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My mother named me Dorothy Roberta Jones after her sister, Dorothy Roberta Knight, who passed away at the age of thirteen. I’ve at times gone by Roberta, Dottie Bob, Bobbie, Miss Jones, Miss Roberta, Mrs. Austin, Roberta J. Austin and Bobbie Austin. I also answer to Mom, Aunt Bobbie, Grandma and Great Grandma. This memoir, then, was written by Roberta J. Austin, a.k.a. all of the above.

“Are we there yet?” was a question I heard often from my children whenever we were traveling, and it’s taken me a lifetime to realize that the answer should always be, “Yes”, because the trip is always as important as the destination.

In this memoir, names have not been changed, and events have been described as I remember them. If some of the particulars are muddled or off-track, I apologize.

I’ve had conversations with many of my family and friends which have helped me to clarify details, and I’d like to thank them all. Special thanks to my oldest son, David, who encouraged, prodded, consulted, edited and typed this whole thing! Without that (especially the occasional prodding!) I’m sure this project wouldn’t have gotten done.

New York City, October 1952
New York City was incredible! I loved the cacophony of horns, sirens and jackhammers accompanying the currents of pedestrians and vehicles that rushed down the skyscraper-lined streets like waters roaring through a great canyon. My stride quickened to match the tempo of the city as I hustled from subway to new job. The aromas of ethnic foods assailed my nostrils and foreign tongues sifted through the hubbub, heightening my enthusiasm, coloring my new life. I was a college graduate now, a newlywed, a working woman and pregnant! So grown up! What a contrast this was to my childhood!

Bartow, Florida, April 1935
The organ faded to stillness and my daddy’s voice filled the small church as I wriggled on the hard wood pew. Carol and Teddy, my younger siblings, had been taken home after Sunday school to stay with Georgia, our colored cook. I was old enough, at nearly five, to attend church. My feet didn’t reach the floor, so one of the deacons had built me a foot stool. I tried to live up to the trust that had been placed in me, but the sermon, never more than twenty minutes, seemed very long, and it was hard to sit still. Celeste Barnett, the teen-age girl I sat with, started drawing pictures on her church bulletin to entertain me. My mother was in the choir, and so was Celeste’s daddy. Amy Hall, the grocer’s wife, sang soprano. Mother sang alto, Daddy sang tenor, and Mr. Barnett sang bass. Mrs. Lyle played the organ. I always enjoyed the music. I couldn’t yet read, but the hymns sung at every service–the Doxology, the Gloria–I knew by heart, and I joined in lustily. I added many other hymns to my repertoire as they became familiar. When Mrs. Lyle played something I particularly liked, “Kamenei Ostrow”, for instance, I determined to someday learn the piano.

Mrs. McLeod was a main support for the First Presbyterian Church. She ran a boarding house in Bartow, and her daughter, Mary Stewart McLeod, was my mother’s roommate at Agnes Scott College. When Mother was pregnant with me, she and Daddy lived in West Virginia, but Mother had Florida sand in her shoes. When Mrs. McLeod’s church needed a minister, they called Daddy. Mother admired Mrs. McLeod, a strong, stalwart old lady. She always wanted to write her biography, but due to one facet of her life, never did.

Orr and Aunt Mamie
Mr. and Mrs. Orr lived across the street and were like grandparents to us. We called him “Orr” and her “Aunt Mamie”. Aunt Mamie had an upright piano and played spirited gospel hymns. They weren’t Presbyterians, but once in awhile if Mrs. Lyle couldn’t be at church, Aunt Mamie filled in. One time she asked me, “Which music do you like best–the slow music Mrs. Lyle plays, or the peppy music I play?”
With the innocence of a child too young to recognize a loaded question, I answered without guile, “I like the music Mrs. Lyle plays.”
“You do?!” Aunt Mamie laughed heartily and gave me a playful spank. I didn’t understand why that was so funny.

Aunt Mamie raised chickens in her back yard and I sometimes helped her collect eggs, but didn’t really enjoy it. I was squeamish about reaching under the hens. Sometimes the eggs were soiled and I didn’t want to touch them, but when a hen was setting and her eggs started hatching, the baby chicks fascinated me, as they did Carol and Teddy.

Teddy was just two years old when Mother took the three of us to a photographer to have a group portrait made. To put a smile on Teddy’s face, Aunt Mamie lent one of her baby chicks for him to hold. Our sitting went well, and later, when Mother received the finished portraits, she proudly showed them to us.
“Teddy, who is this?” she asked, holding his portrait. “Dass Aunt Mamie…” he began.
“No, Teddy, that’s not Aunt Mamie.”
Showing some exasperation, he repeated, “Dass Aunt Mamie…”
“Teddy, you know that’s not Aunt Mamie! Who is this?”
Very fast, he responded, “Dassauntmamie’s chickabiddy!”

The first time I was in church on Communion Sunday I was sitting next to Celeste as usual. I was intently interested in the tiny glasses of grape juice on the communion trays, and deeply disappointed when they passed over my head. When I later I told Aunt Mamie about this, she went immediately to her kitchen, prepared some grape juice and bread, and we had communion at her kitchen table. I thanked her and feigned satisfaction, but it wasn’t the same without those tiny little glasses.

The circus was coming to town, and Aunt Mamie and Orr asked Mother if they could take me. The day we were to go, I wasn’t feeling so well, but didn’t tell Mother because I didn’t want to miss the circus. We went, but my chief memory of that day is of throwing up my first cotton candy! I haven’t cared for cotton candy since!

One night Daddy didn’t come home for supper. Mother said Orr was sick and Daddy was with him. Mother put us to bed before Daddy came home, and they told us the next morning that Orr had gone to heaven. I cried, but they said Orr was with Jesus now and had no more sickness or pain, so I guessed I should feel happy.

A Miserable Vacation

In 1934, when we went to Miami Beach, all three children came down with whooping cough. Mother’s sister, Adah, came to help her nurse us through. The disease is aptly named. We were whooping and coughing and vomiting, and one of the neighbors heard all that carrying on and called the police to break up our “wild party”! We were quarantined and spent our entire vacation confined to the house, but we were too sick to care. Teddy, only 3-1/2 months old, almost died. We recovered, and returned to Bartow. When I hear modern mothers objecting to immunizing their babies, I think they can’t have any idea what those childhood diseases are like or they’d be grateful for the shots!

New Car
In the summer of 1935 it was decided we needed a new car. Daddy found that it’d save money to travel to Detroit and buy the car direct from the factory. Mother’s sister, Nancy Lou Narmore, lived with her family in Ann Arbor while Uncle Phil was studying for his PhD, so we made plans to stay with them in Michigan while arrangements were made for the car. Teddy stayed home with Grandmother. Mrs. Rusk, a member of our church, wanted to ride with us back to her home in Michigan, and we shared expenses. She rode in the front with Daddy while Mother rode in the back with Carol and me. She read our horoscopes every day, and warned Mother and Daddy when to take heed.

Mrs. Rusk made it an eventful trip! When we stopped for gas in Georgia, Mrs. Rusk gave the attendant a credit card, and we left. A few miles up the road Mrs. Rusk exclaimed, “Oh! I forgot to take back my card!” She’d also forgotten to sign the slip, and the gas station attendant, thinking he’d been ripped off, had called the law, who arrived just about then. Daddy persuaded them that it was a big mistake, not a scam, and they escorted us back to the service station so Mrs. Rusk could sign for the gas and retrieve her card. Mother delighted in telling this story, because the attendant had told the officers there was “a man and his wife in the front seat and a seventeen-year-old girl with two small children in the back!”

On July 28th (my fifth birthday), Mrs. Rusk read her horoscope and it told her to avoid travel. Mother and Daddy had to be pretty firm with her to get back on the road, but travel we did, into Ohio hill country. Both Carol and I got carsick, and Daddy repeatedly had to stop the car so we could get out and throw up. Mother wanted to give us some cracked ice, but there were no service stations for miles. Finally, Daddy stopped at a house on a hill and Mother climbed to the front door to ask the lady of the house for some ice. While Mother was talking, Mrs. Rusk noticed a clover patch on the hillside and asked if we might look for four-leaf clovers. I celebrated my birthday eating cracked ice and searching for four-leaf clovers. Some birthday! Maybe we shouldn’t have traveled! Anyway, we finally got to Michigan and had a fun time with our cousins, Phyllis and Bennett. The ride home in the new car, without Mrs. Rusk, was uneventful but slow, because a new car had to be broken in. We traveled the long trip home going 35 to 40 miles an hour.

Big Wedding
“Yes, maam?”
“Run upstairs and get my sewing basket.”
“Yes, maam!”

When I was five, my relationship with Grandmother was not comfortable. I was a little scared of her. She was never mean, but there was a sharpness in her voice when she called. In later years I learned to appreciate Grandmother and enjoy her company, but not at five years old!

Mother’s cousin Jo Montanus, whom we called Aunt Jo, was having a big church wedding in Coral Gables and wanted me to be her flower girl. I needed to go down several days beforehand to have the seamstress fit me and make my dress so I could be there for the photographer and the rehearsal. It was decided that Grandmother and I would go down on the train, while Mother, Daddy, Carol and Teddy would come along in the car in time for the wedding. This was BIG!

I’d never ridden on a train nor been to a wedding, so I didn’t know what to expect. Neither did I know that branch of the family very well. I’d met Aunt Jo once or twice and her mother, Great Aunt Adah, but Uncle Philip not at all. In short, I was taking a plunge into an unknown adventure with a bunch of near-strangers, and I had strong, mixed emotions: excitement and trepidation!
Our train was leaving Bartow early in the morning, so Mother had packed my little suitcase the night before. Daddy took Grandmother and me to the train depot, gave us our tickets and a big hug, and we hustled out to the platform where the train was hissing and puffing.

“All aboard!” called the conductor and the bell clanged. Another quick hug from Daddy and I mounted the steps with Grandmother. We turned at the door, waved goodbye and found seats. With a jerk and a clang, we chugged away and I left everything familiar behind.

The porter treated me like royalty, lifting my small bag to the rack above our seat alongside Grandmother’s larger one, then directing us to the diner, where we ate breakfast. I had half a grapefruit sprinkled with sugar, two slices of buttered toast, a poached egg and a glass of milk. Our table was covered with a snow-white tablecloth and at each place there was a large white napkin in a tent-like fold. The service was elegant. It included a large plate, a smaller plate, a cereal bowl, two forks, two spoons, a knife, a coffee cup and saucer, a miniature dish of salt with its own tiny spoon, a glass of ice water and a shallow bowl of water which Grandmother said was a finger bowl, to dip your fingers into if they got sticky.

I don’t remember how long the train trip took, but I know we had lunch in the diner as well. I think we may have arrived in Miami in time to have supper at the Montanus home in Coral Gables.

My memories of the house are patchy and peculiar. Why do I remember a tiled roof, but don’t remember any other details of its exterior? I remember nothing of the colors or interior décor, but I remember brocade draperies and thick carpets, giving me an impression of wealth. The one detail I remember vividly was the cuckoo clock on the wall. I’d watch it and wait for the cuckoo to come out, which it did every fifteen minutes. Most of the time, there wasn’t much else for me to do. I went to the seamstress three times–once to be measured, again to be fitted and finally to try on the finished dress. I then sat twice for the hairdresser; once for pictures, once for the wedding. She used a curling iron that was heated on a bed of coals. We then went to the photographer for portraits–many portraits. Individual portraits of the bride, the maid of honor (Aunt Genevieve), each of the bridesmaids and each of the flower girls (Nancy Bennett and me). Group portraits as well. Most of the time I was sitting still, watching the bustle, trying not to get dirty, staying out of the way. I was surely glad when my family arrived, the day before the wedding!

For the wedding, Nancy and I had baskets of rose petals, which we scattered in the aisle as we walked ahead of the bride. That’s all I remember about that; I just wanted to finish and get back to my family!

When the hoopla was over, we drove back to Bartow, traveling the Tamiami Trail, which is now Highway 41. Just as it started to get dark, we had a flat tire, and Daddy said, “Oh, phooey!” That was his swear word. He got out to change the tire, and Mother made us stay in the car because she heard bobcats screaming in the swamp. I worried about Daddy, but he said they wouldn’t come near when the car had its lights on, and he also had a flashlight to keep them away while he changed the tire. I don’t know if that was true, but I felt less afraid. Daddy changed the tire and we drove home.

Ghosts, Recitals and Parties
Halloween was always a big event in Bartow. The downtown merchants decorated their stores and set up booths. There were fortune tellers, haunted houses, “go fishing” tanks with prizes to catch, windows that said “Soap Me”, a cake walk and a costume parade, with prizes for the best costumes. When Teddy was two, Mother made a ghost costume out of an old sheet, but when he looked in the mirror he scared himself and started crying. She discarded that idea and went shopping. He ended up in a monkey costume, and rode on Daddy’s shoulders in the parade. He won first prize, a coconut cream pie!

Miss Culpepper was our piano teacher. Carol and I took lessons, and a highlight of the year was our piano recital, when we wore long dresses and played solos for an audience! One year we played a duet, “March of the Wee Folk”, and Carol played a song she’d made up herself. We announced our own numbers, so Carol walked onstage and stated, “I shall play ‘Fairy Queen’ by….me!” She was four years old, and so cute! She played and sang, “Fairy Queen is sitting down. Little fairies bring the crown.”

The following year we went to Winter Haven for a joint recital with the students of a teacher who was Miss Culpepper’s friend. Miss Culpepper was riding alongside Mother, who was driving, and the three of us were in back. Suddenly, our sedan’s back door flew open, with Teddy holding on to it. Carol and I both screamed, and quick as a flash, Miss Culpepper reached back, grabbed him by the arm and pulled him to safety. Shortly afterwards they began designing cars with doors that opened towards the rear instead of the front.

Our next-door neighbors were the Gallemores. Mr. Gallemore was the editor of the local newspaper, The Polk County Record, and Mrs. Gallemore was a high school English teacher. They had three children, older than us; two sons, Roy Holland and Gilbert, and one daughter, Virginia Fran. Mrs. Gallemore–Virginia–was my mother’s closest friend and like an older sister to my mother, who had five younger sisters. I often heard, “Virginia Gallemore says…” and “Virginia Gallemore does…”, and we’d usually do likewise.

Virginia Fran was like an older sister to me. She was four years older, and I’m sure there were times when it was a drag to her to have me coming over to her house to play with her and her friends, but she never made me feel anything but welcome.

Virginia Fran took piano lessons from Miss Culpepper, and so did her friend Dale Taylor. Dale had her lesson just before me, and one day as she was leaving I heard her tell Miss Culpepper she was going to Virginia Fran’s birthday party that afternoon. I was unhappy to hear this–Virginia Fran was having a birthday party, and I wasn’t invited! I guessed it was going to be a big girls’ party, and I wasn’t big yet. Later that day, I was moping disconsolately in the yard, still feeling hurt, when Melana, our colored cook, called out to me, “Roberta, come in and take your bath now.”

Bath? In the middle of the day? That could mean only one thing! “Am I going to Virginia Fran’s birthday party?!” I squealed gleefully.
“Shh-shh-h! It’s supposed to be a surprise!”
Now I felt a little insulted. My mother and Melana hadn’t told me about the party because they thought I couldn’t keep a secret! Well, their strategy had backfired!

First Voice Lesson
When I was seven years old, Daddy thought it’d be nice to have me sing a solo for infant baptism. He taught me the song:
I think when I read that sweet story of old
When Jesus was here among men
How he called little children as lambs to his fold
I should like to have been with them then
I wish that his hand had been placed on my head
That his arm had been thrown around me
And that I might have seen his kind look when he said
“Let the little ones come unto me.”

Mother felt I should have a lesson first, so she sent me to Mrs. Reid, a voice teacher. Mrs. Reid said my vowels were too flat, especially my short “a” sound. She wanted me to sing, “…when I read thaht sweet story” and “…he called little children ahs lahmbs to his fold”, etc. I tried.
At home, Mother asked me about my lesson. “I get all mixed up,” I said. “I’m trying to sing ‘thaht sweet story’ and ‘ahs lahmbs’ but then I keep singing ‘Jesahs’ and ‘amahng men’”.
“Oh,” she said, “then don’t change anything. Just sing the song.” That’s what I did.

Yo-yos, Jacks and Jump Ropes
Our back-door neighbors, the Hargroves, had three girls: Mimi (Mary Claire), who was one year older than me, Dolly (Dorothy Waldo), who was between me and Carol by age, and Judy (Judith Lee), who was Teddy’s age. Mrs. Hargrove’s name was Dorothy, and she was called Dot. Her mother, Mrs. Waldo, who lived with them, made sugar cookies for all the neighborhood kids at Christmas. We liked the Hargroves, played with them every day, and Mother and Dot would often chat.

All the neighborhood kids usually got together in ours or the Hargrove’s yard. Kids today sometimes ask me, “What did you do for fun if you didn’t have television or video games?” Well, it depended on the weather and the time of day. If it was hot we played in the lawn sprinkler, running in and out, screaming and laughing. If it rained and there was no lightning, we ran in the rain. We played hopscotch, jacks, marbles, jumped rope. We roller skated on the sidewalk, pulled each other in wagons, rode tricycles and bicycles, played Freeze Tag, Crack the Whip or Hide and Seek. We had lots of games, but one of our favorites, especially at dusk, was “Ain’t No Bears Out Tonight”. This was a kind of reverse Hide-and-Seek. There was a home base, but the person who was “it” (the “Bear”) would hide while the others stayed “home” and counted. Then we’d all run around the yard, singing “Ain’t no bears out tonight. Daddy shot ‘em all last night.” We’d sing it over and over until the “bear” came running out to grab someone, then we’d scream and run for home base. If someone got caught, they were “it” for the next round.

Tonsil Trouble
We didn’t like Dr. Hargrove very much. He was proud and aloof, but was the only surgeon in town and he also delivered babies. He delivered Carol and Teddy, and took out my tonsils. I was almost eight when they decided my tonsils and adenoids had to go. I was looking forward to the operation because they told me that afterwards I could have all the ice cream I wanted. When I awoke, however, I had such a sore throat that I couldn’t even swallow ice cream! I felt so betrayed! All I could take was cracked ice, which I let dribble down my throat. I don’t remember how long I spent in the hospital–two or three days– but a week after surgery I was sitting quietly in my back yard playing jacks (I’d been warned not to run or play hard) when suddenly I began spitting up blood- a lot! Back in the hospital they tied a gauze bandage in my throat, through my nose, to stop the bleeding. They said I’d hemorrhaged because I’d been playing in the sun. It wasn’t until years later that I learned Dr. Hargrove had made a mess of my tonsillectomy, also cutting off the uvula in the back of my throat! I was still in the hospital on my eighth birthday, so Daddy brought in my present–a new bicycle! It was shiny blue and had “balloon tires”. My old bike had been a hand-me-down with skinny tires. I was thrilled! I couldn’t ride it, but I’d look and know it was mine!

Lost in the City
Mother had grown up on my grandfather’s grove located on a bay near Clearwater, Florida. It’d been a family custom to pile into a large motorboat and cross the bay to Tampa to go Christmas shopping, so one year Mother decided we should all drive to Tampa. The night before our adventure in the big city, Mother gathered us in the kitchen for some special instructions.

“Now, it’s important to stay together and not wander off. But just in case you do get lost, don’t go looking for us. We’ll be looking for you. Stay in one place until we can find you.”
After some additional instructions, Mother asked a few questions to be sure we understood and would remember.
“Teddy, what will you do if you get lost?” Drawing on his own life experience more than on Mother’s instructions, he replied, “Well, I’d go up to a colored man, and if he wasn’t a ghost I’d…”

Carol and I interrupted him with hearty laughter, because we knew that ghosts were whiter than white and would never be mistaken for a colored man! Pondering this in later years, I’m struck by the memory of the special bond we children felt for “colored folks”. We trusted them, believed in them.

Mother went back to her instructions, and it’s a good thing she repeated them, this time focusing on what to do, rather than what not to do.
“If you’re outside, stand still and look for a policeman to help you. But remember, we’ll be looking for you and will retrace our steps, so stay where we’ve been so we can find you. If you’re in a store, go to the nearest clerk and tell him or her that you’re lost. The clerk will know what to do.”

Maas Brothers was a huge store. I looked up at a gigantic web of 4-inch tubes radiating from an office on the second floor all across the ceiling and down to each cash register. The clerks would put money or messages into small containers and the tubes would suck them right up into the office. It was amazing!

It had a speaker system too. After a little while Mother looked down at us and said, “Where’s Teddy?!” The words had just left her mouth when the speaker announced, “We have a lost boy at the women’s jewelry counter.”

We looked back to see a white-faced Teddy standing on the counter where he could be seen. “You did exactly the right thing!”, Mother said joyfully as Daddy reached Teddy and lifted him onto his shoulders. Her advice had paid off–and made us all mindful to stay together when we were in a strange place!

Home Delivery
There were lots of home-delivery items in those days. Mail was delivered, of course, but also milk and dairy products, laundry, dry cleaning, groceries and newspapers. The most exciting delivery was the iceman! He drove a horse-drawn wagon loaded with big blocks of ice. He was so strong! Housewives had a card to put in the window. It was printed on both sides, with two numbers on each side, one right side up and the other upside down. There was 25 over 50 on one side, and 75 over 100 on the other. The card placed in a window with one number facing out and right side up told the iceman how large a block of ice to deliver. He’d chip off a block of the proper size with his icepick, grab it with tongs, carry it into the house and hoist it up into the icebox. When he chipped off a piece of ice, small pieces fell on the wagon floor, and we kids would scoop them up to eat–or sometimes to drop down each other’s backs!

Funeral With an Unexpected Twist
Daddy was with the McLeods when Mr. McLeod passed away, and I heard him tell Mother, “When Mr. McLeod died, Mrs. McLeod got this radiant expression on her face and said, “My prince is walking with the King!”

A couple days later, Daddy was conducting Mr. McLeod’s funeral when a hooded, white-robed figure appeared at the back of the church carrying a spray of white flowers. A soft gasp and a stunned silence moved through the congregation and my dad paused in mid-sentence as the figure slowly walked up the aisle, placed the flowers on the coffin and walked back out. After recovering his composure, my dad called for a hymn.
Abide with me; fast falls the eventide.
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail, and comforts flee.
Help of the helpless, O, abide with me.
Nothing more was ever said about this episode, but Mother stopped talking about writing Mrs. McLeod’s biography. She had many things in her history to be proud of, but the Ku Klux Klan wasn’t one of them.

Bartow 1938—What Is It?
These were the years of the Great Depression, but we didn’t know much about it. Sometimes a man would come to our back door, Mother would feed him, he’d do a little yard work and move on. My allowance was 25¢ a week, and it went a long way. Five cents went to Sunday school, and I’d spend the rest any way I wanted. A penny would buy candy or chewing gum. On Saturdays I’d usually spend 10¢ on the movies, which included an exciting cowboy serial with a cliff-hanger ending, a cartoon and a feature film.

One Saturday when Barbara Taylor, Vella Jean Hall and I went together, a man sat next to Vella Jean with his hat in his lap. In a few minutes, she said, “Let’s go get some popcorn.”

I was a bit puzzled, because we didn’t have any more money, but we all went to the lobby. Vella Jean said, “That man gave me some candy, and put my hand on something in his lap. I don’t know what it is.”

Barbara said, “Let me sit next to him. Maybe I can figure it out.”

We returned. After a few minutes, Barbara whispered, “I’m thirsty. Let’s get some water.”

Back to the lobby we trooped for another consultation. “It feels like a finger,” said Barbara, “but I don’t know what it is.”

My curiosity was piqued. “Let me sit next to him,” I said. Back to our seats we strolled, with me in the lead. Soon the man reached over, gently took my hand and surreptitiously put it under his hat. He wrapped my fingers around his penis and began to move it up and down.

Mystery solved! I knew what it was, though I had no clue what the man was doing. Unlike Barbara and Vella Jean, I had a little brother, and the masculine anatomy wasn’t unknown to me. I withdrew my hand and said, “Let’s get some candy.” Once more we walked up the aisle, but this time we didn’t return.

“That’s not his finger,” I announced to Barbara and Vella Jean. “That’s something men have that they pee with.”

We decided we should tell someone. My house was closest, so we went there and told my mother. She called Mrs. Taylor, and they took us back to the theatre. We waited outside while they spoke to the usher, and then a policeman arrived. Soon we were being asked, “Is this the man?”
“I think so, but I’m not sure,” I said.
“Yes!” said Barbara emphatically.
“Yes!” announced Vella Jean, “I’m positive!”

With that, the policeman hauled the man away. Mother and Mrs. Taylor walked with us back to my house. We played and talked in the yard while Mother and Mrs. Taylor went inside “for a cup of coffee”.

I wondered what happened after that. I worried that we might have identified the wrong man. No adult ever mentioned this incident to us again, and I didn’t understand why the police had been called. I soon forgot about it, until one day I noticed a paper on Mother’s desk.

“I stood in the lobby,” she’d written, “and saw him come out of the theatre. His trousers were unzipped.” I read the rest of the page and realized my mother had written out what she was going to say in court. I felt better knowing that Mother had other evidence than my uncertain identification.

Four Strangers
That summer we vacationed at Clearwater Beach with our cousins. One day a group of four strangers came to visit my dad and they were not dressed in beach attire. After they left the adults were discussing their awkwardness at the unexpected arrival of men in suits and ties, and Aunt Adah said, “I was trying to make my long face hide my short shorts.”
The strangers were from Highland Presbyterian Church in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Shortly after we got home from vacation my dad received a call to that church.

We’d lived in Bartow for nine years, and Dad had done a lot for the community. The church had more than doubled in size. They’d added an education building for Sunday school classes and mid-week activities, including a men’s club, women’s auxiliary, youth group and others. He’d been active in the Boy Scouts, helping to chaperone a group going to the New York World’s Fair. He’d encouraged the high school to organize a band, and helped gain support for it in the community. He’d also talked down angry mobs, and helped prevent two lynchings. He was very much esteemed in Bartow, but felt it was time to move on.

When my teacher heard about our impending move, she suggested to the class that we think about who should move into my vacant seat. That set me to thinking what special qualities I had. I never got a blue ribbon on field day. I played hard, but there were always contenders who were faster, stronger and more athletic. I wasn’t very good in arithmetic. I had to practice multiplication to the rhythm of my yo-yo or jump rope–especially the sevens! I was in the top reading group, but I’d known I wasn’t the best since the first grade when I’d come upon the word C-U-P-B-O-A-R-D, and had pronounced it “cup board”. Buddy Campbell and Viva Kathleen Tillis had both known that it was pronounced “cubbard”, and politely corrected me. But I was the most musical! We sang solfege, using the syllables do, re, mi etc. to read a melody before singing the words of a song. Classroom teachers followed up on music lessons and some of them didn’t feel competent to lead us, so they’d ask me. I did this, gladly! The best singers, next to me, were Alice Ruby Whitten and Nell Singleton. I suggested it should be one of them, and left it to the class to decide.

The church in Fayetteville was close to Fort Bragg, which was the training center for the soldiers of the 82nd and 101st Divisions–the last stop before they were shipped overseas. Dad saw this as an opportunity to serve his country. We saw an opportunity to see snow!

North Carolina
When we moved to North Carolina, I was in the fourth grade, and my teacher, Mrs. Poole, was the aunt of my best friend, Sybil Corbett. Sybil’s mother wished to become a teacher as well, and was working on her certification at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. When her mother relocated for the summer, she told Sybil that she could bring along a friend, so Sybil invited me, and we moved to Chapel Hill together while the rest of my family stayed in Fayetteville.

Sybil and I hung out together while her mom was in class. UNC had a swimming pool, and her mom, wisely, signed us up for swimming classes.

My dad and his seven brothers had grown up close to a swimming hole, and one brother, Will, had drowned while trying to rescue a young neighbor. My dad felt strongly that everybody should learn to swim, and frequently took us to Eagle Lake and Kissimmee Springs. It sounds odd, but all my dad taught us to do was dog paddle. I really learned to swim in Chapel Hill that summer; different strokes and kicks, how to swim on my side, belly and back.

A Gathering Storm Across the Sea
The radio was an important center of information in the 1930s. Radios were large pieces of furniture which usually sat against a wall in the living room, and we’d listen to comedy shows like “Amos and Andy”, “Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy”, and Bob Hope. Sports events–boxing and baseball–were broadcast, and President Roosevelt addressed the country with his “Fireside Chats” to spread hope during the depression years. In the latter part of the decade, regular shows were interrupted with increasing frequency by an urgent voice announcing, “We interrupt this program to bring you a special news bulletin.”

Adolf Hitler, the dictator of Germany, had marched his armies into Austria and taken over, then marched them into Czechoslovakia, and the rest of the world watched with mounting concern. This was reflected in our parents’ faces, and in the fact that our radio was always on, to catch breaking news. We didn’t pay much attention to the radio and would play noisily with our toys, but once we heard that urgent voice we stopped everything and got quiet so our parents could hear.

Kilts and Khakis

The discordant drone of bagpipes and the slow, deliberate rhythm of drums wafted through the colorfully clad celebrants. They were marching down Hay Street towards the town square. Highland Scot settlers had founded Fayetteville, so Scottish kilts and bagpipes filled the air. It was the town’s Sesqui-Centennial. I learned that Sesqui-Centennial meant one hundred fifty years, but never found out what happened in 1789. This didn’t trouble me until 35 years later, when in a North Carolina history class I mentioned this celebration. The professor asked me what they were celebrating. To my chagrin, I didn’t know–and still don’t!

It didn’t matter then, though. The parade was strange and exciting–and our enjoyment was enhanced by the fact that it was the only thing we’d been allowed to go to since we’d arrived! We’d moved from Bartow only to find that Fayetteville was in the throes of a polio scare and the schools were closed. Children weren’t allowed to attend indoor events. No school. No Sunday school. No movies. Nothing indoors. It wasn’t a good way to start life in a new community! We could go to the parade, since it was outdoors. After Thanksgiving the quarantine was lifted, and we prepared to go to school. Teddy protested that he didn’t have the right clothes to wear. “Here, all the men wear dresses,” he said.

We were eager to go to school and meet new friends. Teddy was in Kindergarten, Carol in second grade and I was in fourth. I liked my teacher and new friends, but I had so much homework! Much more than I’d ever had in Florida! After working on it until ten o’clock a couple times, I learned to start earlier!

We’d been ecstatic about the idea of moving to North Carolina, because we knew they had snow. December came. The brown, bare trees and lawns were bleak and cold, but the only snow we’d seen was fake–cotton batting or mica chips in Christmas scenes. Swirling “snow storms” inside celluloid-domed paperweights. We were disappointed and longed for our old friends and the green trees and grass of Florida. Maybe North Carolina wasn’t so great after all!

Bedtime, New Year’s Eve. Mother read a story from The Wizard of Oz, then listened as we said our prayers. We asked God’s blessing on all our relatives before asking, for the umpteenth time, for snow. As we crawled under the covers, Teddy expressed a lack of faith. “It’s never gonna snow!” he grumbled.
“Oh yes, it will,” said Mother gently.
“When?” I demanded.
“I don’t know. One day you’ll look out the window and you’ll see white flakes floating down like ever-so-light soap flakes. They land silently on everything, and blanket the whole world. You’ll see! Now, go to sleep!”

Soon I was dreaming of the Emerald City of Oz. It was all green, like my old neighborhood in Florida. Carol and Teddy and I were in the hall of the Great Wizard, telling him he was a fake. He hadn’t made it snow. The Good Witch of the North appeared and said, “Look out the window. It’s snowing!”

It slowly dawned on me that the voice of the Good Witch in my dream was my mother’s voice. “Look out the window! It’s snowing!”

It was snowing, all right! White flakes, like Mother had said, only far more beautiful than I’d imagined! The ground already had a light cover of glistening white, and the air was full of dancing snowflakes!

“Carol! Teddy! Hurry! It’s snowing! We’ve gotta get out there!”
“Huh? Snow?”
“Look! It’s snowing!”
“Snow! It’s really snow!”

We’d never dressed so fast! Mother made us eat breakfast, then we got on our jackets, caps, mittens and galoshes and ran into the front yard! A number of soldiers, who knew this was our first snow, drove by to watch us while we played.

The once-bare trees and bushes were now sparkling white fountains in an enchanted land. Fairyland! I turned my face up and let the snowflakes fall on my outstretched tongue. I caught some on my mittens and studied the intricate, lacy patterns. Teddy picked up a handful and threw it in my face. I threw some back at him, then at Carol. We threw it in the air just to watch it flutter and float down. We rolled in it. We took off our mittens to see how it felt. Cold!

We began to organize our play. We made a snowman. We built a snow fort. Our neighbors came over, we built another fort and had a snowball fight. We lay on our backs and waved our arms to make snow angels. We got out our never-been-used sled and took turns sliding down the hill. Finally we gathered some clean snow in a big mixing bowl and added milk, vanilla and sugar to make snow cream.

I’m sure we had lunch that day, because Mother wouldn’t allow meal-skipping, but I don’t remember it. I just remember the enchantment of that long-awaited snowy day. To this day, every time it snows, I still feel the awe and wonder of that magical first snow.

In Fayetteville, a snowy day was a special occasion, because it was beautiful, light—mostly 2 or 3 inches—and rare. Many winters were never graced with a snowfall. Sleet may not have been more common, but it was more memorable—and not at all welcome! Our first experience with sleet came when we were scheduled to drive back to Florida, where Daddy was to perform a wedding. Canceling wasn’t an option, so Daddy drove to a service station, and they were happy to fit him with chains—on all four wheels! We then piled in—Mother and Daddy in the front seat, we three kids and our dog Toughey in the back. We headed out, slowly and cautiously. By the time we got into Georgia, the sleet was gone and the roads clear, but we still crunched down the pavement. Eventually one, another, another link broke, slapping the fenders, CLANG! CLANG-CLANG! CLANG! We were in a rural area, but we didn’t pass unnoticed, and we kids were so embarrassed that we all hid on the floorboards, Toughey panting and drooling all over us! Daddy had no idea how to remove chains, and thwacked down the highway for several more miles before finding a service station to take our brand-new, ruined chains off again.

1940—Allergies and Cousins
Our energetic activities were rudely interrupted when we got measles–the hard red measles. Once again we were quarantined! Measles affected the eyes and had left some children blind. Some others (including one of my cousins) had become deaf as a result of the high fever. We had to stay in bed in a darkened room, with ice packs to bring down the fever.

We’d been plagued with allergies before the measles hit, and after our quarantine was lifted Mother, exhausted from nursing us, took us by train to Florida, to see an allergist. Most of our fellow passengers were in uniform, either going home on furlough or being transferred to another base. Teddy struck up a conversation with a couple soldiers, but Carol and I were too shy; we just watched him and stayed close to Mother. Our train, a very modern Streamliner, went through Jacksonville and Tampa, and got us to our destination with only three stops on the way.

We spent almost a month with our Knight cousins, who lived between Clearwater and Largo in a house close to where Mother’s home place had been. Mother’s brother, Uncle Bob, had been called back into the military. Aunt Marguerite, who’d been Mother’s best friend since childhood, cared for three boys and a girl. For a month we were a family of two women, seven kids, a cow and some chickens.

Our time with our cousins was so much fun! I’d always idolized my oldest cousin, Bobby, who was four years older and a wellspring of knowledge which he gladly shared. Botany was one of his interests, and he identified plants as we walked around the grounds, using scientific names which I quickly forgot. He was a fine pianist, and had a book of Bach two-part inventions. He could easily play them solo, but he let me play the right hand while he played the left. He was the one who milked the cow, and once when I was watching he said, “Roberta, open your mouth!”. I did, and he squirted milk directly into it! With the younger cousins we played with fiddler crabs down by the bay, went fishing from the bridge and had rotten-orange fights in the grove!

Twice a week we drove to Tampa to see the allergist. He made vaseline lattices on our arms, one on each upper arm and one on the inside of each lower arm, with six or eight squares on each surface. He made a paper diagram delineating the allergens. Those on the upper arm were injected just under the skin and those on the lower arm were rubbed into a scratch. After the doctor had decorated our arms, we went home for two days, returning to “have our arms read”. From this procedure he made a long list of pollens and foods to avoid, and concocted serums to desensitize us. After we went back to Fayetteville shots were mailed to us and administered by a doctor neighbor three times a week. Eventually, our allergies diminished.

Vacations at Montreat
Montreat is a Presbyterian church retreat in the mountains of North Carolina. Ministers and missionaries came with their families to reconnect with old friends from college and seminary. There were conferences – for ministers, for Directors of Religious Education (DREs), for church musicians and for youth. We discovered, however, that there was not much for children to do. It rained a lot, which put a damper on hiking, rock-hopping, and swimming. We learned first-hand what “cabin fever” meant!

Grandmother always had a jigsaw puzzle on a card table and we could stop by and place a few pieces. Sometimes we played checkers, and Grandmother taught me to crochet. I’d brought along the latest Nancy Drew book, but had it read before the end of the third rainy day. There were no stores or movie houses, and our cabin was rather primitive. We had plumbing and electric lights, but no telephone, and no radio!

Though my dominant memories of Montreat are of rainy days with nothing to do, there were happy times as well.

Getting acquainted with other Presbyterian PKs (Preacher’s kids) was great! It was fun to do things together in the summertime, and we’d reconnect in unexpected places–at college, at church in strange towns. Many friendships formed at Montreat have lasted through two or three generations.

Our main activities, when it wasn’t raining, were rock-hopping in the creeks and mountain-climbing. Sometimes as teen-agers we’d get bold enough to swim in the cold, cold waters of Lake Susan.

One evening a trio of us girls decided to thumb to Black Mountain and go bowling. At the bowling alley we met a couple of Black Mountain boys, who invited us to ride with them for a hamburger and a Coke. It seemed a good way to top off the evening, so we piled in and drove the quarter-mile downhill to the roadside café. When we’d finished talking and eating we jumped back in the car–which wouldn’t start.
“If we push it off and go downhill, it’ll start.”
We did, and it didn’t. We tried again, and again, getting farther and farther down the mountain. It was getting later. And later. And did I mention that even if we could call home, there were no phones in Montreat?

We girls decided our only option was to say thank you to the guys and try to hitch a ride back up the mountain. The boys decided to stay with the car.

We didn’t have to wait long. A trucker stopped and offered us a ride. We climbed into his cab, thanking him effusively, as there was almost no other traffic and we were beginning to get scared. We hadn’t ridden very far when we saw a set of headlights approaching, very slowly. As the headlights got closer, I recognized my dad’s car! What a joyful reunion!

Clique Claque
“To join or not to join–that is the question.” My apologies to Mr. Shakespeare, but it seems an appropriate introduction to the topic of social cliques, something I knew nothing about until 1940. I was ten, and the students from Westlawn School joined us at Haymount School, bringing with them a cohesive group they called “Our Crowd”. Ironically, the students who had always been at Haymount were now the outsiders, the ones who might, or might not, be accepted by “Our Crowd”.

This was confusing, and presented to me a new dilemma. Did I want to be in “our crowd?” I didn’t know. What did that mean? I had friends, and some of us were in groups in my neighborhood, Sunday school class, etc. – but this was different. A group that was – what? It seemed to be defined only by who was in it, and some people were more solidly “in” than others. Yes, I wanted to be in “Our Crowd”, but also to keep my friends who were not “in”. Well, okay, I could be on the fringes, but not really “in”, which pretty much thereafter became my place in the social structure. In high school I joined one sorority, left it, joined another and left it as well. In Queens College I joined a sorority, then dropped out. I was a slow learner, but it finally dawned on me. The prime, if unacknowledged, characteristic of every clique is its exclusivity.

Scouts & Sports
My mother knew what to do. She organized a Girl Scout troop and kept us far too busy to mope about whether we were “in” or “out”. We knitted squares for afghans, folded bandages, collected scrap metal, planted gardens. We picked cotton, learned first aid and junior life saving, baby sat so that soldiers and their wives could have an evening out. We learned bird watching, forestry, crafts etc. and earned points towards merit badges. I went to Girl Scout camp at Lake Lure, learned canoeing and participated in a nine-mile hike to Chimney Rock.

Hiking, swimming, bike riding, roller skating and tree climbing were favorite activities, and we had a lot of friends to play with. Sometimes we’d organize a game of hide-and-seek or roll-a-bat (loosely based on baseball), and Gilly’s big brother taught us football. In the eighth grade, I played football with a bunch of boys in a vacant lot in another neighborhood. Mother wasn’t sure it was a good idea, but I loved it! We played tackle, not touch, and she was afraid I’d get hurt, but I was just as tough as the boys, and loved the rough and tumble of it.

My dad taught me tennis, too, and several of my friends took up the game. At the tennis courts, we played and managed a soft drink stand for pocket money in the summer. The Coca-Cola company set up a large red cooler and stocked it with ice and sodas. We watched it, sold drinks, collected the bottles and paid the company share. It was fun, and easier than a lemonade stand.

My bicycle was my transportation. We’d walked to Haymount Elementary School, but Alexander Graham Bell Junior High was farther away. I rode my bike to school, to the grocery, the movies and around the neighborhood. I had a basket on the handlebars and a rack on the back. Sometimes my Pekingese dog Tootsie would ride in the basket.

Preparing for War
Fayetteville was a small town whose main point of reference was the Square, a historic open structure which before the Civil War had served as a slave market. The main street, Hay Street, went from the Square through the downtown and up the Hill. Hay Street ended one block past the church in a fork of two highways, one going the six or seven miles to Fort Bragg and the other leading out of town towards Raeford. As the country mobilized in response to events in Europe, more than 50,000 soldiers went to Fort Bragg for training, while their families and support personnel came to Fayetteville, creating an acute housing shortage. The people of the town rallied to the need by taking in roomers, and Mother did her best to accommodate as many as she could. The manse was large, and we sometimes had five to seven people living with the five of us. Roomers came and went as soldiers got shipped out and new recruits were brought to the fort.

It was a broadening experience for me. Our roomers came from many diverse backgrounds. There was Mrs. Delgado from Cuba, who taught me some Spanish and introduced me to her favorite drugstore treat, chocolate sundaes. Mrs. Spiesmacher from Germany taught me some German. She was visited and interviewed by an FBI agent to make sure she wasn’t spying. Mrs. Zanker was from Switzerland. She and her husband had a baby, Ardis, and I learned a lot about child care from her. Mrs. Boyer, from Louisiana, taught me how to make peanut brittle, salt water taffy and divinity fudge. One of my favorite roomers was Caroline Whitaker, a secretary, who loved to play our Steinway grand piano and sing popular songs. She had lots of sheet music and I sang with her almost every evening, developing an extensive repertoire. Also, many of my school friends who called themselves “army brats” had lived in lots of different places and had fascinating experiences to share.

The character of this small, southern, Scotch town changed radically. The soldiers, from varied backgrounds, were united by their sense of mission and had an energy that was contagious. Everyone developed a strong commitment to strengthening our country’s defense and supporting our troops. We bought defense stamps and invited soldiers to dinner. The church turned its Sunday evening services into special times of hospitality. Soldiers came in army trucks with their chaplains for supper and a church service, followed by entertainment. My dad organized a glee club at Fort Bragg with about fifty voices and met with them once a week. They sang at public meetings in Fayetteville and at our church on Mothers’ Day. Dad also took his guitar and sang funny songs at the USO.

Our Heroes
It was hot and humid in the summer, and soldiers would pass out from heat stroke. Mother got a water cooler for our back porch and encouraged all the neighborhood kids to get drinks as often as they wanted. She kept it well supplied with ice water and paper cups.

The movies showed soldiers in training at Fort Bragg, and we copied much of what we saw. We marched and practiced crawling close to the ground, pretending to be under enemy fire. When we saw paratroopers learning to land, bending their knees to absorb the impact of the fall, we’d practice that as well. We tried it from a tree, but it was hard to find a branch of the right height. Then we noticed the garage! Its roof was gently sloped, almost flat, and we could climb onto it from a tree. It was perfect! We climbed and jumped and practiced, and none of us got hurt!

The soldiers were our real-life heroes, but we copied comic book heroes as well. There was Superman, naturally, and Batman & Robin, the Green Lantern and Captain America. We collected and traded comic books and imagined ourselves to be impervious to danger–but not to werwolves, or Frankenstein’s monster! I was walking from Louise Tibeau’s house one night and was positive I’d heard something skulking in the bushes, following me. I took off running and didn’t slow down until I’d slammed my front door!

The Goat
Mrs. McLeod and her daughter, Mary Stewart, were visiting in Fayetteville when Mrs. McLeod heard Teddy was about to turn six. “Ooh, Teddy,” she said, “what do you want for your birthday?”
Teddy surprised everyone with his prompt reply. “A goat.”
A ripple of amusement passed through the adults.
“A goat?” she said, “Then you shall have one!” She pulled out her checkbook and wrote a check for $5.
To her everlasting credit, our mother took this turn of events in stride. She filled in the check to a farmer, Mr. McPherson, and brought home an adorable kid in time for his birthday, which he named Mac in honor of Mrs. McLeod.
Dad provided a large doghouse in the backyard for Mac, and a rope to keep him from wandering. Teddy received a child-size football helmet so he could butt heads. It became a favorite activity for Teddy, as Mac did “what comes nacherly”. They had a lot of fun together in the front yard.

Our street, Clarendon Street, was parallel to Hay Street, and was used as an alternate route for army convoys so they could avoid heavy traffic. They moved slowly, but the soldiers never seemed to mind when they passed by our house, being entertained by the small boy and his baby goat butting each other playfully.

The baby goat, however, grew up. He’d come to love the company of children, bleating constantly for us to play. Twice, when he felt we weren’t paying him enough attention, he broke the rope and ran away. We ran after, fearful that he’d run into Hay Street and get hit. We couldn’t catch him, but the attendant at the service station on the corner did–both times! It was time for school to start, and we realized we couldn’t keep Mac in town, so Mother took him back to Mr. McPherson. I don’t know if she paid him to take Mac back, but another interesting saga had come to its end. We never forgot Mac!

The Pony
Dr. and Mrs. Robertson and their three boys were going on vacation, and they needed someone to take care of their pony. They wanted to be sure the pony was ridden, brushed, fed and given water. Would our family be interested?

Would we?! We’d always wanted a pony, and now we’d have one for a whole month! Our garage became a stable; straw was hauled in and spread over the dirt floor for the pony, whose name was Alice. A sawhorse served as a rack for her saddle, and we procured two buckets–one for water and one for oats.

At first, Mother or Dad would saddle Alice, but I learned very quickly and took pride in shouldering the responsibility. I was almost eleven, and felt very competent. Carol and Teddy were too young to saddle her, but they helped feed, curry and of course ride her.

The second day, I was riding Alice when she decided to go back to the Robertson’s. “Whoa, Alice!” I cried, pulling on the reins. Mother ran behind us, but couldn’t keep up. I hung on while Alice carried me down Clarendon Street, up Hinsdale and toward Hay Street, with its heavy traffic! Alice had the sense to stop when she saw all the cars, and Mother, huffing and puffing, caught up. Together we walked Alice back, talking to her in soothing tones.

We had no more trouble. Alice understood she was to stay with us. All the kids in the neighborhood rode her, and we put our kittens on her back for a family pet photograph. Occasionally, when she was tired of riding us, she’d buck. We’d dismount and lead her home.

When the war started, grocery shopping got complicated. When Mother planned meals, she had to consider not only our budget and our allergies, but the various food shortages. Did we have enough red stamps for roast beef, or would we have to settle for a meatless Sunday? Just about all foods were rationed. Red stamps were for meat, blue for canned fruit and vegetables. Each adult could have one cup of coffee per day, and sugar was severely rationed. We loved canned pineapple, but it was a rare treat because it cost so many ration stamps. Forget butter! We had margarine, but it came white, with a pack of coloring which we had to mash and mix well to turn it yellow. That was often my job; mash and stir, mash and stir until the color was evenly distributed. Every car had a gas ration stamp on the windshield–A, B or C–and the owner had a ration book to go with it. Cars with C stamps received the most gas; they were for doctors and emergency personnel. In those days doctors made house calls, and their transportation was considered essential to the well-being of the country. My dad had a B stamp, because he was a minister and also called on people in their homes. Most people got A books for enough gas to get them to and from work. Very few auto trips were made by anyone, and when you did get on the highway, the speed limit was 35, so it took a long time to get anywhere!

Danger! Fire!
The wails of sirens drowned out the humdrum sounds of our neighborhood. My friend Louise and I watched anxiously as a vacant lot was being rapidly consumed by a blaze–one we’d started! We’d heard “rabbit tobacco” was growing behind Louise’s house, and didn’t know what it was, but packed a couple corncob pipes with a likely looking weed and lit up. The embers overflowed, and the fire got away from us! We ran to Louises’s and grabbed the phone!

“There’s a fire in a vacant lot, and it’s getting near some houses! 820 Brantley Street! Please hurry!”

We watched, along with several neighbors, as the firemen arrived. After they put out the fire, they questioned three boys, and we worried at what they suspected. I like to think we’d have confessed if there’d been trouble, but I’ll never know, because the firemen left and everyone went home.

I was eleven, and should’ve known better.

It wasn’t my first experience with fire. At five, my three-year-old sister and some neighbor kids were playing in our room while our parents visited in the parlor. I’d sneaked some matches from the kitchen, and was showing everyone how to strike them on the box, lighting one after another. A match burned down too far, and was dropped–right into our doll’s bed!

“Our dolls!” we screamed, and our parents came running. They picked up the flaming dolls and beat out the fire. It dampened my curiosity–for awhile.

When I was seven, we had a project which involved melting wax. We were in the playhouse in the backyard, and the fire we were using got away from us. We tried to beat it out, but a spark flew into my sister’s long, beautiful hair and set it ablaze! She ran out of the playhouse, fire streaming behind!

“Carol! Don’t run! Lie down and roll over!” I yelled. She kept running, of course. My dad came rushing out of the house, threw his coat over her and smothered the fire.

There are many legitimate uses for fire–we cook with it, burn brush, keep warm on a cold night and enjoy its warm glow as we dream next to a campfire–but I was just plain foolish sometimes in my fascination. My confidence in my ability to control it was misplaced, and I was lucky none of my misadventures ended in tragedies. Treat fire with great respect! It’s not to be played with! It can get away from you VERY fast!

A Tale of Two Towns
Ocala, Florida, November 1943. Except for the terrain, it’s hard to imagine two towns more dissimilar than Fayetteville and Ocala were in 1943. Both towns were situated in gentle rolling hills, but Fayetteville was a small town bursting at the seams with soldiers and young families. In Ocala there were no young men between 18 and 50 except an occasional man classified 4F who wore a lapel pin explaining to the world why he wasn’t in the service. We’d moved for health reasons. Dad had a heart condition and allergies had continued to plague Ted and me, so we welcomed an opportunity to move back to Florida, with its slower pace and kinder climate.

Victorian Manse
In Ocala the preacher’s house was next to the Presbyterian church. Across the street to the front was the primary school and on the other side was the Baptist church, so it was surrounded.

It was old-fashioned, with gaslight fixtures on the newel posts at both ends of the spiral staircase. There was an enormous dining room; Mother said they must have planned to use it for church dinners. My bedroom was on the second floor, directly above the music room. The house had high ceilings and a screened porch. In one corner was a two-story bay window topped with a cupola.

It wasn’t easy living between two churches. I played bass clarinet, Carol the French horn and Ted the trumpet. One summer evening, all windows open, we were playing some popular songs when a stranger knocked on the door. The Baptists were having a prayer meeting and they couldn’t hear anything but us! Could we please stop? After that we checked before practicing.

Ocala High School 1944-1948
High school was wonderful, for me. The opportunities were limitless! I could sign up for DCT–Diversified Cooperative Training–and have a half-day school, half-day work schedule, and have a paying job! I could sign up for auto mechanics and learn to fix a car! I could even learn to fly a plane!

No, I couldn’t! My parents insisted that I take the academic track and prepare for college. Including Latin! I did–but I also took Spanish, band, typing, glee club, and home economics. These I added to my required courses by eliminating study hall and physical education. Marching band provided exercise, and I went swimming and hiking on my own. I was used to lots of homework and didn’t need study hall.

Amo, Amas, Amat
Latin class was a drag, but we liked our Latin teacher. She was a little gray-haired lady, and she loved our football team! Every game, there she was–not up in the bleachers, but hollering from the sidelines, right behind the benches! We loved her enthusiasm for football, but oh! how we struggled in her class! We’d slowly, laboriously translate Julius Caesar orally, referring frequently to the glossary in the back of the book. Sometimes the definition wasn’t helpful, as with the phrase “sub juga”–”under the yoke”. Totally bewildering to a bunch of Florida teenagers who’d never heard of a yoke! But then one of the boys, coming to the phrase, said “they were subjugated by the Romans”.

Subjugated! Sub juga! Of course! Light dawned for us–but a different light dawned for our teacher. She walked over to him and put out her hand.
“All right! Give me the pony!”

We learned something else. A “pony” was a translation, which we weren’t supposed to have!

I jumped enthusiastically into all the extra-curricular activities I could crowd into my day. One year I launched a weekly radio show, featuring local performers and spreading the news about high school activities to the community. Opportunities for me to perform as a singer abounded. I sang in assembly programs at school. I sang for local men’s civic clubs (the Rotary, the Lions Club, the Kiwanis etc.) and women’s clubs (auxiliaries and garden clubs), at school dances, at church and at the Florida State Fair. I was often invited to sing on the school bus, at a party, or on a picnic, and would jump into an a capella rendition of “Indian Love Call”.

We had marching practice after school three times a week, and during the football season that meant learning a new routine every week. There were also concerts in the park, parades at the state fair and other community celebrations, plus the all-important regional band contest. We always rated a One, and were very proud to uphold that reputation. Besides the band performance, there were solo and ensemble performances in the contest. One year I played bass clarinet in a clarinet quartet and also a piano accompaniment for Mary Brent’s oboe solo–but forgot the piano music! It was in my box in the band house, which was locked! I called my mother–who else? She or Dad could always be counted on to rescue me, if rescue was possible. Mother called Mrs. Wigham, the band mother. Together they went to the band house, broke in through a window, got the music and took it to the bus station, where they sent it by the next bus from Ocala to Tampa. The bus driver handed me the music in the bus station and I rode back in time to play with Mary Brent. We rated a One!

Student Strike
One of our coaches got fired, and we didn’t know why. He was well-liked by the students, and a bunch of them, mostly upper-class football players, got together to decide what to do. They decided to go on strike, and they spread the word to the rest of the student body not to attend classes the next Friday, which became Strike Day.
This put me in a quandary. As a member of Student Council and the Honor Society, I felt an obligation to do the right thing, but what was the right thing? I tried to talk some of the students out of it, but I didn’t have any influence on the football team. I went to the teacher who was Student Council advisor for her advice. She talked to the faculty, and they decided to allow the strike as an opportunity for the students to exercise a democratic right. They were to be charged with an unexcused absence, but no further penalty.

Senior Strike Day became a tradition at our high school. One day each year the seniors would cut classes and go to the lake.

I still don’t know what happened to the coach, or why he got fired!

A Dream Job
Central Florida has several incredibly clear springs–Rainbow, Juniper and the best-known, Silver Springs. One could take a bus nine miles to “the springs” for a dime, ride bikes, hike or pile into someone’s family car to go for a swim and a picnic. I thought Rainbow and Juniper Springs nicer; they were in a natural setting and Silver Springs was commercialized, but it was closer. There were glass-bottom boats for viewing the 80-foot-deep caverns at the bottom with amazing clarity. There were catfish swimming and sometimes human divers putting on a show on an underwater stage. On two sides a boardwalk offered an opportunity to shop, watch a potter work with orange-blossom scented clay or visit the Ross Allen Reptile Institute. Ross stood on a platform in a pit of rattlesnakes, picked one up with a hook and milked it, holding it just behind its head and placing its fangs over the rim of a glass jar. Its venom would spew into the jar, he’d drop it and hook another.

In high school I earned most of my spending money baby-sitting, and one summer one of Ross Allen’s lab technicians hired me. It was a dream job! I’d ride the bus to her house, pick up her kids, ride the bus to Silver Springs and spend the day hanging out. We’d take a picnic lunch and do all the touristy things–ride the boats, handle the (non-poisonous) snakes, stroll the grounds and play on the grassy lawns, all for free!

The Wildcat Den
My dad noticed that teenagers in Ocala didn’t have much to do in their spare time and that the women’s club had a very nice clubhouse that they only used occasionally. He talked them into sharing their space for “a good cause” and organized a teen club. The football team at the high school was named the Wildcats, so the teens named their hangout The Wildcat Den, which opened for sock hops on Friday nights. A juke box and a couple ping-pong tables were brought in, a pool table was put on the screen porch, a few board games were donated and The Wildcat Den was open Saturdays as well. It became THE place to go after football games, and different high school clubs would sponsor dances. The clubs would form committees for decoration, publicity, music, refreshments and cleanup.

June 1945—Presbyterian Youth Fellowship
“Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” The sound of forty young voices rang out, filling the auditorium with an enthusiastic rendition of the chorus from Handel’s “Messiah”. We were at a youth conference in Montreat, and most of us were singing this iconic piece for the first time.

Every seasoned singer knows there’s a trap for the unwary in this chorus. Near the end, as the music reaches the height of excitement, with voices weaving double forte in a frenzied exchange, there’s a sudden rest—a silence—before charging into the finish. In a first rehearsal, someone almost always jumps in, singing loudly into the silence. It rarely happens in performance—except when it does! My good friend Pat McGeachy boomed into the silence with his resonant bass. It’s the kind of mistake it’s hard to forget!

Besides the large, church-wide youth conferences, there were synod and presbytery conferences. A synod is a state organization, which is divided into smaller, geographic presbyteries. We were in the Florida synod, and our presbytery included Jacksonville, Gainsesville, Lake City, Ocala, Palatka and all towns in between. Our Presbyterian Youth Fellowship, the PYF, held its conference each summer at Camp O’Leno near Gainesville. I couldn’t go because I had the mumps, but my dad was there as one of the sponsors. He came home with some surprising news.
“You’re the new Presbytery President of the PYF”, he announced.
“You mean vice president, Dad.” I was quite sure about that.
“No, he said, “President!”
“But that was supposed to be Rosemary! I was on the nominating committee, and we nominated her. She’s been our vice president all this past year. I was just chair of the Spiritual Life Committee.”
“Well, they made you the president.”
“How did that happen? I’m not ready to be president.”
“After the report from the nominating committee, they asked if there were any nominations from the floor.”
“They always do that, but nobody nominates from the floor.”
“Well, this time they did. A blonde-haired girl from Jacksonville – I think her name is Margie – stood up and nominated you, and you got elected by a pretty good majority.”

June 1946—Band Election
Time to elect band officers for the next school year! The Ocala High School Band had an excellent rating, and the officers were responsible for student discipline while marching and in concert. The band had always had a boy captain, a girl first lieutenant and four second lieutenants. I’d been the only junior elected the previous year (second lieutenant) so I felt I had a shot at captain. I was encouraged by the guys seated near me and thus in my sphere of influence – mostly drummers and tuba players. They enthusiastically helped me carry on a spirited campaign against two opponents, both boys. My best friend Sonya was running for first lieutenant, unopposed.

We voted by secret ballot, and our band director, “Pop” Armstrong, plus the five outgoing officers, counted the ballots in the band office while the rest of us waited quietly in the classroom.

Pop gave us the results with an incredulous look. “We have a three-way tie for captain!” he announced. “I never thought that could happen, but it did. However, there was one person who voted for Sonya, who wasn’t running for captain. If that person will change their vote, we’ll have a winner.”

Nobody moved, nobody said anything. “It’s a simple, fair way to break the tie. Whoever voted for Sonya, just vote again.”

The silence was heavy. There was a quiet, suppressed gasp as Sonya arose and went to the office. Bobby Jordan became our captain, Sonya the first lieutenant.

The following week, Pop called me in to his office and closed the door. “I need to tell you,” he said, “there was a miscount. I went through the ballots again and you had one vote more than Bobby or Murray. You should’ve had it.”
“Just leave it alone,” I said. “Bobby Jordan will be a good captain, Sonya a good first lieutenant. I promise to be a good second lieutenant, and we won’t tell anyone.”

And we never did, until now!

Transylvania Music Camp—1946
The sonorous tones of a French horn playing “Till Eulenspiegel” wafted on the breeze and mingled with the polyphony of a string quartet rehearsing chamber music and a rich baritone voice singing a Schubert lieder. From where I stood, barefoot, on the gravel drive, the sounds seemed to come from the trees in the forest. Music permeated the atmosphere. Paths through the forest led to small cabins where musicians and campers practiced.

I loved everything about this camp! The informality, the friendships, the music everywhere! I played bass clarinet in the band, hiked in the woods, swam in the lake, waited tables to pay my tuition, and fell in love—over and over again!

Dad had discovered this camp in the summer of 1945 when the Transylvania band gave a concert in Montreat. Dad had always loved band music, and after their first number he came back to our vacation home to get us. “You’ve got to hear this band,” he said. “They’re from a music camp, and they’re really good!” We jumped into the car and went to the concert. We were impressed! I decided to go to band camp the next summer.

Mr. and Mrs. Steven McCready were members of our church in Ocala. They had no children of their own, but took a great interest in us. I’d worked for Mr. McCready in 1945 as a file clerk and girl Friday, running errands and such. When he heard of my interest in Transylvania Music Camp, and my plan to wait tables to help pay the tuition, he paid the rest and did so for the next four summers. The fifth summer I was old enough to be a junior counselor and, with waitressing, went to camp tuition-free.

We had six weeks of music camp, with terrific musicians as counselors, and they played along with us in the band and orchestra. I played bass clarinet and one summer took cello lessons, but wasn’t very good on the cello and gave it up.

The atmosphere of the camp was permeated with music. There were paths through the grounds that led to small practice cabins. There was music everywhere, all the time. I loved it!

Vocal music was my forté, and we had an excellent chorus. We put on Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and sang great choral numbers – Brahms’s “Alto Rhapsody,” Fauré’s “Requiem,” Bach cantatas and a lot of Madrigals. After the six weeks of camp came two weeks of the Brevard Music Festival. The campers went home but I stayed to wait tables along with about eight others. That was especially exciting! Professional musicians came from New York, Chicago, Washington, Philadelphia, and all around. They joined our counselors and teachers and formed the Brevard Music Festival Orchestra.

A Trip to New York City
Virginia Fran Gallemore, who’d been our neighbor in Bartow, was getting married. She wanted Dad to perform the ceremony and me to sing. The wedding was to be in New York City, and our family was invited to be guests of the Gallemores at the Sherry-Netherland Hotel.

Of course we’d go! This was a very special occasion!

Dad had to go to the courthouse before the wedding and register his credentials with the city to make everything legal, and the Gallemores arranged everything else—the church, the organist and our reservations.

Traffic was heavy, and to a newcomer New York streets were confusing. Dad, trying to get to the courthouse, turned onto a side street only to have a truck driver coming from the other direction roll down his window and shout, “This street’s one-way, Buddy!”. He took the first opportunity to do a U-turn, and then had to find a parking space. He pulled into one, then saw a sign that said it was a 20-minute zone. Fearing his business would take longer, he went to the nearest store and explained his purpose, finishing with a request. If a cop came by, would the store owner explain things? The owner said he’d try, but that Dad still might get a ticket. He didn’t.

The wedding went well. I sang “Oh Promise Me” and Dad led Virginia Fran and Carl in their wedding vows. There was a fancy reception afterwards, where I had my first taste of alcohol—a creme de menthe!

Thunderstorms, Hurricanes and a Tornado

Thunderstorms in Florida are often exceptionally dramatic, with brilliant flashes of lightning and pounding, ear-shattering thunder. I found them exciting, and fun. It felt comfortable to be cozy at home with my mother and siblings while the storm raged outside. Sometimes the power went out and Mother lit the kerosene lanterns, which made it a special occasion for us children.

Hurricanes added a sense of danger. We knew they caused terrible damage to trees and houses, and hurt people who didn’t have adequate shelter. Mother and Daddy once opened the church basement as a public refuge. We sheltered between twelve and twenty people (some coming and going), and Mother made a big pot of soup and lots of coffee to share. Since the manse was next door, we scurried back and forth during the lull, when the eye of the storm passed over.

A hurricane once blew through when Daddy was away with a group of young people at a conference in Clearwater Beach. We were comfortably at home in Bartow, but Mother was worried about Daddy and the young people.

She was right to be concerned. They had to evacuate the beach, and the causeway was underwater! There were a number of cars in the group, but the evacuation was very slow because someone had to walk in front of the caravan to be sure the road was still there, and passable!

Worse than the fallen trees and torn roofs was the collateral damage brought by floods, and the tornadoes they often spawned. After a hurricane, there’d be tree branches and debris littering the streets, and power lines down, but a tornado flattened everything! I was once visiting my friend, Sonya Goldman, who lived on the southern outskirts of Ocala. We were playing in her carport when we heard a massive rumbling coming toward us, and fast! We scrambled into the house and hunkered down as the sound seemed to pass directly overhead, then moved on.

“What was THAT?!”

We turned on the radio, and learned that a tornado had just passed over our town, deflected upwards by a hill close to Sonya’s house. The only damage it had done was to lift the top off the town’s water tower, and deposit it in our algebra teacher’s back yard! We had super-chlorinated water on tap for about six weeks before the town was able to get it fixed!

High school graduation was very emotional for me. Seniors in the band played “Pomp and Circumstance” for the procession before taking their seats with the class. I watched all my friends pass down the aisle while we played. I realized we were all going our separate ways–some to jobs, some to college–and that I would likely never see many of them again. To this day, I still remember, and feel, the same strong emotion every time I hear “Pomp and Circumstance”. Oh, the power of music!

Agnes Scott College 1948-49
My mother and her sisters had gone to Agnes Scott, a Presbyterian women’s college in Decatur, Georgia. I’d heard so much about Agnes Scott that I never considered going anywhere else, and when I won the $4,000 Presbyterian scholarship, it was settled.

Three of Mother’s sisters lived in the Atlanta area, and I had a standing invitation to visit whenever I could. I loved visiting, but campus life was busy so I didn’t see them often.

The first real challenge for freshmen at Scott was Black Cat, a big fall show put on by freshmen and sophomores. It was a class competition with faculty judges determining  whose show was best. Obviously, the sophomores had a huge advantage; they already knew each other, knew what the show was like, had more experience, etc.

I was elected Black Cat chair for the freshmen. I had no idea what I was getting into, but Dean Scandrett helped me figure it out – what I needed to do, the committees that were necessary, what kind of talent, etc. I posted a sign-up sheet on the bulletin board for writing, costumes, music, lights, scenery, etc.

Soon we were working on a script, holding auditions and rehearsals, scrounging for costumes and props, painting scenery. It was a great way to get acquainted and we had a wonderful time. We didn’t win; the freshmen almost never did – but what a way to start the year!

Student elections rolled around, and I was elected one of two freshman representatives to the board. All our (many) social rules were on the honor system. We were obligated to report ourselves for violations, and the punishment was to be “campused” for whatever amount of time was appropriate.  If we walked to Decatur for a cup of coffee and a piece of cherry pie, we were supposed to sign the book in Main Hall and also in our house, which was Inman Hall.  I’d sign in Main, but forget to sign at Inman – then report myself and be campused for two weekends!

The Metropolitan Opera was coming to Atlanta, and my roommate Barbara Brown and I bought tickets to see “Otello,” “La Traviata,” and two other operas.  For that I had to get special permission to go because, as usual, I was campused.

It was the first time I’d ever seen an opera. I’d listened on the radio, which gave me a headache, and  I probably wouldn’t have gone if Barbara hadn’t been so enthusiastic.  Being there was quite different from listening on the radio, though.  I really enjoyed it.  Later that year when a Broadway company came and did “Carousel” I was even more taken!

I loved dormitory living.  It was like having a hundred and twenty sisters. We often got together after “lights out” in somebody’s room and snacked on food from their packages from home. We talked about everything–trials, tribulations, hopes, dreams, fun and romance–

Columbia, South Carolina 1949

When Dad accepted an appointment as regional director of religious education for the Synod of South Carolina, the family moved to Columbia. I had just transferred, as a sophomore, to Queens College in Charlotte, North Carolina. Carol was a senior in high school, and Ted a sophomore.

Ted, however, didn’t move with the family. He moved in with the family of his friend, Manning Hiers, and finished high school in Orangeburg. It was a stellar experience for Ted. He’d never shown any interest in school, and had been satisfied with passing grades until high school in Orangeburg, when his Cs and C+s became As and A+s. My parents made arrangements for him to stay.
Carol had made straight As wherever she went to school, and I was happy with As, Bs and the occasional C. To each his own.

I first saw Columbia at night, on a trip home from Queens. It was beautiful; the lights of this city on a hill, as I saw it through my windshield, kindled my interest and appreciation.

Columbia was a small-to-medium sized city with a southern ambiance. It had a farmer’s market downtown and street vendors selling boiled peanuts. Fort Jackson was there, and the army was mobilizing for war in Korea.

The summer climate was much like it had been in Fayetteville–hot and humid. Mother said, “The Joneses and the Army sure know how to find the hottest spots in the USA to put down roots!”

I was at Transylvania Music Camp for the summer of 1950, but in 1951 I stayed in Columbia and went to summer school for six weeks at the University of South Carolina. I’ve never known that kind of heat before or since! It was difficult to take notes in class because my arms and hands were soaked with sweat and the note paper got wet. Sweat dripped off the end of my nose and off my elbows, forming puddles on the floor. I looked down the aisle and saw pools of sweat on the floor next to every desk!

It didn’t cool off at night, either. I’d shower and dry off, but before I could get my pajamas on, I was wet with sweat again. I put a towel on the bed underneath me to sleep on, and a damp towel over me to cool off.

Queens College
In the summer of 1949, Mr. McCready visited Transylvania Music Camp. After he had a conference with the camp director, James Pfohl, I was called in and told they’d been discussing my future. Mr. McCready would finance my vocal future if Mr. Pfohl would be my guardian. I was incredibly impressed and honored by this, and ready to do whatever they suggested. Delighted at the prospect of becoming someone’s protégé, I transferred to Queens College to sing in Mr. Pfohl’s choir. Mr. Pfohl was head of the music department at Davidson College nearby, and directed the choir at Myers Park Presbyterian Church in Charlotte.

When I transferred to Queens, I had to use my one social engagement a week for choir practice.  As a sophomore, I’d have had two per week if I’d maintained a better-than-C average, but transfer students couldn’t use their grade average from another school. They had to accept freshman rules until they’d established an average at Queens, so I couldn’t leave campus Friday or Saturday nights. I went to the dean (who was also my English teacher) to try for special permission to (a) not count choir practice as a social engagement, or (b) have sophomore privileges. I pointed out that my grades in my previous school had been well above average.

I pleaded my case with Dean Albright. I thought I had some compelling points:
1) Choir practice shouldn’t have counted as a social engagement. It was a condition of my transfer to Queens, and the choir director was my  “vocal guardian”.
2) As my previous school had a higher academic rating than Queens, those grades should have been acceptable.
For some reason, these arguments didn’t endear me to the dean, and I remained on campus every weekend for the first six weeks.

Although I’d established a poor relationship with the dean, I loved Queens. The music department was great! John Holliday, its chairman, encouraged me to concentrate on singing, saying I had the potential to become a Kirsten Flagstad.  I didn’t know who Kirsten Flagstad was, but I was impressed, and worked harder. Music had been one of many things I’d done to be “well-rounded,” but it was time to think about my future.

When I transferred to Queens I lived in a house/dorm. There were seven others–Mary Ann Worth, Bonnie Blue, Dot McLeod, Beth Dobbins, Reid Regan, Cornelia Dick and a girl named Ruth. We bonded strongly and quickly. Bonnie and I were also on the student government board and in the college choir together. When we went on choir tours we’d smoke in the back of the bus, and we both had a crush on Mr. Holliday, whom we thought resembled Roberto Rosselini, Ingrid Bergman’s lover.

One time Bonnie had severe abdominal pain and was hospitalized. I went to visit her, and she had a sudden pain while I was in the room. I rang for the nurse, but she didn’t come fast enough to suit me, so I ran to the nurses’ station to get someone STAT! I decided then that Bonnie needed someone in the room with her, so I took the bus back to the dorm, got my comb and toothbrush and sneaked back out. I spent the night in a chair next to her. That was my first deliberate infraction of school rules. I expected to have trouble the next day when the dean found out, but I didn’t care. The dean agreed, however, that someone should stay with Bonnie, and assigned one of the school nurses. X-rays revealed a twisted intestine. She had surgery the next day and was soon able to return to school.

When I married, Bonnie Blue and my roommate Fran McPherson, whose father had sold us the goat, were my bridesmaids. We exchanged Christmas cards for several years, but eventually lost each other’s addresses. That was the last time I saw either Fran or Bonnie.

Bonnie Blue
It’s many years later. My alumnae journal from Queens College came, and I turned to the class notes. Not much from the class of 1952. Dot Folger’s son died.

It’s very sad. We expect to go through grief over a parent’s death, but not a son’s or daughter’s. My son Robin lost his son Jordan just six weeks after the death of his wife, Anne, and it devastated him. My daughter Fran lost her daughter Sarah, and it hit her very hard. My heart went out to Dot.

I then turned to the Births, Marriages and Deaths section. Births and marriages aren’t happening in my class anymore, and I was looking to see who died. Bonnie Blue Covell! No! She was my best friend in college. I cried; I always thought we’d get to see each other again, someday.

The Dump
This isn’t about the place you take a load of stuff you want to get rid of and bring home more than you took. I’m referring to the process by which a relationship is ended.
I never had the kind of dramatic confrontations I see on television, with the dumpee expressing heartbreak or rage. I simply let relationships “fade away”, like what General MacArthur said about old soldiers. I was sometimes the dumper, sometimes the dumpee and sometimes the good friend who acted as a go-between.
“Corky, are you upset with Rose?”
“Armand, are you mad at Jacquie?”
“If you’re not going to wear Glenn’s bracelet anymore, he wants it back.”

Sometimes things would get awkward and confusing for the dumpee. Two cases:

George Stelogeannis was my boyfriend in Ocala High School, and everyone knew we were “going steady”. He hadn’t shown any interest in girls before me, and we were together most of the time. We were in the band, he playing trumpet and I bass clarinet, and we were both officers, he captain and I second lieutenant. Neither of us fretted about who to take to the sock hop; we always went together, frequently double-dating with Bob Fort and Barbara Wiggins. We always hung out together with friends before school, in the same spot in front of the bandhouse.

One Friday night we’d been to the sock hop with Bob and Barbara, and had just stopped in front of my house. Barbara commented, “Bob, I’ve always felt I could really trust you.”

I chimed in, “Me too–and I trust George too.”
Barbara shot back, “Oh, I’ve never ridden with you, George. I didn’t know you drive.”
“I don’t.” he replied.
“Oh,” I said, “I didn’t mean that!”
Things were getting awkward.
Bob said, “I think she means she trusts him in another way.”
“Yes,” I said. “Well, I’d better go in.”
“I’ll walk you to the door.” said George.

He did, and for the first time, he kissed me. “I feel so gay!” he exclaimed–by which of course he meant “happy”.
“Me too.” And I went in, feeling that the awkwardness had passed. BUT…

Monday morning I went to our usual hang-out spot, and several of my girlfriends were there, but no boys.
“Where’s George?” asked Sonya.
“I don’t know. I haven’t seen him this morning.”
“There he is!” exclaimed Mary Brent, pointing at a group of boys on the other side of the bandhouse.
“Oh well, I guess he doesn’t want to talk to me this morning.”

Or any other morning, as it turned out. That first kiss was a goodbye kiss, and nothing was ever said. It was over. We were still in the band and both at officers’ meetings, but now we were just casual acquaintances. No explanation asked or given. Not then, not thirty years later when we talked, like old friends, at our class reunion.

With Steve it was even more confusing. I was older, in college. We met at Transylvania Music Camp. J.T. Fesperman got eight of us together to sing madrigals. One of the women sang tenor and one of the men alto, which was weird. I suggested they trade parts, but they refused. They said they always sang those parts, and J.T. agreed, so that was how we sang–not only madrigals, but also Bach chorales and cantatas. The male alto was Steve.

I thought he was a little strange in other ways, too. His tastes were intellectual and esoteric, and he carried a copy of “The Inferno” from Dante’s Divine Comedy in his pocket, reading it in his spare time. He knew all the musical modes–Dorian, Phrygian, Mixolydian, etc. He appreciated early folk songs and Gregorian chants, as well as Mozart and Bach. My friend Elynor said, “When you’re with Steve it feels like you’re worshiping at the fount of learning.”

It was true. I was in awe of his intellect, and came to appreciate other aspects of his personality. He’d worked as a forest ranger and knew all the trees and forest plants. We were walking in the forest one day and came across a patch of Indian pipes, which I’d never seen before. He stopped and called my attention to them, giving me their name and explaining they were so white because they were saprophytes, living on dead leaves. They are beautiful, and I’ve seen them occasionally on my property, but they don’t return every year. It feels like a special gift when they pop up.

Our friendship turned romantic, and one evening as we were walking he stopped and kissed me. I kissed him back and he declared, “I should profess my love for you, but I honestly don’t know how to.”
I was stunned! And thrilled! I loved him, but never thought there was a chance that he might love me! I would always remember those words.
Strange words.
We weren’t in a Jane Austen novel. Who talks like that?
It didn’t matter. Steve loved me.

Camp was ending. We were to sing a Bach cantata at Al’s church in Brevard, and Elynor invited us to her uncle’s house afterwards for a beer party as a farewell. Five of us went, and we got noisy; we moved our party to a remote cornfield, finished our beer, then went back to our cabins.

The next morn, Mr. Pfohl sent for me. He asked what I’d been doing the night before.
“We sang a Bach cantata at the Presbyterian church in Brevard.” I said.
“I mean after that. I heard you were drinking.”
“Oh–well, I was. I thought I was free. Camp is over, and the music festival hasn’t started yet.”
“What were you drinking?”
“Where? Who was with you?”
“I’d rather not say.”
“I know you were at the Camerons’ house, and there were several of you.”

That gave me an idea where his information had come from, but I had no intention of adding to it. I was twenty years old, and this had been my first beer party. I’d wondered what one would be like, but now I felt remorseful. I also had to write a letter to my dad confessing what I had done, and give it to Mr. Pfohl to mail.

Without my help, Mr. Pfohl discovered the identities of three others and had a conference with each, prescribing appropriate punishments. The last of the five wanted to turn himself in, but we told him that he was the youngest, at eighteen, and it’d be the worse for us if they thought we were a bad influence on a juvenile!

But I digress. I was telling about The Dump.

Steve and I corresponded. I wrote more letters than he did, but I treasured every one of his. When Thanksgiving break came, I went to New Haven to visit him. Our mutual friend, J.T., was also at Yale, and I really enjoyed our weekend. At the Yale library Steve played for me a recording by “a well-known male alto” and one of Benjamin Britten’s “Concerto for Tenor and French Horn”. We went to a rehearsal where his friends were working on a Bach chorale, and I sang soprano. We sneaked into a rehearsal led by Paul Hindemith–and got thrown out! We went to dinner at Morey’s, where I had my first slice of pizza. I thought we were both enjoying the weekend, but when he took me to the train station he gently let me know we were not destined to share a future. We went our separate ways.
But wait! Fast forward through a blue Christmas to spring. Back at Queens I received a telegram: WILL ARRIVE IN CHARLOTTE TUESDAY. LOVE, STEVE.

What a wonderful surprise! I signed up to use one of the dating parlors and a friend volunteered to take us from downtown to the college. Suddenly, I’m not dumped anymore–or am I? I invited a few friends to have coffee and cake with us, we spent a pleasant afternoon at Queens College and said our goodbyes. That was the last time I saw him. I don’t know why. Another relationship just–faded away!

Breaking Away
Myers Park in Charlotte was an affluent neighborhood, but I was appalled when the budget for our church was approved by the congregation. Current expenses (salaries, utilities, suppers, etc.) far outweighed benevolences (missions, orphanages, colleges, hospitals), and I believed it should’ve been the other way around.

It was the spring of 1950. I’d become disenchanted with Mr. Pfohl as my “vocal guardian” and, with this additional incentive, decided to break off our arrangement. My friend Bill Whitesides was a student at Davidson College and encouraged me to change my membership to the First Presbyterian Church downtown, where he sang in the choir. It served the inner city, and Earl Berg was the choir director. He was a friend of Mr. Holliday’s, and played violin while Mr. Holliday played piano. They didn’t know that on the evenings when they played together in the music building at Queens, I’d sit outside the window and listen. I thought I’d like to join Mr. Berg’s choir.

One thing worried me, though. Mr. Pfohl was chairman of the music department at Davidson, where Mr. Berg taught. I wrote Mr. Berg a letter, explained who I was and told him I’d like to switch churches and sing in his choir, but not if it’d make trouble for him.

One evening the following week when I was practicing in the music building, I heard a knock on the door. It was Mr. Holliday.
“Miss Jones, Mr. Berg would like to talk to you. He’s in my office now.”
I went to Mr. Holliday’s office and sat down with Mr. Berg. He’d be happy to have me in his choir, and assured me it wouldn’t cause any problems.

What I didn’t know was that Mr. Berg was also contemplating a switch. He left Davidson and joined the faculty at Queens. His wife Eunice was the organist at First Presbyterian, and we became close friends. I often babysat their two daughters.

I enjoyed being a part of the congregation there. I liked the minister, Charles Schaefer, and one year organized a youth choir. Wednesday night practice was a treat. The Bergs and several members of the choir would go across the street afterwards and chat away the evenings over coffee and cherry pie.

Summer School
I was a voice major in college, and German lieder was my forte, something else I had in common with Bill Whitesides. We both loved the language and the songs of Schumann, Schubert and Brahms, but during my junior year I came to realize that there wasn’t a strong demand for singers of German lieder. Not even Lotte Lehman was well-known, outside of music circles. I changed my major to Public School Music, and went to summer school at the University of South Carolina  for the required education courses. For the first time in five years, I didn’t go to Transylvania Music Camp, but spent the summer at home with Mother & Dad in Columbia.

Dad shared office space with a fellow Presbyterian minister, Leslie Patterson, who was working for the Synod of South Carolina. His typist was on summer vacation, so I filled in. It was  a great job, made-to-order for me! He used a Dictaphone, recording letters in the morning for me to transcribe while he attended other matters in the afternoon. My classes were all in the morning, I typed his correspondence in the afternoon and left them for him to sign and mail. I rarely saw him at the office.

Quest for the Golden Mean

My classes were interesting, too! John Dewey and Maria Montessori were shaking up education’s rigid structure with their ideas. Learning by doing and meeting the needs of the child led to a more flexible curriculum; something that needs emphasis today, with the focus on core curriculum and end-of-grade testing. The pendulum swings back and forth–forever back and forth!

The professor in my Philosophy of Education class reviewed modern vs. classical ideas, then said, in dramatic tones, “Now, teachers, what are you going to do? Will you stick with the familiar, rote style of education or follow the modernists into learning by doing? Or will you find that golden mean, using the best of each, and achieve the magical goal of an ideal education for every student?’

I will find it, I thought. I will find that golden mean.

Stages of Life Development
I had to take Educational Psychology, and was the only undergraduate in my class. The others were teachers and principals, taking summer classes for certificate renewal credits or working towards an advanced degree. I was nineteen.

One day we were discussing the stages of human development. Our text described the infant’s focus on personal needs, the social awareness of toddlers, the altruism of teens, the practicality of those in their thirties and the philosophical acceptance found in the elderly. We discussed each stage, citing our own experiences. I was a little bothered when adolescent altruism was described as a stage, but didn’t say much until one man expressed his agreement with the author. He said that as a teen he’d been eager to save the world, but had passed through that stage and now, as a married man, focused more on his family’s needs.

“Oh, but you shouldn’t give up your altruism! That’s important!” I protested. “That’s the main thing we’re here for, isn’t it?” The professor and the other students smiled and gently acknowledged our difference of opinion, and to their everlasting credit, none of them asked, “How old are you?” My words hung there until, in bemusement, it dawned on me that I’d just proven their point!

I got the education credits I needed, but for the first time in five years I hadn’t gone to Transylvania Music Camp. I did, however, spend two weeks at the Trapp Family Music Camp in Stowe, Vermont.

Trapp Family Music Camp
After sweating through six weeks of summer school in the hot, humid bowl of Columbia, South Carolina at USC, it was a huge relief to head for the cool mountains of Vermont for two weeks at the Trapp Family Music Camp in Stowe. Not only was I refreshed, I was widening my cultural horizons and being introduced to a different genre of music. I plunged into a different religion and had musical experiences I’d previously only read about. I’d had many good friends who were Roman Catholic thanks to the great mixing bowl of our public school system, but had never met a priest or a nun and thought of them, if at all, as aliens from another planet. Yet here they were, lots of them, interacting with us in very normal ways, making music, laughing, having fun! Our music was quite different from anything we’d done at Transylvania Music Camp. We sang very old folk songs and chants, reading from old-style music notations. We played recorders, which were the forerunners of flutes, and had mass every day.

I’d learned classical Latin in high school. We’d listened to Bing Crosby’s Christmas album and laughed at his pronunciation in “Adeste Fidelis”, but I now learned that he was correct! The Latin used in Roman Catholic liturgy was not classical Latin at all, but more like modern Italian.

I’d attended a Trapp Family Singers concert when they were on tour, so it was interesting to meet the family. Captain von Trapp had passed away by this time, but Madame von Trapp (Maria) was as energetic as ever, though quite mature. She and the captain had had two more children, a girl named Maria and a boy named Johannes. Maria was 18 and Johannes 12, while the other family members were all adults. Some taught classes at the camp.

Perfect Pitch
When I was seven or eight, my piano teacher got the idea that I might have perfect pitch. I’d stand with my back to her while she played a note. “That’s A” (or E or G), I’d say. She told Mother I had perfect pitch–but this was after my piano lesson, when I could remember middle C. I’ve since talked to people with perfect pitch, and can say without a doubt that I don’t have it. I have a good pitch memory, but can’t immediately recognize a key or start on a given note. I carried a pitch pipe for awhile and tried to develop perfect pitch, but to no avail!

Eidetic Imagery and The Zone
Nora Dean Parker, a friend of mine, had eidetic imagery. I’d never heard the phrase, but she told me that it was like a photographic memory. When she was taking a test, she could sort of “look up” a page in her mind and “read” the answer. It was a gift.

It sounded kind of like perfect pitch to me. I’d struggled to develop perfect pitch without success, but maybe I could develop eidetic imagery in time to get me through my senior recital! Pergolesi’s “Salve Regina,” with its long, repetitive phrases and slow tempo, was giving me trouble. I tried visualizing and “reading” the piece and got through it, but it was a struggle. I didn’t have eidetic imagery.

The Queens College choir went on tour in my senior year. The big number for our concert was Debussy’s “The Blessed Damozel,” and I had the soprano solo. I knew I sang it well, but one evening I felt my voice soar effortlessly, automatically. It was wonderful!  Afterwards, Mr. Holliday exclaimed, “What happened? That was amazing!”  Bonnie Blue added, “I know! I’ve never heard you sing like that!” I’ve since heard athletes and performers speak of being “in the Zone,” and that’s where I was! It felt a lot better than eidetic imagery!

In life, every closing is an opening. I had mixed emotions at graduation from Queens–sadness at leaving people and places I’d come to love, but excitement thinking about the great unknown of my future. I’d been taught by others for sixteen years, and saw my graduation as an end to that phase. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next, and was still exploring options. I’d lacked faith in becoming a singer like Lotte Lehman, specializing in German leider, and had shown it by changing my major from voice to public school music–but teaching, while it offered security, didn’t seem exciting. I felt secure about the future, knowing I had a teaching certificate, but it didn’t seem very adventurous. Far away places with strange sounding names were calling. I’d studied several languages–Latin, Spanish, German, French–and though I wasn’t fluent in any of them, I thought I could become so with practice and looked for opportunities to travel.

Three of my friends at Queens–Reid Regan, Beth Dobbins, and Bonnie Blue–also wanted to see the world, so when we saw an ad in the Charlotte Observer for airline stewardesses, we checked it out. A representative from United Airlines was to be interviewing prospects in downtown Charlotte, and the four of us talked with him. He was actually recruiting for a school that offered training, said we were all good prospects, gave us some papers to send in and wished us well. Reid did become an airline stewardess, but Bonnie, Beth, and I went in other directions.

A representative from the U.S. Foreign Service came to interview seniors who had a background in foreign languages, and I talked with him. I applied for a position, they did a very thorough background check, and offered me a job to start July 16th, 1952 in Washington, D.C. I was excited, and ready to go, but then Bill Whitesides told me his friend, Tom Nichols, would be the music director for a new outdoor drama, “Horn in the West”, opening that summer in Boone, N.C. He was looking for singers.  Would I like to be in it?

I would, if I could delay my Washington job. I obtained a postponement until September and left for Boone. That decision had far more impact on my future than I’d foreseen.

“Horn in the West”—1952
Boone was a small town nestled in the Appalachian Mountains of western North Carolina. Few people had heard of it in June of 1952. It wasn’t on the way to any major cities, but was approached by two-lane winding mountain highways, U.S. 221, 321, and 421. Appalachian Teacher’s College was there, and two small tourist attractions nearby, the Blowing Rock and Grandfather Mountain, but its main industry was farming. Community leaders wanted to increase tourism, and boost the economy of the region. Oh, boy! Little did they know!

Outdoor dramas were becoming increasingly popular. North Carolina had two, both successful: “The Lost Colony” in Manteo, and “Unto These Hills” in Cherokee. The dramas, performed in large outdoor amphitheatres, told stories from the history of a region and had large casts, incorporating acting, music, and dance. To stage one seemed an awesome undertaking for a town the size of Boone.

When I arrived, I was impressed with the preparation that was taking place. The theatre was nearing completion; sets were being built, scenery painted. We actors and singers pitched in. The costumers had a huge number of costumes to make. While all this was going on, during rehearsals, we had promotional appearances to make on Charlotte’s TV station, parades and press encounters for photographs and interviews. It was a very busy time!

I didn’t know anyone when I arrived, but it didn’t take long to get acquainted.  Most of the female members of the cast lived in a dorm-like house on Grand Boulevard, two blocks from the main drag, King Street. The director of the show, Kai Jurgenson, lived with his wife Jo (the lead female dancer) and their baby in a semi-basement apartment in the same house.

Those of us who could do musical notation were pressed into service to copy the music. Because I’d taken music directing 101, I was also asked by Tom Nichols to be the assistant music director, leading the choir so he could move about in the audience area to hear what it sounded like.

My role was small, but I had a solo. After the fierce Battle of King’s Mountain, I sat alone on a large rock as the smoke cleared. A single spotlight shone through the darkness and I sang, unaccompanied, “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.”

In an early chorus rehearsal, I found we needed more male singers and immediately thought of my younger brother. Ted had been to Transylvania Music Camp with me, and had also sung in my youth choir in Charlotte. Tom Nichols immediately offered him the job, and once again I had the pleasure of sharing an adventure with Ted.

One night, after a scene in the blacksmith’s shop, the villagers (singers) were ready to come on and I noticed the stage hands had forgotten to remove the blacksmith’s anvil. I knew the lights would be coming on, so I picked it up and carried it off. As I exited the two stage hands assigned to carry it almost bumped into me, then noticed I had the anvil. I sat it down and rushed back just as the lights came up.

I had no idea that I was soon to become a legend. “Two of our strongest male stagehands were assigned to that anvil, and she just picked it up and carried it off!” “That thing is heavy! I’ll bet it weighs more than she does!” “Can you believe that? How strong is she?” Ned Austin, who portrayed Daniel Boone, wanted to see who had caused such a stir. Ned had been dating Louisa, the leading lady of the show, and it hadn’t occurred to me to think of him as a potential boyfriend. I didn’t know until years later that the anvil episode was instrumental in bringing us together, but simply noticed that he seemed interested in me. He seemed to have just the right balance between the artistic and the earthy. A farm boy, who’d lived in New York City. A Baptist who had learned Eastern meditation. I was fascinated.

I Said Yes!
Never mind that job with the foreign service I was supposed to report to in September.  I’d been eagerly anticipating that adventure, but love changes everything!  I may have sung to thousands that my true love had black hair, but I was asked on a date by a man whose hair could only pass for black in a dark basement on a moonless night! The actor who played Daniel Boone asked me to marry him before our first date was over, and a few days later, when I was sure he was sober, I said yes!

Ned was the youngest–by far–of six siblings, nine years behind the youngest of his sisters. His dad was a farmer and shepherd who also served the community in many other ways–tanning hides, clearing land, preparing bodies for burial. Helpful and generous, he was also tough, and a hard taskmaster with a hot temper, showing little or no patience when there was a job to be done–and there was always a job to be done! Two incidents come to mind.

Ned said his brother Lewis, at 22, was just as hard-headed as his dad, and when they clashed, get out of the way! One rainy season, debris had collected in the creek and the water was flooding the back field. Lewis went with the mule to clear away the debris, but  Sam, his dad, thought the wet mule might get sick. Ned was only five, and was in the house with Minnie, his mother, who was watching the window and heard the commotion.

“He’s a-comin’ to the house!” she shouted, as Ned’s dad stormed up the path. “Here, Neddy! Take the shotgun and climb into the attic!” Little Ned hid with the shotgun while his dad stomped around, bellowed and finally steamed off. He threw sticks at Lewis and mule while they finished up, but the creek flowed again! Tragedy averted!

Ned’s cousin Max related another tale. “One time Uncle Sam was a-beatin’ on Ned with a hickory switch and Aunt Minnie came out to stop him. He turned on her and started a-beatin’ on her! He had a terrible temper!”

There were many times that temper turned on Ned–for simple things. Going to a movie. Not working fast enough. He had many chores, and in short didn’t have the happy childhood I’d enjoyed.

He did, though, have an independence his town friends lacked, because he usually had some money. He’d sell apples at the college. He had a garden plot of his own, and sold the cabbages. He had a little money most of the time, and he could do most anything around a farm–milk a cow, plow a garden or fix a machine. If he couldn’t repair it, he’d rig it. And–it’d work!

By the time I met Ned, he’d had a colorful and varied past, and I was impressed! I found that his talent as an actor had shown itself early. As a youngster he was so good at storytelling that the teacher sent him around to tell stories to the other classes. After high school he’d signed up for the Army Air Corps to become a paratrooper, but they had too many volunteers and he was assigned to the infantry. In the last weeks of the war he was captured by the Germans, but once liberated used the GI Bill to pursue his passion for drama. He studied at the Plonk School of Creative Arts in Asheville, then at Mars Hill College, then the University of Denver in Colorado. While there he took an interest in Hinduism, Buddhism and Eastern religions, and practiced meditation.

After leaving Denver, Ned entered the Berghof School of Acting in New York City, where he studied with Uta Hagen. He spent two summers doing summer stock theatre in Maine. “Horn in the West” was not his first professional gig, he was a seasoned performer. After finishing the season in Boone, we had high hopes. We were going to make our splash–on Broadway!

Truth or Dare
The game was Truth or Dare. “Do you believe in free love?”
“Are you a virgin?”
“Wait a minute. You’re supposed to tell the truth!”
“I did.”
“Non sequitur! Harry, we need to do something about this. It doesn’t add up!” (Much laughter).
“Yes it does! You said free love. Not free sex. I believe in free love, but I think sex should wait until there is love. I’ve never been in love, so I’ve never had sex.”

That conversation had taken place early in the summer of 1952 when Jean Hillman, Harry Coble and I were hanging out with Kai & Jo Jurgenson in their apartment. Now I was in love. Ned had asked me to marry him and I’d said yes.

But I had a concern. What if we got married and I couldn’t have sex? Don’t laugh. I really was worried. I’d read about a rare affliction called “infantilism”, which meant some women’s plumbing just hadn’t developed. If I had such an affliction, it wouldn’t be fair to Ned, and we should find out before marriage! So…

The summer was over. We were parting ways until the wedding, which would be in the middle of October. By the end of September I’d missed my period. Nobody knew but me, and I wasn’t about to tell anyone. Except Ned.

What’s the Rush?
I’d thought a small home wedding would be nice, but Mother had other ideas. “You’re the first grandchild to get married. Your wedding has to be at least big enough to invite your cousins, aunts and uncles.”

“Well, if it has to be a church wedding, I want it in Charlotte. I hardly know anyone in Columbia, and Charlotte would be convenient for Ned’s family too.”
As soon as agreement was reached, the pressure to delay it was on. There was so much to do! Aunt Adah invited me to Atlanta “to shop for my trousseau”, and we got my wedding dress and my “going away suit”. They were beautiful, but her real motive was to “talk some sense” into me. She sent me to her doctor to be fitted for a diaphragm, but still tried to talk me into waiting.

We were at lunch in Rich’s coffee shop when she pulled out all the stops. I shouldn’t get married yet. Ned and I were going to New York and we didn’t even have jobs! I’d get there, get pregnant and end up being a financial drag on my parents. Because of me, Carol and Ted wouldn’t be able to finish college.

I burst into tears. She called out, “Waiter, look what I’ve done! I’ve made my niece cry! We need a treat! What can you bring us?” He brought a dessert list, and we ordered chocolate tortes and coffee. The wedding plans went on, as I returned home.

Our Wedding
Earl Berg had been my voice teacher, and his baritone filled the chapel, with Mrs. Berg at the organ.
“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow,
They toil not, neither do they spin,
Yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
If God so clothe the grass of the field,
Shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?
Be not therefore anxious, saying “What shall we eat?”
or “What shall we drink?” or “wherewithal shall we be clothed?”
Your Heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things.
But seek ye first his kingdom and his righteousness,
And all these things shall be added unto you.
Be not therefore anxious for the morrow,
For the morrow will be anxious for itself.
Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof”
Matthew 6:28-34

Mother commented laughingly that he’d chosen a most appropriate text for our wedding, as we were leaving for New York City with no jobs and no place to live!
We were married in the chapel of First Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, and had the reception there as well. Somehow, Mother had managed to make all the festive arrangements–invitations, flowers, cake, etc.–from Columbia. I’d selected the dresses for my maid of honor, Carol, and my two bridesmaids, Bonnie Blue and Fran McPherson. Rev. Schaefer performed the ceremony, assisted by Rev. Fred Poag, the minister at Mother’s church in Columbia. Everything went well, with one glitch–the photographer failed to show. For me that was “Oh, well…”, but Mother wanted photos. She sent my outfit to New York. I was supposed to find a photographer there, but didn’t, so our only wedding day photo was a snapshot taken by Ned’s brother-in-law, Alfred Adams, at the reception.

