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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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In the Appalachians

If you haven’t seen the hit movie “Bozo’s Boy”, or the blockbuster series “Bozo’s Boy in Hollywood”, it’s because they haven’t been produced, but I was there–born on the same day that, according the movie, Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge. From “Billie Joe” until “She Blinded Me with Science” I breathed in, and often breathed out, and thirty years later lived in a tent at Snag End, at the base of Snaggy Mountain, outside Boone, North Carolina. I could walk to my cousin’s barn, which she rented out for parties. She let me in for free, and I helped clean up.
One night a girl I’d seen the week before made a smartass remark about my wardrobe. Perri was a member of the Numuziklub (new music club) which rented her barn a few times a month. Across from her were a couple of fellows with about twelve teeth between them, and she pulled me into the seat next to her. I saved her from the pirates, and we went home together. That night, and every night since.
Perri went to Lees-McRae college nearby. Her family had recently moved from Sanford, Florida and now lived on Beech Mountain a few miles away. My father’s family had lived in the area for generations, but I’d grown up in Colorado.
We stayed together. Perri smoked, but I’d been vegetarian over half my life and hadn’t smoked in years. I didn’t try to change her, but within a few weeks she’d quit smoking, and eating meat except for occasional fish, and I was pleased. People do what they want, and when they’re ready they’ll listen. Some folks find religion, some want health, some wish to be ethical, some want to keep their boyfriends. I don’t judge unless asked, and even then not one person in fifty pays attention. It’s a nice surprise when they do, but doesn’t often happen.
When adults don’t pay attention it doesn’t bother me. Adults choose their life path, but it annoys me when children have poor health, allergies, mental problems, diseases and parents don’t have the will or awareness to help the kids eat right. Kids who eat nothing but crap have difficulties for life.
We spent a season in the tent, but soon decided to build an earth lodge. For the next couple years we dug dirt and pounded nails. It started as a huge tent made from old carpeting, but I brought leftover plywood and shorty 2x4s from my construction job to make the roof, then covered it with tarpaper and roofing cement. In its final iteration it was well sealed from the weather and toasty warm in the wintertime.
Beech Mountain
Perri’s mother had been divorced, and had three kids. When she married Ed, the kids called him Daddio, and from then on they were Mams and Daddio. Ed and Janis raised two more kids, then bought an old mill house in Tennessee and moved the 18th-century hand-hewn plank boards to the top of Beech Mountain, where he’d reassembled the two-storey structure and added a basement, sub-basement and a spacious attic. When I met him it was open from top to bottom, with only a small section of floor in the kitchen. He’d fallen and broken his arm, but had only put a little Ben-Gay on it and was sitting at the kitchen table, going over plans. Ed had bought the top of Beech Mountain and subdivided it into what he called the Crest of Beech. In the meantime he and the family were living in a small house a mile away. He was a veterinarian, and had an office in a building which I’d roofed the year before in cedar. Wildly popular in the 1970s, it was supposed to last 80 to 100 years. It had been little used in the south, but I was on several roofing crews who used a new technique, alternating rows of shakes with layers of tarpaper. Unfortunately, tarpaper held moisture, and after fifteen or twenty years the cedar rotted.
Mams worked for the Beech Mountain Club, a homeowner’s association which ran the camp, ski slope, skating rink and other activities on the mountain. For awhile one of the attractions was the Land of Oz, a theme park based on the movie, which my brother and I had auditioned for in 1975. It closed in 1981 or ’82 and Perri got possession of a few items; we still have a small step-stool, but a disco ball disintegrated, leaving behind hundreds of 1/2” mirror squares which still occasionally float through our lives, appearing in a dusty corner or sneaking out from behind a wall.
The winter of 1983 saw some of the coldest days on record. My sister’s husband Kevin and I often went to the package store in Blowing Rock–until about 1990 Boone was a dry town–and one displayed a huge bottle, a jeroboam of champagne, which had been there for ages. Kevin asked the price. The owner, just in the mood, said, “Tell you what. Give me $10 and you can take it home.” I immediately pulled out $10 and gave it to him for what was easily a $100 bottle of champagne. I left it in the earth lodge next to the stove, but even with a fairly constant fire going and large rocks to maintain thermal mass, the temperature got down to -25º that Christmas, and that huge bottle of champagne was mushy frozen when I rescued it. We opened it on New Year’s Day, 1984, a date which due to George Orwell’s melodramatic 1948 book seemed ominous, but came to be seen as just another somewhat pedestrian year.
Through the spring and summer of that overblown year we lived in and worked on the earth lodge. In May we took a vacation to the Outer Banks, Perri’s Subaru hatchback loaded to the gills. It was a first for us, and we had a lovely time. Highway 64 is known as the road which traverses North Carolina “from Manteo to Murphy”, and we went to Corolla and Duck in the north, then drove south, taking pictures with a couple box cameras I’d brought along. I’d been buying them since I was 12 or so, and with them we took double exposures of ourselves on the beach, “art” shots of our “dream” vacation, and stopped at every lighthouse, where I’d snap Perri from a snail’s-eye view, lighthouse looming overhead. In Kitty Hawk we paced out the flights of Orville and Wilbur Wright. We fought off seagulls at a picnic shelter and visited the site of the Lost Colony, a patch of grass where the English settled in 1587, well before the Mayflower, and were lost to history, likely melting in with the Indians a few miles inland. We bought hats with long bills in front and sunshades in back. We stayed in the Hatteras Hotel, which even at that late date had no television, only a radio, but for $20 a night suited us fine. We rode down the coast and took ferries across the Albemarle Sound, one a short jaunt and the other a journey of hours. We paid 50¢ each to see a fireman’s museum in New Bern and went to another in Belhaven which was based on Eva Blount Way’s collection of strange things–thousands of buttons, weird animal parts in formaldehyde, a 1/4” drill which had electrocuted a carpenter, old magazine covers, more buttons, fleas dressed up as wedding guests, more buttons and more buttons. We moseyed back across the state, stopping at the Rose Hill winery, the Duplin winery and the original town of Washington–known by Carolinians as The First Washington. We saw the world’s largest coffeepot in Winston-Salem, snapped pictures of us underneath it and in June were back in Boone.
We did a lot of work on the lodge and were well set by the following autumn. I worked at the elementary school, Perri finished at Lees-McRae and transferred to Appalachian State to work on a teaching certificate. For Christmas my parents gave us a “symbolic” gift–a light bulb. Instead of running an extension cord down the hill from Kevin and Fran’s trailer, we’d have a real power hookup at the earth lodge! I was overjoyed! My father was helping us!
It didn’t happen. A month or two later, one of my cousins tried to plan a golf course on my grandparents’ land, which now belonged to my father and his five siblings. If they all got together, there’d be enough land and everyone would own a share. This might have been acceptable, but it didn’t work out. The banksters wanted a buyout. As for the power hookup, it was a promise. One he never intended to keep.
I thought the whole was over, but Perri was furious. It was not considered that the two of us had put years of money and sweat into our home and the property. We weren’t asked. It was announced, a given, an aside, that of course our earth lodge would be torn down. She saw it as an outright and complete betrayal, of promises made, a breach of trust.
She was correct.
War Stories
Every generation has war stories, literally or figuratively. They may be keys to one generation understanding another. Or maybe not.
When Pearl Harbor was attacked, my father was fifteen. Ned and some friends were playing mumbly-pegs, an Appalachian stick-and-rock game resembling baseball. Everyone rushed in from the meadow and gathered around the Sears Silvertone when the Gene Autry Show was interrupted. The war was daily news, but he didn’t think he’d be part of it. He was student body president, and a popular debater. After high school he went to Mars Hill College in Mars Hill, NC for a year, then while he was on summer break, the Allies invaded at Normandy and the Army called for volunteers to join the Air Corps. In August 1944 he signed up to become a pilot, but the Army Air Corps had 30,000 more volunteers than they needed. He was moved into the infantry, a depressing development, but didn’t back out. After 17 weeks of boot camp in Ft. McClellan, Alabama, he volunteered to be a paratrooper and was sent to Ft. Benning, Georgia, but before the end of his training the Battle of the Bulge began. He got a two week furlough, but on Christmas Day was in Ft. Meade, Maryland, and on New Year’s Day, 1945, was sailing on the Queen Mary.
It took four days. Thirty thousand men slept in 8-hour shifts. Waiting for chow took forever, and after tasting it, he decided the British didn’t know how to cook. He survived on cigarettes and candy bars, and trimmed hair for pocket change (he later became a barber). They pulled into Glasgow, Scotland, took the train to Southampton, crossed the English Channel and rode in boxcars to Riems, where Germans had infiltrated, in American uniforms. Everyone had to keep up with the newest passwords, one of which was “squirrel”. He was assigned to the 35th Division, 1378th regiment, Company B. They went into Alsace-Lorraine, where the snow was waist-deep.
It was a brutal winter. The first night, his outfit was on one mountain and the Germans, across the valley, on another. It was snowing, and the temperature went down to 30 below. The Germans were sending out patrols; their black boots marched through the snow past his foxhole, but he kept quiet. The guy beside him was coughing, but the patrol passed by.
His feet were freezing. Trench foot. He cut up an army blanket, stuffed it in his boots. From that day onwards, for the rest of his life, he wore tight shoes.
Not much fighting was going on, so his company moved south, traveling through Belgium and France in trucks. In one little French village a woman and her daughter waved to the trucks and cheerfully yelled out “Boolsheet! Boolsheet!,” which some smartass had told her was a greeting–so the soldiers waved and yelled “Bullshit!” back.
The Germans were retreating. The Americans lined up outside villages to fire their weapons. The brass had decided every squad needed two Browning automatics, and Ned carried one. It was a pain in the butt. It fired a lot more ammo, but half the time would jam. It was heavy, and got very heavy as they marched. One moonlit night, about 2 am, they heard a sniper and everyone hit the ditch. Ned fell asleep, and when someone killed the sniper, he slept until someone shook him awake. They were lining up to take the next village, and just then a mortar shell landed where he’d been sleeping. A little mound of dirt on the ditch bank saved him from being hit.
They went into the village at daylight, firing away. In a little gingerbread house there was a man of eighty or so who didn’t care that Ned had a big Browning rifle and wouldn’t put his hands over his head, he just kept cussing in German and pushing him away. They put the civilians in the central square, and secured the village.
They’d reached the Ruhr river. Everything was misty and muddy. German burp guns were going off in the distance, shooting out beams like headlights. There was a phone line between the foxholes, and a couple guys named Quinliver and LaBota were in a barn. A little before daylight, Quinliver called and said, “Sergeant, there’s a patrol outside the barn.” The sergeant asked Ned whether he and Bryant had seen a patrol. They hadn’t. The sergeant asked, had Quinliver? They didn’t know. The sergeant told Quinliver and LaBota to “let ‘em have it,” and all hell broke loose. At daylight, there were five little cherry trees near the barn which Quinliver and LaBota had shot to pieces. The sergeant separated them, and Quinliver became Ned’s partner.
On the 4th of March, 1945, the soldiers entered a small village which appeared deserted, except for an air raid shelter in the side of the hill with a stovepipe sticking out the top. Like most of the officers, the lieutenant was a college kid who’d had 3 months of training, but didn’t know much. A lot of these “ninety day wonders” quickly got themselves killed. The “little lieutenant,” as they called him out of earshot, was at the mouth of the shelter, yelling. Ned told him he knew what to do. He climbed to the top of the stovepipe, put a big clod of dirt on it and 15 or 20 villagers came out, coughing. Among them were two soldiers, who promptly surrendered. They said they weren’t really soldiers, but had been captured, put into the army and left behind as snipers. They told the Americans the German outfit had pulled across the Rhine, a few kilometers away. The little lieutenant told Ned to guard the civilians, which they didn’t usually do.
Ned leaned back on the shelter, pulled out a K-ration, started eating. The sergeant came along, asked what he was doing. He was guarding the civilians, like the lieutenant had ordered. The sergeant growled, “You know better than that! Get your ass back up front where you belong!” He went back.
The last house in the village had a doorbell. Quinliver went to the back door while Ned rang the bell. Inside was a girl of twelve and her little brother, crying, holding their hands up, repeating “Nicht soldaten! Nicht soldaten! (we’re not soldiers!). Their grandparents were at the table, eating dark German bread. Ned picked up a piece and spread jelly on it. The grandparents, realizing the soldiers were hungry, went to the cellar, pulled out several loaves, and soon the whole squad was eating bread and jelly.
While they were standing in the kitchen, the little lieutenant said to Mahl, the staff sergeant, “Mahl, I don’t know–but I have a funny feeling I’m gonna get it today.” Mahl said, “Aah! Don’t talk that way, lieutenant,” He said, “Well, if something happens to me, you take over.”
There was a chill in the air.
As they left, the lieutenant told Ned and another fellow that it was their turn to be forward scouts.
They were in rolling hill country, and the road forked at the base of a little hill. The captain ran up with a map, and told Ned to go right. Just then, a German flare went up, and they knew it was a trap. Ahead to the right was a gravel pit, and Ned dived in.
All hell broke loose. The Germans had a machine gun and a mortar set up on the hill. The machine gunner opened up, but didn’t have the gun aimed and hit the dirt in front of Ned, who jumped and ran up the bank. The other fellow was hit. The Germans opened up on the company with machine guns on both flanks, and the mortar in the middle. A sergeant named Jackson joined Ned on the bank; he started to get up and fire his rifle, but Ned told him to get down. He did. They heard a tank coming and ran the other way, through the trees. A Tiger Royal with an 88mm gun came rolling down the road, firing toward the area they’d just left. By now, the lieutenant was a pile of dirty, bloody flesh. Mahl had been killed, and most of the company was piled in the road, dead or dying. Ned and Jackson lay on the hill beside the road. Ned knew the machine gunner could see him; the tracer bullets were pinging all around. He kept saying please, God, don’t let me die–then decided if he was going to die he’d read the Bible. He opened his little pocket Bible at random and read, “fear not the man who can destroy the body, for he cannot touch the soul.”
The firing stopped. Jackson said, “Austin, we can surrender.” They didn’t have anything white to hold up, but held up an old pair of gloves and left their rifles behind, hands in the air.
There were ten men left. A guy named Bachard walked up to a German soldier, and the soldier asked him, in English, “Do you have a family?” Bachard replied, “Yes. I have two daughters, and I‘m from Oregon.” The German said, “I have two daughters, too. I haven’t heard from my wife for 3 months. I don’t know what’s happened to them. War is hell, isn’t it?” Bachard said, “It really is.”
The Germans put everyone in a potato shed. They sent a doctor, who examined the wounded and told them, “Someone will come for you. Don’t leave the building or you’ll be shot.”
They were taken to the next village. The American artillery started up, and they were almost killed by their own artillery fire. They went across the Rhine on a ferry, and spent the next night in a home where a German woman fed them barley soup. It was new to Ned, and one of the best things he’d ever tasted. They were then taken to Dortmund.
As prisoners, they didn’t have a change of clothes, were covered in lice and were always hungry or thirsty. They spent the night in a railway station in Essen, watched by two guards. One was an old fellow who’d been a prisoner of the British in the last World War; his name was Willy, but they called him Pop. He spoke a little English, and they got along well.
They were then held in an air raid shelter in Essen, and various Germans with relatives in the States came by to talk. One of the German soldiers, when asked about the American military, said the artillery was excellent, the Air Corps was excellent, but the infantry was a joke.
Leaving Essen, they were simply passengers on a train, with Willy as guard. There was little point in taking elaborate measures, this far behind the lines, this late in the war. They went through a tunnel, heard planes above and stopped in a rail center. The American pilots would circle the train as a humanitarian act to let the civilians get out. All the civilians left the train and ran up the mountain, while the prisoners and Willy remained inside. The American P-47s bombed the rail center and strafed the train. When the destruction was finished, the civilians came back and started spitting and throwing rocks at the prisoners, but Willy got some German soldiers to protect the prisoners from the civilians. They couldn’t ride the train anymore, and started walking, but Willy made arrangements to have them ride on top of a bus. Willy handed his rifle to Ned as he climbed up to guard them–what was Ned gonna do, start shooting?–and when the bus cleared out, they got inside.
School children would practice their English on them, reciting nursery rhymes and asking simple questions. Ned asked them if they could get tobacco, and they gave the prisoners a bag of tobacco. None of the German people seemed to see the prisoners as enemies, just wretches who had even less than they did, which wasn’t much. The prisoners got one loaf of moldy, soggy black bread per day. Not tasty, but nutritious.
They arrived at the Lindberg prison camp, and were interrogated. A German lieutenant, who spoke very good English, talked with Ned, and Ned said, “Lieutenant, I feel very fortunate, because I don’t know anything that could be of value to the German army. You know more about what I know than I do. I understand that early in the interrogation, before you torture us, you’ll be very kind to us to see if we know anything. I wonder if you could give me a cigarette.” The lieutenant laughed and said he didn’t smoke, but called in a captain who gave Ned five cigarettes in a box. They asked what state he was from. He told them North Carolina, and they asked about a paper shortage they’d heard North Carolina was having. They asked a few questions about gas, and he told them yes, all the soldiers were very well prepared against a gas attack. They asked him if he had any friends in the 15th Army. He’d never heard of the 15th Army. They told him they weren’t surprised. The 15th Army was going to be the army of occupation.
In prison camp, for about a week, they got a big slice of black bread and potato soup, which was just boiled potatoes in dirty water. The lice would crawl over their skin when it was warm.
One day everyone got a full loaf of bread, and were all loaded onto French boxcars. There wasn’t enough room to lie down, only to stand or squat. Each boxcar had a can for water, and one to use as a toilet. Sometimes the water can got filled, sometimes it didn’t; they were always thirsty. They spent the next two days inside a tunnel. When they pulled out they were worried about getting bombed, because none of the boxcars were painted PW (Prisoner of War) and the Americans were bombing like crazy, all over Germany.
The train pulled into a little village. There were small openings covered in barbed wire in the corners of the boxcar, and kids started throwing in tiny green apples. They thought it great fun to hear the prisoners inside yelling and fighting for apples. Ned wondered how many people these poor kids had seen in his condition.
Quite a few prisoners lost their minds. They’d cry. Ned or one of the others would lecture them and tell them to be strong, how everyone was gonna get out and so forth. After seven days, Ned had a premonition. He knew they were getting off the boxcar that day, and started telling everyone. Most of the guys thought he’d lost his mind, too, but they got off! Some guys didn’t. They were too weak, and died right there.
They walked for two or three days, sleeping wherever they stopped. They finally walked into a village, and the villagers brought out a huge washtub full of soup, which was unusual as Germans rarely gave prisoners anything; they often didn’t have anything to give. The prisoners knew it wouldn’t be long before they were liberated, and on the night of March 29th, the guards simply disappeared. A buddy of Ned’s climbed a barn to watch when they heard tanks coming, and they ran to meet the tanks, which were American. The division sent ambulances and trucks for the prisoners and took them to a field hospital, where they burned their rotten, dirty clothes. They were de-loused, showered, got new uniforms and ate and ate and ate. They were sent to Paris and spent two weeks in the hospital, where those who could got frequent passes into the city, and had a wonderful time.
One day Ned was interviewed by a captain, who put Ned’s papers in a basket. When the captain was out of the room Ned saw they were for his next assignment. He threw his papers and the next few under them in the trash, and he and the other few guys spent another two weeks in Paris. After a month, he was shipped home. It was May 8th, 1945. Germany was out of the war and Ned ‘fhpirtpcg’;ofunitedegot a sixty-day furlough. He thought he might have to go to the Pacific, but the atomic bomb ended that. He was discharged in November of 1945, went back to the farm and back to school.
Ned graduated from Mars Hill College, went to New York City and from there summer stock theatre in Surrey, Maine. He never became a preacher, which had been his mother Minnie’s wish. A few years later Boone held a Daniel Boone festival, and from that came an idea to start an outdoor drama like the one currently playing at the coast starring Andy Griffith. A rustic theatre was built on a hill outside town and Ned landed the role of Daniel Boone in “Horn in the West”. My mother Bobbie was a singer in the cast that summer. When he saw her carry off a heavy prop anvil which had carelessly been left onstage, he knew she was the girl for him! After one date, he proposed. She waited until he sobered up, then said yes.
Did the war shape my father’s character? Of course. It shaped everyone’s character, and affected everything. In the 50s cheery musicals were replaced by dark drama. People drank too much. Method acting, the popular style of the 50s, now seems overblown and out of control, but he, along with the rest of the world, felt the need for psychological excess. It affected the kids; the “baby boomers” grew up in a world of fear. At age five, six, eight we’d hear a siren and fly under our desks, assume the kiss-your-ass-goodbye position and wait for the bomb to vaporize us. Metal bracelets we all wore reminded us that we’d be little piles of ashes in a few nanoseconds, but whoever swept up would know which crisp was which by our tags. None of us expected to grow up. I thought I’d be lucky to see fourteen–old enough to drive a motor scooter.
But if we grew up, we knew what to expect. We’d be fighting the Russians, on land, on sea and in space. Smart kids would be rocket scientists.
I was smart. I was the smartest kid in the state; my Stanford Achievement Tests proved it. I’d also been promoted a year, making me the youngest, smallest, and physically least matured–easily bullied by students, teachers, the system and especially by my father. He was brutal, which wasn’t uncommon. I knew lots of kids who were smacked around, whipped, beat up by their fathers. Didn’t make it right.
You get what you give. If you want love, give love. If you want honesty and respect, give honesty and respect. If you want to be remembered as a fine person, be a fine person. There are those who think my father was warm, generous, funny. They saw what he wanted them to see. I knew better. He was mean. He was black tar mean.
I couldn’t trust him. He was pleasant when we’d work together. I shined shoes and cleaned up his barbershop as a kid, and we sold Christmas trees together when I was older, but if I did anything well, be it praiseworthy, notable or simply competent, he’d find a way to wreck it.
For me this was commonplace, ordinary. He was thoroughly, completely, predictably untrustworthy. He’d forget a promise before he’d finished saying it. Sometimes this was carelessness, but often deliberate malice. Why? I don’t know, though I’ve thought about it. A lot.
My father was a deeply jealous man. When he saw innocent, pleasant, happy people he’d make horrid, despicable comments. He once blindsided a polite, cheerful waitress by asking her what it was like to be as ugly as her. He kept it up through dinner, loudly telling his dinner companion, my brother, that if he were that ugly, he’d commit suicide. She ran to the back and cried.
He’s dead now, and I’m relieved. Is that wrong? Should I care? Psychologists say to forgive “for your own good”. Religious leaders quote Jesus and say forgive your enemies, forgive seventy times seven, but if I wave a couple of fingers, make a Jesus face and say “I forgive”, I feel worse, not better. Truth is, I’ve done my seventy times seven. I’ve got no more. I tried to love him. He hated me for it. I have no obligation, no desire, no more room in my bruised heart. It’s over.
I’ll forgive what was done unawares, recklessly, heedless of consequence. Deliberate maliciousness demands a cussing out, and I’ll be done cussing when I’m finished. If that means spitting over the railing in heaven, so be it. I never did anything mean or vindictive to my father. I trusted him. I got a torpedo to the gut. I don’t need psychology. If he had issues from his childhood, from the war, from growing up in the Depression, he can hang around hell and commiserate with Bing Crosby. I’m done.
After the golf course debacle, I should have shaken off the dust, followed my woman and left forever, but I had a misplaced wish to build a life, a business, to be a loyal son, to do right to my utterly undeserving father and to the Austin family who’d lived in the valley for two hundred years. I hadn’t felt at home until I moved to North Carolina. I’d grown up in Colorado, where I hated school and now knew only a few folks from the old neighborhood; in Hollywood, I only kept up with a couple acquaintances from when I managed our rental equipment yard and played in a family band. I had lots of friends in Austin, Texas, where we’d sold Christmas trees for years and everyone remembered my name, but in Boone I had family. I’d built a home. I felt at home.
It didn’t mean as much to Perri. When the plans for the golf course fell through, like seventy-seven hundred other plans of my father’s, I didn’t think twice. To Perri, however, it demonstrated that whatever we did meant zip to him, that we could never trust him. She was correct, but I was blind. I continued working on the earth lodge, but Perri got one apartment, then another. We stayed in our lodge occasionally, then let friends live there, then the dream died.
Leaving Snag End
I’d towed my Model A truck to the earth lodge at Snag End to work on it with Jake and Kevin. Jake had been living on the property in a bus with his wife and kids and was a great help, but Kevin was increasingly erratic. He and Fran had joined a weirdo cult before they got married, and they’d quit the red-haired loony’s church shortly after the wedding but Kevin had taken up drinking. He’d drink a couple beers late at night for a couple weeks, then start after lunch. Soon he’d be walking around at 9am, beer in hand, a week later a liquor bottle would be half-empty at 11am and by 4pm Kevin would do something stupid. He’d quit drinking for a few weeks and the cycle would repeat.
My cousin worked for the school bus garage in South Carolina. There had been a horrible fiery wreck in Kentucky where a drunk driver, going the wrong way on the freeway, had plowed into the passenger side of a bus. “The Carrollton Bus Crash,” took place May 14, 1988. Twenty-four children and three adults died when its gas tank was punctured and exploded. School bus safety was improved, but rather than re-fit every bus in America, the old ones were sold cheap. We bought one for $600. We had to take out all the seats to drive it with a regular driver’s license, but we wanted to use it to haul Christmas trees anyway. It wouldn’t go over 45 miles per hour and only made four or five miles per gallon, so we purchased a 2-speed rear end for another $250. In top gear it now made 60 miles per hour and got seven or eight miles per gallon.
Perri’s friend Cindy had also worked on Beech Mountain. Her parents knew mine, though I didn’t find that out until later. The winter before we met, she’d had an argument with her on-again-off-again boyfriend of many years. He’d stormed off, wrecked his car and died. For many years afterwards Cindy was involved with one inappropriate guy after another–guys who were married, way older, immature, living at home at 40, etc. One day in the late 1990s she and I had a heart-to-heart talk. She realized she’d been picking guys she kinda knew from the start weren’t gonna work, because it wouldn’t hurt so much when they left–or died. Soon afterwards she found a nice guy. They have two kids the same ages as ours.
Perri went to school and found a part-time job delivering pizzas when we moved into the apartment. She had a habit of hitting me when we disagreed, and one day I’d had enough. I spun her around and punched her in the center of her back. That ended it. People say men should never hit a woman, but neither should a woman hit a man. One day I saw a 250-lb. woman on Phil Donahue sitting by her 125-pound husband and she (punch!) said (punch!) that HE’D(punch!) HIT (punch!) HER (punch!)!!! Nobody noticed that she weighed twice as much, and had just punched him five times.
For six months or so we received a subsidized rent, but when I received a raise of 25¢ an hour the rent suddenly doubled. We cleaned up the apartment when we moved out, It was absolutely spotless, but we only received $40 back on our $300 deposit. If I had it to do over I’d have trashed the place and set loose cockroaches. It was a scam pulled by an out-of-town real estate company on a couple with no money. Totally common.
We moved into an apartment outside town, up a steep hill. It was approximately the same size and rent we’d been paying before, but not subsidized and the neighbors were a problem. Below us lived a redneck fellow named Kenny, who was pleasant enough but worked all the time. His pregnant wife, her mother and no-count brother also lived in the one-bedroom apartment. Kenny had two jobs, but the three of them sat around watching TV all day, drinking soda, chain-smoking cigarettes. Kenny’s wife kept a broomstick handy and banged on the ceiling every ten or fifteen minutes while we walked around the apartment. The floor squeaked, but what the hell were we supposed to do? When our neighbors to the left played music, she’d bang on our ceiling. When our neighbors to the right got into arguments she’d bang on the ceiling. We started tromping around at all hours, for no reason. It didn’t matter anyway.
To our right, our neighbors loved the Doors, and when they got into arguments they’d crank up the stereo. We’d hear Jim Morrison braying “Don’t you love her madly?” interspersed with squabbling from her, thundering from him, kids yelling, banging on the ceiling while we walked on the squeaky floor. We were happy that Kenny’s wife kept the temperature cranked up to 80 and the heat came up through our floor. Our power bill was under $50, while theirs was over $300. We even opened the windows to cool things down, a small but delicious compensation.
I made a lot of jewelry that year and took some classes at Appalachian State University, where Perri had transferred. Over spring break Perri’s brother Wes and his girlfriend got a condominium in Florida (it was a perk from her job) and the four of us went to Disney World, visited Perri’s sister Joy and her friends in Sanford, then across the state to see her sister Glee in Sebring and brother Jimmie in Fort Myers. After a couple weeks we headed home. I wanted to visit my two sisters, who were in Melbourne, but Perri wanted to leave. I assented, but not at all happily. We’d visited with her family for two weeks, and if we couldn’t see my sisters for a day I wasn’t sure I wanted to be with her anymore. She saw my glum mood and we stopped, visiting my sister Genny, her husband Suzuki and my sister Laura.
I’d had a green 1972 Dodge Coronet for a couple years, a great car that didn’t get very good gas mileage, and bought a Toyota station wagon from my brother, who’d become a used car salesman. The Toyota had 160,000 miles but came with a little notebook in the glove box detailing everything that had been done it, a habit I immediately adopted.
We stayed at Mountain Ridge apartments through the winter of ’85. I got a job selling ski tickets at Beech Mountain. It was crazy enough driving up the road home in deep snow, much less up Beech Mountain. One day I had to put on the “chains” supplied by Toyota, little clamps with two chains about six inches apart. The tire would spin and grab, spin and grab. I got up the mountain an hour late and used a full tank of gas. I stayed at my supervisor’s condo that night and thereafter took the four-wheel-drive Subaru while Perri drove the Toyota to school.
On the Beech
Selling tickets was fun. On busy days I’d take in $20,000 or $30,000, one day $50,000, but most days, especially early or late in the season, I’d bring a book. I’d read a book a day, sometimes in Spanish, which I was mastering.
We split from Mountain Ridge Apartments in the spring of 1986. Perri started classes down the mountain in Morganton while I stayed in the earth lodge. We’d bought an Oldsmobile from Suzuki and I suggested to Genny that with the money they should take a vacation out West. They did, and had a great time, but Suzuki wanted to stay in San Francisco while Genny wanted to be a star in New York. They eventually divorced, though she called him, late at night, for years.
I took classes at Appalachian and worked with a couple rock masons on the off days. We built chimneys, walkways, patios, and I’d pick up leftover pieces of plywood and 2x4s from job sites and put them in the earth lodge. By the fall of 1986 it was a solid structure. That summer and fall I sold jewelry, flutes and toys at Mystery Hill, a tourist attraction along the Blowing Rock Highway, and found that my best sellers were stained glass kaleidoscopes. In late 1986 I made one which combined a color wheel and a tumble box, and christened it a Kallistoscope.
O Canada
For spring break of ’86 we started for a camp-out with my Earth Studies class, packed the Subaru and waited, but nobody showed. It was supposed to be the last weekend of Easter break, not the first. Since we already had everything packed we picked up our champagne bottle with 2-1/2 years’ worth of dimes in it and with the $200 or so and an Exxon card headed north. We drove to Niagara Falls, crossed into Canada, and then called everyone back home, who’d thought we were in Virginia! We toured Canada for the afternoon, bought souvenirs, then went to Cortland, NY, where I had many friends from five years of hitchhiking through town. I’d often stayed with Barb, who was out of town, but Eileen was there. We stayed the night and I kissed her goodbye, for the first, and last, time.
In New Jersey we visited Kevin’s parents while we got the shock absorbers to the Subaru replaced. The mechanic couldn’t believe how worn-out they were. Four years of gravel mountain roads had destroyed them completely. No resistance whatever. We tried to pay with our Sears Discover card, but Sears in New Jersey didn’t take a card from North Carolina. We had to arrange a round-about transaction from one bank, to another, to another, to put money in Kevin’s mother’s bank account to pay the mechanic. We stayed in New Jersey while the car was being fixed. I went with Kevin’s brother. I ordered my first legal drink of liquor, in a bar connected to a liquor store. I was 33, but had never ordered anything but beer or wine in North Carolina and during my five years of thumbing around hadn’t gone in any liquor bars. It felt strange ordering “whiskey”, then came the question, what kind?
I didn’t know. I was a country hick. I was even wearing overalls.
Kevin’s brother was wild and crazy, but friendly and very funny, like Kevin. We rode his three-wheeler ATV, a style popular in 1986 but even then being phased out for the far safer four-wheelers. One of the fellows on a four-wheeler hit a guy-wire and it snapped, flailing about wildly. It was fortunate he had a four wheeler. It now had a deep dent in the front, but on a three-wheeler he’d likely have lost his arm, his head, or both.
They told a story about a friend. A local landowner had stretched a cable across his private road. Their friend had gone riding, and the cable had taken off his head. The landowner was convicted of manslaughter.
