|I read Bob Harrison's
Then I reread it. Read it again and
several more times. In the days to come I'll read it some more. I'll copy
it and mail it to my daughters, family and friends. Why? Because it represents
the America I knew as a kid. The uncomplicated simple life where we knew
what was right and good and did it. We forgave each others faults - went
to church - carried baseball gloves on our belts and a Prince Albert can
full of marbles in our hip pockets. We read funny books (comic books) and
loved our mothers.
Our dads turned up after the war. I
didn't know mine. He was a hard man - tough as nails. Spent way too much
time with my mother to the point that he slept in the same bed with her.
He drank sour mash Lem Motlow Whiskey and said "goddammit" and "sonuvabitch"
a lot and bought me a single shot rifle.
He left the Army - he had been a Colonel
in the paratroops. I used to wonder why he didn't have a whole lot of friends
with all their body parts. Guys would turn up at the front door and yell,
"Wes, how long does a sonuvabitch have to stand out here before someone
invites him in and offers him a drink?" That was always followed by, "You
crazy bastard. You're a sight for sore eyes!" Hugs - man type hugs. Sometimes
man's tears. Then they would play the "Whatever happened to old so-n-so"
game they always played. "Lost a leg in Sicily." How could anyone lose
his leg? "Left an arm in Holland." How could you leave an arm anywhere?
Over the years I learned that these
men were World War II Vets. Oddly they were thankful to be alive and never
complained. I learned patriotic obligation and love. Unabashed love of
this wonderful country from them. The ground they bought at such a dear
price once again had free people breathing the air of free men. When our
men landed by sea and air drop on June 6, 1944 - I did not know that my
future bride was asleep in her little bed in German occupied Norway. So
much for the old man.
My mom was an Irish girl - sang all
the time - knew all the Lucky Strike hit parade songs by heart. The only
time she didn't sing was when she hung out the wash because she held the
odd clothespin in her teeth. She knew all the Brer Rabbit stories by heart.
Taught us how to play kick-the-can and Chinese checkers and how to catch
lightning bugs in a mayonnaise jar. She was a gentle as the Colonel was
tough. Hell of a match.
I loved her. She was my mom. She navigated
me past pneumonia, measles, mumps, whooping cough - lots of Poison Ivy
- falling off the garage roof and getting my skull busted in a rock fight.
My gentle, sweet, loving mother. Dearest Margaret was taken from us by
cancer when I was nine. Tough times. Two years of surgical and hospital
bills bankrupted the old man. He lost everything - our home - the car -
all of his wartime savings. Everything! He put me in military school and
went back to what he was best at - paratroooping.
But Bob Harrison, God bless him, returned
the memories of the good times - the barefoot years. The years of what
he has so wonderfully put us all in touch with.
I was a free spirit. I lived on a mountain
above the town of St. Elmo, Tennessee. Actually I lived on the side of
the mountain. Had a pal named Sammy Northington. He was a wonderful playmate.
Between us we had the world by the tail.
We created things. For Example we invented
Weekly Reader cigarettes - We took those big fat phone pole size pencils
they made you use in elementary school - tore strips out of our Weekly
Reader, wrapped the strips around the fat pencils - then withdrew the pencils
and used them as a ramrod to pack Half and Half pipe tobacco down the tube.
Once you got used to the damn things they weren't half bad.
Sammy and I dabbled in forbidden fruit
- a propensity that unfortunately has followed me through life. In the
third grade we developed a curiosity - a premature fascination for nekkit
ladies. They had Police Gazette in the St. Elmo barber shop. In those days
barber shops were male bastions with hoochie coochie women on calendars
and pin up pictures. Our childhood fascination was born there.
In the 1940s there were damn few places
that a third grader could do female nomenclature research. National Geographic
had nekkit lady pictures. Aborigines up the Zambowanga river - most of
them had saggy breasts and bones stuck through their ears. We got a very
distorted idea of female anatomy from the Geographic Society. World book
Encyclopedia had pictures of nekkit lady Greek statues. They looked a helluva
lot prettier than the little darlings living off mangos in South America.