The trip along the Blue Ridge Parkway was our honeymoon, and it was gorgeous in October! The mountains were aflame with color. Maples, oaks and sassafras flush with reds and oranges blended with  the yellows of aspen and birch against a background of evergreen. A breathtakingly beautiful setting for a couple deeply in love, on the edge of an adventure!

We’d actually driven the wrong way from Charlotte, and spent our first night at a small hotel in Kannapolis. Our elevator operator, a plump, pleasant black woman, exclaimed, “I believe this is a new couple!” and we grinned and admitted she was right. The next morning was a Sunday, so we visited a little church, then traveled on to New York City. Ned’s friends Harry Lowery and Marcie Bannon were waiting to greet us and take us to an apartment they’d found for us on West 72nd Street.

First Apartment
How exciting to have a place of our own! I was in Wonderland! Everything was amazing! Our apartment was a fifth-floor walk-up about the size of a postage stamp, but I loved it! There was one room with a sofa, two chairs and a double bed, and a kitchen the size of a closet with a three-foot-tall fridge and a two-burner hot plate. The bathroom had a larger-than-average basin, which doubled as the kitchen sink.

Harry’d been a guide at NBC, and had arranged a job interview for me. My first day as a guidette, a man on my tour tried to give me some money. I politely thanked him and told him no. Later, Ned and Harry laughed, and said, “That was a tip! That’s the custom in New York!”

I took groups on guided tours around the studio. I was explaining and demonstrating things I didn’t understand myself, but had a memorized spiel. Once a fellow who worked at a TV station asked me about coaxial cable, and I could only say, “That’s all I know about that. You know more than I do, I’m sure.” He grinned, and we moved on.

One part of the tour called for me to “interview” a member of the group on closed circuit TV. When I asked my interviewee, “Where are you from?” She said “Jamaica”, and I said, “Oh my goodness. You’re a long way from home, aren’t you?” It wasn’t until later I found out Jamaica is a New York City suburb, on Long Island!

We took the subway to work and everywhere else in Manhattan. Our car was an unnecessary possession that presented parking problems, and was only appreciated when we went out of town. I had no place to more than hand-wash a few clothes, so I took them to a Chinese laundry in the neighborhood. The man at the counter wrote something in Chinese, took my pillowcase of clothes and said something I didn’t understand. I walked out wondering if I’d ever see them again, but when I returned he took one look at me and immediately pulled out the right package. I don’t know what he wrote, but afterwards he never failed to match me with the right set of clothes.

Christmas Blues
I’d never been through a Christmas season when I wasn’t singing in a choir, and had always been home to attend Christmas Eve candlelight services with my family. I wasn’t in the choir in Manhattan and wasn’t going home for Christmas, but I wanted to go to a candlelight service for Christmas Eve.

About ten days before Christmas, Ric Satriano came to town. Ned had told me about Ric, his very best friend, and had hoped I’d like him. Of course I would! I was going to like all of his friends!

I greeted Ric warmly, served him chili and beer and we all sat down to eat. I looked forward to a pleasant conversation, as we’d had with Harry, Marcie and other friends, but Ric never made eye contact with me. He and Ned talked about the Hindu Truth Center and made plans to go there together, but it was clear that I wasn’t included! A couple times Ric looked at me, back at Ned, and said, “Damn! What’ve you done? You’ve changed everything! It’ll never be the same again!”

“What do you mean?” I exclaimed, “I’m not a ball and chain. You and Ned and whoever can go wherever, whenever you want to! Excuse me. I’m going for a walk!”

I went to the park alongside the Hudson River. It was beautiful there, and quiet. I walked for awhile, then returned to find Ned in a panic.

“Where have you been? I’ve been all over the neighborhood looking for you.”

He was even more upset when he found I’d been walking in the park. By the river. At night.

“Well, it was clear I was ‘persona non grata’ at the apartment with you and Ric. so I left. I’d have gone to bed instead, but our bed is in the living room, so I couldn’t.”

I went to the candlelight service alone, and on Christmas morning Ned & Ric went to the Hindu Truth Center without me. I had a sixteen-inch Christmas tree I’d decorated with my earrings, and I ate fruit cake and listened to Christmas music on the radio, wishing I was home!

Better Days
We may have been ready for Broadway, but Broadway wasn’t interested in us. Nevertheless, it was wonderful to be in New York City!

Ric’s girlfriend Liz Dalton came to join him in Manhattan. Ric stopped resenting me and found the four of us could have a lot of fun hanging out together. We had lots of friends, all theatre folks. We all worked clerical jobs during the week, partied on weekends and “made the rounds”, going to auditions for acting gigs. I was pregnant, and so was transferred to the ticket office, where I worked into the spring. Ned’s New York friends made me feel at home. Harry and his girlfriend Marcie Bannon invited us to a Christmas party at Marcie’s apartment. They decided to marry shortly afterwards.

Harry and Marcie Get Married
Harry and Marcie were planning to wed in Webster Groves, Missouri–Marcie’s hometown. Harry asked Ned to be his best man, thus committing us to a round trip of about 1600 miles. I had no qualms about the drive, I was just happy for Harry and Marcie. They were married in a Catholic church, then we went to Marcie’s parents’ home for the reception, a catered affair with alcoholic refreshments freely dispensed by a staff of colored servants. While I was socializing in the living room, two things were occurring. It was sleeting outside, and Ned was in the kitchen declaring to the catering crew that they should all have the equality he’d been fighting for in the war, getting more vocal and more sloshed as they refilled his champagne. Finally someone noticed that it was getting icy outside and suggested we should leave while we could.

Marcie’s parents saw Ned was in no condition to drive, and Mrs. Bannon invited us to stay the night, expressing concern for our safety, but I assured them I could manage.

“Have you driven on ice much before?”

“No, but it’s a lot like driving through sand and mud. Not too fast, not too slow, no sudden turns or stops. Steady does it.”

All of which is true, but in Indiana I realized I was the only driver fool enough to be on this solid sheet of ice in the pitch black night. It was a couple tense hours before I saw any other lights but my own headlights, and the night clerk at the first open motel was astonished that anyone was out traveling in this weather!

We had a good night’s rest, and made it to Manhattan the next day, safe and sound.

The Subway Commute
The New York City subway system is an engineering marvel! It moves millions of people from home to work and back each day, fanning out under the five boroughs of the city, mobilizing people twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. I descended the steps to the subterranean caverns which house this amazing array with some trepidation. It was rush hour, and everyone seemed to know exactly what to do and where to go—except me! The hubbub of voices, in many tongues, was frequently drowned by the reverberating rumble of arrivals and departures.

I stood to one side for a minute, then played “monkey see, monkey do”. Some were taking their money to a window in the graffiti-covered wall, so I did too. I handed over a five-dollar bill and received a handful of tokens. In response to my query, I was told to take the A train, so I followed the crowd, put a token in the turnstile and went through to stand with the crowd on the platform until my train arrived.

After that first intimidating experience, I found subway travel to be easy and fast. There were maps on the walls of the stations and in the trains, showing where each train went, and where one could transfer from one train to another. It was easy—that is, until I became “great with child”. In about my seventh month of pregnancy, I began to feel scared to be in the bustle and push of the crowd, both on the stairs leading down to the station and standing on the platform with its three-or-four-foot drop to the tracks below. What if I fell?

Fortunately, I didn’t.

Brighton Beach
The climb to our fifth floor apartment was fine when I was slim and energetic, but the more pregnant I became the harder it was to climb stairs, so we found a semi-basement apartment in Brighton Beach, in Brooklyn. Brighton Beach was an old Jewish neighborhood, and I’ll never forget the look on the proprietor’s face when I went to the meat market and asked for pork chops. “Pork chops?!?! Lady, this is a kosher market! We don’t sell pork!”

I had a lot to learn! Our landlord was a rabbi, but we hardly ever saw him. His wife did all the business dealings. I learned not to go upstairs to pay the rent on a Saturday. She couldn’t do business on the sabbath–or any Jewish holiday.

Ric and a couple friends had found a job with a puppet theatre group which was going on tour, so Liz came to live with us. She was pregnant too. Ned found a night job at a factory in Brooklyn while Liz and I commuted to clerical jobs in Manhattan.

Ric and Liz called each other frequently, running up a huge phone bill, and when they were on the phone Ned and I would go for a walk on the beach.

One day Liz reported that she hadn’t felt life in her baby in a day or two, and stopped in a clinic to find out what was going on. They told her she’d had what was called a “missed abortion”, meaning the baby had died but her body hadn’t yet gotten the message and gone into labor.

Late the next afternoon, Ric and Liz were on the phone, so Ned and I went for a beach walk. We returned to find Liz in bed in an advanced stage of labor, unable to get up.

Ned had been present when his dad had delivered baby lambs, but I’d never even been allowed to watch puppies being born. I felt like Prissy in “Gone with the Wind” when she exclaimed, “Miz Scarlett, I don’t know nothin’ about birthin’ babies!”.

Liz had noticed a doctor’s shingle in a window up the street and asked Ned to fetch him. Ned ran out and returned shortly with a stocky, gray-haired man carrying a bag and wearing a stethoscope. At first he thought I was the patient; I was obviously very pregnant. We indicated Liz, in the bed, and he examined her briefly while Liz told him about the “missed abortion”. He called for an ambulance and she was whisked away to the hospital in Coney Island, where she delivered a stillborn little boy.

Pickwick Players Summer Stock Theatre
Blauvelt, NY, June 1953
All of Great Britain was abuzz with preparations for the coronation of Princess Elizabeth. Ric and Liz were abuzz with preparations to open their summer theatre, and Ned and I were abuzz with preparations for a new baby and a trip to Boone. We’d paid our rent in Brighton Beach through the end of May, so we moved on the first of June to the Rockland County Playhouse to await the arrival of our baby, sharing space with Ric and Liz and the “Pickwick Players”, helping with chores while the cast and crew made plans for the summer season. The theatre was a converted barn, and the guys had tied a long rope to the rafters. They’d swing from a loft above the stage and land on the floor. They were having great fun, and daring others to try it. Ned said I couldn’t, because I was too pregnant. That was enough for me! I climbed the ladder to the loft, got a grip on the rope and jumped. It was fun! I swung widely back and forth, gradually came to a stop, and went into labor!

David Jones Austin
Women’s Hospital, Manhattan. “She’s not gonna have no baby tonight. She don’t have enough pain. You go on home and call in the mornin’”.

That’s what the black nurse’s aide told Ned, so he left to spend the night with Harry & Marcie in Manhattan. It was true that my labor contractions weren’t intensely painful, but I’d read Dr. Grantly Dick-Read’s book Natural Childbirth, and was practicing everything I’d learned, breathing and relaxing and letting my body do its work. I felt resentful at not being taken seriously, but was vindicated when a doctor came in and exclaimed, “Let’s get her out of here! Fast!”

My wonderful baby, David Jones Austin, arrived at 3:27 am on June 3rd, weighing in at a hefty nine pounds! He was supposedly premature, since we’d been married in mid-October. We told our families he weighed six pounds. I think they knew it wasn’t true, but nobody questioned it except Ned’s cousin and best man, Earl Payne, whose wife was a nurse, and to them we admitted he wasn’t premature. Our theatre friends in New York knew, but they didn’t care.

A Surprise Visitor

Other than Ned, I didn’t expect any visitors while baby David and I were in the hospital. Our friends were all busily preparing for their summer season in Blauvelt, and they knew we’d be coming by the theatre to say our goodbyes before leaving for North Carolina. I was surprised and mystified when a nurse told me I had a visitor. Who might it be?

It turned out that my mother had made a phone call to her dear friend Virginia Gallemore, our former next-door neighbor in Bartow. I didn’t know, but she was in New York! We had a delightful visit. She was glad to see me in good health and good spirits. She said I had a beautiful baby, and would give my mother a “good report”!

As soon as baby David and I left the hospital we went back to the Playhouse to prepare for the trip to North Carolina, where Ned would again portray Daniel Boone in Horn in the West. He’d bought three diapers before we left the hospital, and I wanted to stop and buy a dozen more, but Ned refused. “These will be enough to get us back to Boone, and my sisters will have plenty of diapers when we get there”, he said.


Every stop along the way, I had to take two diapers to the rest room and wash them, then hang them out the car window to flap in the breeze as we trekked down the road!

We FINALLY arrived at Ned’s family home, and were warmly received by his mother, dad and sister Daisy. We took our things to the upstairs bedroom which would become our home for the summer, and as I took the two soiled diapers to wash, Ned told Daisy we’d surely be happy to get some hand-me-down diapers from her and his other sister Ella.

“I don’t have any diapers now, Ned!”, she said, “Tommy is five years old!”.

Of course Ella, whose youngest was six, had none either. Ned finally went out and bought a dozen diapers!

Life with Sam & Minnie
I’d wanted an apartment in Boone, but Ned’s parents insisted that we should live with them, and we did.

Ned’s dad Sam had mellowed with the years and was a most agreeable person. He enjoyed sitting on the front porch holding his grandson and talking with him while Ned’s mother Minnie and I were in the kitchen fixing supper. I called them Daddy Austin and Mother Austin when talking with friends, but in the house I called them Dad & Mother–the same thing I called my own parents.

Minnie made baby David’s first toy. She took about six Mason jar rings, strung them onto a clothes hanger wire and hung them across Davy’s crib. He quickly discovered how to whack the rings with his hands, and he’d kick up his heels and coo with delight as they jingled!

My respect for Minnie grew to awe when I lived with them and realized what her life had been. Neighbors helped each other, and shared the fruits of their labor. When men came to work the fields, it was the custom for Minnie to feed them. She didn’t slap together a few sandwiches and hand them out–she fixed cornbread, biscuits, green beans, potatoes, corn and tomatoes, all from her garden, and stewed chicken and country ham. And cooked it all on a woodstove. She had an electric stove, but preferred the wood stove, which she was used to!

Besides the electric stove, her children (Ned’s siblings) had provided a number of home improvements, including indoor plumbing and a washing machine. Previously, to wash clothes she had to carry water from the spring, build a fire under a big tub, scrub the clothes on a washboard with soap she’d made from ashes and fat, run them through a hand wringer into rinse water, wring them again and hang them on a line to dry. Every job she did was so much more complicated and difficult than anything I’d ever had to do that I could never complain again without thinking of her and feeling ashamed of myself. She was amazing!

Breast Feeding
Of course I wanted to breast feed my baby, and did so right from the start. My milk was plentiful and he had a good appetite, so when I took Davy in for his six week checkup, he weighed thirteen pounds! Oh well–we continued to give evasive answers to “How much does he weigh?” and finally people stopped asking.

Breast feeding a baby is easy, natural, healthy and, among our circle of friends, was socially acceptable, so–whenever he got hungry–anytime, anywhere. Why should it not be so?

Summer’s End–Harvest Time
By the middle of August, we were harvesting more than we could eat. Minnie had lots of Mason jars. We washed them, bought a few dozen more and a number of lids and rings and pulled out her big pressure canner. For the next two weeks we prepared corn, green beans and tomatoes enough for Minnie and Sam, plus several boxes for Ned and me to cart with us to New York.

When Horn in the West was over, we packed up our clothes, vegetables, baby supplies, our beagle Homer and baby Davy and headed north, first to the Rockland County Playhouse, while we searched for a place to live.

The Loft—Lower East Side, Manhattan
Nance and Ray, actors at Pickwick Players, were friends of an artist couple who’d found an old warehouse available to rent at 80 Jefferson Street. They were converting the top floor into a studio and living area for themselves, and were looking for couples to move in to the other two floors and share the rent, which would be $30 each. We jumped on it.

The building had been taken over by pigeons, so the first job was a massive cleanup. Then came a search for furniture–not just beds and tables but heaters, refrigerators, cookstoves, etc. It was hard work, but fun too–at first!

The police stopped by one night to see why there were lights on in what had been an empty building. We learned it wasn’t zoned for residences, but the policeman announced, “Now, this can’t be your apartment, but you can have a studio. If this is your studio, you’re allowed to live in it.”

“Okay,” we said, taking our cue from him, “this IS our studio. We’re actors, and the other couples are also actors and artists.”

“We’re actually glad to have someone here,” he said, “Keeps it from attracting vagrants and drug dealers.”

Unfortunately, Homer soon selected a corner of the loft as his bathroom. I walked him as I carried Davy, but apparently not enough. More to clean up.

Our gas line had a low spot which would fill with condensation. The heater and stove would work for awhile, shut off unexpectedly, then the gas would come back on, unlit. We had to turn off the gas, which meant I had to keep Davy in his snowsuit full-time, considerably complicating diaper changes. Aunt Genevieve came to see us, took one look around and said, “Bobbie, how are you going to make a home out of this joint?”. With the baby, the cold and the dog we had more problems than we’d anticipated, and began to talk other options.

More Weddings
My sister Carol and my cousin Phyllis were both planning December weddings. Phyllis asked me to sing for her wedding in Atlanta, and Carol wanted me for matron-of-honor at her wedding in Columbia. All things considered, we decided to pack up and say goodbye to New York City.

My parents welcomed us to Columbia, where we prepared for Carol’s wedding. Carol was a student at Agnes Scott College, and her intended, Lewis “Pete” Hay, was a student at Columbia Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. After the wedding they went back to their respective colleges, where they graduated the following June.

After Carol’s wedding we went to Atlanta, where we stayed with Aunt Adah for Phyllis’s wedding to Dean Matthews. Aunt Adah enjoyed playing with little Davy, rolling on the floor with him and laughing. Both weddings went well. We stayed with my folks through Christmas, then returned to Boone.

Back on the Farm
One of Daddy Austin’s sheep gave birth on a cold winter night, and he brought the lamb into the house to dry and warm it. He found it had a hernia; a fold of its gut was protruding through an opening in its belly. He recruited me to help him operate on the lamb. We gently pushed the section of gut back in and stitched up the gap.

There was always plenty to do on the farm. Once the ground had thawed, Ned plowed his parents’ garden and those of a couple of the neighbors. Mother Austin milked the cow, and Davy liked to feed the chickens, rolling around in his walker with her. I learned to wield an axe and split wood.

Another Opening
When summer came, we hired Ned’s niece, Minnie, to babysit Davy while we both worked in “The Horn”. I landed a speaking part this summer. The role of Mary had been combined with that of Betsy, which tightened up the story line and gave me a bigger part. Betsy was to be married, and had a shivaree before the wedding. In the shivaree, a noisy, boisterous celebration, the guys all picked up the couple and lofted them overhead, running them across the stage and setting them down at the door to the cabin. “Be careful, I’m pregnant!”, I told them, and they were, letting me down easy every night as we looked forward to having a sibling for Davy.

Ned bought a calf, and fed him through the summer. In the fall his sister Lula came to help process the meat. Some was frozen, some ground into hamburger and some cut up and canned.

We did Horn in the West for three summers, but decided not to go back to New York with a toddler and a second child on the way. I wanted our children to have a yard to play in. Ned had loved Denver when he was in school, so we decided to move there. We bought a metal trailer chassis and built a wooden trailer body on it.

Westward Ho!
US Highway 70W, September, 1954.
In the fall of 1954, we loaded up our homemade trailer with all our belongings, including several cases of home-canned foods, and headed west in Ned’s 1949 Chevy, with high hopes! In Denver, we found a basement apartment in the home of Granny Eldridge, who did baby-sitting in her home and was happy to look after our toddler while we looked for work. That proved to be easier said than done! Pregnant, and showing, I wasn’t able to find work at all, and Ned did door-to-door sales–but he noticed there were always ads in the HELP WANTED section for barbers.

In January, our second child was stillborn. As I lay in bed in the ward at Denver General Hospital, staring vacantly at the ceiling, someone in the nurse’s quarters above played Ravel’s “Pavane for a Dead Baby” and my loneliness and grief became intense. The pain subsided, however, the minute I hugged little Davy. We went home, and discussed what was next.

Upward Bound
With my trimmed-down figure, I quickly landed a job as a receptionist in the X-ray department at St. Luke’s Hospital. Ned enrolled in barber school and took a part-time job unloading freight. Davy was safe with Granny Eldridge, but not stimulated. We moved closer to work and I enrolled him in Humpty Dumpty Preschool, where there were toys, room to play and lots of other children.

Our schedule was quite demanding. Ned had to be at work at 4am and we only had one car, so I’d bundle up a sleeping Davy and drive Ned to work, come home, grab a few more ZZs until 7am, cart Davy to preschool and go on to work at the hospital. Ned would walk from work to barber school for his classes, where Davy and I would pick him up at 6pm and head home to supper. After a few months, Ned found a 1938 Studebaker on sale for $50. We bought it, and loved it! Everything was easier with two cars, and the Studebaker, though old, was reliable–and cute!

Medical personnel are great to work with. I liked everything about my job. Pretty soon I was pregnant again, and Ned finished barber school and went to work at the TV station. Davy said he had two daddies–one at home, and one in “that TV box”!

New Baby–Robin
One night in January, quite suddenly and without warning, my water broke. Ned took Davy upstairs to stay with Nettie & Joe, an elderly couple who’d become good friends, and I grabbed several towels and called the hospital. Shortly afterwards, Robin Alister Austin arrived, at an even 6 pounds!

Ned was now working part-time at the TV station and part-time as a barber, and with the improved finances I stayed home with the boys. We moved to a larger apartment and my mother came to visit.

First House—Spring 1957
The Denver area was in a housing boom, and we saw ads for houses all the time. We began looking at houses on Sunday afternoons, then talked with a realtor and were soon signed up to move into the all-new Martin Acres project in Boulder.
Boulder was a small but fast-growing college town west of Denver, and our first view of it was dramatic. The approach from Denver was by a toll road. It crossed 30 miles of the flat plateau that gave Denver its title of The Mile-High City, but Boulder was nestled up against the Flatirons. These are an aptly named, towering rock formation which introduces the Rocky Mountains. The effect is breath-taking. Dry, westerly winds known as “Chinooks” blow across the town, and when they came, I’d take out my wash and by the time I’d finished hanging, I could take it down again–all dry!

The Neighborhood
There’s a great “esprit de corps” among young families moving into a new neighborhood. Everyone is making their house a home. We all planted grass, shopped for furniture, put up swing sets and fences, had get-acquainted barbecues and block parties. Our kids were all preschoolers, and they played happily together while we moms did housework and got together for coffee. We also began to take an interest in politics. The Irwins and the Goldsteins were strong Democrats, and Bobby Jo Irwin organized us to do block work.

Becky Irwin and Seth Goldstein were the same age as David, and the three of them became fast friends. They played together most of the time, while Becky’s little brother Bo tagged along. Robin wasn’t yet old enough to be out with “the big kids”. He’d play in the house or the fenced-in back yard while I cleaned up or washed clothes. One morning he was looking out the front door one minute, and gone the next. I rushed out to look for him and noticed David’s tricycle was also missing. I’d seen him watching closely while David was riding it, and deduced what likely happened. Suspecting he’d go downhill, I went that way. He wasn’t allowed to cross the street, so he’d gone around the corner, where I found him. I didn’t know he could ride a trike!

Beach Trip
After we moved “out West”, we made the long trip “back East” every few summers to visit Ned’s family, and mine. We’d stay in Boone at the old home place or with one of his sisters, all of whom lived within “a holler” of each other. We first returned in 1957; David was four years old, Robin 1-1/2 and another “on the way”. We spent a wonderful week in Boone with Ned’s family. It was the last time we were to see his father, who passed away within the year.

My family was more spread out than Ned’s, and my parents had a smaller house, so we had our reunions at the beach. That year, my father rented spaces in a building styled like a military barracks at Springmaid Beach. The rooms had built-in concrete beds with foam mattresses. Guests were responsible for their own laundry, and made their own beds. We ate our meals at a large on-site cafeteria.

My sister Carol joined us there, with her husband Pete and their little girl 
Kathy, who was about two. Carol and I relaxed, playing in the sand and surf with Mother and the kids, while Ned and Pete explored the surrounding area in our green Chevy.

New Baby–Samuel

I was pregnant again, and after our return went to Dr. Cowgill in Boulder for pre-natal care. I’d hoped to try natural childbirth, and he told me he believed in it too, but that he felt it best to use very little medication and for the mother to be awake. I liked him, and I was by now experienced at giving birth, so when my labor started on December 9th I busied myself at home, getting things ready, “nesting”. I washed clothes, cleaned house and cooked most of the day before having Ned drive me to the hospital. The delivery of Samuel Monroe Austin was seamless. I was sedated, but awake, through the whole process. He weighed seven pounds, and nursed as soon as he was placed in my arms.

One day when he was eight months old, Sammy got tired of crawling. He stood up and walked. A day or two later the children were in the backyard while I washed dishes. They were playing at the swing set as usual, but I noticed Sammy on the slide. Using his hands and feet, he’d climb up the slide instead of the ladder, then turn around and slide down!

Sammy had an interest in music from a very young age. When he was four, I took the kids to see “The King and I”. In the movie, Anna keeps reminding the king of Siam that when she came to teach, he’d promised her a home of her own. He’d failed to keep that promise, so she taught his children to sing “Home Sweet Home”. After the movie, I was cooking supper and heard the piano. Someone was plinking out “Home Sweet Home”! It was Sammy! He could barely reach the keyboard!

Music Teacher
By now I’d secured my Colorado teaching certificate. Colorado required only that I produce my North Carolina certificate plus a letter from a North Carolina principal verifying that I was qualified to teach. I hadn’t taught school in North Carolina, but one of the actors in Horn in the West, Charlie Elledge, was a principal in Marion, North Carolina. He was happy to vouch for me. I started teaching music that September at Arvada Junior High, in Adams County outside Denver. There were three other teachers from Boulder who worked there. We had a congenial carpool, and life was good. By February, however, I was pregnant again, and didn’t finish the school year.

Trading Houses
Our neighbors across the street had friends who lived in Denver, but worked in Boulder. We lived in Boulder, but worked in Denver. Their friends were searching for a house in Boulder, and we thought it’d uncomplicate everyone’s lives if we simply traded houses.

As far as the paperwork was concerned, it was the easiest house buy ever. We assumed each other’s GI Bill loans, made an appropriate payment for the larger equity they’d built up in their house and together hired a lawyer to manage the documents. The hard part came on moving day.

The logistics were tricky. We had to time our moves so that we crossed paths on the road, to be sure each house was empty and ready for the switch. It was an exhausing day for me, especially, because by now I was eight months pregnant.

Baby Frances–A Girl!
My mother, Eloise, and dad, Ted, came out to visit us in August. They were prepared to go home on the 21st, Mother’s birthday, but that morning she made the comment, “The only present I want is a new grandbaby. We’ll stay another day if that’s about to happen.”

“I’m sorry, Mother, I’m not feeling anything yet.” I responded. They got in the car and drove away.

They hadn’t been gone long when my labor started. We didn’t have cell phones, so there was no way to call them back. By the time they reached a motel and called us, Ned was able to announce that they had a granddaughter, Frances Eloise Austin.

Our first baby girl was petite, weighing in at five pounds, six ounces. I felt like I was playing with a doll when I bathed and dressed her. Even as a baby, she was different from the boys, and the boys treated her differently, too. They looked after and protected her.

Rosemary Street
Moving into an established neighborhood is different, because lasting friendships have already been formed between the children and adults. We were welcomed and accepted, but as friendly acquaintances, not bosom buddies. Our children were a little younger than the rest, and it felt like it would always be “us and them”, until our next-door neighbors moved out and the Reiners moved in.

Bela and Mary Reiner had lived in Hungary when Eastern Europe was under the control of the Communists. Bela had been a freedom fighter in the failed Hungarian revolution of 1956, and he, his mother and wife Mary had to flee the country when the Soviet tanks rolled in. David was very excited to learn that Bela was a scientist, and their kids Peter and Susie, the same ages as Robin and Sam, played well together with ours.

Contrasts in Cultures
Our new Hungarian neighbors invited us over to see their Christmas tree and celebrate a traditional Hungarian Christmas. Their tree was decorated with candles–real candles, which had been lit before we’d arrived. They turned off the house lights and put on some Christmas music. It was beautiful–but I couldn’t resist asking, “Aren’t you afraid the tree will catch fire?” I’d never seen actual candles on a Christmas tree–only in pictures on Christmas cards. They also had a small nativity scene laid out on their mantel, with intricate carvings of Mary, Joseph, the baby, some shepherds and several animals. We sang “O Tannenbaum”, in German.

“O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum Wie treu sind deine Blätte Du grünst nicht nur sur Sommer zeit Nein auch im Winter, wenn es schneit O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum Wie treu sind deine Blätte”

They turned on the house lights and put out the candles, and Bela asked, “Can you polka?”

I’d learned to polka in a P.E. class when we’d studied folk dances, but had never since had occasion to.

“Yes,” I said hesitantly, glancing at Mary and Ned, who both seemed interested in watching but not participating.

“Mary doesn’t like to dance,” said Bela as he started the music. The polka is a very active dance, and I lasted through the whole of the 78 rpm record, but was pretty winded at the end. We sat and talked awhile longer, munching on delicious Hungarian scones Mary had made and drinking wine, then thanked them and said our goodnight.

To the other side of Bela and Mary’s was an older house, one of the few in the neighborhood built before the 1940s. A family named Martinez had moved into it shortly after we’d moved into ours. Their forefathers were from Colorado, so they were of Mexican ancestry–insofar as Colorado was for centuries a part of Mexico, and they and their ancestors spoke a fair amount of Spanish. Lonnie Martinez was David’s age, and Lonnie’s younger brother David was Robin’s age. They invited our boys to a birthday party, and hung a piñata from a tree in which they had a clubhouse. The boys became good friends, and my son David received a very special gift from them when we later left the neighborhood. Their house was built beside a small stream in an area which had apparently been inhabited for centuries, as Lonnie and David found chips of pottery, arrowheads and such in their yard or in the vacant lot beside it on a regular basis. When it was time for us to move across town, they presented David with a very old fire-starter stone. It was roughly egg-shaped and weighed about ten pounds, about 6”x8”x4”, with an inch-deep depression in the center where one could put kindling and on the side strike a rock against it, producing a spark. The stone was smooth on the bottom but had a great number of pits around the depression on top, attesting to its frequent use in a time when matches were an impossible dream.

Back to the Beach
It’d been four years since we’d seen our families in the Carolinas, and we had two more kids by now, so in the summer of 1961 we again rolled eastwards, this time in an olive-green, two-toned Volkswagen Microbus. Ned pounded together a platform and covered it with a large mattress so that we could all sleep in the back as we traveled. Bad idea. We drove straight through, but it was extremely uncomfortable in the blistering summer heat. In Saint Louis it reached 104ºF, and was unbelievably humid. The tiny Microbus windows were our only ventilation and the roof, three feet above the mattress, baked us like an oven. All the kids had heat rash, and Frannie diaper rash, by the time we reached Boone.

After a week in the blessedly cool mountains, we drove on to Cherry Grove, which at the time was a small beach town well removed from Myrtle Beach. Dad had rented a two-story beachfront house, with a smaller houser in back. Carol and Pete, who now had two little girls, took the upstairs apartment in the big house while Ned and I, with our three boys and one little girl, stayed in the small house. We each fixed our own breakfast and lunch, then got the whole crowd together for supper, which Mother, Carol and I took turns preparing.

We had a lovely vacation by the beach, then after we left we drove back to Boone to pick up a gift which the Austins had bought for us—six rustic kitchen chairs and a large rocking chair, handmade by a local character known as Uncle Pink. We drove back to Colorado with the lot of them strapped to the top of the bus!

Mesa Verde
Later that summer we went to southern Colorado to visit the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, which David had studied in his third grade classes. It was tremendously interesting, but safety wasn’t yet a priority; the dangers weren’t clearly marked, the trails narrow and rattlesnakes numerous. Our kids were between two and eight years old, and I was pregnant. On one trail we discovered, at the end, that the long, continuous line of tourists had to climb about forty feet on a tall, rickety-looking ladder! We struggled, Franny on my back. At the top a tiny, half-inch plastic baby doll slipped from the papoose of a two-inch souvenir doll of Franny’s, tumbling to the bottom! Franny was hysterical, but there was no way to return; the long line of people passed the tiny baby doll up to my screaming, crying daughter!

Natural Childbirth
I was pregnant again, and found Drs. Bradley and Bartlett at Porter Hospital, run by the Seventh Day Adventists. It was the only one in Denver which allowed Grantly Dick-Read’s method, and held classes for mothers-to-be to prepare them for delivery without anesthesia. Fathers-to-be attended some of the classes as well, learning about the process so that they could be supportive. Ned would be with me in the delivery room and participate in the birthing. They called this the “Bradley Method”, and I was thrilled to be a part of it.

Deep Freeze
About the middle of January, Denver went into a deep freeze, the kind my Minnesota-born professors talked about, when gas lines would freeze and cars wouldn’t start. We bought an electric engine heater and pulled the car into the front yard so we could plug it into an outlet in the house. The Stantzes across the street had a similar idea; they put a 100-watt light bulb under the hood of their car and covered it with a blanket to keep out the wind. At about 10 pm, we heard the prolonged honking of a horn and looked out the window to see fire coming from their engine compartment! Before we could bundle up we heard a siren and a fire truck pulled up. The fire was quickly extinguished, but their 1957 Plymouth station wagon was ruined.

Since I was pregnant again, the neighbors shared our concern about getting me to the hospital, and several of them had said, “If your car won’t start, call us and we’ll TRY OURS. No guarantees!” But we were lucky. When I started labor, we didn’t wait around. Ned went out immediately, and the car started right up.

New Baby—Genevieve
January 23, 1962
Natural childbirth, at last! What can I say, now that I’ve experienced it? For starters, I felt sorry for the mothers-to-be who weren’t Bradley and Bartlett patients. While they were moaning in pain, I was practicing my breathing, working with my body, trying to relax and alleviate the pain. How exciting it was to be aware, as the time came to push, that my baby was on its way into the world! And how wonderful to have my husband share the experience! To welcome together our beautiful baby girl, Genevieve Marie Austin!

My hospital stay was only two days, and my wonderful neighbor, Mary Reiner, had cleaned my house while I was gone!

We set Genevieve’s crib by the picture window so she and I could look out to the front yard, because it’d be Lord knows how many days before we could go outside! The deep freeze persisted, but our house was warm and comfortable, and the snow-covered world outside was beautiful!

Normally, the other kids would’ve played outside, but the bitter cold prevented it. We played games, sang songs and used our reel-to-reel tape recorder to send taped messages to our families back east.

Frannie’s Big Adventure
I was pregnant again, and staying home. I taught piano to neighbor children while Gennie was in her playpen and the rest of the kids played outside. One day Frannie, age 3, came in during a lesson and said, “I’m going to the store to get some candy, okay?” We played pretend a lot, so this announcement didn’t surprise me. I said all right, and continued the lesson.

About ten minutes later Kristen and I went to the front door to check on the kids.
“Where’s Frannie?” The boys gave me a blank look. Right then a car drove up and a lady brought out Frannie. She’d really gone to the store, but of course had no money, and she was so young the lady knew she wasn’t supposed to be there  and gave her a ride home, following Frannie’s directions! I thanked the lady, and she gave me a look that asked, how can you be such an irresponsible parent?

Music, Music, Music!
Northglenn 1962
Just north of Denver was the fastest growing school district in the United States, Adams County District #12. They were building a new elementary school every year, and sometimes moved into a new school before it was finished. I needed to work, and Denver wouldn’t hire a teacher who had a baby less than a year old, so I applied to Adams County and was hired immediately as a music teacher. Many of the music classes were held in houses we called “the cottages”, and I was assigned thirty-five classes in one school and two cottages. Four days a week I had to drive to the cottages. It wasn’t my dream job, though I was enormously popular with the kids. It was gratifying to see them light up when I walked into the cafeteria, but I wanted to know them better. I couldn’t remember eleven hundred names, and all the first- and second-grade songs got tiresome, although I worked hard to make them interesting. I wanted to be a classroom teacher, to get to know thirty children well and teach more challenging subjects. I enrolled in graduate school.

Mechanical Intelligence
Once a week I’d come home, fix supper, and leave Ned and the kids while I rushed to classes. Since I hadn’t eaten, I’d grab a candy bar from the vending machine before class. One night I put in my quarter and got nothing. The next week it happened again! The third week I stood in front of the machine debating whether to give it one more try. I put in my quarter, and it gave me–three candy bars!

I’d talked with my principal Mr. Schmidt and the assistant superintendent Mr. Reuter about switching from music to classroom teaching. They were agreeable. They were hiring new teachers all the time as the district added classes. I was pregnant again, so I took leave in June, and in September Mr. Reuter called with an opening for fourth grade. As my baby was soon due, we decided he should hire someone else and I’d let him know when I was ready.

On Again, Off Again–Baby Laura!
One night in October my labor started. Everything was going well, except that I had a persistent cough and couldn’t control my breathing very well. My doctor gave me some cough syrup when I arrived at the hospital, but my labor stopped! He said to walk around to give it a boost. That worked, but when I lay back down it stopped again. I had to walk this baby into the world! A hospital corridor isn’t an interesting place for a long walk, but a mom does what a mom’s gotta do! Finally Laura Ann Austin decided to make her appearance, and it was well worth the wait. She was a beautiful baby with a surprise for all. She had red hair!

The Pill and Stability
With three boys and three girls, we had a wonderful, balanced family. A half dozen. Six was enough. By now there was a birth control pill, and I took it.
We were buying the Mayfair Barber shop, where Ned was barbering. It was nearby, and doing well. In nice weather he rode a bicycle to work.

We needed a bigger house, though, and a bigger car. We traded our Volkswagen bug for a VW Microbus and began looking at houses. I spotted a “For Sale” sign about six blocks away, on Spruce Street. It was larger, older and had been converted into a duplex. There was one apartment downstairs and one upstairs, with a long outside staircase leading to the second floor. Included was a little house next to the garage, with an entry from the alley. It’d been rented for over ten years by a mother and daughter, who wanted to stay. We found a tenant who wanted a rent-to-own contract on our Rosemary Street house, and the two rentals nearly made the payments on our house. It was perfect!

Meanwhile, I’d returned to Adams County as a sixth grade teacher. I loved the sixth grade, and felt I’d found my niche. After so many moves, changes in employment and additions to the family, we thought we were where we wanted to be and could settle down. So we thought!

The Kennedy Effect
Friday, November 22, 1963. The girls were in the living room, watching cartoons on TV. From the kitchen I heard words I’d learned to dread: “We interrupt this program to bring you an important news bulletin.” I stepped into the living room in time to hear the announcement, “President Kennedy has been shot.”

I called Ned at the barber shop to tell him, but he already knew because they had a TV in the shop. We waited and watched to see how seriously the president had been hurt. It seemed a very long time before we heard any more about his condition. We watched as he was rushed to the hospital and taken inside.

Mary Reiner came to the front door. She saw the tears in my eyes, and wanted to know, “What will happen now? Are you afraid?”
“Not afraid. Just sad. We love our President and he is seriously hurt. We’re worried about him, but not afraid for the country.”
“Will there be a war? Who will take over if he doesn’t recover?”
“The Vice-President will become President. It’s in the Constitution. It will be a peaceful transition if the President doesn’t survive.”

Finally word came from the doctor in Dallas. President Kennedy was dead.

Kennedy had brought something special to the presidency–youth, grace, vision and hope. His era was dubbed “Camelot”, and as the country moved on, his leadership and energy was sorely missed.

The Texan
It’s hard to imagine a stronger contrast in style than the one between Kennedy and his successor Lyndon Johnson. Johnson was a guy’s guy–a Texan through and through, a rough-hewn rancher who didn’t mince words. He proved far more successful working with a cantankerous Congress than Kennedy had been. He was far more able to advance civil rights and start the war on poverty.

But if civil rights and the war on poverty were stars in Johnson’s crown, Vietnam was the albatross around his neck. It’s hard to remember how we got sucked into that war, but in it we were, and the bigger question became, how do we get out?!

It seems to me that about every President has had his good times and bad. I didn’t like “Tricky Dick” Nixon at all, but I credit him with getting us out of Vietnam. Our involvement in that war had been such a divisive issue in the country that even after the war ended, the bitter feelings lingered. Our Vietnam veterans didn’t receive the joyful welcome home that had been offered to the veterans of World War II. The same had been true of the veterans of Korea; the country didn’t support those conflicts as fully as they had for World War II.

Westlake School
In an effort to ease overcrowding while a new school was being built, Adams County reopened Westlake, an old rural school that had been closed for some years, for sixth grade only. Next to a small lake of about an acre, its playground consisted of a backdrop fence for softball and two basketball hoops. We had softballs, bats, kickballs and jump ropes. That was about it. There were four sixth-grade classrooms, and we taught the usual subjects–language arts, science, social studies and math, plus physical education, music and art. Our principal checked in once or twice a week from another school, but otherwise we were on our own. We set up our own schedule, and agreed to be mostly self-contained rather than departmentalized, which allowed us more flexibility. We shared some areas of expertise; Greg Wolfe sometimes taught art in my class while I taught music in his. Lois Mattes taught remedial reading while we covered her class for physical education a couple days a week. Ramón Sanchez taught Spanish to all our kids.

Physical education usually began with calisthenics, then went to a game of kickball or softball. When winter set in and the lake froze over all the kids brought their ice skates (we chipped in for some skates from Goodwill for those who didn’t have any). The kids taught me to ice skate!

Our lunches were delivered by van, and we had library carts in our rooms. Every time Junior Scholastic sent a book order form we added to our classroom carts.

It was a dry spring, and March brought windy days. We were playing softball one day and the wind started kicking up sand, so we retreated to the classrooms. It turned out to be a terrible sandstorm, the air outside so thick we couldn’t see out the windows. Fine dust was blowing into the building, making it hard to breathe, and I had the kids put their heads down to keep them calm. After about forty minutes, the wind stopped as suddenly as it had started.

The kids raised their heads and looked out the windows. “Ms. Austin, our lake is gone!” they exclaimed. It was, indeed! the wind had dried it up!
When I’d gotten all the kids on the bus home that afternoon, I went to my car and saw, to my consternation, that the lake was not the only casualty of the sandstorm. My poor car! The rear window of my pretty pink DeSoto was shattered, and the entire back seat full of sand. Some of the paint had been sandblasted off the driver’s side, and I wasn’t sure it would run. I figured sand had probably gotten under the hood, and it was with some trepidation that I turned the key. It fired right up, and I drove home, relieved. It was Friday, so I had the weekend to shovel out, then vacuum the car. My insurance paid for a new rear window and a repaint.

Westlake was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life!

The Beach, Again
We made the same arrangements to vacation in Cherry Grove in 1965 as we had in 1961, and drove the same Microbus~but we’d learned a couple lessons. The platform/bed in the back of the bus, never a good idea, was long gone, and we decided to camp for one night rather than drive straight through. Still, what I most remember most that year was~car trouble! After the previous trip, in which we putted along rarely reaching 60 miles per hour, Ned’s mechanic recommended replacing the Volkswagen engine with a Porsche engine, which we did. The larger engine immediately increased our power, but as it was also air-cooled, also increased the temperature in the engine compartment. Ned made sheet-metal scoops for the side air vents, which became a popular accessory after every Microbus driver from the Rockies to the coast watched us pass them by!

The highways were improving by 1965; the Interstate system had begun and many of the slowest sections had been bypassed. This time we all had seats—including our German shepherd, Fritz! The weather was cooler, and we rolled along comfortably until the early morning of the second day, when a sudden high-pitched whine in the engine compartment let us know it was time to take a break. Ned dug into the engine with a vise-grips, a pair of pliers and a screwdriver—all the tools he had—and extracted the generator.

Improvising, I took the kids on a blackberry-picking expedition in the Tennessee hills while Ned hitch-hiked to the nearest town. By nightfall he’d installed a new generator and we drove on to Boone. We spent a wonderful week there, then trekked towards the beach.

The bus rolled easily “down the mountain” and into the South Carolina flatlands, but about 50 miles outside of Columbia we heard a BANG!, and coasted to a stop. We called my brother-in-law Pete, who arranged for a tow truck and piled the rest of us into his Chevy Impala for the hour-long ride to my parents’ house. The next morning Ned spread an old blanket on the front lawn and for the next few days spread car parts all over it while he dug into the innards of the engine. When my brother Ted arrived the next day with his wife and two kids, the fifteen of us squeezed into Pete and Ted’s cars for the trip to Cherry Grove. Dad, Mother and Ned drove down a couple days later.

Ted was joining us for the first time. College, the army, work and travel had interfered until 1965; now he arrived with his wife Elaine and their two daughters, Karen and Audrey, in tow. By this time our families were complete. Ned and I had three boys and three girls, Carol and Pete had two girls and Ted and Elaine had two girls. Their ages ranged from David, the oldest at twelve, down to Laura, not quite two.

We especially appreciated Ted’s presence when we played with the kids in the surf. Our other men weren’t particularly enthusiastic about this aspect of beach life, approaching it as a duty, not a delight. Ted jumped in with gusto! When he splashed around with us, everyone had a great time!

The Strife of the Sixties
The sixties roared in, and disrupted our complacent, mellow lives. We became marchers. Peace marches, Black Pride, Gay Pride, Chicano Pride, Women’s Lib, Earth Day–we were there! I sometimes marched with my red-haired youngest daughter riding piggy-back. We marched, fasted, protested our way through a decade of turmoil. Our society transitioned from one controlled by white men over forty towards one that accommodated all the diverse peoples of the United States of America.

The superintendent of my school district, Mr. Stukey, wrote a letter to the paper about “that rag-tag bunch of hippies” who were disrupting society with their marches and demonstrations, and I wrote a letter to him–not the paper–telling him that I was one of his teachers and also one of that “rag-tag bunch”. I said it wasn’t our goal to disrupt society, but to ensure that the freedoms guaranteed in our Constitution were extended to everyone, not just a favored few. I remarked that I hoped to continue working in the Adams County schools but that I’d continue to march and demonstrate for the changes I believed were needed.

At our next district meeting, Mr. Reuter came over and said, “Mr. Stukey is looking for you. He wants to talk to you.”

I could see Mr. Stukey’s tall frame from across the room, and moved in his direction, wondering if I’d have a job in the morning. To my great relief, Mr. Stukey held out his hand, shook mine and thanked me for my honesty. He said he didn’t agree with me, but appreciated the way in which I’d addressed our differences and hoped we could continue to work together for the education of our children.

I stayed with Adams County for eight years. For five of those years I was chair of the curriculum committee, which selected the language arts and social studies textbooks.

Teacher Appreciation Day
The clatter of the roller coaster, the wheezy organ of the carousel and the smell of cotton candy fill the air. It’s Teacher Appreciation Day at Elitch Gardens!

The amusement park was closed to the public, and teachers from all the schools in the Denver area were invited to come with their families. We spent the day having fun together before school started and the park closed for the winter. I took all six of my children, now aged four to fourteen. I used a “buddy system” to make sure I didn’t lose anyone. We’d stopped at a concession stand and were walking, with our snacks, through the crowd. Dave suddenly announced, “I’ve lost Laura!”

We retraced our steps, and hadn’t gone far before we heard. “You guys! You guys!” Laura was standing in one place, calling for us just as I had coached her to do. All safely back together, we rode the ferris wheel, pigged out on popcorn and had a glorious day.

I noticed one thing in particular about that day: there was not a shred of litter anywhere. The cleanup crew had nothing to do except empty the garbage cans. Teachers practice what they preach, and I felt proud to be one!


When I was growing up, Mother talked about Yellowstone National Park in the same loving tones she used speaking of Florida, or “The Beach”. We had a demitasse spoon souvenir from Yellowstone, and it had a blue swastika on the handle. I didn’t think we should have a Nazi spoon in our house, but Mother explained that the swastika had been an American Indian symbol before being appropriated by the German Nazis; in fact, the spoon had been crafted before there even was a Nazi party. We kept the spoon, but stopped displaying it. In my head there was a mysterious quality about Yellowstone and its geysers, especially the one called “Old Faithful”. I always wanted to see it for myself.

In 1966, when Laura was a toddler, we took our tent and went on a camping trip to Yellowstone. It was amazing! So beautiful! But if I thought Mesa Verde was dangerous, this park was even more so! There were geysers and boiling springs everywhere. The park service had constructed wooden walkways for tourists, but there was no railing between my two-year-old and a deep pool of boiling water!

And then there were the bears! I was squatting next to our campfire cooking breakfast, when a bear came strolling out of the woods towards me!

“Ned!” I called, “There’s a bear coming towards me! I think he smells the bacon! What’ll I do?”

“Let him have it! Just move away!”

“But it’ll burn him, and then he’ll be mad!”

I decided there wasn’t any more time for analysis, and ran to the Microbus, where the rest of my family had already had sense enough to gather. We watched as the bear ambled over toward the food, then passed it up and went on his way. I guess he wasn’t hungry—or maybe just had sense enough not to get burned!

Yellowstone was truly memorable. A wondrous adventure!

First Grade–Oh My!

When the Adams County school administrators decided to move the sixth grade classes to the junior high schools and call them middle schools, I requested a change. I’d twice taught in junior high schools and felt they weren’t the venue for me. I preferred self-contained classrooms.

I was offered a first-grade class and gladly accepted. I hadn’t realized what an adjustment it would be! In October, I wrote a letter to my parents:

Denver, Colo.

Oct. 12, 1967

Mother and Dad,

First grade is absolutely the most exhausting thing I’ve ever done! I’m better adjusted now, and so is my class, but the first two weeks were marked by constant lower backache (from bending down) and sore feet (from never sitting). This school district has no Kindergarten, so my children (30 of them) are having their first school experience. The first two days were so chaotic I thought I’d made a terrible mistake. I found it impossible to get their attention and hold it for even five minutes, except when we were moving. We did a tiptoe tour of the school building, had a practice fire drill, toured the playground to define our play area, and had an extra recess. As far as my children were concerned, I might as well not even have been present in the classroom. They were interested in the two child-sized toilets, the sink, the water fountain, the pencil sharpener, and the paper towel dispenser. Someone got a slight injury and they found out I had Bactine and band-aids. That gave me center stage for awhile, but not in the way I’d intended! They’d used up a whole roll of paper towels, two bars of soap, a box of band-aids, a full bottle of Bactine, and most of their pencils had been sharpened down to half-size.

The second day, I set up new rules. I’d sharpen all pencils. Drinks, only after recess. Hands to be washed only after using the toilet, pasting or painting. Only one towel used to dry hands. No washing of desks during school time, unless we’d been pasting or painting.

I still had problems. If I told one child to sit in his desk and not on it, four others would promptly sit on theirs so that I could tell them too. I was mulling this over on the second night when I remembered a young second grade teacher who had a beautifully behaved class and never said a negative word. When I came to her class to teach music she’d say, “I like the way Tim is sitting”. Everyone would look at Tim and sit like him.

I tried it on the third day. I looked around my class of wiggling, squirming, climbing, chattering monkeys, none sitting quietly and attentively–but I watched, and soon saw one facing front. “I like the way Daniel is sitting”, I called out.

The result was instantaneous, and magical. Daniel looked surprised and stopped the turn he’d already begun, instead straightening himself proudly in his desk. The chatter stopped. The children looked at Daniel, straightened up one by one and waited expectantly. “Do you like the way I’m sitting?” piped a small voice–then another, and another. I realized I’d have to do a roll call if this gambit were to be successful. All right.

“I like the way Danny is sitting, too. And Veronica, and Susan. I like the way Arnold and Steven and Robert are sitting. Sherri and DeAnn look so nice and quiet–and Diane, and Scott, and Terry. Greg, Allen, Karen, Kathleen, Chris, Mike–you all look so nice sitting up straight in your desks that way. And…” et cetera, ad infinitum it seemed, but if I missed anyone I got the question again. Having complimented thirty children by name, I was able to get on with the first really decent class instruction we’d had. During the day I repeated the routine several times, but each time it worked like magic, and they gave me a full ten or fifteen minutes of attention. Of course, much of our activities don’t require silent attention, but now I know how to get it when I need it, and no longer have to call the roll. They’re satisfied if I say, “This group looks like they’re ready to listen.” How exciting it is, now, to see them progress, from letter sounds to words and reading!

Everyday Family Activities

I wrote about my family, beginning with Gennie and Laura’s activities:

Gennie and Laura both go to Kiddie Kampus, a child care center open from 7am to 6pm. I drop them off between 7:15 and 7:30, and pick them up on my way home, usually around 4:30. The first time I had a meeting after school I worried that it might be too long a day for them, but they asked me to come later every day because they had so much fun that last hour! The center has a very creative program, with dancing, music, gymnastics, story-telling, art and play. Gennie has Kindergarten class there, with a certified teacher.

Rob, Sam and Frannie go to Ashley School just up the street from the house, so they’re the last ones to leave the house in the morning. They walk with a group of neighbor children, all together. David has to leave early, because he has a before-school lab. Ned leaves for the barber shop after Dave, then I leave with Gennie and Laura.

High Times and Rough Spots

(from the same October letter)

David shows the same half-hearted interest in high school that he did in junior high. He’s found something to catch his enthusiasm, though, in a program for high school boys and girls called Junior Achievement and sponsored by local businesses. Every Wednesday night he goes to the Junior Achievement building for his company meeting. The boys and girls in his company come from high schools all over Denver, and their sponsor is the Gates Rubber Company. A group of men from Gates are their adult advisors. The group chose their own name for the company, and David’s suggestion was unanimously chosen over seventeen others. They manufacture and market carpet pads to go under the accelerator pedal in a car. Name: the PED-PAD Company. They learn about business hands-on. They sell stock, find distribution outlets, manufacture the product, sell and share the profits with their stockholders. It’s the kind of educational experience David enjoys, and he’s pitched in with great enthusiasm. Meanwhile, he inextricably stood in danger of failing Spanish, up until now one of his best subjects. After a talk with his Spanish teacher, I decided to let him drop Spanish now, when there won’t be any grade on his record, and he can focus on other subjects.

Robin got off to a bad start this school year when he was assigned to the same teacher, Mrs. Hough, that he had last year. She was the first teacher, ever, to consider Robin a discipline problem. She had (1) nullified a class “good citizen” election when the class chose him. (2) Deprived him of the privilege of going with the class to the Denver Symphony Orchestra concerts. (3) Taken his name off their list of nominees for student council, each with the vague explanation that he was “not a good citizen”. I called the school principal and requested that Robin be transferred to another class.

“She personally requested that he be in her class again this year,” Mr. McCormick said.

“That’s interesting!” I said, and told him my reasons. The principal complied, telling Robin and the teachers only that the transfer was made to balance enrollment, and Robin is much happier. He’s on the school safety patrol and they assigned him to the corner that’s considered the most hazardous, because he’s considered to be the most responsible. He’s also been chosen student council representative . I’m confident he’ll do better in this atmosphere than in the one of disapproval he was in before.

Sam and Frannie are both doing well in school, bringing home straight As and liking it.

Go, Go, Go!

Journal entry, Jan. 7, 1968

Our family went to City Park to ice skate this morning and enjoy the cold weather (low 5ºF, high 28ºF). We took along the snow disc and the toboggan, and did some sledding before coming home for hot chocolate and lunch. Laura and Gennie went ice-skating for the first time and spent about as much time on their bottoms as on their feet, causing much hilarity.

Saturday, January 13, 1968

This was my day to chauffeur; everybody had somewhere to go. I took David to a Junior Achievement meeting in southeast Denver at 8am. Robin and Sam went to Rishel Junior High School in southeast Denver for Citywide Orchestra rehearsal from 12 noon until 1pm. Violin lessons in northeast Denver at 2:30pm followed. I had Robin back home for his birthday party at 3:30, when I took him and five other boys to Bowl Aurora to play pool, then back to the house for cake & ice cream. At 9:30 I went to pick up David. It was a long day, but the girls were fine staying at home and playing with the neighborhood kids. I love this neighborhood!

Our Last Beach Reunion

We sold the Microbus and drove a yellow Ford station wagon to the Carolinas in 1968. Our week in Boone marked our last visit with Ned’s mother, who was now in her late eighties.

By this time my mother had weakened, in body if not in spirit, due to multiple health problems. Her pituitary tumor had required radiation treatment, diabetes had affected her vision and a stroke had left her with mobility problems. Dad had hired a colored woman (as she preferred to be called) to assist Mother, but Anna was a caretaker, not a maid.

At the beach, Carol, Elaine and I shared the cooking and cleanup, as we had in the past, and Anna ate with us. The young folks enjoyed swimming in the surf. Mother, despite her physical limitations, enjoyed the beach. With Anna’s help, she walked along in the wet sand, listening to the surf and, in her words, “recharged her spirit”.

After supper, we all gathered, as before, swapping stories, laughing and singing together, accompanied by Kathy and Pete on their ukuleles. When our week was up, we said goodbye to Carol and Ted’s families. We returned to Columbia, to spend a few days visiting before the trek to Colorado. While we were there, we went to a restaurant for lunch.

It was a bit of a production. Dad went in first, to talk to the proprietor. We were determined that Anna should sit with us, but South Carolina was in the midst of its integration woes. There had been unpleasantness and sometimes violence, but we didn’t wish to cause problems. All we wanted was a peaceful lunch. When Dad returned, he announced, “Okay, it’s all arranged. We’ll have a table in the private dining room, and all of us will be served there—together!”

And that’s what happened.

A Hot Summer—East Side Action Center

The summer of 1969 saw an increase in turmoil in Denver and I wanted to help my community, so I volunteered to work at the East Side Action Center in Five Points, a black neighborhood in the inner city. I was working with Augusta Wright, a black woman running a program to secure summer jobs for black teen-agers. I was to take care of the office while Gussie did the real work, going into the neighborhood to talk to black businessmen about hiring youngsters for the summer. It was a good program. We’d match the kid to the job and pay him. The businessman didn’t have to pay, just to train and mentor the kid and keep him occupied.

Five Points was a neighborhood where a white policeman was greeted with catcalls and a raised fist–the “Black Power salute”–and Gussie once asked me, “Aren’t you afraid to come down into this neighborhood?” I said, “Gussie, I think some of us just have to not be afraid, or we’re never going to get through this.”

As much as I had enjoyed my work in Adams County, I felt sheltered in the suburbs while my city was going through upheaval. I wanted to do what I could for Denver, so I applied and was hired as a sixth grade teacher at Colfax Elementary School. I’d hoped to be assigned to a school in Five Points, but Colfax was interesting too. It was a neighborhood in transition. It’d previously been a Jewish neighborhood, and about a third of our students were Jewish, but most of them were now of Latino descent.


Society went through enormous changes in the Sixties, but our family life remained relatively stable.

Our family, which had expanded every two years until Laura’s birth in 1963, stabilized at eight. We’d moved, but remained in the same neighborhood. I changed jobs, but remained a teacher. Ned was working in the same barber shop he’d joined in 1959, which he’d owned since 1964.

There were changes, though, both inner and outer. Our family life became centered around two big interests: Dramatic Arts and Political Activism. We participated in plays, musicals and concerts, music lessons and summer music camps. Sam and the girls produced and acted in silent 8mm home movies, with plot lines, action and special effects.

We also campaigned for political candidates. We went door-to-door, wrote letters, attended peace marches, demonstrations, rallies and conventions. In these efforts to bring peace, integration, abolition of capital punishment and civil rights for all, we seemed always to be losing the battle. But we were winning the war. Situations didn’t seem to change, but attitudes did.

What Do I Call You?

There were many terms I knew not to use because they were racial slurs, but during these times it got complicated. I’d always referred to Negroes or colored people. Now, some preferred to be called either Afro-Americans or African-Americans. Others said, “Bobbie, I’m not African. I’ve never been to Africa. I’m Black.” Some Mexican-Americans didn’t like the term Mexican, and settled on Chicano. Others preferred Hispanic, or Latino. It was a confusing time. It still is, in some places, for people who want to be “politically correct”–and, oh yeah!—some of the Hispanics anglicized their names, so when I called the roll confidently using the Spanish pronunciation, they giggled and corrected me!

My Sister, Carol

While I was living in the West demonstrating and marching my way through the sixties, my sister and her husband Pete were among the real heroes of that tumultuous decade. They were liberal integrationists living and working in the South. It was easy for me to speak out against racial bias and injustice in Colorado. It was much more difficult in the South, where segregationists were struggling to maintain their way of life and sometimes resorting to violence.

Pete was a professor at Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina, and Carol was an elementary school teacher. They worked openly in their community, church and political party to advance the cause of racial equality. They and their friends endured many risky and unpleasant situations: obscene phone calls, garbage dumped on their lawns. Even open threats and insults in public meetings.

Once at a party in Denver there was a young man who’d just returned from a motorcycle trip through the South. His long hair had caused him problems, and he stated “The world would be better off if the ocean would open up and swallow everyone in the South. They are so prejudiced!” (this from a person who had previously said, “Don’t trust anybody over thirty!”).

“I grew up in the South,” I replied, “and what you said just now is actually the most prejudiced remark I’ve ever heard.”

There were, and are, a lot of ill-mannered and prejudiced people in the South, as there are everywhere else. But there were, and are, a lot of fair-minded and courageous people too, and they’ve brought about big changes in our society. I’ve always admired Carol and Pete for who they are and how they’ve lived their lives.

My Brother, Ted

Although four years younger, my brother Ted was often a trailblazer for me. We always had similar interests–we both went to Camp O’Leno and Transylvania Music Camp. We both played in bands and sang in choruses, and performed in “Horn in the West”. He’d acquired the Charles Atlas body-building course from an older friend who’d joined the Navy, so I exercised with him too. At one point in our foolish youth we both took up smoking. I thought I was keeping it secret until he told me that our mother and grandmother both knew he smoked, so I stopped trying to hide it. I now realize that non-smokers can almost always tell if you smoke, whether they mention it or not.

After Ted graduated from Duke University and completed his army service, he and his wife Elaine bought a house in Sudbury, Massachusetts. He went to work as a research scientist for Sylvania, and was assigned to develop anti-missile missiles for the government. He and his wife and two daughters were sent to Kwajalein Atoll, in the Pacific Ocean just north of the equator, where they lived for ten years. Ted and his family joined the Unitarian Universalist Church while I was still exploring various religions. It wasn’t until some thirty years later that I once again followed my brother’s lead.

On a visit to Denver, Ted introduced us to shish kebabs over our backyard grill, which we have enjoyed countless times since. He took me and the kids to the playground, and watching him gave me ideas for using the playground as a teaching tool. On the merry-go-round he showed them how moving toward the center would cause it to spin faster, demonstrating centrifugal force. On the swings he talked about inertia, weightlessness and gravity.

Show Time—Frannie the Biker

Ned and some of the kids signed up with a talent agency in Denver, where they got audition experience and occasionally a job. Once Sammy was hired for a “stop smoking” promotion on the radio. His boyish voice was broadcast on the national airwaves singing, “Daddy, Daddy, why do you do it? Daddy, Daddy, why do you smoke? You know it’s not healthy, you’ll have to admit, So Daddy, Daddy, why don’t you quit?”. Meanwhile, the piano player had been chain-smoking the entire time!

When Ned took Frannie to an audition for a florists’ association commercial, they liked her and asked, “Can she ride a bicycle?” “Of course!” said Ned, and she got the part, with one weekend to learn how to ride!

Big brother Dave saved the day. He put Frannie on the bike and ran beside her, holding her up while she teetered on two wheels. He was patient and energetic, and it paid off. She was able to ride a bicycle to the florist’s for Mother’s Day. There was just one glitch. She hadn’t learned how to stop, and the cameraman had to jump out of her way! Her commercial played during the Miss Wool pageant that year, and won a Clio, a national award!


Whatever we were doing as family members–work, classes, politics, church–we were always involved in the theatre and music. Ned and the kids did TV and radio commercials and Ned was almost always in a play with the Denver Community Theatre. I sang in two of the summer musicals given by the Denver Post Opera Company, ”South Pacific” and “Sound of Music”. One or more of our kids were in community theatre shows, and for three years at Christmas all of us, except for David, played the Cratchit family in “A Christmas Carol”, presented by the Third Eye Theatre.

Genny was Tiny Tim. At first they let it seem as though a young boy, G. Austin, played the role, but then the newspaper ran a big story. “Tiny Tim is Genevieve”, it announced, with a picture of her in costume and a story about her first grade class in school. She was a natural, very believable as a young crippled boy, and the audience was truly moved when she said, “God bless us, every one!”

There were other shows as well; school productions of course, but also community theatre and the Denver Post Operas. We were in “Gypsy”, “Sail Away”, “Oliver”, “Life with Father”, “South Pacific” and “The Sound of Music” to name a few. Some were good, some were not. Our son David was never in these productions with us, as Ned always said he needed to concentrate on his homework, but in junior high he was Officer Krupke in a truly awful production of “West Side Story”. I was critical at the time, but learned how tough it was to put on a show with kids that age years later. My own production with seventh and eighth graders was no better!

Whether they were in good shows or not, the kids were getting on-stage experience acting, singing, dancing, playing music. They had other activities as well, such as 4-H Club and Junior Achievement. I was the principal chauffeur to lessons, rehearsals, meetings etc., and spent lots of time on the road.

Mountain Born

Sammy auditioned and got a part in a movie to be filmed on location on the Western slope, in what was at the time a largely abandoned silver mining town named Telluride, Colorado. He was twelve years old, and would stay in Telluride for six weeks for the filming. The company provided a tutor, and he lived with the cameraman and his wife.

Hank Schloss, the director, came to the house to make arrangements and asked Sammy and me to go costume shopping with him. Sammy was given a script, which had a small rectangular piece cut out of the cover. Ned wondered what had been cut, and weeks later we found out–”Walt Disney Studios”! This was a Disney film, intended for the Sunday night show “The Wonderful World of Disney”. Sammy not only starred in it, but eventually composed the theme song!

Bad Trip

One night we came home from a show and were readying for bed–the kids were already upstairs–when David came to the back door raving, “I’ve killed myself with acid! I’ve killed myself! Take me to the hospital! Take me take me!!….” He went out, tried to climb the door post, came back in but wouldn’t sit down. He’d lost his shoes somewhere and was pacing wildly in the snow in his sock feet. We got the car keys, but couldn’t get him in the car, so we called the police. Two officers put him in the police car, red lights flashing, and we followed them to Denver General Hospital. He was restrained, and continued to shout until they sedated him.

Now I understood the meaning of the expression “bad trip”, which I’d heard about from some hippie friends. I knew David was experimenting with drugs, but didn’t know what to do about it. Neither did anyone else, as far as I could tell. There was plenty of advice from many sources, much of it conflicting and none of it seeming to me successful. I didn’t know our second son, Robin, was also involved. We talked about it and I signed both boys up with a counselor, but they skirted the real issues and came home with a canary to replace the bird they’d lost. We muddled on.

I realized by now that Ned’s drinking was becoming a real problem. When he wasn’t in a play, he’d begin as soon as he closed the barber shop. A couple of his friends would drop in for a long-lasting game of poker and he and the barbers would drink beer with them until about ten. I tried to have the kids fed, all homework done and everyone in bed before he got home, so he wouldn’t have anyone to pick on. He picked on the boys anyway, but he was much worse when he’d been drinking. I’d gone with him as his “support buddy” to several quit-smoking groups and tried to talk him into Alcoholics Anonymous. I said I’d go with him if he wanted me to, but he insisted that he did not have a drinking problem!

In my marriage, I tried too hard to avoid conflict. Ned was a harsh disciplinarian. He’d whip our boys with his belt, and call the girls “ugly” or “fat”, but when we fought over this he’d accuse me of “handling them with kid gloves”. By today’s standards, he abused them. At the time many would say “spare the rod and spoil the child”, but in retrospect, I should’ve taken the kids and left. I felt helpless, frustrated, and ineffectual, but since I didn’t know what to do, I did nothing.


A customer of Ned’s at the barber shop, a realtor, invited him to come look at a large old house on Downing Street. The woman who owned it was starting to show signs of dementia, and when her son visited he called and said, “Put this house on the market for a quick sale! I’m taking my mother to California with me!” We went to look at the house, and bought it. Thus began a new saga in our lives!

There were two older women renting rooms upstairs. They wanted to stay. Good. We advertised the apartment downstairs and rented it to a nice young couple–we thought!

Fast forward to the next month. Ned went to collect the rent.

“We’ve got wall-to-wall people in that house, and nobody had any rent money. One of the guys said, ‘I knew it! I knew somebody would be expecting some rent!’”

“That nice young couple?”

“Not there any more!”

They’d posted a note on the bulletin board of the community college: CRASH AT OUR PAD #10 DOWNING ST.

It took us a month to get them all out, and another month to clean up and repair the place!

First Steps—Getting Ready

Sam spent five months in Telluride, Colorado, filming the Disney movie “Mountain Born”, but Sam didn’t like the song they were using. Ned took him to Los Angeles, and while they were there Sam played and sang his version of the title song to the executives of Disney Studios. They liked his version better, and bought it! Sam became the youngest member of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP)!

Ned attended a meeting of the Screen Actors Guild with his old friend Ric Jury. Ric’s friend Geoff Deuel took Sam to see the agent Meyer Mishkin. Sam signed with the Mishkin Agency. The reasons for moving to California were piling up.

We did nothing irrevocable, but took several tentative steps. We sold the Rosemary Street house, put the Downing Street house on the market, began investigating businesses for sale in Southern California. I secured a teaching credential for California and started sending applications.

Mountain View Friends Meeting

Meanwhile, we’d become regular attenders at Mountain View Friends Meeting House. This association was influential in several ways. For Ned and me, it was the first meaningful religious experience we’d found in a group in many years. We’d participated in a prayer and study cell in the Boulder Presbyterian Church, but that was in the fifties. The Quaker meetings strengthened our commitment to peace, love and inner light as a way of life. We established warm and lasting friendships. Our family was asked to give a musical program, and for the first time all eight of us performed together. The Friends loved it!

On the “Inherit the Wind” Set

“I’ve been miscast in this show! I can’t believe in the William Jennings Bryan part. I want to play Clarence Darrow!”

“Well, good! I wanted to be William Jennings Bryan. Let’s trade parts!”

With that brief exchange, Ned and Jack Dorn went to the play’s director and arranged the switch.

The result was an impressive production of “Inherit the Wind”. The lead characters both physically and philosophically represented the Scopes “monkey trial” of 1925. Their onstage debates were frequently continued afterwards when Ned and Jack would have a beer. The two became fast friends, and Jack, who also had family in California, would often stop by the barber shop at closing time, when Ned played host to a poker club.

The Go-Ahead

Harlan Knudsen, a friend of Ned’s, told him about a friend who owned an equipment rental yard in Hollywood and wanted to retire. Harlan was visiting that spring, so Ned went along to look over the business and came back with an  agreement to purchase. The barber in the second seat, Joe, who had been there even longer than Ned, bought the shop and we bought the rental yard. Ned took Robin and Dave to Los Angeles. He installed them in a house in Orange County rented from an actor friend of his, Burt Douglas, while they learned the business from the former owner’s son Hans. Ned returned to Denver to fix up and clean up our house on Spruce St. before putting it up for sale.

A Sleepless Night

I was getting ready to go to bed when the phone rang. It was Dave.

“I don’t know where Rob is.”

“What? Why? What do you mean?”

“He stayed at the house today to do laundry and clean the pool, but when I came home from the rental yard he wasn’t here.”

“And he’s not there now? Maybe he just went to grab a bite or go see someone. Do you know anyone in the neighborhood he might be hanging out with? Have you checked around?”

Dave had already checked around the neighborhood; Robin didn’t have any transportation and hadn’t been there long enough to know anyone.

Ned came in. “What’s going on?”

“Robin’s missing!”

We told Dave we’d call the police and the highway patrol. He should stay by the phone.

Our first call told us nothing, but the second gave us a number to call at Juvenile Hall.

“Yes, he’s here. He was picked up this morning for public drunkenness. He’s asleep. You can pick him up in the morning.”

“Drunkenness!?! He doesn’t drink! And especially not in the morning! And we’re in North Carolina! His brother will have to pick him up!”

“Is he 21? He has to be released to an adult.”

We called Dave back. He was 18 and not legally an adult, but Jack Dorn was in California now. We called him the first thing in the morning, he drove the 100 miles or so to Orange County from his home north of LA, pretended to be his uncle and signed him out.

After Robin was released to Jack, we got the whole story. Robin had walked to the pool supply store to get acid and chlorine for the swimming pool. Both Robin and Dave had long bushy hair and dressed in hippie style. Robin was a pack rat, too, who always carried an assortment of stuff crammed into his pockets. I’d made him an additional vest with four big pockets to avoid wear and tear on his pants. To add to this, he was barefoot! On his way home from the next town over, carrying a jug in each hand, he sat down in the shade of a tree by the side of the road and waved his feet in the air to cool them off. The police, driving by, saw a hippie and made the dubious claim that someone had called them to report a  drunk.

They had him empty his pockets. Among all his papers and cards and rocks and marbles was a small tear gas canister. That little canister had a history; Ned had bought it for me, and insisted I carry it, when I was going to graduate school at the Denver extension center of the University of Colorado. It was located on Larimer Street, known at the time as Denver’s skid row. I’d carried it, but never used it. Later, when Denver was bussing kids to promote integration, Robin was bussed to the predominantly black Smiley Junior High School. One day he missed the bus,  and was walking home when a gang of black kids jumped him. He got away, but I gave him the tear gas to carry with him. That little tear gas canister, it turned out, was legal in every state but one–California. It had gotten him arrested.

Why hadn’t Robin called Dave? Well, our phone service in Garden Grove was with General Telephone, but the next town over was Pacific Bell territory, so a call from Juvenile Hall, a couple miles away, was long distance! Robin’s one call had to be local, and he didn’t know anyone in town to call!

A Car and a Van and a Model A

Ned rented a U-Haul van and was loading our furniture into it, struggling with a lift of about four inches at the top of the ramp. After he’d loaded about two-thirds of the furniture, I saw him talking to our five-year-old neighbor, Geri Ortiz. He came in grinning. “I should’ve talked to Geri sooner! She pointed to a small sign on the van and asked, ‘Isn’t that supposed to be like this?’ and pointed to an illustration showing how to hook the ramp to the van! I’d have saved myself a lot of work if I’d noticed that and hooked it up correctly!” A little child shall lead us!

Sam wrote a song about our westward journey. Besides the U-Haul van, we’d rented a tow bar to bring along Dave’s Model A Ford. Ned drove the van, I drove the car, with our kids and pets distributed in both. We were, in Sam’s lyrics, “A car and a van and a Model A, Going our westward way”. In contrast to the gradual change of the sixties, our lives in the 1970s were changing suddenly and drastically.


My first impression: Stop the roller coaster! I want to get off! So many cars, so fast, so close together! I didn’t like freeway driving. Eighty miles an hour, six lanes of traffic, bumper-to-bumper, trying to get over to the exit?

“Well kids, this is Los Angeles!” Silence.

“I don’t think I like Los Angeles.”

“Me neither. I want to go back to Denver.”

“We just got here. You haven’t seen it yet! You’ll like it when we’ve had time to explore and get settled.”

Would they? I wasn’t so sure. My nerves were on edge and my eyes were burning from–fatigue and eyestrain? Or–SMOG! Oh, lord, how did they stand it?

Stop that! Several million people have learned to live at this dizzy pace, and they’re not collapsing! They cope. It’d be a challenge, but we could do this–and I’d learn to like it!

It was a fast-moving city, but as intimidating as the freeways were, there was a lot to like. The weather was gentle, the people creative and individualistic. Opportunities abounded. I did, actually, like Los Angeles!


Poverty Pete’s

Being proprietor of an equipment rental yard is not at all like barbering or teaching. Because we served a wide swath of the population, including construction workers, we were open from 7:30am to 5:30pm six days a week and 9 to 5 on Sundays. We had one employee outside the family, but running the business was up to Ned, Dave and me. Robin helped on weekends, but he was in school during the week.

The rental yard was a shabby-looking place. The office was a wooden shack with a leaky roof and a fenced-in yard where a guard dog was kept. The grounds around the office were a parking lot for an assortment of trucks, trailers, cement mixers, compressors and whatever, chained up or locked up at night. Inside the building was an office, a counter and a storage area. It was littered with drills, grinders, rollers, sanders, pumps, ladders, jack hammers, etcetera.

My first big job was to learn the names of all the tools and equipment, so I could pick up the right thing to hand to a customer! It was a busy place. Often the first customers of the day were waiting when we arrived. We were doing well financially. Poverty Pete’s was a well-established business in an excellent location. At 8770 Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood, with a clear view of the HOLLYWOOD sign. Pete’s had been there for twenty-five years, originally as a used-car lot. All along, the railroad owned the property, maintaining a thirty-day lease on it–so there was no sense in building an expensive structure. Pete named his business “Poverty Pete’s”, printed humorous business cards and dressed like a tramp.

The Family Tree

Someone at Disney studios suggested that our children form a family music group. They recommended a choreographer, Alex Plasschaert, to help polish the act. Plasschaert had worked with the Osmond Brothers, the Jackson Five and several other groups, and we got in touch. The children had real potential.

Laura was a captivating, red-haired, freckle-faced eight-year-old with an independent spirit. Genevieve had beautiful brown eyes and blonde hair, and a flair for instant friendship with the whole world. Fran, the older sister, had an easy grace, natural and steady, and performed with pizazz. Sam, the youngest brother, had already organized his younger sisters to make home movies and sing songs together. He played the piano and taught them songs or manned the camera and directed their action. Robin and David had gone their separate ways. Robin played guitar and had written a couple songs himself, but had his own rock group with friends. Dave had wanted to learn string bass in school, but I stupidly talked him into taking cello instead. Robin and Sam were taking violin at the time, and I had visions of a string quartet. That wasn’t going to happen!

Alex heard the kids sing some of the songs we’d done for the Mountain View Friends Meeting in Denver, and was favorably impressed. He agreed to work with them and choreographed some numbers. He suggested that Dave play drums, and he would teach him! We came to an agreement; Alex was expensive, but our rental business was doing well so we could afford him. He helped us find a drum set and hired a music arranger to work on some songs with them. Dave became an excellent drummer!

The music arranger didn’t work out. I was totally disappointed in him; he didn’t write anything down, so we had nothing to guide our practice sessions after he left. Alex came back to work on choreography, and the kids didn’t know the songs he’d asked them to learn. When I explained why we had no music to work from, he fired the music arranger and the kids worked out their own arrangements. They knew how to harmonize, and did it well.

The Family Tree played several gigs in LA. Several night spots invited them to perform, two of the most popular being the Ice House, in Pasadena, and the Troubadour, in West Hollywood. They really looked to be on their way to stardom!


“The best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry” (Robert Burns). The Family Tree was enthusiastically received by many in the entertainment industry. Our business at Pete’s Rental was thriving, the kids were doing well in school and we’d bought a great house in the San Fernando Valley–from Bo Diddley! It had its own studio and swimming pool. Life was good–no, life was great!

For a year and a half. Our lease with the railroad company was up for renewal. We knew that, but the business had been at the same place with the same lease for twenty-six years and we were confident it’d be renewed. Not so! The lease was cancelled and we received notice that we must vacate the property.

We found an empty lot on Venice Boulevard that we thought we could fix up and move into. It was cluttered with junk and a small office building on one side had lots of termite damage. We signed a lease and went to work. We called a local character called Tobacco John to come haul away the junk and installed a large chain link fence. We called in an exterminator and repaired the termite damage, then began moving equipment. We put up signs and printed flyers advertising the new location. Then we waited–and waited. Almost nobody came to our new location. Nobody!

Whadda We Do Now?

We were struggling at the new location; it was a nicer building and the lot was paved, but there wasn’t as much traffic and our flyers weren’t bringing in the customers. Word came from Boone that we had inherited the home place – a house on 20 acres of land, plus a separate tract of 13 acres a mile up the road, and we called a family meeting. Without a substantial income (substantial? How about NONE?) it was clear our savings wouldn’t support us for very long–so, what were our options?

(1) Stay put, and keep trying to build our business in the new location? We had a great house, with plenty of rooms for everybody and a large swimming pool, but a long commute to our business in heavy traffic.

(2) We could return to Denver. We had lots of friends there who would help us find a place to live, I could quickly find a teaching job and Ned could barber.


(3) go to Boone, where we had a house to move into and many beloved relatives.

Whatever choice we made, we’d have some money to help us get established from the sale of the tools and equipment we had in our business. We needed to decide quickly, however, because with no income we were currently living off our savings and what sales we had already made.

All the kids except Dave wanted to move to Boone, where they had uncles and aunts and cousins they knew and enjoyed from past family get-togethers. Dave wanted to return to Denver, where he had close friends. We opted for Boone, but Dave was 19, had many job skills and was pretty independent, so he went to Denver on his own—driving his Model A Ford truck! The rest of us piled into two pickup trucks, one with a camper on the back and the other hauling a trailer, and said goodbye to Los Angeles.

The Salton Sea

“We’re rolling! We’re rolling!” My fitful sleep was interrupted by my panicked daughter Genny. We were parked on gently sloping land overlooking the Salton Sea, and if we were rolling, I had to act quickly. A quick look out the window assured me that we weren’t rolling. The truck was in gear and the brake locked. Funny how the jostling of a long day of travel can trick a body into a sensation of motion, even long afterwards!

The Salton Sea was an accident. In 1900 canals for irrigation were cut into the Salton Sink to allow farmers to grow crops. In 1905, though, the Colorado River flooded and breached the headgates of the Alamo Canal. For two years the Colorado River flowed into the Salton Sink before it was contained. The water has remained, 350 square miles of it, 225 feet below sea level and saltier by the day.

Assured that we weren’t headed for a watery grave, we went back to sleep. We were heading back east, to Boone, in two pickup trucks, one carrying a camper and the other towing a trailer filled with all our worldly goods.

License? What’s that?

We’d left L.A. on January 25th, and our license plates had expired ten days earlier. We knew it, but hadn’t renewed. We were going to get North Carolina plates, and figured that once we were out of California nobody would notice.

I’d felt queasy when we left, but thought it’d pass. It didn’t. By the time we reached the Salton Sea I was very sick–so sick I’d have been an unsafe driver.

Robin didn’t yet have his license, but had driven the pickup trucks around the rental yard. He became the driver of one of the pickup trucks while Ned drove the other. Now we had two trucks and a trailer with expired plates, and one unlicensed driver! We were out of California before we had to stop for gas, and breathed easier after crossing the state line.

It’s a long way from California to North Carolina, and I recovered and took the wheel on the third day. The trip was uneventful until the last day, when we reached Watauga County.


In the time since we’d left, everything had changed. Boone greeted us with a blizzard, and the street signs were covered with icy snow. We had trouble finding our road, so Ned and I pulled over. I watched him get out of his pickup, walk to the road sign, reach up and wipe off the snow. He signaled and nodded to me. This was Winkler’s Creek Road.

Welcoming Arms—1973

It’d been twenty years since Davy had celebrated his first birthday in Boone. I’d baked a pound cake, decorated it with white frosting and red candy hearts and invited his cousins, ages 5 to 9, to come to the party. They were wonderful playmates, and he had a memorable time. All the cousins were grown now and away at college, or had jobs, but Ned’s brother Collis lived just up the road from the old home place, and was waiting for us. He told us the home place wasn’t ready yet, and that Ned’s sisters were expecting us for dinner. Ned parked the trailer and we piled into the camper. We had dinner with Ella and Ralph, Daisy and Alf, Roxie and Collis. It was a homecoming. Boone was certainly home to Ned, and quickly became home to me and the kids as well.

Ned’s sisters Ella and Daisy had both moved, but their houses were just across the road from each other. After dinner, Ned and the boys went to Daisy’s to spend the night while the girls and I stayed at Ella’s. They made us feel so welcome, and helped us so much to get settled, that I knew I had the best in-laws in the world!

The Old Homeplace

The next day we went to the homeplace to begin moving in.

Begin where?

After unloading the trailer, we sat down to our overwhelming TO DO list. Some of our furniture was on the front porch. There wasn’t room for it in the house. Choosing what to keep and what to give or throw away was high on our list, but there was something far more urgent to consider. We needed to shut out the cold wind that blew across the meadow from the west. Through the years the clapboard siding on the house, built in 1904, had dried up and shrunk, leaving cracks between the boards. The floorboards had gaps too, so when the wind blew the curtains flapped and the linoleum on the floor rose in rhythm with the wind. Ned crawled under and stapled black plastic to the floorboards and we stapled it to the west side of the house as well. It looked terrible, but kept the wind out. We would later buy proper materials and supplies, but knew from our experience moving Pete’s Rental that money slips away very quickly with no steady income.

Ella & Ralph, Daisy & Alf, Roxie & Collis all helped. Ella and Daisy invited us frequently to watch TV. Collis was our nearest neighbor, and he dropped by nearly every evening. He’d visit a bit and ask us if there was anything we needed. He gave us a cow, and some advice. He’d always start with, “Y’all do whatever you want, but if it was me, I’d—“. I thought his advice very wise, but Ned usually remembered only the first part, and did whatever he wanted to!

We were looking forward to a pastoral life. We got a cow, a horse, two ponies, some goats, chickens, ducks. We planted a vegetable garden, got a wood-burning stove. Our home would be a self-supporting family farm like it had been before!

Delighted as we were to have the old home, it was a mixed blessing. We had a place to land, but it demanded an enormous amount of time, money and energy to make it livable. In spite of the loving welcome we received in Boone, the next few years were the hardest of all, for me and for some of our kids. Living in poverty presented many challenges I hadn’t thought about before. Our house was shabby, with torn screens, cracks in the walls, and rotting floors. I felt ashamed to invite anybody in, and even cringed when the school bus came by. Our car was noisy, and badly in need of paint. We tried to bolster our self-concepts by working hard and laughing at our difficulties, but the experience drove home to me what a devastating effect poverty can have on people. “Poor but proud” may be true for some people, but for me it was an empty phrase.

Embarrassment was a small part of the problem, though. A larger part was the never-ending hard labor. Without a substantial income to pay others, we had to do everything for ourselves. Our kids helped with so many chores: feeding the chickens, milking the goats, painting the house, washing clothes, mowing, grooming the ponies, hoeing the garden, installing insulation in the walls and the attic, paneling the walls, splitting wood for the stove and carrying out the ashes, trying to do it all and still look presentable for school and church. Ned was the only one who could milk the cow or work on the truck, and he jacked up one corner of the house and shored up the foundation. It was all so hard! We felt embarrassed and exhausted most of the time. It ain’t fun to be poor!

We couldn’t just leave black plastic stapled to the windy side to keep out the cold, and the floors in the bathroom and kitchen were rotting away. We also needed income. Once all the kids were registered in school I applied for a job as a substitute teacher, and Ned was hired as a barber. Our daily schedule was rigorous—rise early, fix breakfast, everyone dressed and out of the house by 7:30am. Go to work or school, come home, work on the house. There were jobs for everybody. Everyone painted; we put insulation and paneling on the interior walls and spread insulation in the attic. Most of our money went into the house. Summer came, which gave us a boost in time and energy, but less money since I wasn’t working.

Teaching and Barbering, Again

Daisy and Ella were both teachers, and introduced me to principals and administrators. Ella took me to the board of education and introduced me to the personnel director. They’d just opened a new school, Hardin Park Elementary. Ella was about to retire, and the thought of moving to a new school for just a year or two didn’t appeal to her so she retired early.

Ned and I got our North Carolina licenses and again began plying our trades: teaching and barbering. I was hired as a substitute teacher, and given a teaching contract the next fall. I’d had ten years of varied experience in Colorado, and would teach for twenty-three more years at Hardin Park School.

We were on a roll! With both of us working and the kids in school, we could afford improvements. We jacked up and braced the front third of the house, put on vinyl siding, had insulation blown into the walls and attic, put in paneling. We replaced the windows and doors, and put new floors in the kitchen and bathroom.

A Tragicomedy of Errors

Still, we bungled along. We flunked fence-building; we couldn’t keep the animals where they belonged. The chickens roosted on the back porch instead of in the henhouse, and the goats hung out on the front porch. The cow ran into the woods.

Every day when Ned came home from the barber shop he’d gather the family, and we’d go hunt for the cow. It was unclear what we were to do when we found her, so the couple of times anyone spotted her and called out “Here she is!”, she just ran deeper into the woods. Eventually Ned’s brother Collis lured her out with a bucket of feed.

One day I came in from the garden with collard greens for supper and found the chickens gathered on the kitchen table pecking at cornbread. I cleverly yelled, “Ooh, my lord! The chickens!”, whereupon they scattered all over the kitchen! It took quite awhile to get them all out!

On the last day of school, Fran had just hopped on the bus when she looked back and saw one of the goats pushing its way through the front door! She called Ned from school, and he left the barber shop to get the goat out of the house! He’d been meaning to fix that latch for some time…

For some reason Ned felt no urgency about fencing. I was outside one day with the post-hole digger trying to fix a broken-down fence while Ned was in the kitchen happily making jelly. I’d raise the post-hole digger high and bring it down into the rocky soil as hard as I could, yelling “DAMN women’s lib!” with every stroke. I finally got the fence fixed, but refused to eat his jelly!

Raining Cats & Dogs

It was one of those things we never meant to happen. We had a little beagle, Homer, a chihuahua mix, Linus, and two cats, a feral cat named Rebecca who lived in the barn and a tabby we called Mama Cat, but it’d never been a problem finding homes for the kittens. “Spay or neuter” wasn’t on our radar.

We then took in a stray female dog. She shortly presented us with a litter of pups, and we found homes for all but two. It wasn’t long before all three were in heat at the same time, attracting every male dog in the county. Soon we had about twenty adorable puppies!

In a less dramatic fashion, at the same time, our cats presented us with two litters of kittens. We struggled to place all the kittens and puppies, but there were too many. Finally, in desperation, we did what farmers have done for generations and drowned most of them in the creek. That very night, a beagle from down the road, whom Mama Cat had attacked and driven off several times, broke into the henhouse and killed all the chickens!

It’s one of the most painful episodes I’ve had to write about, and even forty years later I cry thinking about it. I lose no time, now, getting my new pets fixed!

Sam Goes Back to Hollywood

Danny Crystal, of United Artists, had shown great interest in Sam when we were in Hollywood, and after we returned to Boone he expressed a desire to help launch his career, if he’d come back to Hollywood. He could live at Danny’s to get started.

We were excited for Sam, and Ned did some promotion with a clever ad in “Variety”, but I had a tiny anxiety in the back of my mind. On the way to the airport, I said, “Sam, I think Danny Crystal is gay, and he may come on to you. If he does, you just say ‘No, I’m straight’, and I don’t think he’ll bother you.”

That may have been naive of me, but our good friend Jack Dorn again came to the rescue. Danny wasn’t a predator, but he had come on to Sam. When Sam said no, Danny didn’t want him to live at his house. Jack picked him up and took him to the Dorn house. Sam made rounds and reconnected with some contacts. He enjoyed his time back in Hollywood, but returned to Boone to finish high school and get ready to go to Yale.

Arthur Visits

Shortly after our move to North Carolina, Robin’s high school buddy Arthur came to live with us for several months, while his parents were going through a divorce. He enrolled at Watauga High School for the semester. In late summer he and Robin returned to Granada Hills for a visit, and in September Robin boarded the bus to Denver, with David’s girlfriend Liz in tow. They planned for Robin to continue to North Carolina and Liz to return to California the following week.

A Bizarre Homecoming

The clang of bells cut through the traffic sounds on the Blowing Rock Highway. Carol’s family was staying at the Cabana Motel, and we were outside readying to go to lunch. We looked in the direction of the bells and beheld a Model A truck, decked out with a string of bells, pulling into the gas station across the road.

“Hey, it’s Dave! And Robin’s with him!”

We ran across the road. After warm hugs, we learned that they were about to spend their last quarter on just enough gas to get them up Winkler’s Creek Road. We gassed up the truck and invited them to join us for lunch. What a joyful and hilarious family gathering! Carol, Pete and their daughters Kathy and Carol, Ned and I and our six sons and daughters. Dave and Robin told us of their adventures driving the Model A all the way from Denver to Boone, by a roundabout route that took them through both Nebraska and Oklahoma!

Thanksgiving in South Carolina

The boys returned from the West, and settled into life on the farm. In November, Ned and Robin drove to New York to do some schmoozing and take part in a reading of a work in progress by Ned’s friend Jude Benton. Jude was writing a play, later titled “Windmills”, which he presented at the New York Public Library.

While they were out of town, my sister invited us to spend the long Thanksgiving weekend at her house in Clinton, South Carolina. We all jumped at the chance to see Carol and Pete, their teenaged daughters, my cousin Kemie and her family, and my father, now in his seventies.

It was a wonderful season to visit the small town of Clinton, which the locals pronounced “Clennon”. Carol and Pete had a lovely house. Its sunken living room’s large picture window framed a woodsy backyard with a slate patio and goldfish pond. Nothing was in bloom in November, but several variegated evergreens provided color.

Carol and Pete were both talented artists. Carol’s vibrant, colorful paintings adorned the walls, and Pete’s lovely sculpture of a nude woman’s torso (my sister) was prominently placed. It was tasteful and well crafted, but I didn’t inspect it closely!

In one corner of the living room sat a grand piano, a quality stereo system and an egg-shaped chair for cocooning with headphones. We’d recently returned from Hollywood, and often gathered around the piano for sing-alongs. When we weren’t exploring the attractions of Clinton or visiting friends, one or another of the kids would curl up in the chair or sprawl under the piano listening to headphones. One afternoon Dave lay under the piano and Sam decided to play! At the first chord Dave jumped, cut his head on a corner and narrowly avoided leaving blood stains on their pretty beige carpet!

When our visit was over we piled into our spacious green Buick and headed up the mountain. The weather was mild for November, cloudy and drizzly most of the way, but as we made a sharp right turn at the Watauga County line the weather turned fierce. Around the corner the wind howled, the snow blew sideways and the road was icy and treacherous. I pulled over; Dave took the tire chains from the trunk. They were old, and didn’t fit very well. Dave had a rough time putting them on, but after several minutes we were on our way.

For a few miles.

Watauga Winters

We drove through Blowing Rock, and at the final intersection before going down the hill towards Boone, the Buick stopped, but its brake pedal went straight to the floor! Dave discovered that one of the chain clamps had come loose, and the chain had cut the brake line!

We were, fortunately, not far from a phone, and called Ned’s brother Collis to pick us up. He drove over in his four-wheel-drive Jeep, and the six of us crammed in on top of each other for the final eight miles!

The following winter, Ned was in New York acting in “Dark of the Moon”, and Dave had accompanied him. Sam was at Yale, Robin was out of town visiting, and the girls and I were getting ready for bed. Outside the wind was whipping up one of the worst blizzards I’d ever seen, and I was so glad we’d done all that work on the house! We were warm and toasty!

The telephone rang. A neighbor had seen our horse and ponies out on the road! The girls and I bundled up, climbed into the car and fought our way through the storm. We found them down by the shoe plant, a mile away.

We knew Charlie, the horse, would follow Laura if she reached up and grabbed his forelock; he always did. Gennie and Fran kept the ponies in line behind him, and I drove back, lighting the way. We finally got them back to the barn and secure for the night.

Fran had an after-school job at Carolina Pharmacy. One of the regular customers there, a farmer, had already asked her if we’d sell our horse. I said, “Fran, tell him you’ll sell him the horse if he’ll take the ponies, too”. He agreed. The next day I sold them all, without consulting Ned!

I’ve developed a great respect for farmers, but I don’t want to be one, ever again!

I also learned that those old, big, picturesque frame houses I’d always loved, were bottomless pits. Maintenance expenses were enormous, and there was ALWAYS something more to be done!

Hardin Park School

Although I was at the same school, my time at Hardin Park was as diversified as my time in Colorado. I eventually taught every grade level from one through eight, and also summer school. I supervised the after-school program for children six through twelve, and the community school program for adults one night a week.

North Carolina wanted to improve its students’ writing scores, and Appalachian State University offered instruction courses for teachers. I took classes on methods of writing, then led workshops for other teachers.

We had international visitors. A low murmur of voices floated through the air above the carpeted hallway as I escorted three Chinese past the media center (library) and the all-purpose room (cafeteria) to the open area that was designated as my classroom. These visitors were very special—the first wave of a student exchange program with Appalachian State University.

After President Nixon recognized the People’s Republic of China in 1972, the Chinese government lifted some of its restrictions on travel, and the university was quick to take advantage of them. Professor Williamson (whose daughter Pilar was in my class) took a group of students to China on a study trip, and a group of Chinese students came to study for a semester at Appalachian.

Ned met three of them, young men, at the barber shop, and invited them to our house for a meal, then to garden with us and share our vegetables. They were interested in everything! When they found out I was a teacher, they jumped at the chance to visit my class. My class was fascinated by our Chinese visitors, and they were fascinated by the children. There were lots of questions and answers, exchanged freely. Yes, China was a very big country. Almost one billion people! About four times as many as the United States!

After about an hour, it was time for the children to line up for gym class, and our visitors to go back to the university. They walked with us down the hall.

“This school is very quiet!” one commented. I agreed. It was indeed very quiet; we’d learned to work quietly because of the building itself.

Hardin Park School was on the cutting edge of modern education. New building. Open-area classes. Team teaching. Individualized education. Forward-looking principal, and gung-ho teachers—some of them! The team teachers—two or three together—occupied large open areas with groups of sixty to ninety students, or more. Interspersed were smaller areas, cordoned off by moveable bookshelves and coat closets. These were self-contained classes, with one of the more traditionally-minded teachers, of about thirty students each. We’d all learned to work quietly, so as not to disturb our neighbors.

I’d begun there as a substitute, teaching wherever I was needed, but soon signed a contract to team with another teacher at the fifth-grade level. After I’d taught there for some time, Dr. Anderson asked me what I thought of the new school. Not one to mince words, I replied that it was beautiful, but I found it very restrictive to be teaching in open areas.

“Restrictive!” he exclaimed, “It’s supposed to be just the opposite! How is it restrictive?”

