulent and tender. There would be a casserole dish heaped with yams that had been topped with marshmallows and placed under the broiler until melted. Two or three different vegetables, some of them in a cream sauce would round out the menu, not counting the homemade pumpkin pie.
It goes without saying that cornbread would accompany many of these meals.
Looking back on it, I'm still amazed at my mother's ingenuity and creative ability in the kitchen.
Off and on, we would have typical southern dishes, the kind she had grown up with. Some of them were tasty, others I wasn't all that fond of.
Grits, for instance.
I could take them or leave them.
Another was black-eyed peas.
Not bad - if I was starving/
She would usually serve them with a dab of butter on top, but sometimes we had the option of drowning the in syrup.
One of her favorite dishes was scalloped oysters. Not a food I would ordinarily enjoy, but the way she prepared them, they were sensational.
Oh, we had plenty of hamburgers for lunch or dinner, but my mother didn't call them hamburgers. They were "meat patties" consisting of upper round steak custom ground for her by the butcher.
On the other hand, I can never remember much junk food around, not even goodies like doughnuts, or most soft drinks - with the exception of Vernor's Ginger Ale. It goes without saying, there were no alcoholic beverages, After all, remember, it was just my mother, my brother, and me.
Getting back to the meat patties for a minute, if were having them for dinner, they would be accompanied by Idaho baked potatoes, a vegetable, and maybe a salad. There would be plenty of butter for the baked potatoes, and a dash of salt and pepper. Unfortunately, it was before scour cream made its way to Columbus,
Some of the dishes my mother came up with would sometimes prompt another "yuck!" from this sometimes rebellious kid.
Calves liver, for instance. But it would look so delicious, and smell so wonderful, that I would give in and taste it. And after the first taste, well, yes Mom, I'll have some more. Mother would always specify to the butcher that she wanted baby calves liver. For supper, she would fry it either with bacon or sliced onions.
These are the kinds of meals I'm talking about. Memorable. And she would put theme together on a limited budget. Of course, these were depression days and everything was selling at rock-bottom prices. By the same token, money was as scarce as hen's teeth, but she made do.
Mother was a wonder, and I wish I had her back so I could tell her so.
Funny thing, though.
She never mastered the art of Italian cooking.
Spaghetti, for instance.
She cooked her spaghetti in a big pot with all the ingredients thrown in. It was soup.
Not very Italian, but good though!
When we lived in the University District, one of my mother's favorite grocery stores was the King Avenue market. It was located right about where Viking Carryout is today. She especially liked their selection of meat.
There was a Mykrantz Drug Story over where Dragonfly neo-v cuisine is currently located. It had a soda fountain and everything.
Another friendly place where my mother shopped was the Weiss Sisters' Red and White store. It was located on either Hunter or Highland Avenue a couple of blocks south of West Eleventh. And, there was a small Kroger store on the west side of High Street between Ten and Eleventh avenues.
Amazingly, none of these place were self-serve. In other words, a clerk would take your order and fetch everything for you, the possible exception being produce where you could help choose what went into your market basket.
My mother was a very particular shopper and she would keep an eagle-eye on everything she ordered.
Sometimes, when we could afford it, we would eat Sunday dinner at a very nice restaurant at the corner of Tenth and Neil. I think it was called the Campus-Neil. Or, sometimes we would go up on High Street and eat at the Dutch Tavern. No relation to the Dutch Café. And, a lot of times, we would walk over to Pomerine Hall, which overlooked Mirror Lake. They had a cafeteria with good food at affordable prices.
As the old song goes, "Those were the good ol' days," and you can bet your bottom dollar I'll never forget them!
10 Unsung heroines
There were no little leagues when I was growing up, but that didn't stop some kids from forming baseball and touch football teams on their own hook. There was a boy like that in my neighborhood, a real sports organizer. His name was Jimmy Reeder.
Jimmy lived down the street from us, in the 1400 block of Neil Avenue, in a big brick house with his mother, grandmother, and two brothers.
Bob, the oldest, was overweight and always had his nose in a science-fiction magazine. He went to Central High School. Jimmy's youngest brother, Dave, was a skinny little kid, probably about five years old, real likeable but a constant tag-along like most kids his age.
Jimmy was in between, both in age and in physical build. He was one of those fortunate kids whose body was muscular and well-proportioned and everyone - even way back then - knew he was going to be an outstanding athlete as he grew up.
Jimmy was a classmate of mine at the old Ninth Avenue Elementary School, which has long since been torn down. We were both in the same grade, and as long as I knew him he was nuts about sports. He was a big New York Yankee's fan. I rooted for the Chicago Cubs. Don't ask me why, I guess I liked their baseball cards better. Jimmy didn't think much of Joe Louis, but I said he was great. Just to be different, probably.
The Reeders were originally from somewhere in West Virginia. I don't think Jimmy remembered his father any more than I did mine, who died in an accident when I was four years old. His father, an unemployed coal miner, had walked out on his family and left them to survive the best way they knew how. Never looked back. So the family trekked all the way up here to Columbus, the five of them: mother, grandmother, the three kids.
Mrs. Reeder was a teacher at Central High School in downtown Columbus, and to make a little extra money during those lean depression years, she tutored students who came around to her house after school and on weekends. For many years, she also taught a citizenship class at old Central High School.
I remember Mrs. Reeder with a warm spot in my heart because she was always nice to me. She was heavy set with long black hair pulled back into a bun, and her pale face was always as calm and unruffled as the moon in a serene daytime sky. She looked like she might have been part Indian.
Even when there was a lot of rough house stuff going on while the boys were fighting or teasing each other, she always maintained a quiet dignity. I never once remember her raising her voice.
Mrs. Bartlett, the boy's grand-mother, was the sergeant-at-arms of the household. She also did most of the grocery shopping, cooking, laundry for the whole tribe and, of course, house cleaning.
But that's not all. During the winter, she would go down into the basement and shovel coal into the gaping maw of the monster furnace that was lurking there.
I think Bob helped out now and then, but it was mainly through Mrs. Bartlett's courageous and conscientious efforts that the family stayed warm.
My mother used to do the same thing. Unsung heroines they were, those brave and persevering women who were raising children without men around to help.
Mrs. Reeder had converted their dining room table into a makeshift desk for herself and it was piled high with books and papers. She had pushed the table and an accompanying swivel chair into a corner of the room next to a filing cabinet.
It seemed like every time I was over to their house she would be sitting there grading papers. She would always look up, smile at me, and ask how my family was.
I liked her a lot.
The three boys shared one bedroom. Their room was always a total mess and looked like a tornado had gone through it and tossed everything this way and that. There was a double bunk bed and a single bed, little bigger than a cot. The beds, of course, were always unmade.
A card table in the middle of the room usually had blueprints on it for a model airplane. Bits and pieces of balsa wood were cemented together and pinned down on top of the plans in various stages of construction.
Shoes were scattered across the floor, under the beds, in the closet, in corners, sometimes even out in the hall and down the stairs. And clothes! Shirts, sweaters, pants, and various articles of underwear were strewn every which way. It's a wonder they knew who owned what.
Bob's stash of science fiction maga-zines were stacked on top of an old dresser. Comic books and Big Little Books were recklessly thrown into a corner of the room.
Yet, in spite of all the disorder, I really liked that room. To me, it had character. Beyond any doubt, it looked like home base for three all-American boys.
11 Late One Afternoon
As I have said, Jimmy Reeder and his three brothers lived with their mother and grand-mother on Neil Avenue just down the street from my family. Jimmy and I were the same age, and at school, the old Ninth Avenue Elementary, we were in the same class together.
The year I'm writing about was midway between the World Wars and was most noteworthy for being smack dab in the middle of the Great Depression.
I've already written about how even at that early age Jimmy was athletic and sports oriented &endash; and enthusiastic. His brother David, whom I contacted by phone recently, said that Jimmy was "always arranging something, from bicycle races to softball teams, like the one at Ninth Avenue Elementary."
Now I want to tell you about the afternoon Jimmy came over to my house after school, carrying a pair of boxing gloves. He looked at me intently and declared with a grin, "We're going to have ourselves a World Championship Boxing Match!"
As soon as I saw the boxing gloves I was on my guard. At first I feigned indifference to his suggestion, tried to change the subject, but he wasn't about to be dissuaded.
"Come on," he challenged, "Don't be chicken."
"I've never boxed with gloves on before," I protested. "I don't know how to do it."
The gloves were shiny and new, a deep purplish-red color with wicked-looking rawhide laces. I stared at them with an expression equally compounded of reverent awe and unreasoning fear.
"They sure look like the real thing," I blurted out.
"They are the real thing," he laughed. "Come on. Let's go down in the basement and box!"
I was thinking to myself that the gloves were the color of the bruises that were soon going to be inflicted on my body. I didn't want to think about the probable disfigurement to my face.
As we went down the steps to the basement, my mind was racing. How can I get out of this and still save what little honor I have left? There seemed to be no answer.
I can't remember if my brother or mother were home at the time. Probably not, but it was one time I would have gladly welcomed my mother's voice yelling down the stairs that I had some chore to do. Something that would take a couple of hours!
"Why don't we play some catch," I suddenly suggested when we got to the bottom of the stairs.
No way!" He replied as he shoved a pair of gloves into my hands and started slipping his hands into the other pair.
There was no escape. I was trapped. So it was that we dispensed with our shirts, laced each other's gloves on and started sparring.
A bare light bulb dangled from the ceiling. In a shadowy corner, the furnace crouched next to the coal bin.
At ten years old, Jimmy was already a superb athlete for a boy his age. Where I was awkward, he was coordinated, his stance confident, while mine was wobbly. His brown eyes sparkled with this competitive challenge. My eyes had acquired a stupified glaze, something like the eyes of a rabbit staring down the muzzle of a shotgun.
He started jabbing short left and right hooks toward my face. Jab, jab, jab
came the punches. Some thudded into my shoulder, some bounced off my arms, others went whistling past my ears. In response, I was flailing the air, dropping my left, swinging wildly with my right.
I could see the disgust written on Jimmy's face. "You're not doing it right," he panted.
"You've got to hold your gloves up in front of your face." He threw a flurry of punches toward my nose as if to illustrate what he was saying.
"I could kill you if I wanted to," he said matter-of-factly, as I ducked another whirlwind of jabs.
Since I was still alive and hadn't sustained any irreparable damage up to this point, I was gaining an iota of confidence. I decided on a new strategy, one of my own choosing.
I was still following Jimmy's advice about putting my gloves up in front of my face, but about half the time I was still swinging wildly with my right, and I could sense that he was definitely concerned about staying away from those haymakers.
The most important part of my plan was to start dancing around as fast as my feet would take me. I hadn't had my ear glued to the radio for nothing as one contender after another had tried to dethrone Joe Louis.
Fancy footwork was the trick. Some of them moved around so fast the announcer would gleefully shout that he was on a bicycle. So that's what I started to do. Forwards, backwards, to the right and to the left, like a crazy clown on a bike I jiggled around the basement.
I was just beginning to like this boxing game a little bit when Jimmy suddenly announced he had to go home. Gasping for breath and drenched in sweat, we unlaced each other's gloves. By the dour look on
his face, I could tell he was totally disgusted with my antics. I couldn't have cared less. I was still alive.
There's a moral to that little episode, and for many years I never figured out what it was. Now, I think I've stumbled upon it. In the words of Marcus Cato, "I would much rather have men ask why I have no statue than why I have one."
Unbelievably, several years later, I participated in a ten round fight (with gloves) in a makeshift ring, replete with a
bell, handlers, a referee, and a cheering crowd of paid spectators. I will tell you about that later.
As for Jimmy Reeder, he was a true hero. At North High School he played baseball and basketball. He entered the Marine Corp. during World War II right out of high school, served in the South Pacific, and returned with a Bronze Star and Purple Heart. At Ohio State University, where he received his undergraduate degree after the war, he also played baseball and basketball.
While working as a high school teacher in Oberlin after graduating from OSU, Jimmy met his future wife, Elaine Gatz, a fellow teacher. They eventually had two daughters, Becky and Connie.
Always ambitious, Jimmy continued to study, finishing off a Master's degree at Indiana University before too long, later teaching at high schools in Ypsilanti, Michigan and Van Wert, Ohio.
The family settled in California where Jimmy received his doctorate from the University of Southern California. He taught Physical Education and served as head coach at California State University, Los Angeles, for the Golden Eagles baseball team from 1958 until his death in 1971. He compiled a record as the University's "all-time winningest coach," and remained so until John Herbold broke the record on February 10, 2002.
Jimmy died when he was only 47 years old from hepatitis that he had contracted in China during the war.
The baseball field at California State University was named Reeder Field in his honor. A legend in his own time - that was Jimmy Reeder.
12 My Brother David
I suppose I should tell you a few more things about my brother David I hate to admit this, but he has most of the brains in the family. Like in the old saying, it looks like I was behind the door when the brains were passed out. I mean, he's super smart. Not just a photographic memory or anything like that either. He was just about a straight A student all the way through school. Oh, he might have gotten a B once in awhile if he was out sick a lot and, come to think of it, I remember one time he got a C. That C just about destroyed him. Actually, it was mostly our mother's fault. Here's how it happened.
Even when David was in the twelfth grade he had a couple of sneezy-coughy colds and, you guessed it, Mother kept him out of school for about two weeks. Then, as if that wasn't bad enough, she wrote a note to his gym teacher asking him to excuse David from the cross-country running they were supposed to do. That's what did it. He ended up getting a lousy C. I should explain that our mother would keep us both out of school if she even heard us sneeze. It was really amusing. Of course, I loved her for it. Not for me to complain when I could goof off around the house all day
Anyway, David graduated with honors and he won a scholarship to the University of Chicago. I was really proud of him although I guess at the time I just took it for granted the way most people do about anything in their life. If you're a kid and you grow up real poor, you just accept it as part of life. If you're another little kid and you grow up in a filthy rich family, well, you just take that for granted. I guess that's the way it works. So it seemed the most natural thing in the world that my brother was a genius or a near-genius. Tell me if I'm wrong.
Another thing, take the relationship between Daniel and me. There were enough years between us that we really didn't have much in common. You know, what's an eighteen-year-old twelfth grader going to talk about to his twelve-year-old fourth grade little fart brother like I was at the time? Not much, if you want to know the truth. All his friends were his age. His schoolwork was all Greek to me. So there I was just a little punk kid. More like a little shadow. Sometimes he would pick on me, and I would get back at him by doing stupid stuff to annoy him &endash; but nothing serious. Oh, once in a while Mother would scream at us to quiet down.
"You two will be the death of me," she would wail, and most of the time itwould be over practically nothing. Maybe just wrestling around or yelling at each other.
I can remember a couple of times when she really got hysterical, like when Daniel and I had been scuffling around and bumped into a living room table just hard enough that a ceramic bowl flew onto the floor and shattered into a hundred bits. Well, you would of thought somebody had died. Our mother just freaked out.
"I don't know what I've ever done to deserve this!" she screamed. I don't remember any more about what went on after that first moment. Honest. I must have a selective memory or something. It's just not the kind of thing I want to remember.
I've got to say this, though, in defense of my mother. She never swore. There were never any dirty words or profanity used in our house - and that included David and me. It was an unwritten law. And, about that bowl, I guess it was like a family heirloom, handed down over the years for I don't know how long, maybe a hundred years or more. It was sort of a turquoise color and there were three or four brightly colored fish painted on it, and it broke our mother's heart when she saw what had happened.
I don't want you to get the wrong idea because of the story I just told. Most of the time David and I got along fine. He went his way, and I went mine. Different worlds, you know. With him being seven years older than me, there really wasn't a whole lot for us to talk about. Oh, I would ask him questions about what I was studying in school, and things like that, but mostly it was me listening to him talking to our mother. He talked to her a lot, sort of like he was sharing his schoolwork with her or something like that. It was even more than that. For instance, he would be reading a book and he would tell her all about it.