Kevin’s parents were gracious and accommodating. They put us up, fed us, showed us around town and gave us a few dollars when we left. A few months later Kevin’s brother got a new job, celebrated, did too much cocaine and died.
We visited New York City for the afternoon, where my brother’s boyfriend Rob commented on my overalls. It hadn’t occurred to me that overalls were a fashion statement; they were convenient for travel, but in New York City, for what other reason than fashion would I wear them?
Shortly afterwards my youngest sister graduated from Warren Wilson College. We visited her in Asheville in May. It’s a lovely area, tucked into the mountains, and she got a job as a recruiter for the college, where she recruited our sister Genny.
My father asked me to draw the horoscope for a sale of our tree farm that year, to a fast-talking preacher. I warned him, but it was like pissing in the wind. Since we were getting out of the business, I rented a shop. I planned to get started with the half interest he’d promised me, but when I brought it up the promise he looked at me like I’d lost my mind. The shop went under, the preacher cut down hundreds of trees, sold them, didn’t pay up, and we got the tree farm back, minus all the best trees. I went back to trimming them, my “half interest” a big fat zero.
I lived in the earth lodge that winter and sold tickets on Beech Mountain again, while Perri found work student teaching in Alamance County. I’d visit one or two weekends a month.
A few years earlier, I’d occasionally dated a goofy, hilariously funny girl named Terry Smith. I knew her family well; she was a sweet, intelligent girl who’d been off to college, but now was back in town. I’d drawn her astrology chart years before, and now she wanted me to tell her about it. I told her to drop by. She came one night when it had snowed, and I was stuck on Beech Mountain. She pulled into my driveway and put a hose from her tailpipe into her Volkswagen bus. She was found the next day.
I learned later it wasn’t the first time she’d tried to kill herself. More like the fifth. I’d known her for years, but had no idea.

Perri’s parents had given us a VCR for Christmas, a top-loader with no real remote control, only a tiny box attached by wire, with buttons for play, pause, fast forward and rewind. There was a row of thirteen buttons on the front, and each could be manually tuned into a television channel using a hidden thumbscrew. I’d been practicing my Spanish, and had taped Spanish TV when I could, but only had 2 or 3 tapes. I’d play them all night while I slept, with the sound low and the picture dimmed.
After moving down the mountain Perri took a job at the local mall in a store called Just My Size, for larger women. I moved down in the spring. We’d socialize with her colleagues, sometimes taping movies from cable to watch together. One afternoon we’d seen a movie starring a popular punk rocker, Wendy O. Williams. We thought Steve and Chris had cable, but they’d spent good money to rent a VCR and the same not-very-good movie, which we watched again!
I worked on my kaleidoscopes and by the spring of ’87 had come up with an original and creative design. I’d sold a few at flea markets and acquired a regular customer who had a booth at a flea market and later a shop in Greensboro, the first place to sell my Kallistoscopes and puzzle rings.
My last winter in Texas, I’d caught a bad strain of the flu, and couldn’t shake it, never really felt like I was over it. The next summer I’d be absolutely exhausted after work, and in winter I’d catch it again. None of the pills worked. I thought it was chronic fatigue syndrome, a popular, non-specific ailment, and got interested in herbal remedies. They worked, but demanded a different mind-set. People are accustomed to taking pills, but herbal remedies require what seem to be massive amounts. Instead of one tiny pill four times a day, it’s a full cup of tea every hour.
In the spring of 1987 when the ski slope shut down I moved to Alamance County. Perri had found a tiny house about a mile from school and was student teaching special education. I was trying to make a go of kaleidoscopes and jewelry. My intent to have a profession that didn’t involve working in a particular place, so that I could pack up and move back to the mountains without a lot of complications. I made kaleidoscopes in the back room, drove around the state and sold them. It worked okay for awhile. Sometimes I’d come home with a thousand dollars, sometimes a hundred, but Perri had a steady salary, and as far as I knew we were planning to move back in a few months. Perri had put in for a teacher’s position in Boone. She hadn’t heard back yet, but it was no great surprise in a town centered around a teacher’s college. Sooner or later, her name would come up.
In the fall Perri was a teacher at Hillcrest School, minding emotionally troubled kids in special education, with an assistant Pat, who with her husband Randy and kids Carly and Leah became good friends. Another family was her colleague Loretta, married to Charles, with a daughter Jennifer.
We’d gotten a PCjr. computer from a fellow who worked for IBM; he’d supercharged it and now it had ten times the power of the computers Perri was using at school. A mind-blowing, exceptional 640K of memory.
We got a tree lot at the mall in Burlington at the Sears store–they had an outside garden area, unused after the fall. About a week into the season the Sears manager wanted us to pay the rent and all the expected percentage of the profits, up front, before we’d sold anything. We hadn’t been specific about when the rent and percentage of the sales would be paid, but that was ridiculous. I charged it to my Discover card and put Sears last on my shit list. My parents had a similar problem with Sears. They’d been loyal customers for 20 years, but after moving from Colorado to California were suddenly slapped with a $250 limit on purchases, which meant no washer-dryer combo in their new house. The next year I rented a lot in town from a fellow who’d been a customer and also said to hell with Sears.
In 1988 Perri and I married. On Leap Day we ran off to Danville, Virginia, not telling anyone what we were doing. We’d thought about it years before when we’d gone to Niagara Falls, but the secret plan got out and it didn’t seem so fun. By 1988 nobody suspected, except one of Perri’s colleagues who figured it out on her own, and gave us a nice basket of champagne and sweets. We’d made wedding bands for each other and wore them afterwards, but as both of us wore a lot of jewelry for sales purposes, nobody noticed. It wasn’t until October that my youngest sister asked about my ring. I wore it for several years, but one day when soldering a glob of molten metal rolled off a kaleidoscope and into the open-weave design of the ring, where it badly burned my finger. I stopped wearing jewelry while working, and eventually altogether.
The house we’d rented was four rooms with an open area in the center where the living room, kitchen and bedrooms met. To the back the bedroom had a half-size door for a half-size bathroom. Behind the kitchen was a small workshop, and behind that a deck. The second bedroom we used for a den, and there was a staircase in the den leading to the attic, finished and insulated but with only about 5’9” headroom, in the center, which wasn’t enough us to use comfortably. My sister Fran left her husband Kevin later that spring, though, and it proved perfect for her and her four kids. They’d left North Carolina when Kevin got his fourth DUI and stayed in Arizona while Kevin got ever more crazy. Genny and Suzuki visited them on their western tour, and Suzuki gifted Kevin with a fancy Japanese sushi knife, since he was working as a cook. Kevin later attacked Fran with the knife, and cut off her hair. She took her two toddler boys and premature, twin baby girls–one on oxygen, the other brain damaged–and left. We had a nicely finished attic with bright, painted walls and wall-to-wall carpeting, which only had about 5’10” headroom down its center~cramped for me but perfect for her and the kids. When Kevin found out where she was and started calling, we bought an answering machine. He filled up its hour-long tapes with angry, drunken rants. Fran took up with, and later married, a fellow named Rob she’d known since she was ten, and they moved in together after six weeks,. There were now three Robs in the family–my brother, my other brother’s boyfriend and my sister’s husband.
Six months later, Beth came to Boone. I’d been crazy about her, but she’d run off with a guitar player. After twelve years, she’d gotten divorced, in the same month I’d married. We had a long talk. I had a hard time getting to sleep that night.
In August of ’88 Perri and I took our second trip to the Outer Banks, with Loretta, Charles and Jennifer. I sold a few scopes in a shop in Ocracoke and on the ferry back from the southern islands opened up the hatchback and set several on display. I sold a couple to ferryboat passengers and met a fellow named Roger who owned a frame shop in the little town of Inman, SC. He bought several, and became a regular customer. We visited many places we’d not stopped before; Spot, Duck, the USS North Carolina. We camped out on the beach.
Our dog Daphne was hit by a car that summer. We’d been driving a few miles to the YMCA, playing racquetball and swimming, and sometimes she’d ride along. We’d walked home with her one time when the car had a flat, and some days later we’d left her at home. She decided to find us, and was walking to the YMCA when she was hit. The driver took her to the vet, and she lost a couple teeth but otherwise recovered.
Perri had her own classroom that fall at Hillcrest School, a glorified closet on the top floor of a building which had been built in 1931 and had no air conditioning. The first couple weeks were sweltering, but after September it became a nice cozy room to deal with the dozen or so kids who were too disruptive to stay in regular classrooms. She was happy to be teaching and had a good year, though her whole purpose was to take “emotionally disturbed” kids, who wouldn’t mind anyone else–teachers, parents, nobody–and make them mind her. She was good at it, too, but it’d lead to problems between us.
In the winter of that year I was off selling Kallistoscopes in the Subaru while Perri had the Oldsmobile. There was an ice storm, Perri couldn’t get the car out of the driveway and the power was out. She was in the cold dark house with the Oldsmobile stuck uselessly in the driveway, and decided to walk to the little store a block away and buy a soda. She got bundled up, put on her boots, headed out, slipped along the ice and tromped through the snow to the little store on the corner–but it was closed because of the weather. She went to the soda machine. It was working–but she only had one dollar bill, and the machine wouldn’t take it. She trudged back home again, glummer than before.
We taped hundreds of movies, because we knew we weren’t going to stay in the little house and didn’t want to pay for cable TV after moving. When we left we had about 400 or 500 movies. We listed them in a booklet we’d printed in the unmistakable dot-matrix computer print font which was universal in the ‘80s. We soon learned how fast we could see every last movie a half-a-dozen times each!
For Thanksgiving ’88 our parents had a get-together. Sam, his boyfriend Rob and my sister Genny were all down from New York; Perri and I were up for the weekend. Genny had offered my parents’ farm as a temporary home for a dog while her friend was out of the country, a big, dumb Irish setter named Leo. Perri and I were in my old room on the former front porch, Sam and Rob were upstairs. On Thanksgiving morning, first thing, Perri and I were awakened by Rob booming out, “Leo, you fat, stupid pig!!!” Rob had come downstairs to breakfast and discovered Leo had stolen the turkey and scarfed up so much that he’d puked all over the floor at the bottom of the stairs.
Our landlord Teddy had had a rough month. He split up with his wife and his brother died in a cycle wreck. He wanted to move back into the little house. We could’ve crammed everything in a jumble into the bus after Christmas, but he gave us an extra month. Perri moved in with her old friend Cindy, who was now living in Burlington. I stayed in the mountains and unsuccessfully tried to show the farmhands down the road how to make parts for kaleidoscopes.
We snuck in to see our new house. It was lovely, built in 1940 on a lot just under 2 acres. There were splendid archways leading from the living room and dining room into the hallway, and the kitchen had been accessorized with a breakfast bar which went through the wall into the den. Except for the kitchen, den and bathroom, which were linoleum, it had wall-to-wall carpeting. A couple of window-unit air conditioners and an oil-burning furnace under a grating in the floor controlled the heat. There were two very nice fireplaces, a large open front porch and an enclosed back porch. It had been remodeled ten or fifteen years before, and city water lines had just been installed, though the well still functioned. The property included a vacant lot to the right, while a small house to the left had been given to a daughter and the lot split off. There had been a well serving both houses, but a new well was dug many years beforehand.
A grapevine in the side yard was supported by a few old pipes torn out when the house plumbing had been replaced. There was a carport and a small cement-block building in the backyard plus a tumbledown wooden shed way out back which had a very large overhanging roof. It looked as if it had been a barn but half had been torn down.
With the bus packed and parked at Steve and Chris’ house, Perri stayed with Cindy and I spent the month in the earth lodge. We moved into our new digs in March. I set up my workshop on the back porch. Perri had applied for work in Boone, but hadn’t heard back. I wanted my work portable, for when we moved back within a year or two. Kallistoscopes, jewelry, toys–these could be made anywhere.We bought the house as an investment which we could sell or rent out when the time came.
Our dog Daphne was around 20 years old by now. She’d arrived at my parents’ house fully grown some 17 or 18 years before, and had adopted us when we lived at the earth lodge. She rode everywhere with me. I took her to work on Beech Mountain and she waited outside the ticket booth. She’d been slowing down and Perri’s father had given us some veterinary medicine, as her heart was failing. That spring my father was also in the hospital; he had quintuple bypass surgery and because our house was a lot closer to the hospital than the mountains were, everyone stayed with us. While he was recovering, Daphne died. We wrapped her in her favorite quilt and buried her under the magnolia tree in the side yard. It was Hitler’s 100th birthday.
Daphne had gotten incontinent in her old age and the carpeting stunk. We’d already pulled up the lime-green shag carpeting in the spare bedroom so I could use it as a glass workshop. Now we pulled out the olive green carpeting in the living room, dining room and hallway, leaving only the main bedroom. Under it all was a lovely oak floor. It seemed strange that anyone would cover up an oak floor with wall-to-wall carpeting, but that was the style. When we visited the older couple who fixed our lawnmower, we started telling the story and realized, halfway through, that they had wall-to-wall carpeting even in the bathroom, undoubtedly considering it the height of luxury!
About six weeks after Daphne died, Perri met a woman outside the grocery store giving away puppies. She found that the pups were born on the same day, and arranged to bring me one for my 36th birthday. Angel came home that June 3rd.
I felt strange about my 36th birthday because I’d noted many years earlier that Marilyn Monroe’s chart and mine were very similar, and Marilyn had died when she was 36. I didn’t consider it relevant that Andy Griffith was born on the same day and was still going strong.
Perri had not been out West since she was a baby, so when school let out in 1989 we traveled to Colorado. I wanted her to see my old stomping grounds and meet buddies from high school. We drove through the never-ending plains of Kansas and finally saw the mountains, way in the distance, at the Colorado line. We got a chuckle from a postcard offered in Kanorado, on the Kansas border, advertising inexpensive accommodations to skiers–the slopes were over 250 miles away!
Many in the East have no concept of Western distances. Some friends from New England planned a trip to Colorado and thought that over the weekend they’d drive to Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, since both were but one state away. Yes–but from Denver that’s a round trip of over 2000 miles!
By late afternoon we’d arrived, and Perri wanted to look for a place to stay but I insisted we go straight to Monk’s house. His mother gave us the spare bedroom. We spent several days exploring the mountains, visiting with friends, going to parties with Monk and his siblings. Monk had left the Hare Krishnas. My brother and I had taken him to the temple in Boulder in 1971; he’d joined in March 1973 and left five years later, though he still went to the temple. I’d thumbed through shortly after he’d quit the monk life and we had a few beers, which was the first time since that he’d had intoxicants. Once or twice a year I’d thumb through and keep in touch. He married for a few years Tara, a gal he knew from the temple, then briefly a “wild Indian”, whom I never met. By 1989 he was married to Carissa.
We went by their apartment and had a nice visit. At one point Perri and I were in the other room, passing around a joint, when I heard a commotion in the living room. There was a coked-up guy yelling that Monk owed him money and brandishing a gun. I introduced myself and held out my hand. To shake hands he had to put the gun away, and I explained we were visitors from out of town, that I didn’t know what was going on but it could all be worked out later and now wasn’t the time for it. He left quietly. Monk and the rest were dumbfounded and grateful beyond words. I didn’t think it was such a big deal. I calmly and sensibly told him to come back later, but everyone else was amazed. For the rest of the night Carissa blatantly tried to seduce me, touching me, flashing me from the other room. She was a good-looking woman, but I didn’t need the drama.
Monk invited us to stay the night, but I didn’t want the complication. In the next few days we visited all the brothers and sisters, sold enough kaleidoscopes and jewelry to finance the trip and visited all the haunts I knew as a kid. We went to Boulder and drove along the timberline, went to the Botanical Gardens, City Park and the Museum of Natural History. It was a lovely visit, and though I’d intended to come back the next year for my 20th high school reunion, we’d seen everything and everyone important and I discovered I didn’t have that much interest in coming back the next summer to meet my old classmates. I’d been living in North Carolina for 15 years, and visiting with a woman in tow who’d never been there I found the difference striking. I’d been very much the hippie, but my hair and beard were now trimmed short, while Monk had gone from the shaved pate of the Krishna devotee to wilder and woolier than ever.
Our clothes were subtly different, too. Perri and I had packed along several brightly tie-dyed and patterned shirts we’d acquired at a “Charlie’s Tobacco Field Festival” my cousin’s boyfriend had put together, a “Redneck Woodstock” where we camped overnight in the bus. We sold a few things but made more money selling kaleidoscope “views” for a quarter each. Monk’s sister Margaret especially loved the shirts, which were common in the South but caused a sensation in Colorado, and she sent us several Colorado themed shirts in exchange. Fashion is like that. What’s common in one region is unknown in another, and when an outsider comes to town, there’s a new fad.
After returning we settled back to life in the country. We had three big pecan trees in the backyard and baby ones sprouting in the field, which I carefully mowed around. In the spring I transplanted them. We fixed up the house, replacing the tiny and inadequate squatty little water heater stuffed under the bathroom with a standard one relocated to the back porch. When the sales girl tried to load it into my car I was apprehensive about helping.
I felt a proper respect for womanly strength and ability precluded my manly desire to load it, lest I be labelled a sexist pig. It was difficult to be courteous to women in the 80s, they didn’t want help. A strong liberated feminist needed a man “like a fish needs a bicycle”. Unfortunately, women who tried to do manly things weren’t very good at it. Such was the ‘80s. Try to help a woman, she’d be pissed. Let her do it herself, she’d be pissed.
I made twelve dozen scopes that year. I’d settled on design elements which made them easy and fast to assemble as well as beautiful and strong. Many kaleidoscopes were made with 150 pieces or more; mine used 25 or 30. I’d found a “coaster/ashtray”, made by a glass company in Indiana, that was perfect for the tumble box, sturdy and distinctive on the end of the scope and with the added advantage of lighting up around the edge when viewed in strong light–but it was soon discontinued, so I bought a kiln and made my own, with “Kallistoscope” and “DJ & PJ Austin” molded into the glass.
A mirror which worked well, front-surfaced quartz glass, is now used with laser readers everywhere but in 1989 was new, different, expensive and hard to cut. I broke a lot of it before I discovered carbide glass cutters.
Thanksgiving was the big occasion in Perri’s family, and we went to Beech Mountain for the week. We did some rock climbing and visited with JB and KC, friends from work. KC had been adopted, later found that the initials for her born name and her adopted name were both KC, and JB simply preferred initials. We had a lovely time and have a souvenir picture JB took from under the table at the bar, featuring KC’s underwear. KC’d been married to Dave, who’d had an affair with a co-worker named Sherri. They split, KC had moved back to Pennsylvania for awhile and was now happy and single.
We filled the bus with trees and took them to Burlington. Our tree lot was next to a little store owned by Richard, who’d bought a tree the year before. He saw my signs and hired me to paint a couple, which tripled his deli business. I camped in a tent and Loretta and Charles watched the lot for a couple evenings in exchange for my editing of Charles’ doctoral dissertation. It had been rejected twice, but after I’d cut it by about half Charles received his doctorate.
We went to Boone for Christmas, and then it was…
The Nineties
Our house had oil heat the first year. We only heated half, but the bill was over $150 per month, so we brought the woodstove from the earth lodge and installed it in the living room. My mother was happy to see the Fisher stove leave; as long as it was still at the earth lodge it could’ve been carted back to the house, and she didn’t want it, given my father’s propensity for accidents. Her hearth had never been constructed properly and the farmhouse was also better insulated than in their first winter, when snow blew through the walls and the water froze in the toilet. She was tired of the aggravation and ashes, but I kept a record and found that we spent one-twentieth as much on heat!
Perri’s family had a reunion that March in Florida. Her brother Wes drove a Budweiser truck and she danced as Spuds Mackenzie for a promotion. Everyone showed up in “Old Calvin Mill” T-shirts and Perri was VERY happy to take off the Spuds Mackenzie outfit, which was way too hot. We stayed with Wes and Helen and their little dog Wilhelmina, who had a freakishly pronounced underbite and whose name was longer than she was. We visited Sanibel Island, passed through Silver Springs, saw Perri’s sisters in Sebring and Sanford, but as we passed St. Augustine I wanted to visit my sisters. Perri didn’t want to. I said drop me off and I’d hitchhike. I meant it. She stopped. We had a nice visit.
My youngest sister Laura had graduated from Warren Wilson College five years before and now was working as a recruiter for Tusculum, a small college in Tennessee. My sister Genny was now graduating and we spent four days in Asheville visiting the local attractions. We explored the Biltmore estate, which can properly be called a castle, and later that evening we met a friend of Laura’s, a recruiter for the University of North Carolina named Robbie, who invited everyone to his “Let’s Kick Dick Nixon Around Again” party, scheduled on his resignation anniversary, August 8th each year. This annual party morphed into a decades-long once a month gathering of a wide variety of friends loosely associated with UNC, including local musicians, merchants, professors and visitors.
There was a balloon festival in Burlington when we returned, and colorful, original balloons filled the sky. It happened every Memorial Day weekend for years, but was discontinued in the late 1990’s.
In August my mother’s family had a reunion in Boone, the first for them in many years. For decades my father’s family had two about a week apart each summer, one for his father’s family and one for his grandfather’s, but they lived in the area. It was new for my mother’s family, who came in from all over, Maine to Florida to California. We spent a week canoeing local rivers, climbing mountains, mining for gems, seeing sights and telling stories. My mother’s family had roots in colonial Massachusetts, Georgia, Florida and Indiana, where a doctor ancestor had gone to practice after the Civil War but instead brought a beautiful young woman back to Florida with her piano. There were at least three versions of how the piano was transported to Florida, including wagons and canals and barges and one involving a hurricane and piano lessons on the high seas, but the truth was that a railroad had already been laid for most of the journey.
In the fall we were back in Swepsonville. Perri was teaching school and in the afternoons took our dog Angel to the playground after hours, where she’d climb the slide ladder and slide to the bottom. This proved a mistake, as one day she went there on her own, crossed the highway and was hit. She was born on Hitler’s 100th birthday and died on John Lennon’s 50th. I mixed up whatever liquors we had in the pantry and called it an Angel–vodka, spiced rum, creme de menthe, cherry kirsch, a little Kahlua, some cream, a few flakes of coconut. Her colors, and quite good.
In December that year my father came down to help sell Christmas trees. One of us would stay on the lot in the bus, which had a bed, hot plate, coffee pot, radio and TV. We got along well enough but when he went back to the mountains he stole my Skilsaw, which had my name ground into the handle in letters one inch high and 1/4 inch deep. I didn’t know what happened to it.
Ringo was born on Halloween of 1990, and we brought him home for Christmas. Our friends Jeff and Sue’s dog had puppies, and he was the smallest of the litter. Their daughter had christened him Bingo, but when we saw he had a “ring go’ round his tail” we called him Ringo. He was so small he could fit in the corner of the windshield behind the inspection sticker and in my jacket when I unbuttoned the top button. I walked him around the perimeter of our property every day and picked flowers for the kitchen. Our property line was well-defined in the back and sides with trees and ditches and we planted a couple dozen “red tips” along the front. The first night, Ringo dug up 8 or 10 in a row. We replanted, but they never came up right. We replaced them with crepe myrtles.
Randy and Pat had a little white dog named Oscar. One day shortly after Angel died they brought Oscar play with the neighbor dog, but he ran into the road and was killed. They also got a Christmas puppy, a small dark cockapoo they named Tangles. Both had been born on Halloween! Thy had a wonderful time chasing each other and digging in the yard. Ringo never stopped digging. He was a wonderful, smart dog, part pit bull and part Walker hound, loyal, brave and protective, but never outgrew the digging. We had a cement block work shed in the back yard and he dug so much under the back corner that both walls were undermined and developed huge cracks.
Since our anniversary is Feb. 29th, which only happens every four years, I always did special things on Valentine’s Day. After many years of heart earrings and heart themed glass boxes and rings with dangly hearts and such, it was hard to think up something original, but I cut a dozen pieces of wood into the letters “U” and “B” and buried them in Ringo’s hole. That morning I gave her a shovel and told her to dig in the corner–and she dug up a biscuit! Ringo had buried it on top of my project from the night before, but she dug a little deeper and found the wood. I told her it was a “wood U-B mine”.
We took another trip to Florida in the spring of 1991. Chris and Steve moved. We had a bus, so we drove them down. With its two-speed rear end, it went 60 mph down the freeway for several hours. We drove through North and South Carolina, the bus going a little slower, a little slower. We got off the freeway when our speed slowed to 45, and poked along through rural South Carolina looking at all the little houses with the blue lines around the windows and doors–to keep out the voodoo. By late afternoon our bus was making 35 miles an hour and we decided to pull into the parking lot of an auto parts place. It was 6pm, but they were closed for the night. We parked and walked next door to a musty motel, the Chat-n-Rest. We then went across the street to the Chat-n-Chew. After a chat, a chew and rest, I climbed under the hood the next morn, found the gas filter was clogged and got a new one from the parts place. We arrived in Jacksonville and spent a couple nights. While Chris, Steve and their son Jason unloaded their stuff we visited with Perri’s friend Kathy from high school, who lived in Jax with her new husband Gary.
When we’d unloaded, Steve rode back with us to pick up his car and we discovered “bus surfing”. With the seats out, there was nothing to hang on to, and as the bus swayed and shifted, maintaining balance felt like surfing. The floorboard had hundreds of 1/4” holes where the seats had been attached, and in a rain the spray came through the holes, making the illusion even more real.
My brother Robin decided to take up barbering that fall. The barber school was in Winston-Salem, closer to us than to Boone, so he stayed with us through the week and went home on the weekends for the next 6 months.
We had a push mower for the lawn, and Loretta and Charles gave us another which they said needed repair. I took the cap off the gas tank, which was from a 3-liter Pepsi bottle, replaced it with a real gas cap and it was fine. Now we could mow together, but as we had close to two acres this was still quite a job, so we bought an old Craftsman riding mower.
We visited Florida again that summer. It was Wes’s 30th birthday and we spent a week in Naples, drinking lots of Budweiser, partying and visiting several places in southern Florida, including taking a boat ride which was supposed to end up in the Dry Tortugas but which was cut short because of weather. We visited Perri’s older brother, a chiropractor in Fort Meyers, and on the way back passed through Sanford, where Perri’s sister Joy gave us a dishwasher. It barely squeezed into our little hatchback, and we roped all our luggage on top. We installed it, and it worked fine all week. We then left to visit my sister for the weekend.
When we returned the connection had popped off. The entire house was flooded, except for the one bedroom which was still carpeted. It’d been spared due to our uneven floor, which at 50 years old had settled. We mopped up for a couple days, but it became obvious we couldn’t do it all. We called in the insurance company, tore up the remaining carpet and linoleum and had contractors refinish the beautiful oak flooring underneath. We took out the window to the bathroom and set up a ladder through the window to get in and out, and climbed in through our bedroom window from the front porch. We had a lot of firewood we’d packed onto the bus that year from Perri’s father’s property development, and piled it up to enclose the front porch. Our furniture was all piled in the bedroom, the front porch or the bus. I made the porch my workshop for the summer while renovations were underway. Once the floors were done, we continued. By now I’d crawled under the house to fix plumbing, put antenna wire to all the rooms, replace the antenna wire with coaxial cable, jack up the house, again and again. I was tired of crawling.
We’d financed the house with three loans. One we signed for, a second co-signed with her parents and a third with mine. Keeping up with three different payments was a pain and we wanted to refinance, but the house appraised at a lower value. After the flood Joy and her husband Howard came to visit, and we renovated the kitchen, the bath, added a half-bath and trashed the 1970s paneling. Underneath was heart pine, and after a few coats of spar varnish it was beautiful all by itself. We put in closets, ceiling fans, display cases. When the house was appraised again, its value was up $15,000 on an investment of $6000, all on credit cards. We refinanced, and paid them off.
I’d planted 100 or so pecan trees, and we started a garden, with a couple friends sharecropping. Bobby was Vicky’s fiance, and though their daughter Misty was seven or eight years old Vicky kept putting off the wedding and they lived apart, she with her parents. Bobby worked the garden that year and the next, but late the following summer he was starting a business with a friend. He was working on the hydraulics to a dump truck, his friend came back from lunch and saw Bobby’s feet sticking out from under the bucket.
The funeral was truly heartbreaking. They’d never married, Misty had no daddy and the preacher didn’t know him. Bobby hadn’t been to church, but the preacher did his best, calling him a different drummer. It was our second funeral for a contemporary since moving down the mountain. We visited Vicky and Misty that night and drank up Bobby’s beer.
In late February 1993 I went to sell scopes in New York City. I stayed with my brother for a week and my sister for another, but sold nothing. I helped Genny clean out her apartment. We filled fifty lawn-size trash bags. She had magazines with unread articles, clothes intended for Goodwill, broken furniture and appliances. She wouldn’t throw away the magazines until I showed her similar articles which appeared every month. When I left, her apartment was in order.
On the train home I conversed with a Puerto Rican in Spanish. I held my own, and we played cards with a souvenir Amtrak deck. He told me the names of the four suits–espadas for spades, corazones for hearts, diamantes for diamonds and flores or “flowers” for clubs. I told him “diamantes para las bonitas, flores para las feas”–diamonds for the pretty girls, flowers for the ugly ones, my first joke in Spanish. We laughed, and a woman across from us shifted uneasily. I asked her, would she rather have flowers, or diamonds?
Seven Year Itch
I’d thought by now we’d finished renovating, but Perri wanted to keep going. Every comment turned into another project. One day I looked out the window and decided our grapevines needed a little more support. I was going to add another pipe to the two pipes laid across a couple of clothesline “Ts” we had. Perri instead wanted to replace the structure with a grape arbor, which involved buying a dozen 4x4s, four panels of heavy lattice, several 2x6s, a post-hole digger, a couple gallons of water seal and assorted nails, bolts and tools. Early in the process she stepped in a post hole and broke her foot, and for the next couple weeks I built the grape arbor and did all the work around the house while she sat with her foot in the air and stewed.
I knew her nasty mood was due to the broken foot, but after ten or twelve days of unrelenting criticism I let her have it. It was the first time I’d been exasperated enough to scream since we’d been in the new house, but it wouldn’t be the last.
Perri had a difficult job, and it was no help that her friend Loretta was a harsh woman. Perri fell into a pattern, coming home after a rough day and screaming at me for whatever caught her attention. I spent more time cleaning (the wrong way), organizing (the wrong way), washing (the wrong way), mowing (the wrong way), trimming trees (the wrong way), making the bed (the wrong way) or cooking (the wrong way), and less working on scopes. Instead of appreciated I was criticized; my business was “my hobby”, I was doing nothing, she everything. It’s a destructive spiral, not uncommon, and often starts after seven years. Right on schedule.
I’d moved to the flatlands specifically because we weren’t planning to stay. Because of that I’d established a crafts business, but she managed the bills, and my contribution was simply thrown into the pot. She’d applied in the mountains but hadn’t heard back. If I brought it up she’d get mad. If I brought up the mountains in any way she’d get mad.
It’s difficult job to teach kids nobody wants. They need love, but don’t get it at home, and teachers aren’t parents. Teachers of the emotionally disturbed don’t even leave their problems for someone else. Next year, same kids, plus or minus a few. Some have terrible stories. One kid lived with his father and stepmother. One day he found out a secret. His father had killed his mother, and had been in prison. I liked him; he was wild and difficult but seemed a good kid stuck in a bad place. He’d stay with us for a week or two and do yardwork. One day trimming the yard he accidentally “ringed” a young tree, which will grow back from the root but the top is doomed. It was a simple mistake, but he turned ashen, shaking as if his execution was imminent when I wasn’t even mad. He was well-behaved when with us, which was why Perri was a great teacher. We talked about adopting him.
Shortly after we were married, she’d gotten an abortion. I disagreed but didn’t feel it was my call. Twice before a girlfriend of mine got an abortion, but neither told me until later. I’d have been happy to marry either one. If it would’ve been a good match is another question, but afterwards it didn’t matter. It was a breach of trust for them to tell me nothing, and the romance was dead.
Perri had plans which didn’t involve a child. My sister Fran had other plans. She knew one of her twins would be brain damaged and had been given the option to abort one, but kept both and led a complicated life.
There are several sides to the question. As a teenager I checked groceries in a store near what was called a home for unwed mothers. Girls came through, bellies out to there, paid with checks and presented a shiny new Colorado driver’s license, replacing one from Texas or Nebraska. They’d show up a dozen times and then disappear, their babies in an orphanage. The lucky ones were adopted, but if they stayed a year they were quite likely to grow up unwanted, unloved, a bother. A problem.
I’m not of the opinion that these poor, lost, luckless souls are better alive and unloved than never born. Foes of abortion don’t deal think about thousands of kids without any parents at all. Adoption wonderful when there’s a shortage of kids and an excess of couples. It’s a terrible answer when there are too many kids.