“Well, I’m used to doing a lot of noisy activities with my kids—skits, songs, dancing, games—but even spirited class discussions get too loud and disturb my neighbors. I don’t think kids need to be sitting at their seats listening, reading and writing all the time.”

I wasn’t the only teacher who felt that way.

Up Go The Walls
It took some years, but eventually walls went up at Hardin Park School. Whirr-rr-r! Buzz-zz-z! BANG! BANG! Much of the construction went on while we were having classes, and I drew on knowledge I’d gained from working at our rental yard to explain the function and purpose of the construction tools that were attracting the attention of my kids. They couldn’t ignore the racket, so I used the setting as a teaching opportunity.

“That’s a nail gun. It uses high-pressure air from an air compressor to shoot nails into the 2×4” wood planks, which are called studs. The vibrating sander is used to smooth the walls. The little bag on the end is like a miniature vacuum cleaner which vacuums up the dust so it won’t get in our hair. The names of the tools are nouns. What they’re doing with them, verbs.”

Nobody would’ve said this was a quiet school while the construction was going on! We teachers weren’t complaining, though, we were getting WALLS!

Administrative Internship 1978-9

Financial need is a powerful motivator. I couldn’t make any more money as a teacher, and I was already moonlighting with a weekend job at a convenience store. I decided to take school administration and become a principal.

In 1978, with my coursework completed, I approached my administrative internship at the age of 48. I had 15 years of teaching experience and the naive eagerness of a student teacher of 21. I felt my background and preparation excellent, my motivation strong, my success assured.

My first conference with my principal reinforced my confidence. He had a positive attitude, respected me and was determined to provide for me a valuable experience. I knew, and liked, all the people I’d be working with—Jim Daye, the principal at Hardin Park, Carolyn Austin, the secretary, and J.D. Greene, the head custodian, in particular. I’d also met Mr. Propst, the new superintendent, the previous spring when I was chairwoman of the Liaison Committee and we’d helped write the new Grievance Procedure guidelines.

In spite of these indications, I floundered. I couldn’t launch myself. My principal was willing to help, but was very busy. I’d been told to come into the office during P.E. time and observe, and did, several times. I got a pretty good feel for the work, but couldn’t figure where I fit in. I was eager to help and didn’t want to be a hindrance, but could see nothing I might do to be helpful except stay out of the way. I waited for someone to ask me to do something. Nobody did. By the end of my year, though, I felt accepted.

The major reason for my initial floundering was that I’d failed to review carefully the materials given to me by my supervising professor. I checked items off my list, but didn’t send in weekly reports. I’m not usually that haphazard and am at a loss to explain why, but I didn’t remember that I was supposed to be sending a report every week until my professor asked! A second reason was my lack of assertiveness. I can take charge of a situation and be a strong leader if asked, but I’ve always preferred to wait and watch until then. This wasn’t a situation for waiting and watching. I needed to assert myself, to keep bugging people so that they couldn’t forget I was there and wanted to work. After such a poor start, I made another mistake by failing to promptly notify my professor that I was having problems. After I told him I was having difficulty getting involved, it improved. Self-reliance is a good thing, but sometimes it’s necessary to seek help. Once I got past the initial difficulties, though, fortuitous circumstances made my internship rich and rewarding.

I’d met with the new superintendent the previous spring, but worked much more closely with him now. Throughout the year I also met with members of the school board, principals and other leading educators in the county. Additionally, our school was starting a self study for Southern Association accreditation, and I was appointed to the Steering Committee, the Philosophy and Objectives Committee, and the Science Committee. Now I found out what was involved in a Southern Association self study!

Snow days were also helpful. I’d work with the principal or his assistant on whatever needed doing, without interruption.

Once they realized what I needed and wanted, everyone at Hardin Park was helpful. I interviewed the head custodian, the lunchroom manager, the librarian and the assistant principal about their work. The school secretary explained the records and let me work on “dummy” records. Finally, the principal was an excellent mentor, willing to discuss his job and trusting me with the charge of the building. At the end of the year we worked on preparations for the next year, including teacher assignments and schedules. It was a very special experience!

In November, Gary Childers was named assistant principal of Parkway School. I assumed his position as coordinator of the After School Program, and also became Community School Coordinator on Tuesday nights.

The After School Program was much more than child care. It offered sports & recreation, crafts, music, drama and other activities, taught mostly by college students. As coordinator, I supervised, evaluated, assisted and instructed the teachers, recruited new ones and asked one for his resignation. I worked with the custodian to keep the building clean and secure, sometimes locking up at night.

I wasn’t satisfied with the safety in the gym, conferred several times with P.E. teachers on the proper usage and procedures for gym equipment, and made suggestions to improve safety after school. I dealt with discipline problems, sick and injured children and contacted parents as necessary. I kept the attendance records and handled the money, received messages and deliveries and compiled a monthly report on building use. In short, I was in charge of the school from 3 to 6 every afternoon and from 3 to 10 on Tuesdays.

The additional job enhanced my internship, and helped our finances. When the night custodian got injured, however, I had to do the nightly walk-around to assure all the doors were locked. It was a big building, taking up about an acre of land, and I suggested to the head custodian that I check all the doors and windows from the inside of the building. He replied, mildly but firmly, “I think you need to walk around the outside.” I did—with my heart in my throat! It was dark and lonely!

Keeping Them Safe
Learning is the stated purpose of the public school system, but all those children must also be kept safe. Fire was the most recognized threat when I was a child. so we had fire drills. When the bell sounded in short, staccato peals we immediately lined up and walked quietly outside. The teacher called the roll and we listened for the “all clear” signal before walking back in and resuming class. It was still a part of the school routine when I began teaching, and I’d grab my roll book on the way out.

In the fifties, we feared our country might be attacked, and began evacuation drills. The signal was different, and though the procedure began the same way, the children were loaded onto buses and driven around the block. This drill was complicated and wasteful, and was soon abandoned in favor of Duck and Cover.

In this drill, the signal was given and everyone, including the teacher, ducked under their desk and put their hands over their heads to protect themselves from shrapnel or falling debris. Duck and Cover was designed to be used in case of nuclear attack, but also could be used in case of earthquakes or tornadoes.

But what if someone planted a bomb in the school? We received a telephone call with such a threat, which turned out to be bogus, but couldn’t dismiss the possibility that the next could be real. At the next faculty meeting we had a plan. The office would call 9-1-1 and report the emergency, then one teacher would evacuate two classes, freeing the other teacher to help search the building. I was assigned to search the library. If I found anything that might be a bomb, the instructions were emphatic: “DON’T TOUCH IT! GET THE HELL OUT OF THERE AND REPORT ITS LOCATION!”

The library!?! With its hundreds of books on shelves?! How could I possibly check behind all those books? I was pondering this question as I drove home, and then noticed the rear-view mirror! I stopped at the auto parts store, and prepared for my role.

It worked perfectly! At the next bomb scare, my class left with Mr. Surber’s and I pulled the mirror out of my desk drawer. By the time the bomb squad arrived, I’d checked behind the books on every bookshelf and under every chair and table. In five minutes I was done. The library was clear!

Tornadoes were the next worry. At the signal, we used the duck and cover position, but huddled next to the strongest available interior wall, away from the windows.

We had the plan, but hadn’t yet devised the signal. In the meantime, it was business as usual.

I had a film to show to my social studies class, and we were under a storm warning. I didn’t know that Miss Darnall, who was hard-of-hearing, had been last to use the projector. The film started with a siren, which blasted forth at high volume! Before I could turn it down, Mrs. Knight’s class, next door, had all tumbled to the wall in the duck and cover position!

Sorry! My bad!

By the turn of the century, terrorists with guns became the next threat. Schools were locked down. I was retired, but when I went to pick up my grandson I had to press a buzzer and identify myself to the office. It felt strange, and I was sad. Yet another threat challenged our schools!

Robin was attending classes at Appalachian State University when the drama department decided to present the musical Godspell. Robin auditioned, and landed the lead—the role of Jesus!

During the weeks the show was in rehearsal, a rock group came to do a concert in Johnson City, Tennessee. Robin went to the concert and picked up a metal cigar tube outside the arena, which someone had dropped. The cops searched him, and found LSD in the tube. He was busted!

The judge didn’t believe his story, but didn’t want to spoil the show. He sentenced Robin to prison, but suspended it until the weekend after “Godspell” was over.

Robin did a beautiful job portraying Jesus. He sang, danced, acted the role and then reported to Johnson City to serve six months in prison!

The Christmas Tree Farm
One of my professors at ASU was retiring and moving back to Georgia. He had a Christmas tree farm that he needed to sell, and Ned and I decided to buy it. The sale of Christmas trees each year would make the payments on the land. The property was lovely. Gently rolling hills, around a good-sized lake. We’d work in the trees, then enjoy a swim and a picnic afterwards.

There was  lot of work; much more than we’d imagined. We went to a workshop and learned how to manage the tree farm. The trees had to be trimmed and shaped every year. They had to be cleared of weeds and grass, and when some trees were harvested, more had to be planted. We had lots of help. We taught our sons, and hired their friends to help.

Dave went to Austin, Texas and found a good location, then negotiated with the woman who lived there to rent her lot. Ned and Dave then went down to set up each year. We’d wanted to make the payments on the land come due each January, but the sellers insisted on October payments, so every year we had to take out a 90-day loan to pay the professor.

The day after Thanksgiving we’d cut trees, tie them in bundles and load them into a U-Haul van. Dave and Ned then drove to Austin, set up the lot, arranged radio and newspaper publicity and sold trees. We re-used the name of our music group, The Family Tree, for our business. It was fun and profitable, and when visitors came in the summertime, we’d take them to the lake for a picnic and swim.

One hot summer day Ned and I trimmed pines all morning. Trimming pines is far more vigorous than trimming Fraser firs. It’s done by swinging a large knife through the tips of new growth while walking around the tree. We worked up quite a sweat, then Ned bought some broccoli plants on the way home and asked me to help set them in the garden.

“I’m tired. Let’s have lunch and rest, and we can do that later.”

“No. We need to do it now. The plants will die if we don’t set them out.” I reluctantly went with him to the garden.

My muscles soon started twitching and I said, “Honey, I think I’m about to have a fit.” I had a seizure, and passed out.

I woke up in the emergency room. With all that hard work in the blazing sun, sweating profusely, I’d depleted my potassium. I learned to pace myself, and Ned learned that I meant it when I said “I’m tired!”

We had lots of adventures with our tree farm. Some were fun, some worrisome. Finally, one year we cut a Christmas tree for the house. When Ned was unloading it, he had a severe asthma attack. I took him inside, gave him medicine, then went to get the tree myself. I also started choking up! We’d both developed an allergy to Christmas trees! We realized we’d have to get out of the Christmas tree business and, for the first time ever, bought an artificial tree!

Curses! Foiled Again!
It was clear we couldn’t continue in the Christmas tree business, but we could still get a nice supplement to our retirement income by selling the tree farm and carrying the loan ourselves.

It didn’t take long to find a buyer. We had several congenial meetings with a young man and his minister, who wanted this beautiful land for church picnics and perhaps someday a building lot. The trees would pay for the land, and we set up the loan with the payments due in January for their convenience.

Dave warned us.

We could sit back and enjoy Thanksgiving and Christmas now, without all that extra work, so we breathed a sigh of relief, though we did have nostalgia for all the fun we’d had swimming and picnicking at our very own lake.

Pangs of nostalgia became pangs of anxiety when January came. No payment! What?!

We drove to the tree farm, and found it was no longer a tree farm. ALL the trees had been cut down! ALL!

When we tried to contact the buyers, both telephones had been disconnected.

It cost us $4,000 in legal fees to take back the now-barren land.

Family Diaspora
In the 1970s and 1980s our family scattered all over the United States and its territories, and sometimes beyond. When David arrived in North Carolina at the end of 1973, he had trouble finding work and soon joined the Navy. He went first to boot camp and training school at the Great Lakes center, outside of Chicago, then was assigned to the flagship oiler of the fleet, the Ponchatoula, which took him first to Guam and later to Hawaii. After meeting his future wife, the two of them lived first at “Snag End”, our property at the bottom of Snaggy Mountain outside Boone, and later moved to Alamance County, North Carolina.

After some time in Boone and South Carolina, Robin married Anne Sutherland and they moved to Colorado; eventually they ended up in Sugar Grove, NC, where they raised their family.

Sam went to Yale University in Connecticut, then after graduation moved to New York City and played piano for a living for the next twenty years.

Frances went to Michigan State, then spent a summer at Yale, twice went to Spain and then moved back to Snag End, where she married and lived next to David and Perri. She had four children, then moved to Arizona, divorced, moved to Alamance County and married an old childhood friend, Rob Crutchfield. They moved to Panama, where Frances found work, and later moved into George Wallace’s former home in Montgomery, Alabama.

Genevieve married a Japanese man, Suzuki. The two of them lived in Boone and later Florida, but after a vacation in Japan and a visit to San Francisco, Suzuki stayed in San Francisco. They divorced. Genny moved to Connecticut, then New York City. She lived there for several years before attending Warren Wilson College in Asheville. Afterwards, she married, moved back to Boone and had a son.

Laura went to Warren Wilson College before Genevieve, and after graduation took a job as a recruiter for Tusculum College in Tennessee. While there she met a football coach, Tom Bryant, whom she later married. They had two sons, and for the next several years followed Tom’s fortunes through Tennessee, Kentucky, South Carolina and Georgia.

In 1978, I attended the 30th anniversary of my high school graduation, in Ocala, Florida. It was great fun to reconnect with old friends and compare notes. The program leaders asked several questions—who’d been married the longest? Who had the most children? Who’d traveled the farthest? One of my friends had an impressive seventeen kids, but since they were foster children she declined the award and insisted that I should receive it for my six.

It was asked, How many of your kids are still at home? I found it hard to say, because they’d go away, but kept returning! Many of my classmates also expressed confusion. I was taking a graduate course in sociology that summer, and asked my professor if this was a common phenomenon. He responded that it’d make an interesting study.

Would I like to do it?

I was curious, but not that curious! I could barely keep up with the comings and goings of my own kids! In the seventies and eighties we often had one or two unrelated people living with us as well; the number of occupants in our house varied from two to ten!

Weddings, Weddings, Weddings
My son Robin was preparing to marry Anne Sutherland. She had a complicated family history, presenting several potential wedding glitches which I’d hoped to smooth over. Anne’s father had died in a street racing accident when Anne was a baby, before her sister had been born. Susie, her mother, was quite young, and when her father died his parents obtained custody of Anne. She was raised by her grandparents, who for a long time wouldn’t let Susie even see Anne, but by the time Anne met Robin, Anne was on good terms with her mother, her younger sister, her mother’s husband and a younger half-brother.

I talked with Susie about the wedding. As the mother of the groom, I wanted to be sure to get corsages for everyone who should have them. There was one for Susie, the mother of the bride, but also one for Erle, the grandmother who had raised Anne. I didn’t want to leave anyone out, so there was also a corsage for Susie’s mother—but when Erle saw all the corsages she declined to put hers on. I picked up Erle’s corsage, and with a big welcoming smile, said, “Allow me the honor of pinning your corsage on you.”

It was a lovely wedding. There was a bluegrass band and dancing at the reception, with no unpleasantness.

My niece Kathy was about to be married in Clinton, South Carolina. My dad was living at the Presbyterian Home in Summerville, and had expressed reservations about traveling.

“I might die,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to spoil the wedding.”

“Well, Ted,” replied his companion,  “Clinton is just as nice a place to die as Summerville. She’s your granddaughter. You should go.”

He told us about this conversation, and Ted Jr. joked, “It wouldn’t have to spoil the wedding. We could have a double ceremony.”

Pete, a Presbyterian minister and father of the bride, chimed in, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here together to marry this young couple and bury this old man!”

They were married, and all went well.

Despite his apprehensions about dying at Kathy’s wedding, my father moved to  the Presbyterian Home in Clinton three years later, and soon afterward married a fellow resident, Lucile Neely. At first he was indignant that the other residents were teasing them, not believing they were “just friends”, but a few weeks later announced they’d taken a drive in the country and decided to marry. Pete remarked that he’d like to know whether my dad had proposed in the front seat, or the back!

The wedding was scheduled on a Sunday at noon, just after church services. Dad wanted all his children and grandchildren to attend the services, so we did. It’s difficult for a minister to write something inspiring every week, and this service wasn’t the best. After we’d sat through it all and were heading to the front for the wedding, my sister Carol whispered in my year, “Dad has just made sure all of his family came to church for one last time!” I agreed!

Genny had an interesting idea for her wedding reception. I wasn’t sure how it’d be received, but we rented a large hall and had a contra dance! I’d never heard of a contra dance, but it seemed to be a local term for a square dance, like the ones we had at Transylvania Music Camp. Almost everyone joined in, but even the guests who weren’t dancing enjoyed the festivities. It was a great way to wind things up.

During the next twenty-five years my father, my four nieces, my three daughters and all my sons married, some more than once and one not for many years afterward. There were twelve formal weddings and three elopements. I won’t describe them all, except to say the brides were beautiful, the grooms were handsome, the music was lovely, and everyone was nervous and excited!

Births, Births, More Births!
During the 80s, grandchildren started making the scene, and they were wonderful! Our first grandchild was Robin and Anne’s baby Grant born July 11th, 1982. He was followed less than two years later by a little brother, Jordan (March 3rd, 1984). They often visited us at the homeplace, and spent a lot of time by the pond catching frogs and crawdads. They would ride with Ned on the garden tractor, and both loved to sing. Once when Sam and his partner Rob LaRocco were visiting with their friend Georgia Louis, we set up the sound system and sang for each other—especially Georgia, who was a fantastic singer of black gospel songs. Shortly after the “concert”, I noticed Grant by himself in the next room, using a hairbrush for a mike and singing away!

About two months after Jordan was born, Frances gave birth to James, who on April 29th, 1984 made his appearance on Ned’s 59th birthday—of course! Since Fran, my first daughter, had been born on her grandmother’s birthday, it was only fitting that her first-born son should arrive on his grandfather’s! A year and a half later, on November 23rd, 1985, along came James’s little brother Corey. Fran and Kevin moved to Arizona shortly afterward, and on February 25th, 1988 Fran gave birth to twins, Adah and Sarah. They were premature, and had to be delivered by Caesarian section. All were hospitalized, so I flew down to Arizona to see the babies and help Kevin with the boys. Sarah seemed pretty healthy, but Adah’s lungs weren’t fully developed and she was on oxygen for a long time, even after they were allowed home from the hospital.

Back in Boone, a year later, grandchild number seven was born. Anne presented to Grant and Jordan a beautiful little sister, Noelle, on November 22nd, 1989; one day before her cousin Corey’s fourth birthday.

After Noelle, it would be five years before the next grandbaby. In the spring of 1993, Laura married Tom, and I attended their wedding in a wheelchair because I’d broken my ankle, which also caused me to postpone a trip to Russia. I left in June of 1994, and when I returned a month later had a new grandson, Austin, born on the Fourth of July, 1994.

Laura’s second baby was threatening to come too soon and she had been put to bed by her doctor. It was a very busy time for Tom, too, with football season starting, so I was glad I could go there in June of 1996, take over the household chores and look after two-year-old Austin. Champ made the scene on the 15th of September, and I stayed over for awhile to help with the baby before returning to Boone.
The next grandchildren began to arrive two and a half years later when Dave’s wife Perri gave birth to Edward on May 7th, 1999. Perri’s mother Jan was able to be there for them, and I enjoyed getting to know her when I went to visit.

Two years later Genny had Tristan, on March 29th, 2001. Her husband Seth and I were both present, and the midwife had Seth catch the baby while I cut the cord. It was very special for me, but also distressing because she had a long, hard labor and I didn’t like to see her in so much pain. I wanted to give her something, but they used other means to relieve pain—getting into a tub of warm water, lying tummy down on a big beach ball and so forth. I once had to leave the room and take a walk in the hall; it had been easier for me to go through natural childbirth myself than to watch my daughter! It was also not until I had my fourth child that I delivered without any anesthesia, and this was her first! The moment of crowning was very exciting, though, and I felt privileged to be present. I now had eleven grandchildren, eight boys and three girls.

A little more than two years passed until the closing act for the births of the grandchildren, with the arrival of Edward’s little sister, Clara Kate, on June 11th, 2003. All my grandchildren were adorable, but I once made the comment to Dave that I thought Clara Kate invented cute!

Our Hippie Commune
During the years of the tree farm and the family diaspora, Snag End gradually became well-populated.

Dave had been hitch-hiking around the country, meeting other hippies. There were Christmas trees planted at the homeplace, and at Snag End, that had to be worked and harvested to be sold in Austin, Texas. There was a spring, and a dirt road that crossed the creek and headed up the far mountain.

Dave had met Jake and Jody in Arizona, on one of his hitchhiking adventures. The following December Dave and Ned met Kevin while they were selling trees in Austin, and who should pull through but Kevin’s friends—the same Jake and Jody! The following spring Jake and Jody visited Boone, with their little girl Magic, parking in our driveway in a camper. The following year they arrived with a second little girl, and parked their school bus at Snag End.

After Christmas tree season the next year Dave decided to move to Snag End, and pitched a tent. Shortly afterward, he met Perri. Dave and Perri then lived in the tent while they dug and built an earth lodge across the road from Jake, Jody, Magic, Mystic and a third baby, Enoch, who was born in the school bus with Perri’s assistance.

Shortly before Enoch’s birth Kevin arrived, running from the law in Texas. He met Frances, and within a couple of months they were married, and with our help bought a trailer, which they parked at the entrance to Snag End. Soon afterward, a couple who were students at the college pitched a teepee there, and another student pitched a tent.

By now you may be wondering how large that spring was, and what about heating the water? Good thinking! Everybody came to the home place to shower, wash clothes, and socialize. It all worked well. Except when it didn’t.

Once their bus was parked, Jake and Jody needed transportation, so Ned gave them the use of our four-wheel drive Suburban. In a moment of beer-inspired effusiveness, he said to Jake, “You are my son.”

Dave, Ned’s actual son, was working on the driveway, which had become muddy and impassable. Jake wouldn’t help, saying, “The beast can make it through the mud.”

“But that tears up the drive even more!” countered Dave.

Jake didn’t care. He’d misunderstood the pecking order of the community, imagining himself to be in control. It was time for Ned to step into the fray and explain how things worked.

“Jake, I may have misled you. Dave is my son, and what’s mine is his. He owns that land, and he’s in charge of it. The Suburban too. You have the use of the land and the car, as long as you cooperate with Dave.”

That settled that.

Another time, Ned got a telephone call.

“He WHAT?!! – No!

Kevin had gotten angry at the power company, and had taken a chain saw to the pole nearest the trailer. Good lord! What madness!

Ned negotiated with the power company, and got the pole replaced.

Eventually, Jake and Jody moved on, Fran and Kevin moved to Arizona and Dave and Perri moved to Alamance County. We rented the trailer, and Dave and Perri rented out the earth lodge. We became landlords again.

We had our “hippie commune” for several years. When Fran and Kevin moved to Arizona, Genny and Seth moved into the trailer. Eventually, they moved on as well. The trailer then held no permanent residents, but still provided overnight accommodations for family visits.

It was, however, one more thing to take care of. If the heater wasn’t working, the plumbing would freeze. Besides general maintenance, there were the on-going bills for the electricity, telephone and lawn care. Rats got in, and made a big mess. The plumbing froze, and broke, flooding the bathroom and living room. One very wet season, the well filled up and “went artesian”, bubbling up and flooding the driveway. I started looking at it as more of an obligation and less of a convenience.

Then, one day out of the blue, two men came to the house wanting to talk about some property I owned up the road. It didn’t take very long for us to come to satisfactory terms. We visited Dusty Stacy, whom I had taught in the sixth grade and was now an attorney at law, to finalize the sale.

NC Star
I always enjoyed having visitors come to my classroom. The kids and I considered  it a special treat to have a parent come and tell us about his or her trip to “faraway places with strange-sounding names”. They often brought souvenirs to show, or slides to illustrate the scenes they were describing. It was interesting to hear a different perspective.

When the school counselor asked me if I’d allow three university students to come to my classroom to lead some self-concept activities, I agreed. They’d been trained by an organization called NC Star, were eager to practice what they’d learned, and were to come for four sessions. I’d worked with many student teachers before, and had enjoyed helping them learn the ropes.

This didn’t turn out the way I’d anticipated. I introduced the three students to the class, then sat at the back of the room while they took over. They laid out their ground rules, and I knew they were headed for trouble.

Their first rule was confidentiality. Anything anyone said was to stay in the room.

Excuse me? Here are thirty-two eleven-year-old boys and girls and you think they’re not going to tell anyone what was said in this class?
Their second rule was freedom of expression. Say whatever you want and express your feelings.

Uh-0h! You can’t be serious!

Their third rule was privacy. The teacher was to leave the room. This was just between the students, and them.

Not gonna happen! It was intervention time. The class had been getting rowdier with each new rule, but the student leaders were either oblivious or simply accepted their behavior. I stepped in and called an end to the session.

After school, I called on one of the students to request that they come in and let me give them some help with group management before another session.  They declined, assuring me they’d been adequately trained, I assured them they had not, and couldn’t come back to my class if they wouldn’t accept my help and abide by my rules.

I thought that was the end of that. It wasn’t!

I got a phone call at home from Bob Bingham, chair of the school board. “Roberta, what is this business about NC Star? We have a parent complaint, and I thought I’d get your input before the next board meeting. It’s going to be on the agenda. The parents want us to change our policy concerning volunteers in the classroom. What happened? I understand you had some NC Star students come to your room.”

I told him what had happened in my room, and that they weren’t coming back. There were a couple other teachers who’d accepted NC Star students, and I didn’t know how it had gone for them. Would he like me to come to the board meeting?
He would, and I did.

There were a hundred or more parents at the meeting. They wanted a policy that volunteers would present a written lesson plan to the school board for approval, a month before a presentation. The board allowed two or three parents to speak, and then called on me.

I agreed the experience wasn’t a good one for my class, but said we didn’t need a new policy. The policy worked. I’d offered them more of the training in group management which I’d given my student teachers, but they’d declined and weren’t coming back. I said we didn’t want a policy that would make it hard to recruit volunteers, because most of them were wonderful assets to education.

And that was the end of that!

“Sam, how’s your love life? Are you and Patience going to get married?”

Sam was home on a visit from New York City and we were having a late night chat before turning in.

“No. Dad embarrassed me last summer by asking her that question. She wanted to, but I never asked. I’m in love with this guy—the one who’s been calling every night. I broke up with Patience.”
Omigod! I thought. Danny Crystal was right! Sam’s gay!
To him I simply said, “Really? So you’re gay?”

“You never guessed I was gay?”
“No. If you recall, I said for you to ‘Just tell him you’re straight’ if Danny Crystal came on to you.”

“And that’s what I did. But that was then. I was just a kid.”

“Well, anyway, tell me about this guy. What’s his name? When did you two meet? Does he live in New York?”

That’s how I first heard of Rob LaRocco, and it was the beginning of a very warm and rewarding friendship.

A Visit to New York
On my spring break, I went to New York City and stayed at a hotel in Seacaucus, New Jersey. It was a short bus ride to my favorite spots in Manhattan, and a great chance to visit Sam and get acquainted with Rob.

I felt very much at home in the city, walking the streets and riding the subways, so I assured Sam and Rob they wouldn’t have to entertain me, but Sam took several days off work. His friend Georgia Lewis, a black woman, terrific gospel singer, came from Connecticut to meet me. The three of us spent the day in Central Park and the Museum of Natural History. Rob later arranged for us to  join his friends, Saletta and Clyde and their families, for a very large home-cooked dinner, and on another evening Sam, Rob and I took in a play. I had a great time! Spring break in Manhattan became an experience I repeated several times!

That October Sam, Rob, Georgia and Genny (who was also living in New York City) came to Boone. We went to Linville Caverns one afternoon, then came home to a big dinner with Robin, Anne and their son Grant, who was just a toddler. We set up microphones afterwards and gave an impromptu concert for each other. Georgia had just finished “His Eye is on the Sparrow” when we looked around and realized—where’s Grant? We heard him. He’d gone into the next room, picked up a hairbrush and was holding it like a microphone, singing at the top of his voice! That may have been his first solo, but it wasn’t the last! The visit from Sam and Rob in October became a family tradition for many years.

My Eyes—1986
I began to have trouble grading papers because I couldn’t see the writing. I wrote notes on a few papers, “Is this a number two pencil?” and “Please write darker.” It didn’t occur to me that the problem was with my eyes, until I went to renew my driver’s license! I had trouble with the eye test, and made an appointment with an ophthalmologist, Dr. Miller.


I shouldn’t have been surprised. My mother, my aunt Adah, and my great-aunt Pink had all had cataracts. That, however, was only the beginning of a long and complex relationship with my ophthalmologist. Once again I was grateful for the great strides made in modern medical technology, diagnosis and treatment.

My great-aunt Pink was blind when I met her. I was six years old.

“Come here, child, and let me see what you look like.” I stepped forward and she gently ran her fingers over my face.

“She has Robert’s forehead,” she said.

My mother wore big thick glasses after her cataract surgery, but she could see. I got to choose—glasses to read, or glasses for distance? I now have reading glasses, but got them only after my eyes had presented many challenges to Dr. Miller, and he used many high-tech instruments to meet them.

On one office visit, I was to have a cryo treatment for a torn retina. The retina is frozen at several points around the tear, to make it stick to the back of the eye and not detach. Dr. Miller’s nurse Kay and a cute little nursing student were in the room, and Kay started explaining to the student what they were to do. “Do you know what the retina is? Have you studied the eye yet?”

I was astonished. My fifth-graders could label the pupil, iris, lens, retina and optic nerve on a diagram. I thought that much was basic education.

I was appalled to hear the student expressing uncertainty, and Kay explaining, “Well, it’s like the film in a camera.” She then attached a teaching lens to the microscope “so you can see” and encouraged the student to ask questions, because “Dr. Miller likes to teach.”

Dr. Miller arrived and the procedure began. As he worked he let the student watch and carefully explained what he was doing, but in five-syllable words that had to have gone way over the head of someone who, five minutes before, hadn’t known what a retina was!

The First Divorce
After the birth of the twins, I had to leave Kevin and Fran in Arizona and return to my job in Boone, but I worried about them. Kevin was drinking a lot, was short-tempered with the boys and seemed to have no affection for the girls, smoking around them even when Adah was on oxygen and referring to her as “an obnoxious baby” when she cried. I stopped sending money to help them because Kevin would spend it on alcohol and drugs. I sent it instead to a minister whose church was actively helping the “desert people”. I wanted Fran to leave Kevin and bring the kids to live with Ned and me, but she refused because, I found out later, the minister to whom I was sending money was telling her it was her “wifely duty” to stand by her man and help him overcome his addictions. Finally one day Kevin took a chef’s knife which had been a gift from Suzuki, threatened Fran and the babies, and cut off Fran’s hair.

Fran and the children left, stopping only when they reached Dave and Perri’s house. They put her, the four babes and their kitten in a rather large but low-ceilinged room in their attic, where she lived for a few months while getting her life back in order. When the divorce came through, she married an old childhood friend, Rob Crutchfield.

Glasnost and Perestroika—1989
What an exciting time to be teaching social studies! My curriculum was on Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. There was a sharp division between East and West. At the end of World War II, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin had met and decided how to rebuild and govern a devastated Europe. Two world wars had been started by Germany, so it was decided Germany should be split and occupied by the Allies. Americans and British occupied West Germany and the countries to the west while the Soviets occupied the territories to the east. Berlin, which was in East Germany, received special consideration and was divided separately, with West Berlin occupied by the Americans and British, and East Berlin by the Soviets.

It soon became clear that Stalin had his own ideas, establishing what Churchill referred to as an “iron curtain”. Stalin established extremely repressive regimes in the east. People were fleeing in droves, so he put up barbed wire and stationed armed guards at the borders. He attempted to force West Berlin into his sphere by blocking all the highways and railroads, but the West responded with the Berlin Airlift, flying in supplies to keep the city alive and safe. The Soviets built a wall through the city to separate East from West, and Kennedy visited and said in a famous speech, “Ich bin ein Berliner” (I am a Berliner). America would not abandon Berlin.

With the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev as head of the Soviet Union, things began to change. Gorbachev wanted to end the repression of the Stalin era and presented a  radically different, tripartite program. Its principles were glasnost (openness), perestroika (restructuring), and demokratizatsiya (democratization).
This program brought new hope to the repressed people of Russia and Eastern Europe, and the floodgates to freedom opened. The people rose up against tyranny, deposed despots, split up old nations, formed new ones. The social studies textbook became obsolete.

I put up bulletin boards with clippings from newsmagazines, made copies of maps of the new countries, taught from the news media. My kids embraced the plan, bringing in columns and reports to add to our bulletin boards, sparking discussions.

Coöperation and Competition
A fellow teacher in Adams County had her expertise questioned when a parent asked, “Is this your first year teaching?”. She  replied, “I think first-year teachers are the best, because they’ve just had all those education courses and it’s still fresh in their minds! Don’t you agree?”

We discussed this. “Don’t feel bad because someone criticized you, that comes with the territory. With rocket science, only a few people feel they are qualified to judge. Everyone went to school, so nearly everyone feels they know how to teach. You’ll get criticism, and you’ll get praise. Listen, and learn things or discard them, but don’t get hurt feelings. Education courses give a good foundation, but you build on it for the rest of your career. The best thing about teaching is that you keep on learning!”

I’ve learned much from other teachers and from parents, and have always felt coöperation to be vital. Sometimes that coöperation is stifled when a spirit of competition gets in the way.

I’d been teaching in Boone for only a couple years when I was nominated for Teacher of the Year. I was honored, but declined. I was still the new kid on the block.

It wasn’t a selfless act. I feared that others might be less willing to share ideas with me if we were in competition. I didn’t want to interfere with our spirit of coöperation.

Years later, I was one of three sixth-grade teachers who shared certain classes. Each of us taught language arts, but our students changed for math, science and social studies. Our preparation time, and needs for varieties of teaching materials, was thus more manageable. It occurred to me, though, that both of the other teachers had won awards–Marilyn in mathematics and Gail in science–and I didn’t want to seem inferior.

In Raleigh, NC, the Children’s Museum offered a “Teacher of the World” award. Each year one primary, one middle grade and one high-school teacher received it for teaching about the world. This was right up my alley!

I had to write an essay, a scope and sequence for the year, a sample lesson plan and submit a video of myself and my classes. The video was a problem.
Coincidentally, the daughter of a professor at Appalachian State University, Joe Murphy, was in my class. I’d let a couple of his students work on a project in my class, and I called him to ask for his video tips.

“That sounds like a good project for some of my graduate students,” he said.
It was amazing! Four grad students came and videotaped me teaching, leading a computer lab, playing “Simon Says” in four languages, and discussing “pen pals” with a group. I knew I had the best video! And I won!

My Trip—1994
I was chosen as the 1992 Teacher of the World by the Children’s Museum About the World in Raleigh, and won a three-week trip to any country I chose to visit. I taught sixth grade social studies, which focused on Europe and Eurasia, and so many changes were going on there that I wanted to see them for myself.

I’d been studying Russian and corresponding with a Russian teacher of English who had invited me to visit, so I chose Russia. I’d also studied Spanish, German and French and was eager to use those languages as well, so I added Spain, Germany and France to the itinerary at my expense. I took along my two grandsons, aged ten and twelve, to get a child’s view of things, and to make it easier to meet children of other countries as we traveled. Bringing along the boys, Grant and Jordan, made it easier to meet adults, too!

The educational benefits began during our flight from New York to Amsterdam. Our plane had a large computer display which charted our ever-changing location, along with the speed, altitude and outside air temperature. We left New York at bedtime but were much too excited to sleep, so we watched the screen with fascination, looking out the window now and again for possible lights and landmarks. Before we knew it, sunlight was streaming through the windows! It was the shortest night of our lives. Since we were going through six time zones, the short summer night was even shorter, by six hours!

Amsterdam was a big hit, and we quickly decided it was a good “home away from home” to center our travels around. We set an itinerary from Amsterdam to Berlin, on to Moscow and Tver and back to Amsterdam, then to Paris, Madrid and Cuenca, Amsterdam, New York and home.

Since Amsterdam is north of the fiftieth parallel, the summer nights are very short. We could read the time on the clock tower two blocks away at 10:30 pm.
Amsterdam was a wonderful city to brush up on languages. All the signs are in more than one language. TV shows are mostly in English or German with Dutch subtitles. Tours were given in Dutch, German, English and French–all by the same tour guide!

We saw first-hand how the Dutch have reclaimed land from the sea. It’s a constant struggle. They control the water with canals, dikes, windmills and pumps, and have a saying about it–“God created the world, but the Dutch created Holland!”

We visited a fishing village, where we were told that, due to the dikes, the industry is dying out as the water loses salinity. They now do a thriving business hosting tourists! We visited a cheese factory and a wooden shoe factory, and watched a diamond cutter at work. Too bad the tulips weren’t in bloom!

Before leaving Amsterdam we paid a visit to the house where Anne Frank and her family hid from the Nazis. People were talking and laughing in the line to go in, but that changed when we began viewing the museum displays. Coming out, everyone was silent, thoughtful and choked up. We had memories we would never lose.

Europe by Train
We traveled from Amsterdam by train, usually overnight to save on hotel bills. The compartments were for four people, so we always had a compartment mate and made at least one new friend every time we rode the train. First there was a German man, then a sweet old Russian lady, who helped me with the paperwork crossing the Russian border. Neither spoke English, so I gave my limited German and Russian a workout. On the return trip we met a vivacious woman from Berlin who spoke German and Russian. When we weren’t able to communicate in one language we switched to the other! Going into Spain from France we rode with a young man from Costa Rica, and returning from Madrid to Paris a modern businesswoman from Spain. Both spoke excellent English. We also talked with many students and other travelers and learned about some of the places we hadn’t seen.
Looking out the windows of the train we saw almost the whole of the North European Plain, went over the Pyrenees and crossed the Spanish plateau. We saw farms, villages, towns and many large cities.

Our first stop after Amsterdam was Berlin. The contrast was striking between East Berlin, a depressed area with boxy concrete buildings, and West Berlin, a bustling, modern, colorful city. We went to the zoo (in a bow to Grant’s interest in zoology) and took in many historic sites, traveling along the Unter den Linden and seeing the Brandenburg Gate. It was very exciting!

I had to use German more than I’d expected. It seemed nobody spoke English! I had to find a hotel, arrange for a room, buy tickets to the zoo, ride the elevated train, order meals, settle our hotel bill, get a taxi and buy our train tickets to Moscow. All in German. Our taxi driver said he didn’t speak English, but his English was at least as good as my German, so we conversed in both languages as we toured the city.

The train from Berlin to Moscow took thirty-six hours, so we met many interesting people along the way. As I’d anticipated, it was easy to get acquainted with children when I had children with me, and for them language is no barrier to friendship. The boys were a little shy at first, but they quickly learned that if they played with a toy or game together, then offered it to a watching child, they’d have a new friend. They played with a Russian girl, then with a young boy who was half Russian and half Iranian. I played with them, too, and got some good pictures and a chance to talk a bit with their mothers.

One of the most interesting people we met was Michael, a young man from Boston. A writer, he was an experienced traveler who was riding the Trans-Siberian Railway to Mongolia. Michael was a wellspring of information. It was he who told us why our train stopped at the Russian border for three hours. They were changing the wheels. The railroad tracks in Russia are a different gauge from those in the rest of Europe!

We arrived in Moscow on June 21st, the longest day of the year. We were even farther north than Amsterdam, so it was still light out at 11pm!

Here began the most difficult part of our journey, by far. With my limited proficiency in Russian, I could ask all the questions, but often couldn’t understand the answers! Not only that. The money exchange office was closed. I had only a few thousand rubles, which I’d received in change when I’d paid for meals on the train, and I needed about 80,000 (around $40) for our tickets to Tver. Besides that, we needed to go by Metro to another station to get the tickets! I was about to decide we’d have to wait until morning, when the beautiful sound of an American voice said, “Maybe I can help you. I speak Russian.” Our guardian angel was a young man who worked at the American Embassy in Moscow, and he swapped me 80,000 rubles for my forty dollars. He got us on the right Metro train and left us with full instructions in wonderful, comprehensible English where to get off and buy our tickets to Tver!

The Metro is gorgeous! It contrasted sharply with New York City’s dirty, cluttered subways decorated with advertising and ugly graffiti. I’d read that Stalin’s government had built the Metro to be something beautiful which could inspire pride in the people. It does! With all the economic problems Russia has, a lot of the places we visited weren’t well maintained, but the Metro looked great!

We arrived in Tver at 2am, and couldn’t barge in on our hostess at that ungodly hour, so we did as many other tired travelers and gathered our bags under us. We slept on them for the next four hours. At 6am I talked a taxi driver into taking us, with the rubles I had left, to Marina’s address. The elevator was broken, so we had to carry our bags up six flights of stairs to her apartment. We surprised Marina and her husband Volodya with our knock on their door. They had NO telephone, AND hadn’t received the fax giving the date of our arrival. Neither of us were too surprised at this breakdown in communications, as we’d had many such problems securing official invitations, visas and so forth.

We lived in their small flat with Marina, Volodya and their four-year-old son Vova for three days, and really got a sense of their everyday life. I’d asked Marina not to do anything special for us; we ate what they ate and did what they did.

June 22nd is a special day in Russia. It’s the anniversary of the date the Russians entered what they call the Great Patriotic War. In Tver they commemorate it by lighting a flame at the top of a huge obelisk and laying flowers at its foot, where there is a tomb for an unknown soldier and an eternal flame. We walked with Marina to the monument, laid some flowers and took pictures. A small group of old men had gathered around a red  flag with the Communist hammer and sickle on it. Marina thought they might be readying for a parade, so we hung around awhile, but no parade materialized. We then went to the banks of the Volga River and rested while the boys played at the river’s edge. Marina said that one good result of the factory shutdowns upstream was that the Volga was much cleaner than it used to be. It did look clean. There was a young woman washing clothes in it and some people were swimming, but we thought it much too cold to swim. We were wearing sweaters!

On Friday, Marina reluctantly agreed to go with us to Moscow. We did some sightseeing and bought train tickets, but she wouldn’t let me buy tickets for the diesel to Moscow–they were “too expensive”. Instead, we must take the “electric’–much cheaper. It’s also much more crowded, as we learned to our distress.

Once in Moscow, we bought train tickets back to Berlin, ate at McDonald’s and spent a most inspiring afternoon walking all through the Kremlin and Red Square. As the evening approached, we were happy and excited, but very tired. Our feet were screaming for relief, and we looked forward to sitting for three hours on the train back to Tver. Little did we know! We stood on the platform. It rapidly filled with people, and a most terrifying thing occurred. As our train came in, the crowd surged forward, clawing, elbowing and kicking to get on, while those in the train were struggling to get off! I couldn’t see Grant nor Jordan as  the current of people swept me along. I prayed that they wouldn’t fall and get trampled!

We embarked unhurt, but our feet had to wait for relief. We stood the entire three hours to Tver, then stood on the trolley, then walked the three more blocks to the Ivanova flat.

I told Marina I was afraid to take the “electric” to Moscow with all our bags. I knew we couldn’t manage them if the crowds were that bad. She reassured me, explaining that on Fridays all the workers of Moscow go to their “dachas” (small summer homes in the country) to tend their vegetable gardens. The “electric” wouldn’t be so crowded on Saturday. We mustn’t consider the diesel–too expensive! Volodya would ride with us on the trolley the next morning to the “electric”, and we’d be fine.

She couldn’t have been more mistaken! We got seats in Tver, but the car filled up more at every stop. People were two and three deep in the aisles. I began to feel panicky, but tried to maintain a calm demeanor so as not to alarm the boys.

Amidst this chaos, another angel appeared! A lovely Russian lady, an economics teacher, heard us speaking English. She worked her way through the crowd and introduced herself. Her name was Jane. Her son was about the same age as Grant and Jordan, and was studying English. Would we mind if he came over to talk with the American boys and practice the language? Of course not! We’d be delighted! Jane’s sister was also on the train, with her children. They were going to Moscow for the day, and invited us to join them. We declined, reluctantly, explaining that we had reservations on the train to Berlin. “We’ll help you get to your train”, they said. The boy’s English teacher was on the train, too. The rest of the three-hour trip passed very quickly and pleasantly. When we arrived in Moscow, our new friends grabbed our bags and led us through the milling crowd to the Metro. We bid them a warm farewell, but the English teacher was going the same direction and continued with us. She guided us to the station from which we were to depart.

We caught the train to Berlin without further difficulty, and once in Berlin activated our Eurailpasses for the rest of our travels. They’re great! Unless you’re traveling at night and need beds, you simply go to the station, see when the next train leaves and get on!

France and Spain
We rode back to Amsterdam, then went on to Paris, where we got a grand view of the city from the Eiffel Tower. We rode down the Champs Elysses, saw the Arc d’Triomphe, toured the Cathedrale d’Notre Dame. In the Paris train station we met Sergei, the only Russian who was willing to talk politics with me. He spoke fluent English. He’d been a student in the USA during our 1991-92 presidential campaign. He said Russia had been that way when Yeltsin was first elected, with everyone talking politics, but that now people were disheartened and disillusioned. They didn’t want to talk about it anymore. I asked him about Zhirinovsky, the newly-elected parliamentarian who was espousing many Stalinist policies. Sergei said he didn’t really have much support as a potential opponent to Yeltsin. I asked him who might succeed Yeltsin, and he said there wasn’t anyone well-known enough to oppose him, that only time would tell.

Our train pulled in, so we said goodbye to Sergei and headed for Spain. My brother Ted was touring with a choral group from Boston, and we were to meet him and his wife Elaine in Cuenca, a historic little town southeast of Madrid.

The Spanish trains were the cleanest and best-maintained we’d seen anywhere. Looking out the window, we could see the dry Spanish plateau. It’s similar to our Southwest, but there are many irrigated areas, green and well-cultivated.

Our positive impression of Spain was reinforced when we saw the Atocha Station in Madrid–perhaps the most beautiful train station in the world. It looks like a botanical garden! We wondered if they had “spruced it up” for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Whatever the reason, we were very impressed with Spain.

The station in Cuenca was in stark contrast to Atocha. It looked like the small town train stations I remembered as a child–rustic, a single platform, a waiting room with wooden benches. A blast from the past!

My Spanish got quite a workout in Cuenca. I had to talk with the taxi driver, get to Ted’s hotel, find out from the desk clerk that he and Elaine were at another hotel. I got directions to walk there, arranged for our rooms, etc., all in Spanish. Ted was in rehearsal and we were hungry, so we went looking for a place to eat. It was about 6pm, but everything seemed to be closed. We asked our desk clerk about places to eat. He said none would open until 8pm! We found a little grocery, bought sandwich fixings and had a picnic in the park.

The town of Cuenca is fascinating! The next morning we toured it together. Our hotel, and the train station, was built in the early 1900s, and it reminded me of the little town I grew up in sixty years before. They called this the New Town! High on a bluff overlooking New Town is Old Town, an area proudly maintained. There’s a monastery, a church, several other buildings and homes which are hundreds of years old, and an ancient Roman ruin that dates back about 2000 years. Add to this diversity a beautiful, modern auditorium and you have a real study in contrasts. The sleepy little town of Cuenca (New Town) turned out to have a busy tourist industry on the bluff above (Old Town). The people appeared poor, but their “church jewels” were a fabulous collection of bejeweled gold fonts, crosses, chalices and religious icons.

We toured Old Town on an extremely hot day–44ºC, which converts to about 111ºF! There were no public water fountains, so the bottled water merchants were doing a booming business. I thought Spain was even hotter than I’d heard, but was told they were having a heat wave.

The next day we returned to Amsterdam and boarded our flight back to New York City. There are Five Themes of geography, and we had learned about them all.

•Location. We observed the effects of latitude on climate and on hours of darkness and light, and traced our travels on the map.

•Place. We learned a great deal about people, their languages, customs and ideas. We observed the physical characteristics of the land along the North European Plain and the Spanish Plateau.

•Human Environmental Interaction. We saw what the Dutch have done with their environment, pushing back the sea, and how the Spanish have irrigated a dry region. We saw the Volga River recovering from pollution and many other examples of human-environmental interaction.

•Movement. Even before starting, we noted the importance of transportation and communication when we had trouble connecting with our Russian hosts. We used many types of transportation, and saw interesting things on Dutch and Russian television.

•Regions. We noted the contrast in living conditions in the countries of the West and those which were behind the “Iron Curtain”.
I now had first-hand stories to share with my social studies classes. I had a videotape, about 170 slides, post cards, books, money and numerous souvenirs. This trip was unforgettable, and invaluable!

English as a Second Language
In the late 80s we received several children at Hardin Park for whom English was a second language, and there was a wide variation in their mastery. They were picking it up, but we felt they needed special help. Since I’d studied several other languages and had taken a workshop on teaching ESL, I volunteered to take the kids into my room during Physical Education. I began to pester the superintendent for a full-time ESL teacher in the county, as I knew there were many ESL students in the other schools as well.

Seven kids, aged seven to twelve, came to my room two or three times a week. We had fun together, playing and singing. We played “Simon Says”, “Mother May I”, and sang “Head. Shoulders, Baby, One Two, Three”. I helped them with the sounds in English that didn’t exist in their native languages. One child said to another, “I say ‘vagon” when I mean ‘wagon’, and you say ‘lice’ when you mean ‘rice’!” They were charming, and I loved working with them, but I was glad when the district hired an ESL teacher.

Aquasize and ESL 1998
Splish! Splash! The sound of seniors exercising in the water reverberated off the walls. Ned and I came once a week to the parks and recreation pool to enjoy the camaraderie and sense of well-being the class gave us. One day, Mary Owen said something about one of the workers in her ESL class, and I perked right up.

“You teach and ESL class?”

“Yes, at our church. We have a class each Sunday at four for any Mexican workers who care to come.”

“Mary, I’d love to do that! I used to teach ESL! Do you need more teachers?”

“We can always use more teachers! The more we have, the smaller our groups and the more help we can give them. We’d teach one-on-one if we could! Come over on Sunday and I’ll introduce you!”

I started going to St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Church every Sunday afternoon, working with Katy, Faith, Mary and the others to teach a group of twenty to thirty workers. Most of them did seasonal work—agriculture or, especially in our region, Christmas trees. After Christmas they’d return to Mexico until it was time to start working the trees again in the spring.

We met several times, and planned the classes around our strengths. Emile was the best linguist; he had a strong voice and was fluent in Spanish and Japanese. Emile’s wife Yvette was Hispanic and totally bilingual. Bev was fluent in German and proficient in Spanish. Faith spoke Spanish fluently, but had a soft voice. We decided that Emile and I would begin each session. We’d explain things, make announcements, then I’d warm them up with some songs before we broke up into smaller groups.

Singing is not only a fun way to relax and warm up the group, it’s a powerful aid to memory. Songs such as “Head, Shoulders” and “Sipping Cider Through a Straw” also use activities to further aid memory.

1) ”Head, shoulders, baby, one, two, three…
(touch head, then shoulders, snap fingers once, twice and thrice)
Head, shoulders, baby one, two, three
Head shoulders, head shoulders, head shoulders

(gradually speeding up the tempo)

2) “Shoulders, chest, baby, one, two, three… (etc.)

3) “Chest, stomach, baby, one, two, three…

4) “Stomach, knees…

5) “Knees, feet…

(by this time the moves are very fast and challenging, and everyone is laughing.)

We’d then reverse order—feet, knees, baby, 1, 2, 3, etc., followed by knees, stomach, then stomach, chest, on up to shoulders, head, and finally…

“THAT’S ALL, baby! One, two, three!” (and STOP)

“Sipping Cider Through a Straw” is a call-and-response, a silly song that made everyone laugh when Emile translated it for them. I’d sing a line, then they’d sing it back.

“The prettiest girl (the prettiest girl) I ever saw (I ever saw) Was sipping cider (response) Through a straw (response, etc.)
And now and then…The straw would slip…And I’d sip cider…Through her lips…And now I’ve got…A mother-in-law…From sipping cider…Through a straw…
Now fifteen kids…All call me “Paw”…From sipping cider…Through a straw!!!
The moral is…My story, dear…Is don’t sip cider…Through a straw…
The moral of…My story, dear…Is don’t sip cider…YOU SIP BEER!!!”

Emile and Yvette were both teachers. They lived in New York City, and spent their summers in Boone. Yvette taught fourth grade and Emile taught at Stuyvesant High School in lower Manhattan. From his classroom windows he could see the Twin Towers, and was an eye witness on September 11, 2001.

What appeared to be a lone plane crashed into one of the towers—a terrible accident!—but wait!! Another plane—also crashed!! This was no accident, this was an attack! Horrendous explosions! Fire! People were jumping out the windows, falling to their death on the street below!

The buildings collapsed into a pile of rubble. Almost 3000 people were killed, more than died at Pearl Harbor. The students at Stuyvesant High School put together a beautiful commemorative booklet. Emile brought a copy with him to Boone the following summer, and gave it to me.

Ned had met Emile and Yvette when he’d gone with me to a picnic for the students and their families. We’d gone to dinner together as well, and had become close friends. Now Emile had cancer, stage four, and wouldn’t be coming back to Boone. “Pray for me to whoever you pray to, and look after my girl”, he wrote. I wrote them back, expressing our concern and hoping for his recovery, but I soon received a telephone call from Yvette.

Emile had died. Yvette and I talked for a long time about the good times, funny times, bad times, but I never saw her again. Yvette stopped coming to Boone, Ned got sick and I stopped teaching ESL.

Life goes on. Friends are gone; they’re not forgotten.

One day Pedro came to me in ESL class with “un problema”. The men he’d been sharing a house with had all gone back to Mexico, now that the trees had been harvested. They’d return in the spring, but Pedro couldn’t afford the rent without the other guys pitching in.

After a quick check with Ned, I offered Pedro a room in our house.

“¿Cuanto dinero?”


And Pedro moved into one of our extra rooms.

Dos Amigos
Pedro and I frequently tried to engage in friendly conversation. This often led to confusion, but we improved our language skills. One evening we had the following exchange:
Pedro: Mrs. Austin, dos amigos vienen aquí (two friends are coming here).
Me: ¿Aquí?
Pedro: Sí, aquí a Boone. (yes, here to Boone).
Me: ¿Cuándo vienen? (when are they coming?)
Pedro: Yo no sé exactamente. Creo que dos o tres semanas (I don’t know exactly. I think two or three weeks).
Me: ¿Dos amigos de usted vienen aquí a mi casa en dos o tres semanas? ¿Vivir con nosotros? (two friends of yours are coming here to my house in two or three weeks? To live with us?)
Pedro: ¡No, no! ¡Dos Amigos es el nombre de un restaurante! ¡Cuando viene aquí, yo quiero invitar ustedes a comer conmigo! (No, no! Dos Amigos is the name of a restaurant! When it comes here, I want to invite you all to dinner with me!
Me (with some relief): Oh! That’s very nice! ¡Muchas gracias!

And when the Mexican restaurant came to town, Pedro took Ned and me to dinner!

Nobody said anyone at any local school had AIDS, but we teachers needed new guidelines for dealing with playground injuries, as AIDS could spread by blood contact. We teachers had a workshop, and then he school had an assembly. A nurse, Terry Taylor, talked to us and answered questions. We didn’t meet at that time, but Terry and I became close friends in the ensuing years.

Some months later, my son Sam was home from New York City, and I learned about Sam’s lover, Rob. Soon afterwards on the local TV Bulletin Board, Ned and I saw a telephone number for PFLAG (Parents, Family & Friends of Lesbians and Gays). We discussed it, and I called the number. “We have a gay son,” I said, “We’re interested in talking to other parents of gays, and maybe joining PFLAG.”

The voice on the other end of the line was Terry Taylor, and she invited us to join her for dinner at the Red Onion. She brought two teens with her. They were in her Sunday school class at the Boone Unitarian Universalist Fellowship (BUUF). Their class had been discussing sexuality and sexual orientation. We had an interesting discussion and were invited to visit their class.

We liked BUUF. We already knew many of the members, and we joined Shortly afterwards they asked me to serve on the board and organize a choir. Recently retired from teaching, I was happy to contribute.

One Sunday Terry Taylor had the program for church service. She explained that sexuality contains a broad spectrum of differences. People can be born gay, bisexual, transgendered or transvestite. Young people, especially, can be questioning. She said she felt like a voice in the wilderness, speaking up for those who couldn’t. As a nurse, she’d attended young men who were dying of AIDS. She felt there was little support for them and their cause, or for the healthy who had to hide who they were, to hold jobs or otherwise get along.

I sent an e-mail to all UUs inviting them to support Terry by having a potluck to discuss PFLAG.  I talked to retired teachers and recruited help. About twenty people signed up, and many others expressed support.  We organized and I nominated Terry for president. She declined, and nominated me. In the end I presided at meetings, she maintained our telephone contacts and we served as co-presidents of the High County chapter of PFLAG, for several years. We met once a month at UU, and sometimes visitors came. We started a petty cash fund to help those in need.

Some things we did brought criticism. One young man asked us to help him come out to his parents. At his request, we invited his parents, whom we hadn’t met, him and two of his friends to our house for dessert and coffee. After we’d talked awhile, we introduced the purpose for the gathering (his mother had been wondering).

“Wade has something he wants to tell you, but it’s difficult for him, so he wanted his friends to be here.”

“Mom – Dad – I’m gay.”

Mom said, “I don’t understand! What did I do wrong?”

Dad said, “That doesn’t make a bit of difference to me. You’re my son, and I love you!”

We explained to Mom that she hadn’t done anything wrong, that people are born with a sexual orientation. By the end of the evening, everyone seemed okay.

Wade made a point of thanking me when he saw me several weeks later. But a friend of mine said, “That was an ambush!” I don’t know. Was it?

We dealt with individual problems, but also advocated for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, & Transgender (LGBT) students. We wanted to know if there was support among the clergy, so we each made an appointment with a minister to find out where he stood–with interesting results. Some ministers were friendly. Some deferred to their elders or deacons, and some were absolutely against homosexuality. We knew who we could count on if anyone came to us looking for a church!

Some students wanted to organize a Gay-Straight Alliance in the high school, and observe the nation-wide Day of Silence. Nanci Nance, a retired high school English teacher, and I talked with Gary Childers, the high school principal. The students had found a teacher who was willing to sponsor it, and needed the principal’s go-ahead.

“You know you’re asking me to open Pandora’s box here,” he said.

“I know,” I replied. “I remember the brouhaha over NC Star at Hardin Park. But we just can’t let those people block us from doing what’s right, and I think this is right!”

They had a day of silence, and formed their alliance!

Family Reunions
Ned’s family had been having a reunion on the first Sunday in August each year. All his grandfather’s descendants, the Sam Austin, Sr. family, would gather in the morning, have a huge potluck dinner and linger into the afternoon. Because it was Sunday, they’d begin with a worship service. This was followed by testimonials and lamentations from senior members of the family, which would suck out all the fun before we got to the food! Ned and I had gone, dutifully, every year, but when our children began showing up late or not at all, we didn’t force the issue. We’d go, then grin and bear it, but one year we’d had enough! We both snapped!

Our preacher cousin had droned on. “Our country is going to the dogs! They’ve taken God out of the schools!” Et cetera, etc. He finally wound down, and asked if anyone had anything they wanted to say. This was the usual call for lamentations and the gnashing of teeth, but Ned surprised everyone, including me, when he stood up and said, “I’ve got something to say! Every year we come here together and we grunt and complain! What fun is that? Our young people won’t come anymore. We get together and talk about how the country’s going downhill, and how sad it is that this one died, and how many have died. Well, EVERYONE dies! We’re ALL going to die! That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t enjoy life while we have it!”

Emboldened by his outburst, I rose.

“I have something to say, too! I’m tired of hearing how they’ve taken God out of the schools! You claim to believe that God is love. This family is full of teachers, and every one of us teachers loves the children we teach. It insults us to say they’ve taken God out of the schools! As long as there are teachers who love, nobody can do that!”

I guess we hurt some feelings, because there have been separate reunions ever since. The Sam Austin, Jr. family reunion broke apart from the George Austin branch, and doesn’t try to meet on a Sunday morning for a “worship” service. We have a lot more fun, swapping stories and cracking jokes. The descendants of each of the six sons and daughters of Sam and Minnie Austin take turns hosting the gathering, and each family determines the time and place.

I wanted my family to have a reunion. We fourteen cousins were more scattered than the Sam Austin family, so a week-long get-together every five years seemed more practical.

Once a year, Ted and his wife Elaine had been coming to Boone to spend a week at Smoketree, their time-share condominium. This is often occasion for a reunion. Our families have a great time in the mountains. Hiking, rock climbing, canoeing, zip-lining, rock mining, caving, sight-seeing–their week in June is a highlight of my year!

I began planning. My brother Ted helped me put together a family directory and I sent a query to find out which activities would interest the most people. After receiving the replies, I mailed a schedule to all the aunts and uncles, cousins and their sons and daughters:
Planning activities for this group was fun, because you all like everything! In the outdoors column, picnicking was tops, with swimming, canoeing and hiking close behind. The sport most enjoyed was volleyball, with softball second and tennis tied with soccer in third. Campfire was a popular choice. You all expressed interest in the ‘special attractions’ column. It included sight-seeing, art exhibits, plays, concerts, crafts fairs and shopping, and with these in mind we’ve planned the following:
Sunday night: Dinner at Makoto’s Japanese restaurant
Monday: Take a picnic lunch and go to Spruce Pine for the N.C. Mineral Museum, followed by gemstone mining (amethyst, quartz, citrines, etc.) at one of the local mines. Dinner at the Nu-Wray Inn, then to Burnsville Playhouse for a show.
Tuesday: Fresco tour in Jefferson. The fresco artist studied in Italy, then returned to paint frescoes in the U.S. Two small churches have frescoes of unforgettable beauty. This followed by dinner in Shatley Springs.
Wednesday: Canoeing on the New River, which is paradoxically the oldest river in either of the Americas, and is shallow, wild, and slow-moving. Picnic supper at New River State Park.
Thursday: On your own for shopping, sight-seeing. There’s plenty to do! Grandfather Mountain, Tweetsie Railroad, ‘Horn in the West’ are possibilities, or perhaps a drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway. We’ll give you maps, brochures and directions. We’ll be arranging to meet the weekend crowd.
Friday: Hang out and talk at Smoketree Lodge. Share family tales, memorabilia, crafts, etc. Board games after dinner (Monopoly, Clue, etc.)
Saturday: Trip to the Blowing Rock, the most famous scenic attraction in this area and still a bargain ($2 the last time I went!) Picnic lunch at Price Park, followed by volleyball. Airwalk for the little folks. Dinner at Western Steer. Campfire.
Sunday: Outdoor family worship service, followed by dinner at the Austin home.
I’ll need to settle some of these plans with firm numbers and make reservations with deposits of money, so let me hear from you soon if you haven’t yet confirmed your plans.
Please bring a photo (preferably a 3×5 head shot in color) of each member of the family. If you’re not coming, please send one. We’ll have a camera handy in case you forget–One Hour Photo to the rescue! Karen Jones Bodenhamer is making a family photo tree for display. We’d like photos of Uncle Bob, Aunt Evelyn & Uncle Mac, and Uncle Beau too, if possible.
Don’t forget to get those “bios” back to me–just a pithy pearl of a paragraph, please, to present the essence of you (ouch!).
Love, Bobbie

Pets are Funny
1. Leo and Bear
Leo is our somewhat dignified cat. Bear was an undignified Chihuahua puppy who pestered Leo to play. Most of the time Leo was tolerant, but not playful, and simply moved away. Once, however, Leo became annoyed. He hissed and snarled at Bear. Alarmed, Bear tried to high-tail it away, scooting along the floor just as Leo jumped to get away from him. Unfortunately, they both moved in the same direction. To the consternation of both, Leo landed on top of Bear and ended up riding him piggy-back across the room!

2. Smoke, Sunny and Sheba
Smoke was my dog–an Australian shepherd abandoned by some tenants who stole away from the trailer one night. He was a wonderful old dog, eager to please and easy to train.

Sunny was Genevieve’s dog–a fast-growing Lab. She saw when he was a puppy that he was going to be a big dog, so training him was a high priority.
Sheba was Fran’s dog, staying with me while Fran and family were settling into a new home. She was strong, young and active, maternal towards Sunny when he was a puppy, but not easy to train.

Genny enrolled Sunny in dog school and took him regularly. When she practiced the fundamentals with Sunny at home, she included Smoke and Sheba. Smoke learned quickly, but Sheba didn’t.

The three dogs got along well, until one day when I’d taken them with me on a walk up the mountain behind the house.
There’d been no question who was the alpha dog in the group, but Sunny was maturing, and decided to challenge Smoke. Smoke wasn’t about to relinquish his position, and there ensued a noisy altercation between the two. They were growling, snarling, barking, rearing up at each other.

“Sit!” I yelled, my hand raised in the sit command. “Sit!”
Both dogs settled down  and sat still, looking at me as they’d been trained. Sheba, however, had become excited,  jumping and running around.

“Sheba, sit!” I commanded.
She didn’t sit, but continued her hyperactivity.

“Sit!” I said again, to no avail.

Smoke looked at me, raised his paw and placed it on Sheba’s butt. He pushed her down into a sitting position. No question who was the Alpha!

Do the Math
When Ned’s health worsened, I moved his bed downstairs into what had been the dining room. We then had too much furniture in that room, so I donated a table and some chairs to Goodwill.

Several months later Laura and her two sons came to visit. They slept at the trailer, but I invited them to join us for lunch and hang out with us in the afternoon.
After I finished fixing lunch, I began setting up the table and chairs. There would be seven of us.

Four chairs were in the dining room. I looked for the rest and found two in the laundry room. I needed one more.

“What’s the matter?” asked Genny, seeing the puzzled look on my face.

“I can’t find another dining room chair. I used to have so many. I need seven and I can only find six.”

“Well, you donated some to Goodwill.”

“I know. But I had ten, and I only gave them four!’


Credo? Why?
Unitarian Universalists teach respect for all religions (Universalist) while insisting the Trinity is myth (Unitarian). It’s hard for me to put that together. In our congregation we have people from many backgrounds: Baptists, Catholics, Hindus, Buddhists, Wiccans, Jews, Pagans and Presbyterians to name a few. Our Sunday services make an effort to accommodate all, and at first it seemed to me, a Presbyterian turned Lutheran turned Quaker turned Hindu turned Baptist turned Unitarian, to be an enriching cultural experience. The more rituals I practiced, though, the more hypocritical I felt. Without belief, ritual is meaningless and I’m only pretending.

Yet I look around at the daffodils, the hyacinths, the mighty maple tree. I see the tiny wren and the soaring eagle, the gurgling brook and the majestic mountain. I hear the newborn babe and the laughing ten-year-old, feel the cool green grass under the intense blue sky, and I’m filled with wonder and awe. I make no attempt to explain it or explain away beliefs about the origins of it all. I just enjoy! Why is belief so important?

Aging and Dying
After about seventy years, all of us age and face the prospect of dying. Life is a cycle, and this is its natural ending. For some reason, our society has trouble accepting this and we go to great lengths to avoid life’s grand finale. This is puzzling to me, considering the widely-held belief in a wonderful afterlife.

Although I don’t share that belief, I accept that the end of my life is approaching and hope my family will be agreeable in accepting my often professed, sincere desire to die a natural death. I’ve no special wish to have them all present when this occurs, because I don’t wish to be burdened with the need to think of something wise to say for my last words! Rather, let them all gather after I die and share fond memories of the ups and downs of our time together. Let them forgive my lapses, forgive each other and accept that we are all flawed, but lovable. Let them sing and talk together. Let my final gift be music, hope and laughter!

Daisy Adams
Daisy Austin Adams died Sunday, June 8th, 2014. She was 97 years old. Called Mama Daisy by her family, Aunt Daisy by mine, she was Miss Daisy or Mrs. Adams to the community. To me, she was Daisy–just Daisy–my sister-in-law. I loved her.

After Ned died in 2007, I thought about moving in with her. She’d dismissed her caregiver, saying their personalities clashed, and her sons said she must have a live-in companion if she were to stay in her home. She was happy when I made the suggestion–“but let me think about it”, I said. “I have a lot to consider”.

Being caregiver to Ned was tough, and it’d been a long haul. It isn’t easy to see someone you love gradually fail in strength, requiring more and more help just to get through the day–and she was 91. I was 77 at the time. What if something happened on my watch? I might not be able to deal with it! I chickened out.
I felt guilty about it, but believe it was the right decision.

Who Started It?
When my children got into squabbles, I thought it was my job to intervene. I’d question them, find out how the fuss got started and have the ones who seemed to be at fault apologize. The apology would be accepted, hugs or handshakes exchanged and play resumed. My next-door neighbor, on the other hand, would simply let them take a break, offer ice cream or a cold drink to all and let it blow over.

When she didn’t question what happened, establish who was to blame, etc., I thought she was rewarding bad behavior. Sixty years later, I realize that she was right, and I was wrong, wrong, wrong! Who started an argument is not nearly so important as who keeps it going!

My sons and daughters are lovely people, kind and generous, helpful to others, free of prejudice and bigotry, BUT—they get entangled in pathetic feuds that start years before, and won’t let go for want of an apology! To apologize, it seems, is to say, “I started it. It’s my fault.” An apology, therefore, is usually followed by “but you (…whatever!)”, which is simply an invitation to resume the argument!

FORGET IT! No apology is needed, just move on! It’s over! Past! Doesn’t matter anymore! I’m 87 now, and don’t have the energy I used to. Sometime in the next decade or so I’ll be leaving, and my greatest wish for my future is to see my family enjoying healthy relationships with each other.

Bucket List
People in their 70’s and 80’s talk about their Bucket List—things they want to do before they “kick the bucket.” I don’t have a Bucket List. I’ve noticed that a lot of the items on the lists of eighty-somethings require assistance from some young person willing to help the oldster hang-glide or parachute in tandem. We all say hurrah for the oldster, and ignore the folks who helped. I think that’s just stupid! The woman who recently swam from Cuba to Florida in spite of many stings from jellyfish had plenty of people helping, accompanying her in boats which she could have climbed into, but she kept doggedly on (although that may be the wrong choice of an adverb; a dog would probably have had sense enough to climb into the boat) and at the end of her swim she said triumphantly through swollen lips, “Never, never, never give up!”

Why?! What do these adventurers accomplish by putting themselves and their potential rescuers at risk? Why do we admire them? I think they’re not only stupid but selfish.

I have no outlandish wishes for my final years. I always wanted to ride a roller coaster, but never did and don’t want to any more. The last time I rode a ferris wheel, with two of my grandchildren, I was nauseous for two hours after we came down—so riding a roller coaster became one of several things that I used to want to do. No more!

I’m very happy with the things I’ve done and the places I’ve seen—oh, my! The places I’ve seen!

I’ve never been to the Great Wall of China, but I spent two awesome days at the Grand Canyon. I didn’t visit Machu-Picchu, but I camped with my family at Mesa Verde. I’ve never been to the moon, but I felt like I was on another planet in the Painted Desert and the Great Salt Flats. I’ve never been to Iceland, but the geysers at Yellowstone are amazing. All of these wonders are in the United States, and what fantastic memories they are!

As for the “faraway places with strange sounding names,” my one trip out of the country took me to so many notable places: the Kremlin, Red Square, the Brandenburg Gate, the Cathedral of Notre Dame, the Ann Frank House, the old town of Cuenca in Spain.

I don’t have a Bucket List. I wanted to leave the world a little better than it was when I arrived, and joined many causes, attended conferences, marched in demonstrations. I rang doorbells, made phone calls, presided at meetings—for peace in Vietnam, civil rights, women’s rights, ecology; you name it and I was there. I can see a lot of progress. I love to see women and blacks doing interviews, reporting the news on TV. That’s a big step forward, but I’m happy to pass the torch.

“Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift”
~Eleanor Roosevelt

I’ve had a rich and rewarding life, and I’ve been a part of many exciting changes which I helped in my small way to accomplish. I think I leave the world a better place for my having been here, not only for what I’ve done but for the wonderful children, grandchildren, and great grands I leave behind.

Are we there yet? Wherever “there” is, the answer’s Yes! It’s always Yes! We’re there! The destination doesn’t matter!

Life’s a fascinating journey. Enjoy the ride!




Lessons I Learned as a Child—That I’ve Since Unlearned! (feel free to disagree!)

To eat all the food on my plate
To say “yes ma’am”, “no ma’am”, “yes sir” and “no sir”
3)  To refer to blacks first as colored people, then as Negroes
4)  To think of religion as good
5)  To think of homosexuality as bad, a “sin”
6)  Not ever, ever to masturbate
7)  To view interracial marriage as bad
8)  That I have to be saved from my sins, and only Jesus can save me
9)  To sacrifice everything for the ones I love
10) To “spare the rod and spoil the child”
11) That if you “raise a child in the way he should go, when he is old he will not         depart from it”

My revisions of the foregoing:
1)  Eat only what it takes to feel satisfied (not “full”), then stop. Let leftovers go to waste instead of to waist!
2)  People will ask you if you are from the South or were in the service if you address them as “ma’am” or “sir”. Use a simple yes” or “no”
3)  Keep abreast of changes in terms which are “correct” for the setting
4)  The Beatles said it best for me: “Imagine [a world with] no religion”. I think         nothing is as divisive as religion. All the major wars in history have had religion as one of the causative factors. Why?
5)  Homosexuality isn’t sinful, unhealthy nor unnatural, and it’s not a chosen         alternative lifestyle. A person is homosexual, bisexual or heterosexual by genetic disposition, and everyone is beautiful!
6)  What an odd taboo! Masturbation doesn’t hurt anyone (as Woody Allen says, it’s sex with someone you love). If it’s pleasurable—and it is—what’s so wrong about it?
7)  In God’s name, why?! The only thing that sometimes makes life difficult for an interracial couple (or a homosexual couple) is non-acceptance and persecution by society (which goes back to religion!)
8)  I can’t believe that a loving Creator put humans into a sinful world in which our only hope lies in our discovery and acceptance of a story that is known only to a small fraction of the world’s population.
9)  Contrary to the religious teachings, romantic songs and literary classics I grew up believing, I now believe in assertiveness, and will never be a doormat again.
10) There are better ways to teach children than to spank them.
11) Maybe he will, maybe not. Each chooses the road they’ll follow. Besides, who’s to say what’s “the way he should go”?
Mea Culpa
Finish each day and be done with it.
You have done what you could.
Some blunders and absurdities have crept in;
forget them as soon as you can.
Tomorrow is a new day
You shall begin it serenely
And with too high a spirit
To be encumbered with your old nonsense.
–Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’ve tried to embrace those words and live by them, but my chickens keep coming home to roost, messing up my serenity! I’m in my 80s now, and as I revisit my past, writing my memoirs, my blunders and absurdities stand out in my mind. It’s easy to address the episodes that caused problems for me alone, like my stupid encounter with the dean at Queens College.  Some of my blunders hurt others, though, and cause me to question my judgment.

Boys sometimes played rough–but was it playing, or fighting? Two eighth grade boys were shoving each other and one suddenly grabbed his crotch, howling. The other teacher on duty said, “Ooh! Big boys play rough!”, and I said, “Oh, he’s just putting on a show.” We ignored the altercation and the boys walked off together.

Should I have intervened? Many years later, two fifth-grade boys seemed to be “horsing around”, and one’s glasses got broken. They stopped playing. Things seemed okay, but the parents pressed charges. In the end, the father of the accused paid for new glasses and the charges were dropped. I’m glad it worked out, but cases like those still bother me.

I found cultural contrasts best symbolized by the types of food vendor carts found in various cities. In Columbia, South Carolina, a man sold boiled peanuts off his pushcart. In Manhattan the corners were graced by vendors of hot roasted chestnuts. On Capitol Hill in Denver street vendors sold tamales. Boone in 1952 was strictly a one-culture Appalachian mountain town, with the most available foods being liver mush and cornbread. Looking at Boone today, I’m impressed with its diversity. Within the town limits, one can dine on Italian, Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Thai and “good ol’ American style home cookin’. ”


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Born Days
I was onstage before I was born. My parents met in an outdoor drama, “Horn in the West”, and my father, as Daniel Boone, was the star of the show. When my mother, a singer, carried off a prop anvil carelessly left onstage after a scene change, my father knew she was the girl for him! They were married in October.
My first eighteen years are covered in the big hit movie, “Bozo’s Boy”, which hasn’t been produced. In the meantime, you’ll have to read the book.
My parents moved from North Carolina to New York that fall, to star in several hit Broadway shows, including “The Mikado”, “Kiss Me Kate”, “The Seven Year Itch”, and “Oklahoma!”. They didn’t star in any of them, though, and in June returned to “the Horn”, where the part of Three Week Old Baby was written in to take advantage of my talent. After the success of my inaugural season, we all moved to Colorado, where my father starred in several kiddie shows on TV until, as part of a negotiating strategy, he told the management to shove a plaster giraffe up their ass. They elected not to, and my father instead took a lucrative offer as Third Chair in Harold’s Barber Shop. He moved up quickly, nine years and five more kids later buying the shop and renaming it The Mayfair.
My youngest brother Sam, age eleven, made a movie for Disney, and when my father visited Disneyland, he found a Magic Kingdom. He decided the family should move, and we bought an equipment rental yard at 8770 Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. My father, my brother Rob and I drove out in June, then my father drove back to Denver. The rest of the family followed at summer’s end.
Everyone Comes to Hollywood
It was late August. They’d towed my 1930 Ford behind a U-Haul van, and my blue 1964 Falcon Futura behind the family’s yellow 1965 Ford station wagon. As my youngest brother sang, “A car and a van and a Model A, Going their westward way.” The caravan pulled into a little house at 8601 Barr Lane in Garden Grove, and I drove my own car to work instead of the company truck.
After a few months my parents bought a much bigger house in Granada Hills, at 17541 Minnehaha Street, from the performer Bo Diddley. It had a huge swimming pool, five bedrooms, a recording studio, wrap-around driveway, a fountain, a guest house which became mine and a couple utility buildings which brother Robin claimed, but we couldn’t move in for two months because of escrow complications. We crammed into the little house which my father had rented from his actor friend Burt Douglas, who had a regular gig on the soap opera All My Children.
My parents hadn’t wanted my brothers and sisters to start school in Orange County and then leave a few weeks later for Granada Hills, but it happened. Then as now, Orange County was right-wing politically, and we weren’t. I also didn’t like being surrounded by the city sprawl. Rob soon had a run-in with the cops, and my youngest brother and especially my three younger sisters didn’t comprehend or appreciate the minutiae of suburban Garden Grove teenybopper society. It was a relief when we left for the San Fernando Valley.
The Valley
I liked the Valley. Frank Zappa made fun of it, but it wasn’t enveloped by LA. I drove through the Hollywood Hills to get to work, over Benedict Canyon, Coldwater Canyon, Beverly Glen or Mulholland Drive, and on weekends could head for Topanga Canyon and its uncrowded beach.
I’d been tense and high-strung as a teen, an overachiever shoveled onto the genius track in school, but was starting to relax. I let my hair grow, made macramé headbands and then a floppy, colorful hat out of scraps. I wore bell-bottom jeans. I read a book called “Better Eyesight Without Glasses”, and quit wearing glasses. I started studying astrology in earnest. For the first time, I considered that maybe I didn’t want to immediately plunge into college. Maybe I should smell the flowers.
California life wasn’t without bumps. I had only one acquaintance. Jan was a year older, but so were all my classmates, as I’d been promoted in the first grade. She was at the University of Redlands, a hundred miles from LA, but a thousand from Denver. She knew a guy there who’d gone to George Washington High School for the same three years as I had, but when we met, we only vaguely recalled a few mutual acquaintances. It was the first time I realized just how big and anonymous the school had been.
Jan surprised us a month after we’d moved to Granada Hills. She brought her guitar, stayed overnight and went to the beach with me the next day. I had her phone number, and on Sundays when I was alone at the rental yard I’d call her after work. I had a list of topics on a crib sheet. When I ran out of stuff to say we’d sit silently for some minutes. I felt like a complete weirdo, but she was very patient. I visited her once in Redlands; we drove around, went a few places, held hands and cuddled a little, but kissing didn’t work. My parents thought we had a romance, but it wasn’t even close. She was way more experienced. I was 18, but might as well have been 12; I was the youngest and smallest in all my classes in school and had never had a girlfriend. She’d had many boyfriends, one for three or four years.
The First Helms Bakery Truck
That fall I saw a 1931 Model A truck pull into a gas station. I stopped and talked to the driver. He was a Model A mechanic, getting it ready to sell. I got his number, thinking he could work on my car.
Two days later, my mother was driving my Ford Falcon. She stopped for a light and was creamed in the rear by a fellow who didn’t switch lanes in time. The rusty water from the air conditioning unit beneath the dashboard sprayed everyone in the front seat with what appeared to be blood, but wasn’t. The rear end was crunched badly; the rear wheel well dented tight against the tire. The bumper was dragging the ground, the frame bent, the trunk lid permanently popped open. It was totaled, and suddenly I needed transportation. I called the fellow with the truck. He wanted $650 for the truck and a few extra parts; I bought it and had my second Model A.
It had an interesting history. Its chassis was one of four, custom-built by Ford in 1931, and its wheelbase extended to the length of a Double A truck. One had been wrecked many years before, so now I owned one of the three original Helms Bakery trucks left in the world.
The body was rough. The chassis sagged and the wheels had been slapped on from much later vehicles. I chained it between our family Lincoln and my now-wrecked Falcon, jacked up the saggy part and left it for a week.
When the chassis was straight, the body didn’t fit! Off came the cab, the fenders, the homemade pickup bed. For awhile I drove it with nothing more than a cowl, a windshield and two doors—not even a proper seat, just a cushion to sit on while I held tightly to the steering wheel. Dangerous, of course, but by summer’s end it was back together. I exchanged some parts from my other Model A and bought three 19-inch wheels for the front tires and spare. The steering gear, engineered for the skinny 19” tires, immediately appreciated the change. In the rear, I kept the fat tires, which looked good and improved traction.
I had to replace the horn/light switch, which on a Model A is located in the center of the steering wheel. A long sleeve goes to the base of the steering column; if it’s bent the lights can shut off in the middle of a turn. Now they’d recall it. In the ‘30s, you’d buy a new one, or live with it.
There are plenty of things you need to know before driving any old car–a friend of mine once made a list before loaning out his Volkswagen. It filled the front and half the back side of a sheet of paper–but driving a Model A was always an adventure.
To start it, you’d climb in the driver’s seat, reach behind the steering wheel, set the throttle on the left and the spark advance lever on the right, reach under the dashboard to the gas tank, flip the gas valve, reach to the far side of the passenger compartment, pull and twist the choke button to set the gas/air mixture, put the key in the ignition switch, flip it on, step on the clutch, slide the transmission into neutral, step on the starter button, fiddle with the choke, gas pedal and throttle until the engine caught, pull the spark advance lever down and fiddle with the choke a bit more, until it ran smoothly.
That was on a good day. On a bad day the engine wouldn’t start, and you’d have to troubleshoot. It wasn’t uncommon for the battery to be dead. Outside of the obvious reasons–the lights left on, the starter cranked until the juice ran out–there were several other possibilities, one of them particularly frustrating. There was a cut-out switch on of the generator to prevent overcharging the battery, but it could stick, and quickly drain the battery while the car was parked. The only way to know it was stuck would be to take a quick look at the ammeter on the dashboard as soon as the engine stopped; if the ammeter said “discharge”, you’d open the hood, give the cut-out switch a sharp whack and check it again.
There could be several other reasons for a dead battery, but with any of them it was time to pull out the hand crank.
It takes less power to run a Model A engine than to start it. If you can start it, it’ll run, unless the battery’s stone-dead and the generator fried. The brake light is dim, the horn won’t blow, and if you turn on the headlights everything shuts down, but if it’ll crank, it’ll run. Experienced Model A drivers kept the crank in a handy spot and tied a wire to the choke so as to be able to manipulate it from the front. You’d set the hand brake, put the transmission in neutral, set all your valves and levers, grab the crank and go out front.
The crank slipped into a special hole below the radiator. With the left hand you’d pull the wire attached to the choke, and with four fingers of the right hand wrapped around the crank–but NOT your thumb–pull up sharply. With luck it’d start on the second or third crank~rarely the first~but sometimes it’d take a lot more fiddling with the choke, spark advance, gas/air mixture and–particularly if you’d forgotten to push up the spark advance lever–it’d fire too soon in the stroke, and kick back forcefully (the reason not to wrap your thumb around the crank, as your forearm would jerk down and get a mean smack!). If none of this worked, you could jump start it by pulling up the floorboards and hooking up jumper cables, while remembering two things~that the Model A had a POSITIVE ground, and a 12-volt battery needed to be disconnected IMMEDIATELY when the engine caught, so as not to fry the Model A’s feeble 6-volt system. Another option was to push it, hop in, stuff the transmission into 2nd gear and pop the clutch. It was surprising how easily the truck started with one of these methods. I often went months at a time with a broken starter or weak generator.
In the fading summer of our second year in Hollywood I took the truck to the beach. There’s a beautiful 8mm film of my siblings and Jan with hair blowing in the breeze as they cruised down the freeway sprawled on the truck’s flat bed, unencumbered by seatbelts, seats, sideboards or any restraints at all, lounging on pillows and towels, hanging onto the cab or riding on the running boards through a beautiful California afternoon. We drove to the hippie town of Topanga and continued on to an uncrowded beach. The beaches in California tend to slope steeply into the ocean and the surf is more powerful than is found on the east coast, which makes it fun to crash through and body surf. It was a lovely day. I shook the sand out of my sneakers and into the cab of the truck, purposely planning to drive one day from coast to coast and mix the sand of the Pacific with that of the Atlantic. Forty years later, it’s got a couple hundred miles to go.
Becoming a Man
In October of 1971 I lost my virginity, sort of. As I was driving home from work after a long hot day I saw a hitchhiker. A girl! I picked her up. I asked where she was going. She said, “some private place”, as she grabbed and massaged my crotch. We drove to the nearest alley as she pulled off her panties and unzipped my jeans. She explained that she did this for money–but I told her that though I was eager enough, I only had two dollars and needed gas to get home. She smiled, gave me a goofy look and in a fake Brooklyn accent asked, “Yah gottah quaddah?”
Oh yes, I had a quarter. I fished it out, we started fumbling and HONKKK!!! Someone behind us. We moved to another alley. More fumbling. HONKKK!!! Someone in front. Moved the truck again, to a quieter spot. She climbed on top of me and we got started. HONKKK!!! Behind us again. I pulled up my pants, pulled down my shirt and drove on. I told her I couldn’t do this anymore. I was freaked out, a nervous wreck by habit, and the circumstances didn’t help. I dropped her off and drove home. When I took a shower that afternoon I tingled all over. For the first time, I’d touched a woman’s privates, felt her nipples rub my chest, slid my stiff part into her warm wet place. It was the first time any woman had, physically, grabbed me. My life, my attitudes, my confidence changed. I felt wonderful.
I was suddenly someone I hadn’t been before. I’d never been athletic in school; as the smallest and youngest, what was the point? I wore glasses and studied science because I was supposed to, because countless teachers, counselors and other adults had told me I was the smartest kid in the state. I wasn’t happy as the nerdy kid genius, though. I was depressed as hell.
I’d planned to take a year off before college, since I’d graduated at sixteen, but after a year all I knew was I didn’t want to wear a lab coat. I didn’t have a plan. I was floating–not drifting, as down a lazy river, but floating, as in face down in a pond. I couldn’t imagine college as anything but more pressure, distress, tension, heartache, despair, and avoided the decision. Avoided everything. I knew I wasn’t gonna be a rocket scientist, but not what or who I was.
I’d acquired a night job in the hippie part of town before we’d left Denver, and oodles of contacts. This had given me a cachet in my suburban neighborhood, but we’d left too soon for me to take advantage of it. Girls had started noticing me; cute girls would hear my name and exclaim, “YOU’RE Dave Austin? Oh, I’ve heard SO much about you but you’ve always been asleep or working or…”, and went on discussing my reputation, the celebrity status I didn’t know I’d achieved as a mysterious, unseen philosopher-astrologer-wizard.
I don’t know where, or if, I’d have gone to college after that summer, but it didn’t happen. We packed up and left for Hollywood.
Poverty Pete’s
After the second World War, Poverty Pete (whose real name was Norbert) started selling used cars on land next to the old trolley lines in an unincorporated part of Los Angeles County called “the Strip”. Like Sunset Strip, which was up the hill from Santa Monica Boulevard, the West Hollywood area was patrolled by the sheriff, not the police, and was known for being a bit wilder and looser than the rest of L.A.
Pete sold a lot of cars in postwar Los Angeles, but one day a contractor came by and asked if he could rent out his spare cement mixer from a corner of Pete’s lot. It rented out so often that Pete bought a couple for himself. He soon decided renting equipment was more profitable, and less hassle, than cars. Buy a used car, tune it up, change the oil, shampoo the upholstery, replace the tires, touch up the paint, check the brakes, and you’ll make money when it sells–days, weeks, or months later. Sharpen up a chainsaw, you’ll make twenty dollars two or three times a week. A hatchet and pick to go with it, a trailer to haul wood and a trailer hitch; you’ll make fifty, or a hundred.
It was shabby-looking. The railroad maintained a thirty-day lease option on the property, so there was no sense in building an expensive structure, but Poverty Pete’s had been there for twenty-five years. He printed humorous business cards, and dressed like a tramp. Our family bought it in 1971.
The office, a wooden shack with a leaky roof, was next to a fenced-in yard where our guard dog roamed. The grounds were full of trucks, trailers, cement mixers, compressors and whatnot, chained up or locked at night. Inside the building was a back room, a front counter and a storage area littered with drills, grinders, rollers, sanders, pumps, ladders, jack hammers and so forth, in various stages of repair. It had an excellent location, with a clear view of the HOLLYWOOD sign, and was doing well financially. Customers were often waiting when we arrived.
When we first moved, it was my father, my brother Rob and me. My father drank more than when mother was around, but we usually got along. Many of our disputes involved the best route to work. My father thought the straightest route the best. It involved a forty-mile stretch on the Santa Ana Freeway (Interstate 5), which was, and is, a parking lot. I preferred a more roundabout route of about 45 miles. My father, who never doubted that he was correct in all things, insisted my route would take at least fifteen minutes longer, and wouldn’t bother to try it. He bet me $10 one morning that I couldn’t make it to work in less than an hour, and lost when I answered the phone at precisely 7:30 am.
After a month, our father went back to Colorado to tie up loose ends, and for the summer it was just me, at 18, and my brother, 16, alone in California.
I now worked 69 hours a week at the rental yard, with about 14 hours travel time. Ten hours Monday through Saturday, nine on Sunday. My brother stayed home occasionally and met some of the neighbors, but I arrived home late, got up early and had to do all the driving. I left at 6:30 am and returned around 7 pm, unless I stopped for groceries, or any other reason.
For the first month or so, Pete’s son Hans showed us the ropes, and after that we hired a fellow who’d previously worked there, Les, who showed up from 9 to 5 on most weekdays. I put in ten hours every day, and couldn’t take off because my brother had no driver’s license. It mystified me why he never got a license, but it didn’t bother him.
This caused some real trouble later. Because he didn’t have a driver’s license, if anything needed doing, I left him home. Once or twice a week he’d wash the clothes, chlorinate the pool, take out the trash, mow the lawn. One day I came home and HE WASN’T THERE!
He wasn’t at any of the neighbors’ homes. I drove the nearby streets and alleys, finally calling my parents in Colorado. They hadn’t heard from him. He was MISSING!
As it turned out, it was one of those idiotic and deplorable stunts which gave California cops a bad name.
My brother had walked less than a mile to the pool supply store that July day but, foolishly, without shoes. He got the chemicals and started home, but stopped in the shade of a tree. A couple cops saw the long-haired hippie kid and decided to hassle him, making the ridiculous, false, lying, totally illegitimate and illegal assertion that “someone had reported him drunk”, at eleven in the morning.
My brother was fond of cramming his pockets full. He was wearing a cargo jacket and a special pocket vest, both crammed full. They had him pull out all his stuff, and one thing he pulled out was a small canister of tear gas. Totally legal in Colorado and every other state of the union. In California it was a felony.
Our father had originally bought it for him after he’d been robbed by a couple of delinquents in junior high school. The cops were sympathetic, but by this time they’d drawn a crowd, and felt they had to do something. After an hour piddling around, they took him in.
This was just the start. He was at the juvenile facility, and allowed to use the phone, but I was in West Hollywood, which was a long-distance call. As was a call home, half-a-mile away. Juvenile hall was served by AT&T, but our neighborhood by a little company called General Telephone, which operated in small pockets here and there–and a call from one system to the other was long-distance.
Because whatever call he would have made from a half-a-mile away, to anyone he knew, would’ve been long-distance, it was not allowed. Seven hours later, when I came home at 6 pm, nobody knew where he was.
Not even the cops. They didn’t have any record of an arrest. My parents called, from Colorado. They were told the same. At three or four in the morning, a cop knocked on my door, waking me up, and told me what had happened–but since I was 18 and not 21, I couldn’t pick him up. My parents had to call a friend they knew from Colorado, Jack Dorn, who now lived about fifty miles from us. He pretended he was an uncle, and signed Rob out.
That was that. None of us heard back from anyone. Perhaps the case was mis-filed, perhaps thrown away. Perhaps the cops decided to forget all about it. My parents were ready to sue, but didn’t.
The Business
After the family arrived that summer, we established a sensible schedule. Les worked 9-5, I worked Saturday through Tuesday and my father Wednesday through Saturday. Everyone but Les worked Saturdays, sometimes including my mother. My brother and I worked Sundays by ourselves.
Rentals are different from sales. With cars, the customer drives away and likely won’t be back. Rentals must be returned. We copied the driver’s license number, the make, model, color, and tag number of their car, compared their signature and picture to their license. For important information about using equipment we’d circle relevant parts of the contract or hand-write a short statement, then take a substantial deposit, to be returned when the equipment came back. Pete brought in the sheriff several times a year to file charges for “conversion”; the legal term is different from outright theft. Every month or two Pete spent a couple days in court futzing around with lawyers, which was required by the insurance company. Insurance, lawyer’s fees, and time spent in court were large draws on the finances.
My father had a different idea. Surveillance cameras weren’t available in 1971, but he got a gadget which took a simultaneous picture of each person, their signed contract and their ID. This one simple step changed everything. Losses through conversion went down to nearly nothing when everyone had to smile for the camera; the psychological impact was immense.
Pete carried a lot of professional, expensive tools, but we also added cheap ones. A high-quality jigsaw cost about $75 in 1972, and could be rented at $2 per day. We had about half-a-dozen, jigsaws being a popular item. It took a lot of rentals, an occasional trip to court and lots of insurance to break even on six jigsaws. There’d also be one or two torn apart at any given time, waiting on bearings or brushes. More expense, more time.
Black & Decker brought out a cheap jigsaw in 1971. It was the first in a long line of cheap tools and small appliances which transmogrified Black and Decker; from premium professional toolmakers they became vendors of can openers. We bought a couple $7 jigsaws out of curiosity, and found we could rent them out forty, fifty, eighty times before they died. There was no repairing bushings or brushes in these burned-out lumps, but they’d made us $80 to $160 on a $7 investment. We bought six or eight. We kept the quality jigsaws for contractors, but stocked up on cheap tools for the general public.
Movie Stars
Lots of movie stars rent tools. The unemployment rate for Screen Actors Guild members at any given time is 95%, so many big-name stars drive old cars and do their own household work. Some want to save money, some simply enjoy it. Richard Chamberlain rented equipment occasionally, and once kissed my mother’s hand (she didn’t wash the spot for a week!). Darren McGavin rented sanders, saws, drills or paint guns regularly. Dick Clark, Alejandro Rey, Jack Cassidy rented tools. Davy Jones rented a wallpaper steamer. I noticed he was driving an Austin car! I started to pull out my driver’s license to show him my name, David Jones Austin, but before I’d even pulled it out he exclaimed, “Oh, YOU’RE one TOO! There’s THOUSANDS of us!!”
Jayne Mansfield had an account when she and her husband were building their “Pink Palace”, and Mickey Hargitay and his brother Eddy still came in regularly. It was always an adventure with Eddy; he’d only recently come from Hungary and his command of English was questionable. The nearest rental yard to us was a couple miles down the boulevard, and one day they had some tool that we didn’t. I told Eddy the address, “4969”, and he wrote down “3868”. I stopped him and wrote the address myself–then thought about it, and wrote down the name of the tool as well!
My father was in his element. He loved talking shop with actors, hobnobbing, making connections. He got a part in a movie; he and a tall black fellow were hired as extras in a crowd scene and he immediately told the black guy he’d get them into the movie. Through numerous takes, he did outrageous things; knocking over barriers, walking into people, waving his hands excitedly as he talked with his new buddy, and in each take the director would call forward this person, that one and that one. My father snagged a speaking part, which unfortunately ended up on the cutting room floor, but he’s still, now and for all time, the fellow directly behind Woody Allen as Woody walks with the tall, loopy Shelley Duvall in his classic, “Annie Hall”. Later, Woody and Diane Keaton lunch in a restaurant, three blocks from Pete’s Rental. At the exact moment when Woody asks Diane if they should get married, a truck drives by, towing a red jackhammer compressor. I hitched that compressor to that truck! My claim to cinematic immortality!
When we were growing up, my youngest brother Sam skated through the fights Rob and I got into with our father. He’d get drunk and yell at me when I was around, at Rob when I wasn’t. Sam acted in plays, made 8mm movies with our three younger sisters, practiced the piano. I liked the piano, but when I’d plunk out a few notes, Sam would run in and take over. My parents let him, “reminding” me, as “the smart one”, that I had “homework.” Now, we were all putting together a family band, including me!
The Troubadour
I took up drums, and did very well. My brother Rob played guitar, Sam piano, and our sisters danced and sang. We hired a choreographer who’d worked with several Hollywood stars, from Gene Kelly to the Jackson Five, and a music arranger. We rehearsed every night. We did well in Hollywood, our greatest triumph being the Troubadour, a music hall in West Hollywood.
The Troubadour had a talent night each Monday, featuring a dozen bands. The best three from each week came back at the end of the month. We were one of them. The best band for the month was then invited to perform at the end of the year. It was us! We were one of the best dozen bands of the year!
There was a problem, though. After the first show, a fellow came up to me and told me I was FANTASTIC! My brother had suddenly slowed the beat in the middle of a song, but somehow I’d picked it up. My fan enthusiastically told me how GREAT I was to INSTANTLY pick up the new beat, that he’d NEVER HEARD a drummer do THAT!—but I didn’t get the chance to respond. My father, standing beside me, jumped between us, grabbed him around the shoulder and physically shoved him along, saying yes, he’s a good drummer, but—, and shooting me dirty looks while my fan tried several times to tell me how great I was, talking over his shoulder, praising me. My father stole my fan. My one and only fan.
I felt like I had ashes in my mouth. I was empty. Spent. I played the end-of-month show, but then left the band. It was many years before I realized that my feelings had nothing to do with performing. My father stood in my way; I don’t know why. He didn’t come to my school plays, and made sure I didn’t act in any productions with anyone else in the family, though they’d done dozens together, including “A Christmas Carol”, with all seven of them, for five years running. It was a very strange kind of jealousy.
I always tried to be the most dedicated and capable artist in any job. At school, when bagging groceries or running a cash register, playing drums, I tried to be the best–but within the politics of the family band, I was nothing. Nothing. By my father’s lights, Sam and the girls were the stars. Rob wrote a few songs, but I was just the drummer. Replaceable. Disposable.
For the year end performance, Rob brought in a couple friends. I was too depressed to play drums any more; I spent my off-time riding a unicycle and juggling, vaguely planning to join a circus.
Granada Hills
For whatever reason, the girls who found me attractive were either older or younger. The older sisters of my friends liked me, and the friends of my younger siblings.
The first young, pretty woman who took more than an academic interest in me was my high school sociology teacher, named Judy. I’d been writing with my left hand in a bid to improve my dexterity, and she had a hard time reading it. I was delighted to come in after school and read to her. We’d discuss life, school, dating and such in a relaxed, candid, humorous way. Nothing remotely improper took place, but to an undersized, geeky kid of fourteen, these flirty conversations with a beautiful gal of 23 were an epiphany.
In California, I went to a party and met the cousin of my brother’s classmate Mindy. Her name was also Judy, and she was also nine years older. She’d been a nun, but had recently married and was about five months pregnant. We talked philosophy and astrology, and she found me fascinating.
It was a small Halloween party; Mindy, Joni, Judy, my brother, a couple other folks and I, and we had some beer and wine coolers. Joni was wearing a Wonder Woman costume and announced to all that it’d be pretty well impossible to grope her in it. I bet her that I could, and she sat on the arm of the couch, inviting me to try. I spiraled a finger inside her shiny leotard, up and over the flesh-tone panty hose, inside her frilly pink panties and fumbled around until I found her warm wet spot. Joni scooted off, but Judy, who’d been watching, quickly took her place. We had a short conversation, and she was much more forward with me than any girl I’d known. After a chat, she pulled me into her bedroom.
Her breasts were full and round, her nipples dark and large. Mindy opened the door to use the spare bathroom, but Judy shooed her off. I wasted no time. 
I was on top of her, and in her, which for me was still unfamiliar territory. She had a little bit of a belly, which I didn’t mind, but she turned pensive and said we shouldn’t be doing it. I wasn’t thinking anything at all, but tried to reassure her, and didn’t phrase it well. She thought I was okay with her because she couldn’t get pregnant again, which wasn’t at all what I wanted to say. The mood was gone; we pulled on our clothes and rejoined the party. We were fine, but after the party broke up I never saw Judy again.
I talked with Mindy a couple days later. I told her I was drunk, and she said Judy was too. We had a nice conversation and she came over. I told her I liked the blouse she had on, which had a little peep-hole in the cleavage. Things heated up. We stripped down and did it, two or three times. She was a little nervous, and I was too, but we were both exuberant and happy nonetheless to be naked together, doing it. I really appreciated my separate little guest house. Mindy and I talked and pranced around naked. Nobody bothered us.
Finally and joyously, I was indisputably not a virgin. It was late 1972, autumn in the San Fernando Valley. It was soon winter, when a few sparkles in the air was a snowstorm, talked about for weeks. In December I met my first real girlfriend. Tumbling around with Joni, Judy and Mindy was nice, but outside of a desire to party we didn’t have much to talk about. I liked them, but we didn’t have that indefinable spark.
My brother knew another girl, named Liz. I was 19, she 16. She was something different! Both our fathers had been in Germany in the second World War–mine American, hers German. She wore glasses. I told her I did too, until a few months before. We talked about eye exercises, astrology, a number of things. I told her I didn’t wear leather and was a vegetarian, and she surprised me by telling me she had been, too. Late in the afternoon I kissed her, a luscious, wonderful, amazing , electric kiss! I had a girlfriend, an actual girlfriend! The next time I saw her, three or four days later, she was vegetarian and had quit wearing glasses and leather. I saw her often after that; we’d kiss, make out, grope each other, but that was as far as we got. I had to leave California.
It was unfortunate, but the rental yard was built on land leased from the railroad company, and the lease had been cancelled.
A Fortune Teller
A couple months earlier. A slow Sunday in the early autumn. In the parking lot behind us, there was a flea market going on, and a dark eyed, gorgeous gypsy girl had a card table and was telling fortunes. She told me a few generalized things–that a situation I was in with a blonde-haired older girl would be resolved, that my life would be unsettled for a few years and that I’d do a lot of traveling. I pressed her for details about the blonde and she, wisely, declined to say much–but then started in a direction I hadn’t expected. She saw me across the sea in a year and a half or two years, possibly Hawaii, on a ship named after an Indian princess, something almost, but not quite, Pocahontas. It seemed a fantasy to me, but a pleasant one. I was intrigued. I asked her if she’d be back. She wasn’t sure, but said I’d definitely see her again. I gave her all my pocket change plus a dollar, and went on with my life.
I didn’t think much about it that balmy day in 1972. I was a California hippie, a drummer in a pretty good band, with a job in which I was learning how to use about every tool on the planet. I was strong for the first time in my life, stronger than most. I was healthy, and didn’t wear glasses. I was a sun-bleached blonde with a great tan, attracting female attention. Why would I want to change?
But life does change. Shortly afterwards, the railroad called in our lease and we had 30 days to leave. It wasn’t exactly a surprise; still, Pete’s had been there for over twenty-five years on that 30-day lease.
My parents looked around town and found a lot on Venice Boulevard in West Covina which seemed promising. It was cluttered with junk, and a small office building on one side had termite damage. They signed a lease and went to work. They hauled off the junk, put in a fence, called an exterminator and began moving equipment. Signs and flyers advertised the new location. They waited–and waited. Almost nobody came.