He was into a lot of heavy stuff, philosophy and psychology and subjects like that, and he would explain all these different ideas and theories s to Mother by the hour, and she would pay close attention to everything he was telling her. She would never argue about any of this stuff, which is surprising to me because she was brought up a strict Campbellite. That's a fundamentalist Christian sect. I guess she was just letting him find his own way, you might say, and I think she also respected the fact that he was taking such a deep interest in his studies. I forget most of the authors he was reading, but some of them included Freiedrich Nietzche and Arthur Schopenhauer, so it's little wonder that my brother became an atheist.
13 Off to Chicago
Guess what our mother did after David won his scholarship to the University of Chicago? She sold her house, put all the furniture in storage, packed our bags, and off we went to the Windy City. The three of us. Including me! I guess she didn't trust my brother up there in the big city all by himself. Aw, I'm just kidding. Actually, when you stop and think it through, it was a tremendously brave and selfless act. Total devotion is what it was. How often do you find that in a parent? Well, maybe it was also an unwillingness to let go.
I was just eleven years old the year we live up there in Chicago We moved around a lot after we got there. I swear, our mother must have Gypsy blood in her. We stayed in a couple of motels for a week or two until Mother found a place that suited her.
It turned out to be a townhouse which she rented from a Mrs. Lapham, a retired music teacher, a thin genteel lady who intended to spend a year in Europe.
Our new home was like a time capsule, beautifully furnished, with an aura of Victorian elegance and, to my highly imaginative mind, the very walls seemed to whisper of mysterious secrets. Plush Oriental rugs covered the dark hardwood floors and the heavily draped rooms were crowded with richly upholstered chairs, settees, and credenzas crowded with art objects and mementoes of past travels.
Bookcases with glass paneled doors contained handsomely bound librettos. Rare editions of books, many of them in German, French, and Italian were devoted to operas and symphonies, the lives of composers, and the history of music around the world.
Halfway up the carpeted stairs to the second floor, a south-facing leaded glass window radiated a profusion of multi-colored lights that danced upon the staircase landing. Some of this illumination spilled down the stairs, and at certain times of the day, a beam of light was caught by a ruby crystal dangling from a chandelier in the living room. It shone with a miraculous crimson light , like some distant planet and, then to my utter delight, it would transmit a laser-like beam into a remote and darkened corner of the room. Sometimes, I would gaze at this miniature light show as if I were hypnotized, watch its slow progress across the landscape of an Oriental rug, stare at it intermittently when I wasn't playing or reading; watch the spot of light creep across the brocaded fabric of a chair, then I would come back an hour later, or two hours later, to check on its progress. Sometimes it would ascend the glass door of a bookcase where, amazingly, the light would once again reproduce itself, dividing like an amoeba, finally becoming a faint glow, eerily illuminating the title of a book. Once in a while, I would interdict the beam of light with my hand, where it would shimmer like something alive, wreathed in a diminutive rainbow of colors, like a translucent alien being.
After David had started his classes at the U. of C. and I had been enrolled in a nearby elementary school, I awoke one Saturday morning to the raucous shouting of newsboys hawking an extra edition of the Chicago Tribune. The noise had intruded into my dreams, crowded out the more usual sounds of passing traffic and the incessant chattering of sparrows.
"Wuxtra! Wuxtra! Gangland mobster slain!" The strident voices came ever closer. "Read all about it! Mobster killed on 63rd Street!" Their outcry was urgent, the words explosive, like sticks of dynamite being tossed along the street, totally unlike the melodious "Sunday morning Tribune" that I loved to hear them sing-song on the Sabbath.
Somehow, for a while, the outer world intruded into my dreams. Suddenly I was running down the street, a black touring car following close behind me. Thompson sub-machine guns were poking out the windows. Rat-a-tat-tat, rat-a-tat-tat the wicked looking guns stuttered and bullet-shattered chips of pavement bit into my legs. My blood, hot and sticky, trickled down my legs and my blood-soaked shoes were going swoosh, swoosh, swoosh, slowing my escape, as I ran so fast I feared my lungs would burst.
Desperately I zigzagged, looking over my shoulder at the gangster's car looming ever closer. Suddenly, up ahead, I saw salvation. An open bed truck was chugging slowly up the street away from me. Faster than ever my feet flew, bullets ricocheting all around me. Then, I made a desperate lunge and landed on the back step of the truck.
Lo and Behold! The truck was full of marbles, untold thousands of them, so I scooped up a handful of them and chucked them at the sinister touring car. Wow! In midair, the marbles became hand grenades . Whomph! Blaam! Kaboom! The first one to hit the car disintegrated the grillwork. Another exploded under the motor, lifted the front end up, splayed the wheels outward. The one that really did the trick took out the windshield which, in slow motion, suddenly looked like a giant spider web being ripped asunder.
Momentarily, I glimpsed the surprised and terrified faces of the gangsters. There were two in the front seat, three in back, dark fedoras pulled down low over their foreheads. I lobbed another marble. It landed in the front seat. In the lap of the driver.
Baarroom! The roof of the car went sailing over the Chicago skyline. Body parts were flying in all directions, over the Loop, over the University of Chicago, over Jackson Park, over Lake Michigan, over Wisconsin and Indiana.
I opened my eyes. There was no ice truck, no gangstah car. A whole world had evaporated. I heard Davidout in front of the house talking to a newsboy as he bought a Tribune. As soon as the brief transaction was over, the raucous voice moved on down the street: "Wuxtra! Wuxtrz! Gang slaying! Read all about it!"
14 All that Sixty-third Street Jazz
I put my clothes on as fast as I could and rushed downstairs. Mother and Daniel were reading the paper at the kitchen table. The big headlines, black as a gangster's heart, screamed across the top of the page.
"Oh, my goodness," my mother gasped, "It happened right over on 63rd Street."
"Yes," my brother said, "but look at the address. That's way over toward Jackson Park."
All that my ears heard was that the killing happened on 63rd Street. That was just a few blocks from where we lived. Over a bowl of oatmeal and a glass of milk, I read the grisly details after my mother and brother were through with the paper. The victim had been drinking in a bar. According to witnesses, a car with two or three men in it had pulled up out in front, opened fire with a sub-machine gun, then sped away. The police speculated that the killing involved a feud between two warring gangs.
By the time I had read the story over several times, Daniel had gone to a Saturday morning class and Mother had gone shopping for groceries. Right away I knew what I had to do. I had to see for myself where this minion of the underworld had been bumped off while he was sipping a beer. I slipped out of the house, and started walking.
Sixty-third street ran east and west, extending from Stony Island Boulevard at Jackson Park, along the lake, and continued eastward for miles, past Cottage Grove, Halstead, Western, Cicero, and beyond. Elevated tracks ran above the street from
Stony Island to South Park, where they turned northward toward downtown and the Loop. The tracks and all the supporting superstructure of steel beams and pillars of iron, trusses and braces, cast a mantle of abstract shadows over the street. Every few blocks, enclosed wooden stairways ascended to station platforms which straddled the tracks. The street intersections beneath these structures existed in an eternal cycle of nighttime darkness and daytime twilight, broken only by the blink of traffic lights and the glare of neon signs marking various retail establishments.
Once I had gained 63rd Street, I started walking west. I had the address of the saloon firmly in mind, and I was aware that I had a long way to go. Undaunted, I struck out down the street, hands in pockets, shoulders sort of hunched up, keeping as low a profile as I could. When you're just eleven years old, walking by yourself in Chicago, on a crowded street like 63rd, you don't want to attract any more attention than you have to. I was also walking pretty fast. Not so fast that I would attract attention, but pretty fast.
I had been on 63rd lots of times with Mother and Daniel and on all those occasions I had taken in the sights, getting out of the way of people, looking in the windows of the stores, things like that. Now I was on my own and if I a policeman or a gangster, for that matter, had come up behind me and said "Boo!" I would have had a heart attack.
There were a lot of sleazy bars and taverns along the street, and if I passed one that had its doors open, I would hold my breath so I wouldn't have to smell the stale odors of beer and booze. I would also hold my breath when I passed painted up women with a lot of perfume on.
After a few blocks, I became a little more confident and I started slowing down, paying more attention to the crowds of people passing by, the constant stream of cars and taxicabs out in the street, the elevated trains that went roaring and rattling overhead every few minutes, and the many storefronts, on both sides of the street.
I remember looking through the plate glass window of a bakery and drooling at the sight of all the cheesecakes, cookies, sweet rolls, and the freshly-baked loaves of bread. In addition to the bars, there were liquor and wine stores, and all kinds of delis, little restaurants, and grocery stores. One of the grocery stores had big cans of olive oil in its windows, and strings of garlic and red peppers.
There seemed to be some kind of a delicatessen on every block. Some of them had baked hams, sausages and salamis hanging over their meat counters. Some stores had fruit and vegetables piled on tables out on the sidewalk. There were bell peppers bigger than a man's fist, huge white onions, red onions, brown onions, spring onions, cabbages, eggplants, tomatoes, cucumbers, bushel baskets of green beans and lima beans, musk melons from Indiana, and humongous watermelons. I knew the names of almost everything I saw from going grocery shopping so many times with my mother.
In lots of places, boxes and crate were stacked along the sidewalk. Brown-skinned men with bulging muscles were unloading trucks parked at the curb. Dark-eyed women with quick eyes and nimble fingers thumped the melons, and squeezed the heads of lettuce before buying them. There was a constant babble of voices in many languages that was barely drowned out each time a train went rumbling overhead.
Doggedly I kept walking, slipping unobtrusively through the throngs of people, stopping now and then to watch some small drama unfold. A dark haired woman, her bra straps hanging over he beefy arms, traded insults with a sidewalk produce merchant.
"I have to shuck back the husks to see if the corn is any good!" she shouted at him.
"Lady, you're crazy!" he shouted back, "you're ruining all my corn!"
"Hey!" she shot back, "You're lucky I'm buying a dozen ears!"
"Already you've shucked three dozen ears!" he yelled. "You're ruining me! Go buy your corn someplace else!"
"I've got my rights," she answered angrily. "It's in the Constitution!"
"All my corn is good," he wailed, "you don't have to shuck 'em all!"
"Good for cows!" she yelled back. "You can thank tour lucky stars I'm finding a few good ones!"
She continued her shucking as if the man had never admonished her. "There! I've finally got a dozen! Do you want to count 'em?"
"Hell no," he said, taking her money. "Goodby! Don't ever come back!"
"Don't worry, I won't!" she shouted over her shoulder as she walked away, a triumphant smile all over her broad face.
15 The Scene of the Crime
I moved on, past a movie house and its colorful posters, then the whirring flywheels and buffers of a shore repair shop, then the cluttered and cloistered dimness of a tailor shop, and ever more stores of every description: barber shops with candy-stripped poles out front, musty used book stores, used furniture stores, a fish market, a butcher shop, more bars and restaurants, drug stores, a hardware store, and a lot of others I didn't know what they were.
At the fish market, I paused to look through the sweating window at the rows of button-eyed silvery fish laid out on the blood-speckled crushed ice. Inside the store, there was sawdust on the floor and a couple of scales dangling over the counter. Suddenly, the window shivered and shook from the vibrations of a passing elevated train and, for a brief second, the fish seemed to come alive, miraculously wiggling and swimming about, before my astonished eyes. Then, just as suddenly, they were dead again, laid out in neat rows, gaping at me with unseeing vacuous eyes.
After almost an hour of walking, the street scene seemed to be getting even seedier. Lots of used clothing stores, hole-in-the-wall missions, pawnshops, and empty storefronts. Where earlier there had been doctors and lawyers offices and those kinds of things over the stores, now there were tenement rooms, clothes strung out to dry on fire escapes, pale faces peering out through dirty windows from dark interiors.
At last, I came to the block where I figured the shooting took place. The sidewalks were littered with trash and there were empty wine and whiskey bottles in some of the doorways. There weren't enough many people around to suit me. The crowds had long since disappeared, now there was just a bum or wino here and there, asleep or unconscious (it was hard to tell which) slumped in empty store doorways and, only once in a while, an occasional passerby scurrying along. To tell you the truth, I was beginning to get scared.
The traffic on the street had dwindled too, but a passing police car gave me a sense of safety. The cop in the car gave me a casual glance as he drove by. Another elevated was rattling overhead and the noise seemed louder now that the street was almost deserted. I spotted the bar I was looking for across the street and I could feel my heart thumping in my chest.
I went down to the corner and crossed with the light, then made my way back to the bar, which had been closed and padlocked. One section of the window near the door had been broken out, leaving jagged shards of glass that looked to my incredulous eyes like sinister shark's teeth. A larger center section of the window was largely intact and, there in hand-painted letters, was the name of the place: Nick's Bar and Grill. In one corner of the window was a fly-specked poster touting a policeman's ball. Then, I noticed the bullet holes. Like drunken stitching, they ran in a zigzag line across a large metal sign advertising some kind of beer and continued across a Coca Cola sign, then chiseled out splinters of wood on the door frame, and ended up in a nondescript trail across a brick wall in the entryway.
Cautiously, I stuck a finger in one of the holes in the Coca Cola sign. Then another, and another, until I had touched all within reach. Finally, I peered through the window; then took a longer and closer look through the pane of glass in the door which had escaped the hail of bullets. A long bar extended the length of the narrow room. Chairs were piled on top of tables and there, not twenty feet from the door, blood-stained newspapers and racing forms were strewn about on top of the bar and others, even more saturated with blood, were scattered on the floor. Along one inverted fold of a blood-soaked newspaper, I saw a rivulet of partially congealed blood, dark red, almost black. I shuddered at the thought that only hours before a man's dying body had been sprawled right there in front of me.
16 The Dark Side
"Too bad about that!"
I jumped at the sound of these words spoken right behind me. I turned around to behold a bearded and shabbily dressed figure, a stoical look on his grizzled face.
Before I could even think of anything to say, he continued, "It's a wonder they didn't kill a bunch of others while they were at it, including me." A wracking cough interrupted his speech and he pulled a red bandanna from a pocket, sniffled into it and, then with a louder snort, blew his nose.
"There was probably a dozen or more people in there, y'know, what with it being Friday afternoon and everything. " He pulled out a cigarette, lit it, took a couple of puffs, coughed, then continued. "He was a fool for sitting that close to the front of the place."
I kept nodding my head in agreement with everything he said. So far I hadn't uttered a word. The truth is, I was scared to death.
"The papers said it was a mob killing, but that's about as far from the truth as Sacramento is from Chicago, the man said, coughing again. Then, he looked right at me. "What's the matter, boy? A cat got your tongue?" He laughed, and that made him start coughing again.
"No, I was just looking," I answered him. "It's sure a mess in there."
"It's a mess alright, he said grinning, and for the first time I noticed his teeth. About half of them were missing, and the ones remaining were yellow as kernels of corn.
"Well, what was the reason?" I mean, who killed him and why did they do it?" I asked him, and I walked around him to the middle of the sidewalk. I was feeling more self-confident now and I didn't have that trapped feeling like when I was in the doorway.
"What was the reason?" he repeated after me and laughed, then took a last drag on what was left of his cigarette and flipped it into the street. "The real reason, my boy, the man committed two cardinal sins. First of all, he was a rat fink. Do'ya know what that means, boy?"
"I'm not sure," I stuttered, "but I think I know."
"Well, for your enlightenment, it means he talked too much. He ratted on his friends. He was a stool pigeon." He paused for a moment and seemed to be weighing the effect of his words one me, then he went on. "I knew him. His name was Tony. I never knowed what his last name was though, and I 'spect I don't ever care to know. He was just Tony to me and I'll tell you I've drunk my share of beer and whiskey with him. Right in there, among other cozy places." He wiped a soiled khaki sleeve across his mouth, and a new steely glint appeared in his eyes.
"You said there were two reason," I said, feeling bold.
""That I did," the man replied, and I'm glad you reminded me of it. The other reason was Tony didn't pay off his debts. The man looked at me and his eyes crinkled , light blue, speculative. "Everybody has debts in this world, my boy," he chuckled. "Everybody owes. Ain't nobody don't. Tony didn't pay off his debts and you can see where it got him."