So are the other options. In ancient times unwanted babies were smothered at birth, left by the side of the road, floated down the river in baskets, sold into slavery. They’d grow up gladiators, street urchins. Populations which had grown large would start wars with their neighbors, kill them and move into their houses.
A crime which was common a century ago is now so obsolete that most people don’t know what it is. A woman running a “baby farm” would take in babies, supposedly to find them homes, but soon enough they’d die of “natural causes”. She’d starve them, smother them, bury them in the field or feed them to her pigs.
Safe, hygienic abortions also, make no mistake about it, save lives. On one side of town girls would “vacation”, shopping in the grocery store around the corner; across the tracks the high school lost a girl or two every year or two for “unexplained reasons”. That said, I don’t feel abortion is “a good thing”. I don’t strongly object to some regulation. The choice shouldn’t be easy or smooth. I think it’s her right, but he should know.
This became contentious. I wanted to move to the mountains and raise a family, but Perri was growing increasingly hostile. We hadn’t heard back about teaching jobs either, though it’d been years.
Still, I tried. I made kaleidoscopes, jewelry, bamboo flutes, fabric hats, wooden toys, made my rounds every few weeks. I brought spring water back from the earth lodge in a dozen 2-1/2 gallon jugs. I did shows, stayed weekends, trimmed trees, rewired the farmhouse. Any occasion or reason I could think of. She rarely came except to visit her family. We’d stay with her family a week, then see mine for dinner on our way out. I didn’t entirely mind this–my father would get quite unpleasant after he’d finished off his nightly twelve or sixteen cheap beers. He was pleasant in the daytime, told funny stories and was complimentary and generous to most people, though my contributions were routinely overlooked. At night, though, he was horrible, drinking, chain-smoking Newports and systematically tearing apart the ego of whatever family member was across the table. It was a sport. He’d incrementally turn a pleasant dinner conversation into something vile, and when his companion felt like crap, he’d won. He’d eat something and go to bed. It was a pattern.
My sister one day wrote him a letter, one I saw little point in. She hoped some day he could meet her children, but with him smoking and drinking didn’t think he would. I didn’t think it’d do any good, but he actually quit, after more than fifty years smoking. He didn’t quit drinking, but he’d only have one beer after dinner.
It made a difference, but it was too late for Perri, and I still wasn’t comfortable. I’d seen it before, and he had hurt me. I wanted to feel he’d changed, but it wasn’t my obligation to believe him and certainly not my wife’s.
There was dissension growing between Perri and I, but it hadn’t taken over our lives. Perri’s harsh friend moved and we became closer to her assistant. The girls would gossip, the boys played backgammon, their daughters played in the yard. I showed Carly and Leah how to make jewelry, and everyone made crafts. Randy and I had both gone to George Washington High School, though his high school was in Virginia and mine in Colorado. We often camped together on weekends.
One weekend Perri’s college friend Robbie visited with his new wife Patti. The six of us discussed astrology, and found that each of us were married to the next sign in line. I was Gemini and Perri Cancer, Robbie was Pisces and Patti Aries, and Randy was Pisces and Pat Aquarius. Even more amazing, all our mothers were Leo, except for Robbie, whose father was.
That Christmas we set up trees in our front yard. The old fellow who’d owned our lot next to Richard’s deli had died and Perri was tired of the hassle, so it made sense to forget the rent, the commute, the schedule, the camping and sell trees from the house. I’d brought 75 trees for the first season, which proved the right amount. I sold them all, then late in the season bought a dozen from a fellow for $2 apiece and sold the last on Christmas Eve. I’d been putting a tree in the earth lodge all along, decorated mostly with old cans, but now I wasn’t spending much time there. It had been ten Christmases. I wanted to make it a dozen, so I put a tree in it for two more years, but it was abandoned. Our entire little community had broken up. Jake, Jody and the kids had finished overhauling the bus and driven down the road. Fran and the kids had left Kevin, and Kevin sold the trailer for a bag of pot. Adam and Karen left their teepee and euthanized a healthy dog. Their buddy Peter had left. Nobody lived in the earth lodge anymore, the dwelling in which we’d invested so much time, so much labor, so many dreams.
Round Robin
My five siblings and I started a round robin. We sent a batch of letters to each in turn and at the end of some weeks we’d exchange our old letter for a new one. It took awhile to establish protocol. The first collected an immense weight of paper and miscellaneous objects. It was lost before it made my mailbox. It’d included long letters from each of us, the spouses and children, kid’s drawings, pamphlets, cassette tapes. We agreed to limit content to letters from the six of us, plus occasional notes from others. Sam provided postage as his Christmas gift and I kept the archive.
I loved it. Everyone had a take on the family dynamics, and I had a record of the moves, breakups, new loves, new children, new cars, changes in seasons from whatever locations we were in, and all of us were in different locations. I was “down the mountain” in Alamance County, Robin was living in Sugar Grove outside of Boone, Sam had moved to New York City after graduating Yale, Genny had followed him there, Fran was in motion and Laura was in Tennessee.
My archive started in spring 1993. I’d gone to a kaleidoscope show in Kentucky; there were 65 exhibitors, twelve were from California, six from North Carolina and the rest from all over. For my birthday I got a small scooter. It had no pedals and was thus at the time in a legal limbo; the law stated that a moped couldn’t have an engine over 50cc but said nothing about pedals. It had been changed to require pedals, but mine was grandfathered in–important, because for years I became the only guy in town who could drive my motorcycle without a tag, license or insurance; all I needed was a helmet. It also outran all the all the other mopeds, it had shaft drive and I’d modified the carburetor.
I also had a 1959 Studebaker. It’d been featured on a promotional placard for a car show, and I was given one of the brass plates from an old guy, Robert Lindley, who worked on Studebakers and owned hundreds.
I sent the robin to my brother, and it continued on a crooked path. Since Genny and Sam lived in New York, it traveled not in birth order but 1-2-5-3-4-6. Sometimes one of us dropped out or moved, but it continued a confused path. The second round was lost when Genny sent it to the wrong address. She started another, which arrived after I’d sent a copy and Sam had replied.
Our house was back in order. The washing machine had been banished to the back porch and all the carpeting was gone.
Rob’s letter referenced some family conflicts and techniques for conflict resolution. Fran had moved into George Wallace’s former home in Montgomery. When she tore out the shag carpeting in the bathroom there were newspapers from 1975 underneath, on top of marble floors. It’s a huge house now, formed by bricking 3 structures together–the main house, servant’s quarters and a detached kitchen/dining room on the other. It had once been exceptional, but had come on hard times. The foundation had sunk, in places several inches. Doors wouldn’t close, upstairs flooring tilted inwards, the roof leaked, the hexagonal mosaic-tile floors in the fancy 1920s-style bathrooms were cracked and only half the bathrooms worked, distressed parquet floors were covered in lumpy carpet, former breezeways badly paneled, deteriorated brick walkways unevenly concreted over. A sad house, for a man who had met a sad end. George Wallace had been a progressive liberal by Alabama standards, though he became a symbol of old-time Southern conservatism. His famous stand in the university door was intended to prevent the riots and killings which had taken place in Mississippi, and was largely for show. He was shot in the 1970s and ended his life in a wheelchair.
Genny worked at Jan Hus Presbyterian Church in New York, but quit, and had some angst over a fellow named Walter, whom she felt like she should like but didn’t. She was in therapy, which she felt was good for her. It wouldn’t always be. Sam had an album, Rock and Roar, Dinosaur”, coming out by sheer chance in the wake of Jurassic Park, and was involved in theatre and music.
Laura had married Tom, the football coach. It was funny; Perri’s uncle Tom was a football coach for Austin High School in Alabama, and he married a woman whose name started with “L”. She’d received a promotion and was thrilled to announce a pregnancy! In March they’d welcome Matthew Cody, or Catherine Dakota, and the robin returned to me.
I was proud of my plumbing. There’d been no way to work on the plumbing without turning off all the water when we’d moved in. I’d bought cut-off valves as I went along, but in the winter of ’92 the only remaining faucet, in the tub, blew out. I was out of town. Perri found a wrench and ran to the front yard while water spewed, and I put in one last valve when I returned. I proposed a number, 1-900-ASK-DAVE, since I was often answering everyone’s practical questions.
In July Rob was in a poetry slam at a coffee house in Boone. He enclosed a few poems, a note from Anne and a “report” from his son Grant on “nothing”. At 100 words exactly, it was a gem:
“Nothing is when you want something and you don’t get anything. When you look at something transparent you think, is there anything there? If you said nothing is there nobody would look around or pay any attention to you. Some people say it as an expression like, ‘Oh, it was nothing’ when they are trying to say I didn’t go through any trouble to do it. If there wasn’t nothing you would have to use words like ‘not anything’ or ‘wasn’t anything’. Think of it this way, ‘If I had nothing, then I wouldn’t have anything at all’. That’s it.”
By August Fran’s brain-damaged daughter Sarah had discovered a fascination with breaking glass, and Fran awoke to find dozens of plates smashed on the floor. Genny was singing professionally, had made an ad for Bloomingdales and was roller skating. One of her rollerskating friends was working on a song called “Brontosaurus Rumors”–my brother’s song! His name was Robert. She worried if they became an item, there’d be brother Rob, Sam’s boyfriend Rob, Fran’s husband Rob and Genny’s Rob.
I’d remarked that I was “The Recorder”, and Sam adopted the sobriquet “The Controller”. We needed rules, and he proposed several. Length of the letters in the robin didn’t matter, but promptness did. Others in the family could contribute to a special “holiday issue”. Also, Rob’s wife Anne was an inveterate, unapologetic snoop, called everyone who received the robin and then broadcast the latest news, so that when the robin arrived it wasn’t any fun. Calling on the phone to find out what was in the robin was OUT!
Laura miscarried in August. There’d be no Matthew Cody or Catherine Dakota. Football season was beginning and Tom was gone all day. Our parents visited Tennessee, and swapped stories into the night.
I’d fixed up the scooter and was riding it everywhere. The brakes were no good, but it was easy enough to wear old shoes and stop like Fred Flintstone. I didn’t mention the miscarriage. It was painful to me to talk about kids and I didn’t want to mention Perri’s abortion. Rob commiserated with Laura, then filled us in on his life. He’d wrecked his bicycle, was recovering. He enclosed a long note about his church, which Genny had heard was a cult. He didn’t see it that way, but needed to address a scandal. He and Anne had joined Elizabeth Clare Prophet’s Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT). Several church members had tried to buy guns, under assumed names, to prepare for the apocalypse prophesied by Guru Ma, as she was known. For persuasion it underwhelmed, but it explained some of his motivations, though none of us started studying the Ascended Masters. Towards the end of her life Elizabeth Claire Prophet fell into paranoia and dementia.
Fran was dealing with school and psychologists. The teachings of CUT weren’t for her. Too much mysticism. She impressed the bigwigs at work with her grasp of computer software and they invited her to move to Texas, which suddenly led her Alabama employers to be super-nice and ease her workload. She had some issues with the house. They discovered a gas leak in the main heater and had to move into the guest apartment. The fridge and bedrooms were in the main house, but they managed.
Genny recounted a depressing 3 day workshop sponsored by the GBCS for UM, or General Board of Church and Society for the United Methodist Church, and found herself with “White Person’s Guilt”, when average white Americans feel horrible for what people they never knew did to other people they never knew, without realizing that the other other people did horrible things to other others and the other others did horrible things to other other others. No race of people, no religion, no sex, no class or type, is without sin. Lots of it.
She enjoyed New York though. She met Jacques Costeau at a party at Peter Yarrow’s place (of Peter, Paul and Mary) and had some poems published in The Religious Observer.
Sam sent the robin on, it got lost for a week, I sent him a copy of my copy, then the original showed up and he sent it with his contribution and a different zip code. He’d purchased a “Supermind Computer” advertised in Omni magazine. He had a meeting with Music Sales Corporation, who were eager to bring out “Rock and Roar Dinosaur” but hadn’t actually returned his calls. He’d also gotten in touch with the understudy for his role in the Disney film “Mountain Born” many years before, Jamie Newcomb, who had moved to Oregon and was starring in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
A Murder Mystery
Sam was involved in a murder mystery. A hot dog vendor in Haverstraw had found a severed head in a garbage bag at a scenic overlook. Sam had known him. The last place the middle-aged gay man, Michael Sakara, had been seen was at a bar where Sam played piano, and Sam’s friends had been the last to see him. Everyone was questioned. Sam asked the rest of us if we had any impressions. I read the robin, and got a flash of a thin fellow, staight blonde hair, who worked in a large building and drove a big light-blue car. His name was something like Mark, but not Mark. Suspicion later fell on a male nurse from St. Vincent’s who drove a powder-blue Buick, whose name was Mike. In the end, however, Richard W. Rogers, referred to as the Last Call Killer, was convicted.
Laura was in good spirits. Tusculum College had almost closed a few years before, and the football team discontinued until Tom was hired, so the team was Tom’s baby. Early on, the whole team had caught the flu, but afterwards, as a feather in Tom’s cap, they won several games, one by a score of 43-13.
For Christmas of 1993 I was again selling trees from the front yard. I worked on kaleidoscopes in the living room and kept an eye out the window. When Pat & Randy visited the kids “sold” trees to each other. One day a fellow I knew from Boone came by. I’d known Alan for at least fifteen years, he was from Boone and had moved to a house on Worm Ranch Road, a mile or two away. He’d been going by Ras Alan and fronted a reggae band. His car was a white 1962 Ford Falcon station wagon, with a brown interior–exactly what I’d driven at 16! He let me drive it for an afternoon.
I was learning banjo. Perri had given me one for Christmas the year before, and it was a great choice. I’d tried to learn guitar, but my left hand was a problem. My middle finger and thumb had been broken, my little finger mangled and my index finger deeply cut through the knuckle, with nerve damage. I’d try a few chords but it was painful. The banjo was less intimidating. I soon got a book of favorite American songs and learned many. It was the first stringed instrument I enjoyed playing; as a kid the cello had been a chore. I could now play drums, harmonica, penny whistle, bamboo flute and a South African instrument called a likimba, a variation on a kalimba or thumb piano, with an inverted “V” for a top bar which makes the keys sit compactly. Its rosewood resonator box had cracked and I’d tried to buy another, but there was an embargo on South African products and they were unavailable. I tore the box apart, replaced it with oak and had a sturdier instrument. I announced that 1-900-ASK-DAVE had been discontinued due to a low prophet margin, then included some remarks on an interesting astrological aspect, the quincunx. A person will have strong romantic attractions to the sign fifth in line, which isn’t reciprocated since the object of one’s affection is also attracted to the sign fifth in line. It also included some clippings. My scopes had been featured in a fall festival in Greensboro, and I’d been interviewed in the local paper about vegetarians as I was one of the only ones in the county. The article contained a few “vegetarian” recipes–but the first ingredient of the first was chicken stock! I wrote a letter to the editor, pointing out that a chicken was not a vegetable! I’d also been in the paper dressed as Willie Wonka for the second-graders, for which we’d been up all night making a brown top hat. I didn’t like the photo. My eyes seemed desperate, full of false cheer.
Happy Holidays!
We’d been discussing a “Holiday Edition” ever since the overstuffed ground-pounder had disappeared that spring, and Sam the Controller announced that this was the month. Genny started it off with an announcement that her squeeze of four months was off to Australia, and offered a couple scenarios where he either 1) came back or 2) didn’t, and she either 1) took him back or 2) didn’t, but Sam assured us she was fine. He also contended that while the Church Universal and Triumphant wasn’t the Branch Davidians, there was still a peril, as Sufis warn, of gorging on spiritual ideas prematurely, which eliminates their capacity for later impact–which is why Sufis don’t have a “big book of knowledge” and instead say “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear”. With a short note from Sam’s Rob–La Rocca–the robin was on its way.
Tusculum football had done well in the last half and had beaten Georgetown. Union College had also done well, until they hit Tusculum. The final score was Union 49-Tusculum 80, and Tom won Coach of the Year. She announced another pregnancy, and Tom included the cheery holiday statement, “I think I pass gas better than anyone else in the family!”.
Robin’s letter wished everyone a fine Christmas and included some cheery statements from Guru Ma, whose spirit contacts from history and other planets delivered, in an identical monotone, identical warnings about a coming nuclear apocalypse. Fran’s contribution was short. She and Rob were depressed with the domestic situation; daughter Sarah continued to be a problem and Rob had become a house husband, but Fran was doing well at work and everyone was healthy. Genny was in good spirits, though she noted she was now the only one single among the brothers and sisters; she and her Japanese husband Suzuki had been split up for 3 or 4 years, but she called him frequently until he announced he was marrying again, a gal who looked a lot like her. She was still happy to be in therapy, and was putting on a cabaret act.
February’s letter from Sam the Controller announced that, due to increasing delays from Fran, the robin would henceforth be sent direct to Genny and he’d send a copy to Fran. The “Merry Christmas” edition, launched in November, hadn’t returned until February. “Rock and Roar Dinosaur” was finally released, a cassette and songbook/picturebook combination. From there the robin went to Laura, whom the Board of Trustees had just praised as a “marketing genius”. From nearly having closed, Tusculum now had the highest application and acceptance rate in its history. She listed her wants as a piano, a computer and a long trip to see the Grand Canyon, the Painted Desert, Old Faithful, etc. I’d seen them, but it hadn’t occurred to me that my siblings had not. We’d been to Yellowstone when she was two, and with my father driving had always sped past everything. I hadn’t seen them until I was on my own.
Mercury Retrograde
In mid-February we’d debated trading in our Hyundai, which now had 118,000 miles. Perri said there was a noise in the front end. I took it for a spin and good god, I thought the wheel was falling off. I thought perhaps we should trade it in immediately, but I jacked up the wheel, took off the hubcap, wiggled it, started the engine and let it spin–no problems. Everything was tight. Then I spotted–the loose wheel weight rattling around inside the hubcap. I performed a thing-ectomy, which immediately restored our dying car to full and vibrant health.
I’d taken a job as a trailer park handyman. The secretary’s car had a problem. Half of her electrical system had failed, and two or three guys were looking under the hood and pulling at wires. I announced I could fix it and told her to jiggle the key. Everything sprang to life. Another problem at work, a washing machine which wouldn’t turn, I found to be an extra spacer installed where it shouldn’t have been. I knew big problems with minor causes are common when Mercury is retrograde. I was a hero!
The job was crappy, fixing up old trailers as cheaply as possible. I didn’t like it and didn’t last long. I started volunteering at night school, teaching English to recent immigrants. It was the first time I’d regularly spoken Spanish, and it helped my comprehension immensely. When someone knows English, if there’s a word one can’t think of, one can always use English. When someone doesn’t know English, it’s still necessary to find a way to explain things, using whatever Spanish comes to mind. After three hours, twice a week, I’d drive to work with random, nonsense Spanish phrases floating through my head–they sounded real, but were jibberish! I also had several VCR tapes, which I’d leave playing while I slept, and I’d buy romance novels in Spanish. Romance novels have several advantages. They’re predictable; the couples will get together, break up and get together again. They’re easy to read; they’re written simply enough for a poorly educated teen to enjoy, and they’re short. I kept a sticky note on the page and jotted down strange words, then looked them up, alphabetized and made my own sticky-note dictionary, containing only words I didn’t know. I’d finish a book and read it again. Eventually I was fluent.
Unwelcome Advice

Genny’s contribution changed my focus. She’d written a truly vile series of accusations dredged up by “therapy”, a 20-page rant. Our parents were “monsters”, our family “dysfunctional”, our society full of fiendish and violent Men. It was a common theme of the time, promoted on God-only-knows how many talk shows. Women’s lives were “unfulfilled”, because of Men. Her examples of “abuse” were petty and absurd. We’d had old coats in the winter, which made us “abused”. There was ice in the toilet bowl one morning, so we were “abused”.
These attacks hurt. I felt they were not only baseless, but that my sister was piling onto a tiresome pop-psychology bandwagon. She gratuitously, menacingly and with blatant disrespect “advised” me that I shouldn’t ever have children, because with my “history of violence” I’d most certainly be an “abuser”. In this ugliness I saw echoes of my father, who had no compunctions about using such “psychological” insults to tear down unsuspecting and innocent people. She was doing the same. I told her I was definitely a misunderstood child, but it was up to ME, not HER, to decide these things and ABSOLUTELY NOT her place to decide whether I should raise children!
I said our childhood wasn’t perfect, that nobody’s was, and that much of her reaction wasn’t due to “abuse” but a lack of deprivation to start with. I’d been in the military, and knew what I needed. She’d been in “therapy”, and knew what impressed a “therapist”. In the military, if the toilet froze you’d dig a hole. If you were cold, you’d build a fire, find a blanket, stuff newspapers in your clothes, not complain about old coats. I said I was overjoyed to have ten fingers and toes, working eyes and ears, clean water to drink. If kids learned through childhood “misery and abuse” to LIVE instead of DIE, then it didn’t matter if they had Nintendo games or sticks, they were better off than privileged New York whiners in “therapy” who didn’t know the difference.
When the robin reached Robin, he was in a production of “the Unsinkable Molly Brown”. His sons were in a student-written version of “the Iliad”, and his second son Jordan was building a balsa-wood bridge in a competition which had started between the physics and mechanical drawing classes in my high school in Denver, when I was there. It eventually went statewide, then nationwide, then worldwide.
Another Murder Mystery
Genny was involved in another murder mystery in March. A college friend had been strangled in Queens. She went to the funeral mass and got a very creepy feeling shaking hands with the stepfather. It was now three years later. She casually mentioned her friend’s case to a couple police officers and they arranged a meeting with the investigating detective–who’d had the same creepy feeling. Her case was featured in the March 1994 issue of Redbook.
Sam had started a new gig at a restaurant named Pegasus to complement his longtime gig at Marie’s, worked on theatre projects and was taking accounting. He’d purchased a Powerbook 180 with 10 megabytes of RAM, making it by far the most powerful computer in the family.
Sam’s English teacher, Nanci Nance from Watauga High, was visiting. She was everyone’s favorite, except me, since I’d never met her. Laura was doing fine with her pregnancy. She and Tom had refinanced the house and were planting a garden. She too knew Genny’s friend and had the same creepy feeling about the stepfather.
In March it was my turn again. Mercury retrograde had hit me hard this time; all four vehicles were broken down, though my moped was still on the road. Turned out we’d bought bad gas, all at the same gas station, though the Hyundai needed a new engine even though I’d replaced one of the valves the year before. I was pleased with Hyundai valve assemblies, they simply screwed out and a new one screwed in. I replaced the valve in the driveway of my parents’ house in an afternoon. It needed a new engine now, though. The transmission was also starting to pop out of one gear. It could’ve been repaired, but it was cheaper to replace the engine and transaxlethan to repair the components. We’d refinanced the house, paid off all the credit cards and had $2000 extra, but that evaporated quickly. I’d lost my job at the trailer park, which actually rather pleased me. Mobile homes manufactured before the 1970s had absolutely no quality standards. They were built with cheaper and cheaper materials until by the 1960s they had particle board floors and the kitchen counters were stapled through the outer walls. In the early 1970s there were new standards, but since the old ones weren’t being moved they sat in the same place while the floors rotted out and rodents invaded through the holes. Many had mouse colonies under the tubs, the plumbing was garden hoses and clamps and “repairs” were done with duct tape and wire. One trailer we were preparing to rent had a huge hole in the corner of the living room. The owner’s son told me to put an end table over it and leave. I told him it was a hazard; a kid could fall through it and break a leg. I scrounged a piece of plywood and started greasing the 4” decking screws. The owner told me not to bother greasing the screws (which meant burning out the drill). We ran out of screws. I went to the hardware store. The new ones came pre-greased!
Perri and I were fighting more. She was dismissing my dreams as fantasies and there were no calls coming from the schools in the mountains. I wasn’t happy, and felt a need to take action, though I had no idea what kind.
Rob had the best insight into this. He made the very germane observation that the partners we had all chosen tended to lead us along. Due to our upbringing, our relationships were based more on appreciation of our talents than on love and understanding of a whole person. It felt right. I’d never felt whole. I had little understanding of who I was or what I wanted, even though now I was over 40. He observed, through a tale involving his kids buying candy at Sam’s Club and selling it at a profit, that our parents treated profit-making ventures as “scams”, which had certainly had been the case when I’d sold Christmas trees. My father never felt I was entitled to anything at all, “deal” or no.
Sam had been also been fighting with his Rob. Sam’s Rob had been seeing a truck driver named David. One night Sam was commenting to his boss at the piano bar that he was sorry to be late but had been fighting. One of the customers asked him why, and he said mock-cheerily “the complete dissolution of a twelve-year relationship”. This fellow had just left a relationship of fifteen years. They soon moved in together on Staten Island.
Laura was still waiting on the baby, which by ultrasound seemed likely to be a girl. She and Tom decided on Mary Catherine.
Things had settled some in May. I’d bought a word-processing typewriter from a friend leaving town and remarked how easily it saved a letter and re-typed a copy by simply hitting three keys. It was a great advantage over our clunky IBM PCjr. which had been such a marvel seven years earlier. I printed letters and cards and wrote promotional copy for crafts. It was laughably limited compared to the computers of a few years later, but light-years ahead of the dot-matrix printers of the time. I loved it. A kid left who’d been driving Perri bananas–and by extension me, since she’d drive me bananas when she came home. I was happy not to work for the guy who was too cheap to buy nails to fix his rat-infested trailers while he parked his Jaguar next to the Mercedes he’d given his secretary/lover. Everyone in the park seemed to be divorced and smoked too much, and most of them also drank too much and did too many drugs. I was happy to once again dedicate my days to crafts and my evenings to Spanish. We’d had it out, and had decided it was a seven-year-itch. She’d been tired of seven years in the mountains, I was tired of seven years in the flatlands.
I’d always wanted to move back, the sooner the better, but she announced one day we’d leave in 2017, after she retired from teaching. This was 20+ years longer than I’d intended, and even though our town was pleasant, secure, we had friendly neighbors and room enough to raise a garden, the prospect of staying there while our home in the mountains rotted away bothered me severely.
Robin had been hit by another driver. He had some whiplash, which made it difficult for him to work, but had been going to a chiropractor and feeling better.
His boys were preparing to go with my mother on a trip across Europe and Russia. She’d won a “Teacher of the World” contest and decided to take the boys with her. Genny and Sam were in better spirits. They’d gotten together to see off the threesome, and all had a great time with Sam and his new boyfriend. Laura was eagerly anticipating her baby girl.
We’d finished most of our remodeling, I thought. We had ceiling fans and a pool to jump in when it got so hot our hair started to melt. There was a fallen-down, overgrown fence in the backyard which made the poison ivy under it difficult to pull up, but I finally bit the bullet and spent a full day pulling the fence and all the ivy out, then took an extremely hot shower and scrubbed hard, which was reasonably effective.
I’d enrolled in Alamance Community College taking Spanish at night, and we gave a party at the end of the quarter. There were 29 folks there, speaking Spanish, German, Chinese, Pakistani and English. There was no trouble with languages. Someone always knew another one.
What Does a Kid Need?
A discussion developed in the robin over what children needed. I felt, as always, that children need food, love, shelter and an occasional hot bath. Running water, electricity, these are nice but lack of television doesn’t evidence abuse or neglect. I found it ridiculous to say that a child “needed” to have brand-name jeans and cable TV and Nintendo. Still do.
By the end of July the world travelers returned, with tales from Amsterdam, France, Germany, Poland, Russia. Rob and Anne picked them up in Maryland but their transmission gave out. Genny had found a new job and her friends at the Church Center gave her parties and lunches and pound cakes and gifts and flowers all week. She then left for San Francisco to sing at a wedding and was met by her ex, Suzuki. They had a long discussion over coffee. Sam’s Rock and Roar Dinosaur album and book had come out. He and Barry (his new squeeze) visited Boone and he autographed copies at Cheap Joe’s downtown. Cheap Joe ran Boone Drug and had been great friends with my father for years. Joe had gotten in trouble in high school for “borrowing” a couple scarecrow-type hillbilly dolls from a bench outside a business called Mystery Hill and setting them up on a bridge overlooking the Blue Ridge Parkway with whiskey bottles in their hands. He later became an artist and started Cheap Joe’s Art Supplies online, which did very well.
Laura obnoxiously pointed out that caring for her newborn son (NOT a daughter!!!) was more difficult than caring for my poor flea-bitten dog. I hadn’t contended otherwise, but gave it a pass, as she had a six-week-old baby boy to deal with, NOT named Mary Catherine, born on the Fourth of July. In the way that some discussions become contentious when you leave the room, however, the next time the robin came around there was a long debate as to what constituted child abuse, and whether running water or its lack was acceptable. It came down to whether a totally theoretical child, of MINE, would be abused, or not, by the mere fact that it lived in the earth lodge, which hadn’t been finished anyway, and which I hadn’t intended NOT to have running water to start with.
I’d related an idea of printing a book about making a book, starting with nothing–to start with a pair of hands, dig ore, smelt type, use sharp rocks to cut trees, pound them to pulp, make paper, to start with nothing and make a book. The cotton, glue, dyes for the cover would be grown and processed, and the whole process would be photographed, using chemicals which would have to be refined and formulated and cameras to be made. It was nothing more than a dream, but it kicked up a storm of abusive, way over the top replies as if I fully intended to raise my kids in an outhouse. All I’d said was that LOVE was more important than interactive toys, and told of when I received a second-hand repainted bicycle for Christmas and was thrilled with it. Again I received contentious replies, still arrogantly debating whether I should have children. I ended up seriously pissed over the implications of something I hadn’t said, and for the next year the round robin was acrimonious. The parents among us weighed in, the urban dwellers weighed in, and without intending anything of the sort I was defending the right of a hypothetical parent to raise hypothetical children in a hypothetical rural house which didn’t, hypothetically, have running water.
It was a stupid, ignorant debate, but a mark of the fall of 1994, when the last of a long series of outer planets was passing through Scorpio in a truly remarkable series which had lasted over forty years. The outer planets, from Jupiter onwards, spend at least a year in each astrological sign. Saturn spends two and a half years, Uranus seven, Neptune fourteen and Pluto, because of an eccentric orbit, anywhere from fourteen to thirty. It wouldn’t be unusual for a couple of planets to line up, but from late 1953 until the end of the twentieth century there were only a few brief periods with no outer planet in Scorpio. From October of 1953 until the end of the ‘60s there only were 38 days in 1956, 50 in 1957. In the 70s there were 3 years, from October of ’71 to November of ’74, and four months in 1975, then it went twenty more years. Everyone experienced this exceptionally long span. For Americans it’d started with the senate hearings of the Scorpio Joe McCarthy and continued through the Cold War, Vietnam, Watergate, the fall of the Soviet Union. Six of the next seven presidents served six years or less, three of them were shot or shot at. Scorpio been had affecting things for a very long time, and by 1994 most people were harried, worn out, paranoid. The fear of nuclear annihilation was fading, but 40+ years had taken its toll on the psyche, and delusions were accepted as fact, discussed on talk shows, prosecuted in court. Bus drivers were Satan worshippers who were eating babies! It was “proved” through “repressed memories”!
Before the trailer park I’d worked part-time constructing storage buildings for a fellow whose daughter ran a health food store. It was easy, fun, outside work. Storage buildings was don’t need to meet code. We built them well, but didn’t worry about covering wiring or roofs withstanding a hurricane, we only had to put them on a trailer and set them on blocks in someone’s yard. Afterwards I worked managing his daughter’s health food store when she was out of town, which was frequently. It was a wonderful job. I learned a great deal about herbs, vitamins, supplements, health foods. It was eye-opening to read about prescriptions and their side effects, and to watch people ignore recommendations. They’d ask about a specific health issue, listen and nod, buy a few pills and change nothing. One person in fifty might make an effort. It’s a pleasure to teach them but they’re few and far between.
I wasn’t happy at home, and got close to a co-worker, a cute girl of seventeen who was also vegetarian. I was 24 years older, and nothing happened, but her moon was in Gemini. I saw possibilities; one never knows where life might lead. She went to Michio Kushi’s macrobiotic cooking school in Massachusetts that fall, and wrote me regularly. Her name, like many influential women in my life, was Elizabeth.
Delores was also a co-worker. We shared a tiny checkout booth with cash registers on both sides and were within a foot of each other for hours at a time. When you’re physically that close to someone you can’t help but get to know them well. We flirted some, and compared notes.