At about this time word came from North Carolina that our family had inherited the Austin home place, an old house plus 33 acres. The way forward was clear. My parents and family decided to move to Watauga County, just outside Boone. We sold the tools and equipment, and the rental yard was gone.

Hit The Road, Hippie!
With no means of support, few acquaintances in California and no desire to move to Boone, I decided to return to Colorado while Liz finished high school. We had a yard sale; I sold my four-door Model A and my wrecked 1964 Futura. I packed my TV, a Lambretta scooter and the rest of my stuff on my 42-year-old truck, said a tearful goodbye to Liz, promised to write and left California on the last Friday in January. A couple hundred miles down the road, I discovered my father had stolen my toolbox.

I don’t know why. He had his own tools. He knew those were mine, but stole them, from the cab of my truck, before I left. Spitefulness? Petty jealousy? Pure ugliness? Beats me. He was a piece of work.
So, I drove north to Lancaster and started east. The highway patrol stopped me; my plates were wrong for me to haul stuff. He contended that it was a commercial activity, I’d need commercial registration, etc. etc., but as it was my stuff and I was leaving the state he let me go. I drove through the night into Arizona, pulled over by the roadside and got a few hours’ sleep, but discovered I couldn’t start the truck in the morning. I knew the problem–the engine was out of adjustment for the change in altitude–but I had no tools to work on it, save a vise grips, a pair of pliers and a single large screwdriver. My father had stolen the rest. An Arizona cop came by, we talked a bit about the truck and he gave me a push. It started, and I resolved to park it on a hill afterwards. I stopped for breakfast at a Denny’s restaurant in Flagstaff, just at sunrise. I spent a long time in the parking lot, watching the colors change from indigo through magenta and pink and red and yellow, with shades of blue and orange and green filling the mountains and valleys, and thought seriously about staying right there. With $300 in my pocket, I could’ve rented a place, found a job, fixed my truck and stayed there. I thought for a long time, but I’d planned to go to Denver and get an apartment with my best friend, so that’s what I did. What would’ve happened if I’d stayed in Flagstaff, that 29th of January in 1973, is one of my personal great unknowns.
I spent the rest of the day as an Arizona tourist, seeing the places my father’d always breezed past at seventy miles an hour–the Grand Canyon, Painted Desert, Petrified Forest. I chatted in the tourist shops, gabbed with the few folks poking around in January. The truck wasn’t hard to start when it was warm, though I had to use the hand crank. I made New Mexico late that night, and pulled off at the top of an entrance ramp. It was a very cold night indeed. I woke up, freezing, and tried to start the truck so as to produce a little heat–there wasn’t a heater in the cab, but a little residual heat would seep through the floorboards. I couldn’t get it started, so I stamped around and shivered and napped fitfully. At dawn I rolled down the ramp and the truck started, but a few miles down the road the right front fender, which had been flapping in the breeze, tore off. While I picked it up the engine died, and wouldn’t start. A cop called in a tow truck from about twelve miles down the road. I borrowed a couple tools and got it running. The guys in the gas station all wanted to talk about my 1931 A-model truck and while chatting one remarked that they’d like to have a TV in the place. I gave them my TV in exchange for the tow bill, as another fellow pulled up. Dan turned out to be a Bizarro-world reflection of me, a curly-haired blonde hippie, also 19, whose name started with “D”, in a 1949 Dodge truck with starter trouble. It occurred to me that “1949” and “1931” added up the same, numerologically; in fact 4+9=13, the reflection of 31, and “DODGE” added up the same as “FORD A”. We were going in opposite directions, driving the same route (the only sane route to take in January) to destinations an hour or so north of the other’s starting point. Both of us were leaving a city we’d lived in for a couple years for a smaller one where we’d grown up–he was moving from Colorado Springs to Lancaster and I was leaving Los Angeles for Denver. We were both leaving our families and planning to stay with friends. Both our trucks had starter trouble, and both of us had small motorcycles on the back. We were the oldest in our families, had younger brothers named Rob, and had left on the same day. He had a friend a few miles away in Santa Fe, so I gave him a ride. We drove around Santa Fe until his friend showed up, then had a cup of coffee and I left. Santa Fe had a confused set of signs for Route 66, and in trying to follow the highway I went in a circle, just as he and his friend came out of the coffee shop. I said hi and asked directions, and as I started off again, my fender fell off the back. I circled around, and we loaded it on the bed.
As we loaded my fender on the truck, Dan gave me a gram of hash. I took a toke towards sunset and on the open road in the twilight I flew along, at 55 miles per hour, reading notes in the patterns of the trees on the mountainsides. The trees asked me what I was going to do when I got to Denver, and such.
I continued into southern Colorado that night and again parked on an entrance ramp. At sunrise the engine, again, wouldn’t crank. Another cop drove up. I told him what was happening, but he did nothing. There was a little bump where I’d parked, and with the extra weight in the back, I couldn’t budge it.
Fortunately, a fellow in a truck came by, showed me pictures of his own Model A and gave me a shove. The engine fired and I drove the rest of the way to Denver, reaching my friend Monk’s house late that afternoon. It was the last day of January, and very cold. I slept on his couch that night.
About noon the next day, I got the truck started and drove to the local Model A shop, where they helped me set the timing and adjust the carburetor to the Denver altitude. Monk got me a job cleaning up at the Air Force base, starting the next Monday. We drove to work together and during our time off mostly discussed religion.
Monk Becomes a Monk
Monk had been chanting Hare Krishna, while I went to the temple on Sundays, ate the food and argued with devotees. They could never understand why I didn’t want to join them. I was a vegetarian, knew as much about Eastern philosophies and religions as any of them, but was stuck on one small point of doctrine—that we were all FINITE grains of sand in an infinite ocean. Every week one of the devotees would argue with me, but I’d simply say the sand grains have to be infinite for the ocean to be infinite. A larger and larger pile of sand is still a finite pile of sand. To find infinity, you start with infinity. If you cut infinity into sand grains, each grain is infinite–but the devotees never saw.
Monk and I saved up our pay that February and looked for an apartment. We checked a couple of places–one was in the wrong neighborhood, another was offered by a fellow who wanted repairs in exchange for a low rent, but when we fixed it up, he said our rent would go up–not much of a deal. We found an apartment in a building called the Cavendish a few blocks from downtown, on Pearl Street. It was around the corner from the Molly Brown house; the “unsinkable” Molly Brown, who’d survived the Titanic. We rented an efficiency apartment, rolled in an extra bed and planned to get a larger place the next month. I moved in on Sunday.
Monk planned a Monday move, but at the temple that night he chose to become a devotee.
Well, I was in the apartment, but without Monk’s half of the rent I had $1.36 to last until payday. I bought some dried lentils, split peas, rice and had enough left over for a 5¢ pack of unsweetened Kool-Aid. For the next week I ate lentils, lentils with split peas, rice, lentils with rice and split peas, rice with lentils or split peas with rice, all washed down with water or vaguely tart, pinkish Kool-Aid. I was happy beyond words when on Friday I had money to buy a few groceries. I bought bread, apple juice, mayonnaise, mustard, tomato, lettuce, cheese, avocado, etc. and ate real sandwiches. I came to love cold lentils, tomato, lettuce, mayo and brown mustard on wheat bread.
One Friday night after work I visited a co-worker at his apartment, we had a couple beers and smoked some grass, as we called it. An hour or two later I left for home. It was about midnight, but I stopped by a grocery store I thought might be open. It wasn’t, so I drove through the parking lot and made a left turn onto Colfax Avenue.
Unfortunately, Colfax Avenue was divided–two lanes one way, then a cement divider and two lanes on the other side. I discovered, too late, that I was driving in the left lane on the wrong side. A car blasted its horn. Next chance, half a block later, I made a left turn–the quickest way home. I was rattled, and ran the stop sign at the next intersection.
There was a cop waiting on the other side, lights off. He flipped on his flashing red-and-whites. I spun the steering wheel, hard right, into the nearest driveway, an apartment complex parking lot, and parked in the first open space. I shut off my lights and sprinted into the shadows as the cop cruised slowly by. I kept walking; my intent was to come back in twenty minutes. I strolled over to Colfax Avenue. A fellow in a Dodge stopped, asked for directions and offered me a ride. I hopped in and told him my story. He was new in town, and thought I might know some after-hours club where we could grab some drinks and talk to women. I didn’t know any such places; I was under 21 and only knew 3.2 beer joints. He handed me a beer. We drove a few miles out of town, then back again. He had some grass mixed with hash in a briar pipe, and by the time he dropped me off I was flying high. He let me off and I walked around looking for my truck, but I didn’t know exactly where it was. I couldn’t call my friend; I didn’t know his phone number, nor his exact address. I walked the several miles home, and couldn’t get in touch until Monday. I took the bus the next day, walked around an hour or two but couldn’t find my truck, so went back to the apartment and watched TV the rest of the weekend. On Monday night we looked for the truck, but it was dark and we arranged to look again in the daylight. On Tuesday we drove around for a half-hour and finally pulled into a little side-street which turned out to be a dead end. My friend, exasperated, turned around, and in the parking lot, several spaces down, out peeked the cab of my truck! It’d been lost for 3-1/2 days!
After a couple months I was tired of cleaning up at the Air Force base. I was off work too late to have a social life, my best friend was a monk and spring was in the air. One day when I was shopping I met a fellow in the hardware store. He seemed like a nice guy and offered me a job landscaping. I gave my notice at the base.
Lambert Landscaping was based in north Denver, where lots of new houses were going up. He paid better than I’d made on the cleanup crew, but I soon found that landscaping was weather dependent, and sometimes any-other-thing dependent. Some mornings I’d go to work, some mornings not. At first I worked every day, and even regularly picked up a certain hitch-hiker who’d give me whatever cigarettes he had left in his pack. I’d quit smoking a couple years before, but started again on my arrival in Colorado—only if someone offered me a cigarette. I quit, yet again, a month or so later.
My Neighbor
On my days off I’d tune into the Watergate hearings then going on. Late in the afternoon I’d go out, and one day the gal from the next apartment was sitting on the porch. She said hello, and I visited her that afternoon. Shirley was five years older, divorced and far more experienced than I. She worked, she told me, as a party girl in a nearby bar, talking to men and getting them to buy her drinks, which the bar served to her alcohol-free. This satisfied my nonexistent curiosity about what a “party girl” was, then she and I and Donna from across the hall watched TV for awhile. Shirley made everyone sandwiches, then Donna left.
It was a small apartment, and Shirley and I had lounged on the bed while her friend sat on the couch. After Donna left, Shirley hiked her skirt above her panties and suggested I come closer. She planted a big open-mouthed kiss on me, unsnapped my cut-off jeans and pulled them down. I was instantly excited as they dropped to the floor. I hadn’t worn underwear–a hippie thing–and pulled off her panties as she wiggled her dress over her head. She had small breasts and didn’t need a bra, though nobody wore one at that time anyway. She was wet, I was stiff. We didn’t take long. We lounged around awhile, then she rose and got a damp towel. She did a few housekeeping chores as I watched her move, naked, then she brought me a cold drink. We watched TV, and did it again. She had to go to work, so we shared another wet kiss and I left for my apartment.
When I kissed her I knew she smoked, but she denied it and said the cigarettes on her windowsill were left by a friend. I saw her every day that week, and next I kissed her, I knew she’d quit. I really liked Shirley. I sewed her clothes, drew up astrology charts, walked around the neighborhood and went to lunch with her, but when she started talking about love I told her, gently, sweetly, honestly as I could that no, I didn’t love her, that I wasn’t sure what I felt. She was kind and caring, and I really liked her, but I wasn’t sure. That was good enough for her. She kissed me and with great enthusiasm replied that she really liked me, too. Through the fall, I’d see her a few times a week; sometimes we’d go to lunch. Sometimes, when she had a male visitor, she’d turn me away. I didn’t mind; I’d visit later.
Donna would often be at Shirley’s. I wasn’t particularly attracted to Donna, but liked her well enough. We’d tell stories, including our sexual adventures. Donna told me about a boyfriend who liked to jerk off on her boobies, and Shirley in a roundabout way suggested a three-way, but I was way too dense and naive to understand. It simply sounded strange. Never happened. I wasn’t ready.
At least for a few years.
The summer continued. I worked when I could, and followed the Watergate hearings. I’d been writing to Liz in California; she sent a few letters, but not nearly as many as I’d hoped. Despite my domestic arrangement, my heart still belonged to Liz, or would’ve, had I not left. We were both inexperienced. Love was a great unknown.
I was finding things about my employer in the meantime. He seemed a nice guy, but had a temper. We worked sometimes with two of his young sons, and he’d rage at them, mercilessly. His name was Bob, his older son Bobby. Bobby was twelve, and when he’d rake dirt or roll sod Bob would hound him, screaming at him to work faster, faster, faster–though Bobby was going as fast as he could. Eventually Bob would punch Bobby in the shoulder, hard. The younger son was named Billy, and Billy got his share of screaming too, though not as many punches. Bob’s wife stayed at home with their other four kids, harried, not happy. Bob had been to prison years before, but I never found out why. He was 37, but looked middle-aged. He smoked too much, had a pot belly, was graying and balding and the way he raged I was sure he was headed for a heart attack.
In modern terms, he abused those boys. It wasn’t unusual. He was going to beat up on his boys until they were big enough to fight back, which I’m sure they did. I took Bobby aside one day and told him that quite soon he was going to be bigger and stronger than his dad. One day Bobby was going to get smacked around once too often, and beat the crap out of his dad. Bobby looked at me with the gratitude that only a beaten-down 12-year-old can have towards a 19-year-old who tells him he’ll turn out all right. I knew I was his hero. I’d changed his life.
Lambert Landscaping was a poorly organized company. There was a fellow from Casper, Wyoming I’d pick up in the morning, but sometimes we’d wait on Bob til noon. One day we went to Bob’s house and Bob wasn’t there at all. After waiting a half-hour I hot-wired his ’49 Chevy truck and we finished a job. Bob was happy with our initiative, and asked me how to hot-wire a truck!
Towards summer’s end I wasn’t working enough to pay the rent, nor was I being paid consistently. I had to do something.
My brother had visited California that summer. He went to the old neighborhood for a few weeks, then rode the bus back through Denver. Liz came with him. It was lovely to see her again; she stayed a week, and we explored the town together. We slept together, while my brother stayed with a friend.
I was out of money, so Rob and I decided to drive to North Carolina together. He cashed in his bus ticket, Liz went back to California, and my brother and I started East.
Neither of us wanted to drive straight through. Our father always had, and we were heartily sick of that habit. We set a course which took us through several states we’d never seen–from Colorado to Nebraska, south through Kansas to Oklahoma, through Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee. We wanted adventure. We attracted attention; everyone had a story or a question about a Model A. In Nebraska a cop told us about the road and towns ahead; in Oklahoma we stopped to read the map in the headlights (there wasn’t a light in the cab) and a couple cops pulled up to chat and help us out. I was accustomed to this; I’d been driving a Model A for three years. It was new for Rob, who’d previously had nothing but bad experiences with cops.
We had a little trouble in Arkansas. The generator gave out in the middle of the night. The lights dimmed, and I started moving slower. I passed an exit where there appeared to be nothing and went to the next, where I was pulled over by the flashing red-and-yellow lights of an Arkansas state trooper. I shut off the headlights but left the engine running, as I explained to the trooper that I wasn’t going the minimum 55 mph then required on the freeway (MINIMUM, not MAXIMUM), due to electrical problems, that I couldn’t shut off the engine because it probably wouldn’t start again; that I pulled off at this exit instead of the last one because I saw a building there. He wasn’t happy, but let me go, and my brother and I pulled into the parking lot of a factory, where we dozed off. In the morning I pulled the generator. One of the workers said he had a Model A generator at home, so after lunch he sold it to us for $10. I put my “new” generator in the truck, and while Rob drove I fiddled with the old one. The new generator was charging erratically, and after an hour or two it quit. I put the old generator back in. It worked fine as I cleaned up the “new” generator, adjusted the brushes, put it back together—then my “old” one quit. I swapped them out again, and a couple hours later, I’d finally did some major surgery on the old generator, pulling a wire a full turn off the fields, scraping the end bare and wrapping it around an exterior screw. When I switched the generators for the fourth time, the original worked! It was fine for the rest of the trip, and for a long time afterwards.
The $10 generator, and a trip to the parts store, had put a kink in our piggy bank. We bought a large bag of peanuts and a gallon of apple juice, then reserved the rest for gas. From that point on we drove straight through. I drove while he slept; he drove while I slept.
The tailpipe/muffler to a Model A is one piece, which attaches to the manifold on the passenger side. If you have to turn around at some point and find yourself bouncing through a ditch that’s a little deeper than it looks, as we did a couple hundred miles from our goal, the tailpipe can get caught on an obstruction and bend the connection to the manifold. Since the floorboards are just that, boards, it’s drafty, and the exhaust gases can drift through. I took some metal tape I’d bought to use on the generator and (serendipity!) wrapped it over the connection, but the air in the cab was still polluted, even with both windows rolled down. I periodically woke my brother to make sure he was OK, and he did the same for me. We arrived in Boone, NC in the early morning and went to a friend’s for showers. Jerry’s apartment was in a long, low building near downtown Boone, and supplied by a well. It had the charming habit of running out, not of HOT water, but of COLD. Rob took his shower, but while I showering the water suddenly turned scalding hot. I slammed it off and jumped out, covered in shampoo. I had to wait half an hour, covered in suds and goo, then barely finished before the water went hot again. A year later the landlord discovered the entire complex was made of wormy chestnut, and was worth ten times as much if he tore the apartments down, so he did.
Rob and I climbed back into the truck and started the 3 miles home, but before we’d gotten halfway, the truck quit and coasted down the hill, out of gas. With our last bit of momentum we pulled into a gas station. I had a penny and he had a quarter. We started to pump the last of our pocket change into the tank when our aunt, uncle and cousins pulled out of the motel across the street. They’d been visiting for the weekend and were leaving for South Carolina, but saw us at the last second. My uncle filled the tank and we all went back to visit for another day. It was supposed to be a surprise that I was coming back, but my father had let the cat out of the bag and all my aunts and cousins were at the house to greet us. He never knew how to keep a secret.
On the Farm
I unloaded the truck and packed my stuff into the little bedroom upstairs where my brother had stayed with his friend Arthur. Arthur’s parents had split and he’d come to North Carolina to live with my family for six months. For summer vacation he and Rob visited the old neighborhood in California. Arthur stayed.
The old farmhouse had seen better days. It’d been unoccupied for a long time after my grandmother had left to live with my aunt in town, and patched up for some summer renters, but when my parents arrived in January of 1973 it was barely habitable. Snow blew through cracks in the walls and the old oil heater in the living room barely kept one person warm—if that person were sitting on top of it, wrapped in a blanket. The floor had rotted through in several places, including the bathroom, and had been patched with pieces of plywood. Our winter routine was to sleep in long johns, run to the kitchen, make coffee and breakfast and take turns sitting on the heater. My father put a television aerial way up on the mountain, but the signals for the two or three stations available were so weak and snowy it wasn’t worth the trouble. Everyone listened to the local radio station, and little else. The radio station had only recently become legal–for decades, WATA had operated from the middle of downtown Boone with no license at all.
It was a huge change for me to arrive that September to a town of three or four thousand inhabitants. Most of them had never been more than a few hundred miles from home. I’d lived in cities of a million plus, but here the “night life” was a single restaurant which closed at 9:30, and didn’t serve beer. Blowing Rock, eight miles away, had a half-dozen beer-and-wine bars and a single ABC store, which sold liquor. They’d held a referendum on alcohol sales a few years before, which had been scheduled for February in hopes that the summer residents, who mostly supported alcohol sales, would be out of town. Enough of them, though, came back to vote. Beer in the package stores was sold warm, though, on the apparent theory that nobody would down a warm beer while driving.
I didn’t know many folks in town. I had lots of family, and my siblings’ friends knew me as the older brother, but I knew none of them. I’d be introduced to to a complete stranger and they’d tell me they were my third cousin from this or that branch of the family, whose uncle had married my grandmother’s brother’s daughter, none of whose names I recognized. I’d drive to the bars and meet girls, but hadn’t been to anywhere they knew, nor what many of their favorite activities were, and often could hardly understand what they said. I asked a cute girl one night where she was from. She said “Washington”, and I asked her, “D.C. or the state?” It seemed a normal question, but she practically curled into a ball and replied, “Washington, North Carolina”, in a way which made me want to pull my foot out of my mouth with pliers. I’d never heard of Washington, North Carolina–or “the first Washington”, as they proudly call it. I had no idea where it was, nor any of the towns she knew around the state. She felt like a total hick talking to me, and there was little I could do to change it.
I wasn’t up on local lore, had little in common with anyone, didn’t look, dress, talk or act like a local, and couldn’t find a job. I spent most of my time fixing up the old farmhouse and reading books. I moved out of the claustrophobic bedroom I shared with my brother–the first time since I was a toddler that I’d shared a room–and into an even tinier camper, propped up on blocks in the driveway–cramped, but mine.

I did make a few friends. Marcus lived on Deck Hill, a mile or so from Winkler’s Creek, and his friend Bobby and I helped him celebrate his eighteenth birthday that December. He bought his first bottle of champagne.

There were dozens of animals. My little dog Linus had been with us for years, and we’d acquired three ponies, a cow, two goats, some chickens and several more dogs and cats.
It was chaos. The chickens perched on chairs on the rotted-out back porch and crapped on everything, the goats climbed on the front porch and crapped on everything. The cats crawled under the beds and crapped in the corners. The ponies broke out and ran everyone ragged. The cow ran off and hid in the woods. The dogs barked and chased everything and everyone, at all hours.
I found myself going stir-crazy, in a decrepit house, in a tiny town, with nothing to do. No job, no prospects. I read books when there wasn’t enough money to buy materials to fix the house (my father was once again a barber, but barbering was slow in 1973), and so December found me living in a camper in the driveway and reading “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” by William Shirer, a massive book. It was the first time I’d read, in depth, about the second World War, and it so blew my mind that when I finished its 1600 pages I immediately flipped it over and read it through, again. I did very little else for a week, then was buttonholed by a fellow in an Army uniform coming out of the post office. He started talking about the weather and such, but soon tried to recruit me into the Army. I thought about it for a week, and talked it over with my father, who was as surprised as I was by the thought. I decided to join the Navy.
On December 28th, 1973 I signed up. The Navy recruiter got a bonus for signing me before the new year, but the Army recruiter should’ve got the credit.
I rode the plane to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, known as “Glakes” in Navy slang, with four other North Carolinians. The five of us became members of the last company formed that year, number 440.
We arrived outside Chicago just after Christmas. We brought nothing but the clothes on our backs. Uncle Sam was gonna take care of the rest.
Nineteen seventy-three wasn’t a good year for fashion, and none of my woven purple or striped lime green civilian duds obstructed the fierce, bone-chilling winds blowing from Lake Michigan. I was wearing dress-up half-boots made of a new synthetic miracle plastic which froze like iron around my ankles and slipped all over on the ice. My shirt and pants, in common with the other Southern recruits, were 100% polyester—the chunky, scratchy kind whose great selling point was that it didn’t need ironing. After a couple years it proved so horridly uncomfortable that polyester was universally abandoned, and wrinkles became a fashion statement. I’d bought a new winter coat before I’d left, which was adequate for North Carolina, but it failed to cover my polyester-clad butt, which in the cold was soon as purple as my pants. We arrived on a Friday and shivered all weekend in the civvies we’d worn flying in, but took cheer waiting in the interminable lines seeing the pea coats and knit wool caps we’d be issued on Monday. On Monday afternoon, New Year’s Eve, we went to get them–and both were out! We got baseball caps, flimsy little windbreaker jackets and raincoats instead, which even all worn together were still totally inadequate. At least we were all suffering equally now–the guys from New York, Ohio, Minnesota were now wearing the same two layers of cloth as those of us from North Carolina, Alabama, Georgia. It was about ten days before we got pea coats and something to cover our ears.
On Jan 1, 1974 I made a new year’s resolution to quit smoking–yet again. It was easy to do; there was a lounge which was the only place smoking was allowed, where we could only go a couple times per day. The smell was overwhelming, nasty even by 1973 standards. I stayed in the compartment with the six or eight guys who didn’t smoke, and in a week or so had no desire to.
Based on certain tests, one of our “gang of five” was chosen as Recruit Chief Petty Officer and wore a chief’s stripes, three chevrons with an arc over the top, on his right sleeve. Four other fellows wore three chevrons with no arc–First Class stripes–and were in charge of various aspects of life in boot camp, including Educational Petty Officer or EPO, another North Carolina guy. A few more were chosen for Second and Third Class stripes—squad leaders and such. I started with two stripes.
The company commander of 440 was a nasty little man, five feet tall and a hundred pounds, with a voice that could cut gravel and a personality to match. He was a gunnery chief with an armful of gold hash marks, representing over 20 years’ service without getting into trouble. Before we left boot camp he’d have neither his chief’s stripes nor his gold.
I managed to stay out of his way and keep my squad in line–not that it was difficult–for the next couple weeks. A few guys dropped out or were held back for various reasons–one was too young, another flunked the physical–and some decided they wanted the hell out and did whatever it took to get a general discharge and go home. Our EPO, another North Carolina guy, climbed into the bunk of a recruit who also wanted out, where they pretended to be gay. He was replaced by another of the five North Carolinians, a two-striper like me. By that time I’d been held back myself; I supposedly needed glasses, as did another of our gang of five, and with a couple other guys we were placed in Company 004, one of the first formed in 1974.
I loved Company 004, which I found ironic, this being the sort-of-reverse-of 440. Our company commander was also the reverse of the nasty little gunny; a big, genial fellow with a spring in his step. We soon had another round of tests, and the stripes were shuffled around. I gained a stripe and became EPO for Company Four. Our recruit chief switched with his assistant, for the loss of a stripe and an easier job, and the remaining fellow from our group of five, still in company 440, became Company Clerk. Five of us had flown together from North Carolina, and at the end, all five of us wore 3 chevrons out the gate!
Boot camp wasn’t exactly fun, though after joining Company Four it was okay. I was older than most, at 20, which was nice. In school I’d always been the youngest. There were only two recruits older than me. One fellow was 31 and had been a chief in the Turkish navy. He’d married an American girl, and received special permission to join the American navy, whose normal cutoff age was 29. Ozkan, or Oscar as we called him, seemed all business, but knew how to game the system. He’d line up in the back of his squad when we went to chow, and slip undetected onto the rear of whatever squad led the way that day, saving himself ten or fifteen minutes of waiting in the cold. Those of us with stripes on our shoulders would be noticed; we could do no such thing. If our squad was sixth in line, we’d lose twenty minutes of lunchtime. Some guys skipped the meal and hung out in the compartment on the days their squad was at the back. Not me.
There were a few companies in training who’d come from other countries; they spoke different languages and marched in a different manner, some clicking their heels, some saluting with palm outwards, etc. We’d seen them around the base, but had little interaction with them; they’d come from Saudi Arabia and several other smaller countries and wore uniforms which varied in details. Oscar knew which countries most of these guys were from, and the rules they had to follow. There’d been an incident in an American port. A couple sailors were hung, for murder, on the deck of a Turkish ship–in full view of some American sailors. This had caused a diplomatic incident, and was one of the reasons Oscar was happy to leave the Turks and join the Americans.
There were lots of classes to attend. Some were interesting, others dull as dirt. I loved the classes on hardware–which ship did what, how they were constructed, their propulsion systems, types of instruments, maintenance. We learned the rudiments of what each rating did and suffered through pep talks about joining the sub service or the flight crew or serving in Alaska, none of which appealed to me. I wanted to be a quartermaster and learn navigation, but was told I’d have to wait six months for quartermaster school. Several other ratings were available right now, if I didn’t want to spend that much time in boot.
This was deceptive. I might not have been in boot camp all that time, but that was the impression I got, and I didn’t want a discharge, which was the other option—it wasn’t exactly disgraceful, but it would’ve been a letdown–so I signed up as a Machinist Mate. It sounded interesting, but I didn’t realize Machinist Mates spent almost all their time in “the hole”, or engine compartment. It’s incredibly hot and muggy on a steam-driven ship, and you’re not on deck when your ship leaves or pulls into port. When on deck, relaxing, you’re in the open ocean, but as soon as you see land, way off on the horizon, it’s down in the hole until you dock, an hour later.
I didn’t know, though. Boot camp was extended two weeks for the holidays, and for me another week when I “needed” glasses. We went swimming a few times a week, and were divided into categories based on ability. I was in the “low” category, because I was slow, but I could swim reasonably well–we’d had a full-size pool in Granada Hills.
There was another category, non-swimmers, of which there were a surprising number who’d joined the Navy. Lots of them were black guys, one or two Hispanics, but no white guys. The non-swimmers had to learn to take off their pants, tie knots in the legs, FWOP them full of air and flail across the pool. Only one or two guys couldn’t manage it.
Watch duty rotated among the guys. There was always a recruit by the compartment door, on a four-hour shift. There were Eleven General Orders of a Sentry, but the main one was to challenge everyone who came to the door and shout “Attention on Deck!” when anyone who wasn’t a recruit walked in. The recruit chief and a few others had taken to the habit of filing into the laundry room late at night for an unauthorized smoke break, in an unauthorized room, at an unauthorized time, and this presented me with conflicting duties. Some of the the smokers outranked me. I wasn’t supposed to leave my post, but I was also supposed to notice what was going on, and I didn’t like my skivvies smelling like smoke. I walked the five steps to the laundry room, opened the door and told them they were all on report. They piled out and threatened me six ways to Sunday, but I said I was the sentry, I was on duty, and I was supposed to report what was going on. They angrily filed off to their bunks, and the atmosphere was tense the next morning, but I didn’t mention it in my report. I told them later that I still had no intention of getting in trouble, and that the late-night smoke breaks were over.
Only once did I handle a gun. This was the Navy, after all, not the Army or the Marines. We filed off to the shooting range, took ten shots with a .22 in standing position, ten in kneeling position and ten lying down. I did well; I’d picked off hundreds of flies with my BB gun as a kid.
Service Week
Towards the end of boot we had Service Week, a week spent helping run the base. When we’d arrived we’d spent three weeks with our Service Week recruit, as he’d gotten shafted over the holidays for the two extra weeks. He seemed utterly poised to the rest of us, though he continually told us he was just a little further along in training. Now it was our turn to be self-assured, as we saw how far we’d come.
We were assigned to various places. I started in the “gedunk”, cleaning up and hanging out in the bowling alley at night, where I’d manage to sneak a strictly contraband beer or two after hours and talk with the regular sailors from the base or the fleet. After three blissful days, however, I was suddenly reassigned to the galley, to wash thousands of clanging, banging steel trays coming through the conveyor covered with grease and chunks of rice. I got through breakfast and partway through lunch before I sat down, covered my ears and refused to budge.
They came and got me. I talked with the shrink for a little while, and told him it wasn’t so much the banging and crashing. It was the never quite getting done. Almost finish one batch of trays, and two or three or ten more would suddenly clang through. I didn’t mention the biggest reason, that I was vegetarian and hated smelling like gravy. Boot camp was stressful enough, getting up early, doing hundreds of pushups, etc., but the smell was too much. He said it’d be OK if I wanted to go into the bathroom and cry. I did, for a little while. The next day I went to work in the “deep sink”, where I and another guy wore rubber aprons, boots and gloves and used high pressure hot water to wash the huge vats used to cook 50 gallons of beans at a time. It was warm and relatively quiet; not as much fun as the gedunk, but in midwinter the fog and steam were pleasant.
By the end of boot camp we’d become a unit. It’s subconscious. We trusted our buddies. If something needed to be done we’d say so, and leave it, secure they wouldn’t screw it up. Unconsciously, we’d walk along chatting and slip into a marching step. General Robert E. Lee, after his war, marched consciously and purposely out of step, deliberately enjoying his civilian status.
After Service Week, one side of the compartment had a liberty weekend. They came back the next morning thoroughly trashed, barely able to roll out of their bunks. The next weekend it was our turn, and about a dozen of us took a train ride to Kenosha, Wisconsin. We all wore the “bus-driver” dress blues–the uniform chosen by Elmo Zumwalt which everyone hated, but all recruits had to wear. We all got drunk, and were propositioned by “party girls”; recruits are a good source of income. It always has been and always will be. A fellow from Kentucky and I were walking along when a couple black girls drove by and asked us if we wanted a date. We said yes, piled into their car and went back to their apartment. I settled with the two of them for $20 apiece, and the plumper one asked me who was dating who. I was tongue-tied, inexperienced, and hadn’t socialized with a woman in months. I reached over and pinched her on the butt. She laughed and said to her friend, “he just pinches”. Our date lasted about ten minutes, after which we shared a towel and one of her beers and talked about Navy life; I was too shy to talk very much. My friend and his date emerged from the other room and we all washed up–the Navy had shown us plenty of films about what happened if you didn’t. It was a lovely afternoon. My friend asked me how much he owed me. I told him $20. He told me I should have “jewed them down” to $10. Personally, I didn’t care. I was well satisfied.
After our liberty weekend, we were slow to roll out as well. The recruit in charge of the compartment, always a loudmouth, started telling us all to get out, and I, equal in rank, told him to lay off, that none of us had bothered his side the weekend before. He came over, screamed at me and pushed me down. I got back up and nearly punched the fat red stupid turd, but maintained my composure and told him that not a damned one of us was going to leave until we were damned well good and ready. He blustered and shouted and waved his hands, but I went back to my puttering around and told him in a low, menacing voice that I was not leaving and HE couldn’t make me. I stayed in the compartment while his team cleaned up around me. None of the rest left until they were damned well good and ready, and I didn’t leave at all. I gained a lot of respect from the guys that day.
One of the few perks of wearing three chevrons was to not stand watch. I filled out papers and coached the clueless, but after I got the third stripe I didn’t stand watch, except for one final time. It was our last week, and the top brass came to inspect the company. I’d been chosen on this most-important-of-all occasion because I’d been teaching everyone else how to do it for 2 months. My watch started just at sunrise. Our compartment was on the second floor of the compound, a blocky, E-shaped building three stories high. I was standing in the middle wing of the “E”, facing southeast, while the other wing blocked the sunrise across a narrow courtyard. On this morning, the sun started to stream in through both sets of the low, squat, rectangular windows of the opposite third-floor compartment just as the Star-Spangled Banner started to play. Its rays illuminated me full in the face from the first note of the anthem until the last, and as the song ended, the sun passed on. I took it as an omen–of what, I didn’t know, but we aced that inspection and all the others. For the final week of boot, our company carried around all the colorful achievement flags. For me, as Educational Petty Officer, the best was the academic flag, which we’d never before carried. Two guys from a group of seven who’d joined together, all from an inner-city Philadelphia neighborhood, had flunked out and been reassigned, so the rest decided to flunk as well, to stay with their pals. Without them, my company was the best, academically, in the competition. As EPO, I got to carry the flag; a final, parting glory. We also carried a special “Color Company” flag, for earning all the others; five in all—red, blue, yellow, green and the multicolor “Color Company” banners. A grand slam.
So in the end, we did well. When graduation came I told all the guys that as soon as I got out the gate I was starting a little bonfire and burning my stripes, but I didn’t. We got our regular stripes–mine was red, as a fireman or “snipe”. The deck apes got white. Blue, green etc. stood for “airman”, “submariner”, and whatnot. Most of us got a single hash mark; a few who’d already had some military training had two or three; those with some college had a single chevron and Oscar, now a chief, had three chevrons with an arc over the top! The only person who’d lost rank was the nasty little gunny, company commander of 440. Nasty had gotten pissed when he’d asked a couple of recruits, against regulations, to do some personal errand and they’d refused. He made them run around the building in the dark, carrying two huge, heavy ordnance shells. One slipped on the ice and broke his arm, and nasty little gunny lost a rank. He appeared at graduation with 3 chevrons and an armful of red, not gold, hashmarks, outranked by our fellow recruit Ozkan Ozkosar!
After graduation, we once again had liberty. A few of us went to Waukegan, Illinois and caught a movie, but this time we didn’t get so trashed. We’d learned that the bus driver uniforms had a bad habit of ejecting the wallets of anyone who sat down, and that leaving them in jacket pockets when going off to dance was a bad idea, too. One of the last things most of us did before leaving boot was to buy the OLD uniforms to wear home!
“A” School
Boot camp was over now. I returned to North Carolina, but didn’t go out much; I felt like a skinned rabbit in my boot-camp haircut, even when I covered up with one of my home-made hats. Pretty soon it was time to go back to Glakes for “A” school, where I’d learn to be a Machinist Mate.
“A” school was more relaxed than boot camp, and it was springtime, so the weather was better. We’d go to class early, but had our evenings free; there were two of us to a room instead of 100, and we’d occasionally see women on base, walking by or sitting on a bench. Outside of the few who gave us shots and the like (the cholera shot was the worst) there were no women in boot camp. Here, they’d walk around, their hair shining in the sun. We’d take buses into town, and occasionally a train to Chicago or Waukegan.
Chicago on St. Patrick’s Day is not to be missed! Green everywhere. Even the river is green! I spent the entire day. I bought a green beer, which was refilled for free, several times, as I hung out on the street. In civilian life, I was a master at Fooz-ball; that afternoon I went to a bar and put a quarter on the table. I’d often do that, put a quarter down and play for beers; usually I could stay for a couple hours and get drunk on one quarter. I was excellent on offense, and preferred the German tables to the French, especially when playing defense. I’d shoot a little pool too, usually for a dollar a game, but would rarely do better than break even.
Soon enough, “A” school wrapped up. I’d been issued a blanket when I’d arrived, which had been stolen early on, but I hadn’t needed it. Towards the end of school, when I knew I was going to be charged for it, saw one sitting next to an open door and scooted off with it. I suppose I wasn’t the first, or the last, in that chain.
The Ponchatoula
A week or so before “A” school was over, I got my orders. We’d filled out some forms which asked in a general way where we’d like to go and what type of ship we’d prefer, but had no guarantee. I’d marked mine for the Pacific, and checked off all the ships that weren’t carriers or subs. When my orders came through, my destination was marked “QPH”. I had no idea what it meant. I asked and was told that it meant Pearl Harbor, Hawaii–and then I looked over and saw the name of my ship. The Ponchatoula. An Indian princess! The past came back, slapped me in the face and took my breath away! The gypsy girl had been correct! I’d gone from California hippie to a Navy sailor, in a year and a half. The situation I’d been mooning over with my blonde not-a-girlfriend had been resolved shortly afterwards with a kind but definitely discouraging note; I was heading for Hawaii, and my ship was named after an Indian princess–with a name similar to, but not quite, “Pocahontas”! In fact, exchange the “s” in Pocahontas for the “ul” in Ponchatoula, and it’s an anagram.
I guess it’s no surprise a fellow christened Davy Jones would find himself living on a ship, though didn’t occur to me at the time. After another short vacation I flew to San Francisco, then Honolulu. I had a window seat, and watched the sun set over the Pacific. Since we were flying southwest at a speed approaching the movement of the sun, the sunset lasted for hours. Nowhere else can the sunset be as spectacular as on the western coast of the Americas. The sun sets into a vast expanse of water, the biggest on the planet, and the water breaks the light into the subtle but distinct colors of the rainbow in wide bands, bathing the horizon in reds and oranges and yellows, continuing through a narrow strip of green to blues and indigoes and violet as the sky recedes to the far side of the meridian; stars and planets blinking through.
We were greeted with leis, or as we put it, we all got lei’d, and had an hour or two to grab a bite before continuing to our ultimate destination, which we’d learned only a day or two before was not Hawaii, but Guam. It was quite late when we left for Guam, and we all slept through the very long plane ride. Tuesday became Wednesday at the date line, which is why Guam license plates have the tag line, “Where America’s Day Begins”. Even though it’s much closer to Asia and Australia than it is to Hawaii, Guam is still the land of the dollar bill.
An important strategic island during World War II, Guam is largely jungle. Agana is the capital, which has a quirky feel due to its being bombed nearly out of existence in the war, bulldozed into the sea and rebuilt according to a grid plan laid out by the Navy with no account for the vagaries of established property lines. As a result, oddly-angled buildings sprang up on the rectilinear city blocks, with property owners rebuilding on the trapezoids and triangles left to them when their lots were bisected by the new street plan, with parking lots angled in strange ways to match.
My ship was in overhaul when I arrived in Guam. The facilities were inadequate to refurbish a tanker, but the new base commander had previously been the Ponchatoula’s captain, so the Guam drydock was chosen for the renovation of his former ship.
The Ponch had already been docked for over six months, and the crew wasn’t happy about it. Navy rules said that if a renovation was gong to take more than five months, their wives and families would be flown over. The Ponch was nearly 20 years old and had just been through a war. It should’ve been clear to Navy brass that the overhaul would last longer than five months, but now the sailors wouldn’t be able to see their families for what in the end was nearly a year. I was greeted at the quarterdeck that first day by a fellow snipe, standing watch in his greasy utility uniform, with a heartfelt “Welcome to the most Fucked Up ship in the Navy!” Sandy was his nickname; he’d been aboard for three years and had the attitude typical of short-timers; do what you have to do and nothing else, because pretty soon you’ll be gone.
Because the renovation of the engine room was nearly finished, There wasn’t much left for machinist mates to do. The bilges had been mucked and painted, the cracks in the hull welded and the huge turbines renovated. We did a little painting the Navy way, pouring gobs of red lead paint on the bulkheads (“walls”, to landlubbers), pushing it around a bit with a brush and letting it flow down and fill in all the cracks. Paint on a ship is for protection, not looks. In the closed compartments below decks the lead fumes from the paint made us loopy and drunk. I spent much of the time singing stupid songs from the 50’s at high volume. When working at the rental yard I noticed that a particularly high percentage of painters were drunks, and thought it likely lead in paint was the reason–alcohol would wash the lead out of the bloodstream.
We didn’t work every day; we were on “port” and “starboard” duty. Those of us in the bunks on the port (left) side of our compartment worked one day and had the next day off, while those on the starboard side took the other shift. As a result there were a dozen guys or so from the engine and boiler rooms whom we only saw occasionally, and another dozen who’d regularly hang out together. I’d have said we partied together, but there were about forty guys to every girl on Guam, and without both sexes, it’s hard to call it a party.
One of my first days on Guam I went swimming in the pool on base; I was only in the water for 20 minutes or so but got fried. The sun is intense at 8 degrees from the equator and I’d been bundled up all winter. I haven’t made that mistake again.
I never wore the “bus driver” uniform after boot camp. I’d bought a complete set of the old uniforms–Dixie cup hat, dress white jersey with bell-bottom pants, wool dress blues with 13-button pants, blue jean dungaree pants, button-up blue shirt. I didn’t like any of the new uniforms, dress nor utility. Nobody did, in fact the Navy itself featured the old uniforms in their recruiting posters and advertising. Admiral Elmo Zumwalt was the new head of the Navy, and most of his ideas were great. He sent out what became known as Z-grams, which changed many aspects of Navy life. It was the reason I’d chosen the Navy. We could sport beards, and our haircuts weren’t extreme, but the new uniforms were horrible. They were based on the officer’s uniforms, but cheaper looking. Undistinguished. Nobody knew if you were a sailor or a doorman. When on liberty the shirttails would untuck themselves, and the jacket and “bus driver” hat got in the way. The old style pants pockets were nigh impossible to pick, a great advantage to a drunken sailor. The new style pants practically picked themselves. Sit down, and when you arose your wallet or keys or change would be lying on the chair. To put your stuff in your jacket was no better. It was stiff and uncomfortable. Sooner or later you’d leave it on the back of a chair, and there was always someone who noticed. The hat couldn’t be folded up and stuffed in a pocket, either. I didn’t wear my new style dress blues even once after I’d bought the old style uniforms, and never wore the dress whites at all. I had lots of free time, and when I didn’t feel like spending money I’d find a quiet spot and sew. I took the uniforms apart at the seams, and sewed the pieces into a jacket and hat.
I got to be quite good. I needed a hat big enough to fit my head; the largest I could buy was still tight. I’d made a few with an old sewing machine, but this was the first time I’d designed a hat rather than sewing one together from random scraps. I pulled the bell-bottom from a pair of dungarees over my head far enough to seam around the bottom, and put in a hidden inner band I could pull over my ears and neck if needed, put six darts around the top, took a long strip of cloth from my white uniform pants, sewed it into a much larger cylinder and gathered it to fit, sewed it on, gathered the remaining edge and sewed it an an inch and a half above the first. I covered the raw top edge with an inch of denim and sewed white piping over that. It was blue and white, not too floppy, and the extra inch-and-a-half in the brim would scrunch up and hold my head firmly but not tightly. The brim could be compressed upwards for summer or pulled down for fall and looked sharp either way. The brim was also accessible from the inside and made a very large secret pocket. I was so pleased with it that I made a matching jacket as well. I took a pair of dungaree bell-bottoms and used the legs for sleeves, incorporating a hidden drawstring just in back of the wrists to tighten up the loose fit when needed. I took the remains of my white pants and covered my back, then my torso with material from the legs. I left it collarless, with a deep cut in the back of the neck so that when it was unbuttoned the sides naturally fell by my side instead of flopping around in front. I put in a couple of secret pockets, took the contrasting blue denim pockets from the dungarees and sewed them sideways on the lower torso, with the darts pointing back instead of down. It looked sharp, and distinctly original. The only part I was dissatisfied with was the odd little curve under the arms, a difficult and counterintuitive cut, but I noodled with that and fixed it too.
While home on my short leave after boot camp, not wishing to display my boot camp haircut, I’d spent a little time with my sewing machine and whipped up a comical, conical hat with a brim formed of twelve triangles. One of my Guam shipmates, also from North Carolina, liked it so much that I sold it to him for a couple bucks—my first crafts sale. He called it his “go to hell hat”, as in “if you don’t like it you can go to hell”, and wore it often.
In the first couple weeks on Guam I hung out with shipmates, drinking beer, exploring and occasionally pestering coconut crabs, large hermit crabs found all over the island. Pour a little beer on them and they leave their shell and scurry off to find another, a reasonably harmless bit of fun.
A few of us knew some hippie types who lived on the outskirts of Agana. Those of us with port-side duty would hang with them one day and our starboard-side shipmates the next, so that several of us knew the same guys but had completely different stories to tell. Guam was a place where those who wanted to get away from everyone who was getting away from it all would go to get away; the furthest reaches of the outer fringe of the very edge of America. We didn’t meet many Guamanians, who largely kept to themselves, but there were several Americans who lived in shacks on the edge of town or in the country. Many lived in houses with no windows. There was no need; a couple of screens sufficed, with shutters or curtains which could be closed for privacy or during bad weather. The top two feet of the living room wall would be open to the air, the roof overhanging by 3 or 4 feet. In the evenings they’d burn incense coils to keep away bugs.
One guy lived a mile or two outside of town in a house he’d built himself, out of scrounged leftovers. One room was made of old beer cans cemented together, another was made of embalming fluid bottles he’d gotten from the local undertaker. In his backyard he’d accumulated a quantity of junk, shoved into old cars and low sheds or sheltered from the weather in old washing machines laid on their sides or refrigerators with the locking handles removed. When I was little there’d be stories in the paper a couple times a year. Some kid playing hide and seek would crawl into an old refrigerator, it’d lock behind him. Other kids would open the fridge. He’d tumble out, blue. There was a popular campaign to remove the doors from old refrigerators before discarding them; it seemed to me far easier to disable the latches. Removing the doors required tools and some technical knowledge; disabling the latch took a screwdriver or a hammer, and the fridge could still be safely used for critter-proof storage. Eventually, everyone agreed with me.
None of these guys had locks on their doors. There wasn’t much to protect, nor reason to protect it. If anyone wanted to break in, they’d get little of value and would still be on a tiny island surrounded by a thousand miles of ocean. Policing such a place isn’t hard.
It was interesting to explore. You couldn’t run through the jungle, but it was easy to “bungle”, to hop and swing from roots and branches, and move along nearly as swiftly. There were signs of the war everywhere–chunks of rusty, indeterminately shaped metal next to overgrown and forgotten holes in the ground, pieces of rope and rubber and rotted fabric in places you didn’t expect. When you’d bungle a little way in, all of a sudden there’d be a clearing and a cement airstrip as wide as a Texas highway under the forest canopy, with a hole through the trees over that way and another one over there, where the planes came through. There’d be a burned-out cement-block shack at each end and parking spaces for the planes angled between the trees. The fight for Guam was a tough one, and the signs of it still quite visible 27 years later.
We’d walk to a little island called Rat Island, full of trees and rocks and, presumably, rats–which was separated from Guam by a mile of coral reef, flat and smooth as a board. You could walk all the way, in water that barely wet your ankles. No need to bring snacks; there were tropical fruits and stacks of coconuts which could be broken open and eaten at any stage of ripeness. Young coconuts contain oodles of tart coconut milk, which sprays out under pressure, and the coconut meat attached to the thin white shell is a snot-like jelly which you can scoop out with your fingers. The older, sprouted coconuts have an “apple” inside which has the texture of a watermelon, but is white and not as sweet. Coconut milk is used by all the bakers on the island; it’s much more available than cow’s milk and turns all the bread and pastries a bright lemon yellow.
I spent my 21st birthday on Guam. It wasn’t a big deal; the drinking age was 18 but I went out and got drunk anyway. When I’d turned 18 it wasn’t a big deal either; I couldn’t vote, and aside from a month or so in Colorado before I moved to California, couldn’t legally drink. Registering for the draft could’ve been a big deal, but mine was the first year that practically nobody was drafted; months before, when my lottery number came up 315 (out of 366), I knew I wasn’t going. I was classified 2-H, or “not currently eligible for military service”, and when my draft card came I went outside and symbolically burned it, a totally meaningless gesture by then. By the time I’d turned 21 all the laws had changed. Eighteen was now a big deal; you could vote at 18, drink at 18, and the draft was a non-issue. At my 21st birthday celebration I hadn’t even tried to pick up a girl; there were very, very few around.
One evening a sailor named George got all duded up, and as we waited for the bus we asked him why. It turned out the youngest, geekiest kid on ship, a bespectacled, squeaky 17-year-old named Martin, had met the captain’s daughter, and they were going steady. We were happy for Martin, who needed a girl more than anyone, but it was also a huge challenge to George, who was a little older than the rest of us, and simply SPIT out, “hey, if MARTIN can do it!!!—”.
The only other guy in our compartment who had any luck with girls on Guam was also seventeen. He grew a scraggly goatee and, a few days before we steamed out, sneaked into a bar and picked up a girl who was 25, claiming he was 26 and had just gotten out of the Navy, when actually he was 17 and had just joined.
I’d arrived on Guam on May 3rd, which was a four-hour day for me, as I’d crossed the date line in the early morning. At the end of July we headed back to our home port of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The plan had been to go to Australia next, but the extra four months of overhaul had scuttled that schedule. I’d flown in at about 600 knots, around 650 miles per hour, but we steamed out at 18 knots, about 20 mph.
We steamed through the Pacific the entire last week of July, and because of the dateline twice went through July 29th, the 18th birthday of my first girlfriend Liz. I hadn’t seen her since Denver, nearly a year before, but I’d written her a few times. Now, in the middle of the Pacific, I was a thousand miles away and had no way to contact her. She’d been confused at heart since my brother’s visit to California the previous summer and had been writing him as well, which contributed to my decision to join the Navy. She wasn’t the only girl he ended up spiriting away from me!
Guam to Hawaii took nine days, which was a lot of time to lounge on the afterdeck and look at the clouds. I always seemed to see more than the other guys. My friend would see a duck and a horse. I’d see a donkey with a palm tree on its back, being chased by a frog wearing a propeller. There’s a lot of time to look at clouds in the middle of the ocean; it’s either clouds or water. The clouds are always changing, and the ocean changes too, though much more subtly. The sea colors are different, more green or blue, clear or cloudy, and the waves get bigger or smaller or sometimes vanish completely and the sea really is as smooth as glass. Little bits of stuff float past and a few fish jump and fly away. The whitecaps change character, too, as the water becomes saltier. A dumbass sailor once called me a dumbass for remarking how salty the water was away from the land. He was wrong. It is saltier.
We had a few diversions when we were at sea. A destroyer pulled up beside us for “underway replenishment” or UNREPS; we shot a line at it, connected to a cord, connected to a cable, connected to a superstructure which suspended the giant hoses we used to replenish its fuel. The water was choppy and angry between the two ships for the hour it took, and when finished the destroyer kicked its engines and completely circled our tub in about 5 minutes, going 45 knots to our 12.
We had drills, too. The man overboard drill didn’t go well; our crash-test dummy was sucked into the propellers, and chopped to pieces. We secured hatches, ran up ladders, assembled on the afterdeck. Dale was a fireman who was billeted to the repair crew; his chief was a little guy. Dale had a fire drill, and held onto the hose behind the chief. When Dale twisted the hose to the right, his chief stumbled right. A leftward twist and the chief staggered left. Didn’t have a clue what was happening, but on that drill he couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn!
We also kept a mail buoy watch.
Everyone had their share of watches; we’d go around on the hour, check temperatures and oil levels, fill out papers. It was usually like checking the temperature on the fridge; not much changed. Some watches were exclusive to the engine room and others were shared by everyone on board. The most coveted was the mail buoy watch. You’d sit on the fantail in a life jacket and watch the world go by for four hours, looking for mail buoys.
There’s no such thing as a mail buoy, of course. It’s one of those jokes played on newbies in any profession, like a left-handed monkey wrench. You put a monkey wrench in the new guy’s right hand, tell him it’s the wrong kind and send him to the boss for a left-handed wrench. The boss takes the wrench from his right hand, places it in his left, and that’s a left-handed monkey wrench. Grocery caddies are sent for bag stretchers and buggy pumps. Sailors search for deck levelers and watch for mail buoys.
I don’t know how it was on other ships, but we had mail buoy watch scheduled in just like any other, and was shared among all the departments. Nobody got it often. Nobody complained. It was the most pleasant duty on board.
After nine days at sea we pulled into Pearl Harbor. We put on our dress whites and flew all our flags. The Ponchatoula was the largest tanker of the fleet, the flagship for the AO class. We were AO-148. Guns boomed, the band played, we all lined up on the port side and saluted smartly as we pulled in. It was the one and only time I was on deck when we pulled into port.
Most people know Pearl Harbor. The Japanese attacked on the morning of December 7th, 1941, but many don’t know that the first casualties of that day were actually Japanese. The Japanese had sent midget subs into the harbor before the attack planes arrived, but the new, green skipper of the USS Ward, on his first day of command, spotted one and sank it an hour and a half before the planes arrived. Six aircraft carriers had been steaming towards the harbor, undetected, for almost two weeks. The transmit keys had been removed from all their radios, to insure the carriers didn’t radio their positions, even by chance. The Zeroes launched, and the radar men on Oahu saw the planes coming–but they were dismissed as an approaching group of American B-17s. The Japanese achieved total surprise.
Hawaii was never invaded and fought over as was Guam, where reminders were everywhere. There aren’t many marks left from the attack, except those which have been carefully preserved. There are bullet holes in the old barracks, and a memorial spanning the USS Arizona, where over 1000 sailors sleep forever a few feet underwater. Drops of oil seep out all day every day, and have been doing so for longer than I’ve been alive.
For the next month, as for the two months previously on Guam, we were on port and starboard duty days. We explored Oahu. A couple of the snipes had grown up in the area, and several lived on the island. A Hawaiian machinist mate named Glessner had a sports car, and a couple of us completely circumnavigated the island one Saturday. We left about 10 am, set a leisurely pace, stopped in several places and were finished about 4 pm. We drove through Honolulu and over to Kaneohe on the other side, body-surfed on the North Shore, ate in a little café, hiked to a waterfall, went by Glessner’s house and were back to the base for supper, which was always great on the Navy base. After nine days at sea, chow gets monotonous, especially for a vegetarian. The last couple of days at sea I had rice, chocolate pudding, tea and little else, but when we got to port there were fresh fruits and veggies, juice to drink and real butter. There’s an inter-service rivalry about butter. The Army and Air Force use margarine. The Navy and Marines, butter.
Outside of a bit of maintenance in the engine room, cleaning out the gunk from our sea voyage, there wasn’t much we needed to do, and on our duty days we’d sit doodling in the log book and reading paperbacks. The paperbacks were unauthorized, and we were careful not to be caught reading on duty, but it was child’s play to figure out if someone was sneaking up. In the engine compartment—which was the size of a 3-story house–all the hatches are water and air tight, which meant that if anyone opened a hatch when the air pressure was uneven, a whoosh would alert us ten or fifteen seconds before anyone could descend the ladders (stairs) to the second level, where we were on watch. We’d set the intake fan on low, the exhaust fan on high. Problem solved. A couple of the short-timers even put empty soda cans on the the latches, which clanged loudly down the ladders when someone tried to sneak in. By the time a chief made it down the ladder the book was stowed; checklist in hand, the watchman was going about his business. The checklist was a particularly useless bit of busy work when the ship was setting in port; the temperatures and pressures on the 25 or 30 gauges never varied by more than a click and even the most conscientious would only make two rounds, checking everything when starting watch, copying or “radioing” the next two and checking once more before leaving. The less conscientious would radio everything; there was no way to tell, and it didn’t really matter.
When we were on Guam, the only dope most of us could find were sticks of pot wrapped and tied around a sliver of bamboo called Thai stick, or Buddha dope. A couple guys chased down opium or heroin, and there was also betel nut; not much stronger than coffee but legal at the time in Guam, though not in the states. Most of us smoked dope. Not much of it–Buddha was way stronger than anything available in the states; it was enhanced with opium and a couple tokes did one in more than a full joint of average weed. It was so strong that after awhile I was really happy to run into a little dirt-weed Mexican, which was like enjoying a beer instead of a fifth of tequila.
Pot had always been part of my Navy experience, even in boot camp. In boot, there’d been a landing in the staircase between the first and second floor with an anti-drug poster set into grooved boards top and bottom. One day I got sick of looking at it and flipped the poster around to the blank side. Behind the poster, sitting on the grooved board, was a nice fat joint, which I scooped up and shared with another recruit later that evening.
We had plenty of Buddha dope on the ship, which we’d hide in various places. I had an animal crackers box which wedged perfectly into the I-beam next to my bunk, which I covered with a towel. Nobody ever figured out where I kept my stash, though I could access it in seconds. Everyone else was worried about their stash, either of losing it to someone who found their secret spot or getting busted in a surprise inspection when it was in with their things. I had special pockets sewn into the inseams of all my pants as well, and when in my civvies I’d also hide it inside the hollow brim of my hat, accessible only from behind the sweat band. When on the boat there were several places it was safe to smoke. A favorite was the escape tunnel which led from the bilges up to the deck. There were only two points of access–a hatch on the bottom deck and one four decks above. We could take our checklist, sit in the bottom of the engine room and get high in peace. If anyone opened the engine room hatch we’d feel the air pressure change, and if anyone opened the deck hatch we’d scoot out and secure the bottom. In general, nobody even tried to bust anyone. It wasn’t worth the effort, and would have meant little but a free pass out of the Navy for most of the guys , which they wanted anyway.
On Hawaii the dope situation was the same, except that there was a lot more stuff available than buddha sticks, opium or betel. Hawaii had a truly vibrant and cosmopolitan civilian population, unaffiliated with the military, and a couple of public parks where one could pick up about anything if one looked hard enough. I hadn’t used any psychedelics for three or four years, but a lot of the other sailors had. I was out one night with a buddy when a hit of windowpane acid fell from his hand. We were looking for it on the sidewalk, at night, when a cop walked up and asked what we were doing. We told him we were looking for my buddy’s contact lens. He shone his big flashlight and my friend found his windowpane, which he popped in his mouth (to “clean his contact”). We thanked the cop and went on our way.
I bought a bicycle for $25 when we were on Oahu. It was all the transportation I needed. A couple times I rented a Mazda to try out their new rotary engines. Four of us went for a ride, and I let all the guys drive. Late in the afternoon a fellow named Norris, at a confusing intersection, made an illegal turn. The cops pulled him, and in a panic he asked me if he could borrow my license. Without thinking, I let him, and he pretended to be me. We looked enough alike that he pulled it off, but not without a tense couple of seconds when he gave the wrong date of birth. He got a ticket, and made sure that he paid it without going to court; neither of us wanted to touch it with a ten-foot pole. The crazy thing was, he was legal anyway. When he’d joined the Navy he’d had a provisional permit, good for two weeks, from his home state of Louisiana. It had expired three years before, but according to Navy regulations was still valid while he was in the Navy. He hadn’t wanted to pull out his long-expired, two-week paper permit, so he borrowed mine. According to the laws of Hawaii, it was legal for me to drive on my license from North Carolina, Navy or not, as long as it hadn’t expired; there was no residency requirement one way or the other. For him to drive on mine, though, was obviously illegal, anywhere at any time. In any case he paid the ticket, and that was the end of it.
After that I rode the bus, which was cheap and efficient in Hawaii, or rode my bike. I often biked across the island on my days off. There was a mountain range on the Waikiki side, then a long, wide valley dotted with portable roadside stands which chased the ripening pineapples, then another ridge of steep, round-topped mountains, followed by the lush greenery of the North Shore. I’d start in the morning on the dry Waikiki side with a water bottle and by the time I reached the North Shore I’d be loaded up with mangoes, dates, coconuts, passionfruit and whatever, all of which grew by the roadside. I’d put them in a carry-all I’d made from a pair of cut-off jeans, which hung perfectly on the bar between my legs. By the time I got back to the base, usually in time for dinner, it’d be loaded full.
Eventually our port & starboard duty days ran out, and it was back to normal workdays. When in port we had regular hours, but at sea we’d have eight hours’ work with four-hour watches, which depending on what we were doing could amount to twenty-hour days. If a watch started at midnight, we’d get off at four, get four hours of sleep, work 8-4 and stand another watch from 4-8. If the ship were then pulling into port, refueling another or doing pretty much anything except steaming along in open seas we might again be up ’til midnight. The sleep deprivation sometimes lasted weeks.
I began to see why so many guys had a foul opinion of the Navy. I noticed a pattern. The guys who’d been in the Navy for six months or so were gung-ho, patriotic, proud to be serving their country and stoked about being a sailor. After a year they were less enthusiastic, and by a year-and-a-half most of them really wanted out, sometimes kicking up a fuss. They might end up at Captain’s Mast (also known as Article 15) and receive a $150 dock in pay, 2 weeks’ restriction to ship, lose one stripe, spend “3 days” in the brig on bread and water (which really amounted to two nights and one full day, give or take a few hours) or some combination of these. After that, they’d keep their nose clean for awhile. By the time two years had rolled around, most guys took the view that they might not like it, but they’d already put in half of their four-year tour and the rest was downhill. Four years, in other words, was just about the perfect amount of time for an enlistment to run. Guys who’d been in for 2 years or more were resigned to their fate and rarely caused trouble. They’d cope in other ways; some stayed stoned, some found other creative ways to slack off. Some went AWOL for carefully calculated amounts of time, which would get them transferred to other ships but not court-martialed, and a few would try to get discharges by various accepted means, filling out reams of paperwork which rarely accomplished anything.
I probably would’ve been one of these guys had it not been for a couple of incidents. About eight months in, I was still gung-ho, dedicated to the Navy and the idea of service to my country, but I’d been getting pressed pretty hard. One of our chiefs, a little guy we called Oly, went too far.
Our laundry was down for about a week, and I was out of clothes to wear. I’d have changed, if I had anything to change into. I didn’t. I had an old pair of dungarees that I’d cut off and made into shorts, so I sewed the legs back on. Oly said some snotty thing about them. I got mad and chased him out of the compartment. He may have outranked me, but I had about forty pounds more muscle and six inches of height. He split, fast. We got along after that—he knew he’d been out of line–but one of the other chiefs, a guy we called Grody, didn’t like it. Grody was in a different department, but he’d shoot me dirty looks.
Captain’s Mast
Well, a couple weeks later, I was with a group. We were all going surfing, a first for me, and they’d all passed the quarterdeck inspection without incident, but Grody was on watch. He decided a barely visible, quarter-inch frayed spot low on the leg of my jeans was reason enough to stop me. Because my friends had already piled into the car, I went back, put a stitch in the leg and started off again. He told me to go back, sew it up completely–and also cut my hair. I’d have sewed my jeans, but the haircut was something else entirely. First, my hair wasn’t that long. Second, he hadn’t mentioned it originally. Third, I’d entirely miss my ride. It was pretty clear, anyway, that Chief Grody wasn’t going to let me off the ship whatever I did, so instead of trying to please the penny-ante princess, I went down one deck and, in an obscure spot, stepped off. From way across the parking lot, an officer yelled out. I was busted. I went to Captain’s Mast and was restricted to ship for two weeks.
That could’ve been the end of it, but a couple days later I was told to check what was wrong with a pressure gage which wasn’t reading correctly. I pulled the data sheet for the part and found it was a simple device. There was a pool of mercury in a well, with a leather bag full of mercury sitting in it attached to the bottom of a glass tube. Take it apart, replace the leather bag, adjust the mercury level and it’d be fine.
I reported to Oly. I’ll fix it, I said. “No, Austin, shitcan it,” he replied. I protested. I’d fixed these kinds of things hundreds of times; it was my job. A piece of leather and a few minutes, I’d fix it. “Shitcan it,” he insisted. “Don’t mess with it, shitcan it.”
I looked at the data sheet. The pressure gage had cost $65o and change in 1956. We were going to throw it out and get another, at probably twice the price or more, over a half-dollar’s worth of materials and twenty minutes of my time.
What am I doing here?, I thought.
Suddenly, I wasn’t a dedicated sailor anymore, doing something worthwhile for myself and my country. I was a cog in a wheel. I was capable, well-trained and willing to do such a simple repair, but my skills, knowledge, expertise weren’t needed, valued or even acknowledged. The Navy was going to blow a thousand-plus dollars, for nothing.
My loyalty, patriotism, desire to do the good and worthwhile thing for my country, my team, my ship, my Navy drained right out of me. I suddenly had no desire, whatsoever, to be there. I started thinking not of how I could serve my country, but of how I could get out, as soon as possible. I didn’t know it yet, but I was already a short-timer.
When in Colorado, our family had attended the local Quaker meeting house for about 3 years. We were never considered members, but I identified myself as a Quaker, and still do. Although we agreed with Quaker belief, a group which wouldn’t embrace the faithful after three years wasn’t for us, so I started to say I was a Quaker more from convenience than from conviction. I listed my religion as Society of Friends when I joined the Navy because I didn’t have another, and it seemed to me better, in some vague way, to list something rather than nothing.
After the rejection of my offer to repair the pressure gage, however, I realized that I had an actual history, corrupted as it may have been, as a pacifist. I’d been disappointed by the Quakers, but completely disillusioned by the Navy. I decided I’d push the point.
It was clear the Navy didn’t need me. The war was over, and there were clearly too many guys still in the Navy. In combat, 250 guys would’ve been useful, but now 100 was sufficient. All of us were doing busy work and little else, counting our days. The Navy had lowered its recruitment quota. There weren’t any new guys coming onto the ship; we were leaving through attrition. I’d considered applying for conscientious objector status when I’d registered for the draft some years earlier, but my high lottery number (#315) had made it unnecessary. Now, I filed the paperwork.
Towards the end of my two-week restriction we were at sea on an atomic attack drill, waiting for annihilation with our collars pulled up and our pants tucked into our socks. We’d been pulling 20-hour days, and I was bone-tired. I sat down in an obscure corner of the lower deck, plugged my ears with pieces of napkin and briefly rested my elbows on my knees, my palms covering my eyes. At that moment a couple officers came by doing inspection. I heard them, saw their shiny shoes walking by and looked up, but was reported for sleeping anyway. I went to my second Captain’s Mast.

I was sent to the brig, for three days on bread and water. The brig was on base and I reported there about 5 pm. I was given a stack of white bread, which I didn’t want, and decided a 3-day fast wouldn’t hurt me a bit. The first day was no big deal; I caught up on my sleep. The second day I sat in my cell. I had an ankh that I’d claimed was a religious symbol; I didn’t feel religious but it was cool to look at it, to think about its 3000 year history; the history of the world–how many ankhs were sitting untouched for all that time in the darkness of a pyramid,? I took an occasional sip of water and didn’t touch the bread. The Marine guard came towards the end of the day and said a few things which were meant to be intimidating, but I just smiled. I’m not easily intimidated; I suppose I had too much of it as a kid. If one takes up a challenge and won’t back down, one rarely has to prove oneself. Stand your ground and smile a little until the other guy feels foolish, and that’s that. It’s not so much turn the other cheek as don’t turn.
After the brig, I saw a Navy which was winding down, but not acknowledging it. A ship full of guys who were resigned to their fate, or trying to get out. Sandy had been straightforward and honest, trying to get discharged for over a year. He’d been deceived, undercut and skewered, and now was secretly smashing things and throwing parts overboard. We didn’t have proof, but knew it was him. McMillan was AWOL, and would be gone for almost a month. A first-class named Donnell had been in for 17 years, but couldn’t be persuaded to re-up, even for chief’s stripes, retirement in three years and a bonus worth a year’s pay. Chambers had also applied for conscientious objector status, but it was unlikely either of us would hear anything for six months to a year.
It occurred to me, though, that I’d just had two Captain’s Masts, and they could kick you out for three. Most guys would get a Captain’s Mast, keep their nose clean for awhile, then some months later get another. They might get half-a-dozen in a couple years, but remain in the Navy. I didn’t intend to do anything damaging or criminal, but started thinking of ways I might again find myself in front of the captain.
I didn’t like wearing leather, and hadn’t worn any for at least three years before I joined. The Navy uniform, however, included leather shoes. I looked around, but even in shoe shops there was nothing resembling standard black Navy shoes in a non-leather product of any kind in 1974. I bought a pair of rubber boots, cut them off to the standard size and wore them with my uniform. They looked all right, and I wore them for a few days. My own chiefs Oly and Shearn didn’t care, but Grody thought otherwise, and told me to change. I told him I wouldn’t. I went before the captain, was fined $150 and restricted to the ship for another two weeks.
Greer, the fellow who’d bought my hat, had earlier transferred to Grody’s department. He listened in on the chiefs at lunch, and told me that all they talked about, nearly every day, was me. I found it amusing. I was doing my job, not causing trouble. I was even getting along with Oly. I just wasn’t changing my shoes.
Chambers had refused to load ammunition. I didn’t mind; everyone’s different. Loading ammo onto a ship involves the whole crew. Everyone picks up a shell, which is in a canister about 8 inches diameter by 2 feet long and weighs 20 or 30 pounds, carries it from the deck to the hold below the guns and gives it to the gunnies to stack. An oiler has only a few guns; for the most part it relies on other ships for protection and generally stays as far away from the action as possible. Still, the loading takes most of a day for a crew of 250; a small crew for a large Navy ship, but since it’s a floating gas tank and basically nothing else, that’s all the crew it needs. I didn’t mind loading the shells; I wasn’t shooting the guns. Everyone follows their beliefs according to their own heart, and everyone’s beliefs contain contradictions. I was a conscientious objector who didn’t wear leather but didn’t mind carrying ammo. Chambers was a conscientious objector who didn’t mind wearing leather but didn’t carry ammo. A Marine chaplain who gave us a pep talk in boot camp talked about God with one breath and the thrill and blood lust of stalking and killing a buck with the next. Everyone draws their own lines.
Well, I didn’t change my shoes, again. Went Went before the captain, again. To the brig, again. I didn’t care, again. I went in around suppertime, didn’t eat the bread, stayed the next day. At ten the next morning, they let me out.
I didn’t go back to the ship. While I was locked up, the ship had gone on maneuvers. For the next four or five days, I stayed in the dorms on base, trimmed the captain’s lawn or did something similar in the morning, and had the rest of the day off. While my shipmates were sweating through twenty-hour days with collars turned up and heads hung down, I was on vacation, for a week. I’d drop by the sandwich shop in the afternoon to talk to the girl behind the counter. One day she was perched on her stool, screaming. The place smelled strongly of bug spray, and I ran around the counter to help her out. A cockroach the size of my thumb was buzzing around behind the counter, banging into things. It was absolutely coated with bug spray, which looked like icing on a cake. It couldn’t fly very well due to the weight of the spray; I caught it with a napkin, took it outside to die in peace, then came inside and hugged the cute little black girl as she cried and shook like a leaf.
A couple days later, my ship came in. My vacation was over, but they didn’t welcome me on board. I was handed a packet of papers over the side, and went to a couple of offices on base. They were processing my discharge. When I came back to the ship I was restricted for the rest of the week, but I didn’t care. The Navy had taken another $150 out of my paycheck, but I didn’t care. They gossiped that maybe I’d get an undesirable discharge, which seemed a stretch. I didn’t care.
A fellow named Gavin had written a poem in the logbook while I was out, celebrating how in six months he’d be home in New York, and I wrote one of my own:
I don’t know quite why this all happened to me
Was it ‘cuz of my shoes, which came out of a tree?
They cost me a bundle, but that doesn’t matter,
Of four years or discharge, well, I’ll take the latter.
Whenever you’re out, please come by Carolina,
We’ll talk and we’ll toke and enjoy a life finer,
Than ever an admiral dreams in his sleep.
The Navy made promises, but which did it keep?
The rest of the week went by. Life went on. McMillan came back, for a day, and went AWOL again. A new guy was assigned to our compartment and I met him once. He went AWOL the next day, on his own personal quest to get out of the Navy, and I never saw him again. A third-class named Barton, who’d taken a few too many acid trips, broke up with his wife. She’d left him while the Ponch was at sea. He came back and all his stuff was gone, including his uniforms. I gave him all mine, except for the old-style ones.
A lot of guys were short. A young red-haired guy named Allard went home to help his mother, and got a hardship discharge. A black guy named Smitty, nice guy, spent all day every day walking around in a heroin haze. Rod Austin was getting short; we were both in the engine room but his uniform was stenciled Austin, R. while I stenciled DJ Austin on mine. Rod and Sandy were both from Ann Arbor; they’d passed each other on the street once but hadn’t realized it until both had been on the ship for three years. Taylor and Groleau were leaving soon, both as E-2s. Taylor had never tried for the E-3 rating, and Groleau had been busted all the way down to E-1 the year before, after spending the night in a Filipino jail for fighting. A tall thin fellow named Curry would be in Tennessee in a few months, a few miles from me. Taylor, Glessner, Martin and Curry were all part of a Jesus-freak group in Honolulu which I visited it a time or two; it was pleasant, but there was too much smiling and bright, saccharine laughter. They sat in a circle, drank wine, and one of the guys proposed to his girl. It was beautiful and sweet, but fantastical, unreal, like living in Disneyland.
The night before I was to leave, a fellow named Whitey came over from the boiler room side and was screwing around with some of the machinist mates; this was a bit unusual, but it was fun getting to know him. A little later that evening, I was heading up to chow and something compelled me to turn around. Whitey was closing the hatch to the boiler room behind him, like all of us had done thousands of times before, but I felt something strange going on. I couldn’t put my finger on it. I had a weird feeling, and didn’t know why. I stood there for a couple seconds, then went up the ladder.
It was the last time I ever saw him. The next morning I got up, packed my seabag and went up to the deck for the last time. Beside my seabag was Whitey’s seabag. He’d been staying off-base with a sailor named Grayden. Grayden had been driving to work, with Whitey as a passenger. Somebody’d run a stop sign. They’d been T-boned. Grayden was a little bruised up. Whitey was dead.
Our seabags both left the ship that day. I was happy to be carrying mine down the gangplank.
Back to the Real World
I flew out of Honolulu that afternoon, this time in the opposite direction. Sunset lasted for what seemed a few seconds, and it was late when we landed in San Francisco. I had the same assortment of teas and herbs that I’d carried to Guam, where customs had searched all my stuff, but in San Francisco nobody even looked. I checked into Treasure Island–what a name, huh?–to await my discharge, and stayed for several days playing spades in the barracks, going to chow, watching TV, reading the paper and, when it wasn’t raining, hanging out on the patio. I wasn’t on restriction, but had no money, not even a quarter to ride the bus. I met with a couple women who sat behind desks and asked me questions. Later that week I had my discharge; a general discharge under honorable conditions, which was all I wanted.
There are 5 classes of discharge–1) Honorable, given to those who’ve served their time without getting into trouble, 2) General under honorable conditions, the military equivalent of being let go from a job, 3) General discharge under less-than-honorable conditions, for those who got in too many fights, 4) Undesirable discharge, for real troublemakers, and finally 5) Dishonorable discharge, for those who committed serious crimes. There used to be a little box on the papers reserved for nasty comments from the brass, with codes detailing, specifically, the reasons for the discharge. This tradition had been eliminated some months before by a new law, but my papers still had the box. All it said was “refer to DD214”.
Often, I’d even say most often, the biggest changes in life come about for the smallest reasons. I did something a tiny bit different, someone else didn’t like it, and everything blew up. I quit wearing leather because I didn’t feel comfortable in it, and wore the closest thing I could find – black rubber boots, cut to size. One chief still wasn’t happy, so I wore them straight out of the Navy. It’s all in the details.
A week on Treasure Island. I got paid. I left.
I had about $400. I went into San Francisco, bought a few civilian duds and a bus ticket home. As a souvenir of my first day OUT of the Navy, I got a small tattoo of a gemini sign on my left hand, below the pinky. I went to Walnut Creek to find Liz, whom I’d occasionally heard from, but hadn’t seen for over a year. I arrived at her house in the afternoon. Her granny was there and I tried to have a conversation, but she knew only German. I wanted to help around the house, but didn’t know how to. She had dozens of clocks, none with the correct time. One was 20 minutes early, one three hours and 45 minutes late. She told me something in German about the clocks, which I didn’t understand; I set a few to the correct time and she became quite cross.
After awhile Liz’s father arrived; I’d never met him. He said a few gruff words in German to granny, as she chattered excitedly about this total stranger who had re-set her clocks. Her father said to make myself comfortable, and Liz would be home shortly. She arrived, we had dinner, talked on the porch. She didn’t know why her grandmother set all the clocks to different times, either. We chatted awhile, but it was clear we’d moved on, and parted amicably. She gave me a ride to the bus station; we said our goodbyes.
That evening in the bus station I got into a conversation. I mentioned my Model A and he said he knew a guy who had a 1940 Lincoln that he was thinking about buying. He offered me a ride if I’d tell him what I thought of it, mechanically. We rode for a couple hours into the California countryside, but when we arrived the car had been sold. He suggested we go on to Lake Tahoe, and do a little gambling. I drove awhile, he drove awhile and we got there in the early morning. We got a room and a few hours’ sleep, then went to the casinos. I had about $175 left. We ate a cheap breakfast, then went to play blackjack. I did well, as did my new friend. We grabbed lunch and returned to the tables. When my friend lost his focus and took a hit on 21, he left to watch a show. I was still doing well, and after awhile was up by about $500. At the time you could buy a decent used car for around $600, so my goal became to buy a car, cash in my bus ticket and drive home. I was within about $40 when the whiskey sours kicked in. The cards turned. A couple hours and six or eight drinks later I’d lost what I’d accumulated plus the $175. I was flat broke, but didn’t care; I still had my bus ticket, and I was a civilian! We returned to the room. The next morning my friend gave me a few pieces of scrip to gamble with and went back to California. I won about $20, called it a day, bought a few groceries and caught the bus out of town. I couldn’t cash the ticket for the portion of the trip I hadn’t used without a hassle, because a bus drivers’ strike had started against Greyhound. I shined it on, accepted a ticket on Trailways, rode to Denver and went by my old neighborhood.
Monk was in the Krishnas now; I left my seabag at his family’s house and went with his sister to the temple, to eat prasadam and review the year. I didn’t get much response talking about the old days; he was totally intoxicated by Krishna, sleep deprived by the schedule they kept and rather jealously guarded by the other devotees, who knew me well. I’d been coming to the temple for five years, but wasn’t any closer to joining than I’d been at 17. I liked the vegetarian food, and loved that I didn’t have to ask what was in each dish. I enjoyed our philosophical discussions, though I frequently disagreed; I didn’t think that everyone was caught up in illusion or maya, or that maya equaled suffering. I didn’t believe one had to separate oneself from the world and deny the desire to find happiness, or that desire for the pleasures of the world, including love and sex, was also illusion and suffering. I didn’t believe there was a great divide between the finite and the infinite, or that the world could be finite while God or Krishna was infinite. I saw nothing wrong with participating in the world, and I knew that some sages had been monks, but others, householders. The devotees stated that every soul found Krishna in its own way according to karma, but in practice they always thought it best to be monks in the temple. Occasionally swamis would visit, and I loved talking to them. They understood, really understood, that what works for one won’t always work for another.
The following day I went by the Mayfair barber shop, where I’d been the shoeshine boy for five years. It now belonged to Joe the barber, and he was in the first chair. He’d grown a scant mustache, which was all the facial hair his Indian blood let him grow. We went to his house that night and played poker with his friends, speaking as much Spanish as English. He surprised me by pulling out a joint. It was very good. It was the only time I ever smoked any with the barbers. The next morning we returned to the barber shop. My funds were depleted, so he gave me a few dollars for the road.
I rode Trailways to Kansas City. I had a couple hours layover but not much money, so I walked the streets. It seemed a fun town, which was a different impression than I’d had when my father had driven through at warp speed. We then went on to St. Louis, where I arrived in the middle of a beautiful fall afternoon. It was crisp, cool, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I again had a couple hours free, and intended to ride to the top of the recently-finished archway, but it was closed. I strolled over anyway, to lie in the grass and enjoy the afternoon.
I surprised a fellow there who was smoking a joint. We initiated a little drilled onyx disc I’d bought in San Francisco, smoking the remainder of the roach down to nothing. When we’d rolled through as kids in our little oven of a microbus, the temperature 104º and muggy, with everyone enjoying a heaping helping of heat rash, I couldn’t imagine why anyone would live there, but this was entirely different.
I got on the bus that afternoon and saw a cute girl across the aisle. I started a conversation and sat next to her. She was married, but we had a long talk. She’d been away from her soldier husband for awhile, and wasn’t sure if they were going to stay together. We cuddled through the night. It was the first time in about a year that I’d held a woman close. We traded addresses when we parted in the morning, but I never heard from her again.
There was one more long leg of the trip. That evening I was dozing, and awoke to the smell of smoke. The guy across the aisle from me was smoking, in the non-smoking, front section of the bus. I told him he needed to go to the back of the bus to smoke; it was the law, though the law was widely ignored in 1974. He simply finished his cigarette, without a care in the world. Thank god, I say, that the customs have changed.
I arrived in North Carolina late that night. My brother drove me home and I was once again in a little bitty mountain town of about 3000 souls, with nowhere to go after 9:30 at night. I didn’t have a job, but thanks to the terms of my discharge I received unemployment benefits. If I’d received an honorable rather than a general discharge under honorable conditions, I wouldn’t have been eligible.
It was a good thing, too, because it was no easier to find work in Boone than it had been before. I was a dedicated vegetarian, and avoided working for restaurants, meat markets, the local leather processing facility, etc., but there were few other jobs available in the economic downturn of 1974-75. I’d get a few days’ work planting trees, cutting tobacco or putting in fences, but there wasn’t much available. I had a lot of free time, and with no television to distract me learned to sew clothes, make toys, repair mechanical things.
We hadn’t had a working television in the house since the family had moved back from California, and didn’t for the next eleven years. It was certainly best for me. In the next few years I learned hundreds of skills, read thousands of books and stayed active and strong.
In January my father and I went to New York City for a couple weeks. He had a part in a play, and I wanted to see the city. I’d spent a week visiting older relatives when I was seventeen, but they didn’t get out much. I wanted to see the city of my birth with my father, and explore places I’d been as a baby. Both the hospital and the old factory building my parents had lived in had been torn down, so there was really only one place still standing, a brownstone building in Brooklyn. We went to the street where they lived, but he was unsure of which building; they all looked alike. For me, there just wasn’t much there, though the visit was interesting.
The play was an artsy transmogrification of a gothic Appalachian tale, self-consciously cute and melodramatic, with a fine performance by the lead actress, Kate Kelly, drowned in a generalized and turgid pathos. My father had the same opinion, but the woman director was an old friend, and we held our tongues.
Actors from outside the south often drawl far too enthusiastically. Their attempts at the dry Appalachian dialect were soaked in the swamp waters of Savannah. The plot involved spells and haints and pregnancy and voodoo and what-not, and was a complete mess. Kate Kelly was cute, but the play was a wreck.
We spent two weeks in New York. One morning our truck was towed–we hadn’t moved it across the street in time–and we went to pick it up, but its registration card was in North Carolina. My father made the reasonable case that if we wanted to steal a vehicle we’d do better than an old farm truck from North Carolina, and they released it.
I explored while my father was making his actor rounds. The first time, I walked a few blocks and realized I didn’t know where I was. I didn’t know the address of our building, and had only seen it a couple times. After a 20 minute walkabout, I found it, then memorized the address. I never told anyone how close I’d come to starring in “Lost in New York”.
My father wanted to pitch a show while he was there, and needed to find the ABC building. We went to the area, but he wasn’t sure which building it was. I pointed it out, and he asked me how I knew. I was coy. I told him I just knew. He said he’d ask someone. I told him he didn’t have to. He asked me again, how did I know? I pointed to the big ABC logo above his head. He’d never thought to look up!
A House In Town
When we returned from New York, Rob and I decided to rent a little house on the edge of Boone. It belonged to an old woman called Mom Angel, who was in her 80s. She didn’t have a lot of family or friends, and visited us nearly every day. It was interesting getting to know someone from such a different world; she used to play the guitar, but was now too shaky to manage it. There was an extra room upstairs, for drums and music. Rob had graduated, but it became a place for all his high school buddies to hang out and play hooky. I suppose we could have gotten into trouble, but we felt we were keeping them off the street and out of trouble.
Our band was pretty good. I played the drums, my brother played guitar and wrote songs, a friend named Kevin also played guitar and a couple other guys joined from time to time, with varying levels of commitment. I decided, on April Fools’ Day, that I wanted to play something more portable than drums. I picked up a harmonica. “Dixie” seemed a good song to start with, so I sucked and blew and moved the harp side-to-side for several hours until I could play it passably well. I then tried a second song, “Amazing Grace”, and quickly learned I should’ve tried it first, because inside of ten minutes I had it pegged. I then tackled a third song, “Me and Bobbie McGee”. It took longer to learn than “Amazing Grace”, but less time than “Dixie”.
We had a little party that evening–we often had after school parties–and I announced to group that I’d learned harmonica. They asked for a tune, and I played “Dixie.” That was pretty good, a couple folks said, and asked for another. I played “Amazing Grace”.
And then a girl asked if I could play “Me and Bobbie McGee”.
Well, yes, I could! Of all the songs in the wide world, I had ONE more in my repertoire, and THAT was it! I played for the crowd, told them that was enough for now and put the harp away!
A life tip. If you don’t know a lot, stick to what you know. I’ve learned a lot of songs on the harmonica, and just a few on many other instruments. I’m not a virtuoso, and don’t have to be. Most people can’t play at all.
We had an idyllic summer in our little house out back, and spent very little. I had a bicycle and my brother had friends with cars; we’d catch a ride if needed, or hitchhike.
Our kitchen was bright and cheery. On the windowsill sat the coffeepot, a double sink underneath. One day my brother and I were kicking a tennis ball across the kitchen floor in a caroming, fast-paced, 2 man variation on soccer. My brother made a wicked shot, I blocked with my knee, the ball bounced off two cabinets and PING – disappeared! The coffee pot was wobbling. We looked in the sink, it wasn’t there, or anywhere else in the kitchen. Finally we looked in the coffeepot. Bingo! From across the room, I’d double-banked a steeply angled shot off the cabinets, and dunked it!
Our friend Kevin, now living in the music room, got us a gig. Saturday, at his mother’s flea market; me, my brother, Kevin and a bass player. Kevin printed posters, put an ad in the paper. I thought he’d called our band “Connivin’ Ivan”, which was fine by me–but what it was supposed to be, he explained later, was “Knivan Ivan”, like, you know, Evel Knievel, but with the “Kn” in front? (so obvious! How could I have missed?). What was printed in the paper, however, was “Knivin’ Ivan,” transforming a mediocre and confusing name (shades of “That Thing You Do!” and the “One-ders”) into Evil Ivan, Knife-wielder.
Well, we set up, and waited for the bass player. He didn’t show. We had the bass, so we asked another friend, who’d come to see the show, to be in the band. He didn’t know bass and didn’t want to try, so he played drums while I plugged in the bass, turned it off and faked it! It was my first paid gig (any money we’d made in Hollywood had been plowed back into dance lessons and such). I made $20 for pretending to play!
Kevin was a successful rock and roller for the next ten or fifteen years, with the Spontanes and others. After years of touring, he went back to school, got his GED and graduated college in his late 40’s, with a perfect 4.0.
A Disagreement
Along with our hooky-playing high school visitors, we met a fellow who lived catty–corner across the back field. Though he was a few years older, John saw me as more experienced–he’d visited California, but I’d lived there; he’d had a couple jobs, I’d had a dozen. I’d been more places, done more things. He’d ask me for advice like a puppy, so it was hard to stay mad at him. We got to know him well, I thought–but one day I saw his record albums marked with his initials, “JA”, and joked that since my initials were “DJA”, all I had to do was put a “D” in front, and they’d be mine. The next day his full name was scrawled across all his albums. He had a paranoid streak.
John lived in his parents’ basement. He claimed they needed him, and not without justification. His parents were older, and his father had macular degeneration, which is linked to smoking. His father lit a pipe occasionally but his mother chain-smoked cigarettes, and their house was shut up tight as a tick and had wall-to-wall carpeting. The smell was strong by 1974 standards: now I’d call it an overwhelming stench. None of his family were in good shape. John had several extra pounds and complained of numerous ailments. He had a few real complaints, but mainly John simply liked to try new drugs, and finagled a variety of prescriptions. He’d listen to music and sample various combinations of pills and liquor, evaluating which went better together, and how much of each produced the best effects. He had certain obsessions–the Kennedy assassination, the Nazis–but far and away his biggest topic of conversation was the Charles Manson murders. I liked John, but his habit of cross-referencing every conversation back to Charlie was massively annoying.
He admired Charlie in a twisted way; a little bitty guy who had massive behind-the-scenes power over his group. John wanted that power, but when he thought he was being sneaky, hiding his motivations, asking leading questions, I’d know every time. It was as clear to me as if he’d tattooed them on his forehead.
We had a friendly dispute over who had a horoscope chart more like Charlie’s. Charlie had sun in scorpio, moon in aquarius and taurus rising. John had sun in aquarius, moon and rising both scorpio. I had sun in gemini but, like Charlie, moon in aquarius and taurus rising. I didn’t mind talking about the Manson family time and again, but every time John discovered someone was an aquarius, or taurus, or scorpio, he’d bring up Charlie. If someone was from California, he’d bring up Charlie. If had the same name—Susan, Lynette—as members of the “family”, he’d bring up Charlie. I told him time and time and time again that most people at parties didn’t want to talk about Charlie, that Charlie was a downer. He’d still bring it up.
One night at a party and he asked a pretty girl how tall she was. Five-foot-two. I knew what was coming. Charlie was five-foot-two. I told John nobody needed or wanted to know that Charlie was five-foot-two. It started a big argument, and the gal giving the party kicked us out. For the next couple weeks we got hang-up phone calls, dozens per day, and one night someone threw a fist-sized rock through the window of my parents’ Chevy Suburban. I knew it was him.
He eventually owned up to the phone calls, but insisted he didn’t throw the rock. I didn’t believe him. We were both taking classes at night school, and one night had an argument in the hallway. One of the instructors tried to mediate, but I told him I didn’t care what John said.
John maintained for years that he didn’t break the window, but I still didn’t believe. It didn’t really matter, a broken window in a car which was junked years before, but I didn’t accept a lack of objective proof as sufficient. His actions had made it reasonable for me to believe that he’d thrown the rock, and his tendency to be smart ass and challenging about what I could or couldn’t “prove” made him unconvincing. He could maintain his innocence, but I didn’t believe him and wouldn’t pretend to. It would’ve been easier, socially, to let it drop, but he’d still bring it up. I’d say it was no big deal, but I wouldn’t say I believed him. He stopped with the Charlie talk, though.
Winter came. We were all low on money. I was still on unemployment; the benefits had been extended twice, which I figured was payback for how the Navy had taken advantage of me. My brother, still vegetarian, now had a part-time job in a burger joint, serving meat to people all day long. I resolved never to do that. Kevin worked for his mother at the flea market, but wan’t bringing in much, and by the time rent and food were covered not much was left. The power was turned off, but our garage was connected to Mom Angel’s house and we ran an extension into the living room; enough for a heater and a couple lights.
Kevin and my brother also brought in a little money dealing drugs. A pound of weed occasionally, an ounce of blue “mescaline” powder, a few grams of hash, a new product, in a vial, called “hash oil”. Kevin’s older brother had connections in Florida and my brother knew some folks who ran a head shop. We didn’t make much, though. Not enough to pay the power bill, or to buy furniture.
The Cops
One night we were having a party, and Kevin told us he’d seen some stackable chairs at the motel. He suggested we borrow them. I told him I wouldn’t, and went on to bed.
The next morning we were awakened by the police. They found the chairs.
While the cops were searching, I played with some chess pieces. There was a small vial of hash oil sitting on the chessboard, which I knocked into my shoe and pushed under the coffee table. They probably wouldn’t have recognized it; there was also a blown-glass pipe sitting on a tray in the living room, which we told them was an oil lamp. They set it back down.
The three of us were carted off to jail. My brother told them he needed to pee, and emptied a baggie of pot in the jailhouse urinal. We spent 20 minutes in jail and were bailed out.
Kevin moved, and my brother and I waited until the rent ran out. Rob had proposed to his girlfriend, but they were young–he was 19, she 16–and her parents sent her out of town until her ardor cooled. They split up after the arrest.
It went the other way for me. A friend of my sister’s became interested in me, now that I was a bad boy. She was warm, soft, willing and wet. We played around in the afternoons, but she had a boyfriend in the army. He returned six months later, and they married.
Court came. As I’d been asleep, the charges against me were dismissed. My brother and Kevin threw themselves on the mercy of the court, which was a stupid idea. The owner of the motel claimed an inflated value of $25 apiece for the four chairs (new ones were $12), so as to make the “crime” a theft of over $100, and a felony. Her gratuitous nastiness didn’t go uncompensated. The motel went downhill, and a few years later she was tied up and robbed by a couple guys with shotguns. Karma.
My brother got into trouble more often than I, though we didn’t live that much differently. I’d often slip away; he’d often get caught. I even broke out of “jail” once. At my high school graduation party a corner in the gym was set aside, and a friend of mine named Craig paid a dollar, for charity, to have me locked up for twenty minutes. Two minutes later the jailer was distracted. I nudged past him and slipped away to freedom. Towards the end of the twenty minutes Craig saw me in the gym and gave chase. For the last 30 seconds of my “sentence” I was a fugitive from charity jail, running and laughing like a monkey.
On The Porch
Rob moved to Myrtle Beach afterwards. I enclosed my parents’ back porch, and moved in. The house plumbing was horribly antiquated, though we didn’t worry about leaks because the the town’s water pipe crossed our land. We received free water, “in perpetuity”. The water pressure was exceptionally high, though; our old faucets broke down, and were hard to replace. We installed an in-line valve on the hot water line to the ancient tub, but it too failed, so for a time we set a bucket in the sink and siphoned hot water into the tub with a tube. My father wasn’t inclined to fix it, but my uncle across the road had some supplies he’d bought at auctions. He and I replaced the floor in the bathroom and installed a shorty tub from the Daniel Boone Hotel. We rearranged the layout, put in a shower, tiled the wall, added a skylight, new wiring and paint. That summer I started painting our roof, which was quite rusty. I painted the porch roof a bright yellow, then climbed to the top of the steeply pitched main roof and painted across the ridge as far down as I could reach. I tied two ladders over the ridge and painted a wide stripe down the middle, front and back, then ran out of paint.
There it stayed. We had a big yellow “T” on the roof, and two rusty squares to the sides, but my father wouldn’t buy more paint. It wasn’t up to me to buy paint; I was doing the work.
There was another reason. I felt that if I’d finished the job on my own, my father would wreck it, somehow. He had a weirdly mean streak. If I’d worked hard on a project, spent time and money and almost finished, at the last moment he’d wreck it. I never knew whether he didn’t like things finished, or simply didn’t want me to finish them, but the result was the same. House projects, mine especially, would never, ever be finished unless we hired someone, usually at my mother’s insistence.
I really hated him for this. It was so very unnecessary, and so ugly. He’d also credit my work to others, damage what I’d completed, steal my tools and break his promises or agreements with me on a whim.
He wasn’t this way to everyone. He was genial, generous, funny to his friends, but sometimes, unexpectedly, he’d turn exceedingly, exceptionally, gratuitously cruel. My brother was with him once when, out of the blue, he asked a soft-spoken, hard-working, pleasant waitress what it was like for her to live life as such an ugly woman. He kept it up. He said he didn’t know if he’d want to live, if he were as ugly as she. My brother wanted to crawl through the floor.
He’d ask similar “questions” of other blameless people, usually me or my brother. He’d give us “insights” and call it “honesty” or “psychological research” for his acting. It wasn’t. It was ambush. Nasty, mean, ugly, evil, despicable.
I never understood that petty crap, that vileness. I wanted to love my father, but couldn’t. I had nothing. The most positive emotion I could muster was indifference. Not love, not pride. Just emptiness.
In a long-established pattern, I stayed away as much as possible. I avoided my father’s nightly drunken pontifications; stayed at friends’ houses, dorm rooms, camped out, slept on the bed of my Model A. I worked construction, cut tobacco, sold jewelry or drew astrology charts for money.
The old house needed plenty of improvements, which my uncle and I worked on when my father wasn’t around. We enclosed the front porch, and when my brother returned from his summer at Myrtle Beach I moved into one of the new rooms; the other was his. My brother had hitchhiked to the beach with our friend Marcus after the court case, and lived there for six months. He got arrested for peeing in the ocean and returned to Boone.
The house was slowly becoming comfortable. We’d given up on television; the set sat unplugged in the corner, covered with magazines and dust. My father’d had insulation blown into the walls, then put in paneling and a brand-new Fisher wood stove. One night the temperature was below zero (0ºF) and my father bet my mother a quarter that he could heat up the living room to 90ºF. He won, easily. We opened the windows and let the howling, sub-zero storm blow through.
They sold animals, a few at a time. The cow was sold, the bull calf, two goats. My mother had to chase the ponies one too many times and sold them all when Ned was off in New York. They still had chickens. One spring day my mother was baking, left the back door open and went to tidy up the living room. She came back to the kitchen, saw a dozen chickens pecking at crumbs, screamed OH! the CHICKENS! and they simultaneously burst into higgledy-piggledy flight, knocking over jars, flying into walls, spreading feathers everywhere.
Up went a chicken coop.
We had dogs and cats. And rats. There was a rodent problem, which a growing number of cats were supposed to take care of, but didn’t. When the cat population reached 21, my father’d had enough. He took bagfuls of cats down to the creek and drowned them, including one old tabby named Mama Cat.
Well, the rest of the cats may have been no-count, but it was a mistake to drown Mama Cat. Mama Cat had no fear of dogs, she’d jump onto their backs, bite them in the neck and ride, clawing with all four paws. That very night, a beagle broke into the chicken coop. Killed them all.
That was the end of the critters, except for a couple strays. My father spread rat poison, and the house stunk for a few weeks but they were gone too.
Summer of ’75
I had plenty of free time that summer, and often played tennis with my younger brother Sam, who’d won a scholarship to Yale for the following fall. We played a few sets nearly every day. Early in the summer he skunked me 6-0 in a set, and I didn’t manage to return the favor until the week before he left.
As summer faded, I found a job washing dishes at the college. I’d hang around the college talking astrology, and people would buy me beers in Blowing Rock or I’d win them at Fooz-Ball. I was finding my “sweet spot” with females. Girls my age were rarely attracted to me, but I was popular among those a few years younger or older. I’d sneak into campus dorms or bring them to my house, where we’d sleep in the hayloft, camp out or stay at a friend’s house. I still couldn’t keep a girlfriend for long. My journal was filled with fantasies and dreams of girls with whom I’d never had much more than an awkward kiss. I liked to exchange clothes; I’d trade a T-shirt for a cap, patch a pair of their jeans for a piece of jewelry. I’d go on for pages about a girl I found interesting, A few weeks later, it’d be another.
That fall I went to night school on the GI Bill. I took shop classes – welding, machining, electrical wiring – and spent my weekends doing dangerous things.
I was jumping off waterfalls, walking on bridge handrails, spelunking in caves. I rode motorcycles, crashing a couple times, pushing my limits, trying to master my skills. I was careful, though. I’d research a waterfall. I’d make sure a bridge railing was clean and dry, and favor my balance towards the roadbed, not the drop off. Dangerous is different from foolhardy. Only once did I slip towards the drop off, and my arms were already prepared to catch the railing. It’s a trick I learned riding the unicycle. If you’re going to fall, control it. Plan where and how you’ll land. It works well when driving also. Be aware of your “out”. Don’t get boxed in.
It was all part of being a wizard. I knew astrology, and wrote a column for the local paper. I drew up charts and wrote interpretations, largely influenced by Llewellyn George’s “A to Z Horoscope Maker and Delineator”. I signed up to teach an astrology course at the community college, but only 8 people showed up when 10 were needed. I’ve kept in touch with one of those girls, though, for over 40 years.
I enrolled in a writing-class-by-mail and sent articles to magazines, which were rejected. I wasn’t Hemingway.