"I guess you're right," I agreed, as if I knew what he was talking about.
"Before you go, boy, could you spare me a a little loose change? I got myself a couple pf quarters and maybe some dimes and nickels. I just need a bit more to feel comfortable."
I searched my pants pockets and pulled out a small handful of change. "Here, you can have this quarter," I said, giving it to him.
"Bless you, my boy. And, remember, always pay your debts. Then he was gone, quick as a shadow, disappearing down the street.
All the way home, I whistled some tunes that I had heard on the radio or television, or learned at school at one time or another. Tunes like Red Sails in the Sunset, These Foolish Things, and Mac the Knife. Maybe even Billy Boy. Remember how that goes? Billy Boy, Billy Boy, where have you been, darling Billy? I learned that way back in school. Probably in the first grade. When I can't think of anything else to whistle, it's a good standby.
Those were the kind of tunes I was whistling. Nothing like David can do. You might find this hard to believe, but he can whistle whole symphonies, note by note - well, practically. It's really uncanny.
So, anyway, I whistling all the way home. You would of thought I was deliriously happy, if you hadn't known better. When those old El's were clattering overhead, I whistled louder. Past the fish market, the delis, the produce stalls, and all the people milling around on the sidewalks, I whistled my way past all of them and never stopped once, even when I went by a couple of fancy women.
17 The Yummy Man
The Talmud is an ancient Hebrew book of civil and religious laws and precepts of wisdom. It is written there that we see things not as they are, but as we are.
Perhaps it is also written in that book that the basic tenets of life don't change much from one generation to another. The more things change, the more they stay the same. At least, that would be my guess.
When I was ten or eleven years old, during the warm weather months, there was a Yummy Man who cruised through our neighborhood every after- noon. For those of you who might have difficulty figuring out what a Yummy man was, I'll explain.
A Yummy man was a kind of Good Humor man, a peddler of ice cream treats and frozen confections. His vehicle was a large tricycle. The seat upon which he perched was behind a large insulated box and a handlebar with bells arranged along its length.
The insulated box had a hatch door in the top which gave the Yummy Man access to all the goodies inside: Pop- sicles, Fudgsicles, Drumsticks, Cream- sicles and, of course, plain old ice cream bars.
But we kids were in on a secret that the average person - especially our parents - had no inkling of. A secret not about cold treats but sizzling hot ones, creations to excite the minds and imaginations of pre-pubescent boys.
Snuggled down there amidst all those goodies was a brown paper sack which was full of dirty cartoon books. Pardon me, what I mean to say is that they were sexy cartoon books. Little 10- or 12- page jobs, stapled together, about five inches wide and three inches tall.
Depicted across those scanty pages were graphic sexual episodes involving plagiarized cartoon characters. Popular characters, such as Maggie and Jigs, Dick Tracy (and Tess), and Blondie and Dagwood. Comic strip people like that.
The plots were as minuscule as the men's endowments were unbelievably large. Capable either of giving young boys painful inferiority complexes or, more hopefully, a sensational and exciting new world to look forward to.
Price of the cartoon books? Two-bits. Twenty-five cents. That was when a quarter was a substantial piece of change and not to be thrown around indiscriminately by a twelve-year-old boy. By comparison, an ice cream bar or Popsicle was a nickel.
So you can see, we're talking sizable money here. Maybe the day's profits from a paper route.
Here lately as we close out the century, with alleged sexual affairs in the news, I've wondered about the paradoxical nature of our society. It's very confusing, isn't it? Mixed signals and all the rest.
If I'm not mistaken, none of us would be here without sex. To call it dirty is, in effect, to call ourselves dirty. That is an abomination and exhibits an astonishing degree of self-effacement, hypocrisy, or both.
And to think it shouldn't be enjoyable is another lie. I would guess in all the world of nature the act of sex is enjoyable - and everything from the paramecium up knows it. Otherwise it wouldn't be such a universally popular pastime. And without it, there wouldn't be much of anything here. Living stuff, that is.
Anyhow, as I said at the onset, it all depends on how you look at something. We see things not as they are, says the Talmud, but as we are.
This is the way I see them. When I look back on those good ol' days, I like to think we might have been the only boys in the whole world who got you-know-whats when we heard the sound of bells.
18 The Great Boxing Match
I forget the exact year of the famous grudge fight between Jimmy McVicker and me, but it was during the Great Depression, about the time Joe Louis attained his fame as heavyweight champion of the world and every time you turned on the radio you would hear Adolf Hitler screaming his guts out about one thing or another. FDR was in the White House, that man, my grandmother called him, and it was probably about the time Amelia Earhart disappeared.
I forget what the grudge was about, but we decided to settle it with gloves on, so it must have been something serious. Jimmy and I published compet-ing neighborhood newspapers. Can you believe that? Jimmy passed away a long time ago, but I'm still in the same old rat race! Our papers were printed on hektographs. A hektograph, was a pan of hard jelly upon which a master print was rubbed and from that forty or fifty copies could be made when pressed down on the imprinted jelly.
Anyhow, we decided to stage the fight in my backyard on the coming Saturday night. I forget how we arrived at that decision because being only 12 or 13 years old we certainly didn't have any lawyers or handlers or managers like Don King, or anything like that. But that's what we decided to do. My backyard was to become Madison Square Garden for a night. And mercenary kids that we were, we sold tickets to the match.
Let me give you a little background information. It was when my widowed mother, Lucille, my older brother, David, and I lived for a couple of years in one of the apartments at the corner of Eleventh and Neil Avenues. There were stores on the ground level, as there are today. Back then there was an ice cream store and a florist's shop owned by Mr. McCormick. Next door was the old Varsity Drug Store owned by kindly, white-haired Mr. Cummins and his family. Underneath it was a shoe-repair shop.
Behind the apartment, facing Eleventh Avenue was the backyard, small but soon to become famous, and next to it was the Palm Grill, a bar and restaurant frequented by medical and dental students, still there under a different name. The establishment, back when I was a kid, was owned by Mr. Warren, a beer-bellied, beetle-browed man, whose jaws quivered when he talked, and who would later sell out and become a dentist in Warren, Ohio, which I always thought was neat.
Earlier that summer, Mr. Warren built a hot dog and popcorn concession stand out in front of his place. "Would you like to work there evenings?" he asked me. "Yes!" I answered without batting an eye, recognizing that this might be the perfect job for a kid my age! Not much money, but plenty of benefits, i.e., good hours, a chance to shoot the breeze with pretty coeds, and quite possibly an endless supply of hot dogs, popcorn, chewing gum, candy bars, and soft drinks for me and my friends. Thinking ahead, I arranged for a buddy, Rex Blair, to run the concession stand the night of the fight. As for Mr. Warren, he was jubilant when he heard about the upcoming attraction. He expected to do a lot of extra business, both in the bar and at the concession stand.
In the days before the fight there was a lot of work to do. There were folding chairs and benches to be scrounged and the ring itself to be constructed. And a bell. Oh, my Gawd, yes, we had to have a bell! And a referee to go with the bell. And a timekeeper. And tickets to be printed up on one of our hektographs, and then they had to be sold. As it turned out, they went like the proverbial hotcakes. We had a hot product!
The upcoming fight had become the talk of the neighborhood and half the campus, and as a consequence my mother was becoming a basketcase. Evidently, she was convinced that I was going to be killed, or seriously disfigured, or horribly maimed. My jittery grandmother, who also took roomers (and was famous for evicting students and professors because of their drinking habits), did her part in sowing these terrible doubts in my mother's poor unravelling mind. "Your son is a frail boy, Lucille, you better stop this tragedy before something awful happens," she would say.
I was beginning to have a few doubts about the whole business myself. For one thing, Mr. Warren had asked me to come into the Palm Garden one afternoon and sit down at a booth with him. Then, with a mournful look on his face, he asked me if I was in training. "In what?" I asked back. "In training," he said, "like working out with a sparring partner, running to build up your endurance, that kind of stuff."
I stared at him in disbelief. "Naw, nothing like that," I replied. "Well, I got my Dispatch route and I did run about ten blocks the other day when some bully was chasing me." Mr. Warren just stared at me with sad eyes. "Did you know people are making bets on the fight?" he asked. "Are you kidding?" I replied. "They're making bets on the fight between Jimmy and me?"
"You heard it right," Mr. Warren said, "and they're making odds." "Oh, yeah?" I shrugged. Like what's that mean?" "That means they're betting three to one that your opponent's going to win, mostly because he weighs 50 or 60 pounds more than you do."
I couldn't believe my ears, but I could perceive that my knees were acting funny when I got up from the booth. They felt like they might fold up like a pair of accordians.
19 Pre-Fight Blues
I was a Depression Kid, then a World War II kid, and now I'm on the verge of becoming a Millennium kid. I'm really not too sure where I fit in. I guess I'm a conglomerate, a little bit of this, a little bit of that. A wandering minstrel, a gypsy of sorts, trekking through the years. But, as they say, variety is the spice of life, and that's fine with me.
There were highlights sprinkled through my career, one of which was the Great Boxing Match at Eleventh and Neil Avenues many years ago when I was only 12 years old, an event I look back on with unbridled joy.
In the days before the fight, my mother worried herself to a frazzle about my getting maimed, or maybe murdered. "Your face might get battered to a pulp," she said, fearfully, on the verge of tears. "I might not even be able to recognize you after it's over!" She said this in a resigned tone of voice usually reserved for those who are deceased and on their way to the undertaker. Mother was aided and abetted in these fears by my orbiting grandmother, a sternly religious, deeply superstitious woman who followed us around, renting rooms nearby, or sometimes actually moving in with us.
Mother, I should explain, was a person who became easily excited and was easy prey to grandmother's terrible fears. "You've got to stop that fight, Lucille," grandmother would say. "Tom could get his eye put out or his brain damaged. I've heard of such things happening." Mother would drink up every word of this admonishment, then magnify the dreadful illusion in her own overwrought mind.
In the manner of young girls brought up in Nashville at the turn of the century, mother's childhood training had been severely Victorian. She never cussed and I never heard her tell a smutty joke, or even listen to one if she could help it. She did have a sense of humor, but it was as elusive and hard to find as a lost button. It became more apparent later in life when we would gossip about her neighbors, or small-talk about something in the news.
For instance, my brother, David, and I used to kid her about all the things she would return to her neighborhood grocery store. She almost never went to the store but that she was taking something back. When they saw her coming, clutching the customary paper sack, manager and assistant manager would pick up their coats and run out the back door. That left only one of the office girls to confront mother when she pushed the crumpled bag onto the counter. When asked what she was returning, mother would open up the sack and, like as not, pull out a pair of rumpled nylon hose, or a head of lettuce, or a loaf of bread she deemed stale, or a carton of milk that didn't smell right, or some lamb chops that didn't measure up to her standards of tenderness. When asked what was wrong with the lettuce, for instance, mother would say with a little toss of her head, "I just don't like the looks of it." This is remarkable in itself, because when buying lettuce she would squeeze every head of lettuce within reach in search of the perfect head.
Sometimes when recalling these episodes, mother would blush like a schoolgirl and put her hand over her mouth trying to stifle the giggles. David would pat her on the back and declare, "Mother is the ultimate consumer."
But getting back to my story, I should repeat that the upcoming fight was no laughing matter to my mother or my grandmother. Interestingly enough, it was something entirely unexpected in their lives, and it left them curiously ineffective in their control of me.
Looking back on the whole affair, I'll have to admit that things didn't look any too promising. Jimmy outweighed me by 50 or 60 pounds at least, maybe more. Psychologically, he had the edge because his mother and father owned their house, whereas we just rented an apartment, and I didn't even have a father who was alive. Finding out that people were betting against me was another crushing blow to my morale.
In the meantime, on the positive side, it slowly dawned on me that in my new role as a pugilist I was becoming something of a hero. For instance, the long-legged, red-haired girlfriend of the university astronomy professor who walked Canis Major, her tawny-colored Great Dane up and down Neil Avenue all the time, smiled at me one day. This was unusual because usually I was trying to keep my distance in view of the fact that Canis Major didn't like kids. On the day I speak of, however, Canis Major was on a tight leash and the starry-eyed girl gave me a big smile and said, "You're one of the fighters, aren't you?" She breathed this in a sultry tone that made me blush and almost melted my belt buckle.
20 The Big Day
The big day finally arrived. When I awoke that morning I realized that within a matter of hours I might be savoring the sweet smell of success - or, more likely, tasting my own blood.
Summer days were getting shorter and the fight night was fast approaching. As the date of the big event approached, my apprehensions increased, although I must say that these fears were mixed with a certain degree of elation - call it martyrdom, for lack of a better word.
So it was, in spite of the dire predictions as to the outcome of the boxing match, my confidence was slowly building. The warm greeting of the astronomer's girlfriend had been reassuring, and a couple of my buddies, mostly guys that hung around the hot dog stand at night looking for handouts, those guys, they would scoff at the suggestion that I might get the tar beat out of me, or maybe suffer severe brain damage at the hands of Jimmy McVicker, who weighed a good 60 or 70 pounds more than I did. "Go in there and punish him," my pals would say. "You can do it if you make up your mind to do it. Smack him in the face, then punch him in the belly!" I actually began to believe them, even though I could see through their little charade. They were buttering me up to get me in a mellow give-away mood so they might benefit from some free popcorn, a bottle of soda pop, or, best of all, a hot dog smeared over with mustard, ketchup, and diced onions. That was the nice thing about my evening job. Even though I was only twelve years old, I was beginning to experience the heady feeling of power. Now if I could only translate that power into the ring. Do that one-two combination, a left to the face, then swoooosh, a hard right to the beefy mid-section. The more I thought about it, the more I believed I could win.
The big day finally arrived. When I awoke that morning I realized that within a matter of hours I might be savoring the sweet smell of success - or, more likely, tasting my own blood. Nevertheless, it was an exhilarating feeling and already the adrenaline was beginning to flow in torrents. By pre-arrangement, actually in a telephone call a few days earlier, Jimmy and I had agreed to get together during the afternoon to construct the ring, collect all the chairs we could scrounge from friends and neighbors, and do anything else that needed taking care of. Mr. Warren donated four sturdy wooden sticks that would make satisfactory posts for the ring and I had a bunch of clothesline for the ropes.
The afternoon dragged by, and no Jimmy. I waited for a long time, all the while my patience wearing thinner and thinner. Still no Jimmy. Finally, I set about constructing the ring without anyone's help. I dug four holes, pounded the posts in even deeper, tamped the dirt down as tight as I could. Next I figured out a way to string two loops of clothesline from one pole to the next, a complicated and frustrating business during which I nearly hanged myself. To say that I was angry would be missing the point. For one thing, my opponent's absence caused me to wonder whether or not he was even going to show up for the fight at 8 pm. For another, I had two or three blisters on my hands from all the pounding I had been doing constructing the ring.
Yeah, I guess I was mad. Angry would be more like it. Pissed off, closer yet. I was ready to kick butt. Even though I probably didn't recognize it at the time, the killer instinct was taking over. I was visualizing the fight before it even took place, imagining what I was going to do to Jimmy. The grudge fight was escalating into a lynching mentality as far as I was concerned.
Finally I left the scene of the upcoming brawl, went home, took a bath, and ate supper. My tight-lipped mother, my orbiting grandmother, and my brother David (older by seven years and living on a far loftier plane than I was) sat around the table in silence. I found it hard to believe that not a word was being said about the upcoming fight. It was as if they didn't even know about it, didn't know that they were living right on the cusp of this historical event, that it was going to occur within a matter of an hour or two, right in their backyard, and that I figured in it as a major player, their son, grandson, brother. Since they had failed to scare me out of it, now they set about ignoring it completely. I wondered what my father would have said.