She was a Jehovah’s Witness. I’d always thought Jehovah’s Witnesses a little weird. They’d had crazy ideas about the end of the world in 1984, and when it didn’t happen I tormented them with questions when they came to the door, friendly enough but designed to make them squirm. When we worked side-by-side I found that, yeah, it was a little strange, but religion isn’t logical, rational, sensible or reasonable. It’s always mystical, fantastical, eerie, weird. People buy into religion according to their comfort level, but live their lives and deal with practical things regardless of creed. They have domestic disputes and carnal desires and cars that need alternators and nephews getting into trouble. Delores had started attending the temple when she met her first husband. He later bought a Harley, took up with a biker chick and they divorced. She met her next husband Marty through the temple, but he only showed up a few days a year.
Marlene, who ran the health food store when she wasn’t on vacations, also held a fringe religion. She identified as Christian but observed a Saturday sabbath and most Jewish dietary restrictions and holy days. I loved the business and did it well, but Marlene had a suspicious nature and trouble relating to men. She had no sex life that I knew of, male or female, and often wore her father’s cast-off clothes–so much so that I asked Dolores if she even owned women’s clothes. Marlene always said it was to save money, which seemed a poor reason, but she was almost pathological about money. She was the cheapest woman I knew, though her family was comfortable. She wasn’t particularly interested in her health nor that of her customers. Though she avoided pork, she stuffed herself with fast-food burgers when nobody was looking.
Perri and I went to a Halloween party at a friend of Cindy’s. Dave was a painter of custom motorcycles; it was a wild bunch. We were dressed as twin bearded ladies, with identical shirts and skirts. She’d put on a fake beard and I put on lipstick. At the party a girl said to me, “I’ve never kissed another woman before”, and I said, “I haven’t either”. She kissed me.
Not just a peck. We were both surprised by how suddenly passionate this silly kiss was. My wife wasn’t happy and neither was her boyfriend. It was a symptom of something deeper.
Because I was working that Christmas, I had to hire a fellow to watch the tree lot three days a week, so we didn’t make much profit. Afterwards we went to the mountains. My mother had hired a carpenter to fix the kitchen floor, and he was available over Christmas week, so he tore out the floor while she left to spend the holidays with Laura and Tom. Perri and I arrived, dog in tow, and left Ringo with the dogs at the farm house while we visited Perri’s parents. Anne came to feed the dogs, walked into the kitchen and stepped right through the floor. Ringo heard the commotion and came to investigate. She grabbed him and climbed out, unhurt except for some nasty bruises.
My father’s holiday letter talked about changing himself. He found it difficult but gratifying and said he, like the rest of humanity, lived within illusions dictated by environment, that many thought patterns were knee-jerk responses to stimuli. He said the sight of Newt Gingrich on TV caused great squirts of bile to flood his intestines, but the Dalai Lama soothed him. He wanted Newt Gingrich to meet the Dalai Lama, and hoped that Newt didn’t pee on his leg.
Perri was happy 1994 was over. Hillcrest school, which had been built in 1930 and had no air conditioning, had moved to a new building over Christmas break. She was thrilled with the new school and happy to be without one of her most troublesome kids, who’d been placed in an institution. Robin had received a new computer from Santa, a Macintosh Performa 360CD, but by exploring the hard drive and clicking on everything had installed so many programs that he had very little memory left, and a week later had to use a word processor to contribute to the holiday robin. Anne and the boys sent a page each and Noelle, the youngest, a picture of a bird. For New Years Robin had taken up Tai Chi and loved it. He was now working days in the barber shop with our father and nights in a restaurant, where he shared a bottle of champagne with Kim Basinger. “The Winter People” was shooting down the road, in fact part was shot in our friend Cindy’s old cabin. Kim had come to Stonewall’s restaurant. He was her waiter. At the end of the night she’d left a little champagne in the bottle, which he polished off.
Robin also had a troubled relationship with our father. When I was old enough to stay out late enough to avoid him, my brother was next in line for his drunken dinner table assaults. My youngest brother and the three sisters skated through, safe in their little world while my father spewed bile in the kitchen. My brother said that he’d changed a lot and that he hadn’t seen him drunk in years. I wasn’t so sure. I’d also worked with him. He was easy to work with. The ugliness came at night.
Genny’s 33rd birthday came at the end of January, and she was in high spirits. Sam and Barry had just returned from a whirlwind tour of Italy and Switzerland, and Sam used up all his adjectives describing it.
Tom had a new job in February, football coach at Wofford College, and he and Laura moved to Spartanburg, SC. I was rewiring my parents‘ house. A fellow who had driven into their front yard one night was doing a lot of work on it as well. The farmhouse was on a popular back road to Blowing Rock, where the bars were, and Dave had crashed into the briars. He was a carpenter seeking work and a place to stay. My father let him work on the house in exchange for free rent on the trailer which had replaced Kevin and Fran’s down the road.
That we had the same name was an irritation. I’d hear my father praising Dave and realize it was him, not me. He’d dismiss what I’d done, crediting my work to others who’d done a small portion. Jeff had worked on the greenhouse, but he’d put in 3 hours to my 60. He’d say Uncle Lewis put in the bathroom, not him and me. The rock wall I’d taken all summer to build in the front yard was a “repair”. When I painted the roof he never bought the last gallon of paint and it became something I “hadn’t finished”, which Dave replaced. Dave deserved the praise my father repeatedly gave him, but it irritated me greatly when I’d hear him talking about what Dave had done and realize it wasn’t me, and that Dave had exchanged labor for rent, while my free labor from the goodness of my heart was being ignored. My brother’s next letter dealt with this. It was difficult for us to finish things, because our father, he noticed, would start things but abandon them, and if we continued he’d tear them down to make “improvements” which never happened. It was difficult for either of us to take pride in our accomplishments, because we got no credit and they didn’t stay finished anyway.
I rewired the house as a Christmas present that year, because it needed it, and saw my Skilsaw on the back porch. I hadn’t seen it in over a year. It had my name ground into the handle, in letters an inch high and a quarter-inch deep. He’d stolen it.
Genny was scouting for a new job and enjoyed being single. Sam had moved in with Barry on Staten Island while his old boyfriend Rob lived with David in Manhattan. They were still friendly. That they didn’t live together made it easier on both. Rob was working with Broadway singers and Sam had quit piano playing in smoky bars, freelancing as a “party pianist”. Laura was getting accustomed to her toddler taking his first steps. She loved her new neighborhood, and though she didn’t like local schools it was hardly a concern while Austin was under a year old.
I was less satisfied, and expressed my frustrations. I was making little more than minimum wage at the health food store. Marlene was far more interested in money than in health, and was paranoid as well. When we’d run the rental yard in Hollywood we’d figure a loss of 3 to 4 percent due to bad checks and the like was normal. If losing more than that, your policies were probably ioo loose, if less you’d miss a lot of business. When selling Christmas trees we were even less concerned, taking checks without much bother; none of the trees would be worth 10¢ on on December 26th. Marlene took two forms of ID and called the bank on every check. She got only one bad check that I ever knew about, for about $15, and put sticky notes on the back door, the desk, the cash drawer and the bathroom mirror warning us about Cherry Smith. She was one of the first businesses to have a credit card verification machine and wouldn’t take cards if it was down. She’d tail her customers, and recommend way more than they needed. She’d mark the price up 400 or 500% on products recommended for serious illnesses such as cancer, on the theory that cancer patients were going to spend it on medicine anyway. There was a monthly newsletter from an association whose sales started on the first of the month, but she wouldn’t pass out the newsletters for at least a week. When they were gone, a week or so later, she’d immediately pull off the sale tags. Items on sale were marked with a dot of a certain color. Most would go on sale once or twice a year, yet many of the bottles had over half-a-dozen dots, making them over five years old. Some food was so old it had changed color, but she wouldn’t throw it out. I’d set the old stuff in the back room, where she said she was going to send it back, but three days later it’d be on the shelf again. The ketchup was particularly nasty. The first half-inch was a black crust, the rest a pale orange. I saw it back on the shelf and decided I was tossing it and anything else that was that bad. Over the next couple of weeks I got rid of a dozen or two superannuated jars of sauces and was fired. I didn’t care. I was disgusted. The health food store went downhill, Marlene’s father died a short while later and Delores bought it for next to nothing. She threw out over half the stock.
I was tired of the town, too. I didn’t want to be in the flatlands, and had only come down because Perri had planned to take a job in the mountains at the first opportunity. The opportunity hadn’t come and Perri wasn’t pursuing it. I found it a flat, hot, preachy little town, where great philosophical discussions bogged down in creationism vs. evolution and whether Satan’s influence would strengthen as the millennium approached. I didn’t like the yard decorations. Cement chickens. Plywood butts tending flowers. I didn’t want to raise a family there, not that it looked like we would. I didn’t care about local history or local politics. It wasn’t a good place to sell crafts, and I didn’t like the earth lodge being abandoned and the trees badly tended.
Perri didn’t see it that way. She had a good job, friends, and had already decided a lot of things with or without my input. She’d been dealing with disruptive children that nobody else could handle and for nine years had been making them do what no one else could. All day it was her way, not their way. It didn’t matter what they wanted, they did what she told them to.
It was her job, and she brought the attitude home. She told me what we were going to do, where we were going to go, what I was going to wear. I tried to make decisions or talk over plans but was summarily slapped down. My kaleidoscope sales were doing OK, but when I ordered supplies she wrote the checks.
We decided that I’d take over half the finances. I’d handle the house payment and she’d take the rest. I did what I said, sold enough scopes to make the payment, ordered supplies and had about fifty dollars left. I thought we’d have a nice night out to celebrate. I cleaned up, dressed up and planned to take her to her favorite restaurant.
Things Blow Up
She came home and I was in a great mood, the first time in quite awhile. I greeted her at the door, spiffed up and ready to go.
It was not to be. She immediately grilled me and discovered I’d deposited the $800 into the wrong account of our two at the bank. She said I couldn’t handle money and took the rest. She then told me she’d been to her favorite restaurant at lunch, she didn’t like the way I was dressed and that she and her friend had other plans anyway. I went from feeling terrific to terrible in five minutes. I stayed home and cleaned up around the house.
She came home and started again. It was unbelievable that I’d put money in the wrong account. This kaleidoscope thing wasn’t a business, it was a hobby. I couldn’t take care of business, I couldn’t handle money. She didn’t want to hear about the mountains anymore, either. I was abusing her when I talked about moving. We’d move in 2017, when she retired, and I wouldn’t mention it anymore. And how were we ever going to have kids, if I couldn’t handle money? She was already taking care of a child. Me.
I shut up for a week or so. She wrote the check to order supplies, but she wrote it on a credit card, which bounced. It was the second time she’d bounced a check to that supplier. I got a money order and she said she’d mail it. She didn’t. I brought it up, she blew it off. She didn’t want to hear about it any more. And I should get a vasectomy. And she didn’t want anything to do my family.
Well, that finally, finally did it. I’d had it. I was re-folding the laundry–she didn’t like the way I’d folded it–and I completely exploded. I screamed and screamed and threw laundry around–I knew if I touched anything else I’d break it–and screamed some more and some more, that she was NOT going to talk about my family that way and she WASN’T going to tell me I couldn’t handle money and she WAS going to pay for the supplies and we WERE going back to the mountains and my scopes were NOT a hobby. I kept screaming and throwing laundry and finally stormed out of the house.
In my socks. In the snow.
I didn’t know where to go. It was February, 1996. It was cold. It was snowing. I was in a T-shirt and socks. I walked a half-mile down the road, stopped and looked at the tiny snowflakes swirling and sparkling in the air. I turned around and came back.
Everything was quiet. She’d put away the laundry, and was making dinner.
Dinner was excellent. Potatoes with rosemary. Spinach with spicy tofu and sesame seeds. Mixed veggies, lightly fried. We didn’t talk much.
I was calm, but I knew I’d lost my sanity. I was croaking like a frog. I couldn’t speak. My head throbbed; I was certain I’d blown a blood vessel on the left side of my forehead. I wasn’t angry. I couldn’t be. If I started getting worked up my head throbbed even more. It was painful enough keeping calm.
I didn’t go to our bed that night. Somewhere, sometime, I’d read that you shouldn’t go to bed angry. What a crock. All that means is that whoever is the most tired gives up so they can sleep. It was the first time I’d slept on the couch.
When we got up the next morning, things were better, sort of. I’d obviously frightened her. She was sweet to me. I couldn’t talk. I had a headache.
Things weren’t the same. I’d settled down, but I was unbalanced, and knew it. We had our second wedding anniversary a few days later–the 29th of February, so we had actually been married eight years–and Perri’d started making plans to move back to the mountains. She’d renewed her job application–she hadn’t heard back because the application had to be renewed every six months, but she hadn’t renewed it in ten years. She was trying–but I was crying.
There was something wrong with me. I kept my temper down because I had to. If I got agitated my head would throb. I worked in my shop, made scopes–but suddenly, for no reason, would burst into tears in the middle of the afternoon, great heaving sobs that drained my energy and left me a wreck for the 20 minutes–then I’d get back to work.
I drank too much. I hadn’t drunk anything until evening for years, except on Saturdays, and I’d always go a couple days a week without drinking–but now I’d take a tug off the liquor bottle in the afternoon, to calm down and take the edge off my despair. I’d met a woman, Teresa, who’d admired my kaleidoscopes and was learning how to make them. She’d cut glass pieces, I’d buy them from her and take her crafts along when I’d sell. For awhile I was in a band with her husband, but she and he were breaking up. I’d call her and we’d talk and cry for hours. I’d also been making kaleidoscope kits for my old girlfriend Beth, who’d written me occasionally for years. She wanted to sell kits, so I put together parts and instructions and sent them to Arizona. I’d gotten a PO box down the street to use for business, but now it became the address I’d use to write her. I knew she’d been crazy too, many years before, and desperately needed someone who could relate. We’d now known each other for 20 years, which seemed incredible. I’d send off kits and a letter, she’d send a check and a letter. I’d saved our correspondence for years, but had burned it all a year before and now only had one remaining letter from earlier times, which had escaped by hiding in a book. It was written not long after she’d married the guitar player, and was full of references to how she’d wanted to be with me but couldn’t, that she’d married Luke because she had to, she was trying to fly but her wings were clipped, she was the temple prostitute in a past life who was now tethered to the ground, the domestic Goddess. I was her Wizard, but Oh, the Karma which befalls the Wise One–and signed “Love & Light, Beth”.
And my heart had been tethered to hers in some way, all those years, through all those letters. Her son had told me “I love you, Dave Austin” when he was four. He grew up, she had two daughters with the guy in the shiny suit and wrote me heart-wrenching letters for seventeen more years, eleven married and six divorced.
I tried hard not to write every day. She’d had a boyfriend for a year, but called me in the middle of the day when he wasn’t there and my wife was working. I told her what a mess I was, how hopelessly crazy, how I knew she’d been there, knew how I felt. It was a comfort to talk. I’d lay in the middle of the floor and cry.
I needed to get away for awhile and a friend suggested I drive with him out West. John was an older fellow who knew me from the health food store. He worked with stained glass and I’d shown him how to make kaleidoscopes. He wanted to leave his wife, and I wanted to make a business trip out of state. I made a dozen Kallistoscopes and we left on April 17th. Two days later in Eagle Pass, Texas, I sold my first large stereoscope, which gave me enough to help with the gas and support myself. On the 21st we arrived in Tucson and at 7 am I first saw Liz, as she was now calling herself. She’d broken up with her boyfriend when she knew I was coming, and she let me stay at her place. After a month I wrote a letter to include in the robin:
Hi Sam!
And everyone else on down the line, since I want this letter included in the robin and my address right now is sort of uncertain–
I left Swepsonville on Apr. 17th, which makes it one month today–I’ve been staying in Tucson with an old and loyal friend, Liz, I knew I needed to see her because a couple months ago I lost my mind and I knew she’d been there before and I’ve known and trusted her for twenty years.
I left not knowing exactly what I was doing; I badly wanted to take a trip to the West again because I’d been 8 years away, and also I wanted to try selling kaleidoscopes on my own. I knew Liz knew the market in Tucson and I also knew I badly needed to hear her perspective on life, so I came to Tucson first. I didn’t expect to be staying here more than several days; I knew she had a boyfriend and a life. However she broke up with him the same day I left so when I came we had more time to talk than I’d anticipated. We really had some seriously unfinished business to talk through anyway because we are old lovers and I never really wanted to give her up but she ran off and got married, and that’s really why I spent the next six years or so thumbing around the country, because I never really wanted to marry anyone else. She was married for eleven years and got divorced 5 months after I got married. If I’d have seen her 5 months earlier I doubt if I’d have gotten married–but anyway for the next 8 years we stayed in touch and she wrote me several honest & painful letters about what all she had felt and done and what she was up to and in general they really tore at my heart because I never really and truly forgot about her.
Anyway a couple months ago me & Perri had another big fight over money & finally decided I would make the house payment and use the rest for supplies for kaleidoscopes, etc. I fulfilled my end of the bargain when I went out selling when I made $800, made the house payment and had $250 left for supplies & a little extra I figured we could go out to dinner on that night etc. & I was feeling really good when Perri walked in.
Well, she told me I’d put the house payment in the wrong one of the 2 accounts we had with NationsBank & I obviously couldn’t handle money & she’d have to make my order for me & I’d have to hand over the money & she didn’t want to go out to dinner because she’d already gone out to that restaurant for lunch & so she took my money & went out to dinner with her friends.
It happened so fast I didn’t know what hit me. I’d had a great day & done everything right and inside of 5 minutes she had trashed my day, insulted me, robbed me and split. I felt like I’d been mugged.
To add to the insult she didn’t get the order in for a couple weeks while I ran out of supplies to finish anything, meanwhile still riding me about the next month’s house payment. When she did put in the order she sent a check drawn on a credit card which didn’t have enough to cover it which blew another week as well as boogering up my account with Delphi Glass for the 2nd time. Then when I came to her with my concern she told me she’d take care of it after the weekend, but by the next Tuesday or Wednesday she hadn’t done it & I mentioned it again & she sort of casually said, “I have more things to think about than you”, and blew it off, then started ragging me about how I’d folded the laundry. Well that was a long ways from the only reason for what happened next but it was one straw too many for me. I started screaming at her at the top of my lungs and kept it up for probably five solid minutes and throwing laundry around and completely lost my mind. I said I was not one of her 9-year-old brats and she had better learn to respect me as a man and my family was just as good as hers (an old, old fight) and she did not have the exclusive right to decide for us if we were going to have children or not without consulting her husband, and she knew I hated the flatlands but she had kept me there for ten years anyway, and on & on. I’m sure I was purple I was so mad and I’m sure I popped a blood vessel because for weeks I got pounding headaches whenever I got worked up. I left & walked down the road & back for 20 mins. or so & when I got back had her write out a check then & there for an order & send it off & then a weird kind of calm settled over me–but I knew I was mentally unbalanced. I had completely lost my equilibrium and was totally out of touch with my emotions and I knew it. I was a wreck. It was a nervous breakdown. I started crying every morning and writing long letters, mostly to Liz because I knew very well she’d been there and could understand better than anyone about going thru that sort of thing. I knew I had to see her & planned this trip partly for business, true, but also to be able to see her, because I knew I’d never really be able to get myself straightened out again otherwise & she was the one person I knew that I trusted and felt could help.
So I’ve been here for awhile longer than I’d planned but I’m getting a lot of kaleidoscopes made up & making a few contacts & feeling a whole lot better. I don’t know what I’m going to do from here but I’ll get around to some more states pretty soon & probably pick up my car in Colorado & get back to NC before too long. I don’t much know what the future might be but I do know that I’m glad I came. You can go on & on about counseling, etc. but everyone needs to do what they think is best and I think I have done what is best for me for the time being and thus for everyone because I wouldn’t be any good for anyone the way I was. I feel like I have rediscovered something about myself I’d been out of touch with for a long time.
Much Love–Dave
P.S. Someone else needs to make the copies this time! DJA~
I had too much faith in my lady love. When I’d arrived, she’d been suspicious and cool, which seemed odd–the woman who’d been signing every letter with “Love” or some variation–never “sincerely” or “best wishes”–for seventeen years. We got along, but she seemed to want me to prove something, which was simply strange.
I found out much more about her. She’d been married at 20, had a son and left her first husband. She told me he’d forged a sword and to make it magical needed a ritual sacrifice. She’d run from him and I’d met her. She’d made a business arrangement with Luke under the apple tree–this is what she’d called it, had always called it, what they’d agreed to. He’d raise her son if she’d have his kids. Her son, 4 years old, had hated this choice–”NO!”, he said, “ANYBODY but HIM! George! David! Anyone but LUKE!!!”–but marry they did, moved out West and sent me a Polaroid shot of the cutest, happiest baby girl I’d ever seen. Four years later they had another daughter, one she didn’t want. They’d been thinking of splitting up, but he got a vasectomy and they stayed together for a few more years. He started fooling around and they had an incredibly bitter divorce. I arrived eight years later, but they were still furious with each other. He’d remarried, changed his name and tried to reverse his vasectomy. None of it worked–they didn’t have kids, he left her and changed back his name. Liz remained single and bitter, drank too much and kept the girls on weekends.
I’d been trying to sell scopes and rings in Tucson, but it was the end of the season and Liz wanted me to get away more anyway. She’d been introducing me and sometimes fixing me up with her friends. I took a sales trip with a fellow she knew. We were away for a week, camping out and visiting interesting little towns. I sold enough to pay for the trip but little else. A few days later I took a bus to California and met up with John, whose prospect wasn’t working out either. I visited a couple friends, whose romantic lives were also in turmoil; there was something in the air that spring–and John insisted I drive his car back while he flew home to his wife. That was fine with me, and I picked up my stuff in Tucson a few days after my 43rd birthday.
While I was gone all hell had broken loose. I’d gotten along with the son, who was now in his twenties, and the older daughter, who was 17, but the younger one, age 13, had been a challenge. I’d babysat with her the weekend before I’d left for California, when Liz was out of town. The daughter stole some pot from her mother’s purse, which I didn’t know about, and when Liz grilled her she said I’d been peeping, as a distraction. I was out of state, an easy target, and the daughter didn’t want me there anyway. When I rolled back into Tucson Liz was furious, but it was clear to me it wasn’t working out anyway, so I packed my stuff and left without a fuss.
I continued on to Colorado. I’d planned to fix up the 1962 Falcon which I’d given to Monk many years before. His father had made it into a sort of pickup and driven it for a few years. He now offered it back if I wanted it. Since I had a car, though, I didn’t immediately need it. I visited for a week, staying mostly with Monk’s mother. I’d say Monk had gone downhill in the intervening seven years, but he’d already been at the bottom. He was still married to Carissa, though they’d separated a few times. Still lived in a little apartment on the wrong side of the tracks, still dealt drugs and used cars. Carissa was a masseuse. She claimed that she wasn’t screwing the customers, though everyone knew she was. I took her to appointments. When we were alone she was all over me, and suggested we get a room. She was good looking, luscious actually, and I was sorta-kinda single, but she was still my best friend’s wife. I didn’t want to go there. I told her I needed my money for the trip home, which was true.
I spent the night at Monk’s apartment, Some friends had brought over crack. I traded them a few silver rings and shared it with Monk and Carissa. I’ve never cared for crack. It’s mediciney, not very pleasant and doesn’t last long. Carissa wanted more, and more.Didn’t want to give up the crack pipe. In the morning Monk offered me a place on the couch to stay as long as I wanted, but I left.The next few days I visited with his family while a car appearing to be an undercover narc incompetently followed me around. I sold a couple scopes and had money to get home, but there were be a couple small scopes missing. Monk later confessed that he and Carissa had taken them to get more crack.
Three years later Carissa was arrested for trying to hire someone to kill Monk. She needn’t have bothered. He died a year afterwards.
I spent the next week moseying, toured my old hangouts, took a drive to Boulder, saw the house we’d lived in when I was a toddler. It seemed incredibly tiny. I went to Central City, explored the mountains, then at night started for Kansas (the best time to drive across Kansas). I stopped in Topeka, spent some hours in Kansas City and went to St. Louis, where I spent most of the day. It’s lovely in the springtime, hell in summer. I then drove to my cousin’s house in Knoxville, spent the night, and on to my parents’ house in Boone, where I stayed the weekend. I arrived back in Swepsonville on Perri’s birthday, hoping to surprise her, but she wasn’t there, having gone to Florida to visit her sister. She’d changed the locks. I broke a small window and crawled in.
Things Settle Down
I went about my business. I returned the car to John, who’d reconciled with his wife. I rode my moped and got a job landscaping with Delores’ husband Marty. Perri came back a few days later. It took awhile, but we worked things out.
There’d been a real turning point for me that spring. I was living with Liz and once in awhile calling back to Perri, mostly yelling. I’d told her I wanted a divorce, and we’d decided who’d get what. I was still furious, even though Liz was proving to be less than trustworthy, clean and reverent. I’d found Liz would tell a tall tale if it got her what she wanted, but Perri never would. Perri called me one day nearly in tears and asked for my permission to buy a lawnmower with the credit card we’d decided was mine.
It was the first time she’d ever asked my permission.
I found it touching, and her simple and heartfelt honesty a sharp contrast to the woman I was with. A few days later it was my birthday and we talked until the battery on the phone went dead. It wasn’t a reconciliation, but it went a long way.
I signed up for Spanish classes at night school and volunteered at the Catholic church to teach English to recent immigrants a couple nights a week. I joined the chess club. She found a job teaching the profoundly retarded rather than the emotionally disturbed. The change was wonderful; she’d often say she felt she’d been dying in the old job, that it was draining her, wrecking her physical and mental health. Taking care of children, some of whom couldn’t talk, some in diapers at age 10, all needing gentle loving care, brought out a tenderness in her which she’d lost.
There was a lot of stuff to move around. Before I’d made my Quest to the West, we’d made plans to move back to the mountains. We’d moved stuff to the attic, on the bus, in the earth lodge, a tent, a back shed and at my parents’ house. There was stuff in our Subaru, under the carport, in the Studebaker. Perri’d also moved all her stuff from school, which was stored in the tool shed and the attic.
Robin had also been having domestic difficulties. Anne had a trust fund, and spent it on things she wanted while Robin worked. She did little but talk on the phone and drink Coke. Robin announced one day he wasn’t going to both work and clean the house. She said she wouldn’t either, and for twelve years the dishes stayed in the sink, the clothes stayed on the floor. They went out to eat. Grant, Jordan and Noelle visited their friends’ houses. Their friends didn’t visit them.
They decided to make a new start, and hired Perri and I to clean house in summer 1996. We started in the corners of each room and pushed everything into the hallway. By nightfall it was so crammed we couldn’t see over the pile, and had to go room to room through the windows. We threw out well over a hundred bags of trash. My brother paid us a hundred dollars, and as part of the deal we also kept $138 we’d found in loose change.
There’d been a hurricane that summer, and though it did little damage to our house Marty and I had plenty of work and plenty of firewood. We worked together until Christmas, mowing lawns, trimming trees, doing construction and working on cars. Perri acquired a Volvo, and felt very much the professional.
After Christmas I reconnected with John, my partner on the Quest to the West, and we built storage sheds as well as kaleidoscopes together. He’d seen the sheds I’d made with Marlene’s father and decided we could do it too. Some months later I got a job supervising a crew of Mexican immigrants in a print shop in Durham, 12 hours on the night shift, 4 days one week and 3 days the next. It was the first job where I spoke Spanish full-time, and I was not only the supervisor but something of a god both to my crew and to upper management, as nobody would get anything done if I didn’t interpret. It was a temporary job, though, which under the rules of the time could be forever temporary, and was physically demanding. Needlessly so. We were supposed to stay on our feet for the entire twelve hours. All chairs had been banned from the floor. It was a great opportunity to socialize after work with Mexicans, though, and at 7 in the morning we’d buy a case of beer. When you work from 7 pm to 7 am, seven in the morning is after work. I still made kaleidoscopes and storage buildings on my days off.
After six months I’d had enough and found a better job, closer to home, supervising a Spanish-speaking crew in a print shop, though this print shop printed fabric. It was slower paced and far more pleasant, but after two months I was laid off. I then found a job in a plant which glued huge rolls of paper. I was part-time safety inspector and part-time Spanish supervisor, though I only had one fellow to supervise.
Ringo and I daily walked around the property, picking flowers. One day Ringo found a HUGE caterpillar who’d eaten ALL the leaves off one of my baby pecans. It was as big as my thumb. We named it Swepsonzilla. It was a Hickory Horned Devil, which becomes a Royal moth. That spring, we saw Hootie and the Blowfish with our friend Lori and her temporary boyfriend. Lori had married a prisoner she’d met as a prison counselor, but while he was locked up was going with a fellow named John. It was a Lori Story. Lori always did the strange and dramatic and wrong. She was nearly 30, but for awhile had a boyfriend who was sixteen. John wanted to stay with her, but they split up because she was married.
We spent a week in Florida that spring, and when we came back Perri got a bus license and became a driver for a multiple-handicapped children’s camp for the rest of that summer. We took one other quick trip to the beach, staying in a condo on Oak Island as a promotion. When Thanksgiving came we visited Perri’s parents in their new house in Athens, Alabama, then came home and sold trees.
The Volvo heater core had sprung a leak, and I had to tear out the entire dashboard to repair it. About six months later, a woman pulled in front of Perri and it was totaled. We refinanced the house yet again in the springtime, and pulled out enough extra to buy a four-year-old Toyota truck, basic but well-maintained.
When Lori’s husband Michael got out of prison in the spring of 1998 we went to the beach for a quick weekend. Lori’s parents had a beach cottage, and while there we took photos pretending we were in the movie Maximum Overdrive, shot in the area, which my father’d been in. Perri played Stephen King being cussed out by the ATM, I played my father the bridgemaster and Michael his stupid sidekick. We played cards with the cards from my wallet. We found a slice of watermelon in the market and used camera angles to make it look like a truckload, and Lori was an excellent stand-in for Marla Maples as she got creamed by the watermelon. Ringo was conscripted to be the goblin on the front of the diesel rig, for which we’d substituted our little pickup. A napkin became a waiter’s pointy hat at the diner, and various items were flung into the air and shot from strange angles. Great fun!
That summer Perri and her mother took a trip to Florida together, without the rest of the family. Her mother had never stopped at South of the Border, on I-95 at the South Carolina line, which she thought tacky, but they had a great time.
Teresa, who’d been my employee, had left her husband and moved to Idaho with a new husband. I’d traded a nice stereo Kallistoscope to her for a silver flute, but she had a piano that needed a home, and I traded her the flute back for the piano, which was sitting in my workshop when my sister Laura expressed her desire for a piano that September. We traded the piano for Laura’s flute!
We sold trees again, but my heart wasn’t in it. After nearly twenty years of selling, I’d made enough to make the house payment, which for me was a mark of achievement. My father’s response was to joke that that we needed to “renegotiate our agreement”, since I was making too much money.
It wasn’t really a joke. I didn’t trust him. I loaded a couple dozen trees on my pickup for a few years but otherwise abandoned the enterprise and never did business with him again.
I may have been recovered, domestically, but Robin was warring with his wife, and Fran, who for her work had gone to Panama with the kids while her husband Rob remained in Montgomery, was having an increasingly hard time handling Sarah, brain damaged, obstinate, ten years old and quite strong. She had a Panamanian maid, but as she was the only one who spoke Spanish and only there for a few minutes morning and night, everyone expected her to air all their complaints at that time. Genny had moved from New York to the trailer at Snag End, and Sam was in rural New Jersey, having left not only Manhattan but Staten Island.
We’d been much better, but I still wanted the children we hadn’t had, nine years into our marriage. That summer I was skimming through the paper and saw the list in the paper of all the babies born locally that week–and all of them, a dozen or more, had parents younger than we were. Later that day, Perri knew something was wrong, and I showed her the column. I was sobbing. I knew that if we didn’t have children, we were going to break up. She’d avoided the issue for fourteen years, taking birth control pills, getting an abortion eight years before, scheduling her fertile days, trying to talk me into a vasectomy, even talking about getting her tubes tied, but this, for me, was the end.
The Porno Biz
A new job. I’d been hired by a woman named Sheila to start a Spanish department at Adam & Eve, the sex toy and porno-by-mail company.