Christmas Trees

We’d decided we’d grow Christmas trees, planting them on the mountain behind the farmhouse and on eighteen acres we owned down the road which we called Snag End, since it was at the bottom of Snaggy Mountain. We had one more tree farm, in the shade of one of NASA’s least successful projects, a giant windmill on Howard’s Knob. Initially, everyone in the family tended them, though soon enough planting, trimming and mowing between the thousands of trees became my job alone.
I designed a greenhouse for the business, and worked on it for weeks. A friend helped me for half a day, which was generous of him. My father talked often about the work Jeff had done on the greenhouse, not mentioning that I’d designed and built 95% of it.
He also didn’t let me finish the job. He bought glass, but wouldn’t let me install it, instead covering my beautifully styled, geometrically unique greenhouse in ugly, old, moldy used plastic.

My father never valued my work. He was angry, rather than pleased, when I made beautiful things. He ignored them, or destroyed them. I never figured out why. I think he’d decided, when I was a toddler, that I was a rocket scientist, and anything else I tried, he’d wreck. I may have done well as a scientist, but as a young genius I’d been shoveled into so many classes against my will that I thoroughly detested it. It seemed heartless, soulless, evil. Four additional years at university sounded to me like pure distilled essence of hell. Instead, I used my GI Bill to go to night school, and took shop.


Shortly after leaving the Navy a friend introduced me to George, who lived above the pizza parlor. It was a strange place to live, but the pizza place closed at 9:30, so was quiet at night. My Navy regulation haircut hadn’t yet grown out, and I felt like a skinned rabbit. My friend and I drove with his friend from there to another house in the country, where I met a woman whom immediately intrigued me. She’d lived out West, as had I, had been vegetarian for nine years, as had I, and she knew astrology, as did I. She knew all three, the only person–not the only woman, the only person–I’d ever met with whom I could converse freely on all three topics. She was so fascinating I actually tingled! It was scary!

I didn’t know where we were. I was along for the ride, in a friend of a friend’s van, visiting his friend. The woman I met was a friend of his friend’s friend, a friend five times removed.  When we left that night, before I’d wanted to (but I had to, or I’d have lost my ride), I didn’t know anything but her first name. She was staying with her friend, and didn’t have a current address or phone number. My friend knew the fellow who knew her friend’s address, but by the time I tracked her friend down, she’d left town. Vanished! Nobody was sure where Beth was. Maybe Arizona. Maybe South Carolina. Maybe South America.

I knew where the pizza parlor was, though, and soon became part of that circle of friends. George lived above the pizza place with his wife Wanda. Chris was a big, black, Army buddy of George’s from Chicago and his girlfriend was a student at Appalachian named Sam. George, Wanda, Chris and Sam had a jewelry and supply shop called The Beadworks in downtown Boone. It had three rooms; Sam and Chris lived in the room to the left, the Beadworks was to the right. The back room belonged to a team of three. Allen, Bill and Allen’s girlfriend Lisa sold production jewelry at festivals and concerts. Chris and George had a couple of craftsman friends, Kyle and Del.

The United States bicentennial was coming up, and everyone had plans for parties. For the New Year, Kyle and Del knew three self-styled Original Avery County Women in a crossroads called Crossnore, and we drove over to visit. Nora, June, and Karina lived in a cabin just over the county line and the conversation between Kyle and Del as we headed there was all about how June and Karina were lots of fun but Nora wasn’t interested in men; she’d just divorced, probably wouldn’t want to talk with any of us, etc. etc.–but when I showed up Nora and I talked for hours and had a great time. She had a set of chimes attached to the headboard of her bed. We rang her chimes all night, and “screwed in the bicentennial”. We were an item until springtime, when she left on a long-planned trip. She rode her bicycle to New Orleans, nearly a thousand miles. I stayed behind to trim Christmas trees.
In the spring I bought a Honda XL350 motorcycle. It was really too big for a trail bike, and its center of gravity too high for a road bike, but it was fun. I laid it down a couple times; I was, as usual, testing my limits.
Two weeks after buying it, the first time I carried a passenger, there was gravel on the road as we approached a stop sign, and the girl and I went down. We got some road rash, but laughed about it later. The second time could have been worse.
I was riding up Winkler’s Creek Road, as I’d done thousands of times. The hatchback ahead of me hit the ditch. For a split-second, I thought–he’s not getting out of that ditch. I’ll pull up beside him to offer help–and lightly hit the brakes. He was an inexperienced driver, though, and wrenched the car back into the road. Suddenly, his car was standing on its side; I was looking at the drive train and it was falling. I leaned the bike over, and had just made the middle of the left lane when his car slammed down. My front wheel clipped the bumper, sending me sprawling. I hit the pavement, got a fair cut on my chin and all the bones in my back and neck went F-W-W-W-WHIT! I stood up, woozy and disoriented, took off my helmet and laid in the hatchback as folks gathered, making a fuss, asking if an ambulance had been called. I didn’t feel it necessary, but with all the chatter around me, finally consented. At the hospital, I waited an hour or more before they checked me out and let me go.
My Neck
The wreck actually helped my neck. I’d first injured it slamming into coral in Hawaii, then later hit a tree on my bicycle. That autumn I’d been lollygagging around the house on a cold, damp afternoon with a kink in my neck. Towards evening I tried to work it out, and gave my neck a slight jerk, as I’d done hundreds of times before.
Lightning hit! Down my spine! Down my arms! Up to my brain! I saw a bright white flash, and pain took over my body. I was bent over for days.
A month earlier, I’d jumped off Elk River Falls in Tennessee, a 50-foot waterfall. I met a red-haired fellow who played in a band two weeks later and we’d jammed a bit on harmonica and mandolin. Two weeks later he slipped, fell off the falls, broke his neck and died–that same afternoon.
I’d developed a bone spur, but the cycle wreck had pulverized it. When it’s cold and damp, it occasionally bothers me, so I wear a hoodie.
A state trooper interviewed me after the wreck. He was a New Jersey smart ass and gave me a ticket for something–speeding, unsafe movement, I don’t recall. I appeared in court on my 24th birthday but, to his credit, he dismissed the case. I found out later he’d just come from a wreck over the hill, where a woman had been killed. The ambulance had been occupied, by me, and as I’d been waiting in the hospital, annoyed, they were trying to save her. I felt guilty.
Some months after my court case, the trooper was involved in a dust-up with local authorities. He was transferred and fought the transfer, claiming it improper. Some comments were made to the effect that “if he didn’t lose his Yankee attitude, someone was going to shoot him”. These remarks were denied by the parties involved, but to me they rang true, and I wrote a letter to the editor. The trooper dropped his case, saying he felt badly that so many people had felt that way. He quit the patrol, settled down the road from our farm, bought some rental properties and became a very good neighbor.
There were more projects. The front yard had a rock wall with steps in the center, pillars to either side and a walkway leading to a rock landing. After seventy years the mountain had washed several inches of mud into the front yard, completely obscuring the walkway and a set of stepping stones later laid on top of it. The pillars and much of the wall had fallen, and one of the steps had migrated to an odd angle. I spent the summer digging out the rock wall, wheelbarrowing a couple feet of soil to the side yard, replacing the wall, steps, discovering and rebuilding the hidden walkway. I’d built twenty feet of rock wall, raised the old walkway and rebuilt the steps. It was obvious on which end of the wall I’d started, but I got better. I later worked as a rock mason and built many of the chimneys, walls, patios and terraces in the area.
Organic Chemistry
A year and a half later, Beth was back, a waitress in Blowing Rock. I’d go by the restaurant, she’d give me free salads. We’d trade books. On the sixth of April, I kissed her.

We’d talk about Eastern thought. She felt we’d been together, in a temple, in a past life. I’d been the grand wizard, and she’d been the temple prostitute.

Prostitute? I should’ve taken her at her word. I didn’t.

Reincarnation appeals to me, but not as a specific soul, returning in a specific form. As one lives, one’s matter is constantly dispersed throughout creation~as breath, as hair, as fingernail clippings. After death one becomes compost, fish food, smoke and ash~no longer a single body. A part of the creatures and plants, the planet, the universe. Another person arrives, formed from these and other atoms, overlaid on a twisted genetic ladder.
We’re all formed from what came before. Six parts wizard, one part prostitute, three percent donut salesman, five-seventeenths airplane mechanic. We’re focused when we’re here, dispersed when not, but we’re not gone. Physically, we’re part of the cars we’ve steered, the chairs we’ve sat in and the trees we’ve peed on. Mentally and spiritually we’re the memories, advice, the examples others take with them through their lives. It’s an unfocused, dispersed reincarnation. We first enter, a soul distilled from the primordial soup. From random tessellations of structure and crystals of experience, we form a life.
Beth was way more experienced than I. She was youngest in a large family, and had lived with her much older siblings, away from her parents, for years. She’d been married, had a toddler named Ben, and had traveled to numerous states and foreign countries hiding from her ex-husband. She was only six and a half months older than I, but it might as well have been ten years. I drew her chart and her son’s, whose chart closely resembled mine. Her son and I both had a Gemini sun and planets in a grand sextile, an unusual configuration resembling the star of David. I saw her every day for the next few weeks.
I was crazy about her, crazy being the operative word. She always had business out of town. She’d leave, show up a few days later. I didn’t ask what she was doing, didn’t know, didn’t care. She’d be back, we’d be together, she’d leave again.
There was a reason. I didn’t know until years later, but she was smuggling dope. She’d fly to Colombia dressed as a society girl and sew a few ounces of coke into her four-year-old’s teddy bear. Ben would pitch a fit if anyone tried to take away his old bear. It worked well. When she’d come back, there was coke all over town. I could take or leave it. I’d snort if it was passed around, but if the door to the den closed, I stayed in the living room. I never shot up.

Charts & Ching
I got on with my life. A temporary job at Blowing Rock Elementary, washing dishes. At night, classes at community college. I saw Beth when she was in town.
In June I rented a room in a rural house, and a friend and I, a former sailor who went by the nickname Tea, rented the left side of the Beadworks. We decorated it Oriental style, named it Charts & Ching. I drew astrology charts and did other forms of divination. Tea, who knew Chinese, read the I Ching. I was there every day; Tea showed up once or twice a week. George and Wanda broke up and left the business that summer, Chris and Sam that winter. Allen, Lisa and Bill were usually at concerts or craft fairs, so often I was alone. Beth left her four-year-old at the shop when she was working.
The routine continued. Go to the shop, to school, then home, start again in the morning. I’d do astrology, read a palm, throw tarot cards. For the I Ching, I preferred the traditional method. Counting bundles of yarrow stalks is more contemplative than tossing coins, which leaves more time for evaluation and conversation.
Outside of the technical aspects, reading a fortune involves psychology, and a lot of talk. Everyone has their technique, and whether the I Ching, palmistry, tarot or astrology, mine was to start slowly and follow a defined ritual. I’d sit directly across from a client, ask questions, find their concerns and put them at ease, all the while shuffling cards, counting yarrow stalks, observing their palm, etc.
Calculating astrological charts by hand is tricky and requires concentration, but we could chat when the preliminaries were in place. A person’s manner and bearing reveals a lot, even before the chart is finished. A quick glance in an ephemeris reveals the placements of the planets and important aspects, and the rest is fiddling around the edges, finding the degrees of the moon, planets, house cusps, placing the planets in the houses. Charts fit into patterns. Planets may be clumped together, spread all over or contained loosely in one half of the chart. Sometimes one planet is particularly prominent or isolated, which is itself a quick clue. I also knew the planetary placements on the date and time a client entered, which told me more, and what to expect in my own chart that day, which told me still more. From there, I’d move to specifics.
If clients wanted palm readings I’d have them place their hands flat on the table, palms down. There are correspondences between the hands and an astrological chart, and I’d note the positions of each finger in relation to the others, the length of each finger and the spread of the space the client maintained between them. After seeing what I could, I’d take their hands, together, in mine, feel their texture and look at the differences between the palms. I’d then take one or the other and explain the palm, from the outside in. The center finger, being the longest and its tip the furthest from the body, represents the furthest traditional planet, Saturn. The thumb is closest, representing the moon. The other planets are in-between, in order of distance from the earth. The pads or “mounts” on the palm, and their relative prominence, reveal themes in life, which I’d explain, always working inwards towards the wrist. After these preliminaries came the lines, and their significance.
I’d introduce the tarot to a client wanting a card reading, but wouldn’t explain much. I’d ask them to think about their questions while they put the cards in order; whatever order suited their fancy. This was quite revealing. Some were uncomfortable putting them in order, and asked dozens of questions. Others simply separated them into suits and piled them up. I’d observe and ask questions, deliberately and delicately. They were my cards; I treated them with reverence. Slowly and carefully, I’d shuffle them as we discussed the client’s concerns, and they’d tell me when they thought we were ready. I’d then explain the spread, which was my own variation of a Celtic cross, and the meaning of the card positions. Only then would I lay out the first card. We’d discuss it and go to the next. At the end I’d ask for more questions. If there were none, I’d pick up the cards in the same order I’d laid them down.
I rarely used other types of divination, but I’d follow the same thoughtful, thorough path. On principle, I’d be diplomatic, but never lie. Difficult things need to be said. One should never be afraid of the truth. If a client has a short lifeline it’s important to tell them so. It doesn’t necessarily foretell a short life. Sometimes people take care of themselves, change their lifestyle and their life span, sometimes they don’t. A girl of fourteen that I knew had a very short life line. I told her so. It didn’t surprise her; she was relieved that I was honest about it. She had a genetic heart defect. Her brother had died at seventeen. She lived to be twenty-eight. Not old, but older than her brother.
I told what I saw, in the palm, in the chart, in the cards. People deserve to know. Some pay attention, but most people shop around for comfortable answers. There will always be an expert, a survey, a Bible verse, a scientist, a grandma who says differently. Some know what they’re talking about, most parrot what they’ve seen on TV or heard on the internet. Often the most knowledgeable people in one field are the most ignorant in another. I wouldn’t hire a brain surgeon to wire my house, why would I want a physicist to read my palm?
I was alone in the shop for the month of December. There wasn’t much business; Chris and Sam were vacationing in Mexico and Alan, Bill and Lisa were all ski instructors for the season. It wasn’t fun to ride my motorcycle in wind and snow, so I’d sleep there, in a sleeping bag. With little else to do, I picked up Chris’ tools and tried my hand at ring making.

Puzzle Rings

I was alone in the shop for the month of December. There wasn’t much business; Chris and Sam were vacationing in Mexico; Beth was off somewhere and Alan, Bill and Lisa were all ski instructors for the season. It wasn’t fun to ride home on my motorcycle in the snow, so I brought my sleeping bag to town. With little else to do all day, I picked up Chris’ tools and tried my hand at ring making.

Some older cousins had given me a puzzle ring when I was 15. They had puzzle rings for wedding bands, and I’d been so fascinated that they’d sent me one as a birthday gift. I’d worn it in high school, but one day in science lab I took it off to wash up, and forgot it. An hour or so later I went back. It was gone. It could’ve been stolen, but was more probably knocked to the floor, came apart, and was swept up as trash.

Anyway, with everyone gone and time on my hands, I played with paper clips and figured out the special weave. At 5 pm, I started making a ring. I’d welded steel, but knew nothing about soldering silver except what I’d seen in the shop. I soldered, banged and twisted wires all night, cut and re-soldered them, banged some more, twisted, filed and polished. By 6 am I had a god-awful looking ring–but it was mine! I’d made it!

I tried again the next day. This ring took 3 or 4 hours to make instead of 13, and looked much better. I ordered some tools and silver, and by the time Chris and Sam came back I’d made a dozen rings. I gave them as Christmas gifts that year.

Not only did I start making Turkish wedding bands, I started marrying couples, as a minister! I’d sent a postcard to the Universal Life Church that summer, and was ordained, “for free, for life, without question of faith”. This fit me precisely, as I’ve always felt none can judge the faith of another.

There wasn’t any ritual. I asked a few questions, then pronounced Wiley and Debbie man and wife, as we all rode down the road in the back of Jay Johnson’s pickup. All of us were high as a kite, on a combination of chemicals Wiley had purchased for the occasion

Marriage? Probably Not.

My romance with Beth sputtered along. She’d show up occasionally, appearing unannounced at night school or calling me from out of town. I wanted to wait her out, and didn’t have anything else going on.

According to her, she crazy needed to marry. She wanted another child right away; her son was four, and she wanted any brothers or sisters to be close in age.  It seemed silly to me–what difference would a year make? I’d have married her, but not in a rush. She got involved with one guy after another, bouncing around, a couple weeks with one, then another. I wasn’t happy about it, but couldn’t change it.

One day in late summer, I hadn’t seen her for three weeks or a month. I was in the sun working on my truck when a beautiful German girl drove by and asked me directions to a party. I ended up riding with her and her roommate, and spending the weekend.  It was the first time in over a year I’d gone out with another girl, and I really needed to.

Irmalee didn’t want to stay with me, after our weekend. I didn’t understand why. Depressed, I went back to my house in the country, but the same night, Beth climbed through my bedroom window. I was happy to see her, but thoroughly confused. The last time we’d talked, we’d sort of broken up. She’d said our relationship was too serious, that I was too serious. She needed someone shallow, meaningless. We had a long, disjointed talk about spiritual needs and such, which ended inconclusively. 

This didn’t seem spiritual to me. I didn’t understand how she could talk spirituality, karma, responsibility, marriage~and then run around looking for shallow, meaningless relationships, but that was her plan. She said she loved me, respected me deeply, that I was her wizard, but that she wasn’t worthy of the wizard. I said yes, she was, and that I loved her too. She still left.

In the end she found a guitar player in a shiny suit.  She came to me one day with their two charts, asking if they’d be good as business partners. Any astrologer knows a partnership is delineated similarly to a marriage, and I knew what was up.

They had certain things in common. Both had been married before. He was an Aquarian named Michael, like her first husband, though he went by Luke. This disappointed George, who’d been interested in Beth after Wanda had left–with a guy named Luke!

They left town to marry, and I wrote a letter of congratulations, though my heart wasn’t in it.  She sent back a very strange letter, saying it was something she had to do, that she was trying hard to fly but her wings were clipped, reiterating familiar themes. She was the temple prostitute. I was the grand wizard. Oh, what karma befalls the Wise One, etcetera. She signed it, Love & Light, Eliza-Beth. 

It was a very weird letter to receive from a newlywed, but so it was. I got on with my life, but I was empty. I met a very nice girl, an art student named Sylvia, and were an item into the fall, but she had problems too. Her brother had committed suicide the year before. I was heartsick, she was hurting. We couldn’t help each other.


I wanted a radical change in my life, but didn’t know what to do about it. I continued with school and my shop. I’d have loved to have been in a band, had it not churned up in me so much indigestion. I certainly wanted to see more places. I’d been to about twenty states, but many we’d passed through only stopping for gas. I wanted to explore. One of the Avery County Women, June, gave me some addresses of her friends in Cortland and Ithaca, NY.

It took awhile, but in the spring of 1978 I was ready. In March I’d left the shop, and was finished with school. I was ready to leave, pack on my back. I’d bring along silver, and had figured how to pack exactly twelve items–a hammer, ring mandrel, file, pliers, polish in a sock, flux, three sizes of silver wire and three types of silver solder. I’d pack a basic, but complete, astrology book, a knife, clothes, a sleeping bag, a pad to sleep on and two sturdy leaf bags duct-taped end-to-end for a weather barrier to sleep in. I had cologne, soap, a comb, toothbrush, harmonica and several other items. I was ready to go to Denver. I made plans once or twice which fell through, but in May the girl who’d rented my room on the porch when I’d moved to the country, Kathy, decided to check out a communal farm in Summertown, Tennessee. My friend Bobby and I went along. We stayed a couple days. It’d been started by a caravan of California hippies a few years earlier, and was very interesting indeed. Everyone was vegetarian, and everyone worked. You’d work wherever you wanted to, but you worked. We transplanted tomatoes and took part in discussions, but they had lots of rules that we weren’t interested in following. Kathy went north to see her family. Bobby and I hitchhiked west. We were in Denver by the next afternoon.

Denver, Again

It was great fun showing Bobby the neighborhood where I grew up. Monk had left the temple and moved to San Diego, but was now back visiting for a couple weeks. We stayed at his house for 3 days while Bobby learned about the West. At first Bobby was annoyed. He was used to small-town life. He’d walk around town, nod at people, wave, say hi. They’d turn away. I told him people were friendly, but their customs were different. I explained that if he nodded at people, it implied that he recognized them. Strangers, disoriented, would look away. He still grumbled. On the third day we sat down at a bus stop on Colfax Avenue. There was a black fellow there, drinking something from a paper bag. We said howdy, and he shared his bottle with us–peach brandy.

We explored with him for an hour or so, met his friends and scored half an ounce of really good pot. Bobby finally understood what I’d been saying, and quit complaining.

Later that Saturday we went to a wedding party given by some of Monk’s friends. I surprised myself with some social faux pas on my own. I’d been five years away from the city, and was now more of a hillbilly than I’d realized. On Sunday afternoon we were on the porch at Monk’s house and, without a plan, everyone from the old days showed up. My first date, Monk’s sister Carole, was down from Wyoming for the weekend. Brother Dick and his wife Wendy (whom I’d known since high school) showed up from out of town, Luanne and her family drove over from Aurora, and Margaret, Ruth and Jim appeared, completing the family. Our old friend Wayne came by from a few blocks away, where he lived in his parents’ basement, and while we were sitting on the porch the last member of our old gang, Tom, drove in unannounced from Fort Collins. It was all of us. Even Paddy the dog was there, the puppy who was now 13 years old. We talked over old times, and Tom remarked that it’d probably be 15 or 20 years before all of us could even plan to pull off such a gathering again. He was right. It never happened.

After Colorado, I hitchhiked home while Bobby left for the West Coast. He was gone for 3 months in the Pacific Northwest, including British Columbia. I’d have explored more, but had to get back, as an acquaintance had planned to buy my motorcycle but never paid me. I had a date with the magistrate. The motorcycle was back when I returned, but he had to pay my filing fee. In all, I was gone nine days.

It turned out that Beth and Luke had visited North Carolina for a week. I was rather pleased that I wasn’t there. I didn’t want to see either one of them.

When back in town I did craft fairs, sold rings and tended to Christmas trees for a short while, then headed for Canada. I’d learned to pack about 30 pounds less. I went first to my brother Sam’s apartment in New Haven, Connecticut, where I stayed a few days and had a marvelous time. I continued to my uncle’s home in Sudbury, Massachusetts, where I painted his house, made some rings and stayed for two or three weeks. From there I went to Maine to find a friend of a friend in Bar Harbor, but Jan was out of town and I continued on to Cadillac Mountain to watch the sunrise as it first appeared on United States soil. It was windy, cold and very dry that year, and was posted No Fires Allowed. I decided it wouldn’t be any fun to sleep in the open without a fire, so I turned around and found a sheltered spot.

I rolled out my sleeping bag and pad, stuffed them into the double leaf bag barrier, loosened up my pants, took off my shoes, stuffed them into my pack, put my shoulder bag inside the sleeping bag and used my backpack as a pillow, hooking my arm through the straps.  It would’ve been difficult for anyone to steal anything from me, but I slept in secluded places and certainly didn’t look like I had a lot of cash to flash anyway. 


The next morning I hitched to Calais, Maine, which I’d seen featured in the Reader’s Digest. It was a little town where community services were shared with the town of St. Stephen, New Brunswick, just over the Canadian border. The article was illustrated with a picture of two fire trucks, one from each side of the border, putting out a house fire together.

I crossed the border and spent a very pleasant afternoon in St. Stephen. I’d brought along $100 to prove I wasn’t a vagrant, and had several silver puzzle rings I’d made during my stay in Massachusetts. I sold one to a Canadian fellow for Canadian money, with which I bought lunch and went to a movie. The movie was horrible–a low-budget “snuff film” called “Jeannie’s Teenage Fantasies”–and I walked out, for the first time ever. I hung around in the park awhile, then towards dusk I put out my thumb. I walked a little ways out of town, then looked down a long driveway and saw a small house, a cheery fire burning in its fireplace. Very picturesque–but there was something odd about it. The fireplace looked to be three feet off the floor–and the fire was getting brighter. I realized–the house was on fire! The living room was full of flames! Soon I heard sirens, the St. Stephen fire truck pulled up–and then the Calais, Maine fire truck! They’d driven straight out of the pages of Reader’s Digest!

The house was hopeless. They sprayed a little water around to keep the fire from spreading, then pulled it down.

As I watched the show, a Canadian kid walked up. We talked a bit, and he told me to wait right there. He returned about fifteen minutes later with a nice full bag of fresh green homegrown Canadian pot, which I enjoyed for the rest of my Canadian adventure.

I slept under a bridge that night. Bridges are wonderful places to crash. There’s a flat place up under the roadbed just wide enough for a sleeping bag, well sheltered from the weather.

In the morning I started across New Brunswick. It was disorienting seeing speed limits of 100 or 110 when in the USA the limit was 55. The Canadian speed limit was higher, but also was measured in kilometers. My first ride explained a quick way to tell miles per hour–multiply the first digit of the speed limit by six. One hundred kilometers per hour is thus about 60 miles per hour. 

My next ride came from a uniformed Canadian soldier in a beret. We traded military stories and discussed our national differences. At the time gas in the states was about 65¢ a gallon, and it sounded crazy when he said that in Canada it was a dollar a gallon! That was a Canadian dollar, of course, worth about 85¢ US, and a Canadian or Imperial gallon, which was five quarts. The actual price was nearly equal, but a buck a gallon still sounded fantastically, incredibly expensive.

I arrived in Fredericton in the afternoon and went in a beverage house, which was a class of drinking establishments in New Brunswick. A beverage house would serve women, a bar would not. You could sit at a table and drink all day, but couldn’t stand up with a beer in hand. To move to another table you’d either call for the waitress or ask other customers to pass it along. There was a white line around the top of every glass–a foam line. The beer had to touch it.

The Frenchies

I met a bilingual fellow in the beverage house, and we had a conversation with a couple of girls in French–he translating for me, they practicing their English. I knew Spanish, which helped me figure out a few words but was otherwise useless.

After a couple beers my new friend drove me to Moncton, a good stretch down the road. We went to a party; he’d thought I might stay there, but they spoke only French and I was a fifth wheel, so he took me to an “auberge de jeunuesse” or youth hostel. For a few bucks I had a place to clean up, do laundry, sleep and breakfast in the morning. I strolled around Moncton the next day, and bought a train ticket to Campbellton in the evening. At about 5 am, on the last day of August, I arrived, looked outside and there was frost ringing a puddle in the gutter! The days were long, that far north, but the nights were cold.

As I caught rides down the St. Lawrence Seaway through French Canada, I learned a lot of history and politics. The English won the French & Indian War in the 1760s and split up the French families, sending some members to France and others to Louisiana, which in the 1700s was like sending them to the moon. Many French hid out in the backwoods, which were wide-open and thinly-populated, or came back after the war, resettling Quebec.

New Brunswick is one-third French, but Quebec is three-quarters, and the French are in charge. French Canadians are different in a lot of ways. They live in little bitty houses and have great big barns. They don’t bother much about drinking beer in public, and even then beer bottles carried a hefty deposit of 10¢, with the interesting result that while people still discarded their bottles, there wasn’t a litter problem. A bottle by the side of the road was simply a dime for the next guy. There was a free and easy attitude about peeing, too. I saw several drivers pulled to the side of the road, letting it fly. I met a girl later who swore it wasn’t so, but I was there. They had a seatbelt law, years before the United States. One driver kept a ten-dollar bill on the dashboard. It was for the passenger, he explained to me in gestures and broken English. If we got stopped, $10 paid the fine.

Quebec is a huge area, almost as big as Alaska and many times more populous. It’s been officially bilingual for centuries, but there’s a strong undercurrent of French pride which frequently churns up. They do things their way. In Quebec City, all the stop signs had STOP spray-painted over, leaving only ARRÉT, and the English on most other official signs was defaced as well. I went into a bar in Quebec City and everyone pretended they didn’t understand English at all.

Not so a few hours down the road, in Montreal. A street festival was going on when I arrived, and there was music and dancing and carrying-on until the sky was dark, which at that latitude in the late summer was around 10 pm. I rolled out my sleeping bag behind some bushes and was awakened by the sunrise about 4 am. It was time to head back.

The States

The next morning I caught a ride through a little piece of Ontario and down into New York State. I had a couple friends of friends to find upstate, and about six weeks to enjoy the area.

One of the Original Avery County Women, June, was from upstate New York, and left me some addresses. The first was a couple who lived in the woods outside Cincinnatus. Neal drove a train. He and Joellen had a farm, a sawmill, two kids and a third on the way. I helped them out for a week, then went to Cortland to find another gal. June’s friend worked in a local bar, but wasn’t set up to take in a visitor, so I hung out and met a local named Maggie, who put me up for the night.  The next day I met Maggie’s friends. A gal named Barb, a year younger than me, had a son who was 7. Her boyfriend Al was in Hollywood pitching a cartoon series–the Corelians–that he’d dreamed up, and she was happy to have a man around the house. I cleaned up, fixed up, told stories, slept on her couch. I met lots of folks and very much enjoyed the area. 

After three weeks I called another friend of June’s.  Eileen lived in Ithaca, she was four and an half years older and had a toddler, Jubal, barely learning to walk. She’d also lived in Colorado, but had left two years before, when her fiancé had been killed in an accident. Eileen had a boyfriend, but no long-term plans. I slept in Jubal’s room, cooked, cleaned, minded the baby. We had had friends over and strolled around town together. One day she was making lasagna and left me while she went out. I made a sauce using everything in the kitchen–tomatoes, onions, garlic and olive oil, of course, but also walnuts, apricots, raisins, coconut, yogurt and a blue billion other things. Her friends talked about the sauce for weeks. For years. Every time I came to town I’d hear about the sauce. I couldn’t make it again, of course.

About October first, I headed back towards New Haven to again visit my brother. On the road, for the first time in years, I dropped a hit of acid a driver had given me. It was cold, damp, rainy, dark. A fellow picked me up, we started talking and then and there decided to drive to Florida. He packed a few things in his MG and we were off to Ormond Beach, where we arrived about twelve hours later. I wanted to see Key West, and continued towards Miami the next morning, but my next ride took me towards Orlando, the area where my mother’d grown up. I thought I’d explore a bit, but about noon was sitting by the side of the road in blistering heat, and changed my mind. I crossed the street to thumb back out, but an exceptionally cute girl had seen me, and had already turned around to pick me up. She liked my jewelry, and we drove around town looking for places to sell it for the next hour. Her name was Amy. She had two small kids and lived with a roomie in a suburban ranch house, where we ate lunch. We then went to the topless bar where her roomie worked, had some drinks and she dropped me off at the same spot where she’d picked me up. Planning way ahead, and being rather obvious about it, I asked her what town we were in. She said Kissimmee, so I did. We corresponded for awhile but lost touch, which was a shame.

I thumbed around the back roads of Florida for a few days, stopping here and there to make jewelry, sleeping in the bushes, eating the occasional grapefruit off the tree. A cop once picked me up, told me I couldn’t hitchhike there and gave me a ride to the city limit. In Miami several folks told me Key West was a pain that time of year, so I turned back up the coast.

I passed through Savannah, and on to Atlanta. I’d been dropped off in downtown Atlanta, and as I put down my pack a girl on the corner asked me where I was coming from. Her name was Virginia. She was visiting from Virginia. She took me to her hotel room to clean up, and while I was showering she joined me. She had freckles, all over her body. We had a lovely afternoon.

I had one more friend of June’s to meet. She worked in DC, and her name was Flo. From the beltway a fellow named Bert, in a beige Oldsmobile, gave me a ride to Flo’s place in Silver Spring. I stayed with Flo for several days, and helped Bert in the daytime.

Bert had narcolepsy. He transported blood for a couple hospitals, but would start to babble and fall asleep, so he needed a co-pilot. For the next week or so I rode with him and visited Flo and her friends at night. When I left, Bert was taking me to the freeway, but started to nod off. I took the wheel, with no idea where I was. When I saw the Washington Monument, it seemed  a good place to visit for a few minutes, but when I returned the police had awakened him and he’d driven off–with my pack! I called Flo, she came for me, and in the morning I called the numbers of blood services and hospitals until I found the one he worked for. The next day, he came by. Bert had college buddies in North Carolina to visit, so we ambled through Virginia, stopping every hour or so to eat or explore. We arrived in Winston-Salem at suppertime. I expected him to drop me off, but he insisted that I drive his car to Texas! I’d thumbed out of Boone in July, and returned in October, driving a car!


I wasn’t in Boone for long. A couple days later I headed for Texas, to look for a place to sell trees. My father had a friend in Laredo, so I drove there, picking up a hitchhiker on the way. Jude was a playwright, and my father had been in one of his plays. We went to Jude’s house, and Jude took us over the border to eat tacos and drink Mexican beer. Bill and I stayed at Jude’s while investigating the area, and one night we met a fellow named Pancho who lived on a ranch some miles outside town. With his friend Rick, we all went to Nuevo Laredo.  There was a red light district outside town. We drank Coronitas and danced with Mexican whores, but weren’t there for sex. I was really taken with a cutie named Maritza, she was smart, educated, friendly, beautiful and funny. In my journal that night I said I wanted to marry a Mexican whore!

After returning, we discovered we’d gone both ways across the border with a box of shotgun shells in the rear window, in plain view. We could have been busted, in either direction.

We had a wonderful time, and stayed in the barracks for the field hands at Pancho’s ranch that night.  There were two coolers next to the counter, one full of beer, the other liquor, and two cafeteria trays on the bar, one holding pot and the other dried peyote. We all partook, then crashed in the bunks. In the morning Pancho’s mother came through, saw the scene, picked up an empty bottle, shook her head and smiled.

The ranches are long and skinny in that part of Texas. Because water is at a premium, ranches start at the river’s edge and go for miles across the desert. We drove into town that afternoon, many miles on a dirt road and a short stretch on the freeway, and back to Jude’s house. He’d been a wonderful host, but three or four days into our stay told me we’d totally surprised him. My father hadn’t mentioned I was coming.

It was becoming clear that Laredo wasn’t the best place to sell trees.  It was small, dusty and didn’t have a strong Christmas tree tradition.  The first weekend in November, I left for Austin, to meet a dog.

Willy was John T’s dog. John was a Charleston native, like Beth.  His last name started with T, so he went by Johntee. He’d lived in the North Carolina mountains for awhile, and had left Willy with Beth while getting established in Texas. I met Willy in Austin, but not Johntee, though I had his Texas address. Jude, in Laredo, lived on a street of the same name. Several streets in Laredo and Austin share names; it had a deja-vu feel.

Since Johntee wasn’t in town when Bill and I arrived, Bill went off to explore. While I was parked across the street, a girl asked me where I was from. Jean had to move out of her apartment across the street, and had no place to stay for a couple days, so I offered her the back seat of my car. She slept there for a couple of nights, while we found a place. It was the

Johntee showed up the next evening. We played blues and jammed with friends, then visited afterwards over beers and burritos. I found temporary work cleaning out storage sheds at Texas Instruments the next morning; it was exceptionally interesting. There were electro-mechanical adding machines for room-sized computers, their number keys hooked to servo units with wiring harnesses. There were digital-display vacuum tubes, reel-to-reel storage tapes, punch cards, high-quality 4-track tape players, all headed for the trash. All obsolete. The job was supposed to last 2 days but lasted 4, and I filled my trunk with interesting junk.

I checked for tree lots, and found a good spot just north of the freeway on Airport Boulevard. Nobody answered at the house next door, but a fellow from the neighborhood told me a crazy old lady lived there, and that I should wait awhile and try again. I sat on the curb, played my harmonica and knocked again. No response. I needed to pee, and it was secluded, so I watered her tree. When I turned around, she’d answered the door. Mary indeed proved to be an old crazy lady. Her house was filled from socks to eyebrows with old newspapers and piled-up junk. She had a dozen or two cats, but she was sweet, and rented me her lot for a very good price. I drove back to North Carolina with Bill in tow, and we spent the week before Thanksgiving readying 600 white pines. After Thanksgiving we rented a U-Haul truck and towed my brother’s 1968 Dodge Coronet to Texas.  Austin was a popular destination that year and carried a $250 surcharge, so we returned it to Waco. The next year U-Haul red-lined the whole state of Texas, so we contracted it to somewhere in Louisiana, paid the mileage charge, lost our $75 deposit and still came out over $100 to the better. It became our modus operandi.

Selling trees was truly fun. We were Austins, in Austin. Everyone remembered our names. My father ran a radio commercial on the local country station, adopting the persona of a friendly hick. He said he was a small tree farmer–just over four feet tall, though he usually wore boots! He had two boys and a dog named Booger, who was part Great Dane and part wolf. Everyone came to see Booger, but Booger was always out for a walk.

We had a good location and the best trees in town. The business in Austin had been dominated by trees from the North, cut in October before it snowed and trucked down on huge open trailers. After two months and a thousand miles of highway wind, the trees were tinder-dry, brittle, and sharp to the touch. Tree handlers wore thick leather gloves, and long sleeves. Our trees had been cut just before Thanksgiving, and packed in a closed van, covered with snow. They were fresh, fluffy, soft. We’d push them into people’s hands, and they’d instinctively pull back, then were amazed when the fresh white pine needles didn’t sting at all.  We’d take a small branch, tie it in a knot and tell them to take it to the other tree lots.  Nobody could match it, and it caused a sensation.

I took off one day the whole month, and had to fight with my father for that. Jean had come by, and by the 18th, sales were slowing down, so I visited Johntee and a few friends. By the 22nd we’d sold over 500 trees, and those left were small and scraggly. On our last day a fellow came by needing a dozen trees, to hide materials on a building job. My father gave them to him, told Mary he’d sold them at a “special rate”, and Mary tucked away the last 50 in a corner of her lot. We arrived in North Carolina two days before Christmas. Bert had picked up his car while we were gone; I’d planned to visit him again, but not long afterwards I got a letter from his mother. He’d passed away.

Back to the West

I hung around Boone until February, then left for Denver with my brother. I didn’t stay long, but visited a few “real” bars I hadn’t been able to enter when I was under 21. One close to the barber shop was a dive called the Satire Lounge. I stopped in for a beer, and a girl sat next to me. Kay was very drunk, and soon passed out. I looked after her until closing time, and offered to walk her home, but she refused. She immediately stumbled into the path of a passing pickup truck.  I ran over. She had a deep gash in her scalp. I could see her skull, but calmly told her what had happened. The ambulance and the cops arrived, at the same time. I talked to a cop and told him no, it wasn’t the driver’s fault, then went along to the hospital and held her hand for some hours while they stitched her up. Her brother arrived, thanked me and took me back to my brother’s apartment, where I slept for a long time. 

The next day. I left for Boulder to see Paul, the friend who’d nearly been electrocuted in my kitchen a few years earlier.  He’d rented a metal detector that morning, had found a few pennies and lots of bottle caps. I tried it. About 2 steps away, next to his sidewalk, I found a 1910-S dime!  He’d been looking all day, but inside of 3 seconds, not 3 feet away, I found a rare, valuable, silver dime! I tried to give it to him, but he insisted I keep it.

Paul had been in a military school when I left for California, but he’d now grown his hair out.  We spent the day wandering Boulder, catching up, visiting friends. A couple days later my brother dropped me off at the freeway entrance. Before I’d reached the bottom of the ramp, I had a ride. We drove to southern Colorado, stayed the night in a motel, and  my driver dropped me off in the morning. As I was pulling my pack from his trunk, I stuck out my thumb. I had a ride, to Los Angeles!  I’d spent less than a minute hitchhiking, and gone from Denver to LA! 

About the time we’d left California, my brother’s buddy Arthur’s parents had split up, and he’d moved to Boone to live with our family. After high school graduation, he’d moved back. Arthur picked me up in town and we spent the next week looking up old friends. It had only been a few years, but almost everyone in the old neighborhood had left. I only knew Kenny, from across the street, and our next door neighbor Jennifer, who was now a teenager. She recognized me, but I didn’t recognize her!

My mother’s first name is Dorothy, and her aunt from Georgia always called her Dottie. In one of those frequent, travel-related coincidences, the woman who now lived in our Minnehaha Street house was named Dottie, came from Georgia, resembled my mother and was also a teacher.

The neighborhood around Pete’s Rental had changed, too. The shack, which had remained for a year or more, had now been replaced by a large building containing offices and a bus garage. Neither did any of the nearby businesses remain, though three blocks away the Troubadour still stood.

Arthur was a sound man for various bands, and eventually became an electrician.  He lived with several roommates in a ramshackle ranch house in Encino. One was a delectable red-haired girl who dried off by the fireplace after showering. Julia, wet, inspired many of my wet dreams.

After a week at Arthur’s I hitchhiked towards San Diego to see Monk, intending to see Tijuana as well. At my drop-off I met a fellow who was covered in tattoos, which was something of a rarity in the ’70s. He was friendly enough, but as we talked I realized he was crazy. His tattoos were all skulls, guns, knives, manacled hands, WHITE PRIDE on his back arms. All he talked about was crime and criminals.  He’d just gotten out of prison, and he was really proud that he’d met Sonny Barger, who ran the Hell’s Angels, and had given him extra pudding. He’d written reams of bad poetry, which he quoted, dealing with revenge, armed robbery, Nazis, etc. I was glad I had a film canister full of cayenne in my jacket, and a knife I could open with one hand. When hitchhiking, I’m friends with everyone, but I’m not naive.

He’d been beaten up the night before. Some Army guys had given him a ride, but had taken his fighting chain, gun, buck knife, extra clothes and $300. I didn’t mention that I thought that was a good thing.

I pulled out my map book and showed him how to get to Mattoon, Illinois. He memorized the highways. I offered to write them down, but he didn’t want to bother.

As we waited in a wide spot off the freeway, a cop stopped and ticketed us. I wasn’t exactly “on” the freeway exit, and might not have gotten my one and only ticket for hitchhiking had I not been with Mr. WHITE PRIDE, but that’s life. We split up. He went one way, I the other. I got a notice in the mail months later, but didn’t thumb back the 2300 miles in time to appear in court, so I suppose I’m wanted in California. They haven’t extradited me yet.

I didn’t see Monk, nor Tijuana. I thumbed along instead to Boulevard, where I stayed on a ranch with a couple of Bahais outside town. It was the month of Ramadan (the month I was born), so we didn’t eat anything until sundown, then had a big bowl of grains for dinner. Very good. On St. Patrick’s Day they dropped me off at a bridge next to the freeway. By law I should’ve been at the top of an entrance, but there wasn’t much traffic and the driver recommended that I stand to the far side of a concrete divider, off the roadbed and so at least borderline legal. I caught a ride from there to Highway 98, where I hiked along the side of the road for several hours before catching another. Late in the afternoon a uniformed Marine picked me up. He was a Mexican national who’d joined the military to gain US citizenship. We rode to the Arizona border, and just before sunset he stopped at the Yuma exit to drop me off. I didn’t know it then, but in the next half-hour more threads would form linking to other parts of my life than any several years put together.


Three drunk Mexicans, in a van, butted him in the rear.

He wasn’t happy, and started a fight with all three. They were screaming in Spanish, spitting, punching, kicking. I was in the fight, whether I wanted to be or not.

The Marine was handling the two biggest guys, and a smaller fellow and I were more or less observing. With a sigh, as if he really didn’t want to, he raised his fist to hit me. I grabbed him by the arm, leaned into him, swung him and threw him about 15 or 20 feet down the road, where he lay, spread-eagled, not wanting to get up. The others saw it was now two-on-two and paused. I made some remark about cops. The magic word! They jumped into their van and drove away, over my pack, which tore it up a bit. I picked up my stuff, tied it together and started across the road.  As I stood on the median between the two states, an Arizona cop car drove up. Out popped a pretty girl, in a sheriff car, with a single bubble-gum machine on top! She asked me about the fight, and while I started to tell her the details, the California cops arrived. Two big guys, with a cage in the back, a rack decorated with shotguns and a light bar with twenty or more blinking lights across the roof. I thought, I’m sure glad I’m in Arizona, flirting with this chick, instead of ten feet away in California, being grilled by the World Wrestling tag team!

After telling her my story, all the cops drove off. A few seconds later, my driver showed up, looking for his glasses.  Twenty seconds earlier, he could have told his own story to the cops, but I’m not sure he wanted to.  We looked around and didn’t find them, but I found a utility razor blade pounded into a flattened piece of copper pipe, which I kept as a souvenir.

I was glad to see the end of California.  Coastal states are a pain to hitchhike in, because most drivers are local, driving only to the next town. Inland, many folks are journeying hundreds or thousands of miles.

It was dusk now, and I was in Arizona, so I went to the bottom of the entrance ramp. Three guys were there~one a local, one from Scotland, one from Wales.  They’d seen the lights, and I told them my story.  They pulled out a pipe filled with hash, which we passed around.  We exchanged adventure stories, the three of them left to hop a freight train, and I was alone. The sun was setting and traffic had slacked off, so I pulled out my penny whistle. I heard a shout, “Hey hitchhiker!”. By the river were several folks next to a campfire.  “Ya want some grub?!” I scampered down the hill.

A motley crew. Some folks lived in buses or step vans, some in tents. On the fire was a huge pot of beans and a variety of dishes. They were seasonal workers, picking oranges and grapefruits. We sat around the fire, talking and playing music into the night.  I pulled out my sleeping bag, slept under the stars, and in the morning they gave me a huge bag of fruit.  I went back to the freeway and in twenty minutes caught a ride with a Vietnam vet.  We ate oranges and drank beer all the way to Tucson. I got another ride late in the afternoon, and crashed on his sofa.  The next night was back in Austin. Jean had moved once more, but I found her at work. We spent the week  together.

It was late March, tree-trimming time, and I had to head out, dropping in on one of my South Carolina cousins on the way. It was the first time I’d talked with her, away from the family. We smoked some pot and I stayed there for the night. She took me to visit her work, which was an eye-opener. She and her husband worked in a state facility for the profoundly retarded. Fully grown men and women, behaving like infants. Some could say a few words, but many couldn’t talk at all. Occasionally one would take a notion to run around naked, grinning and giggling.  She was even-tempered and matter-of-fact, but I wouldn’t have wanted the job even for good money.  She and her husband later broke up. I wondered if work had affected their marriage, but they had other issues which my cousin hadn’t mentioned.

April Fool

I returned to Boone on the evening of April Fool’s Day and was immediately invited to a party, where I met a “kissin’ cousin”. I’d grown up thousands of miles away, and had never kissed a girl who was just a little bit kin.  Margo was related through my grandfather’s brother’s family, which made her a third or fourth cousin, and was niece to another cousin. I saw her for awhile, and we kissed a few more times, but nothing more developed.

I was in Boone for the spring. I received a weird letter from Beth in Arizona, again full of talk about the karma which befalls the wizard (me), how she was smothering in domesticity, and so forth, enclosing a picture of the cutest, sweetest, happiest baby I’d ever seen.  I wrote her back – I’ve no idea what I said – and made plans to leave town again, to go away, far away.

There was another kink in my plans.  I’d been visiting a friend called Sam. I’d leaned my bike on the fence in front of his apartment while he made martinis and I rolled a couple joints.  A knock came on the screen door. There were 2 cops standing there, one a regular Boone cop and the other a high school kid dressed up in a blue uniform for Career Day.  Sam, in the kitchen, yelled “Come on in!”, and they did.

I was caught, green-handed. We went to jail. My mother bailed me out 20 minutes later, but Sam spent the night.

That same weekend, I went to a party near my house, and the kid who had been in uniform was there, underage drinking. He filled me in on the details.  The neighbors on the far side of the fence had called the cops, and he was along for the ride.  When the court date came late that spring, the cop didn’t show and all was dismissed.  Sam called the cops on his neighbors half-a-dozen times in the next few months, for every bogus reason he could dream up.

To the North

I trimmed trees, then left in the early summer. My brother had written a musical, and it was performed by the Yale Dramat for their graduation, one of a very few times the play had been written by a student.  Sam had done well at Yale, and had joined Skull and Bones. My family drove to Connecticut, where Fran stayed for a summer class at Yale before continuing at Michigan State. I met Sam’s friends and his girlfriend Patience, then went through Vermont and New Hampshire just to add them to my list. I stayed the night in Brattleboro with college students in a big house, then caught a ride with two girls vacationing from Panama City, Florida through Vermont and into New York State.

I’d met a fellow in Arizona who lived in Cohoes, NY, so I went there next. I saw him pitch and win a baseball game, then stayed for dinner and slept on his porch. His mother made sandwiches for me to take along, and I spent the day in Cohoes and Troy, across the river. Both towns were a little shabby, but had their charms. Troy claimed to be the home of Uncle Sam, and had painted all the fire hydrants with patriotic themes and personalities for the recent bicentennial. Cohoes had spruced up  to match.

That evening arrived in Cortland. Barb was laid up with the flu, and I immediately opened all her windows, made her tea, swept up, did her laundry and generally took care of her for the next week. Her son Noel was Uncle Rat in a play at school, and excelled. 

Barb filled me in on what had happened in Cortland. Maggie, the first girl I’d met, was living with Barb’s old boyfriend Al in Rochester. She and Maggie traded off men, Barb said, and they’d been romantically involved with a number of each other’s boyfriends through the years. I spent a few more days in Cortland. A botanist friend of Barb’s named Phil picked and cooked for us the red spotted mushrooms which decorate pictures in fairy tales, amanita muscaria. Raw, they’re mildly toxic, but after cooking they’re fine. We all had a good trip. 

From Cortland, I went to Ithaca to find Eileen, but she wasn’t at her previous address, so I hung out on the Ithaca Commons. A tall black girl named Mia started a conversation with me, and we went to a sandwich place for lunch. While we were on the terrace, a guy I knew from Cortland walked by. Eric worked in the art museum at Cornell, was an ex-boyfriend of Eileen’s new roommate, and though he hadn’t met her yet, he was later to marry Maggie! I stayed the night at Eileen’s, and in the morning caught a ride to Binghampton, then to Rocky Mount, NC.

Home Again

I was in Boone until August. Turning scraggly trees into Christmas trees is work, and we had thousands. Pines grow like crazy in every direction, but can only be trimmed in a two-week window in the early summer. Firs and spruces, left to themselves, will grow fat around the bottom and send up sprouts in the center, which compete with each other. The tree grower manages the sprouts and trims the sprawl at the bottom. All trees need mowing, between rows and under their boughs, so I was busy.

I joined a grocery co-op which had acquired an old building downtown.  For reduced prices on groceries, I worked a couple days a month. I sat on a bench, added up items, calculated tax and gave a total~all in my head; there was no cash register, and I didn’t use a calculator. Like any skill, adding up numbers mentally gets easier with practice, and I did it well. One day a customer came in with several items. I called out each price and kept a running total – “59¢ plus 43¢ is $1.02, 77¢ more is $1.79, $1.19 on that is $2.98, 35¢ more is $3.33, three percent tax is 10¢, total $3.43” He didn’t believe me. He aggressively and repeatedly insisted I couldn’t do it, took the calculator and added up his total–exactly $3.43. It’s fun to be right.

Not long afterwards I was sitting in a bar, minding my own business, when a fellow I vaguely recognized sat across from me. He started a conversation, and after a few preliminaries turned it to astrology. I hear you know how to draw charts, he said. Well, yes, I said. Can you tell me what my sign is?, he asked.  Well, I don’t know, I replied. He became hostile.  “I’ll bet you can’t,” he declared, and I thought, he’s getting hot, over a matter of no consequence. I said he was likely a fire sign–Aries, Leo or Sagittarius, and started explaining why. He cut me off. “You don’t know what my sign is!” he screamed. “You can’t do it!  Astrology is bullshit!  You can’t tell my sign!  You can’t tell me! You can’t do it!”

Well, jeez, I thought, this guy flares up quick. I was quite sure now that he was indeed a fire sign. Leo, the fixed sign, wouldn’t flare up that quickly, which left Aries and Sagittarius. Aries, the cardinal sign, probably would have come on strong initially, and started the conversation with a challenge. Sagittarius, the mutable sign, seemed the best fit, as he started cool, then suddenly flared up.

“Sagittarius,” I said.

Whoosh! All his fire rushed out, as if through his ears. He physically deflated. He made one more, feeble, attempt– “Well, what’s my birthday, then?”

I had nothing to lose– “December 3rd”, I said, as it was directly opposite my own birthday.

I missed by a week–his was December 10th–and had I actually tried I may have divined the proper date, as he was sitting a bit left of directly opposite. But you work with what you have. Every time I saw him afterwards, I called him Sagittarius.

Sunny Days

It was a summer for weddings, and I officiated at my first ceremony. I’d ministered once before, but without much of a ceremony; the couple and I were in the bed of a pickup truck, rolling down the road. They said their “I do’s”, I pronounced them man and wife and signed the paper.

This was a hippie wedding. I wore my homemade blue and white denim suit, blue and white denim hat, a white shirt with a homemade blue denim bowtie, blue jeans and white sneakers. The vows were based on one suggested by the Universal Life Church, with amendments by the wedding couple.  The only thing missing was a license, which they both derided as “just another piece of paper.”

Both had been divorced. Del had left a wife and kids in California. Cathy had been married the year before, to a guy we all knew as Tony Lombardo.

Tony, Cathy, George, Del, Beth and a few others had all lived in a big house in Blowing Rock. Tony said his family was from the north of Italy, and claimed vague Mafia connections. He was hard to pin down; when Cathy had me draw their charts, Tony said he didn’t know his precise time and place of birth, as he’d been born at sea in the North Atlantic. When they had me draw the chart for their newborn baby Liza, I saw immediately the connections between mother and daughter, but few to the father. George remarked, with Tony there, that Cathy and Tony wouldn’t be married long, a prophecy I’d avoided stating, but which quickly came to pass.

Tony had always been honest in his dealings with me–he probably thought it’d be bad luck to tick off a wizard–but had ripped off others, and was increasingly paranoid. One day when his wife unexpectedly entered the room he swung around and pointed a shotgun at her.

The marriage was over. Tony, Cathy and Liza all left the house that night. When the divorce came through we all found out his real name. John Smith. He was from California.

Two weeks after Del and Cathy’s wedding, my brother Robin was married and I was best man. Anne’s family was bitterly divided; her father Grant had married a girl from “the other side of the tracks.” when he was nineteen. Grant was an only child whose parents were wealthy. Susie’s owned nothing. Susie was sixteen when Anne came along, and two years later was pregnant when Grant was killed in a road racing accident. Grant’s parents took Anne to live with them before Danna was born, and never gave Anne back. They battled in court, but Anne remained with the grandparents and Danna stayed with Susie. They grew up separately, and the wedding was the first time since then that many of the members of the two families had spoken. Anne passed out a sea of corsages and tried to get everyone to socialize, which was somewhat successful.

Like any wedding, it had its moments. The flower girl saw the full church, lost her nerve and made a beeline for the nearest pew. My brother Sam played “Annie’s Song”,  but it was the wrong “Annie’s song”. The preacher called both bride and groom “Robin”, but the wedding came off well, and the newlyweds left for Denver the next day.


I had an invitation to the Rockville Regatta in August, from my Texas friend Johntee, who was back in Charleston, SC. I’d planned to hitch out on the first weekend, but heard of a class at a large farm in Valle Crucis, NC, which was billed as an Earth College. Several students lived and worked there, more or less under the tutelage of a free-spirited professor named Bob. There was a one-day class I wanted to attend on sharpening tools, so I visited overnight.

The class was a waste of my time, given by a pontificating fool. He insisted on a perfectly flat whetstone, a certain stroking motion, a special type of oil, etc., none of which I could imagine Daniel Boone caring about while trekking through the wilderness. I already knew how to use a wet or oiled rock to sharpen an axe or knife, then to strop it on my blue jeans. One of my cowboy customers in Texas had already remarked that the hatchet I used to trim trees was sharper than his pocket knife. Marcus was at the class also, and he enticed me back to Blowing Rock, where I stayed the night, heading for Charleston, S.C. two mornings later than I’d intended.

Almost all my rides–at least six–were in the back of pickup trucks, and I arrived in Charleston that evening. I found Johntee, and we explored the Charleston night life. It was one of the wilder towns I’d seen. One bar was open to the weather; it was in the corner of an old building, and there was no glass in several of its windows. I was particularly impressed with its “decor”, featuring “artworks” made by customers. A male skeleton made of dowels and rope with his hand wrapped around a huge “extra” bone looked down from the rafters over the women’s bathroom, which was walled off from the bar, but open on top. Other  creations, in varying levels of depravity, hung from the rafters, on the walls, or sat by the bar. At closing time there was no way to lock the place; the liquor was placed in a safe, and everyone went home.

We attended the Rockville Regatta that weekend. I accidentally left my pack in Charleston, which meant that I had only a shirt and shorts.  The shirt was OK, but the shorts were too tight, and frayed. In the typical hippie style, I hadn’t worn underwear. I started to get overexposed. I borrowed a needle and thread and sat in the living room, bare bottomed, but mostly covered by a small towel, and sewed them up.

One of Johntee’s guests liked what she saw. Genie talked with me the rest of the afternoon, and later that night we crawled into the back of Johntee’s step-van and curled up together.

Johntee had an old post office van, with right-side drive. There was only one seat, but the dashboard was deep and one could sit on it, with one’s back facing traffic, to the driver’s left. It appeared that the driver was facing backwards, but Johntee, on the “passenger” side, was the actual driver.

Charleston’s history goes back centuries. Johntee’s ancestors had been there since the 1600’s, and it was so with many other folks I met there, both black and white. In Charleston parlance they were “been-heres” (pronounced, in the local dialect, “Benyas”)  while others, whose grandparents may have grown up in the area, were still “come-heres” (“Cumyas”), who “came here” after the Civil War. If one questions why a third-generation Charlestonian is still a “cumya” the answer is “nunya” or “none of your business,” stated in a genial, friendly, but firm manner.

My reason for visiting Charleston was pretty simple. It was where Beth grew up. I wanted “closure,” though I now think the concept is crap.  It’s nice to know the backgrounds of people in one’s life, but rarely comforts. It doesn’t satisfy. The gal I thought I knew and loved had left, and lived with a happy, beautiful baby, half a continent away. I surmised that she’d found some measure of domestic bliss, even though I still received letters from her every few months invariably signed “Love”, “Love and Light”, “Much Love” or “Love Always”, which told tales of uncertainty and drudgery and desperation. It made no sense to me. I didn’t know how to respond. She referred to me as her Wizard, and warned me of the Karma which befalls the Wise One–the Capitalization was Hers. I didn’t feel like a Wizard, and certainly wasn’t Wise in Romance. I couldn’t conceive of what she’d told me, that she’d made a Business Deal, under an Apple Tree, whereby Mr. Shiny Suit would Raise her Son, and she would Bear his Children. A Deal like that wasn’t even on my Radar.

I thought people married for love. To call it a “deal” must have been an inside joke, certainly a “business deal” involving the manufacture of children. I believed, contrary to what she repeatedly told me, that she had some measure of love for the guitar player to whom she’d leased her ovaries. Seeing Charleston did little to heal the devastation I felt, though watching sailboats race in the sea breeze, summer sun, drinking beer and curling up with Genie was an excellent distraction.

Heading south again, I passed through Savannah and continued down the coast to Miami, a flatter, east coast version of LA, with Cubans instead of Mexicans. I’d again intended to hitch to Key West, but had a hard time catching rides. It was just as well. There was a severe water shortage that summer, and tourists had  been advised to leave. I caught a ride to Daytona, with a Hell’s Angel. His van had a bad valve, and we popped along at 40 mph to Ormond Beach, where I called the fellow who’d given me a ride from Binghampton to Rocky Mount the year before. I stayed partied with Rick’s friends for 3 days, then headed across to Panama City, where the girls who’d given me a ride through Vermont lived. Rosie’s husband’s birthday was June 3rd, like mine, and Pam’s boyfriend’s was June 2nd. They’d tried to start a para-sailing business the previous year, with boats, waterskis and hang gliders, but had been beaten down by bureaucrats. Someone else had now started one, and tourists in the Gulf flew by their patio all day long. The guys were out of town on business, but I stayed for a couple days and met their friends.

One fellow knew where to pick psilocybin, and said we’d go out the following morning. He left about 3 pm, came back about 5 pm and asked if I was ready. I was surprised, but said okay, and we drove to a nearby pasture. He parked a couple blocks away, explaining that cops in the area watched for cars parked by the road, and we headed out.

Psilocybin grows in cow pies, but you can’t just shake out the spores. The cow eats mushrooms, and a few days later new ones sprout in the field.  I’d harvested and enjoyed amanita muscaria, the red mushrooms with white dots that elves dance around, and was eager to try these little white ones that bruised blue.

By the time we reached the pasture the sun was going down. It was rush hour, and the traffic was heavy. My new friend remarked at the traffic and the gradually darkening sky, saying he’d never seen it so dark at this hour, or seen so much traffic. Maybe there was an eclipse. Maybe all these people leaving the city were fleeing. After some other frankly weird comments I figured out that he’d left the house, taken a nap, awakened at 5 pm and thought it was 5 am. Everything followed from there. It was too dark now to look for mushrooms, so we left.

The next morning Rosie’s father came by to visit and, seeing evidence of the previous night’s party, offered to ride me out to the freeway. I surmised this was as much to protect his daughter as to help me out, but didn’t mind. I caught rides to Baton Rouge, where I stayed with a fellow who worked in dinner theatre, then in the morning back to Austin. When I found Jean she had a boyfriend named Fidel, but let me stay the week. I helped her friend Rex deliver papers and checked in on my other acquaintances, then headed to Arlington, Texas, where I met a crew from St. Louis who were selling water conditioners. They’d rented a big suburban house for the summer.

When I awoke, one of the roommates was telling his previous night’s story over breakfast. He’d been driving and got a flat. His spare was flat, too. There were no phones or traffic around at 3 am on Sunday, so he decided to hell with it. He drove on the flat ‘til the flat gave out, drove on the rim ‘til the rim gave out, drove on the hub ‘til the hub gave out and scraped on the spindle all the way home. He said he’d sprayed a “rooster tail” of sparks 40 feet long.  Looking at the destruction–the nut holding the front driver’s side wheel bearing was scraping the ground–I was sure he had. I helped with the laundry and such, and we went to a club or two. One, in Dallas, wouldn’t let in anyone wearing a T-shirt. It was the first time I’d encountered a club with a dress code.  I borrowed a shirt from one of the guys.

From Texas it was north to Oklahoma. Liquor by the drink was unavailable there, anywhere, at any time, a law unique to Oklahoma. The law also stated that girls could drink at 18, but guys had to be 21. This, of course, simply meant girls bought beer for boys. Since beer was limited to 3.2% alcohol, almost everyone drank 16-ounce “tall boys”. On one of the first rides I caught in Oklahoma, I jumped in the bed of an El Camino, riding with another hitch hiker. The driver passed me a tall boy out the window, the hitcher told me “this fellow is wild”–and we flew down the freeway. I could see the speedometer through the back window, and we were well over 100 mph when he hit the shoulder of the road, and fishtailed.

The bed weaved, the tires squealed, we scribbled skid marks across the center line. Oddly, I wasn’t scared. There wasn’t much I could do, so I simply looked for the best place to land if I had to jump. I needed to jump up, back, and a little to the side to land sitting on my butt. I didn’t want to be under the vehicle, or tumble. It wouldn’t have been pleasant to butt-surf the pavement at 120 mph, but I was ready. Fortunately he recovered, and we kept whizzing down the highway. I drained my tall-boy and started another. By the time I’d finished my second, we were in Norman. A fellow there put me up for the night, and gave me a nice flannel shirt in the morning.

I caught a ride back into the panhandle of Texas, then walked most of the day beside the wheat fields. A truck took me to Spearman, then I walked again. My next ride drove an AMX Javelin, the last gasp of American Motors before they were taken over by Chrysler, but what a car! He drove through the plains of Texas and the Oklahoma panhandle even faster than the El Camino; 120 or 130 mph all the way to Colorado Springs, and the AMX ran quiet and smooth as a baby’s butt all the way. I was happy to be in a car, not the bed of a truck, and despite that we were moving twice as fast as traffic, and passing on the shoulders, I felt secure. I took off my shoes and curled up in the front seat with my legs resting on my pack, crossed up against the dashboard. I wasn’t just more comfortable that way, I was safer.  I didn’t wear a seatbelt if my driver didn’t, and most didn’t, but I figured if we wrecked I’d prefer to hit my feet instead of the dashboard or windshield. 

I got to Boulder that night, but Robin and Anne had moved. I slept by the creek, and found them the next day. I’d sold all my rings and had spent all my money, but my brother gave me $20 and half-a-dozen rings I’d earlier sold him at wholesale. He had an undeserved ticket on his ’68 Dodge—the one we’d taken to Texas—for not having it licensed in Colorado, though his grace period hadn’t run out. Prior to his court date, the Dodge was stolen. The judge dismissed the ticket.

Monk Quits Being a Monk

I went on to Denver. It was Sunday, and I dropped by the Krishna temple. Monk was there, but not as a devotee. He’d quit, spent some time in San Diego, moved back to Denver and married Tara. She had a huge, Krishna-themed tattoo, which started under her left breast and continued to mid-thigh. They were living the life of householders, away from drugs, alcohol and the loony bin. They had a tiny apartment, so I stayed with his mother.

Monk was still buying and selling cars under the table, a fine art he’d honed in San Diego. He’d buy them at the police auction, clean them, make minor repairs and re-sell them in a matter of days. He’d get the morning paper at 5 am, find a good deal, drive up at 5:30 am and buy it. He’d then put the same car in the paper for five times as much and sell it, under the signature of the original owner, claiming it belonged to a brother-in-law in the army or a sister who left her husband. This netted him $200, or $2000, without paperwork. Except for, sometimes, selling dope, it was all he ever did. He’d change apartments and phone numbers every few months to stay ahead of the game, and park his cars outside of town. His parents had been separated for years, but never divorced, and his father had property in Altura, a few miles away. Eventually there were over 100 cars there, many of them Studebakers, Henry J’s, Model A’s, Kaisers, or unusual models such as fuel-injected 1958 Buicks or tiny 1961 Fiats.

Monk would occasionally check into the looney bin, where he’d collect medications, but was currently clean and sober and had several pills he didn’t want to waste. They were expensive, and many who needed the medication didn’t have the money, time or inclination to jump through the thousand and one hoops it took to get them, nor the desire to carry around the label “mentally incompetent”. I wasn’t crazy, but I wasn’t happy either, and I knew the mental hospital wasn’t for me. When I’d visited, I’d seen that some clearly belonged there and others had simply taken too many psychedelics. Monk gave me his leftover pills.

I enjoyed thumbing around the country, loved meeting new people, seeing new things, but still, was deeply, profoundly unhappy. I loved a woman who’d married another, for incomprehensible reasons. I couldn’t trust my father, didn’t belong in the navy or fit into school. I tried the pills. There were five types, some nice and others awful. Stelazine was best, Cogentin by far the worst. One little Cogentin and I lost the ability to measure and weigh my thoughts. I couldn’t decide whether to eat an orange or jump in front of a truck; the two seemed equal in importance, and consequence.

After a few days in Colorado I continued north to Lander, Wyoming, where Monk’s sister Carole had moved with her friend Kathy. She’d married a cowboy and joined the Seventh Day Adventist church. Lander was a smaller version of what Denver had been twenty years earlier. From there I ate lunch in Yellowstone, but we couldn’t wait on Old Faithful. Our waitress was a vegetarian (and a cutie), the first Western vegetarian girl I’d met.

I continued to Montana, and west through Idaho and Washington. I liked Montana. There were wide open valleys between the mountains–there’s a reason it’s called Big Sky Country–and it was far greener than Wyoming. The cities, Bozeman and Butte, were fun too. In Idaho, the wide valleys disappeared and it was mountains, mountains, mountains. I slept among the trees in a parking lot which had been tucked into the woods at an ecology-oriented college, and the next morning made Aberdeen, in the beautiful state of Washington. In Oregon I lazed on the beach in Seaside, then to Portland.

The Krishna temple was nearby, and I spent the night. In the morning one of the devotees showed me around, and when we were in private he had me read his tarot. He pulled the five of swords. I told him he had a fight on his hands, and felt defeated. He opened up, and told me many things I’d never suspected. He was a newlywed, but his wife had left for Cincinnati with the leader of his group, a man who’d had affairs with dozens of Krishna girls before a swami put a gun to his head and told him to knock it off. The devotee wanted to leave, but didn’t have any resources. I encouraged him, and gave him a well-worn road atlas which my cousin had given me in Boston, many miles before.

As with any religion, I’m ambivalent about the Krishnas. They have a wide-open acceptance that whatever path one is on can be the path to enlightenment, but also a strong authoritarian streak. There’s a lot of talk about who is and isn’t “bona fide”, and why initiation is necessary. I never saw a need for initiation. I have my answers, and don’t need others. I go to the temple to discuss philosophy over plates of food, not to be converted. I was young, vegetarian, knew eastern philosophy, but wasn’t a devotee and didn’t care to be. Sometimes a swami would visit, and the devotees would send him to me. I loved to talk to many of the swamis, though some were more doctrinaire than the devotees. Most swamis admired independence, and encouraged me.

I left Portland that afternoon, catching a ride with a fellow who told me his name was Steve. While we were driving he got a speeding ticket, with another infraction, for a total fine of $200 or so. He let me off a few miles later, and I said “Well, Steve, I’ll see you around”. He told me, with a big smile, that his name was Mike, not Steve, and that the tickets weren’t gonna get paid. I  then showed him a PTA card I’d picked up by the side of the road in the name of Robert Parker. I carried it, but never used it. My greatest asset when thumbing was my North Carolina driver’s license. I had proof that I was a hick, I whenever I needed it. As I hopped out of the car Mike gave me $5. I left him a flannel shirt.

Sometimes when you’re thumbing people give you stuff, sometimes you give stuff away. Some things you find, some you lose. I lost things in the next couple days. I’d made a few deals at a fiddler’s convention a couple years before, and had two rings, one from a local girl and one from a fellow who’d made his ring in high school, seven years before. Both were in the pocket of a shirt I lost. A day or two later I caught a ride with a fellow whose Saab was overheating. He had the heater on full-blast, to keep the radiator from boiling over. We left the windows open, but it was hellish, through Oregon, Idaho and on to Salt Lake City. When I got out and collected my things I was exhausted. I left behind some food, a pan, a little money, a pocket knife and my only pair of shoes. I slept under the bridge, and the next morning caught a ride with an older Navy veteran. We got a motel room that evening, traded stories and drank rum. I continued towards Denver with a couple from Pennsylvania, and then Monk called the Salvation Army and told the shop girl my story. I walked down the street, newspapers stuffed in my socks, and gave the girl at the counter the 17¢ I had left. The shoes didn’t fit very well, but they were better than socks.

Now that I had shoes, I exchanged a few trinkets and rings for food stamps, and left Denver. A few miles out Colfax Avenue, Monk’s sister Luanne saw me walking. I spent the night at her house, then thumbed to Limon, where I caught a ride from same Pennsylvania couple who’d given me a ride a few days before! They’d camped in the mountains while I visited Denver. They gave me a ride again, this time to Kansas City!

A few miles later, in mid-Missouri, four Coast Guard sailors in a car with  government plates picked me up. The speed limit was 55, but we drove down the road at 85–all the car would do–telling Navy stories, drinking beer, tearing up paperwork and throwing it out the window.

I quickly caught a ride to St. Louis, another to Indianapolis. In Indianapolis a fellow turned me on to a healthy snort of cocaine as we smoked some Hawaiian pot, then a trucker took me to Dayton, Ohio and gave me a couple “black beauties”. In Dayton, about 4 am, a fellow picked me up and said he didn’t have a license, would I please drive? I drove a strange car, in the fog, through a strange town with a stranger, while he told me wild stories and we visited his friends. Some of them told me he was flaky, but he had a $700 check, and when the bank opened he gave me $20. We drove around all day. He bought me dinner, left me in the same spot I’d been in that morning and gave me another $20. Whatever his friends’ opinions, he did me right.

In Pennsylvania I passed by Three Mile Island. The most noticeable feature of the landscape was a large number of dead trees, whether due to drought or radiation I didn’t know. In New York state I was chased off the thruway, where hitchhiking was prohibited, but was in Ithaca by the afternoon. Eileen was out of town, but one of her roommates had a movie date, and I double-dated with the other.

The Big Chill?

The next morning I went to Cortland, and stayed the week with Barb and Noel. She brought me up on the news. Al Rice, whose pictures and sketches were all over her walls, who’d been her boyfriend, and Maggie’s, but now wasn’t either, had been riding with a friend who had a new Porsche. Where the street went from four lanes to two, Brian hit the curb at over 100 miles per hour, and launched the Porsche into a tree, 14 feet up, in the front yard of an ambulance service. The ambulance quickly got both to the hospital, but Al died a couple days later. When I showed up, Barb was still dressed from Al’s memorial. We drove over to Al’s childhood home and met his grieving parents. They were in their 50s or 60s, and had lost their only son.

If you want to know about the next long weekend, watch the movie “The Big Chill”. Barb’s uncle owned a house on Saranac Lake, where I found myself living the plot line of a movie which hadn’t yet been made. A bunch of friends in their 20’s and 30’s got together for the weekend, at a big house in the country, to remember their friend Al, who died in a Porsche. We discussed our lives, got drunk, did a few drugs, cried a little.

I discovered a friend of Barb’s knew Eileen, and also June, the gal who first steered me towards Cortland. Lee and I went for a boat ride. It was a beautiful, clear night and the moon was out. I’d never piloted a boat, so he let me take the tiller and we puttered along for a couple hours, talking about mutual friends, philosophy, astrology, life, death, a million other things in the crisp, clear, cool October night, After an hour or two the moon hid behind a cloud. It was bright enough, but I didn’t know the lake, so I gave the wheel back. It got dark, started raining, storming. Lightning was flashing, and soon Lee had no idea where we were either. We tied up by the nearest light. There were four fellows from New York City up for the weekend, who informed us that we were eleven and a half miles from where we’d started, and on the opposite shore. The lake was twelve miles long; we couldn’t have gotten more lost if we’d tried! We attempted to call Barb’s house, but the phone had been disconnected for the season, so we shared beer and stories, then crashed out on a couple of couches.

The four sheltered us for the night and the next morning we headed back, stopping at a marina for gas and coffee. We finally putted home around 11 am, wondering what our reception would be. How many frantic phone calls had been made? Had the sheriff been contacted? A search party sent?

We walked into the dining room, sat down, had breakfast. The others trickled in, scooped up eggs and hash browns off big platters, smeared butter on toast, poured coffee and orange juice. Nobody knew we’d been gone! After half an hour, Lee yelled out, “I can’t stand it!” and told the story. The secret was out.

The weather turned cold that day, after a long October heat wave. I went out in the afternoon to chop wood, wanting to help but not knowing what else to do. The axe broke, and I was given some good-natured ribbing, but the weekend had such a tragic undertone I couldn’t take it. I broke out sobbing, uncontrollably, in front of the fire, in front of everyone. 

Objectively, I’d lost less than anyone. I only knew Maggie, Barb and Barb’s son Noel, not Al. They were all old friends, mourning someone I’d never met. They all missed Al. I felt like an interloper, but I missed him, too.

I wasn’t just mourning Al. It’d been a long, hard summer, a long, hard several years; hell, I couldn’t remember being truly happy about anything. Thumbing around the country was an adventure, but also an escape. I’d met new friends and friends of friends, saw new places and had new experiences, but was also leaving a life I wasn’t happy in, didn’t feel successful in, doubted if I’d ever master. I’d been trying to find a place I felt at home–was it Hollywood? Was it Austin? Boston? San Francisco? Montreal? Hawaii? Mexico? On the beach? In the mountains? In the desert?

I didn’t feel at home in Denver anymore; I wasn’t sure I’d ever felt at home there. Most of my friends had left; I remembered too much pain. Nightly fights with my father. Relentless, suffocating pressure as the smallest, smartest kid in school. Girls I’d never connected with. California was a mixed bag, and North Carolina hadn’t worked either, nor the Navy. I hadn’t found anything more than seasonal work since I’d left the service. My attempts at helping on the farm were unappreciated, resented, actively undermined by my father, who was becoming steadily more surly and cynical. He was drinking a twelve-pack or more of cheap beer every night, and smoking at least two packs of Newports, having given up unfiltered Camels. My attempts at business were a joke; I’d barely made enough to pay one-sixth of the rent. I still had no girlfriend, which was my fault, of course. My inability to expunge from my heart a woman who had proven utterly unworthy of my naive and childish love, left no space for another. It all overwhelmed me, that mid-October weekend, while two dozen melancholy friends, of someone else, stared into the fire.

After the weekend and wake at Saranac Lake we dispersed, and I returned to Cortland. A friend’s family owned the Clarke Store in Homer, NY. Phil and I went to a house in the country where a fellow called Rosie kept several instruments in a studio out back. We played music all night. The next day I dropped in on Neal and Joellen. Neal knew Rosie, too! People are often unexpectedly interconnected. Neal had been busy on the farm. He’d built a bridge and a barn, and had started on a newer, bigger, nicer house. Joellen was pregnant again.

I left upstate NY the next day, for Flo’s apartment in DC. She was planning to see an old friend in Mannassas, Virginia, so I went along. Her friend had acquired Roy Rogers’ old couch, where I slept for the night. We went from there to a “palace” filled with the artworks of Walter and Lao Russell, and I met Lao, who had married Walter when he was old and she was young. Now she was old, and he was gone.

It was an impressive collection, situated where the Blue Ridge Parkway meets Skyline Drive. We ate dinner, and Flo dropped me off on the Parkway, which wasn’t well traveled that time of the year. I caught only one ride, walked about ten miles and froze my butt that night, but in the morning I caught a ride.

I caught another ride, and found out I’d been headed in the wrong direction.The driver set me straight. She was picking up her boyfriend to go driving for the day, so we all explored together, and she dropped me at my front door.

It was late October, 1979. For the next few weeks I mowed grass, repaired the old house, visited friends, cut and tied trees. Then came a surprise announcement. The family gathered in South Carolina, for my grandfather’s wedding!

My Grandfather Gets Married

My grandmother had died ten years earlier, and my grandfather had moped around ever since. A retired minister, he’d always made interminable lists, planning everything, and now wouldn’t stop planning his funeral. My aunt finally persuaded him, in October, to live at the local Presbyterian Home. Within a week he was writing letters full of outrage. The residents were teasing him for chatting up an “older woman”–he was 80, she 83.

A couple more weeks went by. His outrage had morphed into an announcement. He and Lucile, who’d been widowed nearly forty years, had taken a drive in the country, and had decided to marry! My uncle Pete, also a Presbyterian minister, wondered whether he’d proposed in the front seat, or the back!

Lucile had been a teacher in Hartsville, SC, and had written the textbook used in the local schools, “Hartsville, Our Community”. I didn’t know it, but Marcus’ father was also from Hartsville. Lucile was Marcus’ great-aunt Lucy! In our twenties, we’d suddenly become second cousins!

We took half as many pines to Texas that year, but bought several tall, beautiful fir trees for $11 apiece. We loaded the U-Haul truck, and on November 29th were in Texas. We didn’t bring a car. I’d decided it’d likely be profitable to find a car in Texas with high miles, but no rust, and sell it in North Carolina. Bill had been sent packing the previous spring when my mother saw a letter he’d written to a Michigan friend, telling him to come down and our family would put him up. That may have been true, but had NOT been discussed.

When we arrived in Austin, a kid named Alex from across the street loaned us a tent, and we paid him a few dollars for helping around the lot. I’d packed a bicycle to ride around town. My father slept in the motel, ate from the taco stand, took his laundry to the combination laundromat/quickie mart on the corner and sent me for anything else.

I painted signs, set up ropes and long, extended sawhorses to lean our trees against. The year before it’d been “Ned Austin & Son’s North Carolina Christmas Trees” in a big flowing script. This year, “Ned & David Austin”. Everyone loved the signs. I added sign painter to my list of skills.

Behind Mary’s lot was a yard sale going on, and I bought several items. A coffee pot, chairs, a table, camp stove, plates & spoons. I struck up a conversation with the folks having the sale, and gave them $40 to use their washer and dryer and have a place to shower and crash for the next couple weeks. My father still preferred the motel. He went to bed early, got up early. I stayed up late, took the night shift. It worked better that way; he’d get nervous late in the evening, and sell the trees too cheap.

We did well that year. My father talked to a reporter from the Austin American-Statesman, who wrote a story, and we bought some airtime on a country radio station. We’d brought 500 trees, sold out everything by the 22nd and went home.

Christmas trees are an odd business. We opened on the first Friday in December that year, because it was clear that’s when the real sales started. There’d be plenty of browsers in late November, but they’d look at every tree, go to another lot and possibly come back three days later to browse again. When December arrived, they’d buy. The second weekend was busier, but the biggest, best, most expensive trees would be gone. On the third Friday we’d put up a “REDUCED” sign and sell the less-than-perfect leftovers for half-price. In the end we averaged $20 profit per tree, and the $11 firs brought us $32 apiece.

I bought a 1963 Ford Galaxie for $200. Mechanically sound, no rust, high mileage. The fellow who’d had the yard sale, Kevin, and his girlfriend Donna, were temporarily without lodgings. They parked a camper on our lot, and Kevin replaced a part in the front end of the Galaxie but wouldn’t take any money for his labor, just beer. Kevin said he had friends coming from Yuma, and when they arrived I told them about the fight I’d been in the previous spring. Jake was the fellow who’d yelled to me to come get some grub! Jake, Jody and their daughter Magic had sold the bus, and were living in a camper Jake had built on the back of a 1958 Chevy pickup. They parked next to Kevin and Donna until the end of the season.

I found Jean again. Fidel was long gone. While we were driving in my car we saw some bamboo beside the road, and I cut a few pieces to try making flutes. At night I heated up a metal rod to burn holes. My flutes were erratically tuned, until I figured out where to put the holes. At Christmas that year, everyone got flutes.

The Ford did fine traveling back to North Carolina. It leaked a little oil, the rear end was clunky, it only made 12 miles per gallon and the muffler fell off, but it ran beautifully.

We were home for Christmas.

The Eighties

I drove the Galaxie for a couple months, but never could get a clear title. There was a lien on it in Texas. My father gave me his old Bronco, in lieu of pay.

Shortly after returning from Texas, I went to my favorite local bar, Holley’s. I’d never seen it so crowded. A pretty girl was sitting at the bar, and I struck up a conversation. Her name was Monique, which she said with a little giggle which suggested I might know her. I didn’t. I made conversation, showed her my rings, told her I was from a couple miles down the road. A half-dozen guys were pointing, snickering, poking each other in the ribs. I asked her what was going on. She gave a wave of her hand, said, “oh, them”, indicating they were of no interest whatsoever, and we continued talking for a half-hour. She never revealed that the supremely crowded situation in the bar that evening was due to the presence of Playboy’s reigning Playmate of the Year, Monique St. Pierre. Her.

In February I found a cabin with cheap rent a few miles away, and moved in. I made and sold rings to support myself, but the Hunt brothers tried to corner the market on silver that year, running the price up, and I could neither sell my rings at the suddenly-inflated price nor buy more silver wire. In the cabin, though, were some craft supplies left over by a previous occupant, so I started making wooden toys, sewing hats and jackets, making bamboo flutes. The cabin had no plumbing, but I made friends with the girl next door and the couple in the next bungalow, and used their facilities. For the first time in years, I had space for my drums, and often had musical friends over.

I started a relationship with Reneé, next door, and went to the church on the corner, not so much to worship as to meet others in the community. I didn’t make enough to pay my rent, though. I sold a few toys, hats and flutes but not many rings. After two months it was over. I packed up the toy parts, buttons, thread, fabric, my things and moved back to the family farm. Reneé returned to her family in West Virginia, and Marsha and David moved to northern Minnesota.

A lot of other folks left that spring, too. Del and Cathy, who’d married the previous summer, left for Arizona to work as ranch hands with Beth and her guitar player. Sister Fran moved back to Connecticut to take a few courses at Yale and live near my brother Sam. Genny moved to Florida with a friend, and Laura visited Colorado.

Others arrived. Jake, Jody, their little girl Magic and a fellow named Tom, whom they’d picked up along the way, parked in our driveway. We planted pine seedlings while Jody watched the baby, then the four of them went to a gathering in Love Valley. I’d have gone too, but was sick with the flu.

I’d been out of my old loop for awhile, which actually worked to my advantage. Before I’d left for Texas I’d dropped in at what we called the Hot El, a cul-de-sac in Blowing Rock where several hippies lived. George and his friends were splitting a pound of pot. I left after a short visit, and a few minutes later the cops appeared, busting everyone. The guy with the pot, Jim, claimed I’d narked, but while I was out of town the truth came out. He’d been stopped by the cops, threw his wallet under the seat and was arrested for having no license. As he was being led away, he told his passenger where his wallet was, and was busted for the hundred-lot of windowpane acid in it.

I was happy to miss another development, too. Another Jim, whom I’d caught a ride with two years before, had had me forge a check on his girlfriend’s account while we’d been driving, then ditched me, stealing my pack and shoes. I hadn’t wanted to forge anything to begin with, but at the time wasn’t in a position to say no. I went straight to the sheriff. They caught him the next day, and found a warrant on him from another county. I’d left town the next day, but he put it together, and now it was two years later. I saw Jim in a local bar, went up to a couple strangers, told them the story and they gave me a ride home. He disappeared shortly thereafter, in trouble again, but my friends told me both Jims had been telling stories behind my back. They weren’t sure about me for awhile, but I was honest with them. Character prevails.

I’d been hanging out with a different circle, anyway, Samson and his crowd. On day we’d been rock climbing, and were all tuckered out, when I started a conversation with one of the girls, Monti. We were discussing my cycle wreck, and the woman who died. I still felt guilty. She told me, forcefully, NO, that it was NOT my fault, and that I had to stop thinking it was. I wasn’t superhuman,  and couldn’t look through the mountain and see what was happening. It was NORMAL to submit to the judgement of half-a-dozen people wanting to call an ambulance, when I was disoriented and in pain. Even so, it may not have made a difference. She’d only lived an hour or so, and likely would have died anyway.

I realized, in a flash–she was right!

I felt glorious, cleansed, refreshed. I looked at her, and she was, suddenly, lovely. I said, “I ought to marry you!”

It was spontaneous, and heartfelt.  She, by insisting, had shown me that I’d done nothing wrong. It was sweet and generous of her, and she made a difference. Ever since, when someone feels badly about something that they shouldn’t, I call them out.  It’s the right thing to do.

We both got a lot of kidding for it, but we never got romantic. We crashed out in the same bed that afternoon, but only because it’d been a strenuous day, and both of us needed a nap.

We were awakened later that evening. Sam was angry with another fellow, Stan. Sam had scored, on credit, a quarter-pound of white MDA powder, worth thousands. He’d shown all of us the bag, then made a joke and threw it in the trash, saying that was probably the best place to hide it. When we awoke we all knew where he’d thrown it, but the bag wasn’t there. Sam trusted Monti and me, but didn’t know Stan at all. He was furious. He drove a knife into the wall next to Stan’s head, and Stan nearly filled his pants. Monti and I believed Stan, but didn’t know him well enough to offer much of a defense. Monti finally got Sam calmed down, and asked if he was SURE he’d left it in the trash can. He looked in another spot, and found it.

Later that month I walked into Holley’s. It was a slow night. I hadn’t been there five minutes when a guy named Phil poured a pitcher of beer on a fellow at the next table. His friends jumped up, ready to fight. Phil hooked his hand through the handle of the pitcher, crooked a finger and told all five of them,“come ON!”. Totally fearless. The bartenders rushed out with baseball bats. I didn’t see any need to hang around, and left.