Looking out in the backyard, I could see there were people gathering already, half a dozen or more, probably university students, laughing and joking, some of them drinking beer. Probably lusting for the sight of blood, I thought, then on second thought hoped it wouldn't be mine. By a quarter 'til eight, a couple of smaller kids were collecting tickets, the college boys who were going to be referee and timekeeper had shown up, and the backyard was crowded with spectators.
What happened next verges on the incredible. Jimmy McVicker, the guy I'm supposed to fight in this grudge match, the Jimmy McVicker who didn't show up to help, that Jimmy McVicker shows up with a couple of older kids, high school boys I suppose, and announces that they are his handlers. His handlers! I wasn't even sure what a handler was, but when I began to get the picture, I started seeing double. Handlers? With handlers, who knew what might happen. I just hoped any spilled blood wasn't going to be mine because the thought suddenly crossed my mind, that with the help of these mysterious handlers, I might not live to see another day.
21 A Lesson Learned
I became possessed. Pow! Another one to the kisser. Then a rapid tatttoo of short hard jabs to the flab. I was becoming a killer.
Fight night had arrived and ticket holders (and some gate crashers) jammed into the tiny backyard arena. Bright lights lit up the ring. A sense of high anticipation filled the air. You could see it in the eyes of the crowd, hear it in their laughter, feel it in their movement. It was Mardi Gras carnival-time, a carnivorous time, and all the while a little voice in the back of my 12-year-old head was saying, maybe it's sacrifice time, and maybe I'm the sacrificial lamb. Next door, Mr. Warren's Palm Grill was doing a land office business.
But a peculiar thing was happening. The rush of events seemed to flow and eddy around me, leaving me untouched. So it was that I suddenly found myself in the ring, sitting on an apple crate in one corner. Someone, I don't remember who, laced a pair of boxing gloves onto my hands, and the stark realization overwhelmed me that this was for real. There was no getting out of this baby now, this was way, way beyond the talking stage. This was it.
There was the clamor of the bell, and I found myself standing in the middle of the ring. The college student referee announced to the crowd in a loud voice that this was the fight of the century and that it would last for ten rounds or until one or the other of the contestants was declared a winner. My stomach turned. The referee mumbled some words about not hitting below the belt and may the best man win, then told us to touch gloves and come out fighting. My stomach turned completely over.
Boooonnng! The bell rang and Jimmy and I advanced on each other, our boxing gloves held high in front of us. All of a sudden, Jimmy charged at me, swinging his right hand in a wild roundhouse kind of lunge which missed me by a mile. But, whoa! What's this? His whole mid-section was wide open and I jabbed him with a hard left to the gut. I heard him go ooooff! before I poked him in the face with my right hand. Blood squirted from his bruised nose and a dazed expression and look of dismay had replaced the smile on Jimmy's face. The referee stopped the fight and helped Jimmy over to his corner of the ring. There his handlers repaired the damage to his nose and wiped the blood from his sweating body. After nodding, when asked if he wanted to continue the fight, he got to his feet and shuffled out to the middle of the ring again, more cautiously this time. Nothing much happened the rest of that round or, as far as that goes, in round two. We just circled around each other, mostly jabbing at thin air.
About half-way through round three, Jimmy swung at me again with one of those roundhouse haymakers. Again he missed by a mile, but it gave me the opportunity to pepper him with a staccato series of short left and right jabs. By now my confidence was such that visions of Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey, and Gene Tunney were dancing through my mind. Deliberately, I feinted with a left, then smushed his face again, this time up around his right eye, which subsequently turned a beautiful deep purple color, like a late evening sunset.
I guess you could say that at this point, I became possessed. Pow! Another one to the kisser. Then a rapid tattoo of short hard jabs to the flab. I was becoming a killer. What's more, I was enjoying it. By now, Jimmy was a mess. His nose was bleeding again, he was panting like he'd been running up hill for an hour, and, suddenly it was all over. The referee stopped the fight and lifted one of my arms over my head. "The winner and new champion of West Eleventh Avenue," he yelled.
Well, that was about it. I didn't dance around making a fool of myself. What's more, people didn't act like that back then. They behaved in a more gentlemanly, decorous manner, which I tried to emulate. But, beyond that, I felt sorry for Jimmy. He was overweight, and toward the end there he didn't know what day of the week it was. Later in life, he went on to graduate from the old University High School and married a neighborhood gal, Pat Rundio, a classmate of mine. The last time I ever saw Jimmy was one evening when I ran into him at the Del Rio, a bar and restaurant that was located near the corner of West Fifth Avenue and Northwest Boulevard. Not long after that, I heard that he had died.
Anyhow, after the fight most of the college guys headed for the Palm Grill next door. Before I went home, I peeked through a window into the barroom. There was Jimmy slumped in a booth surrounded by his handlers. Mr. Warren had solicitously brought him a bowl of hot milk with a pat of butter floating in it, and a basket of crackers.
Well, all of that was OK, I consoled myself as I tried to figure out what I'd gotten out of the whole affair. Nothing that I could see. No trophy. No purse. No hot milk. No nothing. I went home to find my mother in a state, my brother out with his friends, and my orbiting grandmother barricaded in her bedroom. It was a lesson I was to remember all my life. The winner doesn't always win.
22 "One grand sweet song . . ." Be good sweet grads, and let who will be clever; Do noble things, not dream them all day long; And so make life, death and that vast forever One grand sweet song . . . - 9A Home Room Teachers, 1939
When I was a kid, the University District and the Short North were the areas where I hung out. For most of my teen years, my family lived on West Eleventh Avenue. My widowed mother Lucille was the courageous breadwinner, my older brother David and I tried to help with part-time jobs, and sometimes my orbiting grandmother "Da" lived with us and probably contributed to the family pot.
I used to like High Street with its many stores of all descriptions and its assortment of eating places. To illustrate the variety of businesses, just between West Eleventh and Tenth Avenues, there was a hardware store, a dry goods store, a Chinese laundry, a hamburger joint, a little Kroger's (where you had to be waited on by a clerk), a bank, and a few other places I've forgotten. The drugstore was Berry's, a place I found myself in almost daily because of their soda fountain, a nice assortment of pulp magazines, and their kid-friendly atmosphere. Fountain cokes were a nickel and sundaes and sodas were ten cents.
Across the street, on the southwest corner of Tenth Avenue and High, there was a nondescript bowling alley. Long gone now; I think destroyed by a fire.
Some fairly famous folks sprang from those streets and avenues of the University District and the area that would later be called the Short North. Hollywood lovely Jean Peters once trod the sidewalks around the campus when she lived at OSU's Baker Hall. She's the gal who won a beauty contest, went to Hollywood for a screen test, met Howard Hughes, and made her way to fame and fortune. Maybe I actually saw her one time or another going across campus, or maybe at Hennick's, the popular, upscale, lunchroom and tobacco shop next to Long's Bookstore. Coke's there, by the way, were twenty cents.
Jimmy Rhodes, who later became Mayor of Columbus and Governor of Ohio had a little shop on the east side of High, somewhere between Tenth Avenue and King Avenue. (I don't know what he sold.) Nicklaus Pharmacy was on the southeast corner of Chittenden Avenue. It was owned by famed golfer Jack Nicklaus' father. The Pharmacy was OK, but it lacked the funky appeal of Berry's Drug Store down the street. In other words, it was more of a pharmacy, no soda fountain, all business. Not much time for kids with their dirty hands and floppy paper bags.
I attended Ninth Avenue Elementary School from the fifth through the sixth grades. Across the alley from the playground, in the back of a residence that faced on Neil Avenue, a kindly white-haired lady named Mrs. Veatch had a penny candystore. Oh, the goodies found in that little cubbyhole of a store!
Nearby, on the corner of Eighth and Worthington was a store that also sold a lot of penny candy, plus ice cream confections, and a variety of trinkets and drygoods. A version of that store still stands and is open for business. Around the corner and across the street, the Wise sisters had a grocery store. Another grocery store in the area was the King Avenue Market, owned by C.F. Waterman. That store had a meat department my mother swore by. The butcher, Mr. Gettles, really knew what he was doing when it came to lamb chops and tender cuts of beef. When mother wanted meat patties, she always specified ground upper round. And she always asked for a piece of suet. Back then, the suet was free.
Some of my classmates that I recall at Ninth Avenue Elementary School were Josephine Alexander, Donald Day, Mary Evans, Helen Houston, Annnette Keller, Jane Kilgore, Harold Hoffman, Garnett Moore, Jimmy Reeder, Patty Rundio, David Tilton, Betty Jane Stephenson, Kenneth Woodruff, Betty Ann Bond, and Marjorie Walker.
After grade school, I went to Everett Junior High. (Recently reborn as Arts Impact Middle School.) Everett was really an excellent school with many fine teachers and a curriculum as solid as a major league baseball bat. My homeroom teacher was Mr. Rickly. Some of the other teachers who touched my life were Miss Leitch, Miss Swinehart, Mr. Reese, Mrs. Morehart, Miss DeMuth, Miss George, and Miss DeNune. I also have vivid memories of the cafeteria, especially the meatloaf sandwiches, slathered with mustard.
My classes included two years of Latin, Algebra, Plain and Solid Geometry, American History, Geography, English Literature and Grammar, Physical Education, Music, and Art.
Classmates included some of the ones named above plus a lot of new faces, including Dorothy Fluke, Betty Blatt, Polly Caine, Dick Temple, Maxine Moore, Helen Funk, Betty Paschall, Edith DeVictor, Grover Dixon, Richard Myers, Jack Reese, Annie Amicon, Harold Schneider, Rex Blair, Betty Tyson, Ann Wikoff, Ruth Kelso, Richard Goldfredrick, Royce Hiles, Bob Warman, and others, many forgotten. Some of these kids might have been half a grade before or half a grade after me. Where are they all now? Well, I know David Tilton is alive and well because he recently supplied me with a June 1939 Everett Junior High School Graduation publication, the Scroll.
Many classmates died years ago, some of the fellows in the war, others from one thing or another. Friends like Jimmy Reeder and Rex Blair. Long gone, but not forgotten.
23 Moving Around
The Ohio State University campus was my front yard from the time I was about 10 years old until I graduated from North High School, right before enlisting in the navy. My mother was a widow, and much of the time she would rent a house and take in students to make ends meet. It was just my mother, my older brother, David, and me. And the students, of course, or sometimes a professor or librarian. Oh, yes, and from time to time my orbiting grandmother, "Da."
In chronological order: We lived for a while in the apartments at the corner of Neil and West Eleventh Avenue, then at 145 West Eleventh in a cute little white bungalow that's no longer there. On one side of that house was an OSU entomological research station, and on the other side there lived a family named Beatley.
A few years later, I forget why, we moved to 61 West Eleventh. This was another house that in later years was sacrificed to university sprawl. It was also once the home of John H. Schaffner, a noted Ohio botanist. As a matter of fact, over in the B & Z (Botany and Zoology) Building there used to be a framed photograph of Dr. Schaffner and his family sitting on the front porch of that very same white frame house. One of our neighbors was Mr. Washburn, er, pardon me, Doctor Washburn, the head of the History Department at the university. On the other side was a pleasant little widow whose name I can't remember.
My fondest memories, I believe, are of the house at 145 West Eleventh Avenue. I liked everything about it, especially the front bedroom that I called my own. In that pleasant room, in addition to a single bed and a dresser, I had crammed every imaginable kind of natural history artifact, from bird nests and cases of butterflies and moths to pressed leaves and flowers, fungi, rocks, fossils, minerals, you name it. Not to speak of a growing collection of nature books. I was a true pack rat, a trait that has persisted.
Those were the best of times, maybe because of the youthful years they spanned. Sometimes when I was walking across the campus, especially in the evening, I would suddenly start running. Just for the sheer animal-like joy of it! As fast as I could, like a gazelle, I would literally fly over those old red brick sidewalks. In love with life! Exhilarated! I would nod or bashfully smile as I zoomed by this student or that. Sometimes, usually with a couple of pals, I would romp around Mirror Lake, clambering over the massive rocks from which the little lake's waters once flowed.
One of my greatest pleasures each spring was sitting in the nearby amphitheater watching the Browning Society coeds rehearse their Shakespearean plays. How I loved to watch the animated face of Elsie Coates Kittle, the talented director of the society, as she coached her charges, cajoling, pleading, smiling, grimacing, laughing - her small frame a dynamo of pent-up energy. And the night of the dress rehearsal. How wonderful it was! Bigger than life! The flaming torches. The women actors playing all the roles, including the most raucous of male characters.
And over all that time, I developed a thorough knowledge of the campus and most of its buildings. I loved old Orton Hall with its bell tower. I was awed and flabbergasted by the dinosaurs and other geologic wonders within. I loved the old Student Union and the busy comings and goings of the students.
The B and Z Building and the lovely informal garden became a magnet once I had discovered the joy of birds. The noted botanist and head of the department, Dr. Nelson Transeau, was on friendly speaking terms with me. Imagine! Me, just a kid.
One indelible memory revolves around the time I was wandering through Hamilton Hall. An impressive place it was indeed. The seat of OSU's medical school, the somber halls lined with the pictures of distinguished graduates. On this particular day, evidently between quarters because there was hardly a soul around, I was exploring the third floor when I looked into a large room, probably thinking it was a laboratory of some kind.
Off to one side, on a table, was what I took to be a human figure. It didn't move, and foolishly I tiptoed closer. It was a man. A dead man, and most of his body was exposed. I inched closer, my heart thumping like a scared rabbit. This man's flesh was like wax. A horrible pale yucky yellow color, and his body had been cut into. Where he had been cut into there were nightmarish blotches of awful purple color. The last thing I remember before I fainted was taking a closer look at the man's face. One bloodshot eye was open. It was looking at me. I thought it moved.
A student found me there sprawled on the floor. "My Gawd!" he exclaimed when I came to. "What are you doing here, kid?"
"I dunno," I answered weakly. He helped me to my feet and walked me out of the room and down the hall until he was sure I was OK.
With a sheepish grin, I thanked him and reassured him that I was OK. Then I made my way down the marble stairs to the first floor, out of the gloomy building and onto Neil Avenue, the fresh air and bright sunshine beckoning.
I never told my mother any of this, and if she's listening, from wherever that is, "It's OK, Mom. Everything's just fine!"
The little house at 145 West Eleventh Avenue.The Beatley family
livedin the house to the left, and the house to the right housed
a bilological research station. All gone now.
24 A Relic of the Past
Why were people in the Short North area wearing out the seats of their pants and dresses to such an extent that there were more tailors in the neighborhood than clothes moths?
Recently, I was cleaning out a dresser drawer and I came across an old faded and raggedy little booklet titled simply Base Ball Schedule. It was printed in 1910 and sold for five cents. When I say "little," I mean it. This little job printed by the Pfeifer Printing Company, located at the corner of Noble and Pearl Streets, is exactly five inches deep by three-and-a-quarter inches wide. Counting the front and back covers, it boasts 96 pages. In addition to all the season's games for the American Association, the booklet also contains baseball schedules for OSU as well as the local high schools. No, I'm not so old that I bought this little curiosity when it hit the streets. I was born many years later. Thank goodness! As a matter of fact, I purchased it at Doug Ritchey's shop, which was located at the corner of Lincoln and High.
Anyhow, the front cover was about to fall off so I was leafing very gingerly through this little gem, mostly intrigued by the large number of advertisements which, interestingly enough, were for establishments between downtown and the university. A little note at the bottom of page 27 informed the reader that the schedule was published every year by Ernest Hesse, 279 Fourteenth Avenue, and that potential advertisers for the 1911 edition should call Bell North 1020.
OK, I'll start at the beginning of the booklet and share with you some of the folks who advertised. Placed prominently
on the inside front cover is an ad for the Baker Art Gallery, specializing in photo-graphy, but the ad fails to list either an address or a phone number! The Stag Cafe (John Coe, proprietor) was located at 988 N. High Street. That's at the corner of Second and High. "Everything first class" the ad says, also noting that they offered billiards and pool.