Before I was out of training Sheila was gone. Her daughter had been a casualty in an office war, and Sheila quit. I’d been introduced to all the departments–the folks who wrote the catalog, the website geeks, customer service–but on the second day of the second week of my three-week training the black girl teaching the class came in looking white–and announced that the entire customer service department had been fired. From now on, everyone would “multi-task”. In 1998 nobody had discovered how many tasks one person could simultaneously do wrong. Instead of just doing one job at a time, we’d do everything, all the time–phone orders, ten-key mail order entry, customer service over the phone, through the mail, etc. etc. etc. I was also expected to do all this in Spanish as well as English. The elimination of the customer service department was part of this “transition”, and since Sheila had also resigned, the Spanish department–her baby–was in limbo. Everyone outside of customer contact wanted my help, but I was supposed to be “multi-tasking”. If I wasn’t answering phones in Spanish, I was doing it in English. Beside the phone was a big stack of little cards marked to receive or not receive a catalog, or not marked at all, in which case we sent another card. When the cards ran out, we had stacks of letters with ads torn out of magazines. These contained checks, or didn’t, or credit card numbers, or didn’t, or cash, for which we’d send back a check with a note that said we didn’t take cash. If these were finished we had stacks of mail with customer service questions. We’d work on these piles of paper until the next call came, which we were supposed to answer in 3 seconds. I had all the foreign language items as well–not only Spanish. We had a girl who spoke French–coincidentally, we shared the same birthday, and she was the only other vegetarian. I kept a big stack of phrasebooks on my desk in Spanish, French, German, Dutch, Italian, Portuguese, Japanese, even Russian and Tagalog. Most of the foreign correspondence wasn’t complicated–we didn’t send anything outside of the United States and Canada, so the bulk of my notes said “sorry, we don’t ship to (Italy, the Philippines, Brazil). My biggest problem was the Spanish speaking customer who had a question about an item. We didn’t have access to the website (tell me about it!) so everyone but me transferred these calls to the warehouse. Since nobody in the warehouse spoke Spanish and there was no way to see an item online, I placed the customer on hold and ran to the warehouse. Several times a day I was taking care of a customer service problem when I “should have been on the phones”.
It quickly became obvious to me that multi-tasking was multi-screwing-up. I told management I needed a certain amount of time to devote to Spanish, nothing else, and if I had to punch that damned calculator all day I was going to kick it through the window. I got an hour at the end of the day for Spanish. There was no Spanish keyboard available, so I brought in an old portable 1930s Spanish-language typewriter and typed short descriptions of several items and made a 2-page Xerox copy list, which saved me literally hours on the phone and quintupled our Spanish sales.
Perri’d become pregnant, finally, in September of 1998. We had a scare in October. I’d given blood, and it had been rejected. Perri opened the letter, and it said I needed to get tested for AIDS.
Well, it scared the crap out of both of us, naturally. Fifteen years together, she finally gets pregnant and now she needs to know if I have AIDS, if she has AIDS, if the baby has AIDS. I had to take several expensive tests before I found out that I had indeed had an immune deficiency illness, many years earlier, described as a “cousin” to AIDS–probably babesiosis. It sounds like an addiction to babes, but it’s tick-borne. When I’d filled out the questionnaire to give blood it’d asked my medical history for the previous ten years. I’d had a case of the flu which recurred and never really went away, but that had been more than ten years before. I spent a lot of money on prescriptions, which did almost nothing, and finally tried large quantities of herbal extracts and remedies, which worked. Nevertheless, the antibodies were still there, fourteen or fifteen years later. I was told I could give blood in the future if I let this be known, but I never will again. It was expensive, scary and I wasn’t treated fairly.
In 1999, after the new year, John and I started building a workshop so that the baby could have the spare bedroom. We fixed up the house yet again. Perri wanted central air conditioning so we sprang for that as well. John had wanted to put in the labor on the workshop for free, as a gift to us, but after a fight with his wife we gave him $700. He soon left his wife, again and for good.
Perri was overjoyed to be pregnant and preparing for the baby, but when I described her joy in the robin Laura took offense to a particular phrase, that men liked to be a knight in shining armor for a fair maiden. This struck me as particularly silly, because she’d married a football coach, and who in modern times is more the knight in shining armor than a football coach? For whatever reason, she wasn’t interested in scrawny, bespectacled accountants.
There’d been an ad about that time for MasterCard or Visa, showing what “one strong woman” could do–the idea was that she could fix up her house, but how? By hiring twelve strong guys. The commercial didn’t show “one strong man” hiring twelve women to do the plumbing and masonry and drywall, it would’ve been ludicrous. Fire departments anywhere, affirmative action or no, are 99% men. Construction is over 90% men. Thus shall it always be.
It bothers me when the Air Force or Army or Navy or Marines put women in combat, not because women can’t do the job, because for the most part they can. Once a woman is captured, however, she can be raped and violated and used as a sex slave, which will be repeated 67 times a day on the news all day long for twelve days, and then 600 strong males–knights in shining armor–will get their nuts shot off saving the fair maid. None of the armed services would send in 600 women to save a man. Brave knights save fair young maidens from dragons, because that’s what brave knights do. Brave young maidens will never save fair knights. They save babies, not knights. To say anything else is a line of crap. Spout it for a hundred years and it’s still crap. When the shooting starts, knights do the fighting, just like in fairy tales, and maidens hide with babies in the caves. That’s the power of myth. They’re fated, and inevitable. The Knight in Shining Armor saves the Fair Maid, the Princess kisses the Toad, Beauty saves the Beast and the Wicked Witch is carried off in a tornado. One can kick and scream and say “NO!!! My life is NOT that way!!!”, but sooner or later one looks around and realizes one has indeed been the Wizard, or the Dragon, or the Fair Maid, or the Ugly Duckling or the Wicked Stepmother. It’s too bad this is only seen in the rear-view mirror. It’d save a lot of kicking and screaming.
When my marriage was out of balance and not like the myth it was supposed to be, I had to leave on a Stalwart Quest. I didn’t know The Answer, but I’d been getting letters for twenty years from an alternate myth in a parallel universe–for if we’re not caught up in one myth, we’re caught in another. In this other world I was the Powerful Wizard, not the Obstinate Child. I didn’t see that in her myth she was the Temple Prostitute, which she had clearly and honestly told me, but I didn’t believe. I’d still get occasional letters, and she’d apologized for the scene when I left Tucson, but now I had a Fair Maiden and a Babe On the Way. Now, as the bearer of the Mighty Sword of Truth, I had to tell her the rest of her Myth–that the Truth was that she truly became the Prostitute she’d claimed to be when she married not the Wizard she loved, but the Turd in a Shiny Suit who offered her a Business Deal. There’s only one word for a Business Deal involving Sex, topped with any amount of Frosting, and Wizards have More Important Things To Do than consort with Prostitutes. I don’t remember which myth that is, but it’s one of the classics. You can look it up.
The spring went by quickly and the baby came late. On May 7th, a week after he was due, we checked into the Women’s Hospital in Greensboro, and though the delivery had already been planned for that afternoon, Perri had gone into labor the same morning. At 6:54 pm we welcomed Edward Zephram Austin. Taurus sun, Aquarius moon, Scorpio rising.
The Babe
The name was something new. For years Perri and I had thought that Mercer Calvin would be a good name. I’d always thought the Mercer an elegant little car, and Calvin was her maiden name. As the time approached, though, she felt the name was from her past, not something she wanted to use. She wanted Theo Mercer, but I didn’t. I liked the initials MCA, but didn’t care for TMA. Initials weren’t something my parents thought about much; mine are DJA, which seemed okay, but then came RAA, SMA, FEA, GMA and LAA. Robin didn’t care for RAA, Sam saw his name scrambled, Fran’s brought her embarrassment when she went to Spain with her initials embossed on a giant handbag, because FEA means “ugly girl” in Spanish.
I thought one common name and one more unusual would go together nicely. Edward was her father’s name, and Ned mine, and as Ned is a common nickname for Edward, we chose it. That left a middle name. Some weeks before he was born we were watching a Star Trek movie and learned that Zefram Cochrane was the inventor of warp drive. We had our middle name, and the initials EZA. An added allure is that a few years from now the inventor of warp drive will be named after our son, not vice versa!
We’d thought a choice of nicknames would be nice, but Edward was a serious baby and nothing else fit. He wasn’t an Eddie or Ed or Ned or Ted or Audie. Occasionally we’d call him EZ, but mostly he was simply Edward.
Everyone sent their congratulations. Several people came to visit the hospital–Randy, Pat, their kids Carly and Leah, Lori and my brother Robin’s family. Perri and Anne had had a game going for years. Anne hated Joe Camel, the cigarette mascot, and Perri’d hide a Joe Camel cup-holder in her house when we’d visit. She’d send the kids looking for it and return it on her next visit. Joe appeared all over. When Robin and Anne moved into a new house Joe was waiting, courtesy of their realtor, and when Anne had a temporary job Perri had a friend mail him to her, in a stranger’s handwriting and with a different return address. It didn’t matter, Anne knew what was inside, and sent it to Perri without opening it!
When Anne arrived, I was holding a fake bundle with Joe Camel in Edward’s place, but she rushed right past it. She didn’t look at the baby, she wanted to see Perri!
Perri’s life was now all about diapers and breastfeeding and lack of sleep. We’d bought a WebTV unit shortly before he was born and she started an email list and sent out “Edward Updates”. Cindy, her friend of over 20 years, had her first baby, a girl, 3 weeks later. She and Ally lived about a half-hour away and visited often, sharing toys, clothes etc.
We’d moved our bedroom from one side of the house to the other during the initial renovation. Now we made my workroom a nursery and moved my glass and tools into the newly built workshop out back.
Edward initially had gray eyes, but within a couple weeks they were brown. This followed the family pattern; all of his cousins, both on Perri’s side and on mine, had brown eyes. I was the oldest of three boys, followed by three girls, and all the children in my siblings’ families as well were boys followed by girls. My brother had two boys, then a girl; my first sister two boys, then two girls, and my youngest sister two boys. This also applied to the cousins on my mother’s side of the family; of the four, one cousin had two boys, another, one girl, and a third, two boys. None of the brothers, for two generations, had an older sister, and none of the sisters a younger brother.
Edward as a baby was a prize. He was quiet, and studious, and loved bananas. Perri tried to teach him sign language, which she’d studied and used as a teacher, and eventually he picked up a few hand signs, but he had his own. “More” wasn’t his two little fists touched together, it was a hearty slap on his high-chair table.
When Edward had been born I’d bought a box of cigars. When I’d been a child, even well into my twenties, almost all men passed out cigars when a baby was born. I found it difficult to give them away. I bought a few chocolate and bubble-gum cigars to mix in with them, and went through about five times as many candy and gum cigars as I did real ones. I didn’t pass out the last cigar for almost a year.
Edward was a cheerful baby, despite his serious countenance. When something surprised him he’d cackle almost uncontrollably. When he was 2 or 3 months old he had a little round-bottomed bird with a bell inside that tinkled and righted itself when pushed over; I showed it to him when we were lounging on the bed. He laughed all afternoon.
He was always strong. When first born he arched his back and held his head up, and he never cared much to crawl, preferring from an early age to grab things and try to stand. Our house has two wide archways , between the living room and the parlor, where we put hooks to either side and hung a bouncy chair, which he loved. He’d walk until the chair pulled him back & spun him around, then bounce and walk some more. I’d sit in the recliner next to him and play the banjo. He loved it. I won a small banjo-type ukulele in a costume contest at work, gave it to him and he’d play along with me. He had a large futon in one corner of his room and lots of toys, but his favorite was a nubby foam ball. When he was four months old, I asked him if he wanted it and he said, very clearly, “ball”–his first word. When he was old enough to have a set schedule I’d play songs for him at bedtime, not only on the banjo but also the guitar. I’d initially found the guitar too intimidating. I’d broken or badly cut every finger on my left hand at some point. My thumb, pinky and index fingers lacked flexibility. When someone would show me guitar chords I’d be stymied, but once I learned banjo chords I picked up a guitar for $17 when Sears closed down its catalog warehouse in Greensboro and learned to fudge a few chords. I bought a book with a couple hundred classic American songs and learned quite a few, though playing many chords in a non-standard way. I wasn’t great, but that wasn’t the point. I’d play a few songs, strum a bit in minor keys and Edward would be fast asleep.
In the fall Perri’s sister Glee and her new-ish boyfriend David came up from the coast to escape the approaching Hurricane Floyd and stay with us for a few days. Perri sent an email to the rest of the family:
Glenda and David were united in Holy Matrimony on Friday, September 17, 1999. The double ring candlelight veranda wedding (on our front porch) took place at 9:20 pm. Dave Austin officiated. Edward Austin and Perri Austin, the bride’s nephew and sister, respectively, were witnesses for the happy couple. Perri also served as ring bearer, photographer and caterer.
The bride wore a lovely shade of blue jean. The groom was attired in jeans of blue. We all wore blue jeans, except for Edward, as Glee and David had not come prepared for a wedding, but for an evacuation.
An intimate surprise reception followed. A small cake of white trimmed in blue and purple was adorned with the couple’s names and a ribbon (I ran to the store, bought a small cake and had their names put on it while they were out buying rings, so it was a surprise). The gala affair was made more festive by the party poppers (confetti). Gifts included a phone card and wedding album (they had been using a phone card while staying here, so I thought it a good idea to get them another one, so that they would have enough minutes to contact family. Also I didn’t want to get them anything “house-like” as a gift, as they are not in a situation in which they need “stuff”. I took pictures, had them developed the next day, then put them in a little photo album).
After a two night honeymoon in Swepsonville, the couple safely returned to their home in Newport, NC.
It was the first time Edward put his signature on anything. He was four months old, so I helped him hold the pencil, but it still came out a scrawl.
Perri continued the “Edward Updates” on WebTV. I ordered a new, internet capable computer through work at $25 per paycheck for 2 years–an Apple. It arrived–the G3 unit, keyboard, mouse–and no monitor. The very same day, the G4 was introduced–so I called them up, said I couldn’t use a computer without a monitor and, by the way, we didn’t want the G3 now–so as it turned out, we bought the first really modern computer, on its first day.
My wife was nevertheless concerned about viruses, so for the next year or two we continued with WebTV for the internet, though according to a calculation I’d made based on a list of viruses known to infect Windows vs. those for Macs, if a virus were to infect a Windows machine once a week, a Mac would catch one every forty years.
We have a video of Edward unwrapping a gift at his first Christmas. He tore the bow off, played with it, tore away the paper and played with it awhile, opened the box and played with the box top, took out the tissue paper and played with that, then pulled out the present and threw it to the side. He also got a toy that you’d put balls on top and bop them down through a series of inclined planes, then they’d pop out at the bottom. This would delight him for hours.
The Millennium
As the end of 1999 approached, everyone’s mind was on the next millennium, which had recently been christened Y2K. Computer people were going nuts, psychic hot lines burning up, millennial doomsday survivalists laying in supplies of wheat and beans and ammunition and everyone, everywhere, preparing for a huge party. Perri and I had a supply of wheat and beans and such which my co-traveler friend John had given us–he’d been a Mormon and had packed a year’s supply of food in his basement but had hardly used any of it, in fifteen or twenty years. He gave it to us, along with a kitchen-sized flour mill. We had three five-gallon drinking water jugs and a water filter, and the extent of our further Y2K preparation was to buy a fourth jug.
When the millennium came it was low-key for us. We had a seven-month-old baby boy, so we bought a few party hats and a bottle of champagne. When the millennium rolled around we lit off a few firecrackers I’d illegally imported from South Carolina, popped open the champagne and all had a little, even Edward who had a drop I gave him on the end of my finger, then things continued they way they always had. The world was still there the next day, and we had five extra gallons of water.
At work things were again in crisis. I’d been doing well, but all I was getting was grief. After the first year I was ready to quit, loaded up all my stuff (except for a few clippings and such I left on my desk to look like I was still there), took my vacation time, all my sick days and prepared to walk in the next day and quit–but Allah be praised, Hilda, the main source of my problems, had been fired, along with her troublemaker friend Barbara, who’d been stealing from the company even as she tried to get me fired (she spoke Spanish, but so poorly that she caused more problems than she solved). I decided to give it another shot.
A year went by, and I thought things were going along okay, when my “team captain” Heidi, out of the clear blue, announced that she didn’t care what schedule I’d worked out with management, I could “multitask” with everyone else or punch out and go home without pay. I went to her supervisor and told him I’d been doing a good job for the company, handling a lot of work that nobody else could and getting very little in the way of either compensation or respect. I told him that whenever I took a customer service call in English which had been transferred to me from some other associate who spoke English it would tie up the Spanish line for 20 minutes and I’d have six Spanish calls in a row asking why they’d been on hold. I told him that Spanish was customer service and I didn’t intend to tie up my line with customer service calls that a dozen other associates could handle, and that I did intend to punch out and go home, that I had vacation time coming and I was going to take it, right then, and decide whether I wanted to come back or not.
Well, Heidi’s ultimatum had worked–on her. While I was on vacation I received the single snottiest, bitchiest, pettiest, most infantile, unprofessional email I’ve ever received from anyone, anytime, anywhere. I forwarded it to several choice people, and that was the end of her. Dearest Heidi, I hope you are multi-tasking in hell, groveling and licking the puke off the floor.
When I came back, I was given a raise and made head of the Spanish department (which consisted of one guy, me). I was given the option to set up my schedule the way I saw fit and no customer service calls in English. Since I didn’t spend time on problems which other associates could handle, I made more sales, a lot more money and was way more happy.
I bought a 1982 Honda for $300 and put another $1100 into repairs; I figured it was a good deal, as I now had a Honda with new tires, brakes, etc. for $1400. About six months later, a woman hit me and her insurance gave me $750. I fixed it for $65 and drove it for another year, then sold it for $600. A year and a half’s transportation for $115.
We told the family that Edward was a whiz on the computer; we had to watch him or he’d whiz on it. He’d also figured out particle physics–he could spread particles all over the house! He was an airplane pilot–the bouncy chair had given way to an airplane swing in the archway–and while he piloted his plane he’d play on the ukulele while I strummed the banjo or guitar. As for reading, he’d pick up books, flip through them and babble on with great expression, though it was difficult to tell what language he was speaking. We called him “Mister Boom-Boom”, because he’d say “boom-boom-boom-boom” as he crawled all over the house.
On his birthday we gave him one special present–a box of cereal which had been sold for a short time called Millennios, which we’d stuffed with mementos of his first year–a time capsule, to be opened when he was ten.
No hurricanes came through that year, but summertime was stormy. In 1996 Hurricane Fran had ripped off our back storm door, a single 3’x6’ piece of tempered glass. I’d put it back and in 1999 Hurricane Floyd ripped it off again, laying it down in the back yard. That summer I was mowing and a wayward pebble did it in.
There was a tornado which passed through one morning when I was on the way to work, an unusual one which hugged the ground horizontally rather than forming a vertical cone. I saw it coming while pumping gas; I thought I’d finish and mosey on inside but it came on way too fast. I ran towards the low cement-block building, and by the time I got inside the rain was blowing sideways and the power was out. The wind came from the back and blew so hard the doors on the front were sucked wide open. Outside the side windows, all was a nasty gray with particles flying through it, very dark. It looked like the static on a TV screen but much darker. The girl behind the counter screamed and hit the floor while I and another customer looked at each other in astonishment.
When the tornado had passed we couldn’t leave the parking lot; there were trees across the road to either side and the power line was down. We waited for a few guys to show up and help us move the trees. The freeway was closed, and I went on the back road for three or four miles, stopping and waiting for help whenever another tree was across the road. Finally it was just me, one old farmer, and a huge oak tree, and I decided to see if the freeway was clear. It was, but blocked behind me, so I cruised on the empty freeway the rest of the way to work. My three-mile detour had taken me an extra hour, but it made little difference. The power was out and pretty soon the phone lines too, so we all went home. I spent the rest of the day cutting and loading firewood.
The pickup was a tight fit for Perri and I with Edward’s car seat in the middle; it was a manual transmission but when I shifted gears I had to go from first to third to fifth. We put a car carrier in the bed of the truck for our stuff when we’d go up the mountain to Thanksgiving or Christmas. It was now clear that my father would sabotage any decent profit I would’ve made selling trees, but I loaded up my pickup and sold a couple dozen out of stubbornness. This continued as a personal goal until I’d sold trees for twenty-five years, then I packed it in.
The new millennium arrived for real, some would say, on January 1, 2001, though the big parties and the doomsday predictions were over and the bags of beans everyone had packed away were a joke. The Y2K bug had been a mosquito. I was making more kaleidoscopes now that I had a dedicated workshop. I’d come home from work, put in an hour or two and Edward wouldn’t know the difference. When Papa arrived home, of course, no more work would get done that day.
One of the fellows at work had a son a few months older than Edward, and we started hanging out together. Like most couples with kids our age, they were younger, but most couples our age had teens or older, and we didn’t have as much to talk about. When your kids are in diapers and theirs are driving there just aren’t as many stories to swap. I’d thought Steve & Kim to be good friends, and we’d see them a couple times a week. Their son was bigger, though, and not well disciplined. Steve had been in the same department as me but had gotten a job “upstairs”. He soon started sending an email list under the persona of a perverted, angry, profane clown named Rimme. These were somewhat funny but sarcastic, offensive and generally disgusting. They got longer and angrier; it became clear Rimme the Clown was taking up more than Steve’s break time and he was fired. It became a downward spiral for Steve as he got and lost one crummy job after another. I still considered him a friend and tried to help him out, letting him borrow my car, giving him our extra refrigerator, but as his personality deteriorated we didn’t want his kids hanging out with ours that often and began turning down some of his invitations. We’d see them once a week, but maybe not twice. One day we’d been out of town for the weekend and when we returned there was a long, extremely ugly, absolutely disgusting rant on our answering machine, calling us fat country fucks and a dozen other things. We let Randy, our mutual friend, listen to the tape and told him Steve would never, ever, ever be allowed in our house again. Steve thought it would be no big deal, and Kim called wanting to patch things up, but Perri told her there was no way possible as long as she was married to Steve. They divorced, but she moved to Florida and we lost touch.
We had another friend Steve from work, however. Second Steve encouraged me to play the guitar, and I got to be reasonably good. He joined the Navy after hearing my stories, and afterwards moved to New York City, where first Steve was living. I saw they were facebook friends, but later they weren’t, which was no surprise. I didn’t ask what happened. Didn’t need to.
Edward was a toddler now, getting into things. We had cement steps leading to the back door, with a railing made of 1” galvanized pipe. Edward took to swinging on this pipe, and seeing as how it was cement on one side and a 4’ drop on the other I reluctantly fenced the gap and wrecked one of his favorite swings. He also had a habit of running out the back door to the old shed and climbing a rickety ladder I’d leaned up against it to access a wood rack. I fenced in a good-sized area of the backyard and connected it to my workshop so that he couldn’t get out, and he had a huge playground where we kept a picnic table and enough distractions for him to keep himself occupied while I worked.
I stayed at Adam & Eve until the spring. I’d been promised a transfer at that time, but when it didn’t come through I used up all the flyers I’d laboriously Xeroxed, trashed the special customer lists I’d made, took my stuff and quit. They had to hire 4 people to do my job.
I started with a company 3 miles from home, Always Vinyl, and loved it. I rode around town, made estimates, drew plans for vinyl porches, railings, fences and decks. The pay was almost as good and I was five minutes from home instead of half an hour. If I wanted to come home for lunch, I did. I learned AutoCAD (computer assisted design), construction techniques for vinyl and building to code. It was a small company, there were 3 of us in the office and 3 or 4 more in a warehouse across town. I’d run around with a tape measure, punch the information into the computer and come up with a materials list, a plan and a price. I’d leave at 5:30 and be home by 5:35.
April Fool!
Well, when things change, they change fast. On April Fool’s Day, at 11:28 on a Sunday morning, there was a light fog. I needed to return some movies to the video store. I debated taking Edward, but decided it’d be a hassle strapping him in. Some few dozen yards down the road there was a traffic light, which I stopped for, and when it turned green I headed across, eastbound. BAM!!!
A northbound truckload of inebriated Mexicans found my truck with theirs. They slammed into my right rear so hard it spun the truck completely around, knocking off the wheel and scattering parts all over the road. I came to rest in the left lane on the other side of the intersection, having completed an entire 360º spin. Nobody was seriously hurt in either vehicle, but I was more hurt than any of them. When the truck hit I held onto the steering wheel as I was slammed into the car seat on the passenger side, pulling the muscles in my right shoulder and aggravating an old injury to my neck, then when the truck spun around and abruptly stopped my left shoulder slammed into the cab stanchion, damaging it as well.
The insurance company lost on that one. The driver was picked up for drunk driving and on his release immediately split for Mexico, never to be seen again. He’d been on the road exactly two days. The insurance company wanted to settle with me for $5000, but I contacted a lawyer and got twice that.
For a couple weeks I couldn’t even turn over in bed without severe pain–when both shoulders and your neck are out you’re pretty near helpless–but I did put on a neck brace and go to work, though I was fairly worthless for anything but AutoCAD and typing, but it only lasted a couple more weeks, because the company went under.
I automatically received unemployment, but I couldn’t have worked if I’d wanted to. With my settlement we had enough to live on and buy another car. We looked around and found for sale the prettiest, cleanest car I’d ever seen outside of the showroom floor, parked by the side of the road. It was a 1989 Cadillac Brougham d’Elegance. What the French had to do with it I don’t know, because the stickum on the window said it was “Made in Texas by Texans”. It had only 77,000 miles–almost exclusively highway miles. The previous owner, who’d passed away a few months before, had not allowed any smoking, eating or drinking in the car. The mechanic gave it an absolute thumbs-up. We’d had him check out another car, newer and a thousand dollars cheaper, but he said that while the other was a fine car, if we didn’t buy the Cadillac he’d buy it himself. It had a small V8 engine–an Oldsmobile 307–and was slightly underpowered but got about 25 miles per gallon on the highway, with regular gas. I used the absolutely pristine second set of gold-plated keys–issued with the vehicle and never used–to drive it home. Two days later Perri and Edward drove it to Alabama for a visit, and for the next six weeks I had peace and quiet while they visited her parents in their new house.
Genny welcomed a baby as well. Tristan’s one month anniversary was also his cousin’s 17th birthday, and my father’s 76th.
I was on unemployment for 8 months. The settlement for the wreck helped out, and I’d made kaleidoscopes in my workshop, but most of all I was thrilled with the opportunity to hang out in the backyard with my boy, cutting, foiling and burnishing glass pieces, swinging him in his airplane, watching him play in the grass. It was a marvelous time, never to be recovered. He had preferences; like any two-year-old, including me, he had a favorite hat–a yellow hard hat just like his hero Bob the Builder. Of all the cartoons, Bob the Builder was best. It was true that Bob didn’t pay a lot of attention to safety, hanging off the side of cement trucks and such when they drove to the mayor’s house, but he had a wonderful attitude–”Can we do it? Yes, we can!”–in comparison to Dragon Tales, with one dragon always afraid of everything. The message a toddler got wasn’t that there was no reason to be scared, but that even a huge dragon would whine when any stupid thing happened. Teletubbies were simply puerile, and Barney didn’t know the lyrics. It was especially grating to hear Barney-addicted toddlers disputing their parents’ versions of well-known songs, claiming that Barney didn’t sing it that way and implying that their parents didn’t know better. Caillou was a whiny little four-year-old going on two. There were other good cartoons–Oswald the Octopus, Jay Jay the Jet Plane, Franklin the Turtle, but Bob was best, and far and away our favorite. Edward walked around in his hard hat, pockets full of tools, and knew if we asked “Can we fix it?” the answer was “Yes we can”! Perri got a part time job straightening out computer problems for the school while I stayed behind with the boy. It was an idyllic time I’d eagerly anticipated for over 20 years.
I’d been pissed at the smug, self-satisfied statements of parents who had children at a younger age, as though it took wisdom and dedication to make a baby, and highly annoyed at parents who’d say, loudly, that children were a pain in the ass, or they had no intention of having any more, or that I’d hate when they were teenagers, or a dozen other things. I’d spent a very long time matching stories of what someone’s kids did with stories of what someone else’s kids did, feeling empty and alone. Now my boy was walking and breathing and I treasured every second. He didn’t misbehave, much, and I hated to paddle him, only did once or twice and never again, never wanted to, never needed to. I’d tuck him into bed and scare away the monsters with monster spray, which was sold in the grocery aisle as air freshener. There was a crew widening the road in front of our house and we spent many days watching the big yellow machines move dirt. We took photos by the pound and videos by the mile and read books about fairies and princes and went to the zoo and the aquarium and visited with all our relatives and friends and showed everyone what a fine young fellow he was.
That Day
The summer passed, and I recovered slowly. I mostly puttered in my workshop, cutting glass and trying not to lift anything heavier than Edward. One day after Perri and I had been up late, going over old photos, I went to my workshop and turned on the TV. There was a building on fire, and a few seconds later, an airplane hit the building beside it. Perri was walking out the door, and I called to her as she headed towards the car. Some of the photos we’d been sorting not ten hours before had been of ourselves, posed together on the top of that very building.
I spent the rest of the day in my workshop, Edward playing contentedly on the floor and the TV tuned to PBS. The kiddie shows played all day. I didn’t change the channel. I was exceedingly grateful they didn’t show endless news, remembering when I was young and Kennedy was shot and there was nothing else on for days. Edward was too young to have known the difference but certainly would have known his papa was distracted and anxious. It was worse for my brother. Six months before, he’d left his life in Manhattan, where he’d lived for 20 years, and one of his regular gigs was playing piano in the restaurant at the top of the towers. He had a great many friends who were now dust.
And Life Goes On
I had a large pile of small glass pieces I’d accumulated and decided to use all these scraps in a special edition line-up that year. When the Christmas season came I had 50 exceptionally beautiful scopes that sold like crazy. It was good, because I’d been low on money; unemployment and insurance payouts run slim after eight months. We still had a good Christmas. We didn’t need to hide anything, just turned the pictures on the boxes to the wall. When Edward’s pedal-power excavator and the other presents showed up on Christmas he didn’t notice that the boxes were gone. It was the last Christmas we could get away with that.
After the new year, I got two jobs in two days. Wrangler Jeanswear had shifted its production to Latin America. They laid off 3000 people and hired one–me, because I spoke Spanish. I also got a job two nights a week with Alamance Community College, teaching English to workers who only knew Spanish. I was to begin both jobs the first week of January, but there was a record 3-foot snowfall that weekend so I started with Wrangler the next Monday morning and ACC Tuesday night.
The round robin arrived. Robin was concerned about Lizard People taking over the government, Genny’s son Tristan turned one, Sam got a digital camera and Laura was happy not to have to move again, just yet.
Perri had taken up pottery, a special sort called Maya Ortiz, and was making beautiful pieces. I ran electricity to the bus so she could have her own workshop. But as for me, my truck died, then my dog died.
My truck, a 1972 Ford pickup I’d bought the year before, blew its engine a few miles from home. I bought a 1994 Chevy pickup from Perri’s Maya Ortiz pottery instructor which had originally been sold in Panama and was exempt from emission equipment; a big sticker under the hood said so.
Ringo had been in failing health and died on Easter morning, March 31, 2002. He’d lived 11-1/2 years exactly, as he’d been born on Halloween, 1990. Perri wanted to tell Edward he’d died, but he was such a little guy. I told him the Easter bunny needed a helper, and we decided Ringo could go with him. I didn’t see the point in introducing the little fellow to tragedy before he’d turned three, and I think it was best. There was no bringing back the dog, so he might as well have been helping the Easter bunny. I buried Ringo in the early morning in one of his favorite quilts, in the side yard where we’d buried Daphne in one of her favorite quilts thirteen years before. It was the best end I could give him. He was just a dog, but damn, it hurt.
Anne’s health continued to be a problem. She was on dialysis. Robin had a vending machine business that wasn’t doing so well, largely because Anne couldn’t help, and there was drama in the barber shop. Genny was enjoying her blue-eyed boy and taking classes for a teaching certificate but wondering about her second marriage. Sam loved rural New Jersey. Our parents visited, his high school English teacher in tow, and they’d taken a helicopter ride around Manhattan, which he highly recommended, calling it depressing but exhilarating–depressing to fly by Ground Zero, exhilarating to see all the activity going on at the site. Laura and Tom were settling into the football season in Trion, Georgia and enjoying the enthusiastic following for high-school football there, though annoyed that their house in Cumming hadn’t sold.
Edward was three now, with energy to burn and a three-year-old’s sense of humor. We were proud of his use of meter, rhyme and metaphor when he recited his poem:
Edward’s eyes are brown, Papa’s eyes are blue
Mama’s eyes are brown, Like brown poo-poo.
He had a yellow bouncy ball with a handle and bounced all over the house. Perri had set up “school” for him in the school bus along with her potting supplies. I was still sore on wet, cold days, but there hadn’t been many of them until September, when I pulled out my hoodies. I’d had neck pain since the 70s, but not so much before my April Fool’s Day wreck. Now not only my neck but my shoulders hurt. Left side one day, right another. I’d been in good shape after working the rental yard in West Hollywood, and better shape when I got out of the Navy. For awhile I could hold my breath and do 60 push-ups, perch on my arms and catch my breath, do 60 more, catch my breath and do 60 more, then 60 more, as long as I wanted. I did over a thousand once, just to prove I could.
Now, I couldn’t do half a dozen. My shoulders weren’t up to it. I’d also been sitting at a desk for years, and weighed over 200 pounds. I wanted to be under 200 for New Year’s 2000, and for one brief shining moment I was, weighing in at 198 on the millennium. I did it the next year, and the next, but it was getting tougher.