As usual, I was interested in several girls. For some reason, a great many that year were lesbians, or so inclined. Hard-line feminism was in fashion, and I could never figure out why, but many lesbians I knew, not generally interested in men, were nevertheless attracted to me. I was invited to a get-together with a group of girls in the Women’s Studies program at the college. There were eight gals there, plus one guy–me–and my date. A couple of the girls said right away that every other girl there was a lesbian; the rest concurred. Of these eight, I’d already slept with or played around with four, kissed six, and would add one more shortly. Terry was blonde, curly-haired, not classically pretty but a lot of fun. Truly hilarious. After the meeting, we went out together several times. She was always confused as to whether she preferred girls or boys, and as far as I knew never had any other boyfriends, but she definitely, physically, liked me.

That spring our family went to see my brother’s musical–Makin’ Light, produced by the Yale Dramat for their graduation show; the first time in decades a student play had been chosen. I hung around a few extra days to cheerlead from the audience, smoke some pot and snort a little coke with my brother and his Skull and Bones friends. Nobody did a lot of drugs, but most everyone did a little.

There’s a common belief that anyone who uses drugs is a maniac who does nothing else in life. They use drugs, look for drugs, sell drugs, rob people to pay for drugs. The truth is, most people who use drugs have a measure of discipline. They’ll spend $25 on a Friday night, and enjoy their weekend. There are indeed people whose use has a madness about it, but the majority are capable of keeping their desires in check. Most of my time was spent visiting, not partying.

I was beginning to feel confident, and popular. I’d been on the student council once, but had felt like the odd man out. Now that I’d been places and done things, I found girls were, rather suddenly, interested. I’d meet a girl, we’d get a sandwich in town and before we were finished there’d be three or four more girls sitting at our table, discussing astrology or jewelry or travels, with the waitress obviously wondering–who IS this guy? My brother had often stolen them away, but now he was married. People develop on their own time. Life changes.

Me vs. the Volcano

I wanted a serious, long-term relationship, but still didn’t have it in me. I went with a very nice girl named Robin for some months. She was an Appalachian State student from Tennessee. After hearing my stories about the West, she decided to take a summer trip with several classmates. We wrote letters, but while she was on the West Coast heading north, Mount Saint Helens erupted, her itinerary changed and she stopped writing.

After some weeks of not knowing what she was doing, I got out of the house. I had a long conversation with a girl a few years older. I told Susan of my situation, and she was a voice of wisdom. She understood that I was in no position to promise my heart, but was friendly and agreeable. Talented, too. She was making and selling “photo quilts”, reproducing photos in quilt form. I thought it brilliant, artistic and original. She appreciated my jewelry and crafts as well. We started seeing each other, though neither of us made plans. I’d told her up front it wouldn’t do for her to rely on my heart, because I wasn’t at all sure of it. I liked her, and admired her work, but wasn’t prepared to be anyone’s boyfriend for the foreseeable future. She surprised me, however, and wanted an arrangement anyway, with a warmth and calm acceptance that caught me off guard, much like Shirley had some years before.

About this time I also ran into Irmalee, with whom I’d shared a weekend two years before. She’d been to Germany, and had returned. I’d hoped for more than a weekend of fun, but she’d dropped me, simply saying she didn’t want to continue. I was breaking up with another and was on the rebound when we’d met, but had dearly desired more than three days and a brush-off. Now she was apologetic, interested, wanted to go out again. I was confused. Confused about her, about Susan, about my theoretical girlfriend Robin whom I hadn’t heard from all summer. Without intending to be, I was involved with all three. Irmalee was delectable and blonde and foreign and had a wonderful, funky sense of style. She made lovely and original kinetic art sculptures and was luscious and exciting, but had radical political views. Germany was still divided, and Germans took their politics seriously. I wasn’t passionate about politics. Despite our chemistry, we’d fight, I’d call Susan and we’d see each other. Some days later I’d see Irmalee, and accompany her home. It went that way all summer. Then Robin came home. She still wanted me.

I was hopelessly confused. Robin and I re-ignited, briefly. I broke up with Irmalee after an argument, but also Robin, later that month, while Susan and I slowly drifted apart.

Marcus came to Texas that year. Now it was “Ned and David Austin’s Fresh-Cut North Carolina Christmas Trees,” and a blurb “with Cousin Marcus”, as he was now kin. We bought a quantity of $3 fir trees from a fellow named Hoot, and cut pines from the tree farm, which we’d given a bit of a rest the year before. We towed my sister’s Fiat behind the U-Haul, and towards the end of the trip several cars honked and flashed their lights. The Fiat had a flat, but it was so narrow and small we hadn’t seen it in the rear-view mirror. By the time we stopped, the tire had given out and the rim was scraping. We put on the spare and arrived in Austin. The Fiat was fine for the rest of the journey, which was fortunate, because we now had no spare.

I’d been out doing laundry when a woman came by, talked with Marcus and said she’d come by later. Valerie did show up, but Marcus was asleep in the tent and my father had left for the motel. It was late enough to call it a day, and Valerie invited me for a spin in her Volvo. I almost immediately kissed her. Quickly, we drove to a quiet neighborhood and for the next hour fogged up the windows of her car. I hadn’t expected it, nor had she; she was married, and the thought of fooling around hadn’t crossed her mind. She and her husband both had children, and had been together for three years. She came by the lot several times in the next two weeks and we stole some torrid moments, but for everyone’s best interest decided not to continue.

It was fun being in Austin with Marcus. One night he pulled out an old tree from two years before, that Mary had piled in a corner. We set it out, as a joke. Someone bought it! We pulled out another. It also sold! We sold several more, at $1 each, and made over $50!

Because our firs were scraggly that year, several had sparse bottoms, but pretty tops. When we cut off two or three feet, we had shorter but nicer trees, and several two and three foot lengths of trunks. Marcus made a wooden reindeer from these. One day we were idly singing Christmas carols. One of us started, “Rudolph the red-assed reindeer, Had a very shiny hole…” Our Rudolph not only had a bright red painted nose, but soon a tail-light too, which to us made more sense. How could the other reindeer follow Rudolph if they couldn’t see his butt? It was a tradition I continued for twenty years. I never explained why, unless I was asked.

The firs sold well, at nearly the price we’d gotten the year before. The $11 trees had averaged $32, the $3 trees, $28. We’d brought 600, and sold out early. By December 19th we had half-a-dozen scraggly trees left. I stayed with Jean overnight; she was living in a commune with about fifty people. It looked like fun, but it was time to go home. We left Texas earlier than we had before. Though I’d explained that I had friends I wanted see in Manor, several miles outside town, my father as usual didn’t want to do anything but drive home as fast as possible. Marcus didn’t want to stay either, but since I was driving, I decided we were visiting Manor come hell or high water. When we arrived there was a party going on, and everyone had a wonderful time including my father, who took a hit off a joint. It was the first time I’d seen him do it, though he and my mother had once smoked one with his friend Ric. We stayed the night, ate breakfast and left on the 20th, refreshed and happy.

Before Christmas I’d been interested in a woman named Kay K. Kay. Her name was Kay, her maiden name began with K, and she’d married a Kay, though she was now divorced. Like many of my relationships at the time, we didn’t last; by Valentine’s Day we’d broken up. I did get a valentine that year, though, from a gal named Wendy. She’d sent it to Loveland, Colorado for the special postmark. Wendy was cute and fun, but she had three kids, and I wasn’t ready for that.


One night in spring I was riding home from Blowing Rock with a couple fellows. We were stopped, drinking beer on the back road and talking, when the driver pulled out a table leg, waved it and shouted, “Give me all your silver!”. I was in the back, and pushed the seat forward with my foot. He couldn’t get a clear swing, and tried to poke me with it. I yanked the leg from his hand, and poked him while I climbed out. I ran into the woods. He yelled “Give me back my weapon!” I shouted “Come and get it!” He didn’t, they drove off, and I walked home. I saw his passenger a week later. He’d been as surprised as me. He told me the name of the driver, which I filed away for later. Both were in prison shortly, the driver for three or four years, I don’t know why. The passenger got involved, after the fact, with the murder of a game room owner. The murderer was named David Presnell, and the sheriff at first arrested my friend of the same name, who had nothing to do with it.

I worked with my new second cousin Marcus that spring, doing odd jobs on Seven Devils, the resort where he lived. He had a beat-up 1964 Ford Galaxie, a year younger and shaggier-looking than the car I’d driven from Texas. He’d cut off the top and half the back of the body and made a kind of truck. I helped him rewire it. Instead of replacing the ignition switch, we hot-wired in several buttons, toggle switches etc. To start it, one had to flip one switch up, another down, pull a chain, mash a button under the dash, etc. The two of us were the only ones who knew the combination. Instead of a gas tank, he put a gas can in the back and stuck the fuel line into it. Seven Devils was a private resort, so he needed no registration. We planted flowers for residents, mowed lawns, drank beer at the resort bar and had a great time all that summer and fall.

Marcus introduced me to a nurse named Cynthia, who lived just over the Tennessee line. She lived in a huge, partially-refurbished barn, and hired us for a weekend. We cleared out thousands of burdock burs and cleaned the place up. Her husband Art appeared on the second day. They lived apart, but got along, and the four of us drank steel cans of Iron City beer, which wasn’t  available in North Carolina. The beer was stronger in Tennessee. It was 6% alcohol, by law, while North Carolina specified beer be no stronger than 6%, so it wasn’t. Later that month Marcus moved into a little house across from Cynthia, and for a short while I did, too.

The afternoon after we’d finished the cleanup, a girl I knew, Dolores, invited me to her place in Boone to meet her new boyfriend. I went over, and her boyfriend was Art! He was dressed as a giant penis, getting ready for Halloween. A professor in the psychology department at Appalachian, he was going to a party where everyone’s costume represented a psychological problem. He had a can of whipped cream hooked up to a tube, which came out the top of his head. He was a premature ejaculation. Every time he’d say hello to a woman, he’d squirt. He was the winner of the costume contest, and went home with a case of beer.

The next morning I told Marcus I’d seen Art with Dolores. He wasn’t sure we should mention it to Cynthia, but she and Art had been separated for some time and she knew all about Dolores.

Cynthia was Art’s second wife. Art had been living in Atlanta, and came home one night to find his wife lying in a pool of blood, murdered. They never found the culprit.

Art moved to Tennessee and started a new life, but his marriage to Cynthia didn’t last. He took up with Dolores, who’d been one of his students. They were together for three or four years, but broke up. He then married another student, Michelle. They started a shop selling futons and artsy things, and lasted half-a-dozen years.

Art had brewed a five-gallon jug of beer, but had never drunk it. One day Michelle saw the brown liquid still sitting in the bathroom of the shop, and realized nothing would ever change. They’d lived for six years in the back room, cooking on a hot plate, and would never have a real kitchen. She broke up with him. I think Art never got over his first wife. It affected everything.

A little ways from the family farm was a small house where three guys lived, all students, who always had a party going. Walter was the son of the local state representative, and his roommates were Chris and Richard. Walter serviced video games, which were something new at the time, and always had a couple in the living room, with the coin boxes cracked open so we could all play for free. Richard had quit smoking for New Year’s, but kept an unlit cigarette in his mouth. None of them smoked tobacco, and neither did I, though everyone smoked pot. All the visiting smokers went outside with their cigarettes, which felt unusual and new. Walter had a car but had lost his license. I had a license, but my car needed repair, so I drove him around.

I never saw Richard after that spring. While on vacation, he was in a car wreck in Atlanta, and was killed.

By March the price of silver had crashed, the Hunt brothers had lost their butts, and I’d stocked up again. I made some rings and planned to thumb out of town, but it took me awhile. I was invited to a covered-dish dinner, then to a barn dance with a lovely girl named Maggie. She was engaged, but her fiancé was out of town. She was in a play, “Death of a Salesman”, and I’d seen her kiss my father! We danced most of the night, then crashed out in the barn. I was then invited to another house for a sweat lodge! I stayed the night, and caught a ride with a fellow named Tim, who knew Marcus, who was now Cynthia’s neighbor. I knew Tim was a talented artist who blew through town occasionally, but didn’t know that he’d turned very strange indeed, and neither Cynthia nor Marcus was happy to see him. They told Tim to leave. I helped Cynthia and Marcus on the farm for a few days, and left about a week later than I’d intended.

A biker type gave me a ride to Princeton, West Virginia, where my brother Rob was now living, but it wasn’t a pleasant stay. Anne had lost her baby. They’d been involved with Elizabeth Clare Prophet’s “Church Universal and Triumphant”, and Anne, while pregnant, would “meditate” loudly, shouting “SHIVA-shiva-shiva-shiva-shiva-shiva-SHIVA-shiva-shiva”, concentrating her energy on Shiva the Destroyer, to destroy all the “bad” energy around her. I think concentrating on the Destroyer, so long and forcefully every day, destroyed the baby.

I headed out, and slept under a bridge that night. The next day I caught a ride all the way to Burlington, Vermont, where I spent an afternoon and grabbed a beer in a local bar. All they seemed to talk about, with great exuberance, was their new mayor, Bernie Sanders! I’d planned to go from there to New Haven, but my next ride took me to Binghampton, and since Cortland was nearby, I went there instead. Eileen was there, living with a fellow named Dana. They’d had a traveling vegetarian food bus the summer before, and had done well at concerts and such, but had lost their butts at the state fair, and now had lots of great food, but no money. I visited for a few days and left for New Haven, now about two weeks behind my planned schedule.

New Haven, again

I arrived in New Haven, finally, in the last half of March. Patience kept me busy on various projects–car maintenance, kitchen repairs. A two-foot snow kept me in town. My brother Sam had decided he was gay, and Patience and my sister Fran now lived in the apartment, but Sam spent most of his time in New York. Patience had a fine, full bosom, and didn’t mind me watching her undress. She was a good looking woman, but the time and circumstances weren’t right for me to do more than look. I had a wonderful time partying with their friends. My brother had been making a living as a piano player, and I’d now played blues harmonica for five or six years, as well as penny whistle, kalimba and drums. I won a button as a runner-up in a local talent contest. I had long talks with my sister Fran, who like me fell in love quickly and often.

I was back in Boone by April. A fellow who owned a stained glass shop owed me money, and I agreed to classes with him as payment. I made a few little projects and then my first stained glass window, a scene with a fellow in a yellow night robe going to the outhouse, candle in hand, moon in the sky (with a bit of artistic license, the moon was in front of the mountain, and was duplicated on the outhouse door). It was destined for the skylight in the bathroom, but before it was installed my father had kicked and carelessly cracked one of its panels.

I had a very strange romantic interlude at this time, which I’ve since found is quite common. I met a girl whom I vaguely knew at the bar. She’d been living down the road, and I’d once helped her find her dog. We had several drinks and discussed our lives. At closing time she offered me a ride home, and we went to her house, not mine. I took a shower, and she joined me. We toweled off. I climbed into her bed. We were a little nervous, but she cuddled up next to me, and we kissed and caressed. I made advances, and she made no attempt to stop me. I’d kiss her, she’d kiss back, I’d roll her nipple in my fingers, her hand would wander over my butt. She’d pull me closer.

I really liked her. We’d been talking all night, and I’d found her charming. She’d invited me. We were a little tense, but it felt normal and natural and wonderful to be in her bed, next to her nude and willing body, as we explored each other in what to me was a wonderful encounter. I kissed her again, telling her tenderly that I understood that we were new to each other, but that it was all right. She kissed me back, and we made love. I felt we’d had a magical and memorable evening, told her how special it had been for me to meet her, and that she had no reason to be tense.

She suddenly stiffened, and said, “Well, you’d be tense too, if you’d just been RAPED!”

Whoa, that’s not what I was thinking at all. We talked a little more, and she conceded that she’d been sending mixed signals (I didn’t think they were at all mixed!). We talked awhile longer, and she fell asleep in my arms. In the morning she said she loved me, and I was happy, I really was. I thought her charming.

The next night I went by her house. She was in a completely different mood—not hostile, but not at all romantic. She’d forgotten, or claimed not to remember, professing her love.

I’ve since talked to others about that night. There are certain women who will always claim I raped her, even though she gave me no resistance and encouraged my advances. Most women understand the situation as ambiguous. Further, I’ve found that about half of all men been unjustly accused in some manner, at some time. Their advances haven’t been well and truly rebuffed, or a woman is simply mad for some reason and sees an advantage in accusing a man. It’s an easy accusation to make, and difficult to defend.

The Peyote Way Church

Tom, who’d arrived with Jake and Jody the previous year, showed up fresh from Texas that summer carrying a seabag stuffed with the biggest, prettiest peyote buttons I’d ever seen, some the size and thickness of a man’s palm. He’d been fighting the government for years, and was now the first “White Guy” allowed to pick peyote! He planted trees with us, and was a notable presence in Boone, with little bells in his stringy hair and colorful Guatemalan clothes. Since I’d started thumbing, there’d been several more locals who’d taken up the idea, bringing in dozens of interesting friends to enliven the local scene. From a small, isolated mountain town in the 1970s, Boone in the ‘80s had developed into an oasis of culture and arts. Happy Appy was now a popular university, and the community reflected it. I felt my travels, and my encouragement of others to do the same, had played a part. There was now a large and vibrant hippie community, up from the “sixteen original hippies” of 1970. One of the hippie chicks who’d recently arrived was Julie, and as we talked I realized we’d lived about two blocks from each other in Denver in 1973, and at that time had talked with each other in a nearby health food store.

I was involved with a couple gals that summer. Carol was far more interested in me than I was in her. Georgia, the other way around. I was doing some freelance astrology, and had one very good customer. JoAnne was some years older, and had money, being recently divorced from a Cadillac dealer. She owned a flower shop, and kept me busy. I found it a two-edged sword. I’d draw her charts and read her cards. She’d pay me well, and recommend me to others, but every few days she’d want to know more. I’d try to say something new, because she was paying me, but the stars, the cards, the I Ching and people’s palms don’t change every day. I was saying the same things. The more money I made, the less I felt I was doing something worthwhile.

I’d been drawing charts for years, always keeping my eye out for the “perfect” gal–someone whose sun-sign matched my moon sign, and moon-sign matched my sun sign. In the summer of 1981 I found a gal whose chart was pretty close. Kate’s moon-sign was my sun-sign, and her sun was close to my moon. Theoretically, this was one of the best of matches, but nothing developed. I kept in touch and visited her a few times, but the great romance I expected never came.

Oddly enough, I found years later that one of my cousins had the “perfect” chart I’d been seeking. When we compared notes, our lives, our spouses, our travels , our lives had been more alike than we’d ever have imagined.

In September my old neighbors from the bungalow in Sugar Grove decided to marry. I was invited to their wedding, outside Wadena, Minnesota, the land of ten thousand lakes. I hadn’t been to that area of the country. I’d visited almost all the other states, but not Minnesota, the Dakotas or Michigan. It seemed a good opportunity, so I left.

I caught a few rides through Tennessee and into Missouri, where I spent a lovely afternoon in Excelsior Springs sitting in the park making rings. A plain-looking girl pushing an adult-sized tricycle came up and started a conversation. I told her where I was from and where I was going. She said she’d been to Oklahoma, South Dakota, Colorado and some other states in the area but had been raised “right here in Missouri”. She had a speech impediment, but was simply charming. I had some grapes, and we talked and ate grapes for a long time. I liked her, and the town, but when she left a local cop asked me a few questions. He was friendly, but hinted that I should move along, which I’d planned to do anyway; I wanted to get to the wedding. For the next couple days I caught rides in that general direction, but did a lot of walking. Brisk walking—to stay ahead of the mosquitoes. I had to maintain a swift pace, because when I slowed, the clouds of mosquitoes in my wake caught me, and pounced. Ten thousand lakes, means ten billion mosquitoes.

The wedding was on the 14th of September, in a little town called Two Inlets. I almost made it. I was in Wadena at noon, Park Rapids a couple hours later. I tried to call the church. The information operator didn’t know where Two Inlets was, even though it was on the map, and the operator I’d reached in Wadena had lived there. I walked to the Catholic church. They knew the name of the church I needed, and the number. The phones in the area required that you to put in a dime after the call was connected, and I was unfamiliar with the procedure. I fumbled for my dime when the father said “hello” a couple times, and hung up. I called back. No answer. I went on Osage. Everyone knew my friends, but no one knew where to find them. The postman told me where they’d lived the month before, knew their neighbors. I started in that direction, but by the time I caught a ride it was late afternoon, I’d missed the wedding, and I was so tuckered out from outrunning mosquitoes that when the next driver said he was going to Fargo, I told him I was too.

I spent the night under another bridge, and in the morning caught a ride with a fellow named Denver. We drank beer all the way to Watertown, SD, but on the way stopped to pee. He shut down the truck and couldn’t get it started. The Chevy engine of those years had a toothed ring on the flywheel which had a bad habit of stripping a tooth here and there, so that in certain spots the starter couldn’t engage. It’d simply scrape, make a horrible noise and do nothing. You’d have to get out and physically turn the engine to where the flywheel would engage before it’d turn over. I got underneath the truck and pulled on the V-belts, but while we were yelling Denver misunderstood me and hit the starter prematurely. The first 2 fingers of my left hand got caught in the pulley, and for the first time in my life I yelled “HELP!” as loud as I could, fishing out my pocketknife. Denver leaped out of the cab and popped the hood while I handed him my knife and yelled “CUT IT CUT IT CUT IT!!!”. He cut the V-belts and I got my hand back.

Fortunately, the V-belts only ran the power steering and air conditioning, so the truck was still drivable. It started, and we drove on. My index finger was cut through the knuckle, and I could see the bone. It didn’t bleed much, so I pulled a band-aid and some adhesive tape from my pack, and patched it up. It hurt like hell, but I regained most of my motion and flexibility, though the nerve to that section of my finger was damaged. I can’t feel anything on the back side of the top two-thirds of that finger anymore. There was a chunk of cartilage stuck in the knuckle, getting in the way, so a week later I cut it away with my pocketknife, a little field surgery which worked fine. The middle finger wasn’t cut near so deeply, but both knuckles now share a scar line.

I caught a ride with a fellow in a Dodge Charger the next day. We drove to Sioux Falls at 100 miles per hour. From there I went to Clear Lake, Minnesota with a couple of tourists from Finland. I slept behind some bushes. and in the morning caught a ride to LaCrosse, Wisconsin, and smoked dope the whole way. From there, I rode to Highland Park, Illinois. Outside the mini-mart, I met the young fellow who worked there, and he took me home for the night. In the morning he gave me a couple half-pint bottles he’d pinched from the stock, peach brandy and Southern Comfort. He also bought one of my puzzle rings, and gave me three joints for the road.


In the morning I went to the train station, intending to ride the train for a few miles as a change of pace. I arrived there early, and started a conversation with a fellow who was starting his shift. He told me to buy a ticket to Mannheim, where his locker was. In Mannheim, he brought me to the back room, and told me which freight train to hop. I was off to Indiana.

Hopping a train is interesting, and different. The train clanks along, hour after hour, not very fast. I sat in the empty boxcar, watching the prairie roll by, then turned around and watched the shadows on the wall. It was very much like Plato’s cave. The train gently shook, clanked, squealed. The shadows flashed and danced on the wall. It was easy to imagine life as nothing but shadows, eternally shifting, the swaying train rocking me to sleep–

But I didn’t sleep. It’s relaxing when you don’t need to pee, but I felt the need. After miles of green grass and rolling hills, I got up and started to pee out the door–and immediately passed a crowded crossing with a police car at the head of the line. There wasn’t much point in stopping, so I let it fly–

Towards evening the train pulled into a freight yard. I hopped off, found a bar and had a couple beers. I crashed out in a secluded spot next to the toll road and in the morning caught a ride into Michigan, where I ate a big breakfast in Lawrence. Across the road was an unattended produce stand next to an old woman’s garden, with a note sitting next to a can. I got a couple boxes of raspberries, and stuffed the money in the can.

The next fellow who picked me up was Will, from Toledo, Ohio. One of the first things he told me was how much he hated Michiganders, because they never smiled. He was right. In my little jaunt into and back out of Michigan, everyone appeared morose.

Will made good money working at a nuclear plant, but figured he was getting a large dose of radiation and probably wouldn’t live long, so he was damned well going to enjoy life. We went to a couple bars. He bought drinks for everyone, and several for me. I tried to give him a ring, but he didn’t think he could figure out the puzzle. The local radio station had shirts for sale—”105 WXEZ Rocks Toledo”, it said—for $2–but I couldn’t talk even one person into buying a ring, and I had less than $2 left. At the end of the night, however, I caught a ride to Dayton with one of the fellows I’d met in the bar.

The next day I thumbed to a great little college town, Berea, Kentucky. I spent the day among the shops or chilling in the park. Afterwards I caught a ride to Knoxville, where I spent a couple days with my cousin Pat and her two daughters.

October found me back in Boone. I started to get involved with a roommate of Nora’s, the Avery County Woman I’d been involved with five years earlier. Nora was in good spirits, but Cara had lost her boyfriend 3 weeks earlier to cancer. She was simply incapable of anything but grief, and I couldn’t make her feel better. There was a deep sadness in her which I couldn’t touch, and I’d set her to crying with any little thing.

My father stayed home that Christmas. An old friend of Marcus wanted to come along, so Bobby and I planned to leave at the end of November. A friend of my sister then asked to come along as well, so it was me, Bobby and Michelle. I’d bought an old Plymouth Valiant, named “Flo”, from Art’s girlfriend Dolores, and she was thrilled to know Flo was going to Texas. I painted “with Bob and Michelle” on the sign, and we set up six hundred fresh trees, Rudolph the Red-Assed Reindeer and a skeletal Charlie Brown tree, of which there were still a few left. I got in touch with several friends I’d neglected when my father had been there. Stevie Ray Vaughn was one, a fellow I’d met in the neighborhood the previous year. He and his band were now popular in Austin.

Jean and her roommates gave a party just before Christmas, and I spent the evening jamming on the front porch with several musicians, including Stevie. We talked about maybe playing together, but Stevie was interested when needles appeared, and would disappear into another room. I liked playing with him, but wasn’t that hard-core. I stayed on the porch.

Later we had a poker game, and both Bobby and I won good money with a variation called Cincinnati Red Dog, which isn’t really poker at all. Everyone antes, four cards are dealt and each person places a bet against the pot. You have to beat the next card up, in the same suit. If you bet a nickel, a club comes up and you have the ace of clubs, you win. Any other suit, you lose. It’s rather difficult to win, and the pot quickly gets big. If you’re sure, you can “tap the pot”, pay off any bets already on the table and go for the whole thing. If you lose, you match the pot, and a $5 pot is suddenly $10. The pot gets bigger, and most folks get conservative, not tapping it even when they have a good hand. The trick is to have a high card in every suit, which doesn’t happen often. That night I won about $50, and Bobby $100.

Bobby had packed his motorcycle in the back of the truck, and Michelle alternated riding with Bobby and riding in Flo. We wanted to go sight-seeing and not bee-line back home on the freeway, so we went to the Gulf Coast to check out the coastal highway. The highway was still torn up from Hurricane Allen the year before, and large signs advised us that the road was closed. We were ready to turn back, but a local told us the road was bad on one side but the other lane was passable. This proved to be true. We drove almost exclusively in the left lane for a couple hundred miles, but since there was hardly any traffic this was a moot point. We stopped on the beach in several places, and picked up an incredible variety of shells. The hurricane had churned up the prettiest assortment I’d ever seen. Fancy shells covered the beach for miles.

We stopped in a motel that evening and cleaned up. Bobby and I wanted to hang awhile longer but Michelle wanted to leave, and headed to the freeway to thumb home. I drove out in Flo and told her to cut the comedy, then we drove the rest of the way home. Michelle was cute, but also a pain.

On the Bench

I was the same age as my father’d been when he’d married, and I was contemplating it but had no prospects. There was a game I’d play, idly, in my mind. I’d sit on a bench downtown, watch people pass by–young, old, fat, thin–and think what it’d be like to be married to each in turn. If I were that-guy-there, could I live with that-gal-over-there? How could I pick up the gal with the blue purse? Would she prefer me, or that guy who looks like a chicken? That older woman with the big nose, what would it be like to have been married to her for the past thirty years? In half-an-hour I’d consider a hundred different possibilities. An enjoyable pastime, but pointless.

The planet Uranus was transiting my seventh house, which astrologers immediately recognize as a seven-year period of turmoil and change in partnerships. Uranus is a very strangely oriented planet; its poles are oriented east-to-west. Since it takes 84 years to orbit the sun, one pole faces the earth for 21 years, then we see its equator for another 21, then the opposite pole, then the equator again. When the poles are facing the earth we’re seeing the same area of the planet for 21 years, but when the equator shows it really rolls. The day on Uranus is only seventeen hours long, so the view, unchanged for 21 years, now changes every 8-1/2 hours. In astrology this indicates those things which are built up over long periods of time and seem stable, but lose equilibrium and collapse into chaos. The turbulence continues for years before structures are rebuilt, in very different ways–which can be good, bad, or both. In the seventh house this affects one’s partnerships, including marriage, and my ideas of marriage were definitely in flux. I was on and off with Georgia, off and on with Jean, on and off with Robin and Susan, and briefly with Libby, Liz, Tory, Kathy, Carol, Debbie, Amie, Sherri, Sally, Lisa, Karen, Ann, Kate, Janie, Rhonda, Mary, Terry. Sometimes for a few days, sometimes months, sometimes years. I never figured out why I couldn’t keep a girlfriend, but of course it was my due to my own nervousness and uncertainty. I could attract women by the score, but they wouldn’t stay.

In February I went to Nashville to see Robin. We were together for two weeks, then broke up for good. I got back with Georgia, who eventually married her old boyfriend Darrell.

Later that spring I saw a gal who’d been out of town for a couple years, Jana, who asked me for a tarot reading. Her card for the recent past came up Death, reversed. I told her the reversed status represented tangled emotions and uncertainty about death, in the recent past. I didn’t know it, but she’d been away from town taking care of her father, who had just died. We talked for a long time that night, but never went further than a kiss.

I went out several times with Sally, who was a lot of fun. She took me to a bar in Boone, before bars were legal. Speedy the pizza guy had “parties” after hours. The beer would flow, and he’d keep a tally of who had what and settle up later—which was the illegal part.

I really liked Sally. I knew her family well; she had several brothers and sisters. A younger brother Greg married Terry’s sister Janice, an older sister Annalee smoked too much, and died young. We truly enjoyed each other’s company, but she wasn’t as “eager” as I, so to speak. Later she wished she had been, but by then it was too late.

In May I was back in New York State. I met a gal through the Boone co-op who was headed up for her brother’s wedding, and I offered to help with the driving. She dropped me off at Barb’s. Barb was stripping—her wallpaper! We stripped for a couple days, then saw Eileen’s brother Jim walk by. I invited him for wine and cheese. He helped with the ceiling, then we visited Eileen and Dana. It was the first time Eileen and Barb had met. We talked metaphysics and health well into the night. Eileen had some friends over and we had dinner, then did some yoga with wine.

Though the positions are the best-known aspect to yoga, the real trick is in the breathing. Deep and forceful breathing is messy, uncomfortable and obnoxious, and most people are too concerned about coughing and spraying boogers to breathe to the full limit of their capacity.

I had many surprises. Eileen had heard from June, the Avery County Woman who’d first sent me to Cortland. June had had a baby she’d named David—after me!–and had moved to Hawaii, where she was a massage therapist and writer. I asked Barb about her close friend Maggie, the first girl I’d met in Cortland. Barb said she’d married a fellow named Eric, an artist who worked at Cornell. Eric who? Eileen knew Eric! He’d lived with her roommate Geraldine. I knew Eric also, through a totally different friend, in a different city.

JoEllen and Neal had moved into the house they’d started 2-1/2 years earlier. It was a hell of a lot nicer than the itty-bitty trailer they’d all been living in for years. Neal still worked for the railroad and now owned an old sawmill, which he ran part-time. Joellen and the kids raised champion, award-winning goats.

I went to Connecticut from New York. I was out of town on my 29th birthday in June, and for the first time in my life let my driver’s license expire. Fran was living with Patience, who was my brother Sam’s squeeze for years, until he decided to jump the fence and take off with Rob, an older fellow who left his wife and moved in together with Sam. I liked Patience, she was good-looking, funny, and very smart; she later specialized in show-biz law.

Sam and Rob lived in The Ansonia in Manhattan, where I showed up next. A blues singer friend of theirs, Georgia Louis, threw a party in Westport, Connecticut, where I sold over a dozen rings. I spent the following day in Central Park, rode the carousel and visited several shops that Sam, Fran and Patience knew. I found an herb I’d wanted for months, Red Root or New Jersey Tea, drew everyone’s astrological charts, and discovered Rob had Taurus rising and Gemini sun, like me.

From New York City I went to southern New Jersey and visited Annie, who’d been Robin’s roommate at Appalachian, and stayed a couple days. It was the first time I’d been to that part of New Jersey, and I had a blast. There’s a good reason New Jersey is called the Garden State, though the vast majority of people, who only pass through on I-95, have no clue why. I drew charts for Annie, her two sisters and their friends, lounged on the beach a few days and then headed south, where I found an abandoned motel outside of Southern Pines, NC. I squatted there for a couple days and replenished my supply of rings before visiting the gal whose chart I’d decided was closest to my ideal, Kate. She was living with a nice fellow, so I stayed with them for three days and headed back to Boone. It was June, 1982.

Summer of ’82

I broke up with Georgia, insofar as I was ever with her. With her, it was always a week or two on, a month off, a week or two on again. I found it annoying. My father worked at the Dixie Barber Shop in downtown Boone and took off a few weekends a year for movies or commercials. He made several “redneck comedies”, few which had national distribution. He’d use a pseudonym, usually Jack Payne, so that the Screen Actors’ Guild wouldn’t know he was doing non-SAG work, though he kept his SAG dues paid. In the mid-80s he won the  bridgemaster role in a true clinker, the only movie ever directed by Steven King, “Maximum Overdrive”; his was the first voice heard after the opening credits. He appeared just before the drawbridge opened unexpectedly and creamed a girl with a watermelon. Marla Maples’ enticing, strangled scream was so effective that she stole away The Donald from his blonde wife. Since 2017, he’s been known as Mr. President. 

I’d met a gal seven years earlier, and we’d fooled around, but she’d moved away. Jeannie was an international model, and had been quite successful. She now owned a nice place in the mountains, could travel without worries and often followed the Grateful Dead.

Jeannie had been married at eleven, quite legally, in California many years before. She’d been a “wild child” and her parents couldn’t control her, so they let her marry. She now had a grown, married son, and since I was five years younger than Jeannie, I was just seven years older than her son. I was bar-hopping one night and met a girl who’d heard my name from her, which is how I found out she was back in town.

I called, and visited her house. We got a group together and went to the VFW post, where Jeannie knew several members. Jeannie had a long-term boyfriend, Indian, with whom she’d break up fairly regularly. Indian came along, but passed out in the car, so Jeannie and the rest of us went inside. Jeannie introduced me as her husband and we stayed late, crashing out on the benches together. Indian awoke early, saw the two of us and took Jeannie home. He, furious, loaded up a duffel bag and left her, that morning. Jeannie called me, in tears, and after seven years of tiptoeing around it, we spent the night together. She asked me if I wanted her to be my wife, and I thought about it long and hard, but after a month or so she was back with Indian. It was just as well.

Short-lived romances. A week, a month~Carolann, Karen, Debby, Cindy~I had one after another. Once Gloria, who nominally lived at the Hot El but essentially lived with her boyfriend, came home unexpectedly to find me in her bed with George’s cousin Karen. I moved into with Karen’s trailer for not quite a week, but we didn’t work. The night after I broke up with Karen I met Cindy. We talked for hours and then stayed at the Hot El. Gloria, once again, came home and found me in her bed—this time with Cindy. My intentions were always honorable; I was trying to fall in love, searching desperately for my other half, but my heart was scrambled and confused.

I left town again a few days later. I visited with my brother Sam and his new boyfriend, and went into the Statue of Liberty. I was amazed how many languages I heard on the ferry. From among about 200 people I heard Japanese, Greek, Portuguese, Arabic, Slavic, Italian, Vietnamese, Norwegian and others. There was a tour bus with Chinese characters on the side and the announcements were given in English, Spanish, French and German.

I sold lots more rings and jewelry to Sam and Rob’s friends, then went back to Patience and Fran’s apartment in Connecticut. They were moving at the end of the month. I helped them prepare for their tag sale, as New Englanders call a yard sale. Patience was moving to New York City–she’d landed a job in showbiz contract law–and Fran had made a weekend visit to Boone a month earlier, met a guy and suddenly made plans to move in with him, as was her way. This was the third or fourth time she’d fallen in love instantly, dropped everything and moved to a different state or country. She was a lot like me.

I thumbed from Connecticut back to Cortland, then down to Southern Pines, where I stayed again in the abandoned motel and replenished my rings. I continued to Myrtle Beach, where Michelle was now living. My sister Genny came down to visit Michelle and her roommate Pam, whom I hadn’t seen for years. Pam had gone from awkward teenybopper to total knockout. I rode home with my sister in time for a local craft fair called Septemberfest, and for the rest of the season minded a second-hand shop on weekends, for $10 a day and a place to sell my crafts, plus first shot at whatever stuff came through the door.

I pitched a tent at Snag End that summer, a mile from my parents’ house. I left  it there when I went thumbing, but when I returned it was collapsed in a heap. My father had hired loggers, and they’d taken the tree it was tied to, and many others, and cut a road up the hill. I set the tent back up, but mostly slept in my car.

Jake and Jody pulled into town that fall, with their kids Magic and Mystic. Jody was pregnant again, and they had a 1949 White school bus, painted purple. When I wasn’t minding the shop I cut tobacco or found other farm work with Marcus, Bobby, Jake and others.

My father had lost his wedding band while we were loading trees in 1981. He thought it gone for good and asked me to make another, but when I went to mow the lot I found it glistening in the weeds. I lost my own ring changing a tire the following winter, and again found it in the springtime. According to my astrological chart I’m good at finding things. It’s true!

I’d been in two wrecks while Marcus was driving. He’d gone off the edge of Winkler’s Creek road in his Volkswagen–the same Volkswagen he’d been driving when he changed a tire atop Howard’s Knob, tossed the flat to the side and watched it roll down the mountain picking up speed until it plowed into a blackberry bramble and was lost for good. Marcus slid the VW over the side of a sharp curve. The rear broke loose and spun completely around, left the roadbed and plopped down hard but upright against a couple of trees, which held it level, roof-to-road height  and appearing as if we’d been coming down the hill and not going up. I’d been sitting in the passenger seat, but sat down hard in the back seat behind the driver, not hurt at all, and we crawled out. The second time we were on Payne Branch Road in his cut-up 1964 Galaxie with a series of flip switches instead of an ignition key. I’d had a Bronco I’d connected that way, and my Model A too. One advantage to it was that with no key in the ignition one couldn’t charged with drunken driving, only public drunkenness. Unless you knew the switch combination you’d try to start it all day, then a few feet down the road it’d stall. For a long time he drove the Galaxie on the Seven Devils resort without tags, license, lights or anything else, but Marcus had finally hooked up lights, installed a proper gas tank and had it registered. We were making a run down the dirt road to Blowing Rock to buy beer, bundled up against the cold in this roofless, backless car in the middle of winter, when coming around a curve Marcus hit a patch of ice and plowed into a couple guys from Tennessee. Neither our car nor theirs was much damaged, and I had the presence of mind to put my arm up and lay my head on the dashboard before we hit, so I was only shaken up. The Tennessee guys got out of their Jeep and we looked at the damage, which wasn’t much. We gave them a couple beers we had in the back seat and they pulled out a bottle of whiskey, we all took a tug and went on our way.

I, finally, loved my life. I felt really popular. Everyone in town and in lots of other places people knew me. I had circles in North Carolina, California, Texas, Colorado, South Carolina, Florida, New York (city and state), Washington (city and state), and scattered friends and acquaintances all over. I’d been to all the states now, save Alaska, a couple territories and two foreign countries. Wherever anyone was from, or had visited, I’d been there, knew where it was, knew someone there. I’d also learned how to talk to women.

A woman likes a thoughtful, considerate man who listens and brings her flowers, but he bores her to tears. He’ll be a friend, not a lover. A woman wants challenge. A guy should be a bit of a smartass. If a guy finds poetry a turn-off, he should say so, and argue about it. Quote poetry and make a face. Tell her how awful Browning is, or Dylan, or Katy Perry. Make a fuss, state an opinion. Fight about it. Disagree. Talk a little dirty. She may be annoyed, but she won’t be bored.

Before leaving for Texas, I traded the Bronco, the Galaxy and the Valiant, Flo, for a 1972 Dodge Coronet, and after Thanksgiving Bobby and I took the Coronet to Texas. We pulled into the lot, but all the big old trees, Mary’s house, the barn, all had been bulldozed. Mary wasn’t there. The company who’d bought the property wanted double the rent, for a lot which was a mud hole.

We were feeling glum when I went for breakfast that morn, but while I was out Bobby talked with a woman who’d bought a tree the year before. She knew, off the top of her head, the phone number to check on real estate. By that afternoon, we had a lot three blocks down the road. The folks next door had also agreed to let us run a power cord, take showers and do our laundry for the next 3 weeks–for $20. Kevin, Jake & Jody’s friend, set up another lot some blocks away. Both lots did well.

Across the street from our new lot, a gas station had a neon sign, flashing the price of gas. For a couple weeks the price flashed $1.11, all day and night. It became a joke between Bobby and I to start a conversation and then sneak in the price of gas. “So Bobby, I was watching the news this morning, Reagan was talking and I was thinking~what’s the price of gas?” or “Hey, Dave, I saw someone we sold a tree to last year, and they asked me if I knew~the price of gas.” One day the price went to $1.12. It was like an earthquake had hit.

After the second weekend we had some free time, so I spent Monday and Tuesday with Jean. We discussed whether we should live together. It would mean one of us moving, and getting established somewhere else. We cuddled, considered, talked about it, but it hung in the air like a balloon, and that was that.

Bobby and I stayed through Christmas. At a friend’s house on Lake Travis, on Christmas Eve, we went wind-surfing. Our friend knew of a party the next day. A pretty girl named Liz invited me to sleep over, and I did.

Bobby rode his bike back, and I drove the Coronet. It was a good, solid car, a former undercover police car, and ran well. The inside of the tailpipe stayed chalk white, the sign of a perfectly tuned machine. I’d been pushing it a little bit in Mississippi, about 3 am. The speed limit was still 55, but I was doing about seventy when when a Camaro passed me as if I were standing still. I decided to see how fast the Camaro was going, and caught it. I was doing 120 miles per hour. The Dodge was as smooth as a baby’s butt. I could’ve easily passed the Camaro, but didn’t want to. I followed along for a mile or two, then eased off.

My parents had been a bit concerned, but I arrived in Boone the next evening. A  friend of Kate, my not-so-perfect-match, needed someone to house-sit while she went out of town with her ex-husband, so I did. I met another gal, Tory, at the Hot El that month, but it didn’t work out either, and when Rhonda returned, minus the ex, we lived together for two months. Finally, I left a bookmark in a book she was reading, saying I really liked her, thought highly of her, respected her, but I knew she didn’t love me. I wished her the best, but I knew in my heart it wasn’t gonna work. I packed my things and went back to my tent. Later we saw each other. She cried, I cried, we hugged, we kissed, we said goodbye.

The Barn

My cousin had a barn down the road, which she rented for parties. Boone was a “dry” town; the barn was popular. I lived close by, and if I stayed the night and cleaned up in the morning, she let me in free. It was a good deal for both of us. I drank for free, didn’t have to drive, she didn’t have to pay for cleanup. I even made a few dollars crushing cans.

On St. Patrick’s Day, 1983 Kevin appeared, running from the Texas cops. He’d been caught with a knapsack full of peyote, dressed like an Indian–but he wasn’t an Indian! He started camping on the property where Jake, Jody and I were living. I’d had a job selling coupon books, and had several left over for free sandwiches. I gave Kevin a couple to help him while he looked for work. Kevin met a girl named Dawn, broke up with her after a couple weeks and I took her out a time or two, but beyond a bit of fumbling, nothing developed between us.

Jake, Kevin and I got jobs planting pines for a local preacher named Grover, who had a forestry contract. He took a half-dozen of us to the job sites each day. I’d often be the driver, sometimes fifty or a hundred miles a day. We’d go down the mountain and plant fields in white or yellow pines for 5¢ a tree. A nickel a tree doesn’t sound like much, but when I was hustling, on a good day I could plant fifteen hundred trees in five or six hours, which was good pay in 1983. I was always fast (it’s what I do!) until one weekend I was playing tag football and broke the middle finger of my left hand. I could still work, but was only able to plant 2/3 as many, and was permanently “giving the finger” to everyone. After it’d healed, I broke my right middle finger, and was “giving the finger” with my right hand until well into the fall.

Before working with Grover I’d used a “dibbler” to plant trees, a sort of heavy, straight-bladed small spade. I’d walk along, use both hands to drive in the blade, step on it, wiggle it, pull it out, plant the tree and repeat the action a couple inches further along to “set” the roots. On Grover’s jobs we used a “ho-dad”, a mattock with a short, straight horizontal blade. Swing the blade, push it forward to make the hole, put in the tree, swing it again, pull the blade back. Two or three times as fast.

Occasionally I’d help plant trees behind a tractor. It was a lot faster on relatively flat land, but the tractor wouldn’t handle a slope, and you’d breathe a lot of diesel smoke. I can ride the North Carolina highways through several counties now–Watauga, Ashe, Avery, Wilkes, Caldwell, Guilford, Surry–and tell my kids I planted those trees, over there. The ones that are now forty feet tall. In my life, I’ve planted over a million trees.

Like most guys from North Carolina, I’ve also helped plant, tend, cut and put up tobacco. Cutting in the fall, your hands, arms, clothes and face get coated with tobacco gum, sticky sap that picks up dirt and turns black.

Over and Out

A local group, the Numuziklub (new music club) was giving parties at my cousin’s barn. They featured local bands who’d occasionally need a harmonica player or drummer, and I’d perform. The first Saturday in April, a girl in red-and-white leggings was sitting in the balcony, looking a little lonely. I nodded to her, and she nodded back.

A week later I went to the barn. The Numuziklub was featuring another band. I walked in the door, got a beer, looked around. The girl I’d seen the previous Saturday made a smart-ass remark about my raincoat (which I was wearing because it was raining), and then said my shirt looked like it was from 1963 (which it was). I immediately liked her. She was brash, but friendly, and pulled me into to the little booth where she was sitting, across from a couple rough-looking guys who between the two of them had six or eight good teeth. We talked for a long time that night, danced, rolled around, tickled each other. I went home with her. We’ve been together ever since. It was April 9th, 1983.

For the first week, Perri was house-sitting for some friends on Beech Mountain. Afterwards, we moved into my tent at Snag End.

There was a lot of activity that week. The morning after Perri had moved in, Jody had her baby. Perri assisted, in the back-of-the-bus birth, on April 17th.

We made a better, more pleasant spot for the tent, ditching around it, putting sawdust under the floor. Kevin had set up a wooden deck for his tent, a clear plastic greenhouse which woke him up at ridiculous hours of the morning. We dug out a spring, put a cover on it and had cold water and a cool place for food. We put in a sink, a counter, a firepit, built an outhouse.

Shortly after Perri moved in, we drove to the barn, and left Kevin while we dropped off our laundry. We drove up, and Kevin and was out front arguing with the cops. We took him home. A fellow from Tennessee had been giving the party, a little bitty guy with a great big gun. Some big guy started making trouble. The little guy pulled his gun and shot him, sort-of-or-possibly-by-accident. The big guy died. That ended the parties.

It changed Kevin’s life, for awhile anyway. Kevin started talking with my sister Fran, and they joined a small, obnoxious fundamentalist cult run by a red-haired jerk who  insisted on injecting himself and his moronic worldview into their daily lives. He and the sheep of his congregation had decided my sister should marry one of the goats in the choir. She had other ideas. A couple weeks later, she and Kevin were married.

I was the best man, at the most exasperating wedding ceremony I’ve ever witnessed. Carrot-top preached for at least an hour, bringing up perdition, the coming apocalypse, everything wrong with the world today. He decried how many children grew up in broken homes in the world today, how many divorces there were in the world today. How many wives did not SUBMIT to their husbands in the world today. When I thought he was ready to get on with the ceremony he’d crank it up again and talk of hellfire, the end of time, the evil in the world today, because people in the world today didn’t have JESUS in their HEARTS in the world today, and on and on in the world today, and on and on, and on and on and on some more, in the world today, and when it looked in the world today like he was ready to continue in the world today with the ceremony in the world today he wound it up AGAIN in the world today and dressed down all the SINNERS in the world today. Eventually I started throwing the ring pillow in the air, higher and higher, bouncing it off the ceiling of the church. After an hour of this ridiculous harangue, in the world today, they were pronounced man and wife. The cassette of their “ceremony” in the world today was never, ever, ever played in the world today, and they never, ever went back to the red haired clown’s church. In the world today.

My parents helped Kevin and Fran finance a trailer, and they moved in together at Snag End.

I wanted to start a shop in town, and paid the first month’s rent. My father had sold the tree farm. My father had promise, and I’d expected, “my half of the profits”. Big mistake. My “half” was zero, and the shop folded before it began.

Kevin had a dog named Dusty, but Dusty died that spring and afterwards our family dog Daphne trotted up the road. Though she’d been living at the Winkler’s Creek house for over ten years, she’d always wanted to be an only dog, which didn’t happen. She came to Snag End and became our dog, for six more years.

When in the tent I once knocked one of our candles onto the back wall. Fire climbed very quickly, but Perri picked up the beer I was drinking and put it out.

Perri bit into a Dorito that spring. The triangular tip of the chip slid under her gum, and the next day her face and upper lip swelled up like she was Quasimodo. She went to the dentist and the dentist told her the Dorito had nothing to do with it, which was obviously a crock.

Perri was going to college in Banner Elk, and working as a summer camp counselor on Beech Mountain. Her fellow counselor Cindy became a long-time friend, and sixteen years later both of they had babies, the first for both, within a month of each other!


In May we started building an earth lodge. I’d read a book about building a $50 house and decided to try it. We cut down several locust trees and dragged them to Snag End. We imagined a split-level, teepee-type structure dug into the hillside. We dug back about 20 feet with picks and shovels, left a 4-foot rise and dug back another 20 feet. A flattish, half-round, teepee-like roof went up on the bottom half, and the architectural plan was to install a row of clerestory windows above the roofline, then build a second half-round flattish teepee above.

By July we’d finished digging, sometimes helped by neighborhood teenagers  fueled with beer. There were now about a dozen of us living at Snag End; Adam and Karen had a very nice double-walled teepee, Peter had a tent, Kevin and Fran a trailer and Jake and Jody, with their three kids, a bus. The road to the earth lodge was rough, but passable for Perri’s four-wheel-drive Subaru, and after a first month or so of tossing wheelbarrow loads of rock into the slick grey mud my Dodge made it through as well, though the deputy got stuck when he came to check out our housewarming party.

By fall we had a frame covered in chicken wire, with old carpeting on top covered in plastic sheeting and tarpaper. A wood stove set in a large stone hearth was in the center, and to the left a raised area, with wooden pallets supporting a mattress, was the bedroom. A low table held our candles, kerosene and Coleman lamps. A tall set of shelves separated the “bedroom” from the “kitchen”. A sink was set into a countertop made of 2x4s, and a 5-gallon bucket underneath caught the grey water. We’d haul water from the spring outside the door, which had a hinged top and a platform to kneel on. Inside the spring was a basket to store fruit, beer, etc., and another bucket and shelf for items which needed to be kept cool, but dry. We also set up an outside kitchen opposite our front door, with another counter and sink, a cheapo wood stove and a fire pit, all tucked into a clearing among hemlock trees.

Kevin ran a power line from his trailer. For a few dollars a month we had power tools and a radio. I soon put in a washing machine, downhill from the spring and fed by syphon. To the other side of the drop-off from our outdoor kitchen was the outhouse, put together from spare plywood.

At the end of the summer, the first iteration of the earth lodge was up. I got a night job cleaning at the school, where we’d use the showers and laundry. Perri, when she wasn’t going to classes, had a job at a convenience store near the ski slopes of Beech Mountain.

The best thing about cleaning up at the school was the opportunity, once my job was done, to hang out in the library and read kids’ books. A kid’s book tells you the essentials, without distracting details. At lunch I’d raid the fridge in the cafeteria for leftover salad or ice cream, then read about the moons of Jupiter or baseball players of the 1920s. I didn’t have to finish at a particular time, and often hung around until 2 am. It wasn’t far from home; sometimes I’d ride a bicycle, or walk. One very dark night I saw a wadded paper bag in the road, and kicked it to the side. It shook its little head and flew off! It was an owl, minding its own owly business and not bothering anyone, but out of the gloom I came along, and kicked it!

The road on which I lived followed a steep east-west valley. There were no streetlights, and on a clear, moonless night it was very dark. When there was a bright planet in the sky, it’d cast a subtle shadow. The shadow of Venus was a deep, intense purple. Jupiter’s was blue, and Saturn’s a slate grey. I couldn’t detect a shadow for Mars, which a science-minded friend of mine told me was because it was several magnitudes dimmer than the others. There are lights on the road now, and a glow from the lights of Boone, which in the 80s was asleep by 10 pm. One can’t see the shadows cast by planetary lights. I doubt there are many such places left–only where there’s a deep east-to-west valley, with a clear view above and no street lights for miles, on a moonless night.

It’s a shame. Magical, but no one sees it.


The Third of June, 1953
was another dusty, dirty Delta day, and Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge, according to the hit song by a dark haired Southern singer named Roberta, who like my mother, Roberta, a dark haired Southern singer, was born on the 208th day of the year. The headlines celebrated a new queen of England and a beekeeper named Hillary who had just climbed a mountain.

I was born in an old hospital on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Old? Eighty-four years earlier, it had hosted the world’s first artificial insemination. The standard at the time for a new mother and her infant was a week in a decrepit hospital with assorted sick people, and a day later our little family left for North Carolina in search of fame and fortune. My eight days in The City fascinated all the Jewish girls I later met, who’d read a great deal about the Lower East Side (why it was capitalized I don’t know), but by the time I was old enough to notice girls, was no more. “Urban renewal” in the 1960s leveled the hospital, replacing it with boxy buildings, manicured trees and the shining twin towers which fell in 2001.
At three weeks old, I was onstage. My first and most successful production was the outdoor drama, “Horn in the West”. It had begun in 1952, in response to the success of “The Lost Colony”, starring Andy Griffith. While Andy was in the Outer Banks of the Tar Heel State portraying Sir Walter Raleigh, my father Ned Austin was in the Blue Ridge portraying Daniel Boone. He’d dated the lead actress until he was smitten with the music director, Bobbie Jones–not by her beauty, but by her willingness to tote off a huge prop anvil carelessly left onstage. That weekend, on their first date, he proposed. She refused, until he sobered up. They were both seasoned performers, and after the first season of “The Horn” they moved to New York, where they starred in such Broadway shows as “Kiss Me Kate”, “Pal Joey” and “The Crucible”. But not on Broadway. The theatre troupe they belonged to, “The Pickwick Players”, operated out of a barn upstate.
I have a good memory, and when I was six recalled all my birthday cakes, including a green “un-birthday” cake from when I’d read Alice in Wonderland–but there was one cake I couldn’t place; it had white frosting with a scattering of candy red-hots. My mother, amazed, told me it was my first birthday cake, and so my first memory was my first birthday. Some years later I tried a technique similar to the one used in the movie “Somewhere in Time”.  By FEELING the details–shorter arms, less weight–I remembered how it was to BE there, then tried to remember even earlier.
A flash! Windows to my left, kitchen table to my right; mason jars, plates, spice tins. I was in a high chair. My father, on the far side of the kitchen, was leaning back and looking at something. I followed his gaze and saw my mother, looking at ME!
SURPRISE! Someone LOOKING at me! I slapped my high-chair tray, sending a few pieces of rice flying. My mother wore a distinctive yellow T-shirt with wide brown stripes, and my father had a beard. I must have been four months old. That was all: bright light streams through the window, SURPRISE! Rice flies, sparkles in the sun, the end.
My parents moved back to New York in the autumn of 1953, living in an open loft “studio” in Brooklyn for three months, but when winter came they returned to the Austin family farm.

Bozo’s Boy
Ned shaved off his beard after the 1954 season; Charlie Elledge portrayed Daniel Boone for the next 41 years. The following spring we packed into a shiny green 1949 Chevy, with a trailer painted to match, and drove to Denver, Colorado. My parents rented a cool, quiet basement from an old woman named Nettie, but when winter came it was too cold, and we moved. Father and mother shared the car; she’d drop him off in the early morning to unload freight cars, sleep a few hours, then bundle me up and stroll to a day-care at the end of the block. I’d stay at Humpty Dumpty Preschool while she worked as a receptionist at the hospital. My father then walked from his job to the barber college for classes, where mother would later pick him up. She had a stillborn baby boy when I was very young, the brother I never knew, but soon enough I did have a younger brother, and one day in the early spring the four of us looked at a brick house in a field of mud. It was cold, the house unfinished, but my father got a veteran’s loan and bought 320 South 40th Street in Boulder.
The neighborhood was new, full of families with little kids. Its sparkling white sidewalks had curbs which angled into the gutters at 60º. We’d take the Chevy to the Busley’s with the neon bunny sign and buy groceries, except for dairy items which a milkman left in a white box on the porch every other day. Karl’s Dairy used brown glass milk bottles, which was very unusual. Orange Crush came in brown bottles for awhile, but those were long gone when I was still young.
My father got a job in television, and drove each morning on the Boulder Turnpike in a 1938 Studebaker, to KBTV in Denver where he portrayed a variety of kiddie show characters. Occasionally I’d be in these shows, when they needed an extra kid in the peanut gallery. All the broadcasts were live. In the mornings he’d be Dandy the Clown on the Candy and Dandy show, at noon the puppet Jerry the Giraffe, and afternoons the local Bozo the Clown, barbering after work. Bozo was a franchise; every TV station had its own Bozo showing whatever cartoons were trucked in. Sometimes on Saturdays he’d be Commander Jet, or the fellow on the Hootenanny with the nail through his hat, or the interviewer for whatever celebrity happened to pass through. Once he brought home original Walter Lantz drawings of Woody Woodpecker, torn from the weatherman’s giant roll of paper. Weathermen in the 50s sketched with grease pencils, making little cartoons out of clouds and rain and wind. The Woody Woodpecker drawings became my favorite Show & Tell item all through elementary school.
Davy Crockett was my hero when I was 2. He had my name, and I’m sure I had some residual awareness that my father had been Daniel Boone onstage; it was easy enough for a 2-year-old to mix up two Western heroes of the 1800’s whose names began with “D”. I had a leather cap with fur-trimmed earflaps that I wore everywhere, the way a 2-year-old does with a favorite hat. I imagined Davy Crockett wore one like that, though he probably didn’t. Westerns were the big thing then, and I was a Western kid. I wore my brown cap and rode my red-and-white trike down the leaf-covered sidewalks in the Denver autumn, and I was a frontiersman.

When I was an infant my astrological chart was drawn and interpreted by Laurel Keyes, an astrologer of renown who wrote esoteric books about colors, sounds and vibrations in the cosmos. She said I was an “old soul” and that I’d change the world, or the universe, or something. It was never coherently explained to me, and I never figured out what the hell she meant. It became a huge pain in the butt, as I didn’t want to be Saivyer of the Wurld. Still, from a very young age I carried my astrological chart in my wallet, hoping to find someone to interpret it. It stayed there until I was 16, at which time I decided that if I wanted to know anything I’d have to learn it myself. With the first paycheck of my first “real” job I ran to the esoteric bookstore and purchased the biggest, thickest astrology book they had.

Kid Stuff
Our first Halloween in Boulder, my brother and I went trick-or-treating and brought home huge bags of candy, but what awaited us when we returned was unexpected. At the University of Colorado, the college students all went trick-or-treating! Thousands of vampires and ghosts and cowboys and fairies and Martians trekked continuously to our door. My parents had a few bags of candy, but soon made popcorn balls and ran out of those too. They raided our booty to satisfy the wolves, promising to buy more later. They did, but it was still a letdown as the variety of our sweets reduced by a factor of ten. The next year they bought candy by the bushel basket!
My second brother arrived that December, and now there were three blonde-haired, bluish-eyed boys, though in the style of the time my father kept us in haircuts short enough that it was hard to see hair at all.
When winter came the cold wind blew hard and fierce off the Rocky Mountains, and I’d be well bundled walking to kindergarten. One morning I was on the icy sidewalk leaning back into the wind. A sudden gust caught me, 49 pounds of kindergartner, and I was airborne. I flew through the air for a few yards, then was set lightly back on my feet. I didn’t even stumble.
Cars were works of art in the 50s. The two-tone, peach-and-white ’56 Mercury next door belonged to a couple who moved in shortly after we did. Elliott and Eleanor Goldstein’s son, Seth, became my best friend. My mother was concerned with what Seth could eat, until one day he asked for “more ham”. Elliott was Jewish, but Eleanor was Catholic, and neither was kosher. Seth and I often watched TV together. It had a well-defined schedule; kid shows on Saturday morning and after school, news at noon and 6, family shows afterwards. One Saturday he and I were watching cartoons and the signal, never very strong, was fading in and out. I discovered that if I moved a little to one side the reception would get better, or worse. For the next hour as we’d watch I’d move imperceptibly to the left, the signal would deteriorate and I’d wave my hands around, telling Seth I had “magic”. I’d stand, point, give a hand-clap or a stomp, move a little to the right and the reception would be fine. My mother got a call from Eleanor later that night asking just what I’d taught her son to do, because he was standing in front of the TV waving and stomping and clapping and practicing his “magic”.
We spent a lot of time doing kid stuff together. We’d chase birds with a salt shaker and try to pour salt on their tails. We wore towels around our shoulders and jumped off the sidewalk, practicing to leap tall buildings. We’d swing and slide with a girl my age named Becky Irwin and her little brother Bo, and ride tricycles up the hill to where a teenager named George had 1940s cars in his driveway–Oldsmobiles, Henry Js–then coast back. We all had cookie-cutter houses of three or four styles with postage-stamp front yards that seemed huge to a 4-or-5-year-old, but the backyards were much bigger. Ours had a cherry tree and a small garden, with a rhubarb bush in the corner that our dog regularly peed on. Rusty was a Great Dane/Boxer mix who looked like a huge Boxer. He was very protective of me and my little brother, and not much bothered by anything but Volkswagens. The Volkswagen was an unusual little car at the time, it looked and sounded different from anything else on the road. A Volkswagen would drive by, and Rusty would attack. The Volkswagen would run off with its tail between its legs and Rusty would march home in triumph.
Cocoa was another family dog, a Dalmatian and not very smart. One day she ran away and for three days we didn’t see her. We finally drove around the neighborhood and a mile or two away, when we passed by a house which looked like ours, she ran out and greeted us. It appeared the owners were out of town and she’d been waiting without food or water for us to return. Didn’t stop her from running away, though. One day she ran away and didn’t come back.
We had a homemade electric lawn mower, invented by my father. He didn’t want to spend money, and had a big fan he wasn’t using. He made a frame of 2x4s and plywood, put casters on the bottom, sharpened the fan blades and had the oddest-looking lawn mower imaginable. He actually invented several things over time; mother had been in a fender-bender on the way from North Carolina to Colorado when the trailer, full of a year’s worth of provisions from the garden, overtaxed the brakes on the Chevy, so he designed a two-part trailer tongue which hooked up to a master cylinder. When the driver hit the brakes, the trailer mechanically pushed the tongue and it stopped the trailer. Worked like a charm.

The $25 Rule
For a long time my father had a rule–never pay more than $25 for anything. If it broke, he’d fix it–or make his own, or buy another for $25. It’s what he paid for the Studebaker he drove to work (he didn’t want my mother to drive it, and she didn’t want to!), which he sold for $10 when the kingpins wore out and would have cost $75 to replace. This was when $100 was a week’s pay, of course. It’s a good rule still–buy as cheap as you can, fix what you can, buy tools instead of paying someone to do it and make a good trade. I’d add something my father never got the hang of–get a good price for what you sell and don’t be over-eager to sell it.
There were few outlets, and appliances had long woven cords. One day when I was quite young I tripped over the coffeepot cord and was doused with boiling coffee. We took a trip to the doctor, or the hospital, or whatever. I was in the front seat of the Chevy in my underwear, my leg hanging out the open window. I was badly scalded, but remember how cool the air felt on my blotchy pink leg, driving in the Colorado springtime.
Kindergarten was in a large low room with big bright windows facing west. The sun would stream through in the afternoon and after nap time we’d roll off our mats and color in pictures of numbers walking, swimming, singing, jumping–It was after nap time one day and I was lounging around on my nap mat coloring in a caricature of the number 10, a long skinny “1” in a top hat marching and playing a zero for a drum. I remarked to my companion what hard work it was–lounging on a mat in the afternoon sun, coloring in a book–
My kindergarten teacher was named Mrs. Panabaker. A couple years later my brother’s was named Miss Philpott. Two unusual names, both of which belonged in the kitchen! One day the first graders filed into our room for a presentation. I was amazed and intimidated–we’d been INVADED by GIANTS! They were “big kids”, a category which included everyone not yet old enough to drive a car. I was sooner than I anticipated to be surrounded by “big kids”.
That summer was our last in Boulder. I spent it playing with Seth and Becky and Bo and did experiments which came through the mail from Mr. Wizard, who had a show on afternoon TV. I’d put celery in colored water and watch it turn red, watch salt crystals form on string, watch a penny change color as it corroded in a peanut butter jar, see a growing bean plant reverse direction when its jar was turned upside down. By late July we’d traded our little brick one-story house in Boulder for a larger frame house in Denver. A friend knew someone who lived in Denver but worked in Boulder, and since we worked in Denver but lived in Boulder we decided to switch. We worked out the details and both families moved on the same weekend.

Rosemary Street
The new house, at 1171 Rosemary Street, had a full-size basement and a large unfinished attic, which eventually became my room on one side and my brothers’ shared room on the other. A sister came along late in August. My mother’s parents came from South Carolina to visit when the baby was due, but she came late; they left on the morning of August 21st and Frances was born that night.We three brothers had a sister now, a tiny little red-faced thing with brown hair and brown eyes.
There was a new product on the market that year–popcorn sealed in a pan with an expandable aluminum-foil cover, named Jiffy-Pop. My father made their commercials and got paid when they ran, so we ate a lot of Jiffy-Pop. He called our little sister his Jiffy-Pop girl, because the commercials paid for her upkeep.
It was about this time my father’s TV station had a contest–how many guppies would one pair produce in a month? We started with two in a fishbowl in the kitchen. At the end of the month we had gallon jugs, quart jars, pitchers and glasses full of guppies on every windowsill, shelf and counter. The contest–for a bunch of camping supplies–was won by a woman in Wyoming who had sent in hundreds of postcards. At 3¢ a card, it proved a good investment.
My father had an actor friend, Ric, whom he’d known for years. Ric was the one who lured him first to New York and then to Ric’s hometown, Denver. He and his new wife Liz lived in our basement for awhile, then they moved to Hollywood when Ric wanted to get into “real” showbiz. I’d grown fond of a plaster frog they’d used as a doorstop, and Ric gave it to me when they left, on the condition that if the frog broke open and I found diamonds inside, he’d get half. I’d been sleeping with a large stuffed horse which was getting ragged; mother made a little horsey bed in the corner of my room and the horse was replaced by the frog. It’s lost some plaster here and there but I still have it. I’ve never seen any diamonds.
Ric and Liz went to Hollywood about the same time my father quit the TV station, in a rage, as was his way. They’d promised him a raise if he got high ratings for his Jerry the Giraffe show. He did, but they hemmed and hawed and he told them to shove Jerry up their ass. This left the station in a crappy place; they had the puppet but not the puppet master. They put someone else behind the plaster giraffe but the show quickly went from most-watched at noon to least-watched, and was cancelled. This, however, also left my father in a crappy place. Much of the reason he’d moved to Denver was to be closer to his work, and because he’d cussed out the Channel 9 management, none of the other TV stations in town would hire him. He was suddenly a full-time barber.
There were two bedrooms downstairs, one for my parents, the other for my sister–and soon, sisters. We put in drywall and covered the rafters of our steeply angled ceiling. Our rooms were eight feet tall in the middle, which angled down to short, four-foot walls in our bedrooms with six-foot closets in the hallway between us. The floors were rough-cut boards with 1/8” gaps between them and knotholes here and there, which would swallow pocket change and toy soldiers. We had rugs covering much of it, but by no means all.
When we’d first moved, a two-storey house was new to us. Our gabled bedrooms each had a large window, from which we observed the neighborhood below. One day, in the first month, our neighbor ran over in a panic and banged on our front door. When my mother answered, she was stuttering, pointing and not getting a word out. My mother hadn’t known that she stuttered–but it was clear something was happening in the side yard. They ran around and I was waiting in the yard while my brother prepared to make a parachute jump. We’d tied some string to the four corners of a sheet and he was ready to jump out my bedroom window. My mother talked him out of it, and I never got to take my turn!

I went to school in a big red building about a half-mile from our house. It’d been built around 1890 and closed, briefly, when a new school was built about a half-mile further on. There’d been a “baby boom”, however, and the old school had reopened for kindergarten. The kindergartners remained as first-graders, then second-graders. By the time I began in “Montclair Annex”, as it was now called (the new school was now “Montclair”) it held first and second graders, but the plan was to close it again the next year.
A word about the “baby boom”–the first time I saw the phrase, it referred to an increase in births which started after the soldiers of World War II returned home and ended five years later, in 1952. As a 1953 birth, I wasn’t part of it–but soon the “baby boom” referred to a different demographic. It gradually expanded to include 1953, 1955, 1958, 1961. The “baby boom generation” eventually referred to 1946-1964, which I found a useful and distinct definition. It fit the boundaries of “my generation”. We lived through Vietnam, Nixon and the moon landing; we all grew up with TV and rock music. A “generation” is of necessity amorphous and uncertain, but is still defined by recognizable characteristics–those who came before the baby boom listened to radio shows and wore hairstyles which never touched the shoulders; those born after Kennedy was shot took classes on computers and rode belted into bucket seats. Everyone in between was “my generation, baby!” as The Who put it, and had a great deal more in common with each other than with those who came before or after. All of us remember our first color TV, and were fascinated with the computer game Pong.
So, back to the first grade–I went to the Annex for just a few months, from September ’til Christmas break. I was a smart kid and my parents had taught me to read by the age of 3; I remember long sessions of ”this is a cat, this is a hat, this is a bat, this is a rat”–so that by first grade I was thoroughly bored with the pace at which our reading group was going. We’d sit in a circle, I’d read my two lines and mark my place with my thumb while reading the next four or five pages, then flip back and try to find the place the previous reader had left off when my turn came around again, which made me appear very disorganized to Miss McInerny, my first-grade teacher–until one day she introduced a new, very long word on the blackboard and asked if anyone knew what it was. I wiggled and squirmed and waved my hand wildly while several other kids tried it and failed; she finally called on me and I told her the word was “GENERAL”, and the reason the “G” was pronounced like a “J”. From that day onward I spent most of my time at a little desk in the storage closet, reading through all the green books and into the red ones, coming out for lunch and playground break and doing my own set of arithmetic problems in my closet through the afternoon. After the Christmas break the second-graders moved over to the “big school”, and I went with them.

The Big Kids
I loved the idea that I was in the new school with the big kids. In a strange twist, all the boys in my neighborhood were in second grade, not first, and I was joining them!
I didn’t like the second grade as much. Mrs. Buzetti wasn’t as fun as Miss McInerny. It was clear Miss McInerny really liked me; I must have said some cute things. I asked her a question when she was talking with a visitor–maybe if he was her husband, I don’t know–but she shoveled me back in the room with a big smile on her face while the guy snorted and tried hard not to crack up. When the door closed I heard them behind it laughing, hard, for a long time.
The Annex had been like a big old house. It had three or four storeys with 2 or 3 rooms on each level, narrow twisting staircases, high ceilings, acorn-style hanging lights, ceiling fans. There were tall windows, with dozens of panes, which would open not only from the bottom but also from the top, by using long, ornate hooks which hung at their sides. The bathrooms were in the basement at the bottom of a crooked staircase, and above it all was a many-gabled attic rumored to be full of bats. Down one side of the building snaked a black, wrought iron, cage-like fire escape. Its smell was distinctly old, but not unpleasant; the breezes blew through in the afternoons, rustling through the leaves of the great tall cottonwoods surrounding us. I was glad when the windows were opened; there was a kid who’d joined us from the hospital who had a strong, unpleasant mediciney smell. It faded, but never went away, which was another, if self-centered, reason I was happy to leave.

Montclair Elementary was a long, low, boxlike bunker of the style favored in the architecture of the mid-1950s. It had two long wings of three storeys each, two classrooms on each level, twelve in all–two classes apiece of the grades 1-6. The “command center” was in the middle, the office on the first floor, clinic on the second, teacher’s lounge on the third. The cafeteria and gym were in a separate box-like wing out back. There were two playgrounds, a fenced-in area for the first and second grades and a much larger one for the rest of the school. A large asphalt area to the east had places painted for hopscotch, four-square, dodge-ball or as we called it “elimination” or “limo”, plus a few tether-ball poles and a couple circles for marbles and what-not. Marbles never worked on asphalt, and I didn’t understand the appeal of the game until I tried it on dirt, though there wasn’t a designated area in the dirt. Those were softball fields and the playgrounds, where a couple of kids a year would break an arm falling off swings or monkey bars. It was an accepted part of growing up.
The first day I went to the new school my mother spiffed me up in a new pair of trousers, only to console me when I ran home crying, and explain to me that no, I was not a Catholic. The other kids had called me Catholic for not wearing blue jeans. I had no idea what a Catholic was, but it sounded bad. Montclair was a block down the street from the St. James parochial school, and because kids who went to St. James weren’t allowed to wear blue jeans, the boys in public school wore nothing else. St. James had a uniform for girls too, but I don’t recall it. Not that there was a lot of importance placed on the dress code. In 1960, schools were very much “in loco parentis”, and if a teacher or principal decided a dress was too short or hair too long, that was all.
If I’d been more socially sophisticated I mightn’t have corrected my classmates on my first day. At the bathroom break we all peed into a communal trough.There were two of them, end-to-end. If you really had some force you could stand at the end of one and pee to the far end of the other, which many of us did. Afterwards we washed hands. There were dispensers of powdered soap above the sinks, and a warning to “WET HANDS BEFORE USING”. Everyone told everyone to “wet hands before uSSing, wet hands before uSSing”; it was a mantra.  I thereupon informed the lot of them that the proper pronunciation was “wet hands before U-Zing”. It was true, correct, and didn’t make me any friends. I was younger, smaller, smarter and destined to stay that way.

The Neighborhood
Our house was in a typical suburban neighborhood which was still growing. To the other side of 12th Avenue the houses were a few years older, built mostly in the 1920s and ‘30s in a variety of styles; to our side they were all two-storey frame structures covered in asbestos shingles–hey, it seemed a good idea at the time–built in the 1940s, except for two houses which had been there longer. The paved street ended a little ways past our house, where a dirt path angled off towards the next block as the dirt road continued uphill to a large vacant lot. The hill was an excellent place to ride bikes, and we’d all barrel down it after school and skid sideways into a huge cloud of dust laid down by the previous kid. On weekends we’d go up the hill, dig out forts and have dirt clod wars or, if the weather was right, fly kites.
Lowry Air Force Base was to the far side of the vacant lot. It wasn’t busy, but planes occasionally flew in. Once in awhile there’d be an air show we could watch from the vacant lot and for awhile jets regularly screamed by, breaking the sound barrier. I always enjoyed the sonic booms, but the grownups got tired of the boom and roar (a sonic boom is followed by a long rumbling roar),. Windows rattled, dishes fell and the Air Force cut it out, though planes still came through. One day I was cutting across the dirt path and a bomber came in, very low, with its bomb bay doors open. I didn’t know what the bomb bay was. It looked like a big black hole in the bottom of a monstrous plane, close enough that I could have thrown a baseball in it. A few years later, I saw the movie “Dr. Strangelove”, realized what it was and got severely creeped out.
I had a 16-inch bike when we moved to Rosemary Street; at the time it was the smallest one sold. It had solid rubber tires and a metal-plate brake which pushed against the rear wheel. My first Christmas in the house, Santa Claus brought me a 20-inch bike with pump-up tires and a coaster brake! It was used, but the elves had repainted it rather well in red and white. I was thrilled! I took it outside–it was a balmy day with very little snow on the ground–and the front fender immediately flipped over the top of the wheel; it looked like the bike had a rear fender coming and going! My father pulled out a couple of tools and soon had it right.
My allowance was a quarter a week, which I kept in a jar. When I was about six, we went to Mile High Savings and Loan and opened a savings account with the money from my jar–sixteen dollars. It was a teeny little bank on the corner of 14th and Krameria St., sandwiched between a bar and a dress shop. Colorado did not allow branch banking, which my banker uncle always said was a great law, but eventually the law changed, Mile High got much bigger and took the name Silverado, which was at the center of a huge financial scandal in the 1990s. I had a little brown savings book with green pages that had $16.ºº written in it, though, and all that was in the future. I kept the money in there, but didn’t much see the point. I preferred to ride my bike up to the gas station on the far left corner of the vacant lot and spend my quarter on peanuts , candy and pop from the vending machines. A soda pop was a dime, peanuts or candy a nickel and gum balls a penny. Sometimes my father would send me to the corner with 35¢ and have me buy him cigarettes from the vending machine at a quarter a pack. I got to keep the change. One day my neighbor Harold and I rode up together and one of the customers told me I couldn’t buy cigarettes. He pointed to a sign on the machine which said sales to “minors” were prohibited–but I had no idea what “minors” were and bought the Camels. The customer grabbed me, I threw the pack to Harold, someone grabbed him, he threw them back to me and we both scooted out. It wasn’t such a big deal. Everyone knew I was buying them for my father. He smoked three or four packs a day, which wasn’t unusual, but my mother didn’t smoke, which WAS unusual. She’d quit when she was pregnant, before I was born. My father’d drink a few beers a day, too, but not near so many as he would a few years later.

Nixon and Kennedy were smacking each other around that fall of 1960, and my family was firmly in Kennedy’s camp–I sported a Kennedy button in my school picture that year–except for one dissenter. My youngest brother, not yet 3, thought it not nice for everyone to be picking on poor Mr. Nixon! It was the middle of the Cold War, and much on everyone’s mind, especially in Colorado, was The Bomb. The Russians had sent up a satellite; I vaguely remember bundling up on a cool autumn night in 1957 with my father and little brother and seeing something flashing in the sky, but it might as well have been Santa as Sputnik.
The Sunday supplements in newspapers featured tours of local bomb shelters. Movies, TV dramas and science fiction all had The Bomb in the plot. I received a steel identification bracelet at school,  for which it was crassly, unnecessarily and terrifyingly pointed out that if my little 6-year-old butt was vaporized in the blast, my bracelet would withstand the 3000º heat and identify which pile of ashes was me, to whoever was sweeping up. Several ludicrous measures were publicized by authorities–the “duck and cover” drill appeared designed to ensure that every student body would be found in the kiss-your-ass-goodbye position on the day after. My parents came up with the notion that if separated in the post-bomb chaos we should all meet up in a little town in the mountains called Nederland–it seemed uncomfortably close to Neverland–and we all took a trip that I chiefly remember for the blinding snowstorm we drove through on the way back. Obviously, the biggest threat that day was driving off a mountain! All these preparations and drills were spitting in the wind, of course–if the bomb had actually come none of us would’ve had much chance, ducking and covering, holed up in a shelter or meeting in a little mountain town. Anyone young enough knew this. It was the true, defining characteristic of the baby-boom generation–none of us expected to grow up. I was convinced that I’d never see my 14th birthday–old enough to drive a scooter, according to the laws of the time, and my measure of maturity.
When we weren’t ducking and covering or filing out for fire drills or contemplating the steel bracelets on our wrists reminding us of our likely death by incineration, we had schoolwork. It wasn’t taxing in the second grade, and I did well at everything except penmanship. There wasn’t much homework, and we had a little playground for first and second grade. I got along with my classmates by now, and with most of the kids in the neighborhood. A girl named Valerie was my age. She’d show me “hers” if my brother and I would show her “ours”. Another neighbor named Dave we called  “Griff” (there were so many Daves that we were nicknamed in self-defense!), Carl Boucher and a kid we called Jimmy Goon were also in the 2nd grade, as was Dave Steinbrugge who lived on the next block. Kevin Stance was 2 years older and lived across the street with two or three older sisters and a younger sister Kristen (all of them with the initials KS), Carl had a younger sister Shelley, and Griff a younger sister Lisa. Valerie lived in the one older house in the block set back from the road. She soon moved away and someone with no kids moved in. I don’t think I was ever inside that house. The other old house, at the end of the pavement, was soon occupied by Lonnie and David Martinez and their family. Lonnie was my age–the first boy in the neighborhood my age–but when I was in second grade he was in first, and the first graders all went to the Annex. David was two years younger, the same age as my brother, and we became good friends. David was the most popular name in the western world, due to the great advantage that it doesn’t change from one language to another; Michael will be Michel and Miguel and Mykal, John will be Juan and Jean and Johann, but David is David. There were always two to four Daves in my classes at school, and I once worked in a store where there were eight. It became really popular when Dwight David Eisenhower was president. It’s surpassed by Kim in the east, but in the east Kim is what we’d call the last name, which they use first, and is as popular as Smith and Jones put together.
Lonnie and David’s house was one storey, with a long wrap-around porch. It was surrounded by tall trees and bushes, and a small sometime creek passed next to it; all features missing from the newer houses. There were a few strange rocks lying around which suggested it may have been an Indian encampment. One rock in particular had a circular dimple on top and when struck would spark, suggesting it was a fire-stone. They gave me that rock when we moved out of the neighborhood, one of the most thoughtful gifts I’ve ever received. We spent many summer afternoons playing in the rocks and bushes, pretending to be Indians, building forts, swinging from trees. It was one of the most private places around, not only because there were more places to hide but because there was a white picket fence around the yard and no houses to the front, back or far side. There was no traffic either, the road being dirt that far down the block, and the bushes and vacant hillside were excellent places to ambush imaginary cattle rustlers. They had a small treehouse just a few feet off the ground, overlooking the creek.
The neighbor between our house and Lonnie’s soon moved out, and for a short while an English boy named Michael moved in. He had a funny accent but was a nice kid, two years older, and we generally got along. I traded him a few American stamps and coins for his European ones. He had a way of coloring in a coloring book which ignored most of the lines and filled in areas with soft pastels. It hadn’t occurred to me, until then, that there was another way to color a picture. One day we fought and he said he never wanted to be my friend again, for the rest of my life. I was hurt and a bit mystified. I couldn’t imagine such a thing, especially as we lived right next door, but accepted it literally and assumed he’d never be my friend again. Later that afternoon he came to the fence while I was playing and made up. I was again mystified–how could someone change their mind about the whole rest of their life in just a couple of hours? But it was okay; we remained friends.
He had a hard time when school started–he was in the third grade when I was in the second, and played in the big playground. I saw him tussling, over basically nothing–he called himself Michael, not Mike, he wore poofy English pants instead of blue jeans and combed his hair. He was pretty good at soccer but clueless at baseball, and knew the rules to several obscure games that nobody else played. After a few months he went back to England. We wrote a few letters, but soon lost touch.
We Meet the Hungarians
When Michael left, in moved a very strange and different family–Bela and Mary Reiner, their kids Peter and Susie, and Bela’s mother. They’d fled Hungary during the 1956 revolution, and all spoke Hungarian. Peter and Susie spoke very good English, Bela and Mary spoke it with a thick accent and Bela’s mother knew none. Bela was an engineer and Mary also had a job; when they were gone Bela’s mother would mind Peter and Susie. The kids would be playing and laughing in English, their grandmother would call them in Hungarian. Peter and Susie would argue in English so their grandmother couldn’t follow along, Bela and Mary would argue in Hungarian so the neighbors wouldn’t know their business, and granny watched television in the basement for hours at a time. She eventually learned a bit of English, though she was shy about using it.
I found Bela especially interesting. He had a great number of stamps from all over Europe and a particularly complete collection from Germany and eastern Europe. I’d been collecting stamps since I’d found a Gold Coast stamp in my shoe, our first Easter morning at Rosemary. My parents swore they hadn’t put it there, so maybe the Easter bunny had something to do with it. I soon had large quantities of stamps that I’d buy in bags from the hobby shop. Most of them would still be attached to torn envelope corners; I’d have to soak them off and dry them on towels. It was a large collection but not of very good quality; Bela and I would trade stamps on a Saturday afternoon and he’d point out all the variations in different runs of stamps and denominations–these were lithographed, these were engraved, how the stamps changed when Hitler came to power, or the communists. When the currency crashed the 10 d, or s, or p stamps would go to 1000 or 1,000,000 d, or s, or p. Some countries varied their stamps very little. They’d have the same portrait in six different colors for the various denominations, and the only changes you’d see might be the perforation patterns. Others would change a lot. Every year or two there’d be a dozen different miniature multicolor artworks and denominations, from 1/2 to 100,000. The communist countries were big on muscular guys swinging hammers and blocky women carrying banners, while other countries featured flowers and birds and mountains. Germany featured a heroic Hitler on stamps in every color of the rainbow in the 30s.
Bela had a photography darkroom on one side of his basement. It was a small room packed with enlargers, chemical baths, papers, clotheslines and equipment. He brought me and a few kids from my 4-H group down there while he demonstrated, in dim red light, how to take a negative an inch square and make an 8”x10” glossy print. With his Hungarian accent he said we were dipping the photos into divvy-loping fluid and for some time after I thought photos were divvy-loped. At one point a couple of the chemicals reacted. We got a whiff of chlorine gas; he turned on a little exhaust fan and cleared it out.
His wife Mary had been a teacher; she was as well-educated as Bela but had a thicker accent. She was very friendly and made Hungarian desserts for us–one she called Bird’s Milk was sweetened milk, spices whipped in, with beaten egg whites floating on top. At Christmas they had a tree with real candles in little tin reflective holders; they kept a bucket of water nearby and only lit the candles for a few minutes at a time. We’d socialize over beer and wine as Bela and Mary talked about life in Hungary, before and during the revolution. They threw rocks at the tanks rolling through, and Bela once shot a pistol over a wall without aiming. Mary, Bela and his mother escaped with very little, when Mary was pregnant with Peter. They’d discuss politics with my parents, and my mother became very active in the Democratic party. Our neighborhood would caucus at our house, and on a sunny Saturday afternoon we’d have a covered dish dinner, called a pot-luck in Colorado; a roomful of people would drop by and everyone would decide over chips and dip who’d go to the state convention and who they’d vote for. Bela and Mary had strong feelings about the communists, of course, but also favored authoritarian government, which my father found intriguing. When commentators on TV would criticize the government, the Reiners didn’t understand why the police couldn’t march into the studio and haul them off. When a communist system is what you know, your ways of thinking develop very differently.
Bela and Mary had some different ideas about family life, too. They could be gentle and patient with their children, at least sometimes, but had knock-down drag-out fights with each other, conducted in Hungarian. It seemed particularly difficult for Mary. Because she wasn’t completely fluent in English, she couldn’t teach in America. She worked, but made nowhere near as much as Bela. When they’d fight Bela’s mother would try to stay out of it but would generally support her son. Mary would try to talk things over with my mother, but couldn’t express the subtleties in English. Many years later, they divorced.
My  mother was a teacher too, between babies. She taught music in several different schools–here on Monday morning, there on Monday afternoon, two more places on Tuesday, back to the initial schools on Wednesday. She needed a reliable car and the ’49 Chevy was showing its miles. The green paint had worn through in places to a pink primer coat. We sold it and my mother got a shiny pink-and-white 1956 DeSoto. It was beautiful, distinctive in its mid-50s way; bent-over tailfins framed two vertically placed round taillights with back-up lights between them. Lots of chrome, whitewall tires, very shiny, with a distinctly different smell than the Chevy. The Desoto was a hardtop, with long wide doors and seats which folded forward to access the rear. It was a solid, heavy, powerful car, and the first car titled in my mother’s name. She was just under 30. The tailfins weren’t as pronounced as those on the Stances’ 1957 Plymouth station wagon across the street–no car ever beat out the 1957 Plymouth’s fins–but their car was a muddy metallic brown and hers was a bright two-tone pink and white. The Chrysler gas gauge worked well when the tank was almost full but jumped around like a flea on a griddle until the gas was almost gone, but it was otherwise reliable and comfortable and had a loud pushbutton AM radio with one big speaker in the top middle of the dashboard, which would fill the car with sound.

Mother was now teaching school, and we needed a babysitter. We had several, most of whom lasted a year or more. At first Kevin and Kristen’s older sisters, Kathy and Karen, came in the afternoons, but soon a black girl named Donna came and stayed all day. We all liked Donna, but one day we told our parents about a ride we’d taken down Colfax Avenue in her boyfriend’s flashy new Mercury, and Donna was replaced by Peggy, a middle-aged Irish woman with dark red curly hair. Peggy was likable and a chatterer; she was comfortable around kids but flustered among adults. We really liked her, too, but her husband got a job out of town. A much older woman, Mrs. Wilson, was next. She lived in a tiny house around the corner with Miss Smoot, a crotchety woman taller, skinnier and older than Mrs. Wilson. They had a picket fence around a small lot filled with every kind of flowering bush imaginable; there wasn’t really a lawn so much as a congeries of knee-high flowers and shrubbery. Miss Smoot was particularly insistent on being called Miss and not Mrs., and Mrs. Wilson’s husband had disappeared from the scene many years before. The circumstances weren’t discussed, but it was clear the two old ladies preferred the company of each other to anything men had to offer. Mrs. Wilson was nice, and had interesting stories; she described when she first saw a car–and how magical it seemed to a child of ten who’d never seen a conveyance without a horse in front. A few years later she heard a racket outside, went out and looked around but saw nothing. Eventually a large odd looking bird caught her eye, and she realized it was an airplane. Mrs. Wilson was a loyal, loving companion to my younger sisters, who within a few years numbered three, but she had her quirks. Instead of toilet paper she would constantly use wet washcloths on their little butts, to my mother’s eternal annoyance. Her brief marriage to Mr. Wilson had also persuaded her that men were all bad, which included any male over 14. Still, she was conscientious, reliable, lived within walking distance, and was with us for many years.

I joined the Cub Scouts in the 2nd grade, and shortly afterwards the 4-H Club. Cub Scouts took place in a house a few blocks away where a kid named Danny lived. His mother was the den mother, and we’d meet at Danny’s house to make log cabins out of popsicle sticks, present reports, earn arrow points and badges, have cookies and go home. I made it as far as Bear Cub, but Danny moved away and Pack 40 folded up.
Griff was in the Cub Scouts with me. He lived two doors down. Like most of our fathers, his was a veteran, but Harvey was a big red-faced fellow, disabled in some way, who was usually sitting around the house in his robe and slippers. Griff’s mother brought home most of the money. He got a government check each month, but according to rumor spent much on liquor; I never knew if this was true. The family was Catholic, but Griff went to public school. He had a younger sister Lisa, blonde and cute. The next door down lived Carl Boucher and his little sister Shelley, and next to them, on the corner, Jimmy Goon. Jimmy had an older sister and a younger. One day Jimmy and a couple older kids took me for a ride  in someone’s van and I found out afterwards I was expected to pitch in for gas. Jimmy knew I had a silver dollar, and I gave it to them, most unwillingly. My parents asked me what had transpired, which led to a huge fight between my mother and Jimmy’s. I was never again friends with him, though I knew him through high school.
Across from Jimmy’s house lived a family named Cooper, They had a small dormer in the middle of their roof; the Goons built a bigger one. The Coopers put in a larger one on the backside of their roof, and the Goons built the biggest of all on the backside of theirs. It seemed very competitive. The Goons always wanted bigger and better.

The Wicked Witch
After second grade came third; one of the worst years of my life. My teacher, whom my parents later assessed as a “psycho”, was Mrs. Carr, a woman around sixty, who wore clothes that would’ve looked frumpy and out of date on a woman of seventy. She never shaved her legs, and though her skirts were long, they weren’t long enough. Her teaching methods were more old-fashioned than her wardrobe, and she played favorites. Diane Tozier never had to think about homework, because her brother Toby and her older sister Marie had already been in Mrs. Carr’s class. She polished up her brother and sister’s reports and handed them in as her own. If Toby had chosen to report on the meadowlark, so had Marie, and so did Diane. Cathy Smith had it tougher. Several times a week she’d get a paddling. Mrs. Carr would march her to the front of the class, bend her over her knees, pull down Cathy’s panties and paddle her half a dozen times with a wooden board. Cathy would sit down, as angry as ever.
After the paddling, the class would get to work, until they got exuberant. When things got animated, Mrs. Carr had a bell on her desk which she’d ring five or six times, at which everyone had to instantly cross their arms over their desks, put their heads down and close their eyes. She appointed roving monitors to stroll around the class checking that everyone had their eyes closed. Some of them would sneak up and peek beneath your armpits; others would grab you by the hair and jerk your head up to see if your eyes were closed. Some would slam your head back down, and it hurt.
We moved around a lot in that class. Our seating in the classroom was based on Mrs. Carr’s personal formula. The better you were, in her twisted estimation, the better your seat. We had table-type desks which sat two kids apiece, and our table-mates also had quirks. One kid I sat by for a couple weeks drew a line down the middle and pushed everything off his half. If my elbow touched the line he’d nudge it; if a corner of my paper wandered over during arithmetic he’d complain. Some kids stayed in the same seats all year. Several, like me, wandered all over. When the parents came to their first PTA meeting and sat in their kids’ chairs, Mrs. Carr told them of her system. The parents looked at each other, mystified and dumbfounded, as they saw the relative positions of their kids in Mrs. Carr’s world. My parents came away certain she was a nut case, but didn’t think it would serve me well to force the issue. It would have involved going up against The Authorities, which was Not Done, and Mrs. Carr was nearing retirement age–it may have been her last year. Still, the result was that I spent the entire year miserable, and never enjoyed school again.
There was a black (Negro, colored) girl in our class, briefly, named Deborah Coffey. There weren’t many black kids in our neighborhood, and she looked black, black, black. Black as tar, black as coal. I’d never been in class with a black girl, and was unaccustomed to the dark skin. She left after a few weeks and some years later I met her again, when we were both going to a school which had lots of black kids. She was a light coffee and cream color, hardly dark at all. Context is everything; in the next few years there were more, though never a lot, and though several were darker than Debbie, they didn’t seem so overwhelmingly black anymore.
The one time of day I enjoyed third grade was after lunch. Mrs. Carr believed in teaching us Spanish, and she turned off the lights and turned on a portable TV to the afternoon Spanish lesson four days a week. It was fifth-grade Spanish on Mondays and Wednesdays, sixth-grade Spanish on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but we watched it all. We didn’t take tests, but learned a lot.

School lunches were a quarter at that time; you could either pay a quarter in the lunch line or buy tickets at the first of the week. Sometimes I’d bring a quarter, sometimes I’d have a ticket. One day late in the year a kid found a quarter, and Mrs. Carr asked the class who had lost it. A dozen or so kids jokingly said it was theirs, but I felt in my pocket and there was nothing there, so it eventually came down to me and one other kid. I stuck my hand in my back pocket again, and there, smooth against the fabric, was my lunch ticket. I announced to the class that I had found my ticket, showed it to the class and told everyone the quarter belonged to the other kid.
If I had a time machine, I’d return to five seconds later, pick up the paddle and break every bone in that wicked witch’s torso, for what happened next. I’d reduce her hands to quivering balls of jelly. I’d knock out her teeth and break her jaw. She‘d never accuse a 7-year-old kid again. Then I’d do the same to my father.
She said I tried to steal the quarter. If I’d tried to steal it, why did I announce I’d found my ticket, show it to the class, and tell everyone the quarter belonged to the other kid? I got a paddling. When I got home my father had heard Mrs. Carr’s insane accusation and whipped me, long and hard. He’d done it occasionally when I was smaller but by now had started in at any provocation, or non-provocation. It was mean, sick, brutal, disgusting, and meant that I would never, ever love my father. He had my fear, but lost my love.
Some say you should love your father because it’s the right thing to do, it’s what the Bible says, a dozen other obligatory reasons. It’s easy to say, it’s a platitude that others understand and don’t question, but I say, don’t lie. Be true to your heart. Don’t say you love someone when you don’t. It’s not an obligation. Say words you don’t feel and your soul will be empty and dry. Don’t mistreat people, especially children. They don’t forget. Try to forgive and you may feel better, but don’t lie about that either, and don’t mistake it for love. My father had his demons, most people do. This I understand.

Love? I’m not gonna lie. I know other people loved my father–he could be funny, generous, loyal. Not to me. To me he was mean, petty, jealous, brutal. He expected great things, but never praised me, never even seemed to like me. He intercepted and slapped down all and sundry praise directed my way, tore down, sabotaged, undermined my work, stole away and destroyed whatever he could that I held dear, bruised me, ripped my soul. I tried to love him. It didn’t work. I’ll love my children, my mother, my wife. Not him.