Books, drawing materials, and engineering supplies could be found at The Varsity Supply Co., located at 1602 N. High. That's in the University District. Right next door at 1598 was the Varsity Inn plugging that it was "Just the Place to Eat." Down in our neighborhood, Mendel the Tailor plied his needle and thread at 530 N. High, and his ad states that he could make a guaranteed-to-fit suit for $18 to $40. J.W. Richards, Prescrip-tion Druggist, was located at 858 N. High, and his ad says that he also carried baseball goods.
The High Buttles Drug Co. was, well, guess where? The description of their sodas made me wish they were still there! Listen to this: "Our Soda is in a class by itself, because it is made so good. If everybody made soda as we do, it wouldn't be hard to get a real good glass of Soda." Gosh, gee, I was thinking about this time. Wait! There's more. "We use the purest Concentrated Fresh Fruit Syrup, Pure Rock Candy Syrup and freshly charged Sodawater with lots of life in it. You'll enjoy the soda we serve." Well, by dingy, I wish I could charge over there and slurp down one of their concoctions right now, but I guess not.
Grocer Aaron Higgins had a store at Eighth and High and what's this? By gum, it's another tailor, Herman by name, and he's right down the street from Mendel at 607 N. High. What's going on here? Tailor wars? Herman says "If you wear good clothes and think you have been paying too much for them, SEE ME. Well, I wonder who he aimed that poorly disguised barb at? Couldn't have been poor old Mendel by any chance, could it?
There was a sewing machine store at 732 N. High and, Oh! Oh! What's going on here? Another tailor? By gad! I can't believe it! This one's S. Bloom and his shop is at 682 N. High. Holy smokes! They're all knotted together like a big ball of yarn. S. Bloom advertises that he's "The Only First Class Tailor in the North End." How about that?! The nerve of the guy! And what's with so many tailor shops? Why were people in the Short North wearing out the seats of their pants and dresses to such an extent that there were more tailors in the neighborhood than clothes moths? We'll probably never know the answers to these perplexing questions.
I'm only halfway through this little journey, so I'll leave you in the good hands of the Pletcher-Brown Company, Funeral Directors, which my handy little booklet says was located at 1122 &endash; 1124 North High Street. H.A. Pletcher was the President and Sherman D. Brown served as General Manager. No indication who worked on the bodies.
25 Life in the University District
"If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap . . . "
Those are the opening words of The Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger, one of my literary heroes and a man still alive, living in his own carefully crafted world somewhere out in the wooded hills near Cornish, New Hampshire.
Whether or not I had a lousy childhood would depend on the way you looked at it.
My father died in a horrible accident when I was four years old. That was lousy.
We were poor, but managed to get by. That was a little lousy.
My mother was innovative, caring and a great cook. That was good.
My brother and I were both healthy. That was good. He was really smart, but I was behind the door when the brains were passed out. That was good for him, but lousy for me.
As I recently wrote, much of my childhood was spent living around the university district, ten years of it right across the street from the campus. on West Eleventh Avenue, That was really a good experience and it left me with a lot of swell memories &endash; none of them lousy.
Here are a few memories I will share with you.
Back then there were not as many buildings on the campus. Take the women's dormitories, for instance. Neil Hall, Mack Hall, and Baker Hall. That was it.
Because of the limited number of buildings, there was a great deal less light pollution. I could walk across the street and go a few more step to get beyond the street lights and I would be in almost total darkness.
A couple of my friends like Rex Blair and Johnny Gardener would sometimes join me out there as we tried to learn the names of the brightest stars, planets, and constellations. Sometimes a student or two would join in and help us find some elusive configuration in the sky.
Oh, how the stars would sparkles back then! Something that city kids today know nothing about.
And, speaking of starts reminds me of the astronomy professor's girl friend, a good-looking lanky redhead who lived somewhere around the neighborhood. Over on Tenth Avenue, I think.
A lot of afternoons she would walk her Great Dame, a particularly ferocious beast with slavering jowls who enjoyed nothing more than chasing young kids around the block and scaring them half to death.
I remember one time he was chasing me and I ended up sitting on top of a car roof, until she came along and called him off.
Almost as far back as I can remember, I had one kind of a job or another. Everything from selling magazines like Liberty and the Saturday Evening Post.
I would have a bag of them over my shoulder, not to speak of the one I had in my hand, and I would walk alongside a student extolling the virtues of the publication until they relented and purchased a copy, probably just to get ride of me.
When I was a little older, I had paper routes. Oh boy, did I ever have paper routes. Sometimes The Columbus Dispatch, sometimes the Columbus Citizen.
At various times, I had routes that extended from High Street to Perry Street, and from the campus all the way south to Third Avenue.
Back in those days they had neighborhood sub-stations, which were little wooded buildings, little more than sheds, where all the carriers would pick up their papers after school.
With money in my pocket I experienced the heady feelings of growing independence and being able to buy stuff on my own.
Soda pop, candy and ice cream confections, sure. You can bet the folks at Berry's Drug Store, a friendly place on the northwest corner of West Tenth and High Street were assured of their cut.
It was like a tithe. A lot of it going to the candy counter, a huge amount to the soda fountain for banana splits, malted milks, and sodas, not to speak of flavored cokes. And, as I got older, I spent more and more at the magazine rack.
The reading material was wonderful! What an escape from the mostly dull stuff I had to read at school.
The pulp magazines were the ones that captured my imagination the most. Magazines like The Shadow which celebrated the exploits of Lamont Cranston. And, then there was Doc Savage and a whole slew of detective magazines.
Another genre of these reader-friendly magazines were the aviation magazines that featured action-packed stories of the World War I era. One title I remember was Sky Fighters, the stories within its pages guaranteed to roil the blood of a young teenager.
There were the Sci-Fi magazines, publications like Astounding Stories, Amazing Stories and, yes, even Weird Stories, which boasted the fanciful work of some truly exceptional writers, H. P. Lovecraft, to name one.
Finally, as I have written before, in my junior and senior years, I clerked in the produce department at the original Big Bear Store on West Lane Avenue.
Now I was really in the chips and, among other things, I could purchase my own clothes.
And, where else, but Moe Glassman's, a real sharp men's clothing store located on the east side of High across the street from Berry';s Drug Store.
At long last I could pick out my own clothes without parental interference.
Now, I was really living!
26 I was a Lucky Kid
There was a period in my life between the ages of ten and eighteen when I must have been one of the luckiest kids in the world.
During that time, I went to three good schools: Ninth Avenue Elementary, Everett Junior High, and North High. Not only that, I had some great teachers who made a lasting impression on my life. And, talk about an exciting environment to grow up in, my mother, brother David, and I lived right across the street from the sprawling campus of the Ohio State University.
So many memories come rushing back as I think about those impressionable days of my boyhood. If you bear with me, I will try to share some of them with you.
My widowed mother took roomers to help make ends meet and, from my youthful perspective, even that was immensely interesting and an education unto itself.
To this day, I still remember some of our roomers - mostly students, but a few professors and at least one librarian.
I remember one professor who would frequently visit a bar or two before coming home. One evening he couldn't quite make it up the steps to his room on the second floor. What he really ended up doing was falling up the steps. He was down on his knees crawling up one riser at a time when my mother encountered him. You can bet your bottom dollar the sparks really flew as she gave him a piece of her mind along with his eviction notice on the spot. Poor guy.
The bells of Orson Hall, like a metronome, marked off all of those boyhood years. Seldom was I out of earshot of their melodious tolling as they announced each quarter hour.
That picturesque old building was located on the north edge of Mirror Lake hollow and housed the archeology museum, classrooms, and the departmental library.
Every now and then, I got up the nerve to venture into the cavernous first floor which housed the museum. There I would gawk at a model of a giant dinosaur skeleton, and a lot of bones and other relics of the earth's ancient past. I was very impressed, I can tell you that. A Mrs. DeSelm, the mother of a high school classmate of mine, was the departmental librarian.
In the springtime, a favorite activity was joining the crowds on the oval to watch the ROTC reviews.
ROTC meant Reserve Officer's Training Corps. Back then, most male students were required to take at least two or three credit hours of military training per quarter.
The reviews were more like parades, and mighty impressive they were, what with the cadets dressed in their spiffy full-dress dark blue uniforms with white belts.
During the warm months, I would sometimes wander down to the picturesque amphitheater near Mirror Lake, where Elsie Kittle was busy rehearsing here students for a Shakespearian production.
All of the participants were coeds and I would sit there in awe at how adept the gals were in filling all the roles &endash; especially those of villainous men.
For me, the highlight of their season was the dress rehearsal, which was free and just as good as the regular paid performances that followed on ensuing evenings. So, there I would be, soaking it all up, back somewhere in the years when I was between twelve and sixteen.
And guess what? Way back then I was publishing a little neighborhood newspaper. It was called The Item and consisted of three or four 8 1/2" by 11" pages printed on a pan of hectograph jelly.
Sometimes - when we managed to agree on the paper's policy - I had a partner in this enterprise. He was a pleasant fellow named Jimmy McVicker who lived on a part of West Tenth Avenue that has long since been torn down. Jimmy's father worked for a national news service and his mother wrote romantic novels.
I guess I should mention here that I owed a debt of gratitude to my brother David, who was seven years older that me.
By everyone's reckoning David was brilliant - in the genius category - and our mother scrimped and saved to put him through University School, which was located at Woodruff and High.
Because of his scholastic abilities, David occupied the center of my mother's attention and she pinned a lot of her dreams on him.
Can you see the beauty of this situation for me? If not, let me fill you in.
I was free to roam. I was free to come and go pretty much as I wanted. The great OSU campus was my front yard, and the neighborhood was my back yard.
David got the glory, but I had freedom. I'll give you an example. One time, when I was seventeen, one of the Dodge brothers stopped by our house and I slipped out the back door with him and we made our way down High Street to the old Palm Gardens nightclub.
This was a cozy little place where Dean Martin once did a gig before he became famous. It was located about where Kroger's is today.
At any rate, I had a pocketful of money from my Dispatch route and my friend and I had quite an evening.
In one night, I had my first beer and saw my first naked lady!
27 An Awakening
When I was fifteen years old, my brother David and I lived with our widowed mother in a little white cottage right across the street from the Ohio State University. The austere ivy-covered buildings over on the campus were set amidst great expanses of grass, stately old trees, and interlaced with winding brick walks
We had lived in one house or another near the campus since I was about nine years old, taking student roomers to supplement the meager money that came from our father. At the time I speak of, I was in the ninth grade going to Everett Junior High, a public school that was located about a dozen blocks from where we lived.
I would say that I was a carefree, happy-go-lucky kid who got A's and B's in English, History, Science, and Geography, and usually C's in math and language classes. I didn't take sports very seriously like some of my friends did. I usually had some kind of a part-time job, most often a paper route. This provided me with spending money for teenage necessities such as candy, soft drinks, magazines, bus fare, and occasional acquisitions for my stamp collection.
At fifteen I was too young to date girls, but I thought about them plenty. Most of the time, clear back to the second or third grade, there was always a girl that I had a secret crush on.
I was always eager to answer questions in class, sometimes waving my hand wildly about to attract the teacher's attention. I should say I would do this if I knew the answer to the teacher's question. I wasn't the only one who acted like that. At other times, the teacher would call on one or the other of us to make some kind of recitation, like a book report or a poem, or something like that. I would manage to do it, painful though it was.
On the other hand, if I found myself alone and face to face with an authority figure, like a teacher, or a principal, or even someone I worked part-time for, then I could become very insecure, almost tongue-tied, and blush all over the place until my face was burning. I finally got over this painful lack of confidence, but it took a good long while. I'm talking maybe another ten yeas.
Like I said, most of the time I would have a secret crush on one or another of the girls in my class.. She would usually be the prettiest and most popular girl in the class and, of course, most of the other boys would also be in love with her. I can still remember some of those girls' names and, if I try hard enough, I can conjure up a face to go with the name.
What I really want to tell you about was one particular day in mid-April. It was a day that was destined to change my life, although a few years would pass before I fully became aware of that fact. On this day that I'm telling you about, I got home from school, changed clothes, grabbed a couple of apples, and as I was heading out the door, assured my mother that I would be home in time for supper.
It was a beautiful spring day, mild and sunny, and I thought I might run into some of my pals, maybe get up a game of softball. There was nothing going on, but it was so nice out I just kept walking, and walking, and walking. I knew just about every part of the campus by heart, so it was no surprise when I ended up in a pleasant informal botanical garden behind the botany and zoology building. I had been there before.
This quiet secluded area consisted of a dozen or so acres and was hemmed in by vine-covered fences and thick hedges. It was divided up into smaller plots, many of them devoted to iris small ornamental trees and flowers, some of them already blooming. There was also a wild, uncultivated, brushy area that ran along a small ridge, and beyond that there was a vegetable garden, probably two or three acres in extent.
I was to find out later that the entire garden was the pet project of Dr. Nelson Transeau who was head of the botany department. In subsequent weeks and, actually, over a period of several years, I got to know him fairly well. He was very pleasant and he talked to me like I was an adult or, at least, a college student. But, I'm getting ahead of myself.
So there I was walking along, munching on an apple, when suddenly I noticed a very small bird, not much bigger than a man's thumb, flitting about in a nearby hedge. I stopped to watch it. It was quite close and seemed to be very tame, but I slowly edged closer and closer until I was little more than an arm's length away.
I was pleasantly surprised when it burst into song, a loud bubbling warble, but then, wonder of wonders - I couldn't believe my eyes - it suddenly erected a bright red crest on top of its head. Two or three minutes probably went by as I stood there in awe watching this tiny fellow's capers, totally captivated by his musical talent, his topknot which was bright as a burning ember, and his overall bravado.
That evening after dinner, I found a little bird book in our living room bookcase. Leafing through its pages, I found an illustration of the same little bird I had been admiring just hours before. I discovered that it was a Ruby-crowned Kinglet! I was elated! The book was Chester Reed's Guide to the Birds of the Eastern United States. I also saw a picture of another bird I had heard singing and seen at a distance. Aha! I was able to identify it as a Brown Thrasher.
The next day after school - and countless days thereafter - I was back in that secluded and magical garden. I discovered a couple of wire mesh traps that had been set out by graduate students for catching birds in order to band them. I could walk right up to these traps and, if they contained any birds, I would observe them at close range. In this way, I soon got to know the sophisticated beauty of White-throated and White-crowned sparrows, a feisty Brown Thrasher, flocks of Juncos, flashy red Cardinals, a Rufus-sided Towhee, and a dainty little Hermit Thrush, among others.
Within a few days I had gotten to know the graduate students, the head of the ornithology department, and Dr. Transeau himself. I would walk slowly along with this esteemed and august gentleman as he inspected his beloved garden. As we meandered our way along, he would point out one botanical wonder after another to me. He didn't know much about birds, but before long, I was filling him in on what was what in the avian world. And, as you might guess, this fifteen-year-old kid was walking on air!
As the spring migration of birds progressed, I saw more and more species right there in that little garden - everything from Killdeers to a whole list of showy little warblers.
Within a year, I was taking books out of the departmental library, going on filed trips with university ornithology classes, and had been introduced to some of the state's leading naturalists.
It all started there in that attractive informal garden as I stared in disbelief at a tiny Ruby-crowned Kinglet singing its love song and exhibiting his brilliant red crest. What a lucky happenchance that was!
As you will soon see, that one brief moment in time has affected my entire life. It opened up a door that changed my entire concept of existence. From something akin to a black and white movie, I began to see life as a rich and colorful three-dimensional fantasy world of unbelievable beauty and complexity.
I became newly aware of trees and flowers, the stars and the planets, the very stones beneath my feet, I gawked at towering thunderheads and wondered about the oddity of sundogs. And, the birds, of course. I was transformed from a very ordinary schoolboy into a observer of life.
Oh, a couple of other things. Ever since I could remember, I've dreamed a lot. When I get a chance I'll tell you about some of them. Also, all the way back to when I was about fifteen years old, I've worried about the lousy state of the world. And, I still do.