Robin had checked into a hospital for chest pains, but he was all right. He used a CPAP machine at night, and Anne was still on dialysis. Genny split from her second husband Seth, and she sounded unbalanced. We all planned a show for our parents’ 50th anniversary in October, Sam playing the piano and everyone singing songs from our Hollywood days. Laura had received her teaching certificate from the state of Georgia, after a convoluted now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t bureaucratic snafu.
Perri had a surprise for me in October. Edward had drawn a turtle family for Mama. This turtle is Papa, he said, this one’s Mama, this one is Edward and this one is my baby sister. She asked him and he was quite sure, this was his baby sister. There were glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling in Edward’s room, and three in our bedroom–two large ones for Mama and Papa, and a small one for Edward. I came home one night shortly afterwards and when I hopped into bed there were two small stars on the ceiling! Edward had been right!
Work was going well. I got a $1000 per year raise, but of the four companies I’d represented, one had gone bankrupt and we’d cut loose another, so I was only handling two.
The anniversary weekend was a great success; we rehearsed beforehand and put on a good show. There was a minor dust-up when Fran wanted to bring Sarah along and announced that Sarah would be singing, loudly and off-key, no matter if she were in the program or in the back of the church. Sam and I both responded that there was no point in putting on a show if we knew beforehand it was going to be crap. There was a lot of guilt-tripping thrown around, but Sam and I said absolutely not. Sarah played in another room while the program went on and was content. It was the first time all six of us had sung together in thirty years. A couple of times there’d been five of us, but not six. Edward was on stage with us, and loved it.
There was only one person missing, Ned’s sister Daisy. Her husband Alf, the uncle who drove us in antique cars when we were kids, had passed away that morning. Nobody at the celebration was told until it was over. Sam had come from New Jersey for the event, but his partner Barry stayed behind, and Barry’s father died the next morning.
The show was wonderful, though.
Edward was big enough to trick-or-treat. Perri’d joined a group of mothers with toddlers called Time Out Playgroup and they had embroidered T-shirts. All the kids went trick-or-treat together; Edward liked dressing up in costume and going out with his little friends, but when it was time to go to a stranger’s door we practically had to push him. Once the candy dropped into his plastic pumpkin, though, he was transformed. He was on a mission. He ran to the other houses! We had to wait for the other kids!
My Sister’s Ride, again
The robin for the rest of that year was taken up with a discussion of sister Laura’s ride of nearly forty years before–the physics involved, the plan, even which sister was involved. Rob had remembered it as Genny’s ride, but Laura confirmed it was indeed her who flew through the air and landed in the bunny poo. Sam didn’t remember boosting anyone onto the rope from the stairway, and Genny accused Rob and I of deliberately trying to harm our little sisters.
It was a baseless accusation, and we were quite hurt. My sister had turned an exuberant childhood experiment into a burning, blinding example of brotherly betrayal. We’d told our little sister to hang on, as she’d done hundreds of times before, and it seemed that a younger sister who’d shown no predilection to let go of a rope she’d been told not to let go of, wouldn’t, and would return safe and sound to the arms of her brothers after a thrilling and memorable ride. It had a scientific value too–we’d be able to see if it was possible to ride the rope to the garage roof. That our plan on second thought may have been more dangerous than it was on first thought was not surprising, as all of us were kids. The discussion continued for months, with several of us sending pictures and diagrams and models and analyzing distances and the heights of the tree, picnic table and garage roof. Genny continued spewing vitriol, telling of plans she had for a “Penis Park” where people could stroll and see all the hateful and horrible things MEN were responsible for throughout history, and arrogantly accusing Robin and I of deliberately attempting to kill our little sisters. Shame on you, I told her. We had the judgment of children, because we were, and children don’t have good judgment. If she didn’t trust her adult brothers, that was her problem, and I thought her “therapist”–whom I was certain had pumped her full of this crap–should be imprisoned for malpractice. I asked her what “hidden agenda” the “therapist” had, reminding her that if her problems went away the “therapist” would lose money while Genny drove away her family, spouse, everyone who loved her, and became a fearful, whimpering, poverty-stricken Dobby the elf-slave.
We were comfortable that winter. There’d been an ice storm in December which knocked out the power for a few days, though with a woodstove for heat, cooking, hot water and a couple lanterns to read by we were well set. There was plenty of firewood around the county too, free for the taking. Santa brought Edward a big wooden train table, which he loved. We quickly learned the best policy was to hot-glue the track to the table. Perri got materials to make scrapbooks from one of the mothers in the playgroup, and I got a scanner for photos, several books and a full set of twelve harmonicas from Sam, one for every key.
2003 started, remarkably enough, on January 1st. At Greenwich midnight, 7pm local time, we shot off the illegal fireworks I’d brought back from Tennessee, shouted “Happy New Year” and Edward went to bed. We stayed up ‘til midnight and had a glass of champagne. We knew by now that we’d have a baby girl in May or June, and had settled on the name Clara.
At work I’d won hockey tickets to the Carolina Hurricanes. Edward had a blast, and brought home a souvenir hockey stick. One gal won tickets to the rodeo, though she had no interest in seeing it. She was told they were given randomly, like a drug test, and asked if she could take a drug test instead!
We walled off the breakfast bar and added shelves and a pantry to the kitchen, then added a lovely folding glass door. When starting work we found under the 1970s paneling and 1940s wallpaper the same lovely heart pine that was in the bathroom, which we then sanded and varnished. Perri painted a “rug” on the floor with flowers, vines and a checkerboard pattern. We walled off half the back porch to enlarge the den and put a doorway through, added a window and painted it in colors Edward chose–red, orange and yellow. We added a “padded cell” playroom closet with rugs on the wall, then went to the nursery and painted birds and bugs and flowers on its walls. It was getting expensive. I told Perri we weren’t going to put in one more dime, and finished it by using all the scraps. The last day, while we were talking on the phone to Cindy, the space shuttle Challenger broke up.
Perri’s mother came to visit in May. Clara Kate (Clara Kallista) was expected on May 24th but actually arrived at 2:36 am on June 11th, 2003. She was born in our nursery, in a pool of warm water, attended by a midwife and her assistant. We went to bed, Clara Kate in her cradle, Perri’s mother on the futon in the living room. About 6 am, Edward ran into our room and excitedly announced to us that he had a baby sister! Perri’s mother left a couple days later, my mother came that weekend and we had 40 or 50 other visitors.
I took a couple weeks off from Wrangler to enjoy my baby girl, making kaleidoscopes to supply a couple galleries I’d been neglecting since I’d taken on two jobs. Clara Kallista (Kallista is Greek for “most beautiful”, and we also call our scopes Kallistoscopes), or Clara Kate, was a happy and exuberant baby. Her brother, now 4, was thrilled pushing her stroller and stayed nearby most of the day. The play group had a wide range of activities, and the kids visited farms, went swimming, rode the carousel, visited the zoo. A wonderful summer.
The stand for Edward’s cradle was rickety and broken, so we suspended it instead by chains from the ceiling next to Mama’s side of the bed, which worked better anyway. A little push would gently rock the cradle, for a much longer time. We took walks to the corner store a mile away, Clara Kate in the stroller and Edward walking, riding, holding his sister. We’d identify the trees on one side of the street going there and on the other side coming back. There’d been a general store halfway to the corner, but it’d been taken over by a fellow named Ron who worked on TVs. Perri and I had bought TVs from him and had him work on a couple, one a 1952 model. He puttered around and replaced a few parts but never got it working and I took it back 2 years later. A few weeks afterward I drove by and the whole place was gone. The building didn’t exist, nor any of the hundreds of TVs in it. I didn’t know he’d died. I knew vaguely that he’d had health problems but he was only 60. His wife had asked TV places in the area but none wanted the stock, and she didn’t think to simply put a sign out front. I’d at least have taken out the tubes; perhaps I’d have taken over the shop and sold antiques and crafts–but in the blink of an eye it disappeared. They bulldozed it, had a bonfire. A hundred years of history, gone.
There is a piece of Swepsonville’s history in our backyard. According to an old fellow there was a ball field there. There certainly used to be something, because there’s a long line of bricks just under the dirt on a ridge which angles across the back field, cutting back at a right angle, terminating in a hump which was particularly hard to mow until I dug up a brick corner post which had been grown over. The rickety shed in the back also had an unusual design, 8’x16’ with a door, open window and a roof with an eight foot overhang. There was a long water pipe going to it. A concession stand? At least one major league ballplayer came from Swepsonville–Dusty Cooke, born in 1907, who played for three major league teams between 1930 and 1938–the Yankees, the Red Sox and the Reds, and then managed the Phillies in 1948. Did he play in my back yard? Probably.
Swepsonville was a mill town. The mill burned down in the 1880s and again in the 1890s, but was rebuilt both times. In 1989, the abandoned mill burned again. Fire trucks from all the surrounding counties came, the twelve-alarm fire was seen from the freeway three miles away and made the national news.
The round robin next arrived with news that Anne’s grandfather had passed away. Her father had died in a car wreck when she was a toddler and she’d been raised by her grandparents. It was the start of a long string for Robin’s family. Her mother, who’d outlived her stepfather as well, passed away that summer, but I’m getting ahead of my story.
Sam was doing well in New Jersey, working for a health foods distributor and playing piano gigs. Genny had separated from her second husband and had her hands full with her toddler. Laura and Tom’s high-school band had come dragging in after half-time at a game and Laura related why. One of the kids in the minibus had farted, and the smell was so horrible that another kid threw up. The smell caused two more kids to throw up, and one of them was a girl with a medical problem which made it impossible to stop throwing up without special medication. The bus pulled off the road and four more kids got sick. Three police cars, two fire trucks and an ambulance arrived. The girl with the medical problem was taken to the hospital. The chaperones weren’t happy to be stuck cleaning up so much puke, but got really angry later when they learned the police, who were trying hard not to laugh, had put a copy of the report in a special scrapbook of “funniest police reports”. The kid who’d farted was claiming it until the police arrived, then he denied it. He became a minor celebrity in school, and though the local papers didn’t run the story, the papers in the rest of the state did.
Edward was in biddy league soccer that year, which was a hoot. The four-year-olds would chase and kick the ball with only a vague notion of what to do with it. The coaches finished every play with a pep talk ending “WHERE’S THE GOAL?”, and they’d shout and point “THAT WAY!”.
We went to Alabama for Thanksgiving. Since her parents had moved there, where her father had grown up, Thanksgiving had become very big indeed. Edward’s cousin Luke had been born with blue eyes–the first of the Calvin grandchildren with blue eyes, and the first born after the millennium. This now meant that of the seventeen grandchildren born to Perri’s parents or mine before the millennium, all were brown-eyed. All the rest, born afterwards, had blue or hazel eyes. There’s another coincidence. Among our kids and all their cousins there’s never been a boy-girl-boy or girl-boy-girl. If the sex of the children changed it stayed that way. On my side it’s more pronounced; I’m the oldest of three brothers, followed by three sisters. Among the children of the six of us, there are no boys with an older sister and no girls with a younger brother. My cousins on my mother’s side follow the same pattern; my uncle’s daughters both had two boys and my aunt’s daughter one girl.
So we went to Alabama for Thanksgiving, and Edward surprised everyone. When there were 30 or 40 of us gathered in a circle, someone asked who wanted to give the blessing, and Edward, 4 years old, announced, “I can do that!” He proceeded to take charge, telling everyone to bow their heads and say “Amen” when he was finished–and then said, “God is great, god is good, and we thank him for our food. By his hands we all are fed, thank him for our daily bread”. It was exceptionally well done, amazed everyone and was short. There was nothing to be said after that but “Amen”, and everyone filled their plates. Perri and I were left stunned and immensely proud.
Santa, 2003
Mams and Daddio came for Clara’s first Christmas. It was her turn to play with the bows and simple toys while her brother got a telescope, a science kit and Legos. Clara and Edward posed for a lovely Christmas session at the store and later with Santa and Mrs. Claus. It was a cold, snowy Christmas but everyone was safe and warm.
We’d bought a time-share the previous summer and now owned the last week of April at Massanutten Mountain in Virginia. When we went to visit our daughter was not quite one. It was the week before “prime time”, less crowded and more fun. We were offered a discount card on activities if we listened to a sales pitch, and while the salesman was explaining the wonderful new features, Clara Kate took her first steps! She strolled the 3 or 4 steps from Mama’s chair to Papa’s, and from there the sales pitch fell on deaf ears; we couldn’t have cared less, and he blew it by not making a big deal–”Oh, how sweet! Now let me show you…”. We spent a lovely week in the water park, swimming pool, hot tub, sauna, jacuzzi, steam room. We took classes in glass etching, tie-dying T shirts, we played mini golf, ping pong, we walked the nature trails, rode the ski lift and simply watched cable TV. I brought my banjo and a clarinet I’d picked up for a dollar at the school sale and serenaded the geese and ducks from the balcony.
When Clara Kate arrived we’d decided it’d be nice to have a deck. We went to the lumberyard, chose a plan and built it with far sturdier materials and extra supports. We added a gate, so the little ones could play without wandering, and a 75’ clothesline. I had jury duty when we were finishing up. We put a guy away for 20 years, for pedophilia. I came back after my long weekend and put a second coat of stain on the deck. It’s surprising how often one will take part in a life-changing event, then do mundane, ordinary things.

Mams and Daddio came for Edward’s fifth birthday and stayed the week. We bought a Jump-o-line blow-up trampoline, and all the mothers from playgroup came together at the park down the road. The kids had a wonderful time. I bounced a bit with Clara, but her main activity was walking, between Mama, Papa, Edward, and slamming full-tilt into the side of the Jump-o-line. Later that week we had a picnic at Mackintosh Lake, where everyone rode paddle boats. One of the mothers, a gal from Switzerland, brought along a unicycle and several juggling items. I’d had unicycles in California, but through the years they’d been given away or sold, so it had been 20 years since I’d ridden one. I did all right, and juggled reasonably well, but not both together. She and her husband eventually joined the Cirque de Soleil, and I resolved to get another unicycle.
Edward’s friend Reade had a birthday that August, and we went to the Burlington Indians baseball game. Edward had been to a Greensboro Bats game and Carolina Hurricanes hockey, but this was a first for Clara. The kids ran on the field and met the mascots, and Edward was thrilled to win five “Billy Bucks” in a contest.
Later that summer we went camping with another playgroup family and took a hike on Hanging Rock. Edward walked the whole way, and found a red lizard; Clara Kate rode in a backpack and was tuckered out before we made the top. There were shallow caves to explore and trees to climb, and at the summit Clara Kate was wide awake again to view over 100 miles of mountains. Playgroup also visited the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, which had drums to bang on, xylophones, elaborate mechanical toys, gardens, animals, bug and science exhibits. Two weeks later it was the Burlington city park, where they rode trains, cars, the carousel and played on the playground while the adults made lunch in the gazebo.
After summer it was time for soccer league again, and Edward as before was #4. Clara came to watch her brother and explore the surroundings with Kelly Ann and Rebekah, the younger sisters to Edward’s friend Reade. In October everyone went to the Lazy 5 Ranch in Mooresville, an exotic animal park with over 750 animals from six continents, and everyone took a horse cart and fed the animals over the side.
I lost my job at Wrangler that September. I’d been managing fewer contractors as the work migrated from Latin America to China, and since I didn’t speak Chinese, that was that. I left with a pretty good severance package plus unemployment, and medical & dental for the rest of the year. I was happy with Wrangler even though I’d been let go. Many companies try to make it difficult on employees, hoping they’ll quit, saving a few bucks but building animosity. This is a mistake. I still like Wrangler and buy their products, because they treated me fairly, but I was once again out of a job while my child was a toddler. It’s a wonderful thing to spend time with your little one, but it’s nicer to have money than not. Once more I made up large numbers of kaleidoscopes and flutes in the workshop while my son and daughter played in the fenced-in yard or on our new deck. On rainy days I’d cut and foil glass with PBS on the TV or tapes of Bob the Builder or Veggie Tales. I like Veggie Tales, though sometimes the Christian message is heavy-handed and the story lines strained. Banishment to the Isle of Perpetual Tickling isn’t execution.
We went to Alabama for Thanksgiving again. I faxed in my unemployment papers for 2 weeks and half thought about moving, as the terrain is more mountainous in the area, but the local job market wasn’t very robust. Daddio was hard of hearing and some thought he was losing his sharpness, but I thought he was mellowing and thinking for himself. He was voting for Kerry instead of Bush, though most of his relatives were old-line Alabama conservative. One of my brothers-in-law brought up the election and all I said was that Bush deserted his post in time of war but Kerry didn’t. Daddio agreed.
We’d been down there just a few days and got a phone call. Robin’s wife Anne was getting a kidney transplant. They’d been talking about it for some years and some in the family wanted her son Grant to donate a kidney. I told him not to. It would be a great physical limitation on him for the rest of his life, and I knew she hadn’t been taking care of herself. She’d never stopped drinking caffeinated soda pop, she’d merely changed the brand. Robin had once been drinking a glass of water, Anne took a sip and asked him what it was. She didn’t recognize the taste of water! She got very little exercise, and I knew she wouldn’t last without some changes, even with a new kidney. The question became moot, however, when they found a donor kidney.
She didn’t make it. She died in the hospital, the day before Thanksgiving. We were in Alabama and couldn’t make the funeral, but went to a memorial on her 48th birthday a couple weeks later. An old-timey mountain music band played and a good time was had by all, considering the circumstances.
Christmas was a bit slim but the kids were little, and thrilled with what they got. Edward was too perceptive for us to leave boxes in plain sight so the gifts stayed stashed until they went under the tree. I’d sold at least a few Christmas trees every year for twenty-five years, but this year hung it up.
It was a fun New Year’s; again at Greenwich midnight we shot off fireworks and yelled “Happy New Year!” and got them in bed at 7 pm. The next morning I was building a fire and got a call–Robin’s younger son Jordan was dead.
Well, I dropped everything and went to the mountains to be with my brother. He’d now lost his wife’s grandfather, her mother, his wife and his son in the space of just over a year. He was distraught, of course, but handled it well.
Jordan was 20. At a college New Year’s party, he had too much fun, fell to sleep on the porch and froze to death. He was the latest in what had been a rough run for the Watauga High class of 2000. He had lost ten friends, one also named Jordan. When I was driving up the mountain I saw a spot where several memorials had been set up for Jordan. The other Jordan.
I stayed with my brother four days, and finished off the bottle of Lagavulin, my favorite 16-year-old single malt Islay Scotch whisky, of which I drink perhaps a bottle in two or three years. We also shared a bottle of rum and some beers with his friends and a long string of young women who came to the door crying. When I was sure he was in good hands I went back to my own wife and family, still out of work but in a happier household.
Creepy Jack
I continued to sell kaleidoscopes, and in March found a customer service job for AT&T cell phones. It was a long drive but I enjoyed the work–at first. AT&T was a great company, and had I been hired a month earlier I’d have been direct hire, but procedures had changed and for 90 days I was a temp.
Towards the end of the 90 days, AT&T cellular was bought by Cingular, and they hired me on temp for another 90 days, even as others were hired direct. The job quickly went from one I enjoyed to one I hated with a passion. AT&T had perks and benefits and a number of policies which made it easy to satisfy the customers. They had a lot of business customers, and tried to keep them happy. With AT&T, we came to work in blue jeans and everyone got a free phone at the end of training, with a free limited plan, which we could expand any way we wanted at discounted rates. We had access to every cell phone website in the world and were encouraged to learn about all the companies, their technologies, band widths, service plans etc. and find out how they differed from AT&T domestically and internationally. When a customer had a problem we could wipe out $500 on our own authority. If they had a plan they liked they could keep it, whether it was currently offered or hadn’t been for years. If anyone wanted to quit the company, we made it as easy as we could and told them to come back when they got tired of the other guys. Many did.
With Cingular’s orange creep “Jack” on the wall, our blue jeans were out, though the customers wouldn’t have known if we’d been our underwear. Jeans were made a special treat, Fridays only, to associates who had the best numbers on a long list of “goals”, which kept going up. Cingular’s tag line was “raising the bar”, and everyone had to be “better”, every week. There were daily emails with daily changes. Someone was clearly obsessed with wardrobes; several times a week there were updates on which sandals, shirts, pants, skirts, jewelry, hairstyles, etc. were “appropriate” I had to buy several pairs of pants for this creepy job when I had dozens of perfectly good jeans from my days at Wrangler, in a rainbow of colors, tucked away unused. There were no rewards for meeting the numbers, you just got to keep your job another week, and as I was on my second 90 days as a temp while everyone else around me was a direct hire, my restrictions were particularly onerous. I couldn’t request a day off. If I were more than 15 minutes late I’d be fired. I couldn’t buy a phone for 6 months, since I’d been 3 months a temp for AT&T and 3 more for Cingular, though everyone else already had one. The employee plan for Cingular phones was worthless anyway. Employees BOUGHT the cheapest model USED phone and got a local plan, with twenty minutes a month. There were no upgrades, either to the phone or the plan. Since local calls didn’t include my home a few miles away, I made long-distance calls home from the pay phone in the break room at exorbitant rates.
Customers were treated the same. A Cingular customer had “roll-over” minutes, but after a couple months they’d disappear. If you decided to change your plan in any way whatsoever, that initiated a new two-year contract, and if you cancelled before the end it was an additional $175 per phone. We had a lot of customers who’d had two Cingular phones for two years and decided to move on, then found that since they’d added time or took off texting a week after sign up, they’d only fulfilled a year and 51 weeks of their “new contract”, and now owed $350 for disconnect–something I couldn’t change, as we could only wipe out $250, even if it was only a day early. This led to a lot of demands to speak to supervisors, who would tell us to “take charge of the call” and send us back to the upset customer, who would then be stratospherically pissed. We’d argue for another ten minutes, then try to get a different supervisor on the line, again.
Tech was handled the same way. AT&T had staff members in the building who could handle almost any problem, but Cingular had a call center in Washington State where the tech people came on line ten minutes later, told us to tell the customers to do the same five things we’d already told them to do and hang up. We’d call tech support again, wait again, plead with them again to please take care of this customer’s problem, again, which occasionally they’d do. We had no access to the internet, either, except the same Cingular site available to customers. When Katrina hit I talked with reps from other cell companies, and they were obviously more relaxed and had far more information available than we did. I resolved to find a job, any job, with one of them. Or anyone else.
I was nearing the end of my 6 months as a temp–by which time I was one of 2 from a class of 60–and nobody could call me at all, for any reason. My wife wanted to tell me my father was in the hospital, called Cingular in Greensboro but got Washington State, who absolutely would not transfer the call at all. My father got heart surgery. I asked for half the next Friday off to see him before visiting hours were over and was denied in a particularly nasty way, which meant that instead of driving an extra 20 miles after work I had to drive 60 miles on Saturday. I was certain I was going to quit, but the absolute final straw came when we were again refinancing the house and I needed verification of employment. Nobody gave me a number to call, for three days. I continued asking, and the supervisor, full of attitude, finally gave me a website address where I was to go and pay $12. They’d tell the bank I worked there–a week later.
I then received a call, from the clear blue sky, from Rent-A-Center, where I’d completely forgotten that I’d applied several months before–and got a job, starting the next Monday. I told Cingular nothing. I didn’t show up on Monday, called an hour late and said I wouldn’t be coming in, ever!
Rent-A-Center wasn’t a great job, but compared to Cingular it was heaven. I worked over 50 hours a week and only had one day off at a time. We worked late Saturday, took Sunday off and came in early on Monday. My other day off was supposed to be Tuesday, but they had all kinds of excuses why I was “supposed” to work that day as well. Fortunately I’d told them before I started that my wife worked that day and we didn’t allow babysitters. It didn’t stop them from telling me I needed to come in, but I never did.
There were three stores in the area, the first managed by a fellow who didn’t care about the ten rules posted on the wall. I realized one day he’d made me break all ten of them on the same day, and the next time I was out of town I called the district manager, who transferred me that afternoon. I worked at a second store for the rest of the week, then at the store I’d preferred anyway. It was run by a young guy, and despite the long hours was a fun place. It wasn’t boring–we’d drive trucks all over and pick up items from out of town, sometimes 100 miles away. We’d pick up and deliver living room sets, bedroom sets, refrigerators, washers, dryers, stereos, computers and most of all the gigantic, immensely heavy television sets which everyone wanted before the hang-on-the-wall type was invented, and nobody wanted afterwards. We’d haul these boulders up and down several flights of steps or into trailers where we had to remove the doors and people would pay more each week to watch the big TV in the den than they did on food. Theoretically the TV would be paid off after a certain amount of time, but this often stretched out for additional months or even years and in the end cost 2 or 3 times what they’d have paid in a store. This was a different class of people, with their own way of thinking. I could understand renting a refrigerator or washing machine; these appliances weren’t just conveniences. It was also understandable when folks would only be in town for a few months, had friends visiting or a business need. What wasn’t sensible were the large numbers of people who made very little but spent half their paycheck at Rent-A-Center, when they could have bought everything outright from Goodwill. The huge TVs weren’t available, but even a fairly large TV at Goodwill would have been $35 or so and saved them literally thousands of dollars. It’d also save aggravation, because when they missed a payment we’d pick everything up again until they made back payments and late fees. One fellow with a club close by decided to pay daily, rather than by the week or month, and every time he missed a day it’d be another $10 late fee. After a year or so he decided to trade his TV in, and by the time he owned the obsolete behemoth he’d paid over $12,000 for something that by then sold for $200.
The saddest part of the job was seeing how these people, who had little, spent the rest of their money. Everyone put cigarettes and beer on top of their list, followed by fast food. Most of their trailers and apartments were crammed with KFC buckets, pizza boxes and cockroaches. One customer’s walls were covered with congregations of cockroaches a foot square, in the middle of the day. It stunk so bad that if I’d gone in I’d have puked. My co-worker and I had to remove the trailer door to get the refrigerator in, then he had to install it while I waited outside. I saw the manager of this store a few years later, and he said it’d been like working for Satan. I had to agree. I left after two years, but occasionally I’d drop by to see how things were going. I’d still recognize the customers, but none of the staff.
Robin was having a tough time getting over the loss of his wife and son, but in July I called back to talk with the family of my old friend Monk’s sisters, as I did from time to time. They told me that their sister Luanne had also lost her husband, in April. I told Luanne to call Robin, and they talked for hours. They’d been sweethearts in the second grade, but had been out of touch for 30 years. Luanne had been married for 28 of those years, Robin for 25. I’d known Luanne’s husband rather well, but Robin had never met him, nor her his wife Anne. Luanne soon came to North Carolina. They stayed together, answered sympathy cards, settled estates, fixed up houses and got everything going smoothly.
Genny increasingly seemed mentally ill. She saw stalkers everywhere. She’d been living in a trailer up the road and talked about people walking across the roof. She flipped out when neighbors recognized her. She moved into the upper floor of our parents’ house, then repeatedly insisted that one night someone had come into the house, hung around in the front hallway for forty-five minutes and left. When I analyzed the story, her only evidence was that her dog, dreaming, had made a “wff” sound a few times outside the door she was cowering behind. She insisted Tristan had mental illness, allergies, on and on. He was running wild, not eating well at all, and my feeling was that Genny caused most of his problems through her timidity, fear, and violently hateful attitudes towards men.
Sam moved to Roanoke that summer. He and Barry had taken a trip through Virginia while visiting Asheville, and had decided to take a side visit to Harrisonburg, where Rob and Sam had visited some years before but Rob had spent the whole time grumbling. He and Barry loved the area and found a house near downtown, built in 1915 and recently renovated.
Tom had taken a coaching job with a high school in Kentucky, but Laura didn’t like it and yearned to return to Georgia. I didn’t go with Perri and the kids to Alabama for Thanksgiving that year, since I’d just taken the Rent-A-Center job, but they had a great time and were home for Christmas.
Robin got a job teaching skiing at a local resort, which was interesting because he hadn’t known how to ski, but he stayed one lesson ahead of the class and everything worked out. Sam and Genny both had problems at work in the first half of 2006. Sam and Barry were both eventually hired at Verizon in Roanoke, and Genny was on unemployment. She was fighting her ex-husband for custody of her son, who was still screaming, breaking things, violent, disrespectful. wild.
That spring I bought a Geo Metro from a fellow at work. I gave him $100,  put about $300 more into it, and got 40 miles a gallon. My 1972 Ford truck still sat in the side yard.
We went camping with a family from playgroup who’d by now become good friends, Keith, Tami, and their kids Jacob and Andrew. While we were cutting watermelon, Edward stated that he was six, wasn’t a baby anymore and should learn how to use a knife. It was true. I showed him how.
Professional Astrologer
I gave an astrology talk that summer at a local bookstore. There’d been an astrology class offered through Appalachian in 1974, but ten people had to sign up and only six showed. We had a long discussion, however, and I talked for a long time afterwards with a pretty gal named Sally. She and I occasionally telephoned each other, but I hadn’t heard from her for several years when she found the number to my parents’ house, they gave her mine, and we started visiting again. Her sister Nancy now lived close by and was involved in a group which met once a month at a bookstore. She invited me to speak and I prepared a talk called “Patterns of Compatibility”, which dealt with the geometrical relationships between astrology, architecture and such things as how honeybees build their hives and why the bubbles in a glass of beer form into triangles and hexagons. The talk was a huge hit, and I stayed at Nancy’s house while we talked way into the night. I called in sick at work–which was the only way to get any time off at Rent-A-Center, except to call in dead–and one of the things I mentioned to Nancy was that I was supposed to pay for a mattress we’d picked up from a woman’s house. The woman had rented a mattress, we went to get it and her mother told us which one. She was wrong. It was a muddy night, and we’d gotten a couple droplets of mud on it. The woman wanted a new mattress.
Nancy had been a corporate lawyer for Philip Morris, and helped me write a letter explaining that I’d been informed by a responsible adult on the premises which mattress to pick up, that we’d attempted to call the shop but they hadn’t answered the phone and since the woman’s mother was acting as proxy and we acted in good faith, were not responsible for her error and weren’t obliged to pay. I became a hero at work and the district manager, a big guy who liked to bully people, was demoted and transferred to a much smaller market many states removed.
In the summer I got another call from someone I hadn’t talked to in may years. Tom had kept in touch with Jake and Jody, but had pretty much disappeared from our lives when we left Snag End. One day Tom got in touch through email and Facebook. Tom told me Jake had committed suicide some years before, but had no details. Fran also lost a family member. Sarah, the twin who had been born brain damaged, had finally been put into a home. She’d been left briefly while the tub was filling and had turned off the cold. The hot water was of sterilizing temperature, she was badly scalded, went to the hospital for a month and on August first, died. She was eighteen. Another memorial, five in three years. It wasn’t the last.
There’d always been a quickie market on the corner a mile away, but this summer a Dollar General went in across the back field. At first Perri and I wondered if we should move, seeing commercialization coming so close, but it proved a wonderful convenience as we could walk to pick up groceries and sundry items several times a week.
Sundry is an interesting word. It’s not often spoken, but used to be painted on signs everywhere, usually in the plural. When I was a kid I thought that sundries were various fruits which had been dried in the sun–raisins, prunes, apricots and such. My mother as a teenager had seen “sundries” advertised but never knew what they were. She and her brother went into a store and asked to buy some sundries. They found out.
I’d heard a story from the fellow who sold me my Model A truck, in California. He said it was one of three on the West Coast, and that one more had been destroyed in a flood. It had an extended chassis and had been one of four custom-built in 1931 for the Helms Bakery in Long Beach. It had the same wheelbase as a Double-A truck but was not a Double-A. Many years later a friend at work told me he’d seen a story on cable TV about a fellow in Germany who owned a similar truck, which he’d purchased in California. The German said there’d been only four in the world, and that one had been destroyed in a hurricane, one had gone to Canada and disappeared and one had gone to North Carolina and disappeared. I tried to find the show he’d seen, but had no luck.
I told this story to a co-worker at my new job, he researched it on the internet and told me almost the same thing–that there’d been four trucks, one had been wrecked, one went to Canada and disappeared, one went to North Carolina and disappeared, and one went to Germany. I tried to find this information myself, but wasn’t an internet geek. There the story remains.
My father was fading fast that winter. He was on oxygen and acting bizarrely from time to time, though usually coherent and in good spirits. He was receiving hospice care, and I’d hung a TV from the ceiling above his bed where he’d watch all day with the volume turned up. The greenhouse I’d worked so long and hard on, which he’d never allowed me to properly finish, had rotted under soggy sheets of plastic and had been torn down, but a contractor had built a small one right outside his window. He only puttered around in it a few times, as it was a major effort, but Robin planted a bunch of vegetables in the dead of winter. Hardly any of them would make it to spring but it cheered my father to know something was growing.