Pete McCall, a dear lifelong friend,
who lives here in DC, had a father who was a highly respected doctor in
Chattanooga. Pete borrowed books from his father's library. The problem
with research using these books was that Sammy and I had no idea what we
were looking at and we couldn't understand the terms. We hit a brick wall.
We followed baseball. Chattanooga had
a team called the "Lookouts" The "Lookouts" were the last stop before the
big leagues. We weren't so sure we knew what in the hell major league ball
was. There was no TV.
No major league teams in the south.
We only saw major league ball in the "Movie Tone" news reels. We didn't
give a damn about Joe D. we never saw Jolting Joe. We never saw King Farouk
or King George and we didn't give a damn about them either.
We were a farm team for the Washington
Senators - last stop before going up to the Big Leagues. Our most famous
contribution was Harmon Killabrew.
In my day we had a player named Earl
Rootin' Tootin' Junior Wooten. My favorite
player - played right field. The man could reach anything. He took away
hits like nobody I've ever seen. Went up in 47 and in 48. They sent him
down both times. He never figured out major league pitching. Didn't matter.
We loved him.
Met him once after a double header against
Birmingham. One A.M. locker room - smelled of sour towels - sweat soaked
uniforms - cigar smoke and liniment. My hero came out of a steam filled
shower. Had a wad of tobacco the size of a hen egg in his jaw - needed
a shave. Was skinny - kept scratching himself in places my mother wouldn't
have approved of and spit horrible looking stuff down the shower drain.
He shook my hand, winked and said, "Helluva game son". I had met my God.
He got a baseball card in 1948 - a Bowman
- it is framed and hangs on our breakfast nook wall. He's still alive -
and lives in Williamson, SC. I found him and spoke to him on the phone
a month ago and had the honor of being able to thank the gentleman for
the joy he gave to a young boy. He remains a wonderful inspiration.
Bob Harrison has returned so many of
these memories. This rambling romp through an insignificant childhood is
my thank you to him. His prose - his wonderful gentle words - what a paint
box - he paints pictures on your heart. He has given me evenings of remembrance.
There is no finer gift.
I used to go go the Saturday movies.
After the movies we would go to a local shoe store where they had a sort
of x-ray contraption that you could stick your feet in and see your toes.
The thing could penetrate your shoes. Must have been powerful. We did it
every week. It's a wonder our damn toes didn't fall off.
After we radiated our toes we went to
the five and dime for a lime-ade before catching the bus home. Haven't
had a lime-ade in 50 years. Every boy carried a jackknife in his pocket
at school. it was universal boy tool. We played games with them. It was
never a weapon.
It was a time when we loved and respected
teachers. Their word was law. If you talked back to a teacher God sent
a lightning bolt from the sky and killed you.
Teachers took away your treasures -
put 'em in a drawer - told you you could get them back at the end of the
year and you never saw them again. I always figured teacher's sons had
closet full of marbles, yo-yos, tin soldiers, tops, tin whistles, Kellogg’Pep
buttons and Barlow knives.
It was a time of radio. You listened
to Jack Armstrong, The Green Hornet - Inner Sanctum - Fibber Magee and
Molly - Charley McCarthy - Straight Arrow - Tom Mix - Jack Benny - Sam
Spade - FBI In Peace and War - The Shadow - Lucky Strike Hit Parade - Amos
and Andy - Our Miss Brooks - Sgt. Preston of The Yukon - Gunsmoke and the
news with H.V. Caltenborn.
Radio didn't capture all of your attention
- you could build model planes or draw pictures and still listen. But I
have probably bored your socks off. Old men’s memories do that especially
to the young. They have no point of reference.
This was written for Bob Harrison. It
took damn near all night - writing interspersed with marvelous trips of
the mind. My mother was alive again - I smelled the honeysuckle and wiggled
my toes in rich Tennessee dirt. The birds sang and all was right on God's
Thank you Bob Harrison - THANK YOU SO
Postscript: at 18 I got a second family
- the crew of the USS REQUIN.