My mother must have been part Gypsy. No, that wasn't it. I think it was more a matter of honor. She expected people to be honorable and to keep their promises. And that expectation applied especially to landlords. If a landlord did not keep his word, we would suddenly pack up and move - all our belongings, everything from clothes and books to pots and pans and dishware, which were wrapped in newspapers and stowed away in large wooden barrels.
I'm talking about the days when most people rented their homes rather than purchasing them. In other words, the days of the Great Depression when no one had much money.
Large houses in the University District rented for fifty to sixty dollars a month, and there were always plenty of them available. A nice two-bedroom apartment could be had for thirty to forty dollars a month, and rooms rented for ten to fifteen dollars.
Those were the days of my childhood, when my brother David and I lived with our widowed mother, and sometimes our orbiting grandmother.
I was about ten years old and in the fourth grade when we first rented a house. It was located south of the University at 1447 Neil Avenue and had four bedrooms plus a finished third floor, a garage, and a pear tree in the backyard. Jimmy, Bob, and Dave Reeder lived down the street with their mother and grandmother, a strong-willed woman if I ever saw one. That house of ours has long since been torn down to make way for an apartment building.
We stayed at 1447 barely two years because the landlord's empty promises didn't live up to my mother's expectations. So, we pulled up stakes and moved to an apartment on Hunter Avenue. It was while living there that the famous Orson Wells' radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds was broadcast. Thousands of people on the East Coast fled their homes when they heard simulated news accounts of heavily armed aliens slithering out of their space vehicles and invading the countryside. I had been reading about the upcoming program in the papers for at least a week and was eagerly looking forward to it.
Well, our stay on Hunter Avenue was more of a temporary stopover until we found another house that suited our mother's needs, which included her plans to rent rooms to students.
We ended up in an attractive large house at 210 West Tenth Avenue, which was right next door to South Hall, a once-upon-a-time men's residence. I really loved this house, because to my youthful eyes it had style and class. I also remember that I had the measles while living there.
A couple of years later, we moved into an apartment at 1628 Neil Ave., on a corner at the entrance to OSU, and across the street from Hamilton Hall, the place where I almost fainted when I innocently walked into a laboratory where a grisly cadaver was laid out on a table.
We moved again and again and again. We moved so many times my head was in a spin, and sometimes I would wake up wondering where I was. A couple of times we ended up in this or that rooming house for a month or two, rubbing shoulders with students who were also struggling to make ends meet.
Our next major move was to a cute white cottage located at 145 West Eleventh Avenue, smack dab across the street from the campus. There was an OSU entomology research station on one side of us and a family named Beatley on the other. It was during our stay in this quaint cottage that I became interested in birds.
One April day, I was wandering around the campus after school and ended up in the garden behind the B & Z Building. I spotted a little bird close-up called a Ruby-crowned Kinglet and after that I was hooked. I was 15 years old at the time, a ninth grader at Everett. The garden, now long gone, was the pride and joy of Dr. Nelson Transeau, head of the Botany Department at OSU.
I used to walk around the garden with this dignified gentleman, pointing out bird species to him as we wandered along the winding paths. There I was, a 15-year-old kid instructing this interna-tionally known botanist. Well, he was a talker too, so I learned a lot about flowers and trees.
It came as no surprise when the moving bug bit Mother again. I think it had something to do with a leaky roof and a tempera-mental furnace. The big white frame house we moved into at 61 West Eleventh Avenue had once been the home of another famed Ohio botanist, John H. Schaffner.
By this time, I was going to North High School and David had won a scholarship to the Univer-sity of Chicago. I told you he had all the brains. I was working after school at the original Big Bear store on West Lane Avenue, often walking along the Olentangy River looking for birds, unaware that Margaret Morse Nice, an internationally known ornithologist, was living on West Patterson Avenue right across the river. She had even studied under Konrad Lorenz, the famous Austrian biologist. I have often thought she probably did her shopping at the Bear while I was working there.
Those were the days before self-service. Back in the produce department where I worked there were probably a dozen white-aproned clerks, all of them, except me, university students. Without knowing it, I might even have helped Mrs. Nice pick out oranges and grapefruits and plunked then into the brown paper sack for her.
My orbiting grandmother used to say that three moves equals a fire. It's strange she didn't pass that wisdom down to her own daughter - or abide by it herself.
Well, that's life for you. Always full of contradictions: the frustration of unfulfilled promises, the trepidation of unexpected moves, and the lingering joy of newfound people and places.
29 The song sparrow lady
Timing is everything, they say, in love and war and about everything else. So it was, as things turned out, the timing was all wrong for me to have met Margaret Morse Nice. But it was close. Well, fairly close. Maybe off by a year or two.
I became mesmerized by wild birds one April afternoon when I was 15 years old and in the ninth grade of what we used to call junior high school. This was approximately two or three years after Mrs. Nice completed her monumental study on song sparrows. As I have mentioned, my family lived in a house facing the south side of The Ohio State University campus.
Mrs. Nice lived half a dozen blocks north of the campus. In 1940, I commenced working after school at the first Big Bear supermarket in Columbus, which was located in an old skating rink located on Lane Avenue at the very edge - actually within - Interpont, Mrs. Nice's study area, and within hailing distance of her home.
A fantasy I long held was that the famous lady might have come into the store, been in the produce department where I worked on weekend nights, that I actually might have helped her pick out some good looking oranges and grapefruits and dropped them in the bag I held open. I would fantasize that I might actually have brushed her hand. But, alas. I don't believe it ever happened. If I am not mistaken, Mrs. Nice and her husband moved to Chicago about 1939.
But from 1940 to 1942, I frequently birded my way home from North High School along the west bank of the Olentangy River, which is directly opposite the principal parts of Interpont. Sometimes I even went home on her side of the river, hiking across dikes and along brushy fishermen's trails within a stone's throw of where she had lived, probably looking at some of the very same song sparrows she had made famous.
Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz, with whom Mrs. Nice studied in Austria during the summer of 1938, wrote: "Her paper on the song sparrow was, to the best of my knowledge, the first long-term field investigation of the life of any free-living wild animal."
Studies in the Life History of the Song Sparrow was originally published in Germany's Journal für Ornithologie and subsequently, she received international acclaim. In 1937 and 1943, the complete work was published in two volumes by the Linnaean Society of New York. Dover editions of the books are still in print.
Volume I of her work dealt with vital statistics: weights, territories, migrations, percentiles of nesting success, and the survival of individuals. Volume II concentrated on behavior, including daily activities, dominance, songs, call notes, mating, defense of young, and many other traits and characteristics.
Mrs. Nice's work represented a pioneering effort of the first magnitude in advancing the importance of comparative behavior studies. She wrote that "each male song sparrow is a unique personality. When he dies (his) songs are lost forever." She trapped and banded her subjects and kept copious notes. Her goal was to learn everything possible about their daily lives.
In the words of Frank Graham Jr., writing in Audubon magazine, (Margaret) Nice had dragged her more "legitimate" colleagues out of the listing stage and into modern ethological studies. As a result, during her lifetime, honors flooded in on her.
Mrs. Nice received some assistance and advice from Lawrence E. Hicks and Edward S. Thomas, but she was denied membership in Columbus' all-male Wheaton Club. She died in 1974.
Not to worry, Mrs. Nice, I love you.
30 The Moon Watcher
Here are some of the things I learned when I became aware of the natural world, especially the coming and goings of wild birds - including a dollop of philosopy.
"The mind of the sage in repose becomes the mirror of the universe, the speculum of all creation," an Oriental philosopher wrote. "In repose," he suggests, "the inner mind opens up so that it encompasses all things, no matter how small or how large. Thus we can contemplate nature, our own place in nature, and our relationships with our fellow human beings."
In practicing contemplation, our own minds become creative, because in subtle and unexplainable ways, we achieve harmony with the universe. We become one with everything else.
It is the province, especially, of the artist, the architect, the writer, the dramatist, the musician, the scientist, the naturalist. But it can be within anyone's capacity if they open up their eyes, and their ears, and their minds. It is a gift that one has to cultivate.
These precious things-observation, contemplation, creativity, harmony-are some of the wonderful legacies of birding. The birder becomes intensely aware of the natural world he shares with the objects of his admiration. One cannot become a birder without becoming an environmentalist.
Thus it is that magically, contemplation becomes the golden feather from a bird's wing, the replenishing earth around our own roots, the improbable delicacy of a wildflower, the holding of hands with a loved one, the intricate melody of a bird song, the sheer wonder of rain falling from a thunderhead higher than the Alps.
To find a rare bird, I believe, or to see any one of a number of magnificently plumaged birds in the wild becomes a psychedelic experience. A birder doesn't need drugs to get high. The blazing colors of an oriole or a Blackburnian warbler will do the trick nicely.
A flight of snow geese materializing out of a moonlit October sky at dusk will produce an unforgettable high, maybe even an overdose of euphoria.
I vividly remember one September night with a full moon in Columbus, Ohio, when I was a lad. We lived on West Eleventh Avenue across from The Ohio State University campus in a white frame house that had once been the residence of J. H. Schaffner, the noted Ohio botanist.
Impatiently I had been waiting for darkness. Finally, about nine-thirty I went out into the backyard and near an old pear tree stretched out in the grass on my back so that I could get a clear view of the moon. I had a small telescope and an inexpensive pair of binoculars with me. I was 17 years old.
Using first one instrument, then the other, I peered upward at the bright shining disk of the moon. I could see the shadowy outlines of lunar seas and the sharper delineation's of mountains and escarpments.
A neighbor, if they should have observed me, would surely have thought that I was moonstruck-or daft. Doggedly I kept staring upward, pinpoints of bright lunar light reflecting in my eyes. The minutes ticked by and patiently I continued my vigil, as if I were a member of some cult that held the moon in high esteem.
It was about eleven o'clock when my heart skipped a beat. Yes, there it was, the silhouette of a small bird transiting across the face of the moon! Not just any bird. This was a migratory bird. Probably a warbler, a vireo, or a tanager headed for Central or South America. And I was actually watching it, had picked it out of the darkness by catching it in my eye - momentarily - between my telescope and the moon.
During the next hour I saw others. All heading south. Occasionally, I could hear the faint chips and chirps of these voyagers falling out of the night sky. At long last, stiff and sore, damp from the dew on the grass, I went back into the house. Everybody had gone to bed and it was just as well.
If they had asked me what I had been doing and I had told them, they wouldn't have understood. Oh, my mother might have understood the words I would have said; but she wouldn't have understood the real meaning, the almost unbearable exhilaration I had felt at having witnessed such an event.
I made my way to my room. Visions of the moon and tiny birds flying across America dancing in my head as I finally fell asleep.
31 "It's Hitler! It's Adolf Hitler!
The Germans are Coming!
.During the night of September 18, 1941, the eastern half of the United States was treated to a fantastic display of the aurora borealis. The next day, newspapers heralded the event as "the greatest display of the northern lights ever recorded." The phenomenon so wreaked havoc with communications that newspaper offices, police stations, and weather bureaus were overwhelmed with phone calls.
I will never forget that evening as long as I live. I have tried to forget - more than once - but there they are again, the memories looming up in my mind like inflated rubber animals in a long-ago Macy's Parade. The shame of it all is that there was great natural beauty on display that night, perhaps greater than any human had ever witnessed or deserved to witness, before or since, but the beauty and splendor were marred by the unbelievable absurdi-ties of many of the feckless souls watching it. Let me start from the beginning.
It had been a beautiful September day, mellow and pleasantly warm, so nice that I walked home from North High School along the Olentangy River looking for birds. I had read in the ColumbusDispatch the day before that a concert by the U. S. Marine Band was to be held in the Ohio State Stadium on this very same night. As I walked by the big horseshoe, I noticed plenty of people already arriving, the parking lot around the stadium rapidly filling up with cars, crowds heading toward the entrance gates.
If I remember correctly, I stopped by the lunch counter in the Big Bear store on Lane Avenue. I had a hot dog and soft drink, then continued on past the stadium, hiking southward along the dikes, past the sycamores and cottonwood trees until I got to the garden behind the B & Z Building where I wandered around before heading home. By the time I was nearing our house on West Eleventh Avenue, it was getting dark.
I cannot recall the exact moment that I detected something unusual happening, but I do believe there was a sense of mystery in the air, a foreboding of some momentous event that was soon to transpire. Suddenly I saw the lights overhead, spread across the entire sky, a profusion of pastel-colored lights radiating out from the zenith. Then I was almost startled out of my wits by a man running down the street screaming at the top of his lungs.
"It's Hitler! It's Adolf Hitler! The Ger-mans are coming!" he was shouting as he ran down West Eleventh Avenue, a boy and a dog following close at his heels. The boy was also yelling: "Wow! Look at them anti-aircraft searchlights!" He was obviously taken with the importance of his role as assistant town crier and bearer of this ominous news.
Both man and boy kept looking over their shoulders, more precisely up to the sky, staring in awe at the undulating bands of bright color, which to my eyes looked like the gates of heaven, but to theirs was something more sinister.
As they passed the old Inn at the corner of Eleventh and Worthington Avenues, the man's hollering took on a new urgency. "The whole countryside's on fire from the bombs," he exclaimed, one breathless word tumbling after another. Suddenly, he stopped short, cupped a hand to an ear, then looking at the boy, he nodded his head violently, "Yes! I can hear them! Junkers and Heinkel bombers! Medium bombers and heavy bombers! I can hear Stukka dive-bombers!" Then he wheeled about and started running toward Neil Avenue. The boy and the dog remained close behind.
The commotion outside had alarmed my orbiting grandmother "Da" who was living with us at the time. She had come to the door to see what all the turmoil was about. My mother told me later that "Da" had heard the man shouting that Hitler was coming, then she noticed that the sky looked strange. She had looked up and her first impression was that the sky was on fire. She almost fainted, but instead of swooning there on the doorstep where the Germans would have found her, she hurriedly closed the door, ran up the stairs, and locked herself in her bedroom.
Meanwhile, at the corner of Neil and Eleventh, at Mack Hall, there was much giggling and tittering and bobbing about as hundreds of innocent OSU coeds peered out their dormitory windows and wondered what on earth was going on up in the sky. And down at the stadium where the U. S. Marine Band was playing and Governor John W. Bricker was orating, it had to remain for the next day's newspapers to tell us what went on there!
32 The Sky's on Fire!
From the onset of darkness to nearly midnight, the northern lights covered the sky over Columbus that night like a great colorful circus tent. Dazzling bands of brilliance radiated from the zenith downward and outward in all directions in what the following day's Columbus Citizen heralded "Awesome Skies."
The lead paragraph breathlessly declared: "Beauty indescribable, awesome and mysterious, made the skies above Columbus last night a panorama of chromatic harmony as the northern lights appeared in one of the greatest stage presentations ever seen by men."
The story went on to mention that 30,000 persons had gathered in the Ohio State stadium to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). The United States Marine Band was on hand for the occasion, and when Governor Bricker arose to speak, he was almost at a loss for words, which is highly unusual for a politician. This is the same man who ran for vice-president on the Republican ticket with presidential contender Thomas E. Dewey in 1944. They lost to Franklin D. Roosevelt and his running-mate Harry S Truman: 432 electoral votes to 99. But what the heck. the silver-haired Bricker later went on to become a United States Senator from Ohio.
There's little doubt in my mind that the honorable governor was more than a little unnerved by the resplendent natural fireworks display sizzling over his head. Or, let's say, up-staged. As he read his prepared speech on patriotism, every head in the stadium was probably tilted up, marveling at the wonderful Technicolor sky overhead. Trying to win their attention, he ex-claimed, "It's just as if heaven spread open its vast canopy to do these GAR veterans a last honor."
The Marine Band struck up an overture by Beethoven followed by Franz Liszt's "Dreams of Love," and the lights continued to dance their macabre accompaniment. Some folks, uneasy about what they perceived as a heavenly warning, were seen leaving the stadium and heading for home.