Sam and Barry were settled into their new house and new jobs, but Laura and Tom were in their third house in under a year. They were back in Georgia, and had a large backyard which faded into the woods. They saw turkeys and deer and a feral cat which begged at the door but never came in. Tom had been selected as coach at the Georgia All-Star football game, a great honor, even though his team that year had a less than stellar record of 4 wins and 7 losses.
I’d traded the old banjo that Sam had used in the movie “Mountain Born” to Robin that Christmas for a kid-size violin. The bow was worn out, but we purchased a kit and re-strung it. It turned out well, and we gave it to Edward. Perri had also given me a tiny violin ornament to hang on the tree. Edward had a magic set from Santa, and that afternoon took the ornament and said, “Hey, Papa! Watch this!”. He put it in a box, covered it, waved his wand and pulled out a full-size violin!
We had other projects. We took apart an old wheelbarrow and saved the tub to build a flying machine. It’s not finished yet.
Clara Kate was proving a chatterbox, sociable and thoughtful even at 3. She got down my mug one morning, filled it with water and brought it to me, not because I’d asked but because she thought I’d looked thirsty.
I was still working at Rent-A-Center, but getting tired of it. I’d broken a bone three times–a toe in 2005 when a washer fell on it, a thumb in 2006 when a heavy shelf fell and in 2007 a pin which I’d been complaining about for months popped out as I was climbing on the lift gate of a truck, causing me to fall and crack an elbow and rib. I was on light duty the next week when a phone call came and my wife told me to come home right now, but wouldn’t say why. My father had passed away. It was February 10th, 2007.
We went to Boone the next day and spent a week. We finished the bottle of Lagavulin I’d bought 2 years earlier after the death of my nephew. Rob and Luanne took care of many details. Luanne’s father had passed away the previous Thanksgiving and between them they’d dealt with nine recent deaths. They organized the sympathy cards and made sure everyone in the family had a chance to read them.
We learned details about our father’s life and times we hadn’t known before. A cousin mentioned that when my father had been reported missing in action in Germany he visited my grandfather, then in his 70s. She was shocked at how feeble and old he seemed. He was getting around with a cane, his voice was quavery and he seemed at death’s door. A month later news came that Ned had been liberated, the cane disappeared, he had a spring in his step and all was right with the world!
It was difficult for me to sort out my emotions. I could charitably say that my father had been a mixed bag, but the truth was I’d been furious at him far, far more often than I’d ever had thoughts of love. I’d try to think nice things but there wasn’t a lot there.
I thought of the funny things. When we’d gone to Texas he went to the radio station and made commercials about Booger the dog–half Great Dane and half wolf or something, he said–who was always out for a walk when anyone asked to see him. He said that we were small tree farmers–four feet tall with boots on. We sold those trees like wildfire. I remembered that we’d gone so many places and done so many things–we’d played in a band in Hollywood, ran a rental equipment business where I learned to use, repair, maintain every tool and machine imaginable, plus gained the confidence that whatever the job I could handle it, whether sanding a floor, pouring cement, maintaining a jack hammer, sharpening a chain saw. We’d learned how to trim trees, grow a garden, buy and sell in the stock market, install a toilet, patch a roof.
Still, the overwhelming feeling when I’d try to think these good thoughts was the torpedo to the gut just when I thought things were going well. I knew that no matter what, I wouldn’t be able to relax and enjoy my accomplishments or the fruits of my labor. I’d gotten along with him in the last twenty years better than I had before, but only because I’d utterly stopped believing in him and didn’t get involved when he’d try to lasso me into another project. He’d recently wanted to graft and grow Japanese maples; I watched how he did it but never intended to get into the business. I couldn’t trust him. I knew that, somehow, he’d wreck it. He’d disrupt my plan, tear something down, steal it, block it, neglect it, leave it in the rain, let it break, give it away–and I wouldn’t get credit. He’d corral me into a project, get me started, then when I’d feel like I was accomplishing something he’d find a way to make it come to nothing. I’d be left with ashes in my mouth. When I painted the roof, he never bought the last gallon–something I knew better than to do myself–and made a joke of “the ‘T’ house of the August moon”. When I put in a nice reflecting pond under the willow tree with a couple lawn chairs and a table, a pleasant spot to relax and have tea, he tore it down and threw together a cement-block-and-plastic monstrosity the very next day, claiming that the water flow to the half-acre pond in the meadow would be obstructed, though my kiddie-pool-sized pond obstructed nothing. He destroyed it because it was something I’d made which was beautiful. That was the end of it. I tried to say I loved him and missed him, but it left me with a sick feeling in my belly. It wasn’t true. What I felt, truly felt, was relief. I was happy he was gone.
At the end of 2006 Monk and Luanne’s father Edwin died, and at the beginning of 2007 my father died. My family wasn’t greatly disrupted because my father left everything to my mother, and though our middle sister raised a stink it was for now resolved without a war. It was different with Monk’s family, and my brother was involved because he was living with Luanne. There was a trust set up to administer much of the property when her father Ed died, but there were many complications, not the least because their mother had dementia. The family split into factions. Monk had died eight years before, but much of his estate had not been resolved, as it was largely tied up in used cars of uncertain title which had been acquired years before at police auctions. Some of the titles had been cleared, some hadn’t, and many ended up in the hands of his father when Monk repeatedly went to the nuthouse or into the Krishnas. These in turn had been “sold” to one of the sisters when their father was applying for food stamps and couldn’t keep them as his property. A further trust had been challenged by the eldest surviving son, who’d been married three or four times and whose mother Marion lived with him. I tried as best I could to stay neutral, which was a lost cause. I was a bit more sympathetic to the eldest surviving son than Luanne. He’d worked with his father on several ventures and had little to show for it, though how much was attributable to his father and how much to his own spending habits was debatable. The youngest son, who’d also been in the nuthouse a few times, made a few dollars by selling parts from the 200 or 300 cars, which weren’t his, but neither was it clear for a time whose they were, though two were technically mine. The court awarded all the cars to the third sister, and she sold them all. The resulting fight inclined her for a time to the eldest brother’s point of view, and the eldest sister was also on his side for awhile. Luanne and Rob cleaned out the house their father had lived in and found junk packed to the ceiling in every room. I’d been in there many years before, the only guy from outside of family he’d ever let into the house. In cleaning it they discovered many of their things hidden away. Silverware of theirs, still packed in its box. Christmas presents from other members of the family for their kids, still wrapped. It seemed Ed stole whatever he wanted from the family, whether he could use it or not. It didn’t surprise me much. My father did the same.
Edwin had received 100% disability after World War II. This was a Catch-22. If he ever workedhe’d lose his disability pay, and if he lost it he’d have a devil of a time getting it back again if he tried to work but couldn’t. Ed was wounded when his ship was sunk in the Pacific. He floated for days in a raft and many years later had an operation which removed a vertebra in his back. He was continually inventing things and starting businesses, but his suspicious nature limited their success.
The eldest brother started filing court cases and all the rest of the family had to show up in court for one thing after another, over 20 times in the next couple years. When he lost every case and every appeal he packed up his girlfriend and mother, moved to Florida and started over.
Like so many times, including in my own family when Robin’s wife died, lawyers got more than anyone else. People who work in professions where trust and integrity are important are often the ones who abuse it the most.
Home School
We officially set up a home school, Austinwood School, when Edward was six. I taught the kids history and Spanish in the morning before work, and Perri taught them math and English in the afternoons. I’d taped an instructional soap opera called “Destinos” which went through 52 episodes of Raquel searching out members of a family who, since the Spanish civil war, had scattered to Mexico, Spain, Argentina, Puerto Rico and the United States. After 20 minutes of story there was a question-and-answer session. They soaked it up.
After we returned from the mountains I found a job which was supposed to be full-time selling ad space for the weekly paper, the Alamance News. In practice the job was considerably less, as I spent my day looking for businesses that might want to advertise, writing them down and bringing them back for an OK before making a pitch. It would’ve worked fine if my boss had looked over the list and crossed off a few, but he’d approve at most one in three. Since he’d spend most of his time hanging out at the courthouse, I wouldn’t see him for a week, sometimes two. I’d bring longer lists, he’d OK fewer prospects. I tried not to go back to the same businesses until at least a month had passed, but I couldn’t. Pretty soon I’d go back every third week and hang out for a half-hour just for something to do. I should have been checking on twenty or thirty a day, but only had fifty a week. I worked four months, bringing in a smaller and smaller paycheck, until one day I hadn’t seen him in three weeks, gave him a list of over 300 businesses and he okayed 26. I’d signed a non-compete agreement, meaning I wasn’t supposed to work for any other papers in the area for at least a year afterwards, but I wrote a letter “to whom it may concern” stating that the agreement was for me to have a full-time job, that I hadn’t been allowed to do it and I considered the agreement null and void. I applied to a few other jobs in the area and made crafts again, while my wife fixed computer problems part-time for the school.
Our roof started leaking and I didn’t have money to fix it, but was painting all the cracks with several gallons of black mammy, hoping to get through another couple winters, when a fellow drove up and offered to put a roof on my house if I’d give him the 1972 Ford truck now sitting in my side yard with a blown engine. I instantly agreed, and bought some roofing shingles and a few supplies on credit. I’d been ready to sell the truck for a few hundred dollars, but got a new roof instead, plus several hundred extra shingles. He’d over-estimated the shingles by about a third, but I didn’t care.
While job-hunting I’d heard good things had developed at the company I’d worked for six years earlier–Adam & Eve–and applied. I was greeted warmly, with the easiest job interview I’d ever had–”this is just a formality, we really want you back”. I joined a training class that was already underway.
It was partly desperation–our mortgage was two months behind, our credit cards maxed–but it truly was a different environment than the one I’d left, at least initially. I enjoyed being back. I knew quite a few faces from before and they were happy to see me. There was a real Spanish department, 24/7, and we had a real Spanish catalog, not just Xeroxed sheets. The internet had been completely unavailable to us before, but now we could take a look when necessary, eliminating the need to regularly run to the warehouse.
The Scouts
2008 was the year Edward officially became a Boy Scout. He was too young by a year, but to form a full troop he became a boy scout at 9 instead of 10. This was appropriate, as he’d also unofficially joined the Cub Scouts a year early, attending Tiger Cubs at 4. He’d been a Wolf and Bear and Webelos, took part in the activities and had a wonderful time. The scouts met in the same building as Time Out Playgroup. I’d missed most of the Cub Scout activities due to the insane number of hours required by Rent-A-Center, where the only guaranteed day off was Sunday. When I worked with the local paper I had plenty of time for Cub Scouts, but when I went back to Adam & Eve my schedule again limited my evenings, though I had every other weekend off and went to some of the campouts. It was a good troop; Troop 40, which by coincidence had been my troop number as a kid. I’d been disappointed with our troop, but Edward’s had something going on every week and many weekends. They built catapults, had boat races, were in the Pinewood Derby, where Edward nearly every year won Most Original or the like and finally won for fastest car, an actual trophy for an actual accomplishment. I never won a trophy, and was really happy that he’d won in a competition. He would have gone to the regionals but was visiting his cousins in Alabama. He’d done well as a scout, earning dozens of merit badges, pins and belt loops.
I was in a bowling league once. The first year they  passed out a great many trophies, about 3/4 of which went to the same 5 or 6 people, who were first in one category or another. None to me, who’d been second in several. It made no sense to me–why give 3 or 4 trophies to the same guy and ignore 2nd or 3rd place in anything? The following year I won first place in a couple categories but they passed out cash prizes instead. I won about $80, but I’d have preferred a trophy. Any trophy. My wife has one for “most improved swimmer”. She places little value on it but I’d love to have my name on it. I don’t know if a kid can avoid receiving a trophy now, it’s not like when I was growing up, but a trophy for something is better than nothing. I received a couple pins from Junior Achievement, one for perfect attendance and one for $100 in sales. I was the only kid to receive two, but pins aren’t trophies.
The Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts were good for him, but the program got bogged down in church politics in late 2008 and the troop disbanded. We tried to find a suitable one nearby but couldn’t. It was a shame too, because that winter Edward and Clara Kate were trying to retrieve something from a neighbor’s pool, the ice on the surface cracked and Clara Kate went through. Edward saved her life. I wanted to send the story to Boy’s Life for inclusion in a comic-strip treatment of scout heroism they do each month, but to be in Boy’s Life he had to be a scout, and through no fault of his own he wasn’t, they wouldn’t have printed it and he wouldn’t have gotten the award. He couldn’t even subscribe.
Then again, scouting was losing some of its luster. The other troop in town was connected to one of the most evangelically poisoned churches around, and while faith has always been a part of the Boy Scouts, professing a faith to a rigid, scary, dictatorial branch of Bible thumpers who won’t shut up is way worse than belonging to nothing. The other possibility was a troop about 15 miles away, a very good troop but too far to drive.
When Robin would go to Colorado, he’d leave his car for me to drive, because he didn’t want his daughter driving it. Noelle was hard on cars. In the winter of 2008 he left it with me while Perri and the kids were in Alabama–they went for Thanksgiving and returned before Christmas–but towards the middle of December Noelle’s car gave out and Robin let her take the Nissan. I’d been brewing beer and had saved several bottles I’d promised to give him when he came back, which I sent with Noelle in the trunk of the car. She put the 6-pack of 22-ounce bottles in her fridge, but Genny saw them and, since Noelle was under 21, made a fuss. Noelle put the bottles in the trunk of her non-functional car, and on a warm day they exploded–which wouldn’t have happened had they stayed in the fridge. The result was a huge smelly mess in Noelle’s car and no beer for my brother.
2009 started out cold, and there was enough snow to make bricks by packing it in a cooler and building a kid-sized igloo. A couple years before we’d built an igloo out of the ice in the pool; this year the pool ice was thick enough to walk on, and we have several pictures of me and the kids “walking on water”.
In the spring of that year our Mennonite group decided to plant a community garden on our extra lot. We tilled a wide area and planted tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, lettuce, beets, corn.
My mother and I had discussed, later in the year, our plans for the property. I mentioned a dream I’d had for ages, of setting up a Mountain Mechanical Museum, maybe on the hill in back of the farm. I didn’t know. My plans were vague and I hadn’t mentioned them, because I knew I couldn’t rely on support from my father; even had he told me to start building I’d never get the front door open before he’d find a reason to tear it down. When I mentioned the idea to my mother, she said the house would be a good place for it, and I had a place to park my modest dream.
Then my sister heard about it. I was particularly annoyed at Christmastime. Genny had a habit of periodically writing everyone asking for money for home improvements, and I’d beg off, knowing that 1) I didn’t have the money, 2) had already done more than my share, 3) the money would go into a black hole anyway. This year she sent an email, saying she’d decided what our mother’s Christmas present should be and asking for donations, stating “if everyone kicked in $35, we could all buy her (specific nice thing for $200) instead of (all the crap you all were planning to give her), but if any of you don’t contribute it’ll be $40 for each of the rest of us”. It was guilt tripping and blackmail. $35 was no big deal to her, but to be fair, if my mother got a $200 gift, didn’t my wife deserve one too? My mother-in-law? Father? Father-in-law? My kids? She was single, lived at home, paid no rent, water, power or babysitting. I had bills and a mortgage. I’d been thoroughly broke and months in debt when I’d started back at Adam & Eve, part-time, four months before, with a family to support. What she’d suggested would not only have superseded and belittled the present we’d already bought, but also blown a huge hole in Santa’s budget. Even more galling, to me, was that while my sister was laying a guilt trip on us, her son Tristan, all by himself, had more toys and more expensive toys than both of my kids put together. I kept my mouth shut, and gave everyone the presents we’d already bought.
We left a few days early for our week in Massanutten that spring and went to Washington, DC to see my sister and her new boyfriend Ray, stopping first to see the battlefield at Fredricksburg. It was the most moving part of our trip, and I wrote a particularly heartfelt letter on Memorial Day:
I know memorial day is a day to hang around in your underwear and drink beer, and it’s sort of a downer to mention it, but I just saw the story of Eddie Hart on UNC-TV; he was killed in action in Germany on the same day Roosevelt died, and I didn’t realize until tonight that he was in the same battalion as my father–the 83rd, although it would be a big surprise if they ever met, as my father was in Company B and Eddie was in Company G, and my father was captured in November of ’44 while most of the action covered in the story takes place some months later. In any case I visited Fredericksburg a month ago, and it was an almost surreal experience–you climb the hill where the fighting took place, and there are the graves of over 15,000 soldiers,
over 12,000 unknown. The graves of the known have a round-top tombstone, but the unknown have a little granite marker about 6″ square with a number on it–and often another number underneath. It looks as if about half the graves have a name on them, until you start looking at the little markers, and some of them have a number on top and no number underneath–one guy buried there. Go along the rows, though, and you start seeing 2 and 3 underneath the number–2 guys, or 3, buried there. Go a little further to where the fighting got more intense and you see 4 and 5 and 7. Finally at the top of the hill the markers say 9 or 11 or 15, and you’re standing on a spot where fifteen guys are buried, nobody knows who, and likely none of them lived half as long as I have now. The next day we went to Washington DC; in the morning we saw the Bureau of Engraving and watched millions of dollars being printed right before our eyes, then went to see the memorials and waited to meet my sister, she works in DC. They have a wall at the WWII memorial with a star on it for every soldier lost in the war, and believe me there are lots of little gold stars. After that we went to the Vietnam memorial; at first I thought I’d read through all the names until I came to Dave Tiffany–I’ve mentioned him before, he was my friend and was in the Memorial Day issue of Life magazine, 40 years ago today; he’d moved away to California the year before and I didn’t know he’d joined the army (though I knew he’d planned to) and when I was thumbing through the magazine came across his picture–David Lewis Tiffany, 19, Riverside, California. He had just turned 19, not more than one or two weeks before, and now he was in Life magazine, in the One Week’s Toll of the Dead in Vietnam, Memorial Day issue. I had a general idea of the sector in which I’d find him, but it soon became clear I’d spend the rest of the day looking if I did it that way so I went over to the registry and looked him up–he was on something like the 28th panel, 12th line from the top, and I had to jump to touch his name.
We had a really good vacation; I hadn’t had 2 weeks off in 5 years or more, and even though I was getting over the swine flu enjoyed myself thoroughly, swimming every day, playing my banjo on the porch–and I’m damned glad I’m here today and not some marker in a field somewhere with “USN” on it.

We continued on from Fredericksburg to a motel outside DC and in the morning took the Metro; it was early and not everything was open, but after breakfast we went to the Bureau of Engraving and took a very enjoyable tour watching them print money, and the kids got shredded cash souvenirs. We had an hour to explore before we were to meet up with my sister and went to the Holocaust museum, but decided the kids were too young for it. We talked briefly with a very pleasant guard, who later that year was shot and killed buy some crazy fanatic. I was sorry to hear of his tragic and unnecessary end. What was accomplished? Nothing.
We went by the Washington Monument and took silly pictures of me wearing it as a hat and Edward holding it in his hand, then met up with my sister at the World War II memorial. We should have coordinated a little better, because the memorial is huge, there were thousands of people there and it took a long time to find each other; we had a cellphone but the battery’d run out. I then went to the Vietnam memorial to find my friend Dave Tiffany’s name, but it was a long walk to the memorial and Perri and the kids decided to hang out. At first I simply looked over the names but very quickly knew it would take hours that way, and went to the flip chart guide to find out which slab and row he was on. I found him, and had to jump to touch his name.
I went back to the Lincoln Memorial and the reflective pool and looked around again in the crowds for Perri, the kids, my sister and finally found them, then we all went to lunch at a lovely little deli just down the street from where my sister worked at the Justice Department. After lunch we went to the Smithsonian Institution, where we once again got lost among the miles of exhibits and multitudes of people. I got separated from the rest at The Hope Diamond, but we’d all agreed on a meeting place and shortly moved to the park, where we had a snack and watched a fellow try to set up a pigeon trap using a box, pencil and string, which didn’t work. Edward in particular was tickled with the absurdity of the contraption, baited with a french fry. I’d been sick with the flu for several days before we’d left and had no stamina; I dozed off in the afternoon sun while the others got acquainted with my sister and her new boyfriend Ray. We went to a movie, which I mostly slept through, then had dinner and rode the Metro back to the motel.  In the morning we headed to our condo in Massanutten. They’d made improvements–they always seemed to be improving something–and we had a fun week.
One of the things the resort does every year or two is to invite us to what amounts to a sales pitch, sometimes over a special weekend later in the year and sometimes at the beginning of our stay, and for listening we get a lot of free coupons to various activities. We went to the water park and took classes in glass etching and beading and played some mini-golf and went to a couple of restaurants and did a lot of hanging out in the condo overlooking the golf course and watching cable TV. Clara Kate and Edward loved the cartoon network. One night a fellow put on a show for the kids. He held the Guinness Book World Record for blowing up balloons in a certain time, which he’d trade off with a clown in Germany. He invited Edward on stage to help him with a trick and Clara Kate told a joke in front of 200 or 300 people–”What do you call a fly without wings? A walk!”. He gave her a balloon dog with a leash and Edward got a balloon hat.
A day or two after returning from Massanutten, Perri and the kids left for Alabama. They stayed through the month of May, and had originally planned to be back by my birthday in June but stayed a couple extra weeks and spent both Edward’s birthday, May 7th, and Clara Kate’s, June 11th, in Alabama while I enjoyed peace and quiet. I’d bought a scooter the previous Christmas just to have a means of transportation if the Cadillac broke down, because I didn’t want to be stranded while the rest of the family was 1000 miles away.
While we were traveling I read over a letter my mother had sent, which I thought unfairly attacked me. Genny had been asserting “I wanted everything”, based on my father’s worthless promises. I’d indeed been promised plenty, but it meant nothing, and I only desired a fair distribution, whatever that may have been.
She’d also written a book, which I hadn’t seen but mother hated. I read it over, because Genny thought I’d be the most objective. I probably was, but I didn’t like it either. It was essentially two books, one reviewing her romance and breakup with Suzuki, which was thoughtful and well-written, though I thought she should have stayed with him. The other started out funny, but brought up the same old crap. Our father was a monster, our mother a monster, her two oldest brothers, monsters, all served up with sour spleen and monster sauce. I’d thought she was over it, but it was an endless tape loop from her years of “therapy”, stirring and bubbling. It bothered me. It had to stop.
When she’d split from her second husband Seth she decided the trailer was unsafe. Alone at night, she’d see stalkers everywhere. She told wild, insane stories about people walking across her roof. Her son was totally out of control and she didn’t discipline him. He ate nothing but crap, and her and his stuff now so filled the two large bedrooms upstairs that they weren’t used. The junk had taken over the living room, the computer room, part of the main bedroom and was starting to invade my mother’s study. The back door was blocked with piles of her stuff. When Perri and I stopped by after Massanutten we saw to it that a small TV was installed in Tristan’s room so he had no reason to lounge in the living room, and all his stuff went back in his room. We took all the junk from the back porch, the living room, the study and the computer room and made her either haul it upstairs or throw it away, set up a yard sale for the nicer items and made the study into a music room, with a piano, a comfy couch and pictures of the grandkids on the wall. My father had canned a huge amount of food as well, and Perri and I filled the trunk of our car.
The round robin was lost that year, and lost again. In December of 2008 I started it once more, revising its confused order to the more logical youngest to oldest. I began by recounting Thanksgiving 2008. While Perri was in Alabama, Genny and I finally took my father’s ashes to the top of the mountain. We’d delayed so everyone could get together to make the hike, but it had been nearly two years. I finally made the decision to make the hike myself, and Genny came along, which was a mistake. When we got to the hilltop, instead of a nice ceremony and a few words, Genny called everyone she could reach from her cell phone to find out if they wanted some of the ashes. Nobody did, but she insisted we save some back for the two siblings she’d failed to reach. I thought it ridiculous, as they hadn’t expressed a wish for any such thing, but we sprinkled most of the ashes and trudged back down with a few still in the box. She planted a tree with some of them on the mountain, flushed a few down the toilet in accordance with a wish he’d expressed, and the rest sat on a shelf until I scattered them in a field.
Once again Genny wanted to buy mother a Christmas present that she’d decided on, each of us to pitch in. I’d had enough. I exploded in the Christmas round-robin. I felt I’d been insulted, belittled, joked about and accused of motives I didn’t have, and stated that I would have no part of, and resented, having my Christmas list hijacked. I further said I was tired of hearing how greedy I was, that I’d been promised plenty, but that we all knew that my father’s promises, any of them, would disappear in a flash and he’d look at you as if you were insane for believing them, that we’d all lived with the premise that a promise was never, ever, ever a promise, no matter if it had been reiterated forty times for forty years, and that this was a sick, sick way to live.
People are entitled to believe in promises. They adjust their lives and actions based on promises, and if a promise is broken that is, and should be, considered a sin. It’s a reasonable human expectation. A promise is a promise. The entire structure of civilization is founded on the notion that people will keep promises. It’s the breaking of a promise which is a sin, not the trusting in a promise.
We grew up with a different dictum, that a promise can be broken at any time, for any reason, and never means a goddamned thing.
When there’s no expectation that a promise will be fulfilled, there’s no promise which can’t be superseded, at any time, and nobody knows what to expect, nobody knows what they’ll get, everyone wants everything but expects nothing. Everyone throws a thousand pieces of spaghetti against the wall, hoping that someday one or two will stick. I said I had no interest in surfing into a guilt trip so that Genny could steal the credit for everyone’s love of mother on the cheap. I said I wanted to fix up the old home place, too, but not to pay someone else money I didn’t have. I’d already put my sweat and labor in countless improvements without any pay or acknowledgement whatsoever. I reviewed all the events of my life, starting at age 7, of how my father beat me and whipped me luntil he drew blood for no good reason and how when I’d tried to be even-tempered and pleasant he’d pick at me and pick and pick and pick while I was at the dinner table, while I tried to be nice, and he’d insult and accuse until he found a soft spot and I’d explode, and it was all a sick game, I might as well have been a trained seal. It was sadistic, disgusting, and even then he wouldn’t let up, and I’d stare at the flecks in the linoleum floor and feel like hell.
I recounted how I’d worked at Pete’s Rental in Hollywood 7 days a week, 10 hours a day, for months without a day off, driving an hour there and an hour back, and how I’d wanted to buy a car after my Falcon had been wrecked, found a ’59 Chevy sedan delivery I really liked, bought it, came to work one day and he had sold my car–forged my signature and sold it. Which wasn’t even the only time–he sold a Studebaker truck I was buying, after I’d put a deposit on it but had yet to straighten out the title. He stole my toolbox from the cab of my 40-year-old truck before I started on a 2000-mile journey, and I limped along with nothing but a vise grips and a screwdriver. I mentioned when I joined the Navy how he took all the stuff I’d carefully packed away and tossed it in the rain, wrecking a beautiful antique radio among other things. How I’d been promised 50% of the tree business but ended up with less than minimum wage and nothing when he’d sold it. How Perri and I built the earth lodge, working for over two years and using thousands of dollars of our own money, then receiving a “symbolic” gift of a light bulb for Christmas, only to be told a month later that the earth lodge would be torn down. How after 20 years of selling trees, with my mythical 50% ownership regularly receding or disappearing, I’d managed to make enough one Christmas–and by the way so did he–that my half of the profits, which he shared–had finally been enough to make my house payment, and though he hadn’t worked the trees for years he then remarked that I was making “too much money” and that we’d have to “renegotiate our agreement”. After recounting the 48 intervening years of this shit, I noted that my sister, at the tender age of 46 living in her mother’s house on her mother’s dime, was the one calling me greedy and amoral, while telling all of us what she thought we should pay for a Christmas present she had chosen.
The robin went to my youngest sister, who sent a chatty note, then up the line to Genny. My mother decided she needed to reply, and said she basically agreed with what I’d said, but it sat for six months waiting on Genny.
Genny and I took a trip together to Chicago that April and patched up most of our differences. She had friends in Chicago, a lesbian couple who had a very nice place in the middle of town. Her friend’s partner was a transplant surgeon and they did very well. They’d adopted a baby boy and Sarah stayed with him while Daniela worked. Sarah gave her two-year-old car to Genny, and Genny bought tickets to Chicago and invited me along. We stayed a few days, had a lovely time and drove back.
We talked there and back, and by North Carolina were getting along pretty well. I did, however, come away with a couple realizations, in that when she’d come from many years in New York she’d been paranoid about things which were simply part of small town rural life. A fellow in a black pickup came by as she walked down the road and asked a question which revealed that he knew who she was, and she flipped out. She found a beer can and cigarette butts in the yard, and flipped out. A critter had walked across the roof, and she flipped out. Her dog made a few “wffs” while dreaming, and she flipped out.
That said, we were both in a better mood. The only flare-up we had in Chicago was when the four of us went to a restaurant around the corner, run by a small vegetarian religious group. Daniela and Sarah were talking about intrusive people, and I made a comment that my sister-in-law Anne had been intrusive, which seemed obvious. Genny said she wasn’t. I said she certainly was, at which point Genny remarked that she was dead. I said just because she was dead didn’t mean she hadn’t been intrusive. When Anne came to visit she’d rummage through our underwear drawer, and you don’t get more intrusive than that. I didn’t mean anything negative by it. Anne was intensely curious, and I didn’t hold bad feelings about her personality quirk. It could be convenient, or a pain. She’d spent her life on the phone. When we had news she’d broadcast it, but it annoyed us when she’d call, we’d finish, call another family member and their line would already be busy–with Anne telling them our news. Perri loved the show “Mystery”, which played Thursdays at 8pm. For years, she told Anne to call at any other time–but no matter, she’d start watching, Anne would call. She’d share updates about Fran’s first husband Kevin until one day I said the only news I wanted to hear about Kevin was that he was dead. It was a game. Nobody would tell her a juicy tidbit, and we’d see how long we could keep it secret. It had been the same with my father. Tell him a secret, it wouldn’t last the hour. Her son Jordan was particularly good at not revealing anything. He’d be on the phone with a friend, say “Oh really? Wow!” and so forth. As soon as he hung up she’d be on him like a tick, peppering him for details. Jordan would say, “he’s having peas for dinner”, or the like. We always felt she’d be good as a private eye but missed her calling. Intrusive, yes. Hateful, no.
Anyway we left Chicago and shared the driving. By the side of the road in a rough-looking steel town was a fellow who looked like a laid-off steelworker selling roses. I bought 3 from him–one for Genny, one for Perri and one for mother. She dropped me off at my house, I gave her some boy clothes and a spare soy milk maker.
Perri and I had learned how to save money. Perri had learned to cook vegetarian, which can be cheap or expensive, but what makes it cheap is a large array of kitchen gadgets. We had a mill and a breadmaker, so as to grind our own wheat and make bread for about 15¢ a loaf. A soymilk maker makes nut or grain-type milks for about 25¢ a gallon. A water filter ($40 for a new filter every few years) assures spring-water quality almost for free, and a distiller I picked up for $50 made distilled water (or spirits). We even got a soda maker, and using only healthy ingredients it was a dime a quart. As an experiment, we added up how little we could spend to make a nutritious meal for four, and spent $3.
I picked up the robin on a visit to the mountains that summer, where it had languished for six months, and sent it to Fran and Ray, where sat for two more. Things had settled down since the death of her daughter and the subsequent breakup of her marriage to her second husband Rob. Rob had always seemed a decent guy, but far too distracted–largely due to dealing with Sarah. He was a thoroughly nice guy, but absolutely overwhelmed by everyday life. Sarah was big and strong but had the mind of a toddler. Fran went to work and Rob minded the kids, but the house was a wreck, and he completely blew the most minor of tasks. He overdrafted the bank account regularly. His car was impounded five times within a month because he failed to renew the registration. Even re-stringing a guitar seemed to be beyond him. After Sarah was gone there was little reason for them to stay together, and Rob went away to live with his parents at fifty. He got a job as a security guard and his parents arranged for a divorce lawyer while Fran sent along $100 a week. Soon enough they divorced.
By the time my letter of December reached Sam it was October, and its 35 stationery-sized pages had assumed mythic proportions. Sam jumped in. He was on unemployment, fighting termination from Verizon–they eventually settled with a nice fat check–but had discovered one of the nicer challenges that I’d known about unemployment–unstructured leisure, which is not at all what one thinks it will be when one wishes for more free time. One can turn to philosophy on an unstructured afternoon. He and Barry had set themselves up with a low overhead when moving to Roanoke, and now he found he could get along fine on a lower income as well, though the need to live frugally was a constraint.
My mother’s reply to my letter had mentioned that my father’s plans and promises were simply dreams, and his own plans never got anywhere either, because when a small project was mentioned he’d have bigger plans. She’d mention painting the bathroom and he’d talk about adding two more rooms. He was going to build three A-frame cabins on various parts of the property; he cut the lumber and left it out to season–and rot. She brought up the Browning quote, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp…”, but said it would’ve been better if he’d reached for something he could grasp. It seemed to me to be a useless sentiment, too–if one can’t grasp what one is reaching for, what’s the point in reaching?