Mesa Verde

Eventually the third grade ended, and that summer we went to visit a place I’d learned about that year–Mesa Verde, an ancient Indian village set into the sides of sheer rock cliffs in southern Colorado. It was exceptionally interesting. There weren’t many safety railings and such, and the six of us made quite a show climbing the long wooden ladders from some of the cliff dwellings up to the main road. Me, my two brothers and my little sister, not quite 2 and barely walking, trailed along after our parents, Frannie being carried  up the ladders in a papoose-style backpack. We were at the top of one ladder, 40 feet up, when my little sister dropped her doll–not the 3-inch plastic doll she’d named Fosha, but the 3/4 inch baby doll named Firecracker that Fosha carried on her back. The doll landed at the foot of the ladder, but since the ladder was one-way, with dozens of people on it and dozens more waiting, the folks at the bottom passed the baby doll up to my hysterical 2-year-old sister, and she was mollified. We looked at the buildings, the mummies, the cave houses, the history exhibits and saw a real live rattlesnake under a bush. We camped out and made 8mm silent movies, almost always barely visible and under- or over-exposed. A couple times before we left I was sure my third-grade teacher was further back in line, or across the gully. I wanted to say hello; it might have felt good, but my parents didn’t want to embarrass her, or something. My father was often terrified that his kids might embarrass someone, though he had no compunctions about doing it himself.
We got home after our vacation, and waiting for us was a chatty postcard from Mrs. Carr, telling us about her vacation to Mesa Verde in her severe Palmer cursive script. It seemed even wicked witches might occasionally take a stab at being human.
That summer was a good one. I was out of the witch’s den and well adjusted to the neighborhood. We had lots of adventures in the semi-rural setting. There weren’t farms or ranches but there was a lot of open land, and two blocks over was a large area that used to be a neighborhood, with curving streets and cul-de-sacs very unlike the predictably alphabetic grids of our own. I say “used to be” because the land had been taken over by the air force and all the houses knocked down. The streets still had driveways and trees, but the sidewalks led to cement porches bordering square cement holes in the ground which were once basements. It was a fun but probably dangerous place to play, and we’d go over there in twos and threes and ride bikes or hide in the basements and throw dirt clods at each other until the MPs chased us off. I eventually got a go-cart which was especially fun to drive over there. I could drive on streets which weren’t public and never think about traffic or “real” cops, and if MPs showed up I’d scoot back home before they’d catch me. They never did anything but tell me to go home anyway, then I wouldn’t go back for a few days.

Snakes, Frogs, Birds
My brother and I had a pet snake, an interesting character named Sylvester, maybe a foot long. He had an unusual habit of curling up like a coil spring and whipping around when he wanted to get somewhere, leaving a trail of “S” marks in the dust. He was our pet. We carried him around in our pockets, he crawled up our arms and inside our shirts. After a couple months he disappeared, as wild pet animals will do. Later we learned he was a juvenile sidewinder rattlesnake, too young to have rattles, but old enough to have fangs and venom!
We had quite a few pets through the years, some conventional, some not. One fall day we found a nest in the juniper tree in the front yard, and by the time we’d finished looking at it the mother had abandoned her eggs. We brought them inside where the eggs hatched and we raised the baby birds. There were originally five, but I was carrying one around in my shirt pocket; it wiggled out as I was walking and I accidentally stepped on it. It died in my hands.
After the funeral and the burial, in a matchbox, with a match stick cross marking the spot, we had four little birds, which soon grew up and flew away. The next year, three came back. We knew them because they recognized us, and flew down to land in our hands. They spent the season in the yard and left again; the next year two came back, the next year none.
Besides the dogs, snakes, wild birds, frogs and guppies we had turtles–baby turtles were very popular for a time, and I also had a box turtle named Max. I had a lot of pets named Max–a hamster, a mouse, a parakeet–and one day I brought home a pigeon with a broken wing and named her Madge. Madge rode with me on the handlebars of my bike, on my shoulders, my head, my glasses; I could go anywhere with her, because she wouldn’t fly away. She enjoyed the bike rides; she’d flap her one good wing and one ruined wing as we sped down the street. One time I tried to fix her wing with cardboard and tape, but it didn’t work. I had Madge for a couple years before I learned that SHE–was a HE! I tried to rename him Max, but it didn’t take and I gave up. Outside of Max, or Madge, my pet names often relied on physical features. When Trixie had puppies, I named one Triangle and one Diamond because of the markings on their forehead.
The air force base was across 9th Avenue (we lived at 1171 Rosemary St., but 10th and 11th Avenues had yet to be extended, so 9th Avenue was at the top of the hill). For all the paranoia of the Cold War, its security was remarkably lax. We could crawl under the fence whenever we wanted. My brother and I once took our little red wagon under the fence and filled it full of pond water and frog eggs. Pretty soon we had frogs everywhere. There were frogs in the bushes, frogs in the basement, frogs in the bathroom, frogs in the kitchen sink. It was the Summer of the Frogs. We gave names to the bigger ones. The biggest I named Fred. The next biggest, my brother’s, he named Figure 8, due to a mark on its back. My brother thought if he could teach Figure 8 tricks, he could be a magician, and tried to teach Figure 8 how to squeeze through a barbecue grate. Figure 8 proved to have little talent at this, and died instead. My brother held a private, impromptu funeral for his recently deceased pet, but when asked he had to explain what happened. The truth wasn’t flattering, so he elaborated, stating that Griff and Jimmy Goon had forced him to push Figure 8 through the grate. This bullying incited outrage, and we were ready to march to the corner and confront the perpetrators–until my little brother confessed!

I was to enter Miss Denny’s fourth grade class that fall, and was excited! I knew kids who’d been in her class and really liked her. September came–and her name was Ursula Boatwright! Miss Denny had married over the summer and was already pregnant–maybe more pregnant than she should have been had she just been married a few months before–but she was still a fun teacher. She was soon replaced by Mrs. Sherrie Hite, who lasted until the semester break. Sherrie left for Indiana with her husband, a military man, and for the rest of the year we were taught by Mrs. Mary Weir.

Pam Grismore and Lynne Sears were both in my class that year. Lynne was a dark-haired girl with widely spaced eyes, very pretty, while Pam was a blonde, blue-eyed, horsey-faced girl with glasses; in time she would be a beauty, but not in the fourth grade. Pam was taller than me, which wasn’t unusual as all the boys and most of the girls were, too. A couple girls were stronger than me, too, which was embarrassing. Mary King once bested me in a shoving match over an armrest in the auditorium.
All through elementary school either Pam or Lynne would be in my class; this year they both were. They were the smartest girls in whatever class they were in, and my direct rivals in the spelling bee, which was usually boys against girls. We’d line up on opposite sides of the classroom for a spell-down, and after 20 minutes or so I’d be alone against Lynne or Pam.  We all won a few. Once we had a different sort of spell-down; the class was split in half, and whoever missed a word went to the other side when it was spelled correctly. This went fine for awhile,  but a particularly difficult word went down both rows until the kid opposite me spelled it. Since I was last in line, the rest of the class went to the other side and it was me against all. I spelled and spelled and spelled and got back a line of five or six kids, then another word sent them back. It was lunchtime, so Mrs. Weir called it off–and we never tried it again!
I signed up for music class, and my parents rented a cello. I didn’t want a cello–I was enamored of the string bass. My little brother had monopolized the piano–I’d taken lessons, but when I’d try to play I’d plink about three keys, he’d come running and take over. My parents encouraged him in this, which was completely unfair. I came to hate the piano. I loved the string bass, a stand-up instrument plunked in folksy popular songs and jazz. There was nothing cooler to me than the bass, except maybe accordion. Unfortunately, the string bass had to be bought, while the cello could be rented. The cello was a sit-down instrument played with a bow, and was exceptionally uncool–I knew within twelve seconds that I’d rather have had a violin, but the cello had been rented and the cello it was. Music classes had an odd schedule; on certain days and times violins and violas would have a lesson,  trumpets and bugles another teacher on another day, clarinets and oboes another, and 3 to 5 kids would file out for an hour on Monday or 45 minutes on Wednesday afternoon. Cello and bass had a schedule, but as the only cello (or bass) player in my class I had to keep up with it by myself. One day I lost my schedule. The teacher didn’t have one, only my music teacher, who showed up at odd times. I missed three or four lessons, and that was that. Mr. Fredrickson’s note, tucked into my report card, stated simply, “David has not been attending classes”, and music class, for me, was over.
Science was great, though. We studied mechanics, and a fellow named Dan Spillman and I had a project together. We got together several times and put together a board with cranks and gears made of bottlecaps, pieces of wire, tin cans and such. It was at Dan’s house, and he was going to add an old pocketwatch to illustrate how gears work in the real world. On Monday, he forgot the project. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday he forgot it again. On Thursday night I put together some pulleys, strings, weights and made my own project. When Dan forgot our project on Friday, I got credit and he didn’t.
These scientific investigations weren’t always encouraged. One day I’d set a metal panel from an old ironing board on my bedroom floor and filled a glass with water, which seemed a proper precaution, and was investigating the combustion capabilities of various materials with my brother. We’d just lit a crumpled sheet of newspaper when my father appeared, red and screaming. He didn’t notice the water, the metal plate or anything else. With belt in hand he whipped both of us at random dozens of times. We were covered with welts–shoulders, back, legs, neck, arms, me more than my brother. It hurt for days. I started becoming a quiet, sullen, resentful, fearful child. I’d call out at night for our dog Trixie, my favorite, but our other dog, George, would come. Trixie wasn’t happy in a houseful of kids. Once we brothers picked up her doghouse and shook it, which in our unconscious childhood perception seemed amusing–but she never went in it again. George was a true sweetheart, a sad-eyed beagle who came to a sad end. Our dogs had been wearing choke collars since our huge boxer/Great Dane mix Rusty had needed to be restrained–hardly a problem for a 25-pound beagle, but the collars remained. One day our neighbor from down the street found George hanging from a low fence. He’d jumped, his collar had caught and he’d strangled. Once he was gone I missed him severely, and cried myself to sleep for a long time.
I got glasses in the fourth grade. I was nearsighted, which I firmly believe was due to my hellish year in third grade. A fellow named Bates wrote a book called Better Eyesight Without Glasses which I later read; though many “scientists” pooh-poohed his “Bates Method”, he had a point. He said vision problems in childhood begin with a difficult situation. Children are unhappy and traumatized, but can’t escape. Their response to the psychological conundrum, the need for escape, is literally to not be able to see. Put glasses on a kid who doesn’t want to see and you’ve solved the symptom, but not the problem. Pretty soon the kid “needs” stronger, then stronger lenses, and soon can’t see without them. That was me. In third grade I was smaller, younger, miserable, stressed, but couldn’t escape the wicked witch, ogress, dragon lady. With every fiber of my soul I hated that class,  that room, the green blackboard, the yellow chalk. I learned the ridiculous Palmer cursive script with its ugly and idiotic broken backed “D”, which I practiced all day because my name was David, while “Carl” and “Alice” got a pass. When I was in class I “wasn’t living up to my potential”; when home I was bullied and whipped for unintentional and imaginary transgressions. It was a horrible time. I didn’t want to be there, to see any of it, and my vision worsened. By the next year I was wearing glasses.

We had field day that spring, and for the first time I won a ribbon. Competitions combined the first and second grade, the third and fourth, and the fifth and sixth. Age didn’t matter, so I always competed with kids who were one, two or sometimes three years older–but there were dozens of categories, and some events had forty competitors, others six. I managed to place second in the egg-and-spoon race. Other than my red ribbon, I’d earned a mimeographed “Rafter Club” tag in gym when I climbed the rope all the way to the rafters, but had no other athletic achievements. I wasn’t weak or klutzy, I simply never competed against anyone my age.
We played touch-football games in the yard with three- or four-man teams, and for awhile Kevin from across the street played a version with me and my younger brother. Since he was two years older, his one-kid “team” was considered equal to our two-kid team, but Kevin always won. When we’d pull off a good play he’d call on his supposed knowledge of football and, as referee, would take it back, assess a penalty or delay the game while he explained the rules. We’d ask him to tell us all the rules, but he’d say there were so many that we wouldn’t have time to play. Eventually we told him we’d wait while he explained them all, as adapted to our one and two-man teams, and we’d thereafter play by those rules and no others.
We’d called his bluff. He rattled off five or six, then lost steam. I asked him if there were more. He named two or three. I asked again. He named off one or two more. When he’d finished, my brother and I agreed with the rules and we commenced play. Inside of a minute he announced that one of us had broken a rule, but it was one he hadn’t named. Too tough for him. A couple plays later, it happened again. He quit the game, we won by forfeit and never played again.

My First Christmas Tree
When my father bought the family Christmas tree that year–for $6ºº–I bought a little one for my room, with my money, for $1.25. I decorated it and put it on my bookshelf, where it emanated Christmas cheer until well after St. Patrick’s Day.
Among my presents I got a chemistry set and an Operation Orbit, a toy which had been heavily advertised. I loved the chemistry set, but Operation Orbit was a noisy, jerky, cheap little imitation solar system made from tin and wire with a magnet for a “satellite”, which appeared to be a football left over from another game. The magnet would go wherever it wanted; you could supposedly control it by varying the speed and spin of the “planets”, but I certainly couldn’t. Quite a letdown. I tried every experiment in the instruction book with the chemistry set, however, and many variations which mostly produced sludge.
If I wasn’t doing well with athletics, at least I was doing well academically. At the end of the year I managed to pull a B in phys ed and one other subject, a C in penmanship, and seven As. It was the best I’d ever done, or as it turned out, ever would. When my father saw the report card, his only comment was, “we’ve got to see what we can do about that C”. Nevertheless, he owed me $7.50, as his incentive to us, opposed by my mother, was a dollar for each A and a quarter for each B. My little brother got $1.50 or so for his first grade report card; the rest weren’t yet in school. Everyone then went to Elitch’s, an amusement park where I was awarded several tickets for my As. We invited the kids from my old neighborhood in Boulder and all had a marvelous time, riding the little train and all the rides, then having pizza and a picnic in the park. It was a wonderful day, full of running and sunning and rollercoasters and carousels and bumper cars, all sugared over with endless pink and blue candies and popsicles and ice cream and cake and bright orange or green or purple drinks. Sugar wasn’t such a boogeyman then; sugar beets were a large part of the Colorado economy and you could have Sugar Smacks or Sugar Pops or Frosted Wheat for breakfast, with a couple extra spoonfuls of sugar and whole milk; later a “wholesome” cafeteria lunch had pudding or a brownie for dessert. Extra desserts were 10¢ each at a table in the cafeteria staffed by older students. One girl in particular would give two dimes and a nickel change when I bought a dessert for a quarter. For some months I brought a quarter to school specifically to buy a dime dessert on the couple days a week when this girl was cashier; she didn’t catch on and I never brought it up. I don’t think anyone else noticed; most kids would have a dime or two nickels or ten pennies anyway, or couldn’t do the math, or would buy two desserts with their quarter, for which they received the proper nickel change. Towards the end of the year, someone told her they’d received an extra dime, and that was the end of my bonus.
I’ve been surprised by some who contend that I shouldn’t have taken these freely offered dimes, though many are in possession of $1.29 pens and 79¢ sticky note pads they’ve lifted from work. In any case I remembered very well what had happened to a kid who’d been wrongly accused of attempting to steal a quarter, and kept my mouth shut.
My parents bought a brand-new, cream colored Volkswagen in 1961. VW for years had an advertisement featuring pictures of every year’s model, and I got to be good at picking out the changes. Ours had a large, squarish rear window, standard since 1958, lever-type door handles which were replaced by push-buttons the following year, small oval taillights and skinny, teardrop-shaped turn signals with clear lenses atop the front fenders. This was our first new car. It was very basic–no radio, no back-up lights, not even a gas gauge. There was a reserve tank which you opened when you ran out of gas, which gave you an extra few miles to find a gas station. If you’d forgotten to close the reserve valve you were out of luck, which was not good in Colorado.  There may have been 50 miles between gas stations, or even 100. You had a long walk, and there may or may not have been a car driving that same road that same day, who would maybe or maybe not pick you up.

Another Sister
My second sister was born in January, blonde and brown-eyed. There were five kids in the family now, all under eight years old–a lot to pack in a Volkswagen. An infant chair and two kids would fit in the back seat, and two more could squeeze into the luggage area over the engine, but nobody was comfortable. As a second car, though, it worked well. The ’56 DeSoto carried the family in comfort, plus extra kids if needed. The infant chair was a rudimentary little pouch and kids piled into any available space, including the floor. No safety belts, headrests, air bags, or for that matter disc brakes or pollution controls. The ’49 Chevy was sold, probably for $25.
I was in the 4-H Club (Head, Heart, Hands, Health). It was less structured than Cub Scouts. No uniforms, badges, salutes–though T-shirts were available, a green 4-leaf clover on the front, each leaf sporting an “H”. We’d meet at the houses of each kid in turn and all participate in an activity. When it was my turn we visited my Hungarian neighbor Bela’s basement darkroom, another kid had a backyard garden, another kid’s father showed us how to sharpen a knife and whittle. Once a kid named James made a huge pot of cocoa–his mother had a huge cookpot that held several gallons. He made it the old-fashioned way, stirring and cooking and skimming the mixture for the better part of an hour. When it was finished  James dipped out one last taste with a tablespoon. One of the kids made a funny comment, and James SPIT the cocoa back! Nobody would touch it, and James had four or five gallons to drink by himself.
Tom Michalowski was in 4-H. He lived a mile away and went to a different school, but soon enough we’d be neighbors. His mother had a nondescript station wagon and would sometimes drive the kids. One day she was stopped by the police. She didn’t get a ticket, but it was the first time she’d ever been pulled–in twenty years of driving.
One morning late that summer, a beautiful clear day, we had a fan pushing cool air from the basement.  Some of us were at the kitchen table, and I was in the doorway. A bolt of lightning suddenly climbed the basement stairs, twisted around the corner and hit the faucet. The basement windows were framed with steel and the pipes exposed, but the lightning passed through the basement window, up the stairs, into the kitchen, corkscrewed back and found the dripping faucet, leaving a small discolored pit!

On Sundays everyone went to church. We’d been Presbyterians–my grandfather was a Presbyterian minister–but now we were Lutherans and my father had become a deacon in the modernist, pointy, tent-looking church on the edge of town with a mouthful of a name. Augustana Lutheran. I have a record of the choir among my LPs–the black and white album cover says “Augustana Sings” and my mother’s voice is somewhere in the mix. It hasn’t been listened to in over 50 years.  I may pull it out, someday…

Church never caught my fancy. I’d put on starchy clothes and sit quietly enough with large numbers of people in rows, but never understood the appeal. It was uncomfortable enough, but didn’t seem holy. What I did like was that once we’d slogged through our Sunday ritual we’d have ice cream. There was a round-topped fridge in our kitchen with a tiny freezer compartment; it’d hold two aluminum ice cube trays with lever pulls, a few juice cans and half a gallon of ice cream. Go to church, sit and fidget, come home, eat ice cream. Most Sundays we had Sunday school, and I’d color in lambs and lilies and long-haired men dressed in skirts,  but I’d rather have gone straight for the ice cream.
We were Lutherans for a few years, went back to the Presbyterians, attended Quaker meetings for awhile but eventually hung out and shared the Sunday paper over coffee. I was an avid reader. We had subscriptions to Boy’s Life, Newsweek, Life, Look, Reader’s Digest and every day the Denver Post. I read ‘em all, except for some of the denser parts of the newspaper, and stayed up nights reading by the night-light at the top of the stairs. At this I proved incorrigible–I couldn’t get to sleep, had nightmares–and so my parents replaced the 25w bulb at the top of the stairs with a 75w so I could read from the sliver of light showing through the door and not wreck my eyesight, which was already bad enough.

The Space Race

Harold Dunn was my first male teacher, outside of gym. He was a strong, tall fellow who wore his dark hair in the flat-topped buzz cut popular in 1962. His classroom had a very different atmosphere from those of women teachers, and I really liked him for several months, until one day some of us were standing along the back wall for some purpose. I was a bit distracted, and he slammed my head against the wall and yelled at me. It didn’t hurt, much, but I didn’t enjoy his class as much anymore.
I loved science, except when it was cruel to animals. There wasn’t a lot of biology in the 5th grade, it was more electricity and chemicals, but we saw several instructional films; some interesting, many boring, some disgusting and some unintentionally hilarious. One filmstrip began explaining the nervous system by showing a teenager driving a car. He had one of those wild-on-top and skinned-in-the-back haircuts which had been out of style since the Stone Age, and the car was a Model A convertible. As he drove, white lines representing nerves shot like lightning from his shoulder through his arm, elbow and hand while he signaled a right turn, and the class erupted with hilarity. Nobody used hand signals anymore; it started us giggling and we couldn’t stop. After about five minutes Mr. Dunn turned off the film, to our universal disappointment. It was far more fun than the common fare, featuring playful dogs and cats who ten minutes later would be dead and cut to pieces for “research”. I found these horrible and was permanently turned off to biology, though like every nine-year-old in 1962, I wanted to be an astronaut.
The Russians had sent up Yuri Gagarin the year before, for a full orbit of the earth–an actual man, not a dog or chimp, all the way around the earth–which the Americans had not done. Alan Shepard had ridden a capsule from Cape Canaveral into the ocean 300 miles away, as had Gus Grissom, and then the Russians had sent Titov around the earth 17 times. Finally, in February of that year, John Glenn made 3 orbits and an American had circled the earth. I was keeping up with it in various magazines and on TV. My parents got quite a lot of books by subscription through the mail, as weekly premiums for shopping at certain grocery stores or bought from door-to-door vendors–The Encyclopedia for Children, The Young People’s Science Encyclopedia, The World Book Encyclopedia, Encyclopedia Brittanica, Metropolitan Seminars in Art and various other shiny, photo-illustrated volumes in science or art or history or mathematics–I loved them all. I had an erector set and a microscope and a telescope and a chemistry set and would spend my time in my room reading over experiments or scientific observations, and doing my own. Making ink was easy and fun–I’d mix together a few chemicals and have blue, or black, or blue-black, or green, or violet, or red, or yellow, or invisible ink and write with dip pens or suck the ink up into a fountain pen equipped with a rubber bladder and a built-in lever, or take a used cartridge out of a cartridge pen and refill it with my own ink. A popular pen at the time used plastic cartridges which one would drop into a hollow body, then screw on a fountain-pen type nib which was equipped with a hypodermic-style piercing point on the back side. Screw in the nib, it’d pierce the cartridge and the ink would flow. Once the cartridge was empty you could put in a new cartridge, or if you were a chemistry obsessed nine-year-old, dip the punctured end into a cup of home-made ink, squeeze it and fill the cartridge halfway full. If you were a chemistry-obsessed nine-year-old who was not particularly kempt, you could take the half-full cartridge, upend it, squeeze it again and repeat the process, staining your hands and probably your shirt and jeans and hair and cheeks and eyelids as well–or you could forget all about the cartridges and fill the body of the pen with ink, which would work pretty well if the ink didn’t get warm, expand and force its way out the threaded part of the body–which would only happen if, for example, you put the pen in your pants pocket, or shirt pocket, or left your notebook with the pen in it on the warm asphalt on the playground, or on a bench in the sun, or next to a heater, or anywhere which happened to be warmer than the ink was when it went into the pen–and as the ink was usually made with cold water, straight from the tap–
It was a good thing my father was the youngest of a big family, because most of my clothes came in packages sent from North Carolina by various uncles and aunts, who had several somewhat older boys between them. By the time I was finished my clothes, second-hand to begin with, were rags. My father was the same way; he’d tear apart a broken refrigerator or replace a lawnmower blade whether he was dressed for it or not.

The Old Home Place
We’d left North Carolina when I was a toddler, and I only vaguely recalled my father’s parents. My grandfather, a bushy-browed elder with wild white hair and a wheezy voice, had died at 87 shortly after my youngest brother was born; none of my brothers or sisters had met him. My grandmother was now 84. My mother’s parents had visited Colorado some years before, but my brothers and sisters hardly knew them either. It was time for a vacation.
My grandfather, Samuel Monroe Austin Jr., of Winkler’s Creek, had built a house in 1904 as a gift for his new bride Minnie Payne, of Payne Branch, a mile down the road. She insisted he build the bedroom from timbers from the cabin where she’d been born, in 1879 (Sam had been born in 1872). The timbers bore marks of the hand-adzes which had fashioned them a century before, the approximate span Austins had lived in the valley outside Boone. Nobody’s determined exactly when that was; the courthouse burned in the 1880s and the early records were lost. This happened a lot in the 1800s. A wooden courthouse packed with papers, and someone knocked over a lamp.
My mother’s family was far more diverse, from colonial Massachusetts and backwoods Indiana, northern Georgia and rural Florida. Her parents and some of her family now lived in South Carolina, a half-day’s ride from the North Carolina mountains.
The 1961 Volkswagen was too small for seven on a cross-country trip, and we traded it for a 1960 Volkswagen microbus. It was roomier, but low on power. The Volkswagen had been cream-colored and shiny, with a gray vinyl interior. The microbus was two tones of olive and not shiny. Its upholstery was cream colored and dinged up. The center seat was truncated and removable, and spent most of its time removed.
My father wanted to drive without stopping. He modified the interior of the bus with a sheet of plywood and a mattress. This covered up the seats, so that all five kids either lounged on the mattress or sat in the rear, a noisy and sauna-hot area above the tiny, underpowered, air-cooled engine, which with a full load wouldn’t push the bus over 60 miles per hour.  A pull-out shelf under the makeshift bed held a week’s worth of groceries and stowed gear, and we set out to reach North Carolina as quickly and uncomfortably as possible. The trip succeeded on both counts. Mother and father took turns driving while the kids took turns complaining. Occasionally one or two could share the blessed relief of the front seat while mother or father slept in back, and the rest of the time we’d lounge in the summer heat with our faces as near the the wimpy fold-out windows as possible. This was before Interstate highways, so there was a lot of fumbling with fold-out giveaway maps from gas stations and an Automobile Association of America Trip-Tik (a spiral-bound flip book with a suggested route marked in magic marker), trying to figure out if Triple-A had really marked the best route to get through Kansas City at rush hour or the construction around Indianapolis, all in the gritty, grimy summer heat of our overstuffed, overheated, slow, noisy microbus hell.
It wasn’t bad for the first few miles–eastern Colorado and Kansas–though flat as a board and boring, boring, boring. I took to buying local newspapers.  The national and international news was the same, as were most of the comics, but there were interesting local tidbits and suggestions for places to go, which my father ignored. He wanted to drive without stopping. “Let’s get there, so we can get back”, he’d say, as if the point of any trip was to finish it. It was his mantra. We’d drive there as fast as possible, then return as fast as possible. Grand Canyon five miles thataway? Forget it. Yellowstone straight ahead? We might see Old Faithful out the window. Disneyland! Bye-bye, Mickey! Maybe we can picnic at the scenic overlook? We’ll stop in the gas station parking lot.
We drove through the Kansas night and into the sunrise approacheing Missouri. A morning fog covered the valley, and the sun glowed a deep red with purple striations as it rose in dim majesty; the few stratus clouds painted spectacularly orange and yellow against a turquoise sky. A favorite tune of the time had the refrain, “the mornin’ sun is shinin’ like a Red-Rubber-Ball”, and for the first time I knew what it meant. Sunrises in Denver don’t have much color, the air is dry over the Great Plains and doesn’t break the sun’s rays into any colors but a little yellow and orange; the sunsets, behind the Rocky Mountains, are even less chromatic. There are lovely colors in Colorful Colorado, but not when the sun breaks the horizon.

At 6 am the Missouri weather was lovely, but by the time we reached St. Louis it was 104º, and muggy. The microbus was hotter yet. None of we kids had any idea what humidity was, especially combined with tropical temperatures. My baby sister had diaper rash and the rest of us had heat rash. Everyone was miserable. Wet bandannas on our heads didn’t help. Our T-shirts were soaked, but when we took them off we were still sticky and raw even with our arms held straight, a pose which couldn’t be sustained anyway. My mother had told us about summer school in Florida, where sweat would drip off her elbows and pool by her feet, and I’d read of it “glistening” on men’s arms and soaking through shirts, but I vaguely suspected that all such references were literary devices; in Colorado it didn’t happen. Except for little spots under the armpits, sweat didn’t soak through anything, and certainly never rolled off arms–that was rain. It didn’t glisten, either–that was suntan oil. I saw one instance, one only, when Scott Ericson came in after an exuberant game of “limo”, and sweat had soaked through his shirt in a small, inch-wide diamond at the center of his chest.  I couldn’t conceive of more sweat than that–until St. Louis. It was gritty, smelly, stuffy, muggy, steamy, broiling, frying, tire-popping hot, the most wretched inferno on the skin of the earth. We crawled through traffic for the next couple hours and I was never, ever so thankful, a few miles further, to be moving at something over 20 miles per hour, my face squashed against the 4” crack which passed for an open microbus window, getting a whiff of not-so-clean, not-at-all-cool air smelling of diesel smoke and manure. We drove through Illinois and Indiana and Kentucky that night and the next morning found the gentle rolling hills of Tennessee, which after the day before was as close to heaven as I thought possible.
We had a lovely week in Boone. I didn’t know my dozens of relatives, but they knew me. They talked funny, a slow Appalachian drawl, and we’d crowd around the dinner table at one house or another and eat buttered biscuits, fresh grown corn, string beans, mashed taters, stewed termaters, squash, sweet taters, melons, blackberries, watermelon and an occasional mango, washed down with gallons of sweet iced tea.
My father had five older brothers and sisters, the eldest 21 years older than him and the youngest, nine. They all lived within a few miles of the home place, though the 2nd oldest brother was often gone to faraway parts of the world as an engineer. All of them farmed, some more than others. We had many preachers and teachers in the family, and one banker. The old home property in my great-grandfather’s time had stretched for miles. He didn’t keep money in the bank, he bought land, which sometimes sold at auction for as little as 25¢ an acre. The land was steep, rocky, thickly wooded and the roads–well, trails–were nearly nonexistent, so it wasn’t such a prize when a man was expected to drive a team of mules 8 miles before sunrise to a job, work til sunset and drive them home, 6 days a week, for a 50¢ a day.
My great-grandfather wasn’t an educated man; he’d gone to school briefly, got as far as “Baker” in his spelling book and didn’t go back. He knew how to raise a crop and feed a family, though. He and his wife Mariah had 5 girls before she died in childbirth, just after the Civil War.
After the war, there was a scarcity of seed corn in Caldwell County, down the mountain, and a young war widow in the community heard of a man living near Boone who had some. She rode her horse up, followed the path by Winkler’s Creek, and as she approached saw five little girls in the yard playing. She asked them where she might find their pa. He was out in the “new ground” grubbing, so she tied up her horse, walked to the new ground, introduced herself and told why she’d come. He told her he was sorry, he was out of seed corn, but still had some “nubbins” (short, leftover ears of corn fed to animals) that they could pick through and see what they could find. They went to the house, picked through the nubbins, talked, and found enough kernels to make one peck. As he helped her back onto her horse, he told her she should let her neighbors have the corn, that she wouldn’t need any for her own planting, and a few days later he got someone to stay with his daughters and left to see Mary Rich. He told her he couldn’t be long and had to talk business. He said if she’d take her little girl and come live with his five they’d make a family. She told him she’d consider it for two weeks, and two weeks later he hitched up his wagon and went back to Caldwell. He loaded up her, her daughter and their belongings and brought them to Winkler’s Creek, where they unpacked as the six girls played around them. They had nine more children, one of which was my grandfather, and there spent the rest of their days.
Before the Civil War, my great-grandfather owned one slave, a rarity in those parts. The slave’s house was out back, and he ran the still. After the war he was a free man, but still lived in the house out back and still ran the still. That’s all I know. Slavery was part of daily life for all peoples of all countries for thousands of years, universal until the 18th century. Everyone, absolutely everyone, has both slaves and slaveholders in their family tree. The word itself comes from Slav, the blonde-haired, blue eyed eastern Europeans, who were captured and sold by Mongols. Arguing over who was worst or had it worst is pissing in the wind. Africans sold Africans, Europeans sold Europeans, Asians sold Asians. Races mixed. A few generations back every family springs from a half-black Portuguese pirate or a Frenchman visiting an Indian maid. It may not be talked about, but it’s so.

Ancestry and Heritage
My ancestry by DNA is about two-thirds English, Scottish and Welsh, one-sixth Iberian peninsula (Spanish, Portuguese, northern Africa),  one-twelfth Irish, one-sixteenth Scandinavian, a sprinkling of French, German, eastern European, and one percent from India. Caucasian? Less than one percent. Caucasian, I’m not.
Does that constitute all of my heritage? No. As is common with DNA, the aboriginal American in my bloodline flows through some of my brothers’ and sisters’ veins, but not mine. Zero percent. All of my grandparents claimed American Indian blood, and all were born in the Americas, which makes me in several ways Native American, but not by DNA. The further distinction that 1/2 or 1/8 or 1/512th of my direct ancestors arrived on the continent before others, or belonged to one tribe or another, or was bought or sold by one race or another, is petty and irrelevant.
It wasn’t talked about much in my family. My parents left the social and racial stratification of the South and East by moving to Colorado, where class and race were less important.
That’s most of what I know about my great-grandfather, my great-grandmother, their romance and their life. The farm was extensive in his time, but after being split between 15 kids, and my grandfather’s share between 6 kids, and my father’s share 6 ways more, there’s not as much left as you might think. There’s certainly more to know about my great-grandfather, but it’d take some digging and the interesting stuff would probably come from outside the family, because my relatives don’t talk much about whiskey-making and such. I don’t know much more about my grandfather. Sam grew up in the valley, and he and his brother George built homes there. Sam’s house was finished in 1904, and his new wife Minnie moved in with their infant son. He was 31, she 24. They had 5 children in the next 12 years, then 9 years later along came my father Ned. Sam made whiskey for awhile, before Ned was born, but only mentioned it to my father once, at which time Minnie shooed him off the subject. Most of the details of their early family life are unknown to me, as his brothers and sisters had moved out when Ned was still small and I grew up far away. My aunts and uncles only seemed to speak of family in glowing, angelic terms; according to them I’m from a long line of benevolent, wise teachers, preachers and assorted saints, but I heard whispers that Sam was a tyrant. My father’s brother Lewis in his 20’s was just as stubborn as Sam. Once they were in the rain fighting over how to drain a flooding pond. Sam didn’t want Lewis to hook up the mule, and when Lewis did it anyway, Minnie saw the look on Sam’s face. She called five-year-old Neddy, and in a great rush, pushed him into the attic with the shotgun. He hid, trembling, while his father bellowed and stormed below. Sam finally left to heave sticks and rocks at Lewis, but Lewis drained the pond.

Sam could be cruel, too. My father said that when he was seven, he’d been invited to ride along while the mules hauled a load of lumber, something exciting he’d never done before. The load was heavy, the mules balked, and Sam pushed him roughly off the wagon; he didn’t know why. My father was supposed to get his skinny little 50-pound butt off the wagon and tell the 1000-pound mules what to do, but he didn’t know. Sam whipped him and the mules both, and said to Ned he “wasn’t worth the powder and shot it would take to blow your brains out”.

Sam had a sawmill, and my father from hanging around with the sawmill hands had developed a salty tongue by age 5 or 6. In the 2nd grade he was considered the toughest kid in school until he challenged a new kid one day. New kid hit him, he hit the dirt. No more toughest kid.
My grandparents weren’t educated. Neither could read a newspaper, but they lived through the Great Depression, grew their own food, took whatever money they had and bought more land. They sent several kids to college, then my father went off to World War II, was captured by Germans, came back, went to college on the GI Bill, took up acting, married, moved to Colorado and came back on vacation in a Volkswagen microbus. My grandfather was gone now–I only vaguely remember an old guy who’d send reel-to-reel tapes and say in his quavery voice that there was always room on the farm if Ned and his family came back–come back, son, come on back–he’d say, wistfully. By that time he was blind and quite frail–he’d developed a strange condition previously unheard of outside of Sicilian fishing villages where the membranes of his body grew together, including his eyelids. By the time I was 5 years old, he was gone.
My grandmother and the rest were there, though. I had a new stopwatch and my grandmother would sit on the porch peeling apples while I raced around the house. She had half a thumb on her stopwatch hand and either couldn’t or didn’t know how to work it, but I’d run around, she’d tell me an odd number of seconds had passed and I’d be satisfied.
There was an old fellow from down the creek everyone called Uncle Pink who made chairs, and as a gift the family had bought us 6 chairs at a dollar each and a rocking chair at $4. Everyone had a chair. At the end of the week we tied them on top of the microbus and drove to South Carolina.

South Carolina
We drove straight from Boone to a beach cottage my mother’s parents had rented at Cherry Grove, which was then a tiny town considerably north of Myrtle Beach. My grandfather Ted had recently retired, partly to watch over my grandmother, who was having some physical problems. She’d been in a car wreck as a teenager, and had damaged her pituitary gland.
It was 1925. Her sister had been away to college and, home for the holidays, was taking everyone for a drive.  They were coming down a hill, the road was wet and as she turned to approach a bridge, the car’s rear end skidded and slammed into the abutment, injuring everyone and killing the youngest sister Roberta, for whom my mother was later  named. I never learned much about this young girl who died before my mother was born, but according to family lore when she was seven she and the family had gone on a mountain hike in Montreat, NC. There was a spring halfway up the trail and Roberta had raced ahead; by the time everyone else arrived she’d been splashing in the spring and had stirred it up. They arrived hot, tired and thirsty, but the spring was full of mud. She was scolded, and with her best second-grade spelling had looked up meekly and whimpered, “J-O-A-K”. This became a family saying and later spread, eventually even appearing in a movie, “The Buddy Holly Story”.
My grandmother from the day of the wreck onwards was left with diabetes and had to inject insulin. By the time she was 60 she’d lost feeling in her hands and feet; one day she burned herself badly on the stove and didn’t know. She wore very thick glasses by now, and had limited peripheral vision; if you walked up beside her and she turned your way she’d jump in bemused surprise. She was very pleasant, though; always had a sense of humor and didn’t complain about her infirmities.
The salt air was wonderful. I hadn’t remembered the beach, and none of my siblings had ever been there. The water was warm and gentle and we soon discovered a sandbar a ways out, shallow enough for a kid to sit and dig sand dollars and nicely preserved shells. One day I stepped on something sharp and saw, digging itself in, a lightning whelk. I pulled it out. It was about six inches long–but when I saw it in the seashell book mine was left-handed. Quite a bit later I learned that the same shells curve one way in warm waters and the other way in cold. I spent whole afternoons on the sandbar, hundreds of feet from shore but not more than knee deep. I could sit in the water, wade, float on my back, dig for shells in peace and relative privacy; it was far enough from shore to see everything but hear very little. In the evenings one of the mothers–my mother had a sister and a brother, each with two girls–would fix one of her specialties. We ate Mexican dishes several times a week in Colorado, but It proved nearly impossible for my mother to prepare one in South Carolina in 1961. A full day’s searching yielded a few canned tortillas packed in water. They were small, grey and tasteless, so she tried to make her own out of the locally available coarse yellow corn meal, ending up with giant, unsalted Fritos. The hot sauce was a bust, too–no spicier than ketchup mixed with water, and the chili peppers were little but undistinguished, mushy, superannuated pickles. It didn’t matter, we would’ve been satisfied with a steady diet of french fries and cold lemonade. We were at the beach! Life was grand! I had two blonde cousins, already toasted a nut brown from my uncle’s posting as a civilian engineer on the Pacific atoll Kwajalein, where they had lived for three years, and two fair-skinned and dark-haired cousins who had always lived in Clinton, SC, a few score miles down the road. All four girls were three or four years younger than I. It bothered Ted that his only son had had only girls; there’d be no great-grandchildren bearing his surname. He took a special interest in me in the next several years; alone among the cousins, my middle name is my mother’s maiden name–Jones. There was also the simple fact that I was his oldest grandchild, and the oldest boy in the only family with any boys in it.
He began to write me frequently, and I learned a lot about his youth. He’d been born in 1899, in the red clay hills of northern Georgia, the youngest of 8. By the time he came along all the family names had been taken, and he was christened Ted. Not Theodore, no middle name, just Ted. By the time he was 5 or so, he decided he wanted a middle name like his brothers, and this being rural Georgia at the dawn of the twentieth century there wasn’t anything complicated about it. His family asked him what name he wanted, and he thought maybe Otis–but then his brothers asked if it’d be his first name, with the initials OTJ, or his middle name, which would produce TOJ. He didn’t like either, and decided on a “W”. He had a brother Walter, and a brother William had drowned years before, so he decided on Wallace. Wallace Ted Jones was still called Ted, which was fine until he started filling out cards which asked for first name, middle initial and last name. After getting mail addressed to Wallace T. Jones he instead wrote in W. Ted Jones, and that’s how it stayed.
Ted was 18 when the United States entered World War I. He was in school but figured he’d be drafted after graduation and decided to take a motorcycle trip to see Georgia before that happened. He and a friend packed their saddlebags in the spring of 1918.
Georgia had no real highways and precious few paved roads in 1918. He and his friend carried along a substantial tool kit, with extra inner tubes and patches. They made many miles per day when the weather was good, but when rain came had to find any available shelter. A few days into their trip they pulled up to a farm house to wait out a storm. The farmer and his wife told them they should spend the night on the porch, but when the rain stopped there were still a couple hours of daylight and they wanted to get on their way. The farmer said, suit yourselves, but you won’t get anywhere. Back on their bikes, they discovered the farmer was right. They weren’t going anywhere on the slick wet clay of Georgia after a rain. They stayed on the porch.
Some days later they’d been riding. It was hot and they stopped for a break under a cherry tree. While they were picking cherries and relaxing they saw, on the horizon, a sheriff’s car coming. They hopped on their bikes and headed down the road a mile or two, then went down a cow path and behind a hill, where they hid out. A couple minutes behind them came the sheriff, who revealed to them his tracking method–”All I did, boys, was follow your dust!”
He and his friend spent the summer exploring Georgia, working here and there, then riding to the next town, but eventually the call came. Ted headed home to prepare for war. He was ready to hop on the train to boot camp when the news came through–the Armistice had been signed. Nobody was going anywhere.
Ted had no particular life plans and spent the next few years riding his cycle. The next year he rode to Florida, where he rode the first vehicle over a new bridge to the development which became Miami Beach. He spent a fair amount of time hanging out in pool halls and smoking cigars, but one day from the clear blue heard a calling–to preach! He didn’t, couldn’t, believe it, and spent six months telling himself it never happened, but eventually gave in, went to school and became a Presbyterian minister. As part of his training he decided he couldn’t very well preach against the evils of alcohol if he’d never tried it, and deliberately got roaring drunk one night under the watchful eye of his brother.
Some years later, Ted met Eloise Knight. They married and spent several years traveling a circuit of churches around the South, raising a family. They mostly lived in central Florida, where Eloise’s family had business interests, but when my mother was eight or so he took a position near the army base in Fayetteville, NC. One day it snowed, and the road in front of his house was jammed; every soldier knew the kids from Florida had never seen snow, and slowly drove by the preacher’s house to watch my mother and her siblings throw snowballs.
About this time the family had to drive to Florida. It had sleeted, and Ted saw a sign by the road advising travelers to use chains. He pulled into the nearest gas station, where they happily fitted him with chains–on all four wheels! The sleet soon disappeared, but he went crunching down the flat, dry pavement mile after mile. Eventually one, another, another link broke and slapped into the fenders, making a terrible racket, but Ted had no idea how to remove chains and thwacked down the highway several more miles before finding a place to take off the brand-new, ruined chains.
The family moved back to Florida the following year, where my mother grew up, played clarinet in the band and worked as a lifeguard in the summertime, but she never forgot the mountains of North Carolina. She decided to go there to a summer music camp, heard about an outdoor drama starting in Boone, got into the cast, met my father, moved to Denver, had 5 kids and was now pregnant with a 6th, at the beach in South Carolina. After a week we putt-putted home again, the microbus with the chairs on top rarely reaching 60 miles per hour, and that fall I entered 6th grade.

Not So Smart, Finally–
I began my last year at Montclair Elementary,  which also became our last year in the Rosemary Street neighborhood. Mrs. Rupert was my teacher, a kindly middle-aged woman with reddish-brown hair, graying at the temples. I was again one of the smartest and smallest kids in the class, at four-foot-eight. There was one boy my size, another egghead with glasses named Jay Steinberg, and one or two girls. Pam Grismore towered over me now, so much so that I seemed to look straight up into her nostrils.

It was a good year. My teacher thought me middling intelligent but less than extraordinary, and I was overjoyed to be living up to her non-expectations. Occasionally I’d be frustrated, as when Jay and I marked a poorly worded test question “false”, because it was mostly true but contained one false element. To a couple scientifically-minded kids the answer was therefore “false”. We argued with Mrs. Rupert and she finally admitted that the statement was indeed partially false, but didn’t change our scores.
Sixth grade was easy. I walked or rode my bike to school, and had lots of time in the afternoon. There was a grass-topped reservoir between the school and my home next to one of the busier streets, Quebec Street. I crossed it going to school and when I was young I’d go into Quebec St. and leave just enough space for the cars, then tap their side-view mirrors or door handles as they passed. It seems insanely dangerous now, but it was my ritual.
The reservoir was a city block in size, elevated ten or fifteen feet, flat on top, covered with sod. There were rows of bushes around the sides and a kid could scramble to the top in a few seconds. There were mechanical-looking pumps on either end painted silver, but unlike other green expanses in the neighborhood there were no backstops, fences, sports markings or anything else. It was simply a square green grassy field, elevated and surrounded by rows of bushes, a reasonably private place in the middle of a residential area, a peaceful place where the traffic sounded like a distant ocean. The paths between the bushes were good places to hide or to race with friends. Both could start in a corner, run in individual rows and not see each other until emerging at the far end. There was a fair amount of trash behind the bushes nearest Quebec St. and occasionally items left by picnickers, or forgotten, in the field–sweaters, tennis balls, baseball mitts. Sometimes we’d find bird’s nests or unusual rocks, and one time I found a clay ball full of arrowheads. I brought it home, washed away the clay and there were fifteen or so. I thought it an ancient Indian artifact but my father thought it more likely left by a prankster.
In the years since I’d begun at Montclair, Denver had grown and the Annex had filled up again. When I’d left the Annex there’d been only first graders remaining. Our neighbor Kristen started first grade the next year, but those first graders stayed in the annex for second and third grade, so though we were only a year apart, she went one way down the street and I went the other until she was in fourth grade, and I in the sixth. I met her at the reservoir on the way home one day and was amazed by how she’d grown. She was with a couple friends, and showed me a certain goofy look; she’d cross one eye but not the other. I’ve used that goofy look ever since.
My brother Robin was a few months younger than Kristen, but a year behind her, and also went to the Annex for first, second, and third grade. As it worked out, we never once went to school together. My youngest brother Sam was a year and eleven months younger than Rob, but was old enough, by twenty-two days, to be only one year behind him. The end result was that I never went to school with any of my five brothers and sisters, while they nearly always went to school together and were even sometimes in the same classes. This led to a weird disconnect between me and the rest of my family. I hung out with a totally separate crowd. I didn’t know any of my siblings’ friends or take part in any of their activities. Some of this was simple chance, but some was due to the inordinately grand expectations of my father, who was sure that since I was smarter than everyone else, I should also work ten times harder, and never believed that I’d finished my homework. They’d play in the yard or on the piano, but I’d be doing hours of homework. Every year the rest of the family did theatre productions together, but I couldn’t be in any of them. Homework.

Denver schools had just begun giving standardized tests at the end of the sixth grade. There were about a dozen categories, and when the scores came back I’d scored 12.9–high school graduate level, the best score possible–in about five of them, 12+ in a couple more, an 11.7 and a couple 10.6s or 10.4s. My worst scores were 9.9 and 9.4, in mathematics. It was the best any sixth-grader had ever done in Colorado, and as I was also a year younger it meant I was perennially to be shoveled into advanced classes, whether I was interested or not. Mrs. Rupert lived close to my father’s barber shop and they’d often meet in the grocery store, or she’d drop by. She’d always apologize for not recognizing my potential, and crap like that, but for me that was THE reason that the year I spent in her class was one of the happiest of my life. Ever after, I’d end up in algebra when I wanted wood shop, or physics instead of art. The Russians were ahead of us. America needed scientists. Me. It was my duty, not my desire.
A couple months into the 6th grade, my youngest sister was born and we were six–three blonde, curly haired, blue-eyed boys, Dave, Rob, and Sam, and then three sisters, Fran, Genny, and Laura, all brown eyed and straight-haired. Fran was brunette and Genny blonde, but Laura’s hair was fiery red. Before I’d seen her, my father’d told us she had red hair like Margaret in Dennis the Menace, and I at first thought her name was Margaret. My mother’s obstetrician was Dr, Bradley. He believed in the unusual idea of natural childbirth, and his “Bradley method” soon was quite popular.

Kennedy. Gone.
And then Kennedy was shot.

Each generation experiences a moment which seems to suck all the oxygen out of the world. We were on the playground when the rumors trickled in; I was playing four-square. Kennedy’s been shot. He’s in the hospital. He’s dead. No he isn’t. After lunch, everyone was herded into the auditorium and a tiny TV was rolled out on the stage. Six hundred of us watched a luminescent glob for the rest of the day. For the next few days, the news played nonstop on every channel all day long. We didn’t go to school.  Our mothers cried. Our little sisters, who had no idea what was happening, cried. Our Hungarian neighbors were terrified–“What’s going to happen now? Is the army going to seize power?”. For a week nobody wanted to play. Nobody wanted to watch TV either, but we did. Johnson was sworn in. Oswald was shot. We all saw it happen. Jack Ruby did it. Our dead president was carried down the street behind a bunch of horses. Buried under an eternal flame.

And then we all went back to school.

I had a den in the basement that fall, with our old green Arvin TV propped on a desk.  It was our original television, but the picture was weak and it was easier to see in the dim light of the basement. It was cooler down there too. In the World Series that year the New York Yankees faced the Los Angeles Dodgers. My mother was sitting on the porch while I watched the final game, and heard a whoop simultaneously coming from me in the basement and Kevin across the street, who’d been listening on his radio. The Dodgers had won the World Series! Sandy Koufax had taken out the Yankees and Los Angeles had beaten New York, four in a row! I may have been born in New York, but I was a Western kid.  I liked the Yankees, individually; Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford, but I was tired of the Yankees always winning. Sandy Koufax had been born just a few miles from me. He was my hero.

The Beatles came to America. More astronauts went up. The Ford Mustang made its debut. Johnson ran against Goldwater. Life was normal.

The Mayfair

My father had worked at Harold’s Barber Shop since the barber in the second chair developed persistent hiccups and had to quit. He began to hiccup one day, and couldn’t stop. Every twenty minutes or so he’d have a hiccuping fit, and couldn’t cut hair anymore. He eventually set a world record, after hiccuping almost continuously for years. The barber in the third chair moved to the second and my father was hired for the third. Harold later sold the shop to my father, who re-named it the Mayfair (the name of the shopping center) and moved into the first chair. That spring we remodeled it, and that fall he fired the shoeshine man.

I liked Curtis Mitchell. He was an old black fellow who’d been shining shoes and cleaning up at night all his life. He was an artist with the shoeshine rag, popping it, twirling it around, producing a brilliant shine in just a couple minutes. On a Sunday or a Monday, when the barbershop was closed, he’d take me fishing. We’d talk a little, but he was pretty quiet, so as not to scare the fish. He’d catch a fish or two, but I never did. I never saw him drink, and he wouldn’t for weeks at a time, but once in awhile he wouldn’t show up on Tuesday, and everyone knew he was hung over. On Wednesday he’d doze off, but he’d be back on his game by Thursday and do well for several weeks. After awhile, though, he got worse; he’d miss Wednesday and show up on Thursday shaking with delirium tremens. He’d take a broom and chase nonexistent snakes from under the chairs. After awhile, he wouldn’t be at home when he didn’t show up, he’d be in the hospital. My father carried him for a long time, but one day I had to razor off  “by Mitchell” from the big painted “Shine by Mitchell” sign on the window, and I was the shoeshine boy.

There were better shoeshine boys. When a customer would come in I’d walk up nervously and blurt, “Shine, sir?”, then boogey back to my chair to read  MAD Magazine, Sports Illustrated, Time, CRACKED, Life, US News & World Report, Newsweek, LOOK, The Saturday Evening Post, CARtoons, True, Argosy, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, CycleToons, Mechanix Illustrated, the Rocky Mountain News, the Denver POST. We had ‘em all and I read ‘em all. I spent a lot more time reading than shining shoes or talking. The barbers kept up with sports–barbers keep up with anything which can start a conversation–so I did too.

I got $2 for sweeping up at night, but a fair amount I won playing poker. On Saturdays particularly, the barbers would put away all their things, my father would buy a six-pack, lock the door and everyone would play penny-ante poker. I was good at poker, and would often make five or six dollars shining shoes but win or lose seven or eight. I kept track, though, and won far more than I lost.

There were six kids now in the house on Rosemary Street, and it was getting cramped. We looked around, and once again found a house which was older but bigger. Late that summer we moved in.

Spruce Street

The new house was almost twice as big as the old, and my parents bought it with a VA loan for $16,500. The price included a 4-car garage and a cottage out back where a middle-aged widow already lived with her elderly mother. We kept the Rosemary Street house and rented it out, and the rent from the two houses paid the mortgage. It wasn’t difficult to move what furniture we needed the 7 blocks from one house to the other, especially as we left a lot of things for the new tenants, and the new house came partially furnished. It had been split into two apartments, upstairs and down, and so had two living rooms, two bathrooms, two kitchens and four bedrooms, plus a huge unfinished basement wherein dwelt a many-tentacled monster of a furnace, originally coal-fired but converted to natural gas, circulating heat through the house by gravity. My father would have many adventures servicing that furnace.

My parents took the big bedroom downstairs while the smallest bedroom, behind them, was used for storage and study. I moved into a small bedroom upstairs, my two brothers into a larger one and my three sisters into the largest, which had formerly been the upstairs living room. The upstairs kitchen became a laundry room, but there was still a small fridge in it which I used to keep snacks cold. Again I was in a room by myself, and set to go to a different school. It was a pattern.

One of the first big purchases I made was a TV. I saw a television for sale for $35 which I could have afforded, a “portable” 1948 model. It was a cube about 2 feet by 2, with a squashed oval picture tube about 9×12″ peeking out the front. It had a certain charm, but I settled on a newer model with a bigger picture and a $20 price tag. The cherry on top, for me, was an  electro-mechanical innovation. I had remote control!

There were two lever-type buttons on top, one for power, the other driving an electric motor which kachunked loudly through the channels. On the back were screws on either side to hook up wires for remote buttons, which I promptly did. I was the first person I knew who could sit in a chair or lie in bed and, from across the room, push a button to change the channel or turn the set on or off. Couldn’t set the volume or adjust the tuning, though.

We were in the new house, at 1690 Spruce St., for only a couple of weeks before school started. Everyone I knew from my old neighborhood, six blocks away, was going to a junior high named Hill, but I went to Smiley, in a far different neighborhood, and never saw most of my Montclair classmates again. At Montclair there’d been at least 90% white kids, with a few Latino and Jewish and only a handful of black kids sprinkled in. Denver had never been segregated, one of its attractions for my liberal Democratic parents, but it had different neighborhoods. Smiley was about 1/3 white, 1/3 black and 1/3 others when I began, but over the next three years became almost 90% black. It was a tougher school, and as the youngest kid out of a couple thousand, and at four foot nine one of the shortest and least-developed physically, I was a timid, fearful, half-blind mole who hid in the corners as much as I could. It was a huge change–instead of one teacher and twenty-some classmates whom I’d known for years, I now had eight teachers a day and hundreds of classmates, all strangers, plus a “counselor” whose sole purpose seemed to be to shuffle through my test scores for ten seconds and inform me that whatever classes I’d chosen were wrong. Instead of art appreciation, I needed advanced algebra, and composition was a much better choice than wood shop. I wanted to get into a good college, didn’t I?–his statement, not mine–and I’d be shoveled into four classes I didn’t want. I wouldn’t see the counselor until the next semester, when he’d blink, stumble over my name and inside of seventy seconds enroll me in four more classes I didn’t want. I was the smartest kid in the school, my achievement tests proved it; I was small, bespectacled, an eggheaded child genius. America needed rocket scientists to beat the Russians, and what I wanted was irrelevant.

I did worse in school–a relative term, I mostly made Bs–and had pounds of homework to struggle through every night. I wasn’t meeting the stratospheric expectations of my teachers, my parents (particularly my father), or anyone else in the academic community who’d heard about me. Nobody’d thought yet how many nuclear warheads we needed, the answer was more! more!–and my classmates’ parents were building! building! them a few miles down the road. To launch them we needed rocket scientists–study! study!–and any kid who knocked the top off the achievement tests was destined! destined!–or doomed! doomed!–to be one.

I wasn’t alone, though. The first day of school in my new neighborhood I got off the bus and into a conversation with a kid who was walking my way. His name was Mike, or Monk to his family, and we walked first to his house, then to mine around the corner. He became a life-long friend.

Monk was also the oldest of six–three brothers and three sisters, like me. He was a year and four months older, but we were in the same grade. We had endless conversations, on three topics–science, religion, and coins. I had a good coin collection, but within a few weeks he’d been given a coin collection by a much older relative. Better than mine, but not by much. I’d take coins over to his basement bedroom and we’d look them over, compare, trade duplicates and occasionally make a transaction, but for all the talk only a few coins a month ever changed hands.

The middle-aged widow who lived in the cottage behind our new house was Mrs. Baumer, and her mother was Mrs. Bullard. Mrs. Bullard had an extensive coin collection, and I visited her often, attempting to trade some of mine for some of hers, but she never traded many, though she gave me a lot for doing odd jobs around the property. At 11 I didn’t understand that it meant little to her to trade a few quality coins for a large number of my seconds, even if their value was in her favor, but at 80 she was happy to see my enthusiasm. I was the landlord’s son, and I’d pound a few nails into loose pickets or clean out gutters in exchange for coins which were actually a good bit more valuable than my services, and soon my collection was equal to Monk’s.

I’d learned something about wiring when I was in 4-H, and one day came home to find my father puzzling over how to install a 3-post switch for a light which could be turned on from the garage and turned off at the cottage. I took a stick and drew him a picture in the sand, and in future years he frequently talked about it. If I would’ve known the effect my sand drawing would later have on my life, I’d have never drawn it. He was proud of me, but suddenly, intensely  jealous. That jealousy never went away.

The Treehouse

Monk and I soon decided to build a treehouse. I bought a sturdy hammer for $6, which I still have. We had a massive elm tree in the back yard, taller than our house. I’d thought we’d have a treehouse a few feet off the ground like the Martinez boys, but Monk wanted it high. He always wanted to get high; a theme which would define his life. From the treehouse we could look down into what were essentially third-storey windows–our house, two storeys high, was built on a rise and was much taller at its back. We nailed boards into the trunk for a ladder and hung a long, sturdy, knotted nylon rope to climb on. The treehouse was essentially a platform; we tried putting in walls, but it was high enough to assure privacy without them, and we didn’t have much of an idea how to construct walls anyway. There were a couple shelves, a wooden trunk for comics and a desk lamp with a long cord that plugged into a tap hanging from the back porch light.

At eleven, my tastes in comic books ran towards DC’s superheroes–Superman, Batman, the Flash, Green Lantern, the Justice League of America. Loop Drug, run by a Chinese family, was three blocks away, and as kids we’d pick through comics and buy a few at 12¢ each under the watchful, silent eye of Granny, who only spoke Chinese. As soon as we’d reach for Playboy, though, Granny would disappear and one of the parents would shoo us off. I had a big collection of DC comics and a few others, some Archies, with Betty and Veronica and Jughead, plus a few Classics Illustrated and off-brand Charlton comics  about fighting soldiers, knights or cowboys. Soon, though, I discovered Spider-Man, issue #14. The Green Goblin.

I was hooked. Peter Parker was ever so much more interesting than Clark Kent and Jimmy Olsen; here was a high-school kid with actual human issues in his life–an elderly aunt, girlfriend trouble–but one day had been bitten by a radioactive spider. Too cool! I eagerly awaited each new Spider-Man comic and read the other Marvel comics in the meantime–Fantastic Four, Hulk, Iron Man, Dr. Strange. I joined the Merry Marvel Marching Society by sending off 69¢ in pocket change taped into an envelope, for which I received some weeks later a variety of buttons and trinkets and stickers and such which I plastered on my notebooks and book covers. I forgot about Superman. I’d still pick up the Flash once in awhile, particularly after Kid Flash got a new snazzy yellow-and-red getup, and sometimes Batman, but DC comics started losing their appeal. One day in particular I bought a comic that said on the cover, in big letters, “Batman is DEAD!”, took it home and discovered the story was about a writer who penned “another Batman yarn” and then went to his “what-if” room to think about “what-if” the rubber gun had actually fired and “what-if” Batman had died–”what if? What If?? WHAT IF??!!” the next panels said–and only then the story about WHAT IF Batman died. I felt snookered out of 12¢ and don’t think I ever bought another DC comic again. A few months later I saw the “letters” comments in a friend’s Batman about what a great idea the “what-if” room was. I imagined thousands of letters in protest, with three cherry-picked and published. It was truly traumatic–if I couldn’t trust BATMAN, then who? Then WHO?? THEN WHO??!!

The Theatre

My parents, especially my father, loved the stage. He’d be in several productions a year, and my family would be in one or two together, except for me. As the resident genius, I had “too much homework”.

Oh, well–stage productions with me in them seemed uniformly disastrous anyway. At ten I was a Roman guard in a bible school play; I had no lines, but when the time came for the production I learned my costume was a shiny white pair of underwear, and NOTHING ELSE! I didn’t mind the stage, but at age 10 was petrified of appearing IN UNDERWEAR and couldn’t be persuaded that it was really a skimpy little silk bathing suit. That was WORSE, because it looked even more like a GIRL’S BIKINI BOTTOM. When it came time for the performance, one of the shepherds wore a large T-shirt while I guarded the door in his robe.

A few years later, my 6th grade Spanish class was producing Goldilocks and the Three Bears, in Spanish, and I was Baby Bear. We rehearsed for several weeks, but on the day of the play Goldilocks was sick. It was rescheduled, but the next day she was still sick. She was still out on the third day, and as she had no understudy, our play was cancelled.

Not long afterwards,  Bonfils Theatre produced Gideon, my first professional production since I’d earned accolades portraying “Three-Week-Old-Baby” in The Horn in the West. I was Jether, the shepherd boy.  Although it took a lot of my time it didn’t engage much of my brain, as I had no lines. Jether did, however, have black hair, which was sprayed in each night and later washed out as rivulets of black muck, coursing down my face and shoulders and remaining in the bathwater during my now-obligatory nightly bath, settling into every wrinkle of my body, giving me a weird, old-man Goth freak appearance the following day. My hair was always nasty, and more of the black goo would wash out in the showers in gym class, where it would pool in my eyebrows, under my eyes and around my nose. After that play everyone in the family decided that henceforth they would DYE their hair when necessary, with the result that everyone had red hair for Life With Father the following year–except me, because I wasn’t in it, having survived that spring an absolutely traumatic school play, the worst-ever production, in the history of the world, of West Side Story. A neighborhood improvement organization with a government grant put it on. The director was a community organizer who obviously had no theatre experience whatsoever.

I was encouraged to audition, and got a small part. Within a week, though, several of the major characters had quit. Through attrition and poor casting decisions I landed as Officer Krupke. Other portrayals were worse. The gang members were muscular and fifteen, but their supposed leader Tony was another undersized eleven-year-old. Tony and I wore glasses and had high, squeaky voices. Tony’s girl Maria was a fully matured, top heavy black girl, several inches taller than Tony, and she had a deeper voice. For months we rehearsed it from the beginning, running out of time halfway through the second act. A week or so before the premiere, our director realized we didn’t yet have a full play, and started rehearsing the final scene. A quick scene was improvised a day or two before the performance to tie everything together, and then the search for props began. An A-frame ladder was quickly put into service as a balcony, a refrigerator box became a building and a door laid on its side was a fence. Since none of us had even tried to sing, a tape of the Broadway production was cued up in an old reel-to-reel tape player, with a microphone backstage hooked to the public address speakers in the auditorium–a system which had not yet been tested when the doors opened for the first matinee.

The end result was incomprehensible. The first few minutes went all right, but then everything fell apart. Preadolescent, pasty-white, bespectacled gang leader Tony squeaked across the stage falling in love with a much taller and older black girl, who appeared to be one of the cafeteria ladies, while she perched on a ladder for no particular reason. Once Tony had professed his love, in his high soprano, and Maria had responded, in her contralto, the singing began. The tape was set at the wrong speed, and chipmunks shrieked out the first few words of “Tonight, Tonight” at five times the volume of the dialog on stage. Tony and Maria then waited, blinking, arms limp by their sides, for twenty minutes while the sound technician fumbled and mumbled, the speakers popping and rumbling, mangled tape sounds squawking occasionally from the superannuated tape player as it tediously, fitfully groaned to life–halfway through the wrong song.

Another ten minutes. “MMMuuuhh——–rrr—rr————rr———rrrria, I’ve just met a girl named Maria!” finally boomed forth in an operatic tenor several dozen decibels louder and lower than Tony had seemed capable of, while he and Maria waved their hands and lip-synched badly, Maria perched like a house painter above. Catcalls came from the audience and a couple cold drinks flew from the balcony. The audience below screamed at the jokesters above, the curtains closed, the lights came on and the assistant principal strolled onstage to make several choice threats before the play continued. When the curtain rose, there was a refrigerator crate next to the ladder, with a door leaning sideways on its lower half. A gang member stepped from the crate and told another Jet what had happened offstage, explaining all the missing scenes–the dance, the war council, the rumble, the two gang members stabbed–the Reader’s Digest version of the middle two-thirds of the play–and then I, Officer Krupke, blew my whistle and shouted the two lines my role had been reduced to. About this time a fight broke out in the hallway and the audience poured out to watch. We played the final scene, with screeching overwhelming the dialog, to about a dozen stragglers.

That was our only performance. The remaining three were cancelled, and our months of rehearsals were over. It was the last time I took on what was supposed to be a major role. I was in a few plays later, but never took a large part. This proved wise, as all further theatrical productions I was involved in came to similar ends. Once I contributed money, then wasn’t notified that the first two performances were relocated and the third cancelled. I missed the play AND the cast party. The rest of the cast drank up my money.

It was different for the rest of my family. They were in several plays, sometimes separately but often together; some of them were clinkers, but several were notable successes. One of them, A Christmas Carol, was put on at Christmastime for several years. All of my family was in it. Except for me.

The Great Treehouse Fire

When we’d finished the treehouse it had a couple shelves and a storage box where I kept my comics. I kept the lamp under the shelf, out of the weather. It was October now, so before the first big snow, I stowed my comics and turned off the back porch light from inside the house, which also turned off the power to the treehouse. Later that night my father, whom we’ve already established didn’t understand wiring very well, decided to make sure the power to the treehouse was off. From inside the house he turned the porch light on, then went outside and pulled the chain coming from the tap into which the treehouse cord was plugged. This had the opposite effect from what he’d intended, turning OFF the porch light but turning ON the power to the treehouse. The lamp got wet, shorted out the switch and and turned itself on. The comics burned to a crisp, the fire burned through the shelf, then the snow put out the fire. All my comics were carbon, though the treehouse itself only had one little dark spot on the floor where the wood had been scorched. That was the Great Treehouse Fire of 1964. Afterwards I ran the wire from the window of my room.

Once in awhile Monk or I would be in the treehouse and need to pee. Instead of going back to the house, it was more convenient to pee off the porch, so to speak. One day Monk was below, saw a pause in the action, took hold of the rope and with a Tarzan yell AIEEEEE swung through the pee-stream area. He claimed I couldn’t hit him–I was over two storeys above–so I tried. He took off again, AIEEEEE, and swung through before the pee-stream got there. I paused about half-a-second and he yelled AIEEEEE again, but this time I’d resumed early, and he swung right into it!

After the success of our treehouse, I thought it’d be nice to have another in a smaller tree across the yard. I pulled a pallet into the other tree, maybe eight feet up. I’d found a place to attach it and was putting in the second nail when it gave way. I grabbed at the nearest branch, slipped and fell hard into the branch below, then down onto a picket fence. Fortunately I landed between the pickets and far enough to the left to avoid squashing my nuts, but from that day I’ve had a couple distinguishing physical features. I hit the branch hard enough to separate the cartilage in my ribcage from the bottom left two ribs, leaving it lopsided, and I developed an extra nut or “water ball” from the glancing blow to that sensitive area. I wasn’t injured enough to take any other action than hobbling the rest of the day and going to bed early, but later that evening, wearing nothing but socks and an oversize T-shirt, I met a visitor who came to recruit me into the Boy Scouts. I’d enjoyed the Cub Scouts and thought it would be fun, so I talked Monk into it as well.

It was a mixed bag. The activities in Boy Scouts are largely dependent on the initiative of the scoutmaster, and we had a lazy scoutmaster. Monk and I went to the church basement on Mondays for scout meetings, but about all the scouts did was play basketball, which I sucked at, or wrestled, which could have been OK except we weren’t divided by age or height but by weight. At 11 years old and 95 pounds I was in the same weight class as the scoutmaster’s 16-year-old son, a foot taller and about 10 pounds heavier. The scoutmaster’s 11-year-old son was the same height as me and almost the same weight, but because the official governing body of whatever bogus organization decided these things said my weight class was 95 and up, and his was 94 and down, I was stuck. If basketball was unpleasant, wrestling was torture.

There was one reason, above all others, I wanted to be a Boy Scout. My family did a lot of camping, and I wanted to camp with the scouts. A certain weekend was chosen in the springtime, and I eagerly anticipated the trip. I bought the sleeping bag, the pup tent, the canteen, the Sterno stove, the permanent match, the hatchet , the Swiss knife with the can opener and corkscrew and saw, the collapsible cup, the magnifying glass, the fork-spoon-knife set and a bottle of chlorine pills to treat the water, and then the camping trip was cancelled. More weeks went by, another weekend chosen, again cancelled. It was late summer when we FINALLY got ready. I eagerly packed all my stuff, probably 50 pounds more than necessary, and arrived at the church at 7:30 in the morning.

And waited. And waited. Two hours. Three hours. In the sun. No water. No snacks, we were told not to bring any. I didn’t want to tote the pack up to the store two blocks away so I could get a drink, it was heavy–and I didn’t want to leave it, all my stuff was in it. It was nearly noon, Thirsty and hungry, I put on my pack and trudged home. My mother called every phone number we had. Nobody there. We checked the schedule–the time was correct. Several hours later, we got hold of Monk’s mother. Monk had gone camping. The scoutmaster had called up everyone in the troop–everyone, that was, except me–and delayed the trip yet again. They’d left at noon. I’d missed them by ten or fifteen minutes.

I was overjoyed to learn, after the weekend, that the camping trip had been a disaster. They’d gotten to the campsite in the mountains way late, set up tents in the dark, gathered wood and just when it was time to start a campfire, down came a gully-washer, the kind of summer storm in the Rocky Mountains that you run from and seek whatever possible shelter while thunder and lightning flashes and hail comes down the size of peas, then marbles. Several of the tents were flooded and wrecked. In the morning Monk got into a fight with the scoutmaster’s son–the one who’d tossed me around for months–and thrashed him good. Monk was 13 now, but sturdy; he’d always been in the next higher weight class and was more than capable of thrashing a skinny 16-year-old with thin arms and a big mouth. By Sunday night everyone was home, and Monk and I had both quit the Boy Scouts. I had nothing but choice words for scouting for years afterwards.

I’d been assembling plastic models for a couple years now; I had dozens. I’d go to the hobby shop and buy one for 49¢ and a tube of glue for a dime, then assemble a Model A, a Spad, a Mustang. Monk had some monster models–Creature from the Black Lagoon, Dracula, the Mummy, Frankenstein; also Superman, Batman and the like. I also had monster models, but mine were odd creatures driving “funny cars”, a popular series. One day we decided to have monster wars–throw monsters at each other, break them and glue them back together any which way. Pretty soon Batman had the Creature’s head, Frankenstein was wrapped in bandages and driving a funny car, etc. It was great fun. By the end all our models were masses of plastic and globs of glue.

The “Sixties”

I’ve always felt “the Sixties” started in 1965. There was a lot happening in the first half of the decade, but there was a way of thinking, acting, dressing, living and loving, universally accepted in 1960, which was not much different from 1950. By 1970 everything had changed, much of it starting in 1965, and the “sixties” feeling, the zeitgeist, persisted through the early ‘70s; a flame ignited by Vietnam, extinguished when Nixon resigned.

In 1965 I was helping my father renovate the barbershop. We’d repainted the walls and windows, replaced old benches with comfy chairs, installed indirect lighting and acres of mirrors, a vacuum system (which didn’t work) and a brand-new color TV, recessed into the wall in an absolutely cutting-edge fashion. We didn’t have color TV at home, and wouldn’t for a couple more years, but 1965 was the first year color broadcasts were truly widespread. NBC would go all-color in 1966; the other networks the following year. My father thought color TV would be good for business, and it was. While we were cleaning and renovating that afternoon–the third Sunday in January, 1965–a local channel presented a debate between two men about a little country a long way away called Vietnam. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard of it, but this time I paid attention, mostly because the fellow arguing against the war was my old best friend’s father–Elliott Goldstein. I listened to him. He was well-organized and his points were thoroughly researched, while the other fellow spouted platitudes about what the government “surely” knew, that they “had their reasons”. Trust the government, he said, they have smart people who know best, and we need to stop communism. It’s evil, and if we don’t do it there, they’ll take over South America–but Elliott Goldstein was sharp, passionate, and persuasive. I left the shop that evening opposed to the Vietnam war. It was the first time I’d held a political view that was distinctly different from those of my parents. They didn’t yet have strong views about Vietnam, it just wasn’t on their radar. It’s the only political viewpoint I can state with certainty the date on which I decided where I stood–January 17, 1965.

Vietnam came to rule the headlines that year, and for many more. It led to the Generation Gap, which happens between any two generations but until then had not been so stark, so clear. That summer the phrase, “Never trust anyone over 30!” was shouted on a California campus, and it came to symbolize a turning point. It was easy for me to see how true–how obvious–it was. Anyone under 30 was from a different world, and knew it. From 100 yards away, you could see short hair, shiny shoes and dress slacks on a man, or a pouffy hairdo and knee-length skirts on a woman, and know not only that they were over 30, but that they believed in the war, supported the draft, and thought anyone sporting facial hair or short skirts should be expelled from school or imprisoned. As a “tween” I could refine it even further–I knew anyone under 25 could be trusted almost automatically and up to 27 or 28, probably; from 28 to 30 was doubtful but over 30, not at all. It seems ludicrous and extreme, but the line was sharp. The year I entered junior high, the valedictorian was also the class president. He was expelled. The dress code stated that, for males, hair at no point could touch ears, collars or eyebrows, and sideburns were to be trimmed at mid-ear level. His were half-an-inch too long. A great many rules were adopted, by schools, organizations and even businesses, to enforce style. Disneyland even refused entrance to any man with facial hair. Similar rules governed the length and style of girls’ skirts, whether they could wear pants and what type. All these penny-ante rules, when there was a war going on and nobody knew who’d be drafted and shot dead six months later. There were important things happening–nuclear disarmament rallies. DDT was killing birds,. Detergents weren’t breaking down and were forever foaming up rivers. Race riots. The over-30 crowd plowed on. THEY weren’t going to Vietnam. THEY trusted the government. The Peace-Pot-Protest bums were “dirty hippies” who needed a haircut, a shower.

For years you could mentally calculate how old someone was in 1965, add the intervening years and still say, never trust anyone over 35, or 45. This sharp divide eventually faded, but I’ll still sometimes see an older woman in the supermarket, daydreaming while Elvis plays in the background, and know SHE was over 30, back when–

My Sister’s Ride

When my brother was 9, he decided to become a businessman. He thought it’d be interesting and profitable to raise and sell rabbits, so we built hutches in the downhill corner of the backyard, in front of our garage. We soon had bunnies escaping regularly, setting off the neighborhood dogs in the early morning, and after several months of aggravation my brother sold the bunnies and demolished the hutches. After subtracting expenses from profits, he’d made 25¢, and was owner of a huge, valuable pile of fertilizer, now heaped in front of the garage.
Our long, thick treehouse rope was a wonderful swing. We’d ride it onto the picnic table just past the tree trunk, where we’d perch like trapeze artists, but there was a further, tantalizing possibility just out of reach. A long outside stairway led up to our second floor, and the rope just reached it. From the stairs we’d jump and swing, but there was a flat spot in the slope of the hill halfway to the tree, which forced any fair-sized kid to scrape his butt on the ground and lose momentum; we couldn’t get past the picnic table. It seemed theoretically possible, though, that if a kid were small enough, we could climb the first few stairs, boost the kid up to the second or third rope-knot, pull on the rope and they’d swing past the flat spot like Batman, high enough to reach the garage roof. We brothers decided to give our plan a try, with my youngest sister as pilot. As a test, a test only, we boosted her up to the knot and told her to hang on tight. I took an observation post on the other side of the backyard. My two brothers leaped off the stairs, tugging the rope and launching her at great speed across the yard. An astonished yelp arose from my beloved sister’s throat, developing into a full-fledged scream as she tore past the flat spot, past the picnic table and rose to a magnificent height in front of the garage. The experiment was a resounding success, and would have remained so had my sister followed the plan, and held on.
If Batman had been pilot, he’d have let go the rope at exactly the right moment, and landed lightly on the garage roof. Not my little sister. She held on a little too long, then let go. The glorious arc of her ride became a truncated, inverse parabola, and down, down she came. She landed with a SPLUSH in the former location of my brother’s rabbit hutches, where now there was a huge–pile–of—-stuff—
My sister was unhurt, but it proved difficult to comfort the small greenish abomination which emerged, as comforting “it” would have involved touching “it”. After a rinsing off and a couple baths she was all right, but we never again launched a kid off the steps.

That fall I started eighth grade, and one of my favorites was Spanish. I’d enjoyed our daily half-hour in third grade, had some books and records, had done well in 5th and 6th grade though I hadn’t taken it in 7th. Spanish was a consistently bright spot on my report card, usually an A, never below a B, though the rest of my marks were slipping. I tried very hard to make the Honor Roll, for those whose grade point average was over 3.6. I nearly made it, every time, in the 7th grade. In eighth grade I stayed over 3.0 but never came close to 3.6, and the same in ninth. The next year, after I left, they established a 3.0 honor roll. I’d have been on it at least ten times.

Being a teenager was big in 1965. Newsweek, Look, Life and just about every news magazine had special reports, investigations, long stories on what teenagers were like, what they wanted, how they lived, how much money they spent on clothes, records, cars. There was a lot of hand-wringing, books and articles about the “generation gap”. A very popular book by Pat Boone called Twixt Twelve and Twenty seems pretty silly now, but at the age of 12 it filled me with visions for the future. The present wasn’t that great. All my schoolmates were teenagers already. I was still the smallest and most physically immature, which meant a lot in the communal naked showers of gym class. I wanted to be a teenager more than anything, ever. On the third of June, 1966, I got my wish.

It was a bit of a letdown, of course. I didn’t suddenly sprout a mustache, or grow sideburns past my earlobes. I was a late bloomer, besides being a year behind, and was still well under five feet tall. I’d open the little fridge next to my bedroom and my eyes were even with the shelf where I kept juice and drinks.

Another Vacation

We went East again in 1965. My father had decided the microbus was underpowered and his mechanic suggested he put in a Porsche engine, which he did. Because the Porsche engine was far more powerful, it generated more heat, and as it was air-cooled, the engine compartment became something of a cookstove. My father got a couple sheets of shiny galvanized tin, formed them into scoops and bolted them on the sides of the bus over the tiny little gills which were the standard, inventing an accessory which later became nearly universal. This alleviated the heat somewhat, and with a couple minor changes we set out. There was not going to be a lot that was “normal” about our vacation that year, though.

We went earlier in the year, just after school had ended. The platform had been abandoned, as had the copious supplies of groceries under it. The center seat was bolted back in, and we planned to do much more driving at night, shopping in air-conditioned grocery stores in the heat of the day and stopping for picnics at the rest stops which were beginning to sprout around the country. We had a pleasant night drive through the flat plains of Kansas and St. Louis wasn’t nearly so hot. We rolled through Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky, stopping to picnic, avoiding the rush hour. We were in the twisty roads and lush greenery of Tennessee just before sunrise, about a hundred miles from our destination and having a wonderful trip, when F-F-F-WAP!!–something weird happened in the chronically overheated engine compartment and a strange loud whine awoke the sleeping, letting us know the bus was not going much further. My father opened up the engine compartment and peered in with a flashlight. He saw nothing unusual at first, but then noticed, way in the back, wires sticking out of the generator. The armature had failed, and had flailed around like a medieval mace, exploding inside the generator and tearing out all the brushes and fields.

My father got out his vise grips, a screwdriver and a pair of pliers–all the tools he had–and took the engine apart. The generator was all the way in the back, so he had to disassemble everything in front to get to it. After some hours he was covered from eyeballs to ankles in grease. He hitched a ride with the first person to come along; they covered the passenger seat with newspapers and he promptly fell asleep. The driver took him to the nearest Volkswagen repair, some 50 miles away, and the counter man was amazed. Any time they’d worked on a generator, they’d pulled the engine.  They didn’t know it could be done on the side of the road, with a Vise-grips. They didn’t have a Porsche generator, but figured how to make a VW generator fit.

All the while, we picked blackberries.

My mother made it an adventure. We’d never seen blackberries growing wild, and these were fat and juicy. We picked ‘em and ate ‘em and ate ‘em and picked ‘em until we all had a tummy ache and then went down to the cold, crisp creek running nearby and soaked our heads, our shirts, our socks. We had a ball. Late that afternoon father came back, put the engine together and mother drove the last 100 miles, while he snored in the rear.

Two of my aunts had adjoining property outside of Boone,. They lived within sight of each other almost their whole lives. An older sister lived a few miles away, and both brothers lived within sight of the old home place, though one was in Libya exploring for oil. All three sisters lived into their nineties; the eldest was 2 months shy of 100 when she died, the second lived two weeks past her 100th birthday and the third lived to be 97. The brothers lived into their 80s, except for the eldest, who smoked a lot and lived to be 71. My aunts had very nice houses and my cousins were grown and gone, so we stayed with them and spent the week running in the fields, riding ponies and jumping in my uncle’s antique cars for rides up and down the path. I came in one day with a badly cut finger, and my mother scolded me and told me not to get blood on the beautiful beige carpet, before she realized how she sounded and helped me bandage it. We had our dog along, God knows why, and one day he scooted his butt across that same carpet, leaving a brown stripe in the middle of the living room.

One of my cousins had a .357 pistol. It had quite a kick. It was the first time I’d ever fired a real gun. It nearly flew out of my hands, but I surprised both of us by shooting several cans off a log; I was a much better shot than I’d anticipated. One day everyone went to Grandfather Mountain and crossed the Mile-High Swinging Bridge. On the other side, I found a rock outcropping and was sitting peacefully and securely in a sort of little rock chair, leaning over and looking down into the valley hundreds of feet below. I was fine, until my father saw me and screamed “DAVE!!”–then I nearly fell over. We went to all the attractions. Tweetsie Railroad was a stretch of narrow-gauge track left over from the Eastern Tennessee and Western North Carolina line. The flood of 1940 had washed out most of the tracks and in 1950 the ET&WNC, known locally as Tweetsie, stopped serving the area. In 1957 the only remaining coal-fired locomotive was refurbished and put into service on a 3-mile loop through the mountains, where on July 4th it commenced life as a tourist attraction, one of the first theme parks in America. A business called Mystery Hill had been established nearby; one day a couple of high-school buddies of my father had stolen the hillbilly dolls from its roof, put whiskey bottles in their hands and perched them on the Blue Ridge Parkway bridge overlooking the highway.

We spent a lovely week in North Carolina, but the adventure wasn’t over. We drove through the mountain mists to the flat sandy plains of South Carolina, and had gotten about fifty miles from Columbia when BAM!, and the bus once again coasted to a stop. It was hot this time and there weren’t any blackberries by the road, but we weren’t far from a town, and before long we’d been towed to the nearest gas station, where they gave us the news that the distributor shaft had sheared off, damaged a couple gears and miscellaneous parts and no, they didn’t have any in town for a microbus with a Porsche engine. My mother’s sister’s husband Uncle Pete drove over from Columbia while my father arranged to rent a hitch and towbar. We hooked it up, and piled into his car. All my uncles, aunts and cousins were already there, but my mother’s family was much smaller–a brother, a sister, their spouses and two girls each. We parked the microbus in the front yard, and my father spent most of the next week underneath it.

My grandparents, like most middle-class families in the South, had a black maid, Anna, who’d been with them since my grandmother had begun having health problems. She lived a mile away on her own side of town, with her own life and family. The civil rights movement had started a few years before and my grandparents, progressive Southerners, eagerly supported it in their own way. My grandfather, a minister, had more than once gotten up at night and talked a lynch mob into going home, and all my relatives firmly believed in integration. Anna watched out for my grandmother, who couldn’t see very well, cleaned up a little, made a few sandwiches and went home when my grandfather arrived. One day we all went out to eat, including Anna. There was a restaurant a few miles away which would accommodate our party; we were served in a private room which could’ve seated 100. I thought it a lot of fuss. I’d gone to school and eaten lunch with black kids all along. There hadn’t been many in our neighborhood, but they weren’t prohibited by law.

It was different where segregation had been a big deal for generations. There were 3 restrooms in all the businesses–in 1965 the signs on the third restroom had been painted over, but it was clear they’d said “men”, “women”, and “colored”. There were still separate water fountains, now unmarked, and windows on the sides of sit-down restaurants. Our parents hadn’t wanted us to grow up segregated, and we didn’t–but we also had fewer interactions with black people than Southerners did.

Anna and the rest of us had a nice private dinner, and grandfather got us back on schedule. My grandfather always had a plan, an outline, a list. He organized his sermons with bullet points–and everything else. After a week in Columbia, we went to the cottage at Cherry Grove beach again, for three days. It was my youngest sister’s first visit to the beach, the third for Rob and me, and the second for everyone else. I looked for the sandbar which had been there before; it was still there, but not so shallow. It was still fun to stand hundreds of feet from shore, but I couldn’t sit down and sift through the shells. My mother had brought along the important elements of a Mexican dinner this time, and everyone ate tacos by the South Carolina beach.

My father’d managed to cobble together something resembling an engine from parts available in Columbia, but a couple pieces couldn’t be had at any price. We putt-putted home again, slower than the first time, leaking a quart of oil every 50 miles.

The Basement

Our Spruce Street house had a full basement under its center, and three large crawl spaces on its perimeter. I had a workshop, where I’d often take apart old radios pulled from the trash at a nearby appliance repair. Sometimes I could fix them, but more often I’d simply save the vacuum tubes and make toys from the magnets and pulleys. There was a lot of stuff hidden in nooks and crannies of the crawl spaces. The kid who’d lived there before had used one as a play space; the other two held pieces of lumber and junk. I found several interesting items, some pewter cars, trucks and toys from the 1920s, old receipts and some strips of newspaper from 1927 wrapped around the pipes which I pulled off and taped together. There was a comics section I found fascinating for the changes which had taken place in Gasoline Alley and Blondie in the intervening years, and a Sunday section which featured a British scientist’s predictions that by 1951–why 1951, I don’t know–we’d have purple oceans, wind power and egg babies. I found some seals from the offices of the fellow who’d owned the house, for mining companies and one which said “Rowe R. Rudolph, Notary Public and Lawyer, Portland, Oregon” which I used occasionally for my own purposes. There were a couple of liquor bottles, and as a joke I peed in them and left them in an inconspicuous corner for someone to discover, years in the future, when they’d open the bottle, be disgusted and pour it out.

A week or two later, discovered they were. My brother and his friend from across the alley had been poking around in the crawl space and found the spot among the junk where I’d hidden the bottles. Cliff wanted to try the liquor, my brother Rob wasn’t so sure. Cliff opened a bottle, took an enormous swig, gave a strange look, his eyes and cheeks bulged out and he pointed and gestured wildly at Rob, who finally figured out that Cliff wanted a place to spit. Rob pointed to the corner, Cliff exploded, spit several times and shouted, “IT’S PEE!!!” They took the bottles to the kitchen and asked my mother for verification; she seconded the identification and poured both bottles in the toilet. Cliff borrowed a toothbrush and brushed his teeth, tongue, the roof of his mouth, his lips, cheeks and chin for a long time, then washed his hands, arms, face, hair, washed his chest and borrowed a T-shirt to wear home. I didn’t mention that I knew about the bottles–for twenty or thirty years.

That summer, Froot Loops had a promotion. Send in a certain number of box tops and a dollar and they’d send a giant blow-up banana. This was a big deal to my sisters. For weeks they ate Froot Loops and saved their nickels. They mailed the box tops, waited some more weeks and finally it came. I was on the porch roof–the windows in my sisters’ room opened onto the roof over our front porch, and it was a wonderful place to hang out. Sunny, quiet, secluded, but you could still hear what was going on. They brought me the banana, I blew it up, and they went off to play with it, delightedly screaming and carrying on with this prize they had scrimped and saved and waited all summer for. After about twenty minutes, from the roof, I heard a POP!!, and a lot of crying. One of the neighbor girls had tried to ride it like a horsey, and now it was nothing but a giant plastic banana peel.


The fall of 1966 was a difficult time for the schools in Denver. Baby boomers were now cramming into Smiley Junior High, and it was far too small. Their solution was double sessions. I went to school from 7 am until 12:30, and another group started at 1 pm and stayed until 6:30. To eat breakfast and catch the bus, I was up at 5:30; earlier than I’d ever arisen. I started drinking coffee, at first with milk and sugar, but soon straight black. We had first-period science with Mr. Meek, whose name suited him. He was small, slight of build and in his appearance and mannerisms resembled a mouse. It was hard to stay awake in his class, which wasn’t his fault. Fortunately the next period was study hall, and many days I’d sleep through it. The teachers were supposed to wake you, but didn’t. The next semester’s schedule wasn’t any better, but at least the sun rose earlier, and we got to school at sunrise instead of before it.

It was a relatively good year for me. I’d finally started to grow a bit, and was at least occasionally chosen to catch a pass or swing a bat. I learned typing, and did well. I had a 1920s L.C. Smith typewriter, the precursor to Smith-Corona, with a carriage return lever on the RIGHT, when every other typewriter had it on the LEFT. It was dilapidated, and I’d regularly repair it with a bit of string, a paper clip or a chunk of wood before I practiced. I couldn’t get up much speed on my anvil of a typewriter, but eventually managed 50 or 60 words per minute on the school machines. All the school typewriters were mechanical except for one electric, used for demonstration, and one superannuated contraption with a double keyboard–a complete set of capital letters above, small ones below, and no shift key. It was parked in the wood shop, for no particular reason.

Six weeks each of wood shop, plastic shop and mechanical drawing were required that year, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I loved mechanical things, learning to use tools, constructing gadgets and repairing equipment, though I was still being “counseled” into algebra. I’d pick up antique mechanical items at the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store–cameras, typewriters, radios, sewing machines, electric fans and such–then bring them home for repair, renovation or disassembly.


At Easter break I took a trip to Mexico with a busload of kids from Spanish classes around Denver. There were 30 or 40 teenagers, a couple Mexican exchange students, 3 or 4 chaperones and a bus driver. The bus had strangely tinted windows, dark green on top fading to a barely perceptible at the bottom. For some reason they made me nauseous. When we stopped for dinner I started feeling better but after dinner it started again. After an hour I tried to get to the bathroom, but puked before I made it. Fortunately, we were pulling into the motel for the night; some of the kids went to the pool but I went right to sleep.

In the morning I felt better. We ate breakfast and visited Carlsbad Caverns, where we spent the day exploring. At lunchtime made phone calls, from a mile underground.

I spent more time talking about Mexico over the next several years than the actual time I’d spent in the country. We’d cross into Juarez in the morning and return to El Paso at night. The first evening we had a barbecue with molé sauce on everything and steaks grilled with beer. It was all new to me, and none of it was “hot”–or as our exchange student Jesus insisted, it was indeed “hot”, just not “spicy”. “Caliente”, not “picante”. When it got dark, a couple of men were attempting to light a Coleman lantern and didn’t know how to pump the tank. I explained, in what Spanish I had, how to put a thumb over the hole in the middle of the plunger on the downstroke and remove it on the upstroke. It worked! After four or five years of learning Spanish, I’d finally explained something to someone who spoke only Spanish, and he’d understood!

The following day we went to two glass factories. The first did production work. It was hot, busy, and interesting. I bought a pair of thick brown goblets with clear bases. In the afternoon we went to another, which made artistic pieces. They were beautiful, but much too expensive for my limited funds, except for a rack of “seconds”. I bought a slightly lopsided fish vase and a hobbit looking little fellow missing an eye, which I later remedied with a grain of sand stuck on with blue paint. It was fascinating to watch pieces come together, a bird wing here, a horse tail there, all done with spinning, swirling, orange-hot molten glass!

We visited a Mexican school, naturally. The classrooms weren’t much different except for the presence of every corporate logo imaginable on the blackboards, walls and furnishings. In fact, corporate logos were all over Juarez–on the backs of stop signs, on power poles, on public buildings–Pepsi, Camel, Pet, Crush; dozens of local brands of soda, candy, cigarettes, gum. Later we walked around the park, and Jesus left with a couple of his classmates. When they returned, Jesus was driving a car! He wasn’t old enough to drive in Colorado, but he was in Mexico!

When we all piled onto the bus that afternoon, a kid of about 7 years old came up to the windows selling gum. I bought a 4-pack of rectangular tablets wrapped in cellophane, which I’d never seen packaged that way. The price for them in the gum machines at home was 2 for a penny, but as many things in Mexico were cheaper I thought they were 4 for a penny south of the border, but no, they were 2 pennies a pack. I coughed up another cent.

We went to the market the next day, and had a great time. Bargaining, and the aggressive style of selling in the warehouse-type flea market was new to me. I loved it. I went to one fellow’s stand, looked at a couple of items, started to walk away and he called me back, twice, producing several items and finally a whip which yes, I wanted! I soon became quite good with it. By the end of the day I had a carved wooden cup, some onyx shot glasses and a carved onyx bear, a trumpet made from a bull’s born with “Ciudad Juarez 1967” painted on it, a cup-and-ball game and a barrel-and-stick game, both elaborately painted and carved, and several items to give away when I got home. I nearly bought a crudely made, brightly painted violin, but the fellow who made it quoted a price and didn’t want to bargain, which seemed strange in that environ. I walked away, returned some minutes later and it had been sold.

The rest of the group was strolling around buying things as well. From time to time we’d see each other in twos and threes, wandering about, bargaining with vendors, sometimes comically. I remember one black girl walking briskly away and almost shouting “no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no!” as a vendor offered her one geegaw after another.

The trip home was uneventful. Everyone had baskets full of trinkets and was wearing fancy sombreros while practicing their ball-and-cup or barrel-and-stick games. I attempted to learn some simple tunes on my bull’s horn and thoroughly aggravated several of my companions. We stopped at a couple shops on the way back and I picked up a little shot glass/paperweight in New Mexico with a landscape inside, drawn with colored sands.

At the end of the 9th grade we took achievement tests again, BEFORE school, at 5:30 am. It was insanity; I wasn’t even remotely awake. I didn’t do nearly as well as I had in the 6th grade, but was still above grade level. We also took IQ tests. Mine was off 50 points from my best, which I was never supposed to know, but always found out; it was on the side in the teacher’s grade book. Mine was 138! I was overjoyed! I wasn’t a genius; I wasn’t even Mensa material! It never did me any good to have a high IQ, anyway.

In the second semester, I assisted in the school library. I wasn’t actually IN the library, I was a “door guard” issuing passes for kids who had to come in early. I had a purple stamp, a list to check and a pile of passes in a shoebox. There wasn’t much to do in the hallway, it was quiet and pleasant but boring. One day the kid from the period before me started writing on the box. I responded, and so did someone else. I added an alias or two, as did whoever else had the box, and soon there were a dozen different aliases for 3 or 4 kids writing comments to each other. Part of the fun was trying to figure out who made what comment. We never met, and never knew for sure.

I wrote things sometimes with the purple stamp by blocking out letters I didn’t need. One day I stamped a huge pile of the passes “Denver Pubic Schools”. All the door guards used them, all week long. Nobody noticed that “PubLic” was missing an L. I continued stamping them “Pubic” for the rest of the year, and wrote it that way every time, even in my schoolwork. Nobody noticed. I was on the student council that year, and made up posters with Denver Pubic Schools written in big black letters. Nobody noticed. Just before school was out, I told a friend to look at one of the posters. He looked carefully, read it. “PUBLIC”. I told him to spell it. He spelled “P-U-B-L-I-C”! I guess we don’t notice the unexpected, if it’s mundane enough.


At school’s end we had a “continuation” ceremony, in which all the 9th graders from both the morning and afternoon packed into the auditorium to receive certificates rolled into scrolls and tied with blue ribbons (blue and white were the school colors, as far as we knew, though apparently they were “officially” blue and silver), and we were out of the old maroon-and-cream colored brickwork building with the bronze bust of the head of some guy out front. Nine-tenths of the class was going to high school in a similar building a few miles west of us named East High School; the remaining 150 would go to a newer school some miles south recently christened George Washington High. I spent that summer playing tennis or four-man baseball, and riding and repairing bikes. I’d wanted a scooter, but the law had recently changed and nobody under 16 could get any kind of license in Colorado, though in several nearby states you could drive cars at 14.

I finally, physically, confronted my father, late that summer. He’d come at me with the belt, like thousands of times before, but this time I was in the little study room at the back of the house; I lay back on the convertible bed and kicked at him any time he’d come near. He couldn’t whip me without getting kicked, and I wasn’t standing up. That was the last time he physically came at me, but his comments got much meaner. When I was younger he’d drink a few beers when he got home; later he’d drink a couple beers after work and a few more after dinner. By now he was drinking a six-pack before coming home and three or four more at the kitchen table. He was smoking a lot, too: he’d switched from unfiltered Camels to filtered menthol Newports, but he’d smoke two, three, four packs a day, and I’ve found the more people smoke the more cynical they become. My father became joyless, sarcastic, difficult after dinner and impossible for me to be around. At the barbershop and among friends he could be gracious and generous, with a great sense of the humorous and absurd, and at the barbershop we always got along. At home, with me, he was sullen, angry, insulting. I was singled out. I don’t know why.

My situation was not far different from many kids my age; it was certainly similar to that of my best friend Monk. He was now the oldest of seven; he had another baby brother. His father had been in the second world war, like mine, and was also brutal towards him, though not at all to me. I thought it normal for boys to be screamed at, bullied and whipped until they were big enough to fight back. There were plenty of us around. At 19 I worked for a fellow who bullied his kids. I told the oldest, who idolized me the way 12-year-olds idolize 19-year-olds who speak to them like people and not twerps, that for now he was getting punched and slapped around, but that soon he’d be bigger and stronger. His dad would be older and fatter, and he’d beat the crap out of him. He looked back at me with such gratitude that I knew I’d touched his soul. His whole life had changed.