Outside the stadium, football players who had been scrimmaging finally gave up any pretense of practicing for the big upcoming game with Michigan. Even the cajoling and threats of the brand-new coach, Paul Brown, couldn't stir them into action!
Meanwhile, events of a most unusual kind were taking place all over the city. Downtown at Broad and High, traffic was hopelessly snarled as people crowded into the intersection. Legislators and lobbyists, many with their girlfriends, poured out of the Neil House and Deshler hotels, some still holding onto their drinks as they gazed at the magical dancing lights in the sky overhead. "Thish is ab-absol-utely the best party I've ever been to," slurred one old-time lobbyist as he held up his drink and toasted the sky.
Our next-door neighbor, Mrs. Parsley was in a complete dither, running around inside her house from room to room, pulling down the blinds and closing the drapes so that not one scintilla of the alien light could enter her home. "Those lights are the work of the devil," she told my grandmother, "Da" Page, who replied with twinkling eyes: "You might just be right, Mrs. Parsley, because where I come from I was always taught that if the sun is shining when it's raining, the devil's beating his wife!"
Meanwhile, across the street from our house on West Eleventh Avenue, crowds of students and neighborhood residents had gathered to view the miraculous skies. I heard one fellow telling his girlfriend that the northern lights were caused by the sun's light reflecting off the ice up in the arctic. Even with my junior high school education, I knew this guy didn't know what he was talking about. I snorted to myself and moved on to see what other people were saying. Just then, another man trotted by, this one muttering something about the world coming to an end. "It's all over!" he suddenly bellowed. "Prepare yourselves. It's coming to an end!" He was headed for High Street and even after I lost sight of him, every now and then I could hear his sonorous voice.
Here's what the front page story in the next day's Columbus Dispatch had to say: "The world still wobbled clumsily around on its axis today although a section of the populace thought the jig was up last night when the heavens turned to fire and celestial flames licked the sky." What the paper didn't say: Many folks were dead certain that Hitler's armies were marching westward from Pittsburgh!
33 My First Date
I finally got up my nerve and asked a girl if she would like to go to the movies. I almost fainted when she said yes.
The pulsating beat, beat, beat of war news was the universal cadence that dominated every phase of life in Columbus from the late 30s right up to V-J Day in 1945. It seemed like every time you turned the radio on you would hear Hitler's hysterical voice followed by choruses of sieg heils. Then came the sober-voiced commentators, Edward R. Murrow, H. V. Kaltenbaum, and Raymond Graham Swing analyzing what he had said in the context of the day's events, almost always bad. All of that and the country was trying to pull itself out of an economic depression that had eviscerated it for an entire decade.
But we were preparing for the inevitable. There were more men in uniform seen on the street. The draft had started up, in spite of heated opposition from some political quarters, and local lads were being sent to Camp Shelby, Mississippi where they practiced with dummy guns and fake tanks. Out near the airport, the huge, sprawling Curtiss-Wright plant was turning out fighting planes for the U. S. Navy, in the process hiring thousands of people.
I was but a callow youth, trying to keep my grades up in school, Everett, then North High, making a few dollars from part time jobs such as paper routes, then eventually working at that first Big Bear store on Lane Avenue and, when time allowed, pursuing my interest in birds. I was intensely shy and self-conscious, blushed easily, and did not have my first date until I had almost graduated from high school. I finally got up my nerve and asked a girl if she would like to go to the movies. I almost fainted when she said yes. For two days ahead of time I was a nervous wreck, setting aside the trousers and shirt I was going to wear, then changing the selection, not once but more like a dozen times.
The time immediately preceding the hour I had to pick her up flew by in an insane blur of anticipation mixed with worry and heavily sprinkled with dread. I can't even remember my date's name for sure, but I think it was Ruth. Yes. Ruth something. A very attractive young lady. Maybe not one of the dream girls in my class, but certainly not a girl to provoke nightmares.
I shaved, drawing blood in the process, of course, then spent an hour trying to staunch the flow of blood with a styptic pencil. I probably brushed my teeth ten times, gargled with Listerine mouthwash until my throat was numb, combed and recombed my hair, slicking it down until I had used up half a bottle of Vitalis, made sure I had a reserve supply of Lifesavers in my pockets and with pulses pounding, headed for her house.
I met her parents, reassured them we would be home early, took a streetcar downtown, went to the Palace Theatre, saw a movie whose title has long since escaped me, had cheeseburgers and cokes at the Wagon Wheel, which was located near Broad and High, eked out a sparse and self-conscious conversation, boarded a streetcar for the university district, delivered her home, kissed her goodnight with a peck on the cheek that missed her mouth by a country mile, strode home with confident steps through the cool night air, feeling like I had just rescued Helen of Troy, and collapsed into bed.
Actually, I had experienced a more worldly evening a few months earlier. One evening after dark I met two buddies, the Dodge Brothers, in the alley in back of my house at 61 West Eleventh Avenue and we headed toward the Palm Gardens, a nightclub run by Papa Joe Alexander and his family at 1392 North High Street. There were floor shows that had attracted up-and-coming stars like Dean Martin and many others. But, get this! On the night we talked our way into the dim interior of the club, there were a couple of strippers performing. Oh, they didn't exactly take everything off. You know, there were a couple of little things they called pasties, and something else at the juncture of their legs. Well, we weren't complaining. We were just seventeen years old and in one night we had seen our first naked women and had our first couple of beers.
End of Book One
Go to Tom's War Years
Book Two Still Unnamed 1.
Whence the name Short North, the area where I live? Local legend has it that cab drivers and police cruisers used that lingo when calling in to their dispatchers. The area they were talking about extended from downtown to somewhere just north of the OSU campus and from North Fourth Street to the Olentangy River. Probably a great many of the taxi fares were headed to a bar or restaurant along North High Street because that thoroughfare was the heart of the Short North. From the early '50s back to the turn of the century, those who didn't take cabs rode the streetcars. Most days of the week, the trolleys were crowded with office workers, shoppers, students, and downtown sales people. For some of them, their only impression of the Short North was what they saw out the streetcar window.
And, believe-you-me, they often saw an eyeful. The Short North was no gentrified lady. No way! High Street from Fat Sam's Spaghetti House in the basement of the Park-Goodale Hotel back in the '30s and on north to the university campus was, for the most part, bawdy and jumping with action. Back in the days of prohibition, there was a shoot-out near the corner of Goodale and High in which a couple of policemen were killed. There were exceptions, of course: The plush Jai Lai Restaurant at 591 N. High Street and the tasty food at Corollo's at 1120 N. High Street, for example, were great drawing cards for the Short North for years.
There were also plenty of other diversions. The Kitty Show Bar and the 711 Club offered live entertainment and dance floors. At various times, there was a strip club and at least one go-go bar. But mostly there were a lot of neighborhood bars, many catering to harmless old geezers out looking for a good time, others attracting bikers and anyone hankering for a fight. The Dutch Cafe was one such spot. A favorite prank of fraternity boys was to run a classified ad in the OSU Lantern saying that a pin from such-and-such a highfalutin sorority had been found on the floor at the Dutch Cafe. That was good for a laugh clear across campus.
The Short North thrived during the Second World War era. Sailors, soldiers, airmen, and marines were all over the place, before, during, and immediately after the actual conflict. An even bigger impact on the area was made by the workers out at the giant Curtiss-Wright plant on East Fifth Avenue out near the airport. There, in that humongous place, zillions of intricate parts were fashioned into SB2C Helldivers and SO2C Seagulls. The assembly lines were awesome to behold, as thousands of people of many talents fashioned those sleek craft in an environment resembling something out of The Truman Show. Around the clock, three shifts every twenty-four hours, they labored to produce those blue-gray beauties for the United States Navy.
When I was in the Navy, I saw Helldivers in action several times. The occasion that stands out most vividly in my memory was during a landing our ship, the LSM 245, made at Serangani Bay, on the western coast of Mindanao Island in the Philippines. All of a sudden, I saw a string of half a dozen Helldivers emerge from the clouds and drop their bombs along a jungle-covered mountainside. They must have hit their target because there was a big eruption of flames and smoke that went snaking skyward. During this bit of action, I was as excited as the kid in Empire of the Sun when the Mustangs went racing over the Japanese airfield. "Those are Helldivers from Columbus, Ohio!" I shouted, barely able to contain myself.
Back on the home front, any number of bars and eateries were happily catering to the newly affluent defense workers. But the sad truth was there weren't many other luxuries available that those folks could readily buy. Not only were there no new cars, gasoline was severely rationed. And there were scant supplies of just about everything else.
A personal note: After the war was over and I got out of the Navy, I came home to finish my education at OSU. A friend persuaded me to join the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity which was a really good deal with room and board costing only $65 a month. A lot of other veterans belonged, and I felt perfectly at home. I worked early mornings from six to nine at the Huntington National Bank downtown in the Transit Department, which I'm sure they don't have anymore.
One evening in August, at the end of the summer quarter, I showered and shaved thinking I might go somewhere and have a couple of cold ones. As I was going down the stairs, I heard a voice yell from the game room "We need a fourth for bridge!" So it was that I sat down at the card table, picked up a hand of cards across from the girl I would marry ten days later. Her name was Jeanne Michaels. We stayed married for eighteen years, had three kids, and I don't know how many grand-children. If I'd come down those steps 30 seconds sooner - or later - it would have been a whole different ball game. Scary, isn't it? And, yes, I've told my children this story - many times.
Way back when, in the years immediately after World War II, North High Street in Columbus, across from the OSU campus was a bustling, well-kept retail area. Thousands of veterans returning from military service in 1946 had joined the ranks of recent high school graduates. As a consequence, college classrooms were crowded and campus-area streets were bustling with activity. I was one of the vets, and very happy, I can tell you, to be home from combat in the South Pacific.
Neff's State Theatre was still showing double feature movies on a daily basis, and OSU students were still getting out of hand. A city fireman was killed by a brick thrown while a rampaging crowd crashed into the theatre. Next door, Ptomaine Tommy's was flipping countless burgers. Isaly's was dishing out huge ice-cream cones, and Moe Glassman was still in business selling smart-looking clothes that didn't cost a fortune. There were drugstores all over the place. To name a few: Nicholas Pharmacy at Chittenden and High, Berry's at Tenth and High, Smitty's at 16th and High, Cunming's Drugstore at Eleventh and Neil, and the Campus-Neil at Tenth. There were some good, well-managed bars, including Ben's Tavern, the two Heidelburgs, and, yes, Larry's Tavern! If you were 18 years old you could drink.
The Ohio State Museum stood on the southwest corner of 15th and High. At the head of the steps stood a statue of a World War I doughboy eternally marching along. Inside the handsome limestone building were mummies, Native American artifacts, minerals, war relics, a library, and goodness knows what else. Of particular interest to me were the natural history exhibits. Located in the basement and close by, the offices and laboratories of a dedicated little band of scientists gathered together under the watchful eye of the curator, Dr. Edward S. Thomas, who had encouraged my interest in birds before I'd gone off to war. He also strengthened my determination to complete my college education when I returned.
Long's Bookstore was located at the corner of 15th and High, as it is today, and nearby was Hennick's, famous for flavored cokes, strong coffee, and tasty club sandwiches, a favorite hangout for sorority and fraternity kids. Just inside the entrance was a cigar counter and a bountiful selection of magazines and newspapers for browsing. In between the two establishments was a bookstore, appropriately named the Bibliophile, managed by affable Gene Rae, a man I will write about in a future column.
There was no lack of entertainment in the district. The Palm Garden Night Club was located at 1392 North High Street, right about where Kroger's stands now. Dean Martin sang there once, before he became famous, and Mel Torme was also a star attraction in 1946. As I related in an earlier column, a couple of my friends, the Dodge brothers, and I snuck up there one evening. Even though we were all under 18, we were shown to a table where we ordered some beers and settled back to see the floor show, during which I saw my first naked lady - well, except for some pasties. I was seventeen and just as incorrigible as I am now.
Jap Watring's Jai Lai was at 589 North High Street with a car wash out back, across Poplar Street. The little building that housed the car wash is still there, the current home of Orbit Design. The restaurant was just as plush and comfortable as the latter day version we remember over on Olentangy River Road. I heard the owner was more than a little paranoic about his employees cheating on him. And little wonder, I can remember one of the bartenders telling me just a few dozen of the ways that bartenders and wait persons alike cheated the house and, not infrequently, the customers. And wouldn't you know it! When Jap died and his body was on display at the funeral home, somebody stole his diamond stickpin right off the corpse.
About a block away from the Jai Lai - over at the corner of Park Street and Goodale Avenue - was Haft's Acre, a small outdoor arena that featured professional wrestling matches. I recall going by that place when it was packed with wildly enthusiastic fans and the lights lit up half the night sky.
The Good Ol' Days
Remember when you could drive into a service station and get some service?
There was a time when you didn't even have to ask for it.
At the conclusion of last month's article, I promised to relate more tales out of my childhood and youth. Well, you'll have to wait. I decided to do something else. But as you read on, you will notice a connection of sorts to what I originally intended to do. And, remember this, whatever your age, chronologically or otherwise, I hope you enjoy (and ponder) these thoughts that I sincerely place before you.
As many people might easily guess, publishing this newspaper is a labor of love. One big reason is that the Short North district represents a vestige of times past &endash; back when there were many exciting attractions, including interesting shops and restaurants all over downtown, spilling over into this area. And lots of people took advantage of their offerings. It's sort of like that now. That's why I love the Short North. It's the best of the past, combined with the best of the present.
I was thinking about some of these things recently, especially after learning about the huge development proposed over around N. Fourth Street. And, as a conse-quence, I got to thinking about the definition of "progress."
Philosophers and historians of one type or another have long been fascinated with this subject, and just trying to define the word can be a job-and-a-half effort. In its simplest form, the concept could be thought of as the mere passage of time. But mostly, when speaking of progress, we just naturally take it for granted that progress means improvement, that things are getting better, onward and upward. Excelsior! But Whoa! This is not necessarily true.
What we so naively call progress (by assuming it is forward progress) turns out to be not so efficient and up-to-date after all. In other words, many of the so-called advances our society is making today are not steps forward, but rather an astigmatic, tortured stumbling backwards.
Remember when you made a business call and got a human being at a switch-board on the other end of the line? Compare this to the situation today. Push one for blah, push two for blah-blah, push three for blah-blah-blah, and so on ad infinitem. Well, excuse me from all this pure unadulterated crap. Give me the likes of Lily Tomlin in front of her little switchboard. She and her colleagues were faster, efficient, more pleasant and non-ulcer provoking than all these so-called voice mail boxes and boring automated switch-boards.
Another example: Remember when you could drive into a service station and get some service? There was a time when you didn't even have to ask for it. A friendly guy would wash and squeegee your windshield and windows, then ask if you wanted your radiator, tires, or oil checked, all this while he was pumping your gas, which was unbelievably inexpensive. Tell me we've made progress!
Still another example: the poor education our kids are getting in spite of all the calculators, computers, and cell phones at their beck and call. More crap. How about teaching them the essentials of education out of good ol' textbooks!?
Cell phones I've already mentioned. Pure crap. Recently, some middle-aged intellectually deprived idiot, blathering away on his cell phone, ran a red light at Michigan and Third Avenues and would have totaled me if I hadn't taken evasive action. A few weeks before that, at the Grandview Big Bear, some cart-pushin' hot tamale with a cell-phone cradled to her ear crashed into my cart headfirst. As she backed off, I smiled at her and good-naturedly bantered, "Good thing I don't get road rage!"
There are many other areas of retrogression. I can remember when music had a melody instead of a deadly bashing beat. And what about the wonderful technology of sound and tonal reproduction? What did it lead to? Pulsating boom boxes in cars that can be heard two blocks away.
I can remember when streetcars and trolley-busses were packed with riders. I remember when there were three daily newspapers in Columbus, not one. I remember when there were lots of taxicabs, and they were fit to ride in. I remember when downtown Columbus was an exciting place full of retail stores, fine restaurants and cafes, and wonderful hotels. Now, with the exception of the City Center, it's nothing but corporate bee hives and rip-off parking lots.