This kind of parenting wasn’t unusual. A kid who’d done something wrong at school might be paddled by the teacher and/or principal, then whipped at home. It made for furious, resentful baby boomers and was much of the reason for the turmoil of the 1960s. To label these bullies “the Greatest Generation” turns my stomach.

In any case, I avoided being in the house when my father was home. I’d eat something after school and run out, usually to Monk’s house, not to return until 9:30 or 10, when I knew he’d be in bed.


Sometimes my parents were in a play together, and at fourteen I’d babysit my younger siblings. My parents kept a few bottles of various kinds of alcohol in the pantry, and one night I got into the wine, as teenagers will do. The taste of alcohol doesn’t appeal to younger kids; they wrinkle their noses and stick out their tongues. Sometime around puberty, though, tastes change. I tried a little sweet wine one night and–hmmm– it wasn’t bad. A few nights later, a little more. A couple nights later, a full glass and–whoa! What’s this? I felt a bit dizzy! I had another glass, a little more and a little more. Joey Bishop was exceptionally funny that night, and by the time the test pattern came on the television was waving and rolling, and I was too.  I stumbled to bed. It was a good thing there was a trash can beside my bed, because a little later I hurled, and hurled again. My parents came home late, and the next morning I told them I was sick, which was true. I took a couple aspirins and slept in. I stumbled out of bed later that afternoon. Nobody was the wiser.

It was lucky for me that an old friend of my father visited that weekend. Harry had real problems with alcohol, and was fated to die in his mid-40s of cirrhosis. We hadn’t seen him for awhile, but now he’d just gotten out of rehab and came to visit with his old friend. His wife and son had left him years before, though as Catholics they hadn’t divorced. He talked with us for some hours.It was a pleasant, sober visit.

A few days later, my father noticed that most of the wine was missing. Circumstances pointed to Harry, though he couldn’t figure out how or when Harry could have sneaked a drink. He and my mother discussed this for some time, but I said nothing. I skated through, and didn’t pick up a bottle of anything alcoholic for a couple more years.


My sisters had tricycles, and we brothers had bikes, lots of them. There was my superannuated 16” bike with the solid rubber wheels and a couple twenty-inchers, one with the banana seat just becoming popular. My youngest brother had an odd looking bike, adjustable from kid-size up to adult, with small wheels, a huge sprocket and a single low, straight brace between the front and rear wheels which left ambiguous whether it was for boys or girls. A couple of American full-size bikes in bad repair leaned against the fence alongside my father’s violet English three-speed, which he’d ridden to work a few times years before and hadn’t touched since. I had a blue 3-speed which I’d received shiny and new for my birthday that year, which had been stolen a month or two later. The police recovered the bike; it’d been boogered up, with a different seat and handlebars, and no fenders. I suspected a local ne’er-do-well named Melvin Mestas; he may or may not have been guilty, but eventually spent a lot of time in prison for various  crimes and, I heard eventually, went to prison for life, for murder.

I maintained them all. I liked repairing anything electrical or mechanical; I brought home old typewriters and fixed them, using wire, string, toothpicks and BBs. I tore apart and rewired old radios, fiddled with box cameras I picked up for 25¢ at the Goodwill. Bikes always had something loose or bent or out of adjustment. I’d tighten chains, fix flats and switch out a bent wheel for a sound one. I had one bike that had no fenders, a skinny wheel in front and a fat one in back. I’d ride it a lot in good weather; in bad weather or at night I’d ride a much heavier bike that had fenders, a book rack, headlight, taillight and all the fancy trim. I fixed them up for my five brothers and sisters, too. One day I looked around and calculated that I had enough spare parts to make a whole extra bike.

I took a  frame from an old 26” bicycle, removed the pedals and sprocket, put the front wheel from a 20” bike in the back, turned the front fork backwards and put a tricycle wheel with pedals on the front. I took the bicycle seat apart, flipped the seat support around and reattached the seat so that it rested on the frame a foot in front of its usual position. I scrounged around and found an old piece of pipe to use as handlebars. It was rideable, just barely. It was a good thing the pipe was a foot wider than standard handlebars, because furiously pedaling the tiny front wheel from an almost horizontal angle, rather than from the nearly vertical position of a tricycle, produced a huge amount of torque. This was compensated for by holding to the pipe for dear life, pulling it first one way then the other. Because the pipe was wide and the progress wobbly, it needed a wide berth when riding down the street. Since the pedals were directly connected to the front wheel, one also had to pedal full-time when underway. It was possible to coast downhill by resting one’s feet on the front fork, but that wasn’t easy to manage either, as the pedals flapped furiously and made it difficult to steer. As there were no brakes either, the only way to slow down was to plant one’s feet on the pavement to either side, which was also a problem for a somewhat subtle reason–the frame of the bike sat lower to the ground than a standard bike because of the smaller wheels, so the foot-to pavement angle to force it to a stop and still avoid the flailing front pedals was out of whack. Neither could one stand up to get the angle without the bike flipping out from underneath. The only way was to drag one’s toes way behind or plant one’s feet way off to the side. Neither was very effective. Fortunately, it was nearly impossible to build up a lot of speed anyway. The bike was as fun as all get-out, but wildly impractical. It would have worked well in a circus act.

My sister auditioned and was selected for a commercial that spring, and needed to ride a bicycle. At seven, she’d never ridden, so I taught her how. In one weekend.

I put Franny on the bike and ran beside her holding the seat. All day Saturday. All day Sunday. On Monday they commenced filming. Her dismount was awkward but charming; shown during the Miss Wool pageant, the commercial won a Clio, an international award!


I started high school in 1967, with only a handful of friends from Smiley. “Busing to achieve integration” was a political football and the student body was more diverse than ever, but it came at a price. Some students rode a bus for over two hours a day. There was a difference in the atmosphere, as well. George Washington had been mostly middle class and white, but in 1967 about a third of the students were bussed in. In three years at Smiley I saw fights breaking out several times a week. There’d be a commotion on one side of the playground, and I’d hang out on the other.  It nearly always involved two or three of the same fifteen or twenty kids; they’d be hauled into the assistant principal’s office, whacked on the butt with a board and suspended for a few days. Some of this same group was in the hundred-fifty or so who came from Smiley, and some were from other tough schools. These kids didn’t change their ways at the high school door, they again started fighting, some white, some black, some hispanic as always. Nothing new.

What a response, though! There were suddenly ”racial troubles” at George Washington! Editorials, opinions filled the paper, and letters to the editor! Committees were formed, church groups aroused, dialog forums organized, PTA meetings, god knows what-all!

I suppose integration accomplished a good deal, though nobody sang “Kumbayah” at day’s end. The black kids hung out in one corner, the Latinos another, the Jewish kids had an area, the Asians a corner, et cetera, but there was some intermingling. The kids from the air force base, and those of us from schools like Smiley, led the way. We had friends from all over.


A new class started that fall, and instead of 30 of us in the room with one teacher, there were 50+, with two teachers on a team. It was an interesting concept. I liked it. The course dealt with living in the future, and we talked a lot about what the world would be like in the 70s, the 80s, the 21st century. We took something called the Kuder Preference Test. I did NOT score high on rocket science, but among other professions it suggested  “tomato peeler”. As if!! Maybe standardized tests were–full of crap?

Computer programming was big. Big. The future held lots of computers, and programmers would be needed. Lots. We were going to learn. On field trips, we saw several types. All filled a room. Some used huge reels of punched paper tape, others four-inch-wide magnetic tape. Wells beside the pickup heads, with powerful fans beneath, assured several feet of slack so the tape wouldn’t bind. Some were rats’ nests of cables and jacks and vacuum tubes with blinking orange displays. Some rattled, some hummed, some flashed. The ones we’d most likely use sorted through giant stacks of punch cards, so we got punch cards and learned to program these marvels. Armed with razor blades, we attacked the 3×7” cards and laboriously hacked out rectangles to enter the letters of our names, addresses, dates of birth and so forth, then ran them through a little demo card reader, since we didn’t have a real computer. It took a long time, and in the end about half the cards didn’t work.

Most people, looking back on their school years, will claim that they’ve “never” used a particular skill–algebra, or French–but in fact they have, infrequently. I can state unequivocally, without reservation or the slightest doubt, that I have never, ever programmed, tried to program, watched anyone program or shown anyone how to program, a punch-card computer. In 1967, anyone at any desk, anywhere at any time, could reach over and grab a punch card, stuffed into an envelope or magazine, without leaving their chair. A few years later they were gone, gone, gone.


I’d signed up for Junior Achievement that fall, and my company was sponsored by Gates Rubber. At our first meeting our sponsors introduced the concept,  and a product we might like to make, a die-cut piece of carpet, from old carpet samples, that fit under the accelerator pedal of a car. Twenty or so of us brainstormed for a name. Car-Pet. Comfy Pad. When Ped-Pad hit me, out of the blue, we instantly became, by unanimous vote,  the Ped-Pad Company. We beat the bushes and sold stock–a dollar a share–and by the next week had a thriving business. We set up shop on Mondays and cut and package Ped-Pads in various colors and textures. For the rest of the week, we’d walk around town in the evenings knocking on doors.

It was a welcome relief to me to escape the house and my father’s drunken, judgmental ramblings. I didn’t make much–20¢ apiece, plus bonuses of $5 or so for sales incentives–but I loved doing it, and almost always made the bonus. I went to one neighborhood one night, another the next, usually alone, sometimes with a friend. One night I knocked on a door several miles from home and who answered but Pam Grismore, whom I knew from elementary school! She was most definitely not the tall horsey-faced girl in those horrible aluminum-framed glasses I’d known in 1963. Pam was a vision; the cutest, prettiest girl I could imagine! No glasses! I was taller than her! Her parents weren’t home, nor her brother, but I met her sister, whom I hadn’t known existed, a very sweet but mentally challenged girl a couple years younger than us. We had a long conversation about everything that had happened since elementary school, and I was enchanted by the truly gracious, beautiful, intelligent, thoughtful girl I hadn’t dreamed existed until that day. Her house was miles away from mine, and I couldn’t soon return, but some months later I dropped by.

She’d moved. I never found out where to, and never saw her again.

We were profitable, which was unusual for Junior Achievement, and had a few pizza parties to celebrate. I was growing fast. I’d usually eat more pizza than anyone else, and once ate more than the other three kids at the table combined. When first we moved to Spruce Street I could look straight into the freezer compartment of my little fridge; five years later I was looking into the shelf of the cupboard above it, over a foot higher. I went from 95 pounds to 160.

In the Ped-Pad company we gravitated into two teams. One of my colleagues was Dave Tiffany, one of the few guys I’d talk with outside of our Monday night meetings. He lived on the other side of town, but we talked on the phone and he played recordings of himself playing drums in a band. He was a senior, and some years older than me, but we were in business, not school. The social strictures didn’t apply. He was in ROTC, and though I didn’t believe in ROTC or Vietnam, it wasn’t that high on my list as yet. He moved back to California later that year. I was there the following summer, but couldn’t get in touch with him because he’d joined the Army. I knew that was his plan; it wasn’t a surprise. He did surprise me later, though–or at least his photo did. I was thumbing through the Memorial Day, 1969 issue of Life magazine, which featured “One Week’s Toll of the Dead in Vietnam”. There he was, or at least the bottom right half of his face was, obscured by a helmet. David L. Tiffany, Riverside, California. He was 19. Over 40 years later, I found his name on the Vietnam memorial in Washington, DC. I had to jump up to touch it.

I took the company seriously–after all, I named it–and went to every meeting and every function, save one. I couldn’t make it to an exhibition in the cafeteria at Gates Rubber, and missed out on a buttload of sales. Gates Rubber employees were happy to buy Ped-Pads on their lunch hour, and the four or five kids who manned the display made out like bandits. While the rest of us had sold 15 or 20 each  (I’d sold about 25), the kids who’d been at the cafeteria suddenly had 35 or 40 to their credit, or in one case 59. I was determined to get back in the game, went out every night and talked one of my younger friends into joining the company. I didn’t want to stay home anyway, and most of my friends were older, and into cars and nothing else.

The fellow who’d sold 59 never showed up again, I don’t know why, and after a few weeks there was only one serious contender for best salesman, a black kid we called “Snag”. Snag had sold forty or so by the time the cafeteria exhibition was over, and a few weeks later he’d doubled my sales. I resolved it wouldn’t happen again. Snag sold a few each week, but I’d sell more, and by year’s end he’d stagnated in the 90s, while I’d sold about 83. By the next-to-last week I’d almost caught him, and by the final week I’d sold 97–then bought three for myself. Snag had seen my sales rising, though, and in the final week made it up to 105.  I didn’t mind. At the closing ceremony we were both awarded “$100 sales” pins, and I got an additional pin for perfect Monday night attendance, which made me the only person to receive two pins. We were the most profitable of all of the two dozen companies, and returned $1.70 to each stockholder who’d invested a dollar. It was a wonderful experience, and I’ve been involved in sales ever since.

While at the celebratory luncheon I saw the fellow across from me surreptitiously sketching the girl at my side. I showed him how to draw the eyes (especially what NOT to draw), how to shade for contrast and soften details. It looked much better. I hadn’t drawn much, and hadn’t been encouraged to do so, but I’ve always figured anyone can do anything if they figure out how. Even the very young, very old or physically challenged can do almost anything, with enough patience, direction and persistence.

One of the important lessons in art and in life is that nothing is perfect. Imperfection is constant and inevitable, but attitude isn’t. There’s a thousand-year-old tradition in stained glass that any work is left imperfect, because perfection belongs only to God. I don’t think it’s God’s alone, I think perfection doesn’t exist, period, but the thought is a good one. Doing an acceptable job, let’s say it’s 90% perfect, takes half as long as one which is 99% perfect. Twice the time produces a 9% improvement. To get to 99.9%, double the time again. Some things are worth the extra effort, but most things aren’t. Some things aren’t even worth 50%. It’s important to know which 1%, or 10%, or 70%, to let slide. The foundation for a house must be square and level, the support beams plumb and the angles precise. The seams in the plasterboard can be filled with spackling. Some things can be covered up, some can’t.

The Unification of Everything

The future has always fascinated, but in the late ’60s its wonders seemed particularly close at hand. I was discovering science fiction. Sometimes I’d read a book a day, and soon had over 400 stacked up on and over the bookshelf in the corner. Robert Heinlein had a “future history” series. there was Ursula LeGuin, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke. One book, “The Long Result” by John Brunner, I found particularly intriguing. Earth is colonizing the galaxy and meets several species in the process. One in particular is exceptionally adaptable; they can breathe in several atmospheres and speak different languages, but seem not to have any colonial ambitions–until the last chapter, when it’s revealed they’ve been colonizing for millions of years, but haven’t revealed this to the humans–for their own protection.

It was a theme which resonated with me. I’d been reading Eastern philosophy, including Autobiography of a Yogi by Yogananda, when I was ten. I revisited it now, at fourteen. I’d do yoga, and investigate karma, prana, reincarnation and the like, but it wasn’t easy to find people to discuss it with in suburban east Denver, in 1967. Some would passionately attack all of it, for religious or cultural reasons; others were simply mystified. Most people, even if interested, knew nothing, and I’d be compelled to explain, rather than discuss. I liked teaching it all, but none of my acquaintances knew enough to offer a contrasting or insightful point of view.

One can’t truly match another’s beliefs, but mine weren’t even close. I’m still not inclined to “believe in” anything–I know it, or I don’t. If it ain’t so, my belief is irrelevant, but if what I know works, then it’s also irrelevant whether it’s “true”. My great-grandfather, an intelligent but uneducated man, heard one day that the earth was round. He went to the top of the mountain and saw for himself. It wasn’t, and that was that. The world he knew wasn’t round. For the long result, he spent his life in the valley, and it didn’t matter.

I also think much which passes for “proof” in science is speculation dressed up in fancy clothes. A “scientist” gets an idea, cobbles up an experiment or a survey which does or doesn’t support a theory, adds fudge factors to “achieve” the desired result, then states with a bigoted, pompous authority that this is so and that is not, denigrating anyone who believes in a different fudge factor.

The Hindu maintains that whirling bundles  of energy called “prana” are the life energy pervading all things–one can look in the sky and see the prana–but a “scientist” will state these whirling bundles are artefacts produced by the neurons firing in one’s brain, and that the Hindu is wrong, wrong, wrong. Maybe he is, maybe not. Neither is “proven”.

I don’t “believe in” reincarnation, as a soul migrating whole and undisturbed from one body into another, but energy exists in nature. Before I came to be, my life or spirit was in the water my mother drank, the air she breathed. After my death, plants and creatures are nourished by my body, and those who knew me are comforted by their memories, which is my spirit. In between, “my” energy is focused into a being–me. Before, and after, “me”, it’s dispersed in the earth, the sky, the animal, vegetable and mineral, and space. The television broadcasts with me in the peanut gallery, whisking into the next galaxy at light speed, are also “me”. Whether a spirit comes back, reincarnated into a repeat “me”, is irrelevant.

There’s a further distinction to be made in regards to the spirit. An infinite spirit exists in an infinite universe. An infinite universe can’t contain finite things; either everything is finite. or everything is infinite. If the universe were all finite grains of sand, then put it together and it’s a huge, finite sandpile. Add more sand and it’s bigger, but still finite. If the universe is infinite, each grain of sand is infinite, and the sandpile is infinite.

Same goes for time. Either time begins and ends, or it’s infinite. If time is infinite (and if it has a beginning and end, what came before and after?), then every month, day, minute and second is infinite.

And now–a drum roll would be appropriate–for the Unification of Everything.

If space and time are infinite, then there’s nothing “wrong” with any belief or creed–except insofar as they state that others are “wrong”. Given enough time–not hundreds of years, thousands, millions, quadrillions, or any measure but “enough”–absolutely everything happens. As to reincarnation, whether my “soul” migrates, my physical atoms are dispersed into millions of places. A certain amount becomes food for worms. Some melts into the earth to later become leaves and flowers. Bees take the nectar and pollen, producing fruits; some atoms end up in quartz crystals a mile underground, some fly into the atmosphere, are absorbed into clouds, ionize into lightning, transform into photons and travel to distant galaxies. From there, given enough time–quadrillions, quintillions of years, it doesn’t matter–all these atoms–yes, the same ones, all of them–will recombine in exactly the same way and I’ll be here again, doing exactly what I’m doing now. That’s the true nature of infinity. It doesn’t matter if “my” atoms are dispersed into the recesses of the earth or the black holes of distant galaxies; given enough time and random chance they’ll come back–all of them–to the same place, the same time. The clock on the wall will once again read 3:05 pm. If, a billion quadrillion years from now all the atoms come back except one; if my coffee is stronger, if there’s an extra speck of dirt under my thumbnail, if the clock reads 3:04, it hasn’t happened. Another hundred billion trillion billion trillion years will pass–but that doesn’t matter. Infinity doesn’t care.

So, life can be a retread, a hundred times, a thousand–but when it comes around again, it’ll be different. What I do at 3:06 is different whether it’s been done once, or never, or a hundred billion times. This is reincarnation, in an infinite universe. Be careful how you treat animals, vegetables, minerals, plants, planets. You are them, they are you. All things are alive. Minerals too–rocks and crystals grow and flourish and decay in a much longer time frame than humans, but what does that matter to infinity?

I became a vegetarian, to my mind, in the fall of 1967. I’d read Autobiography of a Yogi, again, and a book which had been assigned in class, Death Be Not Proud. I found the latter depressing and pointless. Depressing because the kid dies of cancer, but pointless because, of all the medical interventions he goes through, the single one which actually works–a raw food vegan diet, which shrinks his brain tumor–is abandoned, on the advice of his doctors. He eats meat, his tumor returns and kills him. I decided I wasn’t going to eat meat anymore, which wasn’t the lesson I was supposed to learn.

It wasn’t easy.  I ate cheese sandwiches in the cafeteria. I made peanut butter crackers after school, then ran out the door. I came home after dinnertime and claimed I wasn’t hungry, but one day my mother set down in front of me Fritos, salad, a glass of milk and chili–with meat.

I ate the Fritos. I finished the salad. I drank the milk. I said I was full. It didn’t work.

My mother had seen it coming. “Dave,” she announced with true concern, “I hope you’re not becoming a–vegetarian”.

She paused before that awful word. It was common knowledge that vegetarians soon withered away from pneumonia or pleurisy or plague. For a growing boy of 14, it probably meant a quick death. I had little choice. I knew, personally, not one vegetarian, and the only ones I knew of were, indeed, little withered men from India. I occasionally ate a bit of fish or chicken for the next couple of years to keep the peace. This also made it easier for me not to reveal my choice of diet and thus never discuss it, since every discussion was confrontational and pointless. I never ate red meat again, though–except once. I took a flight to New York three years later, not considering that dinner would be served on the plane. Curious, I ate a bite of meat. Big mistake. For the next week, I felt like grease oozed from my pores. I was heavy, fatigued, sick. I soon quit eating fish and fowl as well, and haven’t since.

A Surprise Visit

A friend from my old neighborhood appeared at our door. Paul was almost my age, and like me had turned vegetarian–sort of. Conventional wisdom claimed everyone needed meat, especially a growing boy. I ate a bit of fish and fowl, and he ate meat on Fridays (to show contempt for Catholic dogma). I’d actually grown plenty in junior high. One can be a vegetarian on Twinkies and Coke, but not me. I’d grown a foot.

Paul was not quite a year younger than me and had also been promoted, so he was a year behind me. He’d been the only other kid promoted in my elementary school; the practice pretty much vanished afterwards. Paul was another whiz kid, also shoehorned into classes he hated but, like me, very interested in scientific experimentation. When we’d moved across town, his family had moved to Boulder. I hadn’t seen him in a couple years, when he showed up one Thursday with a made-up story. We went to school on Friday and he hung around the playground, then spent the weekend before my mother ferreted out what had actually happened–he’d disappeared from school and hitchhiked down to Denver. His mother picked him up on Monday, and his parents put him in a military school, which didn’t change him much.

I discovered one day that if I had my hand on the handle of the fridge and touched the faucet I’d get a sustained and nasty shock, but if I was touching the sink first the shock would be small and momentary. I told everyone and of course they had to try it, it was fun and scientifically interesting. If you grabbed one and touched the other your muscles would contract automatically, you couldn’t help it. Paul wanted to try it, but he grabbed them both, and when the current contracted his muscles he couldn’t let go. He gave out a weird, strangled AAAAGGGGHHHH, shook violently for several seconds, then shot across the room as if propelled from a slingshot. He crashed into a pile of laundry, I helped him up and we had a strange, disjointed conversation, wandering the house and finally ending up on the landing outside. We’d been talking for about five minutes when he snapped his head around, looked at me and asked, “where are we?” He’d completely lost a half-hour, didn’t remember a thing.

One of the first things I did when I got a car a year and a half later was to drive up and see Paul. I got there on a day he’d rented a metal detector. He’d been exploring, had found a few pennies, a lot of bottlecaps and junk. I tried it. On his front sidewalk two steps away I found a 1910-S dime hiding in the grass. I tried to give it to him, the only valuable thing found all day, but he wouldn’t let me.


My father’s friend Ric had been in and out of our lives for years. He was an interesting character. He and my father had met in a summer-stock theatre company in Surrey, Maine a couple years after World War II, and Ric had persuaded Ned to visit Denver, his hometown. Ned then enrolled in the University of Denver. A foursome hung together–Ned, Ric, Chet and Harry. By the time we moved to Denver, all four were married. Chet married Leila, Harry married Marcy and had a son Dion about my age; Ric and Liz had a son Michael Sam and a daughter Lizzie. We camped out in the mountains together when we were small, and later Ric moved to Hollywood and found work as Ric Jury. He was a successful character actor in various sitcoms–McHale’s Navy, Andy Griffith–and made a lot of commercials, the best known being the original “bull” series for Schlitz Malt Liquor. A bull chased him through a china shop, he ran from one in a bull ring and in one commercial drove around town with a bull in his back seat. That bit of driving was broadcast for years and earned him a small residual check each time, eventually totaling around $20,000.

In the spring of 1968 Ric came back to Denver wearing love beads and an Eastern shirt, with longer hair and long, thin sideburns. He talked about Zen and Hindu beliefs, and contrasted them with Catholicism. Like many lapsed Catholics, he investigated other religions deeply and seriously, including a number of “societies” and “fellowships”. I was curious, and asked a lot of questions. When the time came for Ric and family to move back to Hollywood he suggested that I go along. The five of us crowded into his Land Cruiser, which he’d bought from the TV show Rat Patrol. It was tall, crude, noisy, a boxy Jeep-like vehicle recently repainted light green. We drove to Four Corners, put a foot in four states at once and continued to California, discussing meditation, self-realization, the nature of psychic power etc. I sat in the passenger seat while Liz rode in back with the kids and Michael Sam’s pet snake.

Ric said that given the proper frame of mind, concentration, and circumstance, one could control the weather. I neither believed nor disbelieved, but I’d never seen it. I’d read about it, he’d talked about it. I reserved judgement.

By the afternoon of the next day we’d reached the Death Valley region. It was cloudless and the sun was relentless, ruthless. Broiling hot. Frying-pan hot. The Land Cruiser had no air conditioning and not much to keep the engine heat out of the passenger compartment. We wore wet towels on our heads, which didn’t help much. It was exceptionally, excessively, brutally hot in our tin box, and it didn’t help to roll the windows down; the wind was a blast furnace. We rolled up the windows and sweltered. It was at this point, when the temperature in the car was 120º or more, that I remarked to Ric that if there were a time to control the weather, this was it. “I’ll see what I can do”, he said, and we drove on.

I hadn’t intended it as a challenge, but he took it. A couple minutes later, a few small clouds appeared on the horizon. A few more miles and we were under them. Inside of twenty minutes, it rained. On the car only, in a space no wider or longer than a football field. It followed us down the highway for fifteen or twenty miles, at 60 miles per hour. Some will be skeptical. They weren’t there.

It was late in the afternoon now, and we drove on into the sunset . We were a couple hundred miles from Los Angeles, but already in the city.

Sunsets over the Pacific are like sunsets nowhere else. The endless unbroken miles of ocean water split the sun’s rays into every color of the rainbow, and the horizon ranges from deep red, through orange, yellow, a small band of light green, blue, finally deep indigo and violet, as the sky fades into night, the colors punctuated by cumulus and cirrus and stratonimbus clouds in pink and orange. There was an additional element to the sky that summer, something I’d never seen. In the center, a huge, brownish-orange cloud. I didn’t know what it could be. It was much too large to be from a missile test, and a different color from a distant forest fire.

It was smog.

As we drove the road widened, the traffic thickened. I’d been in city traffic, but this was different. Well past rush hour, cars and more cars. They filled six lanes, then eight, on the “freeway”–a new word I’d heard, but never understood. At nine at night.

We arrived in Hollywood around 10 pm. The city was still alive, with 24-hour supermarkets and family restaurants. I’d seen 24-hour gas stations, but this was different! Even the television stations stayed on all night.

The sky was aglow with the lights from businesses a block away–but almost no stars. In a cloudless sky, the moon–and not much else. On the steps of the  Colorado State Capitol one could see a hundred miles; on a clear day sometimes three hundred. In Hollywood the nearby mountains were light blue and indistinct; anything over ten miles away was invisible.

Ric’s house in Hollywood was nearly identical to his house in Denver. He’d thought a contractor from Denver had moved to Hollywood in the 1920s, but later I found they were probably built from a Sears & Roebuck kit.

It was the middle of the presidential campaign. Nixon vs. Humphrey vs. McCarthy vs. Wallace. Humphrey was winning delegates. I preferred him to Nixon, but not enthusiastically. I couldn’t vote anyway. There was Vietnam in the air, race riots, lots of depressing stuff. Even though there were more TV stations than I’d ever seen, running all night long, I didn’t care to watch much, but did vividly recall commercials for Ralph Williams Ford in Encino, California. A crass, loudmouthed bald guy. He sold a lot of cars.


Ric had interesting visitors and a weekly class in Zen Buddhism, which he taught from his living room while nursing glasses of Dr. Pepper spiked with vodka. Among the students were several recognizable actors and mid-level celebrities. Geoffrey Deuel was often there; he starred as Billy the Kid in John Wayne’s movie Chisum and his brother Pete was in the TV shows “Love on a Rooftop” and later “Alias Smith and Jones”. Ric’s classes weren’t limited to Zen alone, they were all over the map. He was widely read and familiar with every religion I’d ever heard of, every Eastern philosopher and religious leader, every Western disciple. He knew about Krishnamurti, Yogananda, Blavatsky, Gurdjieff, Sartre, Freud and Vitvan. He knew about Margaret Mead, Aimee Semple McPherson, Sri Aurobindo, Gandhi. He knew the Kaballah, the Apocrypha, the Bhagavad Gita, the Koran. He knew the formula for Holy Water and made bathtubs of it (of course he had to bless it himself, but that seemed a minor detail). He’d been raised Catholic and had taken religion very seriously when young.

Catholicism is absolutely certain that there’s one right answer to any question, already written down, tabulated, solved. I never understood this until I worked with a fellow who showed me his catechism books. Textbook answers to every moral dilemma, remedies for every sin. An exact punishment and penance. Three Hail Marys, absolution granted, go live your life. The Catholic universe has a precise structure. It’s like tin cans stacked in a pyramid, an inverse pyramid below. In a spotless, shining, glossy white tin can on top sits God. The second layer of three satin-finish white cans contain Jesus, Mary and the Pope. These are supported by several layers of cardinals, saints, priests and what not in cans of eggshell, cream, beige, and at the base of the pyramid a vast layer of cans in battleship grey, souls lost in purgatory or limbo or simply clueless. Under this level are more. A mirror-image of the pyramid in grey, taupe, charcoal, holds third grade teachers, cable guys, politicians, and mafiosi on down to Hitler and Stalin and Shaka. Underneath all, in a boiling, bubbling, sooty can spewing sulfur and smoke, is Satan. Between the top and the bottom levels are escalators, elevators, stone staircases and rope ladders. To navigate up, down and around there’s a system of tokens using scapulae, crucifixes, relics, rosaries, etc. There are gates and portcullises manned by demons and angels, each with a list. If denied passage, one performs a prescribed action, is awarded a saint’s fingerbone or a chunk of True Cross and passes through. The ritual solves everything; no pondering, reflecting, wondering necessary.

It’s easy to tell Catholics or former Catholics who are investigating religious philosophies; they ask all the questions. For Catholics, the priests have the answers. There are things taken on faith, but no question can’t be answered. Perplexed, lapsed Catholics can become very deep thinkers.

Ric was such a person. He’d been to the Pacific in the second World War and came back with his religious beliefs in tatters. He was married, but it didn’t last, and as a divorced person he was not only inclined but compelled to leave the church. He spent several years investigating mysticism, and by the mid-1960s could explain the difference between the Zen buddhist satori, Hindu samadhi and the self-realization of the Self-Realization Fellowship, as indistinct to me as beige vs. ecru. Different means, same truth. Satori is sudden and often violent, samadhi more gradual, self-realization either, or both. In all cases, one still lives one’s life. Only attitude and perspective change. The answer has been found, from within, and there’s no more searching.

Ric often told a Zen tale. A monk followed his master; a good, obedient monk. His master treated him terribly. The monk asked the meaning of life and his master would whack him with a stick, say he wasn’t ready and make him fetch slippers, fix tea, massage hthe master’s feet. He slept on the floor next to the master’s comfy bed. After years of harsh treatment the monk finally, finally snaps. He calls the master a stupid old man who has nothing to teach him. He won’t serve him anymore, fetch him slippers, fix him tea–and the master bursts out laughing and says this was the lesson he’d been trying to teach! The disciple couldn’t find an answer, because he was looking outside, for an answer which came from within.

This is the secret. It takes many forms, but it’s the same. If one is self-realized, has found samadhi, satori, sees God, feels Jesus, talks to Buddha or casts out demons, one has found something within. Once this is understood, one can use one’s abilities, whatever they are. What’s possible becomes achievable–by the self. If Edison or Einstein or Jesus did it, so can anyone. It doesn’t make it easy, but it’s possible. There’s no such thing as “he can do it, but I can’t”. One can say “he can do it. I could too, but I don’t want to”, for whatever reason–it’s too much trouble, tiring, silly or one doesn’t feel like dying yet. No excuse is necessary. One does something, or doesn’t.

Ritual also doesn’t matter. The Catholic church makes and eats Jesus. Why? If transubstantiation is genuine, a miracle–why? One still has to eat real food, drink, sleep, find shelter, live, die, pee, and so did Jesus. The same was happening millions of years before man walked the earth and will be millions of years after the Catholic church joins Ra the Sun God in the shadows.

Many Catholic characteristics also apply to Judaism, which is why so many Jews marry Catholics. Jews don’t have a pope, so they’re not certain about simple, final answers, but they both have plenty of questions, and both groups see themselves as the Chosen Ones. This leads to persecution–undeserved sometimes, certainly, but to be expected when one group claims superiority and separates itself from another. As with any such claim, it works until it doesn’t. The Egyptians run things, then the Romans, then the British; the Aztecs are conquered by the Spanish; the Broncos win the Super Bowl and the Cubs the World Series.

So Ric had studied it all, new and old. He taught his classes and I learned a lot I didn’t know before. Some of it was simple attitude adjustment; Ric never liked anyone using reverent tones towards “the masters”; they were people, and they farted and burped and peed like anyone else. He appreciated their teachings and mispronounced their names.

This applied to all “masters”. Ric had an original Picasso on his wall, a scribble entitled “A Cucumber Unaccountably Cucumbering”. It was a lumpy curved line with another lumpy curved line growing out of it, and neither Ric nor certainly Picasso placed a great value on it. Picasso’s habit was to offer such “artworks” in payment for coffee and a bagel. It was insured for thousands, but Ric couldn’t sell it because it was a “minor work”, of which there were thousands–it took Picasso as long to sign his name as to scribble it. Besides, Picasso was alive and showed no signs of dying, so anyone who wanted an original Picasso could go to Picasso. Ric hung it in the bathroom. It somehow got knocked into the toilet, and the insurance company paid the loss.

After a few weeks in Hollywood, Ric and Liz packed up their things for a move to Walnut Creek, outside San Francisco. I took a plane from LA–my first plane ride. It was a California-only airline, and the ride felt like a ball bounce on the sidewalk; up and then down. We spent a few days in Walnut Creek and one afternoon explored the hippie neighborhoods of San Francisco, then it was time for me to go. I took a much longer plane ride across the Rocky Mountains to Stapleton Field and was home in Denver.

Eventful Years

It was the sixties. As in many cities, Denver had riots. My father bought a shotgun and stayed in the barber shop watching TV, but nothing happened in our sleepy, suburban, half-Jewish neighborhood. My mother, especially, was involved in local and national politics. Hubert Humphrey came through town, and we met him at the airport. He was shaking hands, and I stuck mine nearly in his face when he almost passed me by. He shook it, said a couple words. He seemed a harried, bald, red-faced fellow, shaking hands with a fifteen-year-old kid because it was his job. but more interested in finding a hotel, taking a dump and relaxing in a nice comfy chair. I didn’t think his heart was in it. He looked sunburned and worn out. I didn’t like that Nixon won, but I don’t think it was bad for Humphrey. Based on my three seconds of interaction with the man, I think he’d have been competent, earnest and dedicated, but frumpy and above all fatigued.

I met other political figures. My mother was a precinct committeewoman and sometime delegate to the state convention. Democrats caucused in our house. A fellow named Gary often came by; he later became a senator and presidential contender, but lost it all when he was photographed with a girl named Donna Rice on a boat named Monkey Business. Richard Lamm, later the governor, also visited, and Tom Currigan, the mayor. One of my best friends in high school was Steve McNichols, namesake of the governor and son of Denver’s longtime mayor Bill McNichols.

I was busy as well. In the second semester of my junior year, on the first day of my first class, I struck up a conversation with the girl sitting in front of me. I saw Wendy all the rest of that day; we shared seven of our eight classes. On the same day, in the class we didn’t share, she met Monk’s sister, and they became best friends. Carole was a few months older than me, but a sophomore. I didn’t have any luck with Wendy, but she met Carole’s younger brother, and soon they moved in together, when Wendy was seventeen and he, fourteen. Three years later, they married.

Most of my friends had driver’s licenses by now, and cars so dominated their lives that we had little in common. Every conversation involved carburetors, camshafts, timing, how fast Monk’s or Bill’s or Tom’s car was, how many gears they could lay rubber in. I found a new circle of friends. We had a foursome at lunch–Steve McNichols, a tall black kid named Shelton, a red-haired kid named Rick, and me. Steve and I had been to southern California. We’d seen the commercials for Ralph Williams Ford, in Encino, and he appreciated my loud, crass Ralph Williams imitation but the rest of our friends scratched their heads, mystified. He wrote scripts for me to read at lunchtime and the two of us would laugh uproariously at our commercials for Fred Ferd Ford. Steve added characters and I added voices– Sam Sly, choking through news from the chemical plant, Henry House broadcasting the weather while a tornado hit the studio and what-not, until they were 20 or 30 minute sketches which filled our lunch break. It was fun for us and, sometimes, for our friends–

Steve sent a batch of these scripts to Laugh-In, and two weeks later they featured the Farkle Family, a clear and obvious rip-off of Fred Ferd which was never acknowledged. I have no sympathy when entertainment companies complain about “piracy”. They steal whatever they can.

I spent lots of time at Steve’s. He was only six months older, and also couldn’t drive: most of our friends had no time anymore for a couple kids on bicycles. His house was near the barber shop. During the week I’d drop by for a couple hours, then sweep up the shop and catch a ride home. I’d go straight to the shop on Fridays, because Fridays and Saturdays were far and away the best days to make money shining shoes.

My father and I never fought at work; it was pleasant with the other barbers there and something of a politics-free zone, or more precisely a politics-all-over-the-map zone. Barbers agree with the guy in the chair, and only make humorous remarks. Candidate A’s overalls were the cleanest at the fair, and candidate B should get a better haircut. The customer laughs, the discussion moves to baseball, and everyone talks about who’s gonna win the pennant.


All the barbers had interesting stories. When my father bought the shop, he took over the first chair. The second belonged to a quiet fellow named Joe Maldonado. Joe was Hispanic, but his family had lived in the area before it was Colorado, before it was Texas, before it was Mexico, before the Spaniards rode in. He and his six kids spoke Spanish at home, the same language their Colorado-born ancestors had spoken for three centuries. His father was a miner in Walsenburg, and there’d been some labor troubles. One day someone walked into the bar where Joe’s father was minding his own business and shot him dead. Mistaken identity. Joe’s mother, brothers and sisters all moved to Denver and Joe got a barber’s license to support them all. For twenty years he drove to work, reliably and conscientiously, but one morning we got a call. Joe was in jail. He’d been stopped by the cops, and didn’t have a driver’s license. Never had.

Joe wouldn’t bet against the Broncos. Denver’s football team was never good–for about fifteen years it held the worst team record in any major-league sport–but Joe always bet on them. He’d bet the point spread, but they’d usually lose by even more. Due to Joe’s influence, I didn’t bet against the Broncos either—but I just didn’t bet on them at all. Many years later, the Broncos went to the Super Bowl. For the first time, I bet a dollar–and lost. Nine years later, they went again. I bet again. They lost again, by more points. Twice more they lost, each time by even more points. 1990 produced the worst loss in Super Bowl history–49ers 55, Denver 10. Four dollars, gone.

Eight years later, the Broncos again went to the Super Bowl. They took the field in their new navy-blue and bright-orange uniforms–technically they were the “visiting” team, but they’d never lost in their new “home” uniforms. Green Bay was heavily favored; the NFC hadn’t lost in 13 years. I wanted to bet a dollar again, but my friend wanted to go five, so I did. Martina Navratilova predicted a 31-24 win, and the Broncos produced it. I won that five-dollar bet, and became the only guy in history, that I knew of, to win money betting on the Broncos. They won the Super Bowl the next year, too. For the first time in my life, I had trouble finding anyone to bet against the Broncos.

Joe didn’t see it. He’d had heart surgery a couple years before, and died on the operating table.

For awhile, the barber in the third chair was Felix Garcia. He had a son, Little Felix, who absolutely loved the Frito Bandito, but there was such a fuss the commercials were taken off the air, and Little Felix was heartbroken. In the last chair was a grumpy old bachelor named Roland, who only came in on Fridays and Saturdays and after a year retired. Felix decided to go back to school, and only come in afternoons and Saturdays. This left an open chair. My father interviewed several barbers, finally deciding to take the next guy no matter what.

Harvey had recently been released from prison. He had a bullet wound through one elbow and several old scars from knife fights, but was now in his mid-30s and trying to turn his life around. The afternoon after my father hired Harvey, another fellow showed up who’d have been perfect, but he’d already promised Harvey, who took the 3rd chair while Felix moved to the 4th.

Harvey had lots of stories, and some strange friends. He knew many talented, unbalanced people. Prisoners have lots of time on their hands, and some are quite creative. One of his prison buddies made pictures with a typewriter–landscapes, portraits, a Mona Lisa–that were exceptionally well done, and if you looked closely you’d see strikeovers of letters, commas, dashes, numbers and symbols, shaded into beautiful scenes in black, white, grey and sometimes red or pink.

Another of his buddies paid anyone a premium to buy him bottles of cough syrup. He was a codeine fiend. The pharmacies knew him, and wouldn’t let him buy. A new law passed making codeine a prescription drug, and that same evening someone broke into a drug store. A cop saw a station wagon with several cases of cough syrup in the back, and Harvey’s pal was arrested.

Harvey taught me card games; we’d play spades or hearts in the afternoons or, especially, gin rummy. Gin rummy is a gambling game, but no money sits on the table. We’d play for a half-penny a point and settle at closing time. After closing we’d lock the front door, and on Friday or Saturday get a couple six-packs and play poker. I was good at poker and usually made more money playing cards at night than I’d made shining shoes in the day. When my father had finished a six-pack we’d lock things up, he’d buy another and head home. He never drank more than a six-pack at the shop, but he’d usually finish off six while the other barbers had two. After awhile a few favored friends would come by for poker. One night my father entrusted Ric with the key. Harvey thought Ric had cheated, went for a razor and my father’s 500-pound friend Jack sat on Harvey’s leg. Harvey had a cast for the next few months and my father never gave the key out again.

We had a weekly baseball pool, too. Usually we’d put a dollar on a number from one to ten, and whoever had the combined score–a 3-2 game equaled 5–won the $10. Sometimes it’d be a hundred dollar pool, with a more elaborate payout formula, and one year for the World Series we had a thousand dollar pool. My father didn’t want a thousand dollars lying around the shop over the weekend, and brought it home in a cigar box. An hour later our little neighbor the Ortiz girl knocked on the door and gave our father a $20 bill. My father looked out the side window and saw money flying all over the yard. My youngest sister had found the stash and and brought it to the picnic table, where she and her friends had played “store”, then abandoned the game. Everyone chased after the money, and we recovered all but about $40.

I did well in that pool. A blank grid of 100 spaces was filled in, then the teams and scores were chosen out of a hat. My space represented a 4-1 win by the Tigers, which happened twice; they won the sixth game 4-1 and the seventh 13-1, which by the rules of the pool was also 4-1. I didn’t win the big, final pot, but I won the smaller pot twice.

That summer I rode my bike, played tennis with Steve and read comics in the treehouse, but come fall I was miserable. School wasn’t going well; I was still younger than the majority of the students. Athletic success was out of the question, and so was romance; even if there’d been girls my age in my classes, which there weren’t, I had no confidence. Still, I tried to become popular. I read books–notably “How To Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie–and went about trying to make friends in a planned, methodical way. It helped at school, but not at home, where my father still spewed venom. I didn’t become most popular, but did make more friends.


That summer, I decided I to become ambidextrous. I’d noticed that my left hand was larger, my left eye was better and heard better with my left ear. I’d seen friends break their arms, and struggle for months. Griff broke his right arm when he was eight, and he same had happened to others. They were danged near helpless. I resolved to do everything, with either hand or foot. For the next several months I practiced writing, kicking, throwing, even tying shoelaces with my left hand, and putting my left thumb on top when I interlaced my fingers.  I didn’t feel exceptionally capable with my right hand anyway–my penmanship had always been poor–and my left-side coordination was worse than most. A girl I knew who was left-handed could write her name quite legibly with either hand, and I wanted to do the same. I took to writing everything with my left hand. It wasn’t very legible, but was only marginally worse than with my right, and it got better.

I found a teacher I really liked that year. Judy Lopata was young, pretty and sexy, and almost exactly nine years older than I–her birthday was June 6, 1944, now known as D-Day. She said she couldn’t read my writing, so I came in after school and read to her, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It was my one really bright spot in high school, ever. She’d talk with me about her high-school years, which weren’t so long ago, and I’d tell her about my trips to Mexico and California and the philosophies I’d become interested in. For the first time, I felt a teacher, a beautiful female, was genuinely interested in ME, not the rocket scientist I could be molded into.

I also found her interesting in her own right. Her class dealt with how people lived now, not through history or in theories from books. We read a novel which had just come out, “In Cold Blood”, as part of the curriculum, and she passed out her own mimeographed story of a long weekend she’d tried living like a bum on Denver’s skid row, called “Live-in on Larimer Street”.

It was well-written. Some professional people had taken a seminar, then reported to the soup kitchen in scruffy clothes, day-old beards, no makeup; they’d been given a work history as unskilled laborers and were told to find work. For three days they were waitresses or janitors, reporting to the mission at night. Her conversations with the men and women she met were really touching. It was only 3 days, and then she was back to being a professional, but I started thinking, after I’d read it, about life after school–and not in the way one might expect. A life of meaningless drudge work sounded appealing, to me. It was a choice I could actually make for myself. Instead of being a scientist straitjacketed into a lab coat, reviewing calculations on a clipboard, I could push a broom and sleep on a cot! I didn’t need to do what all the teachers and “counselors” and parents of the world told me I should do, I could be a bum!

I didn’t care about school anymore. I wanted creative writing and woodworking, not composition and algebra. I’d never been big enough in gym, I’d been “counseled” out of shop. My little brother regularly chased me away from the piano. One of our little friends had died a couple of years before, and death had started to look good to me. Then, suddenly, there was being a bum! I was liberated!

I didn’t know much about the bum lifestyle; it wasn’t taught in school. My family had always lived in cozy neighborhoods toward the edge of town, and I didn’t know a lot of street kids or downtown toughs. There were rough kids at school, but they’d hang out on the other side of the playground.  I’d read plenty of books, though. As a career, intergalactic space pilot was probably out, and anything involving college looked like misery and pain–but then there was picking apples.

I’d been flailing since I was two, not living up to expectations. Since my potential had long ago escaped gravity, it mattered not that I’d been above average in most things while everyone around me was bigger, stronger, older and more mature; I hadn’t grown feathers on my arms and flown. I’d half-heartedly gone along with the universal assessment of my future, and had a hazy notion that I’d grow up to wear pocket protectors and give incomprehensible speeches to men in gray suits and military uniforms; they’d sit and scratch their heads. The prospect was drab, horrid. I wanted ANYTHING else. Drive a truck. Peel tomatoes. Sell balloons. I liked painting, and thought I’d done well in art until one day I saw one of my creations being painted over so the teacher could re-use the masonite. It completely crushed me. I’d thought it was pretty good. A fellow in false color straddling a chair, seen from an ant’s eye view; purple with a bright orange sky. Two days later I saw a kid painting thick white paint over it with a broad brush. The teacher had picked out two or three and, without telling us, banished the rest. Walking home that day I found a secluded pine tree, sat under the boughs and sobbed, for a long time.

Sociology was an “A”, but my grades were going down. I got lots of Cs and Ds; occasionally Fs. I flunked Spanish, which had suddenly turned from conversations into long tables of grammar. I often slept through Algebra, where I came in exhausted after gym class, especially after swimming, at which I was never very good. The gym teacher invented a category for me. He’d set up four levels–A,B,C and non-swimmer. I could swim, but only half as fast as the Cs, so he made me a level D.

My home life was thoroughly depressing. I’d run in, grab something to eat and run out. If I came to supper, it was hopeless; he was drunk, ugly and mean, and nothing I could do or say wouldn’t provoke him. He was buying cheap beer now, drinking a six-pack before coming homeand another afterwards. He’d sit at the kitchen table, smoke cigarette after cigarette, pontificate for hours, analyze whoever was at the table, berate them, discuss their psychological problems and, especially, failings. Around 9:30 he’d eat something and go to bed; if I stayed away late enough I didn’t have to deal with it.

Times change, and perceptions change, and in the reckoning of the time my father wasn’t a “drunk”. He drank, but wouldn’t exceed the 0.15 drunk driving standard of the time, and drank nothing but beer, except occasionally on weekends. Neither was he violent, anymore. He was, however, ugly and mean. Snide. Derogatory. Malevolent–but calm.

He loved to discuss psychology; as an actor, it helped him understand character and motivation, but he could be exceptionally cruel. He’d light into a blameless waitress, telling her it must be terrible to live life as such an ugly woman, and keep it up through the meal,  just to see her react.

I couldn’t pass through the kitchen without being roped into a long discussion of my motivations, or more precisely my lack thereof. I’d try to be reasonable, agreeable, pleasant. He’d pick at my desires, dreams, opinions, aspirations, wearing me down. Eventually I’d explode, which gave him a big kick. He’d smirk and leave, as if by tearing me down, he’d saved the planet.

My own analysis of him, far more competent than his analysis of me, is that as the baby of the family by many years he was accustomed to attention, but felt inadequate. His father was a rough man, his brothers much older., and they fought with the old man regularly. Little Neddy couldn’t fight, but he attracted attention from his sisters, who were in their teens when he was small. They were well-educated when he wasn’t. He was very much a hillbilly, and as such regularly ridiculed in the cartoons of the day.

His exaggerated feeling of inadequacy produced a jealousy in him, and a need to disparage the achievements and desires of others, particularly his eldest son. Thus, when I’d accomplish something his reaction was to tear it down, to tear ME down. He wanted to be superior, but if he tried to beat me I was big enough to fight back, so he wrecked what he could. He pulled my strings, pulled again, pulled some more, yanked at them until he proved HE was the puppet master. It was infantile and disgusting. Pointless. Sick.


In October of 1968 I bought a $25 car, a two-tone 1956 Pontiac. My father’s friend needed money, so I bought his car. Had I been in driver’s ed I could’ve had a permit at 15 years and 6 months, but the class was full. I got one at 15 years and 9 months, instead. The Pontiac sat for six months and on the first rainy day of spring I passed my permit test, but my father never let me drive my own car, making excuses and finding me another car, a 1962 Falcon station wagon. I bought it for $175 from Barry, the guy who owned the Jewish deli near the barbershop. Barry also owned a 3.2 beer joint named the Skunk Kreek Inn. The car had a skunk on a barstool painted on the driver’s door. It had problems; I had to replace the transmission with a rebuilt one, but third gear didn’t work in THAT one either. We took it back to the tranny shop, they took off the top plate and there was a fork out of place. They wrote “Mike’s Mistake” on it in big red letters and gave us another. I drove the Falcon until my 16th birthday. Time for my driver’s test. I was itching for my license. I was ready to drive my Falcon to the DMV, but my father made me drive the family station wagon, a much larger car I was less familiar with but which had an automatic transmission.

It doesn’t rain often in Colorado, and hadn’t rained since the day I received my permit, but just as I pulled upfor the test it started to pour. My father rolled up all the windows, though I pleaded with him not to, and while I was driving the car fogged up completely.

It was hopeless. I couldn’t see to the sides or behind, and not much in front. I parked six feet from the curb. I wandered all over the road. I stopped for a green light. I flunked.

Two weeks later, I tried again. I insisted on driving my Falcon. As I pulled up for the test, it started raining, again; the first time since my first test. My father rolled up the windows, again. I pleaded for him to stop, again. The car fogged up, again. We argued in front of the inspector. I got out of the car, rolled the windows down, again, and took the test, again, in the rain, again. I passed! I had my license!

I got my first “real job” a week later. I’d read the paper by the entrance to the huge tent where actors and actresses changed costumes for Shakespeare in the Park, and keep out strangers. A summer job, it lasted three months. Six weeks into it, Apollo 11 landed on the moon!

It was hard for me to believe that ANYONE wouldn’t stay home to watch the moon landing, but there was a fair crowd that night. Someone had stuck a portable TV into a tree backstage, and I snuck away from the tent for a couple minutes at a time to watch the astronauts.

That’s how I saw a lot of history being made. Someone would bring a rinky-dink TV to a place where dozens or hundreds would watch the inauguration, space shot, assassination, moon landing on a tiny black-and-white screen ten, twenty, thirty feet away.

In 1969, Denver was a fair sized city; the metro area approached a million people, but most still thought it a cultural backwater, a cowtown. It was the capital as well as being the largest city around, not only in Colorado but in all seven bordering states, the largest city within a thousand miles–but still a hick town, a hinterland. Denver’s only major-league team, the Broncos, languished at the bottom of the low-class American Football League and had been there for many years. While this had its effect on the municipal mood, it was far from the only cause.

To the west, the Rocky Mountains were a formidable barrier before Interstate 70 punched through. The half-a-dozen passes through the mountains were snowed shut for six months a year; even open they were twisty, terrifying two-lane roads bereft of guardrails. One tight corner had a pile of twisted cars at the bottom, half shiny, half rusty, half a mile down. Anyone who’d gone off the edge was clearly dead, and to even run a cable down and pull out the wrecks would be dangerous. To the north and south were few travelers, as Wyoming and New Mexico were sparsely populated, and for those driving east or west it was necessary from November to May to bypass Colorado altogether. Celebrities and newsmakers from Hollywood or New York were far more likely to pass through Kansas City or Albuquerque than Denver, so fashionable trends usually appeared there three three to five years late. Denver had once been a happening place, but by the 1960s the action had moved to California, and “the sixties” didn’t really hit Denver until the seventies.

I had a few hippie accoutrements–wire-rimmed “granny” glasses (the new, photosensitive kind, perpetually grey), a couple pairs of pants which would accommodate a wide belt, a colorful shirt or two. I went to war protests, but they were small things, presented in the local conservative press as even smaller; their long, wide-angle lenses showed vast expanses of grass surrounding a clump of tiny people in the distance, obscured by trees and waving postage-stamp signs and estimated at two or three hundred people when the actual numbers were closer to a thousand. Denver had a strong military presence and no desire to stir the pot. Nevertheless, the times were a-changin’.

Sixteen is Sweet?

Sixteen wasn’t sweet. I was STILL the youngest kid in class, and for some reason wasn’t catching up! I was desperately unhappy in the fall of 1969; the only bright spot was that this was my last year of school. I was certain. No matter what. If I didn’t graduate, I was dropping out. Adults glanced at my achievement scores, not at me, and saw a shining star. They’d always planned for me to go straight to college, where I’d graduate at  graduate at 18 or 19. I felt otherwise.

I was too petrified to talk to girls even when I knew sthey liked me, and there weren’t many who did, though they liked my younger brothers. My car wasn’t cool or even reliable, which wasn’t its fault. I didn’t know anything about cars. I’d start it in the winter and leave the hand choke pulled out, not realizing I had to push it back in. I was late to first-period English a dozen times; showed up dirty and smelled of gasoline. Half a dozen times I missed it entirely.

I was definitely flunking English. My first two reports were “D” and “F” due to tardies and absences, and my final grade was sure to be an “F”.

I have to hand it to Mrs. McGregor. She gave me a break, all because of one report.

We’d studied English literature, and each row of our class had been assigned a report based on some aspect of English life in the sixteenth century. One row did politics, one home life, etc. My row did art, a subject I loved. I was the very last in the class to give my report–but I’d come prepared.

Among the hundreds of books, encyclopedias, etc. that my parents had collected was a series called “Metropolitan Seminars in Art”. It was arranged somewhat chronologically by country, and I picked out several examples of art in England, in not only the sixteenth century but centuries before and after, and examples from other countries and times. I explained how the concept of perspective had developed from the tenth century on, then went to principles of composition, how the central focus of the picture was usually constructed from a series of convergent triangles with an angel, saint or other item of interest at the apex. I explained how the representation of faces and bodies improved through the study of anatomy, and explained diffusion of light and the use of shadows. To top it off I pulled out a group portrait, done in Italy in the eighteenth century. The contrast was striking and by now obvious to everyone. The pictures were passed around, and I answered a butt-load of questions. I talked for the whole period, and would have gone longer had the bell not rung. Mrs. McGregor gazed at me, absolutely awestruck. I’d been her personal pain in the ass the whole semester; now she gave me an A+ on the report and a C for my final grade, which I most certainly didn’t deserve.


I’d sworn off alcohol after my encounter with sweet red wine at fourteen, but at sixteen I was again interested. Oddly, it was easier for me to get liquor than beer. The law in Colorado permitted 3.2% beer for 18-year-olds, which could be sold in the grocery store, but anything stronger had to be sold in a liquor store. I didn’t look anywhere near 18, but if we wanted a drink my friends and I could find a bum to buy it for us. If we went to that much trouble, we didn’t just want beer, we bought cheap whiskey, or sloe gin. We’d drive to Picadilly Road, a dirt road outside town, and whoever seemed the most sober would drive back. We always made it, though sometimes we’d have to change a tire or push the car out of a ditch.

There was another option. Brewing beer was completely illegal in 1969, but malt syrup with hops was freely sold in stores, as were 5 lb. bags of sugar. My first attempt wasn’t malt syrup. I’d read a book that said “bathtub gin” was sugar, yeast, water, and nothing else. I filled a large coke bottle with sugar water. The recipe suggested introducing the sugar water to its “friend” the yeast on a piece of toast. I used a toasted chunk of onion roll, sprinkled yeast on it, shoved it in the bottle, stretched a balloon over the top. The balloon filled up way too fast, so I put a small pinprick towards the bottom of the neck, which let the pressure out gradually. It worked well.

A few days later I had a bottle of some of the nastiest crap I’d ever tasted. The onion in the roll had taken over and transmogrified a concoction which could have been tolerable into rank putridity. I drank it anyway, but didn’t use onion roll again.

Monk and I then bought malt extract and sugar, and filled five or six plastic gallon jugs that his father had stenciled with the name of a furniture polish he’d invented, Glist-N-Brite. Monk’s room was in the basement next to the furnace, an octopus armed model like ours, and we put the jugs among its tentacles. One or two had balloons; Monk loosely capped the rest. One exploded on the second night, but Monk had the presence of mind to spirit away the remaining four and told his mother there’d only been one. She didn’t mind, though–she’d grown up in 1930s Chicago–and the other four reappeared with balloons on their necks. That Friday we bottled 32 sixteen-ounce bottles of Glist-N-Brite Furniture Polish brand beer. By Sunday, Monk and I had finished them off, and brewed more. We established a regular schedule–start a batch on Sunday, bottle it on Saturday, start more–but eventually we bottled on Friday or Thursday and the quality of the beer, nonexistent to begin with, totally tanked. We still drank it. The taste didn’t bother us–much.

We continued drinking Glist-N-Brite. In December our friend Wayne was rolling his own cigarettes, which looked like joints. I’d heard of joints, but never seen any. Wayne handed me one; I took a couple puffs, coughed, and he told me it was tobacco. I liked the tingly feeling. It was kind of pleasant, but had an edge; it was also a bit nasty. I didn’t take up smoking just then, but later tried it occasionally.
A few weeks later–January 28th, 1970, to be exact, my younger brother, who had just turned 14, showed me something special. He pulled from his pocket a tiny Italian matchbook–and inside were four hand rolled, straw-colored cigarettes. They were joints. We lit one up.
Oh, my god! How incredibly cool was this? Everything turned bright, colorful. The world was transformed. Charming, fun. I’d heard that the first time someone smoked weed, they didn’t feel much. Not for us. It was immediate, definite, unmistakable. My brother said it was Acapulco Gold, but I didn’t really believe him, because Acapulco Gold was an urban legend that most people never encountered. We had three more joints. They didn’t last long.
In the next fifteen years I smoked a lot of weed, in 49 states and 3 countries. Some was good, some wasn’t. Panama Red, Thai stick, Oaxacan (which we pronounced “Meshmacon”) and a hundred others. Never did I feel the same effects, until the mid-1980s. I’d smoked what was supposed to be Acapulco Gold a couple more times in the intervening years. It clearly wasn’t the same, so when I heard “Acapulco Gold” again I thought, yeah, right…but the first toke told me it was indeed what we’d had that January afternoon in 1970–light, powerful, and fun!
It seemed everyone between fourteen and twenty-four discovered drugs that year. A few older hippies had been in the loop longer, but a few years later if you struck up a conversation, you’d find almost everyone had started within a year of 1970, whether they’d been fourteen or seventeen or nineteen or twenty-two. An older sister or younger brother had turned them on, a school friend, an acquaintance from church had first pulled out the stash—in ’69, ’70 or ’71.
Outsiders talked about “gateway drugs”. I started with wine, then went to beer, tobacco and weed. Not everyone did. A friend we called Humpherill started by shooting speed. Not drinking, smoking, snorting or swallowing powders or pills. Injected directly into his virgin vein.
The idea of “gateway drugs” misses the mark. People don’t get sucked into doing drugs, they search drugs out. Folks who feel fine don’t want them. Anguish is a gateway to drugs. Depression is a gateway. Fear, pain–these are the gateways; they produce a desire for drugs. Kids who grew up thinking they’d be roasted by the bomb before they were twenty–that was a huge gateway.
In the next couple weeks Monk and Wayne met a guy we called Charlie the Duck. I never knew his full name, we just called him Duck. They came by my house on February 19th—and brought a little pill called Orange Sunshine, wrapped in aluminum foil. I was uncertain about swallowing it, so they left it with me. I didn’t try it for a couple days. I once put it in my mouth and sucked on it, but didn’t actually drop any until the following Tuesday. I had an appointment which gave me the afternoon off, and took half the tab at 1:30. Didn’t feel anything for half an hour, but in the elevator leaving my appointment I noticed the floor moving. So what? An elevator is supposed to move–but the little specks in the linoleum were moving, too, and the elevator was not only moving, but breathing. When I left the elevator the whole building was breathing–and outside, the sun was not only shining, but sparkling! I walked home. The trees had faces, and were smiling at me. The clouds were playing games; the squirrels talking to the birds.
I moseyed along–it was pleasant for February, clear and not cold–and picked up some snacks on the way home. The fudgsicle was tasty, the peanuts were like chalk, the 7-Up was AMAZING! I strolled along, stopping here and there to look at feathers or clumps of clay, until I noticed words in the patterns of the sidewalk cement–“Hey Dave,” a paver spelled out, “don’t you think,” on the next paver, then “it’s about time,” “to be getting home?” I realized that the Universe, was texting me. The Universe had planned this when the cement for the sidewalk was poured, twenty years before. I strolled home along the undulating sidewalk, ate a snack, told my family I was tired and went to my room. I turned on the radio, and the flowers on the wallpaper danced. Colors trailed off my fingertips. Wayne and Monk came over, and I told them I’d taken half a hit. We drove to Duck’s basement for a few hours. A beer or two didn’t affect me much. We played a little pool–then Duck pulled out a joint.
I’d been coming down, but suddenly I was shooting up like a rocket. My god, I was flying! Duck had Moody Blues on the stereo. I sat on the floor, leaned back against the leg of the pool table and my spirit’s connection to my body shrank to a rectangle the size of a postage stamp, on the crown of my head. I was the universe, and that little thing down there, of which my connection was no thicker than the string on a helium balloon, was my body. Wayne and Monk eventually took me home. When I awoke the next day, my world was forever changed.
People who’ve never taken psychedelics will never truly understand those who have. Plenty of people have no need, desire or curiosity about psychoactive drugs, and that’s fine. In fact, people who like drugs do have a problem, but the drug doesn’t cause the problem. They’re in physical or mental pain, and drugs alleviate the pain. Some people take too much and make their problem worse, but most people figure it out, and quit while they’re ahead. I had a desire and, yes, a need, for drugs when I was 16. I’d been set apart by circumstance. By choices made so routinely, by others, that I had no idea who I was or what I wanted. I’d hidden my true desires, too deeply for me to know them. I wasn’t just a geek, I was an uber-geek, a geek in the world of geekdom, Suicide had looked good to me, but drugs changed that.
After that first half-a-tab, I re-evaluated my life. I’d explored Eastern religions since I was ten, but now I wanted more. I began to feel that Hindu and other insights–particularly in the search for bliss–could be found in an approach to life which included a judicious, disciplined use of psychedelics. I took another quarter-tab two days afterwards, and my last quarter-tab the day after that. I split another tab with Monk that Saturday. I got a little higher than I liked and turned the radio to a gospel station until I settled down, then didn’t take any more for a couple months.


I’d started working after school at the King Soopers grocery near the barber shop. Several pretty girls worked there; I was particularly enamored of a checker named Melanie. That didn’t go anywhere, but work was radically different from school. I loved it. I’d hated school with a white-hot passion, but didn’t mind work at all. I still didn’t have a girlfriend, but started to relax a bit, and found I was a very fast bagger. A good bagger could handle two checkout counters on a busy day. A very good one could handle three, but I could handle four. It helped to have big hands–I could pick up two and three cans at once.
I worked afternoons and weekends until I graduated that June.  I truly hated every minute of school in my last semester; I didn’t have sociology any more, fought with my father every time I saw him, was taking a load of classes I hated, and not doing well. I flunked out of one too many classes and was one credit shy of graduation, so I signed up for a television course. I completed all the work with flying colors, except for a final, required report which I forgot about completely. Instead of an “A” I received a “D”. It was still good enough for the school to mail me my diploma, printed and on as record as June 2, 1970, the day before my 17th birthday.
That little glitch blew the tiny mind of the punch-card computer, though. At the end of the summer I received another schedule of classes. I called the school office, told them my diploma was in my hand, and that was that.


I was exceptionally happy to have received my diploma when I saw my schedule, because one of my classes was with a teacher named Mahonchak, a strutting, pompous, petty dictator who had for years enforced every possible infraction in humorless, severe ways. Because he was such a teapot tyrant, students made his life hell any way they could. All the pranks were played on Mahonchak. A full glass of milk was placed upside-down on his desk so that it couldn’t be moved without milk spilling everywhere; a few members of the football team picked up his Volkswagen and set it lengthwise between two trees. The greatest trick of all, however, was perpetrated by my friend Steve and me, in the final few weeks of our senior year.

George Washington High had two wings. From the cafeteria one angled left, the other right. Between them was a patio, and a large green area where we’d eat lunch. Patio duties revolved weekly among the teachers, and ten minutes before lunch was over, whichever students were in detention policed the area, picking up trash. This was usually a relaxed affair, but nothing was ever relaxed about Mahonchak. He was a swaggering field officer; a martinet barking orders. On this lovely spring day, Mahonchak had patio patrol.

Steve and I had a plan. We hid behind a bush at the end of lunch period and Steve pulled out an M-80, a giant firecracker. I had a cigarette. We punched a hole close to the filter, stuck the fuse through, lit the cigarette, then put it in a paper bag. I threw it in the trash eleven or twelve minutes before the end of lunch period. I’d seen a war movie where a cigarette stuffed into a matchbook lit up a railcar full of hay seven minutes later, so Steve and I were expecting a 7-minute delay.

In the next few minutes everyone threw their trash on top of our time bomb. Mahonchak gathered his troops, and in ten minutes the patio was spotless. Steve and I were sure we had a dud. The bell rang, ending lunch, and before the last peal faded away, KA-POW!!! Our delayed fuse FINALLY found its mark, and the top two-thirds of the trash in the 60-gallon galvanized bucket flew ten feet in the air! Mahonchak turned purple and completely lost it, screaming and grabbing the collars of random students to force them into lunch duty, but everyone knew the bell had rung, lunch was over, everyone needed to get to class, end of story.

What Steve and I hadn’t calculated was that the cigarette I’d brought was of the new, 100 millimeter size, which lasted over ten minutes. The result was far better than we’d anticipated, and Mahonchak’s purple, impotent rage an awesome, wonderful bonus!


I had some conflicts with the night manager, and within about three months I was fired, rehired, quit, rehired and, in the third week of January 1970, transferred to a store in the hippie part of town.

I loved it! I didn’t see many folks from the old neighborhood, but met lots of freaky and interesting people. One checker, Kenny, could’ve been born in 1901 instead of 1951. He was 18, but carried a pocket watch, wore thin wire-frame glasses, high-waisted slacks, parted his hair in the middle and smoked short, unfiltered Lucky Strikes.

This store was new, and was open 24 hours, which was also new in Denver. A few gas stations and restaurants were open around-the-clock in 1970, but a full-size, full-service grocery, with bakery, deli and pharmacy? No. Not even television broadcast around the clock. The national anthem played at midnight, and the station shut down.

I’ve always hated the national anthem, by the way. I prefer “America the Beautiful”, and not just because “purple mountains’ majesty” refers to Colorado. Anyway, as the “Star Spangled Banner” played, flags flapped, jets roared, half a dozen military guys saluted.  A test pattern appeared, followed shortly by a shrill, steady whine which drove you bananas if you didn’t hop up and flip off the TV, this still being the Age of No Remote Control, outside of my bedroom.

After graduation I worked the night shift, 10pm to 6:30am, but King Soopers didn’t mind paying overtime and I’d work an extra hour or two every morning. We figured our own time cards, and counted overtime after 8 hours a day and over 40 hours a week. If I’d worked ten hours for each of four days, that would be 32 hours regular time and 8 hours overtime, and the fifth day was pure overtime. After some months, the Retail Clerks Union issued a “clarification”, which ended our little bonus.

My night clumped into 3 distinct periods. From 10 pm til midnight, the store was crowded with shoppers stocking up; average people, out late, doing an everyday thing. From midnight until 5 am the night shift stocked the shelves while hippies tripped and stumbled through the laundry aisle, gazing intently at the brilliant, fluorescent soap boxes. At around 5 am, morning people appeared, bright-eyed and cheery. Everyone in the night crew would get a lift just before quitting time, through contact with these chirpy, bushy-tailed birds.

I soon adopted a schedule–absolutely insane for anyone not seventeen years old–of staying up every other day and sleeping alternate days and weekends. My schedule was 36 hours awake and 12 asleep for most of the week. I figured this gave me more time for socializing, but in truth I was sleepwalking.

Which may have been the point. I was happier, when I was too tired to think.

I’d never smoked very much, but I quit smoking tobacco that New Years’ Day. It wouldn’t be the last time. I could count on one hand the folks I knew who didn’t smoke. Some smoked a little, some a lot, but very few didn’t smoke at all. The heaviest smokers were the butchers. They seemed to live their lives with a cigarette in one hand and a coffee in the other. The one fellow that I knew didn’t smoke, the produce guy, was also the only vegetarian I’d ever met. I’d have liked to have socialized with him, but our schedules conflicted.

Eight Daves

There were Daves everywhere in the ’60s; there were two or three in each of my classes; I was never the only one. There were eight of us in the store: me, Dave Block, Dave Blackwell, Dave Coons, Dave Haynes, Dave McCandless, Dave Sonneberg and Dave Wilson. I told everyone to call me DJ. I’ve used it ever since.
Because I worked nights, downtown, I became a legend in my neighborhood without knowing it. Gone before the parties started, I was a mystery guy who knew all the cool people and could procure drugs at will. Everyone had heard my name, but hadn’t met me. Many months later, when I wasn’t working nights, they’d exclaim, “so YOU’RE DJ? I’ve heard SO much about you…!!”

I wasn’t aware that anyone would think of me as popular, but one day I went out and my car had been egged. Someone had thrown two or three dozen eggs at it, and covered every square inch. I suspected a couple guys, Harold and Gene, but Gene said it was Harold alone; that Harold was jealous of me.

It seemed ridiculous. I wasn’t even a checker. I’d achieved a couple of dubious distinctions–I was the fastest bagger, and also held the record for packing pop bottles into a grocery buggy, over 200. That bit of silliness then inspired a couple guys to stack a buggyful 7 or 8 feet high. It fell over in the aisle with a tremendous crash. Glass flew everywhere, the competition was banned, and I held the all-time record!

Our back room was particularly small, which led to a lot of precarious stacking of merchandise pallets, all the way to the ceiling: cans on the bottom, toilet paper on top. This made for dancing forklifts; one fellow would lift the top few pallets and another would come with a hand-pumped “mule” to pull out the bottom ones. These mules made handy scooters. We’d put a foot on one of the forks and push off, steering with the handle. One day a caddy named Tim was riding a mule in the back room; another named Jim had just finished mopping. I was a ways back from both. I took a run and jumped on the mule with one foot, putting all my weight on the unused fork and springing back again. Tim went shooting off at great speed into a pair of aluminum doors, clanging loudly. He stormed back into the room. I pointed to Jim, who was the closer of us, and said “He did it!” Jim had been innocently leaning on his mop, but standing in the most likely spot! He protested and pointed at me, but I was a long way from the action, and Tim didn’t believe it for a second! I totally got away with it!

One day there was a new display in the kitchen aisle, a product called “Corelle”. A stocker told me it was practically unbreakable; that you could drop it and it’d clang but not break. He invited me to try. I took a cup, tossed it about 6 feet high, it hit the floor and rang like a bell but didn’t break. I thought this really cool, and wrote on the cup  in felt-tip pen that it had been dropped from six feet without breaking. About an hour later there was a cleanup on the kitchen aisle. A customer had tried the cup, dropped it from about 4 feet and it’d shattered into a hundred pieces!

I stayed at the downtown store until fall, then transferred back to Mayfair. Shortly afterwards I was promoted to checker, a position which normally wasn’t offered until one was 18. It was technically illegal for me to sell beer. I was supposed to call on an older checker to ring up beer, but I didn’t.

Wendy, whom I knew from when we’d shared six classes, had joined the orbit of my friends in a tertiary way. She was now Monk’s sister Carole’s best friend, and girlfriend to their younger brother. When school was out, Wendy, Dick and Carole moved into an apartment together. Wendy and Dick lived together for three years and married when she was twenty and he, seventeen. They were quite resourceful. There’d been a push in the early ecological movement to reuse grocery bags. They’d walk in on a busy day, fill their used bags full of groceries and walk out. One day they came to my store, palmed a couple small things and came through my checkout. The manager had spotted them and called me out, since he saw that I knew them. I didn’t know about it and didn’t get in trouble, but they were banned from the store.

Checking groceries was a more physical job than it later came to be. Shoppers rolled up buggies and checkers unloaded them, rang up the prices by hand and put the items on a conveyor belt, where caddies would bag the groceries and load them in another buggy. The cash registers at the downtown (Downing street) store had a ten-key pad, but those at the Mayfair were older and had columns of keys; a row of ones across the bottom, twos above them, etc. and column of category keys on the right. A fellow with big hands could set five fingers, slam five keys and ring up $1.69 taxable produce at one whack, while a ten-key pad took 5 strokes. The Mayfair machines were much faster for a guy like me–whack, whack, whack and three items were done, while the flying fingers at Downing street would click-click-click-click-click-cachunk, click-click-click-cachunk, click-click-click-click-cachunk. I could also pick up three cans with my monster hands, whack-whack-whack; three more, whack-whack-whack, then three more, nine cans in five or six seconds. The motor whirred, the tabs sprung up; there was a rhythm to it. On a busy day it was  almost like meditation. I’d bang the register flat-out and toss cans and boxes faster than the conveyor belt could carry them. If I was really flying, two baggers would work my counter. The registers ran at top speed, and the managers kept me away from certain ones–number 8 had a problem–because their motors overheated, their keys froze, their price tabs stuck. Usually a checker would stay on one register. On a busy day I’d float me between two or three, so none burned out.

This proved a personal advantage. The other checkers were mostly girls. The guys were primarily stockers, but stocking was a break for me. When there came a rush it was “Austin up front, please!”. A dozen or so customers would be gone in a couple minutes, but I’d hang out and talk with the girls. I became much more relaxed around women.

A Model A

I bought a Model A Ford in the early months of 1970. I’d always wanted an old car, and bought this one for $600–a 1930 four-door, Briggs body, olive green with black fenders. It looked good on the outside, but mechanically it needed help. I was happy to do it, though, and fixed the wiring, brakes, front end, interior. I’d drive it occasionally, but it spent more time parked in front of the house.

I’d acquired the $600 through the stock market. My father had gleaned a few tips from customers and first suggested to me that I buy into a trucking company, Fruehauf, which made semi-trailers. I bought a couple shares for around $30 apiece when I was eleven or twelve and watched them hover around the same price for the next few years. A year or two later I also bought five shares of a company called Permian Oil, at $18 per share. Within the week, Permian was the most active stock on the exchange and went from $18 to $24 in a single day. This continued, and the company was soon bought by Occidental Petroleum, who gave me three shares of Occidental for my five shares of Permian, plus about $60. With the dividends my stock had earned, $40 or thereabouts, my $90 had been recouped and I now had 3 shares of Occidental, for free. The stock continued upwards, then split 3-for-1. I had nine shares of Occidental, which announced a new project in Libya and sent me a first-day-cover of a stamp with an oil well on it, covered in Arabic writing. These shares continued going up, and by the time I was sixteen were worth over $600.

I’d been watching the stock market myself these years, and decided to buy stock in six companies–Zion Foods, Continental Can, Chrysler and three more. I went to my father with $300 and told him what I wanted to do, but he talked me out of it. A week later, I told him I still wanted the stock, but he flat-out refused. As I was underage, couldn’t buy them myself. I watched these stocks over the next two years. All of them made money, some just a few cents, others a few dollars. Chrysler went from $46 to $64, but one little company went from 1-1/4 to 18-1/2, split 2-for-1, then continued upwards. I’d planned to buy 50 shares. Had I been left to my own devices, I’d have made over $3000.

I still did pretty well. My Freuhauf shares slumped, but came back, and the Occidental continued doing well. One day in late 1968 I decided the stocks looked about as good as they were going to get, and told my father I wanted to sell. He again talked me out of it. A week later the market fell. A year afterwards, I insisted–threw a tantrum, really–and got my money out, with what proved to be very good timing. With the proceeds, I bought the Model A.

My brother had also been in the market. He bought $100 worth of a company called Frontier Airlines, and a couple years later it was worthless (though the name was eventually revived).

So I had my Model A. I’d work on it, drive, work on it more, drive a little more. One day my brother and I set up a date with Monk’s two sisters. Luanne very much wanted to go out with Robin; Carole very much didn’t want to go with me. Her father insisted, and we had a date.

First Date

My brother, the sisters and I packed into the Model A and headed for the Third Eye Theatre in downtown Denver to see “The Fantasticks”, a hilarious comedy wherein the fathers play matchmaker by forbidding their children to see each other, calculating correctly that this will make them want each other the more. I’d seen it with my family, and the absolute pinnacle for any comedy, anywhere, was set by Budge Threlkeld, who later toured with Rickie Lee Jones. Budge as Mortimer had a dying scene in which one of the lines was “they’d always shout die again, Mortimer, die again!!”, at which point my father, from the audience, stood up and shouted “DIE AGAIN!!!”. Budge looked out, smiling, and with a finger wag said, slowly, “I never did!”.

But that was a different night. Our foursome saw a wonderful production, with Joe Horvath superb as Mortimer. Later the fathers danced and sang about how predictable a garden was in comparison to raising children. One father loudly flubbed the line “plant a radish, get a radish” as “plant a radish, get a carrot”. At the next kick-step. the other father booted him in the butt.

We enjoyed the play, had something to eat, started home–and the car quit. The lights dimmed, and it died. We were nearly hit as we pushed it off the road. I stuck in the crank, fiddled with the choke, spark advance and fuel mix; finally got her started, climbed into the driver’s seat, turned on the headlights and she died. I cranked her a couple more times with the same result. We drove the last few miles on back roads, in the dark, lights off.

The next day I went to the Model A parts store (yes, there was one) and bought a new cut-out switch, an earlier version of a voltage regulator which kept the battery from overcharging. When the battery was fully charged, an electromagnetic switch would “cut out” the generator, but the switch had a nasty habit of sticking. It’d drained the battery when we were parked.

That was my first and only “date” for about ten years. For hippie types “dates” were rather of out of fashion, but I was far too terrified to ask a girl out anyway. Guys and gals would meet at parties and go home together, or whatever, but formally planning a “date” seemed quaint, and “square”.

The following spring, a wheel on my Falcon fell off. The front passenger-side wheel had been squeaking for a few days, but I was clueless what that meant. One day, a few blocks from home, the squeaking became a squealing, then a grinding. Suddenly, the brakes didn’t work. I had to go around a corner on two wheels. When the car came down, its front wheel bounced into the bushes while the front end crunched to a halt, dug into the pavement. I called Monk and said he could have it if he hauled it off, and he dragged it home, leaving a half-mile gouge in the pavement.

I bought a  blue 1964 Falcon Futura a few days later. On one of our jaunts to Picadilly Road, Wayne lost a cigarette in the back seat. The night was windy and I’d left the windows down. By the morning the entire back seat had smoldered into a black char. The fire truck came and they pulled out the back seat. When they threw it in the street, it burst into flames, but the car was undamaged except for a couple scorch marks on the headliner. I washed it thoroughly and got a back seat from a 1965 Futura; the pattern didn’t match but the color did. I had to leave the windows open for 3 months to air out the stink.

Readying to Move, Again

My father went to Hollywood that summer to visit his friend Ric, who was now an established actor. He schmoozed with a lot of people, got a lot of smoke blown up his butt, and decided it was our time. Over the next months we sold two of the rental houses to their long-time tenants. Joe bought the barbershop, but we had two more houses, ours at 17th & Spruce and an old house which had been split up into apartments at 9th & Downing. The Downing Street house had been a problem.
There were three rooms upstairs, two occupied by ladies in their 90’s and the other by a fellow I’d known from high school. One side of the downstairs had been rented by a couple in their thirties, but the other by a young couple who’d taken in friends and then moved out. It became a “crash pad”, and the rent paid by passing a hat.

Dealing with the crash pad got old, quick. No one living there had signed the rental contract; indeed, none of them knew who we were. My father and I evicted a guy and a girl who’d overslept, changed the locks and left the key with the couple in the other apartment The next day, they smelled gas. Someone had loosened all the gas connections in the basement, which could’ve blown up the house and everyone in it. We reported it to the police, who kept an eye on the place for a few weeks.

I did a lot of cleanup and repair on the house when I wasn’t at work. There was a long, flimsy outside staircase to the second floor. The little old ladies were afraid to use it and, before the eviction, had been afraid to go to the front door , so had spent most of their time in their rooms. There was junk in the basement and a garage out back, which had been converted from a stable. It couldn’t be used due to an accumulation of garbage, but when cleaned out it revealed, obscured for many years, an excavation under the right parking space which could be used to work beneath a car. The downstairs tenants, John and Mary, helped. John had the same birthday as me, and was about twelve years older. He smoked cigars and claimed to be an “Archie Bunker bigot”, though I saw little evidence of that.

John and Mary stayed in the house when we sold it. A couple years later most of the houses on that block were bought for a huge amount and torn down. Now it’s a Ramada Inn.

I’d sworn off LSD six or eight months before. I’d taken a little, never a full tab,   twenty-four times in about six months, but started feeling spacey and quit at the end of the summer. Late in November, though, Monk and his brother talked me into doing it again “for old times’ sake”. I took three-quarters of a tab of one variety and half-a-tab of another, and we sat in Monk’s basement for awhile. I got higher than I liked, and nervous. Monk’s brother tried to quiet me, saying if I didn’t cool it the old man would come down and kill us. It hit me the wrong way. For some reason I thought I was going to die. I ran through the snow in my socks, back to my house, then a few minutes later back to Monk’s. I kicked in the door, ran around and screamed until the cops took me to the hospital. They pumped me full of Thorazine. When I awoke the world looked strangely two-dimensional and cartoonish, but I was all right. I slept in Juvenile Hall that night, got out the next evening, and didn’t do acid for five years.

I’m Eighteen

My 18th birthday came; a big deal because I could legally drink 3.2% beer. There were 3.2 clubs all over town, and it was sold in grocery stores. Stronger stuff was sold to 21-year-olds, in liquor stores and bars, but there were few reasons for an 18-year-old to buy it. We’d have to drink a lot of beer to get a buzz, but didn’t have to drive around town looking for a bum to buy it for us.

For my 18th birthday, my brother Robin bought me a ticket to my first rock concert. I’d been to classical music concerts; every year the public schools sponsored the symphony orchestra in the local coliseum. Thousands of kids piled in, from all over the state. It was a terrible venue. The kids were loud, the acoustics were horrible, the musicians uninspired and distracted. I hated classical music until I was thirteen, when my mother took me to the opening of a new music hall for the Denver symphony orchestra. The music was grand, spectacular in the new hall, with its comfy seats, sparkly lights and velvet-draped walls! At the end of the concert I felt as if I were being lifted from my chair, involuntarily! It was the first time I’d felt a real connection to music. I was to have strong feelings about the rock concert, too, but for different reasons.

Jethro Tull was at Red Rocks Park that weekend; a much-anticipated event. Red Rocks is a natural amphitheatre in the mountains near Denver. There’s a half-moon shaped rock thirty or forty feet across and twenty or thirty feet tall sticking out of the ground at about a 60* angle, and the stage is built beneath and in front of it. The hillside in front of the stage is covered with long benches. To the left is a behemoth of red sandstone, angled outwards.

The seating was restricted to a few thousand, and all the tickets had long been sold out. Rob and I, and a couple of his friends, drove down in my Futura. Rob had lost his ticket, but hoped to buy one from a scalper when we arrived.

As we approached Red Rocks, the roads were unusually busy. We arrived early but still had to park over a mile away. This was one of the first big rock concerts in our part of the country; Woodstock had been less than two years before, and that summer every hippie within a thousand miles wanted to be at Red Rocks.

It was mid-afternoon when we got to the entrance, and trouble was already brewing. Thousands were hiking into the hills. Security guys on bullhorns yelled that they couldn’t get through, but they hiked anyway. There were a few cops by the gate fas well, one of whom I recognized from King Soopers. He was a short fellow with a pug nose and full cheeks who looked quite like a pig, though I knew he was an okay guy. As I said a few words to him, a very large hippie started an argument with the several other cops. I scooted up the entrance stairway with my brother’s friends–my brother was still wandering around trying to buy a ticket–as the big guy was yelling out, “WE’RE the PEOPLE’S ARMY, and we’re going IN!!” and “Are you WITH US?! ARE YOU WITH US!?!”. The three of us found seats before the pushing and shoving began.

I knew several folks who were there, from work, from school or from the neighborhood. While we talked, helicopters began flying over and we heard bullhorns from over the hill. Livingston Taylor was trying mightily to proceed, but was clearly rattled. A few People’s Army conscripts straggled over the hill and told stories of a riot going on.

Before the concert I’d scored a hundred-lot of little blue mescaline pills, which I’d split halfsies with Monk. I had sewn a secret pocket inside the seam of my bell-bottoms and pulled them out when we were seated, selling a few for a couple dollars each. I chewed up a tab and drank Gatorade with it, advising the same to the others, and within 20 minutes we were flying. My brother, meanwhile, had given up and walked back to the car.

After the opening act, there was a delay while the helicopters continued to fly and bullhorns echoed from the valley. Jethro Tull took the stage at sunset, and played a couple songs. While they played, more and more people stumbled over the hill, and with them, TEAR GAS!! People started choking and screaming and running from one side to the other, up and down, to and fro, and the band quit briefly as they choked, too. Many hid out in the bathrooms or left entirely, but meanwhile hundreds more came over the hill, then thousands. They were climbing on the rocks, and starting to throw things. The tear gas dissipated after about twenty minutes, and the band started up again. Thousands scaled the rocks to the sides, and over the stage itself. It was a free concert now; the fences had been torn down and everyone packed in–everyone except my brother. Unfortunately I’d locked the car and he didn’t have a key, so he climbed on the hood, shivered and waited, listening to the music echo through the hills.

After everything settled down, it was good concert. Jethro Tull had just released Aqualung, and Ian Anderson’s flute, always incredible, was immeasurably enhanced by the surroundings. There were hippies all over the rocks as well as packed into the stands; a few folks were sitting on the tip-top of the rock above stage, looking out on the action from twenty feet up, while on the huge rock to the side there were dozens of people dancing and carrying on, from little cave-like nooks even higher in the air. One fellow in a little niche very close to the top was dancing like crazy; I was afraid he’d fall, but he didn’t. I met him a couple years later in California. I’ve met half-a-dozen people who’ve said they were at that concert, in states as distant as California, Illinois and Hawaii.

When the concert was over, so was my time in Colorado. My youngest brother Sam had made a movie in Telluride the year before, which was to be shown on Disney the following January. A week or so after the concert, my brother Rob and I packed to move to West Hollywood, where my father had bought a rental equipment yard. He had three or four friends doing well in California and a longtime correspondence with Pearl Bailey, to whom he’d sent a funny fan letter (a “complaint” that he was losing money in his nightly poker games because her show was so good she was distracting him) and received a charming reply. They sent letters every few months for the next several years.

It was time for Hollywood.

Poverty Pete’s

Pete’s Rental, once known as Poverty Pete’s, was located on Santa Monica Boulevard within Los Angeles County, but outside the LA city limits, in an area known as “the Strip”. Sunset Strip ran along the top of the hill above. It was called West Hollywood, but wasn’t incorporated, and thus law enforcement was provided by the sheriff, njot the police. Think Andy Taylor of Mayberry, instead of Joe Friday of Dragnet.

We packed the yellow 1965 Ford station wagon full. Towing the old green trailer behind us, we three set out for California. We drove straight through (we always drove straight through), me and my father splitting the driving. One slept while the other drove. My brother, though he’d been sixteen for months, had never bothered to get a license, which mystified me.

There were no speed limits in Nevada, and I briefly took the car over 100 miles per hour because I could. At the California border the speed limit went to 65, and 55 for cars with trailers, which were limited to the right lane. I’d never seen a speed limit on the open highway ending in “5”; towns had speed limits of 25, 35, 45, but on the open road it’d be 50, 60, 70; in Kansas or Nebraska even 80 or 90. This was desert. It was deserted, and nobody followed the speed limit, including us. We drove at 70+, in whichever lane was convenient, passing cars as needed.

The need for speed isn’t properly understood by those who live in the East. For years the national limit of fifty-five was fast enough in Massachusetts or even Virginia, where someone’s house or barn or street light is almost continuously in view. In the deserts or mountains of the West, though, there may be nobody for fifty or a hundred miles. No houses, barns, street lights. No fences, dogs, cows. No cars passing by for hours at a time; on the backroads, sometimes days. Where there are no cars, a clear  flat road, no trees to hit and the temperature is 110ºF,  it makes little difference to one’s safety if a car is moving 55 or 85 mph, but an hour or two in such dangerous heat is a really big deal.

When we got to the metropolitan Los Angeles area–we were over a hundred miles from the LA city limits, but it was already urban–my father took his turn driving. Inside of 15 minutes, he was pulled over by one of the snotty, arrogant cops common to LA. Two freeways had merged, and thus he had good reason to be outside the trailer lane, but the cop asked in a condescending way just what he was doing in California. This ticked him off, and he replied that they had a really good welfare system in California, so he was moving with his wife and six kids so they could sponge off the state. He finished by saying “just write up the ticket, you son of a bitch”, which wasn’t the best way to plead his case.

At sunset we arrived at 8601 Barr Lane, Garden Grove, in Orange County. It was a small house with a tiny front yard and a big pool in back, owned by Burt Douglas, an actor friend of my father’s who had a long-running role in a soap opera, which as it meant a steady paycheck, was Hollywood gold. Theatrical, cinematic or television shows are generally temp work, but soap operas plugged along for years. The Screen Actors’ Guild, and the American Federation of Television and Radio Actors, are the two unions with the highest percentage of members unemployed at any given time. With the Guild the figure is 95%. Actors are paid well when they work, and receive residual checks when shows or commercials are broadcast, but it’s an uncertain life.  It’s hard to come by steady work in Hollywood. The few available well-paid jobs don’t last.

Lots of people who’d like to get into movies don’t understand or appreciate the Screen Actor’s Guild. It’s hard to get in, expensive to stay in, and once you’re in, you can’t drop out. If you join the Guild, you join for life. You pay your dues and maintain your membership. It does offer, however, unique advantages.

I’m a member of the Retail Clerks’ Union. I haven’t worked as a retail clerk in a union store, nor paid dues to the union, since I was a teenager. They don’t care. There may be a dozen guys with my name in the Retail Clerks’ Union, They don’t care. If I want another union job as a retail clerk, I’ll re-up with the union, sign the paper and pay the twenty bucks.

If I make a SAG movie as a teenager, I join the Screen Actors’ Guild. I’m paid for my work, and paid well–I make as much in a day as a retail clerk makes in a month. When the film wraps I’m paid again, then again each time it shows in the theatre, on TV, when the DVDs or action figures come out, when my picture is used in promotion. The name on the check is mine and mine only. Nobody else in the Guild can use my name, even if they’re born with it. If the film is shown anywhere in the world, Screen Actors Guild will track me down and send me a check–for decades. The amounts on the checks decrease, but a few bucks is better than none.

In return, I belong to the Screen Actors’ Guild, for life. If I get out of the business for ten years, twenty years, and don’t pay my dues, they still hold my checks and see that nobody else uses my name. I still get paid. If I decide to return to the business, however, I have to pay up. Those ten years’, twenty years’ back dues–pay up. It might be thousands of dollars. Pay up. Your membership is active. Your name is registered, your earnings on file. Pay up.

Of course, you’ll probably make it back in a couple days.

By the time we moved to California, my father had been in the Screen Actors’ Guild for two years. My sister had been in a national commercial and had won a Clio, the commercial equivalent of an Oscar, and my brother had starred in a movie for Disney. When my brother didn’t like movie’s theme song, he wrote a new one. They used it, so he also joined ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers–in fact he was its youngest member.

Our business was in a funny little shack on a major thoroughfare. Santa Monica Boulevard ran for miles through the center of town, but in our little two-or-three block spot there was an old set of rusty tracks for a trolley-car line, and the land belonged to the railroad. Pete’s Rental, originally Poverty Pete’s Used Cars, had been there for 25 years–on a 30-day lease. Since the railroad could terminate the lease at any time, building anything substantial would have been pointless The fellow who had started the business put up a long, ramshackle shack and, making a necessity into an asset, advertised as “Poverty Pete”.

“Poverty Pete”, whose name was really Norbert, had a hobo doll mascot in the corner, and the clock on the wall ran backwards. His business cards carried pithy, smart-ass sayings alluding to his lack of money and hobo lifestyle. He dressed in ragged clothes, but did well. One day a fellow came by and asked Pete if he could park his cement mixer on the lot and rent it out. Pete said OK, and pretty soon the cement mixer was rented out several days a week. Pete bought a few for himself and soon decided renting equipment was a lot more profitable and far less hassle than selling used cars. Buy a used car, tune it up, change the oil, shampoo the upholstery, replace the tires, touch up the paint, check the brakes, and you’ll make money, when it sells–maybe days, weeks, months later. Sharpen up a chainsaw, you’ll make twenty dollars a few times a week. Rent out a hatchet and pick to go with it, a trailer to haul the wood, a trailer hitch, you’ll make fifty, or a hundred.

When Pete started renting equipment he chained the various trailers, trucks, jackhammer compressors, cement mixers, together at night and put the rest of the tools in the shack and and in a narrow, fenced-in lot patrolled by a big, dangerous-looking German shepherd who had the run of the place at night. Our “rest room” was a spot behind the shack where we could pee. For “number two” we went to the gas station next door, where we bought all the gas for our trucks. The manager didn’t mind.

One thing making rentals different from sales is the return of equipment. With used cars, the customer drives away and likely won’t be back. Rental equipment must be returned. We copied the driver’s license number, the make, model, color, and tag number of their car, compared their signature and picture to their license. If there was important information about using the equipment we’d circle the relevant parts of the contract or hand-write a short statement for the customer to sign, then take a substantial deposit, returned when the equipment came back. If the equipment wasn’t returned Pete always filed charges with the sheriff, for conversion–the legal term, different from outright theft. Once every month or two Pete spent a day or two in court futzing around with lawyers. The insurance company required it. Insurance costs, lawyer’s fees, and time spent in court were large draws on the finances.

My father had a different idea. Surveillance cameras were in the future, but he got a gadget which took a simultaneous picture of each person, their signed contract and their ID. This one simple step changed everything. Losses through conversion went down to nearly nothing when everyone had to smile for the camera; the psychological impact was immense.

We also got a lot of cheap tools to add to the professional, expensive tools carried by Pete. A high-quality jigsaw cost about $75 in 1972, and could be rented at $2 per day. We had about half-a-dozen, jigsaws being a popular item, and it took a long time, a lot of rentals, an occasional trip to court and a lot of insurance to make that kind of money back on six jigsaws. There’d be one or two of them torn apart waiting for parts at any given time; bearings and brushes were more expense and more time.

About this time Black & Decker brought out a cheap jigsaw. It was the first tool in a long line of cheap tools and eventually small appliances which transmogrified Black and Decker; from premium professional toolmakers they became vendors of can openers. We bought a couple $7 jigsaws out of curiosity, and found we could rent them out 40 or 50 or 80 times before they died. There was no repairing the bushings or brushes in these burned-out lumps, but they’d made us $80 to $160 on a $7 investment. We bought eight or ten. We kept the quality jig saws for contractors who knew the difference, but we stocked up on cheap tools for the general public.

Movie Stars

And the stars. Lots of stars rent tools. As mentioned, the unemployment rate for Screen Actors Guild members is 95%. Many big-name stars drive rusty trucks and do their own household work; some to save money, others for enjoyment. Darren McGavin rented sanders, saws, drills or paint guns several times a month. Richard Chamberlain occasionally rented trucks and such, and once kissed my mother’s hand (she didn’t wash it for a week!). Jayne Mansfield had an account when she and her husband built their “Pink Palace”. She’d passed on by 1972, but her husband Mickey Hargitay, and especially his brother Eddy, still came in regularly. It was always an adventure with Eddy; he’d only recently come from Hungary and his command of English was questionable. The nearest rental yard to us was a couple miles down the street, and one day they had some