Do you still think things have improved? You better not get sick or have to go to the dentist. You might just die waiting.
Well, that's progress for you! Are we getting smarter? Hell, no! We're getting dumber by the minute! However, nothing is all bad, and thank God for the Short North! Lots of other things, too, so don't get me wrong. Life is what you make it. Life's a ball, life's a cabaret! And don't try to take my computer away.
Oh, by the way. I just read that the H. J. Heinz Co. is coming out with green catsup. Well, I'll be danged! What will they think of next?
The Zoo Keeper's Blues
Let me share an amusing story about my hometown, Columbus, Ohio.
It seems people - myself included - always add "Ohio" after saying Columbus, not just out-of-towners, but folks who live here too. Don't ask me why. I suppose it's because there are other towns with the same name scattered around the country, but the only two that come quickly to mind are in Georgia and Indiana. My point is: We don't say (all in one breath) Cleveland, Ohio, any more than we say Indianapolis, Indiana, or San Francisco, California. Yet we still say Columbus,Ohio.
I know not why. I care not. I do remember, however, that this provincial habit was a pet peeve of one-time Columbus Dispatch columnist Johnny Jones. He would get a puzzled scowl on his face as he repeated the often-asked question: "Why do people invariably say Ohio after saying Columbus? Don't they know this is the largest, the biggest, the most heavily populated Columbus in the whole @$#*%! world?" After this outpouring of invective, he would roll his eyes under his shaggy eyebrows, toss down another drink, if he was at the old Press Club of Ohio (or anywhere else), then shrug his shoulders in helpless frustration.
It reminds me of the fact that people generally address their co-workers and everyday acquaintances and friends on a first-name basis. It's just the opposite of how we are with Columbus. It's Hi Bill! Hello Linda! So long, Jerry! Whatcha know, Jack? Without a clue or a care as to a longer, tedious last name. Surnames seem about as useless as appellations in the Appalachians, although probably for different reasons.
Enough about names. I set out to relate an amusing anecdote about my time spent here in Columbus, Ohio. So, onward down the slippery slopes of social dilapidation.
The late Earl Davis, one-time superintendent of the Columbus Zoo, had his employees put up some outdoor decorations one Christmas season many years ago. This was in the 50s. Centerpiece of the display was a large, illuminated white star. The star of Bethlehem, if you will. Strings of bright, twinkling lights reached outward and downward from the highest structure to the roofs of lower buildings.
There was one natural and logical place to locate the star so that it would be at a high point, an apogee, so that it could be best seen from Route 257 which passes right by the zoo. Now where do you suppose that turned out to be?
Well, it was smack plumb-dab on top of the Great Ape House, home to those other primates we share the planet with - the gorillas,chimpanzees, monkeys, and their kith 'n' kin.
So? As smart asses are apt to say these days, "What's wrong with this picture?" Why did this simple display of Christmas cheer and goodwill become a controversial topic that had most of the citizenry wagging their tongues?
Beats me. But the newspapers were deluged with vehement letters protesting the decorations as a sacrilegious act. Some demanded Davis' job; all insisted the star come down.
Davis told me that for the better part of a week the zoo phones sounded like a bunch of crazy Swiss bell ringers. Jangle! Jangle! Jangle! Ringing all day long. High degrees of religiosity didn't seem to stem the obscene words of the callers.
Accusing voices were suggesting that he was a communist. This was the Cold War in dead earnest, the kind of thing that lit up the otherwise deadpan visage of Joe McCarthy.
Creaky-voiced old women were calling to accuse Davis of believing in and advocating evolution.
"This one old lady called," Davis said, "and her first words were: 'Do you honestly believe in God?' So help me. Those were the first words that beat into my eardrums when I picked up the phone and said hello. It shook me up, I'll tell you that.
"Another voice, this one sweet as AlaGa syrup, asked me if I didn't realize that all the children coming to the zoo would be influenced by the star's being atop the Great Ape House. She asked me if I had any children of my own," Davis recalled.
"Before I could answer any of her questions, she started getting nasty, her voice sounding like it was coming out of a lye can instead of a syrup bottle."
Davis laughed, "She said she'd get my job if I didn't take that star down. I didn't get a chance to tell her that the zoo's closed during the winter months and precious few children would ever see the star unless they were driving by with their parents."
He paused, took a puff on his pipe, and added, "Even then, how would they know it was on top of the Great Ape House?
Unless, perchance, their parents would tell them.
"Of course, we ended up taking the star down," Davis sighed.
I asked him where they put it.
"On top of the bird house," he said with a sad smile.
The Book Man
Not long after I graduated from the School of Journalism at Ohio State University, I ventured into the Bibliophile, a very classy little bookstore wedged between Long's College Bookstore and Hennick's, a popular student hangout. I wanted to look through the Bibiophile's nature books and say hello to my friend Gene Rea, the manager of the store.
I first met Gene when I was a senior at North High School. About that time, I had just been elected into the Wheaton Club, a group of professional and amateur naturalists and their associates. Gene was probably around forty, give or take a year.
It was hard not to like Gene, although I'm sure there were those who did not easily take to him. For one thing, he enjoyed twitting the vanities of
Washing-ton politicians. But mostly, his cynicism was directed at the inanities of the entire human race. His humorous remarks about the bombastic
and pompous aspects of Homo sapiens were usually enough on target that even those members of the Wheaton Club who looked upon him with a
jaundiced eye were apt to nod their heads or slap him on the back with a good-natured remark like "You tell 'em, Gene!" If Gene had any reverence
for the human species, it was reserved for the giants of literature and science. He would excuse those oracles almost any excess, and when talking
about them he would become a schoolboy again &endash; a one-man cheering section for all that was progressive and idealistic in life.
To my youthful eyes, Gene was debonair as well as intellectually honest. He had a keen sense of humor and, most important to my unwrinkled idealism, he was humanistic in his outlook towards life. All qualities I admired and, by and large, still do.
The most distinguishing physical feature about Gene Rea was the contrast between his thatch of prematurely white hair and his thick dark eyebrows. His appearance, in effect, was a trademark, and the image was heightened by his quizzical blue eyes peering out through a pair of black horned-rimmed glasses. Short of stature and slim, he gave the impression of overall compactness.
Gene not only loved books, he selected his stock carefully, and he was adept at finding rare editions, especially of natural history books, so much so that he had a national reputation for sniffing out the hard-to-find volume. After books, Gene's over-riding passion was birds, followed closely by wildflowers. He gained considerable expertise in both fields and could identify a False Solomon's Seal as easily as a Ceru-lean Warbler. His friend Dick McCutchen wistfully said of Gene, "When he made his choice for books, and the satisfaction therein, I think the ambition he surrendered was fame as a natural scientist and teacher. (And, yes, this Dick McCutchen was the very same Marine captain who appeared on the $64,000 Question, a popular TV show way back when.)
Why Gene didn't pursue an academic career is anyone's guess. Even though I grew to know Gene quite well over the years, I don't pretend to have the answer to that question. Perhaps he didn't do well in school, though that's unlikely with a mind that could come up with hundreds of bino-mial scientific names for plants. More likely, his restless soul was intimidated or turned off by the bureaucracy of the educational system. His was a free spirit, no doubt about it, and that would account for his love of birds as well as the fragile beauty of a rare wildflower &endash; like a colony of snowy trillium he once told me about.
Gene was married to Helen. They had no children. From pictures I've seen of the two of them together in earlier years, Helen appeared to be an attractive woman: a willowy blonde with a good figure. She shared her husband's love of the Hocking hills, although her own knowledge of nature was limited. The few times I met Helen she was very friendly, but as high- strung as telephone lines in a high wind. I always had the feeling she was ten minutes away from a nervous breakdown. Gene never talked about it, but I had the suspi-cion that he had a tough marital row to hoe. But who knows? I might be wrong.
Of course, there is more to life than domesticity, birds, flowers, and books. In his personal life, Gene enjoyed gourmet food, including the preparation of wild game provided to him by some of his hunting friends. This indulgence was a glaring contradiction in his life for he was non-hunter and had great respect for wild animals. His talent at cooking was matched by his appreciation of good wine, or an old fashioned, or a dry martini made with imported gin.
So it was that I found myself in the Bibliophile one June afternoon many years ago. I had recently graduated from college, gotten married the year before, and just purchased my first car, a second-hand Ford sedan that my wife and I named Freddy. It was my intention to spend more time looking for birds. Gene was busy with a customer when I walked into the store, so I used the intervening time to browse through the many books on birds and biology that were on the shelves. To my way of thinking, even way back then, such works represented the acme of human accomplishment.
It was with something akin to reverence that I leafed through original editions of A. C. Bent's Life Histories of North Ameri-can Birds, Henry Beston's Outermost House, Frank Chapman's Autobiography of a Bird Lover, and Aldo Leopold's Sand County Almanac. I decided to buy a copy of The Warblers of North America by Frank Chapman, a book published in 1907 and reprinted in 1914. Though not new, this 1914 edition with its colorful plates by Louis Agassiz Fuertes and Bruce Horsfall was in mint condition and cost ten dollars. A fair amount of money to pay for a book at the time, but I can truthfully say it is worth a good deal more today.
When he was free, Gene and I chatted as he made out the sales slip for my book and rang the transaction up on the cash register. "Been getting out lately?" he asked. "Not much," I replied, "what with getting married, school, and finding a job." Then I added, "But I'm going to fix that." It was at that point that Gene mentioned the Clear Creek Valley, down in Hocking and Fairfield Counties. "Not more than an hour's drive, he explained, "southeast of Columbus off State Route 33."
As a matter of fact, I had heard of the valley. It was where the Wheaton Club held its annual spring heigira. On the first weekend in June, they would meet at an old cabin, once a marginal farmer's home, perched on a hillside of fields and woods. Because of being in the service, plus not having a car until recently, I had never attended one of these outings. The cabin and tract of land, known as Neotoma, was owned by Edward S. Thomas, my friend and mentor who was curator of Natural History at the old Ohio State Museum at the corner of 15th and High, right across the street from the Bibliophile. Ed's weekly nature column appeared in the Sunday Columbus Dispatch for 57 years starting in 1922 and resulted in something like 2330 separate columns. This was a labor of love because he was never paid a penny for his efforts.
When I mentioned to Gene that I had never been to the Clear Creek Valley, he pursed his lips and made a soundless whistle. "You've got to get down
there," he said. "Sycamore Warblers nest along the creek and there are a dozen other species of breeding warblers." He started ticking off the names of the warblers, and he mentioned a lot of other birds: Scarlet and Summer Tanagers, Baltimore and Orchard Orioles, Black Vultures, Broad-winged Hawks, and I don't know what all.
Before I left the store, Gene diagrammed a map showing me how to take an alterna-tive route, one that would take me through the sleepy little hamlet of Amanda, then through the crossroads village of Clearport and Revenge. His face lit up as he explained that by following his directions I would travel through miles of gently rolling green hills, go past two covered bridges, and see a stand of dead trees inhabited by Red-headed Woodpeckers.
That was a memorable day - I had renewed an old friendship, acquired a book I had long wanted,and heard word of a place that sounded like paradise.
A World of Conincidence
I was about eleven or twelve years old when my widowed mother took a break from renting rooms to students and we moved into a four-unit apartment building across from the OSU campus. There were usually three of us, including my mother and my older brother David. Sometimes my maternal grandmother, "Da," lived near us, but now she lived in the same building. She was like a satellite, always orbiting around us, always somewhere near.
Mrs. MaGill and her son Harry Jr lived in another of the apartments. Mrs. MaGill was an attractive widow, a school teacher at the Open-Air School that once existed off Neil Avenue north of the campus. She and my mother got to know each other a bit. And I remember Mrs. MaGill telling my mother she had recently had a date with a fellow teacher.
"Did he take you out to dinner?" my mother asked.
"No, he took me to a nudist camp," Mrs. MaGill replied.
My mother's mouth fell open. "You didn't take your clothes off, did you?"
"When in Rome do as the Romans do," Mrs. MaGill smiled sweetly.
I'm not sure how my mother reacted to Mrs. MaGill's cool presence of mind. I'm sure she didn't laugh. Maybe she fainted.
Harry Jr. was a likable kid, studious, a couple of years older than I was at the time. But what I really liked about him, he showed me how to stretch Japanese tissue tight and wrinkle-free onto my miserable looking model airplanes.
Oh, and he was also influential in upgrading my pulp magazine diet from Sky Fighters and The Shadow to Astounding Stories and a number of other sci-fi publications.
I vividly recall the day when Mrs. MaGill told my mother how her husband, Harry MaGill, died. They were living in Hillsboro where Mr. MaGill was a deputy sheriff. One night late, the phone rang, and he was told to get downtown; the hardware store was being burglarized, and he was needed in a hurry.
It seems there were two brothers - the Boggs brothers - in the hardware store. Well, to make a long story short, the building was surrounded by the police and there was some gunfire. Mr. MaGill was mortally wounded; and after a swift trial, the Boggs brothers went to prison, condemned to spend the rest of their lives behind bars. All of this happened in the early '30s.
Now zoom forward into the future. World War II is history. I have come home from the navy, finished college, and I'm working for myself as a small publisher downtown where I share a suite of penthouse offices at 16 East Broad Street. Dirt cheap rent for a prime location, just steps from Broad and High, located in the same building as the famous Marzetti's Restaurant.
Many mornings, after finding a parking spot, I had a habit of stopping at Jack and Benny's, a breakfast and lunch counter kind of place located on the same corner as my office. As a matter of fact, it was owned by Benny Klein, the pro- prietor of Benny Klein's Steak House, which was located right around the corner on High Street.
Benny was a real character, an émigré from Cleveland, where he'd made his money in pickles - you know, sweet, sour, dill, those kinds - a stocky Edward G. Robinson look-alike with a handshake that could crush rocks. One day. He introduced me to Sam Shepherd and his bride. Adrianne, who had gotten married earlier that day in Chicago.
Back to Jack and Benny's. One day I say down at the counter next to a pleasant looking, white-haired gentleman with twinkling blue eyes, an ingratiating smile, and we struck up a conversation. over the next couple of years I encountered him frequently and we became good friends.
He was a conduit for all kinds of Broad and High gossip and always lent a patient ear for my own problems. Despite his age, he had been married just a few years and had a young daughter. He had learned the real estate business, and sometimes he did this or that job for Benny Klein. His name was Doc Boggs. The Doc Boggs I've been telling you about.
One summer morning, Doc introduced me to a skinny little kid who had dropped out of college to work downtown in a men's store. Doc said, "Tommy, I want you to meet Les Wexner,." And I said, "Glad to know you, Les."
Once I loaned Les five bucks for lunch and carfare. He paid me back. Promptly. Sort of a shame, when you think about it. Might have accumulated into a lot of money over the years.
Another time, Les asked if he could sell ads for me. I think I dissuaded him from the enterprise. My thought was that he wasn't aggressive enough. He was a very quiet kind of young man. Well- mannered, but quiet.
Toward the end of the summer, Les stopped coming in Jack and Benny's and I inquired about him. Doc said that Les' parents had bought him a womens' apparel store that had been on the block in the Kingsdale Shopping Center. For something like $18,000. I remember whistling and saying, "Oh, my gosh, there goes the family money." Well, as you might know, I couldn't have been more wrong.
But there was one thing I did right. Never once over all that time did I ever intimate to my friend Doc that I was aware of his past. Not once, because I counted Doc Boggs among my best friends.
I also knew that a few years before I met him, a deputy sheriff on his death bed had testified that Harry MaGill had actually been killed in a crossfire, accidentally shot down by one of his own friends.
The Boggs Brothers had been exonerated and released from prison. What had started out as a small town youthful caper and ended in stark tragedy had eventually ended on a happier note.
Memory does play tricks. If my recollections of any of the events recounted here are inaccurate, or if you can add an interesting note, I would appreciate hearing from you.
More to Come!