But reach he did, and completed very little. Small improvements were postponed because BIG improvements were planned–and so neither small improvement nor big transformation happened, and often small and adequate was torn down and undermined in favor of–nothing. Castles in the air and clouds.
On receipt of my letter Sam recalled a business proposal our father had given him to take some Christmas wreaths that the Coffeys, sharecroppers for my uncle, were making. Sam could go to New York florists for orders. Nobody asked what the wreaths would cost to produce or ship, what the mark-up would be, what price the market would bear, how many wreaths the Coffeys could make and how quickly, when they’d have them ready–but Sam in his spare time was supposed to make presentations to merchants he didn’t know on behalf of vendors he also didn’t know based on information he didn’t have. Which is, of course, the reason for writing things down. Drawing up an agreement brings up all the reasons a bad idea is a bad idea, and gives everyone involved in a good idea a clear understanding of what is expected of them and what they’ll receive. Sam was accused of being “too selfish to help the less fortunate”.
They had a confrontation shortly afterwards. Genny, after moving to New York, had brought along some tapes called “A Course In Miracles”. Unfortunately Genny didn’t have a VCR, an expensive novelty at the time, and she wanted to watch them on Sam’s VCR–but there were sixteen or twenty hours of Miracles and Sam was too busy to watch the tapes, which he found insipid anyway. Genny complained that she couldn’t get Sam to watch the tapes with her, and our father called long-distance to tell Sam he was “selfish”–for not watching several hours of tapes which he didn’t want to watch and didn’t have the time for. This was the umpteenth time, and the last, my father had accused him of being “selfish”, because Sam told him that unless he could respect what he chose to do with his time, his space and his life, he could get the hell out of all three. That was the end of the accusations about Sam being “selfish”.
The robin then passed to Robin, who was doing better. He and Luanne had been together for three years, sometimes in Colorado, sometimes in North Carolina, sometimes somewhere else, sometimes separated by distance. They both had houses they’d inherited, fixed up and rented, which provided a certain amount of income and freedom. Robin was barbering and riding a bicycle to work. He also had some words about Our Father, who Wert in the Kitchen, Twelve Pack as his Bane. After I’d more or less disappeared from the dinner table, spending all my time at Monk’s house, it was left to him to hang around the kitchen when father was on his eleventh beer, putting up with the put-downs while Sam and the girls played in the other room. It was almost a duty to him; he’d hang around and say nothing while father ran out of ammo and was reduced to asking, “What’s wrong with you, Rob?”, over and over. There was no answer, because it was the wrong question. The question had always been, What’s wrong with you, Ned? He’d either sit and pick at someone or stew until he got a good head of steam. It was one or the other. He was funny, and generous, and lovable to his friends, but to his kids he was mean, dishonest, unreliable, violent. He made unlimited promises to his kids, selectively forgetting them before they left his mouth. None of the siblings were as involved in his plans and promises as I was, but all learned how to be better parents, by being exactly who he was not.
Rob’s parenting style was gentle guidance and honest respect. His wife Anne, though they had issues as spouses, gave them liberal indulgence and watchful supervision. They were rarely spanked, as they felt a parent’s superior strength should be used to help, not enforce conformity to a parent’s preferences There’s a risk, though. When children have a choice, their choices can, in fact, kill them. Jordan lost ten of his friends and his mother in the five years before he died, which seemed an extraordinary number for a small-town kid who hadn’t yet turned 21, and because of that he valued friendships a great deal. All his friends were his best friends. He took recreational drugs on New Year’s Eve, slept on the porch that cold night and froze to death before anyone noticed where he was.
The Glory of Sight
In November 2009 I noticed one evening a small spot to the right of my right eye’s field of vision had disappeared. I didn’t think much about it. About four or five years previously I’d stepped on a rake and, like everyone’s seen in five hundred cartoons, was whacked across my face with the handle–but the rake wasn’t sitting tines-up, it was tines-down. Instead of the fulcrum forming a first-class lever, this formed a third-class lever. My foot went through the yoke, and the rake when it flew up had triple or quadruple the force. I was staggered, and I thought for a second I’d pass out. For two or three days there was a shadow in that eye, but it went away and the eye doctor thought it OK. For the next few years I’d occasionally see a bit of shadow if I was tired or sleepy, but with rest it’d be fine. On this evening, though, the spot didn’t go away, and a day or two later the bottom of my field of view was strange and discolored. my eye doctor told me to go immediately to the hospital. By the time I got there more than half my field of view was compromised, and I was scheduled for surgery the following Monday.
I was suddenly glad I was a veteran! I’d rarely mentioned it since I’d left the Navy 35 years before. Through the 70s, 80s and 90s it wasn’t something one mentioned. People had mixed feelings about the military. Only since the attacks of 9/11 had people started appreciating veterans; usually they were neutral at best. It felt strange to receive discounts and hear people thank me for my service on Veteran’s Day, not that I’d done more than float around the Pacific on Uncle Sam’s boat. I’d always felt obliged to say I was a Vietnam-era veteran and not a Vietnam veteran, meaning I was in the Navy when the guys were coming home and not going over, trying to establish that I wasn’t as crazy as “real” Vietnam veterans.
Monday morning at 6 am Perri drove me to the hospital. My field of view was now reduced to one little pizza slice in the upper left corner; everything else was a vague grey shadow even in bright light, like looking at a faded, underexposed black and white photo in a dark room. They took me to the operating room, put me out and I went home that afternoon with an eye protector and a bottle full of narcotics. They’d stabbed me in the eye and tack-welded my retina with a freeze wand, then told me to lie on the couch on my right side for a week. My eye looked like a little bloody red ball of Play-Doh. I went back after the week and the eye checked out OK, but I still had to lie on my side and couldn’t travel to the mountains or ride on a plane–nothing that involved a change in air pressure. I had a gas bubble in my eye, which would absorb in a month or so. Perri brought me books-on-tape from the library; I couldn’t do much else but listen. Reading was out, TV was painful, I couldn’t lift anything over five pounds or even strain on the pot very hard. All I could do was lie on the couch, listen to the radio or a tape, eat something mushy and pop another pill.
We had a bunch of folks over for Thanksgiving weekend. Genny nearly ruined it for mother, telling her they’d have to go back to the mountains in two hours to mind Genny’s dog. We put our foot down and told her she was staying the weekend and if Genny needed a dog-sitter she could damned well find one on her own. They stayed for three days. It was a real family gathering. Genny and Tristan only showed for a few minutes, but my niece Noelle, her brother Grant and his fiance came by, as well as my cousin Carol, who lived a few miles down the road. Carol had a horse from the time she was little, and the horse had died the year before, but she had a half-interest in another horse. Her mother, also named Carol, had been incoherent for some time and in a rest home where our uncle Pete visited every day, but she was too confused to travel.
I was glad I’d floated on that government boat more than 30 years earlier. A detached retina would’ve set me back $12,000, but I didn’t pay a nickel, just a few dollars for narcotics. “Don’t say I never gave you anything” is used when one has been given something of questionable value, and until then summed up my feelings towards the Navy. I’d joined for all the right reasons–I was patriotic, cared about my country, wanted to do my part and needed the work. It was at the tail end of the “Vietnam era”, though, and honestly, the Navy didn’t need me. The war had ended, there were clearly twice as many guys in the military as necessary and I was greatly distressed by the vast waste of time, talent and especially money that I saw. When I was told to throw away a $1200 guage which I could’ve fixed in half an hour for less than a dollar, I was done. I took the most efficient way out, which amounted to getting in trouble for one penny-ante thing after another. Because my discharge was under honorable conditions I collected unemployment for a year and went to school on the GI Bill for two, figured I was even and didn’t think about it again until 35 years and one defective eyeball later.
I went back to work after Thanksgiving. It surprised me that driving wasn’t a problem but that looking at a computer screen was. The gas bubble in my right eye jumped around like a flea on a griddle and I wore dark glasses for some time. Christmas was skimpy that year, but Our Apple G4 was still working fine, but after ten years there were so many things it couldn’t do it was like driving a Model T on the freeway. Some friends gave us a newer computer, I sold a few kaleidoscopes and a girl in Japan I’d known from almost my first day on the internet sent me $100. I sent her back a very nice kaleidoscope.
To list all the places my kaleidoscopes have been takes awhile. They’ve gone to several states in the USA, to Canada, Costa Rica, Argentina, Spain, Chile, England, Australia, Japan, Germany, Finland; other crafts of mine are in Africa and Russia and above the Arctic Circle. Those are the ones I know about.
The robin was captured by Laura after the new year and stayed in Georgia until May. She’d been laid off from middle school and hired by her old boss to teach English as a Second Language at the elementary school. She loved the classes but hated her new principal, whom she assessed as a “racist jerk”. A side effect of her frustration was a spectacular garden, which she’d tended so as to work off her annoyance. Her kids were well and Austin was ready for a driver’s license, which he was excited about and his parents weren’t.
The big event that spring was the marriage of Robin’s son Grant to his girlfriend Joie. I presided at the wedding. As a minister, I have a pretty good track record. As far as I know, all my marriages–the earliest in 1975–are still going strong, excepting one at which the couple didn’t have a marriage license. I presided at the vows, but they didn’t want the “piece of paper”.
It was wonderful. Grant and Joie were married under an apple tree in full bloom. The band included a stand-up bass player from Grant’s band plus his father Robin on violin, sister Noelle on guitar, me on banjo and my mother and three sisters singing. After a couple of songs I accompanied my my daughter on guitar while she sang “A, You’re Adorable”, which stole the show. I went to work but got off early and went back to the party, where my son found a Carolina chameleon, which he kept as a pet and named Shim, because we weren’t sure whether it was a boy or a girl.
On my birthday that year I was doing a little maintenance on my car. I had the day off and had been getting phone calls all day. About 7 pm I got a call from Laura. I thought she’d wish me a happy birthday, but Tom had died! He’d been jogging, sat down in the locker room and fell over. He was always a big guy, but seemed to be in good shape, though his diet could have been better. He’d been born on Valentine’s Day in 1952–the day before my childhood best friend Monk. Monk had died at 48, Tom at 58.
I went to Georgia the next morning and stayed until Monday. It was amazing how many people came to the funeral and memorial. Friends and family arrived from Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia, the states where he’d coached, and the entire Armuchee Indians high school football team showed up in their uniforms.
My brother had a tree fall on his house that spring, and the quote to fix it was several thousand dollars. I looked, decided it wasn’t that bad, and told him I’d give him my shingles at cost if he didn’t mind the color, which was close but a bit lighter. I had a large pile of high-quality shingles left over after my roof replacement 3 years before, and was eager to get rid of them. He agreed. There was some minor structural work, but not near so much as it had appeared, and we did it in the space of a long weekend. I’d quite overloaded our Expedition taking shingles up the mountain; I drove 50 mph in the right lane for most of the distance, but it got hairy at times. When I was finished I left him a few extra squares and he gave me a few yard implements, including a lawnmower and the unicycle I’d tried to talk him out of a year or two before.
Perri and I had long been a part of a group which met on Thursday nights. Some were friends from our now-defunct playgroup. It was more of a meeting than a church. While the kids played we had free-ranging discussions, basically but not exclusively Mennonite. I was familiar with a tangentially-related Quaker group particularly insistent on being called the Society of Friends rather than the Religious Society of Friends, as they maintain Quaker thought is a belief, not a religion. One of the central Mennonite themes is to help others, and we’d often gone with others to feed the homeless or fix up a house. I had a storage shed in my backyard on which I’d replaced the roof and patched it several times. The recurring problem was because the roof was too flat and wouldn’t drain. It was again leaking badly after a hard winter, and one of the group suggested that could be a project for the Greensboro Mennonite church. Over the space of a long weekend we all emptied the shed, tore off the roof, put on a new, sturdy, gabled roof, shored up the masonry walls, shingled it, painted it and did some yardwork. The church took care of the expense except for the shingles, of which I still had several.
When we were done it was painted a cheery white and yellow with a sandy beige roof, but there was more to do. I left the fellow who’d done most of the planning–a contractor in “real life”–with a nice kaleidoscope and started on the other projects. My workshop hadn’t been painted, and I gave it two coats of white with a brown trim. I’d had a carport beside the tool shed which the winter had not been kind to, which I pulled down and rebuilt. Just as I was finishing the rebuild my ladder collapsed and I cracked a rib. I was getting up and Perri called me from the kitchen. The power to half the house had gone out.
It wasn’t a great surprise. Our house had been wired in 1940, 70 years before. Some additional wiring had been added in the 1970s, but the original remained. Part of it, somewhere, had failed, and we ran extension cords from one half of the house to the other. We’d already invited a friend for Thanksgiving, and had to step over extension cords but it came off OK. Perri talked with her sister, and she and her husband John decided to come up from Florida to rewire our house. He was an electrical contractor and brought along his tools.
For the next month the six of us lived with all our furniture piled into the center of each room. We laid out pads in the basement crawl space and pulled up the flooring in the attic. December came in cold, enough that even with a space heater the electrical tape didn’t stick, something new for John from Florida, who only wore shorts. He thought it defective, but when I warmed it up it was fine.
Electricity is hard for most to understand. It’s invisible, almost magical. It’s a little like plumbing, but not really. What it’s more like is the high-pressure steam used to power ships in the Navy. Superheated steam, at 600 or 1200 pounds per square inch, has to flow through insulated pipes, and leaks are not only a nuisance, but dangerous.
Electricity, however, doesn’t flow inside a wire but on its surface. The larger the surface area, the more it’ll carry. For most household wiring bell wire is used; it’s sturdy, withstands heat and won’t flex with the current. Household current naturally has a vibration, a . Just like a guitar string vibrates when plucked, an electrical wire vibrates. In the USA this is 60 cycles per second. This produces a specific note–a low “B” hum–which can be heard if the current is strong or the sound amplified. This vibrational flexing also leads to metal fatigue, which in household appliance cords is alleviated by bunching several small wires together. When wire is heated and cooled enough, though, smaller wires fail, which leads to faster and greater failure in the rest. The spot of maximum fatigue is next to the plug or at the point where the cord enters the appliance, which is why appliance cords have “boots” on either end. The greater the number of smaller wires in a cord, the greater the amount of current it can carry relative to its size, but also the greater heat buildup where the current meets an obstruction such as a smaller cord or a defective connection. The insulation around a cord also acts as a heat sink. A spliced area should have just as much or more tape or other insulation as was there was originally; a splice should be wider than the cord, not narrower, and splices in house wiring should be made within a junction box so as to isolate and dissipate heat.
In 1940, house wiring was rudimentary. There’d been a light and a socket in each room but not much else. In our house there’d been two circuits, one for the kitchen and one for the rest of the house, and a single telephone, centrally located. None of the wiring had a ground, and switches were installed with scant regard to which side was hot and which neutral. The wires were copper coated with tin, which seemed a good idea as it made soldering connections easy, but a problem developed with screw-tightened outlets and sockets. With repeated heating and cooling, tin became tin oxide, and far less conductive. With the natural 60-cycle vibration inherent in alternating current, the connections loosened ever so slightly and the gradually worsening conditions led to greater heat buildup than the sockets were designed for.
Most splices in non-load-bearing wires are now connected using screw-on nuts instead of soldering, as the nuts not only guarantee a large surface area for connection but also provide separation between splices and a heat sink around each. There’s nothing wrong with other types of splices if they’re done correctly, but one can’t see inside a connection to know it’s done right.
In house wiring in the United States there are two wires providing power to the main box, coded red and black. Either is connected to a neutral, coded white. Hook up red and black and you get 240 volts, which is used for stoves, hot water heaters, clothes dryers and large air conditioners. Hook red or black to white and it’s 120 volts. Regular circuits in a household are hooked to a circuit breaker with a red or black wire to the outside and a neutral bar in the center, which is a grounding connection. Electricity comes through the hot side, the smaller tang on a polarized plug, and returns through the neutral, which is larger to assure a more certain connection. The operation of appliances is generally the same no matter which way the hot and neutral are connected, but if a switch cuts the neutral rather than the hot, the hot wire will be hot even if the switch is off. Anyone working on the wiring can still receive a nasty shock.
If there’s a separate grounding post, this will be the longest of the three, so as to make certain the ground is the first to connect and the last to disconnect should the plug loosen. The ground, which is really a spare for the neutral, can be attached to metal plumbing pipes, a stake driven deep into the ground or to the same center bar as the neutral in the main box.
The need for a grounding wire wasn’t well established until well into the 1950s. At first, grounding outlets were only required if outlets were located within 8 feet of water pipes, for reasons that became clear to me and my friends when we’d touch my refrigerator handle and the water faucet at the same time. A few years later grounding was required in kitchens, bathrooms and outside outlets, and an adaptor was available that converted a 3-prong grounding plug into a 2-prong plug with a green wire or tab to connect to the screw holding the faceplate of the outlet, which only grounded the connection if the outlet box was metal and connected to a metal conduit. Sometimes it was, sometimes not. In most wiring from the 1930s and 1940s the wiring was woven fabric treated with a rodent repellent, so that even with an adaptor connected there was no ground. It wasn’t until the 1970s that grounding receptacles became standard throughout a house, along with polarized plugs for double-insulated items–i.e., items with a non-conductive plastic casing, rather than metal. Even so, grounding adaptors were still available, and widely misused, until the 1990s.
As we started exploring the guts of the house, I with my cracked rib doing very little, we found something strange. The house had supposedly been built in 1940, but the bathtub was dated 1941. I’d also noticed the southeastern half of the house had a far better foundation than the northwestern. When Edward and John started replacing wiring, it was routed oddly. The circuits and breaker box installed in the 1970s were logical, but in the original wiring, one circuit went to the refrigerator and, originally, a well pump under the house, while the other passed over the kitchen, went to a ceiling light and outlets in the parlor, the living room and porch light, then underneath into the crawl space, from whence the two bedrooms and bathroom were hooked up before once again going overhead to the kitchen ceiling. It seemed the house must have been built in stages, the kitchen, parlor and living room finished first and the rest added later at considerably less expense.
The wiring from the 70s also had problems. The interior fusebox remained and a breaker box added outside. Because copper was getting more expensive, the contacts on the 70s breaker box were aluminum–again, something which seemed okay at the time. Aluminum was much lighter and cheaper than copper, and had been used for many years in high-tension wires. There were certain things about aluminum, though, which proved unsuitable for house wiring.
Without special connectors, aluminum wires pit and oxidize, leading to greater resistance, greater heat and a greater chance of fire. It was abandoned for house wiring, but for years was still used in circuit boxes. A special paste was spread on the contacts, but the paste wouldn’t last forever. The contacts corroded and breakers failed. This process accelerated when the breaker box was in the weather, but it was safer there when the breakers failed. The corroded tangs in my breaker box were useless. Over several years the extra tangs were filled up, and full-size breakers replaced with skinny ones which fit two in the same space but generated more heat, corroding faster. By 2010 there were no fresh tangs left, and though the wiring failure wasn’t in the circuit box, the box needed replacing.
John, with Edward as apprentice, pulled out all the wiring. Edward climbed under the house, passed tools, pulled wires, installed junction boxes and learned a great deal about electricity, more than I’d remembered myself. I’d taken a course on the GI Bill which qualified me as a Class B Electrician, a category which had later been eliminated. In the intervening years there’d been several amendments to code and new types of equipment which John knew well. He did it right, putting in a whole-house emergency breaker outside and installing an enormous new breaker box on the back porch, with copper contacts throughout and twenty-five separate circuits, one for every room and every appliance. We replaced every receptacle, switch and socket. After working under the house and in the house we went to the attic, whose floor I’d pieced together from plywood scraps. We piled everything to one side, took up the floor, replaced the wiring, piled the stuff to the other side and replaced all the nails with screws, which electricians prefer. We put a few lights and receptacles in the attic and reorganized the storage. At Christmastime we were still cramped, but most of the work was done. I gave John and Joy my most elaborate stereo Kallistoscope, and a day or two later they were on the road. We spent the next few days cleaning and organizing and by New Year’s were comfortable in our newly rewired home. It had taken over a month and several thousand dollars, which we’d again put on credit cards, but was worth it.
Winter 2011 was a cold one and it snowed several times but we had plenty of wood. Sam had found a better job closer to home. Fran was divorcing her second husband and arranging to revoke her first husband’s rights as heir of record, as she hadn’t seen him in years and he hadn’t paid child support. She’d had to contact him when Sarah died and was surprised he was still alive. Robin and Luanne had fixed up her Colorado house, returned with her departed husband’s jewelry supplies and were making earrings and necklaces by the truckload. They’d taken a jaunt to Florida, spent time at the beach and came back to care for Robin’s house in Boone. It had been used as an upstairs/downstairs apartment for years, which had been grandfathered into the town ordinance, but the city lost the list of exceptions and tried to fine them several thousand dollars. After a thorough search the letter appeared.
Perri and the kids went to Alabama in April to help her mother recover from knee surgery, and they returned in June. They had yearly tests to take. Home schoolers have to meet standards and in North Carolina are tested once a year by assessors. Perri knew one in Winston-Salem whohad two daughters Clara Kate’s age, and we went for the day. We toured an interesting excavation outside Salem. Bethabara was a farming community settled by Moravians in the 1750s, with the intention of moving everything to what later became Salem. Most of the buildings were dismantled and moved in the 1760s, leaving only foundations. They were forgotten for two hundred years, until a farmer plowed up several piles of rocks. The records of the abandoned settlement still existed, though nobody had known where it had been, so all of the buildings were identified and tagged with little plaques. Some of it has been reconstructed, and people dressed in period clothes explained it all. Very interesting.
Genny’s son Tristan also took his tests that day, and met us at Bethabara. While the others took a tour, I stayed behind with him learning some tunes on a penny whistle I’d bought at the little museum. Tristan and I explored. There was a large barn filled with tools of the period and on the grounds was a reproduction of a palisade fort constructed for defense during the French and Indian War, enclosing an acre or two of the gray stone foundations. Some were for single men, some for women, some for families, there were communal kitchens and the like, with vegetable and medicinal herb gardens to the side. In the center was a bell, rung for various activities. Tristan was relatively well-behaved, a welcome improvement.
Perri’s birthday was shortly afterwards, and the kids and I made her a puzzle ring. It’d been awhile since I’d made jewelry, but Perri wanted a new ring. I showed Edward and Clara Kate how it was done and let them do much of the work. After that there was a crafts fair in the mountains. Robin and Luanne had signed us up, but when we got there the “crafts fair” was advertised as a “big yard sale”. After two hours it was clear we weren’t going to sell much, so we left and played guitars all night, making up drinking songs and planning a tour of Australia, an Astro*Carto*Graphy “hot spot” for Robin and I.
Robin’s son Grant had a small house down the road and was expanding it to three or four times its size. In the new living room was a picture window with a 2’x 6’ opening overhead. He commissioned me to make a stained glass window, the largest piece I’d ever tried.
I decided to make it in 3 panels. In Grant’s yard there was a geodesic dome used as a studio, and I made a stylized dome for the center panel, with Grant and his wife Joie smiling within. To one side was a day scene in springtime, to the other a night scene in winter. It took a lot of planning and sketching and time, and though I had stained glass on hand it wasn’t nearly enough. For the springtime there was a big sunburst in the corner. By chance, I’d dropped something on a light blue panel I was planning to use and shattered it, but the cracks fanning out from the middle made a perfect start for the sun’s rays fanning out across the sky. The rest of the sky was taken up with clouds and progressively darker blues, while the mountains and trees below were done in greens, with a pond and creek in aqua winding through. The nighttime side featured a sky in progressively darker shades of purple, with the moon and several stars done in a striated clear glass. The mountains were angular and the trees rounded in the springtime, the reverse in the winter, with angular, conical, snow capped trees and round mountains, an icy pond fed by a frozen brook between them. The dome was yellow and orange near the sun, fading into deep brown shadows. Grant installed it reversed from the direction I’d intended, with the sun and springtime to the right and the winter to the left, matching the location of his house. It looked great.
Clara Kate had acquired a new pet over the summer, a box turtle she named Michell, for whom we built an enclosed area with a small pond and plenty of shade. Perri read up on box turtles and decided to build him a spot across the yard, a bit more in the sun and out of the flood plain (such as there was), next to the glass shack. We now had four pets–a parakeet couple named Millie and Dixie, a turtle and Edward’s Carolina chameleon Shim. For some years we’d also kept two of our neighbor’s dogs, which I didn’t mind as she tended them, though they’d periodically escape, showing up tired and hungry in the evening. Towards the end of summer only one came back, and as one of her other dogs had died she took the remaining dog to her pen and we were out of the dog business. It may have led to a larger number of deer checking out our garden in the middle of the night, but the dogs never scared off that many. A fairly good deterrent seemed to be to periodically sprinkle cayenne pepper over everything, and pee along the perimeter late at night.
Laura was doing well. It’d been over a year since Tom had died and she was moving on. She was pursuing a master’s degree with the intention of teaching technology to grades k-12. Her two boys were in high school, and both in band camp for the summer. They were checking out colleges, one of which was Berea College in Kentucky. I knew Berea, and loved it. All the students receive a full scholarship, but all need to demonstrate financial need. They could go there if Laura was poor enough, which was iffy.
I don’t mind the family leaving for six weeks or so once or twice a year. The kids visit their cousins and Perri helps her parents, who are getting older–her mother in 2009 was 79 and father 81–while I hang out in the house and leave my clothes on the floor if I feel like it.
Men are fundamentally different from women in this. No matter how much women think men could or should care about certain things, they have other interests. Women do more housework because they want a clean house. Men don’t care so much.
Women may see this lack of interest in the condition of the home as something deliberate on a man’s part, but that’s a mistake. Men like other things. Sometimes men’s interests may seem childish, but it’s entirely wrong to think a man is a child. He may put up with being treated as one and even appreciate it occasionally, but he’s not a child and sooner or later will not consent, at which point a woman will learn to respect him as a man, or lose him.
In the summer of 2009 we were invited to a condo in Myrtle Beach for the weekend, and Robin, Luanne, her daughter and granddaughter came along. We had a place to stay at the resort as long as we attended a sales pitch, and they got a motel a few miles away. We had a great time. The resort had plenty of amenities–a pool, tennis courts, etc., but the main attraction of course was the beach. Our friends Randy and Pat had gone to a promotional weekend and purchased two weeks. They traded out their weeks nearly every year and went all over the country, but we’d been happy with our relatively unpopular week at Massanutten and had never exchanged. Massanutten was close to home, and uncrowded in our “off” week. We once visited Mount Vernon, where George Washington lived, and had been in the midst of thousands of jostling tourists while trying to get a glimpse or feel of what it must have been like in Washington’s day, which was impossible. At Massanutten in the “premium”–and far more expensive–weeks, there were three or four times as many people, which complicated everything. Other attractions were also less crowded in April, the staff less overworked, in a better mood and more willing to help. The same went for Myrtle Beach in the summertime–we had a great time at the condo feeding swans, playing guitars and going to the beach, but far less fun going to town, jostling in the crowds. We contemplated buying a week at the beach but decided against it. We returned to Swepsonville well relaxed and my brother and his people went back to the mountains to fix up his house.
Robin & Luanne did a lot of fighting with lawyers. A local judge, who’d seemed to my mother to have been one of the good guys, had instead proven to be in cahoots with a couple shady lawyers who’d raided the trust fund Anne’s grandparents had set up for the grandkids, treating it as a personal piggybank. Robin had his run-ins with the law–he counted a total of 9 times he’d been in jail for one minor thing or another–but that didn’t mean he was hopeless in legal matters.
That fall several Mennonites went for a campout at Hanging Rock. We split up during the day but came together for a large communal dinner. Afterwards we sat around the campfire and played guitars. One couple–Jeff and Clare–was very interesting. Jeff knew some riffs and shuffles I was unfamiliar with, and Clare’s father, like mine, had been in television when she was a kid. We chatted around the fire as it burned to embers.
The next morn was Sunday, and the group assembled for a service, with guitars and clarinets and drums and horns, but as we started the park ranger told us not to play, which was something new, as they’d done it for some years without a fuss. Keith and Tammy thought it was probably the ranger’s preference rather than a camp rule. I didn’t care. Sunday service never appealed to me anyway. We all sat around instead and discussed our lives, which was more interesting. Several of the folks had been missionaries in various parts of the world, and many had grown up in faraway places. One family was from Ethiopia, and several had recently returned from Morocco, Egypt, China, Peru.
Another Marriage
In 2010 Frances and Ray had been together for more than a year, and now that both were divorced were free to marry. The ceremony was in a ballroom in Asheville with dining and dancing afterwards. Perri and I came the day before and toured the Biltmore House  with the kids. Biltmore is essentially a castle, built by George Vanderbilt just before the 20th century. He’d toured the castles of Europe and wanted to build something magnificent in America. In the 1890s he built his own railroad to haul in marble and lumber. It was a working farm as well as a residence for George, his wife and child and whatever visitors came to stay, of which there were many. There was a bowling alley, a swimming pool, a workout gym, changing rooms and servants’ quarters by the dozen. He was progressive for the time, seeing to it that the staff was well provided for. There were vineyards for wine and acreage for vegetables and fruit trees and game for hunting. Dinners were always sumptuous and almost entirely supplied from the grounds, which were developed by Frederick Law Olmstead, who designed Central Park. The mansion has remained in the Vanderbilt family and was a private residence until the 1950s, when it was opened to the public as a sort of museum. After the tour we moved on to a display of Tiffany stained glass at one of the galleries in the village.
Louis Comfort Tiffany invented copper foiling. Before his time glass pieces were surrounded with a lead channel, the lead soldered at the seams and filled with grout. The Tiffany technique made for much more slender and elegant channeling around the stained glass and correspondingly a much greater transmission of light. It was a superior lamp shade, and Tiffany set up a studio in New York City, where he sold them for what would amount to a year’s pay for most people. He based most of his designs on nature–leaves and flowers and branches–and made lampshades both for kerosene lanterns, which were still widely used, and for electric lamps, which were relatively new.
After the Tiffany exhibit we stopped at the blacksmith shop, and he put on quite a show. He began by playing a tune on the anvil with his hammer–the first “heavy metal music”, he said. He proceeded to show how to fire up a coke fire. Coal, when partially burned, turns to coke, which produces a hot fire without smoke or fumes. He heated a steel bar, cranking a hand-powered fan to add heat and pouring water around the edges, which sounds counter-intuitive, but above 1500ºF water breaks into its components, hydrogen and oxygen, producing an even hotter fire. When his rod was heated to a bright yellow he banged it into a leaf shape on the anvil, adding small pieces, shaping the leaf’s veins and details. He then cut it from the rod by beating it over a sharp edge, heated the stem, beat it slender and added a curve to make it into a fob for a keychain. A very interesting  and informative presentation, after which I asked him a few questions. He’d grown up a few miles away in Tennessee, and had been a blacksmith all his life, making his first leaf when he was 15. He never wore gloves–he said when you don’t wear gloves your hands make their own gloves–and had been working at the Biltmore, demonstrating blacksmithing, maintaining the estate, for fourteen years. I showed him my puzzle rings.
Perri and I stopped for a picnic in the park before going to the local Aldi’s grocery and the Goodwill. Aldi is a German chain which operates in the most minimal way possible and offers great prices; I needed a pair of pantsl because I’d mistakenly packed my son’s pants for the ceremony instead of mine. The Goodwill in Asheville was a good one; we got several very nice shirts, a set of ruby-glass goblets and gave $1 for a jigsaw puzzle we’d seen selling at the Biltmore that afternoon for $12. The ruby goblets were particularly a prize; I’ve always picked up colored glassware to use around the house, with the intention of using any broken glass in my kaleidoscopes. There’s plenty of green, brown, blue and yellow available, but red glass is expensive and rare. “Red” glassware is usually a thin film coating over clear, useless for kaleidoscopes, as the coating flakes off and sticks to the inside of the color wheel.
About Television
We went back to the Holiday Inn to make a few sandwiches for dinner and watch television. Since the kids were born we haven’t had cable TV, so television’s something of a treat for them, though when I was in my 20s we didn’t have a television in the house at all. No computer or internet, either, so it’s not the same for them, as they see a fair number of shows over the air, pulled up on the internet or on DVD, plus movies and games.  From late 1973 to about 1985 I didn’t watch television, and feel it was a great advantage. I learned many skills I wouldn’t have bothered with had I been sitting in front of the boob tube. Instead of watching Laverne & Shirley, I was making ever more elaborate puzzle rings from silver and gold. I learned to sew, to make bamboo flutes, wooden toys. I made metal sculptures with an acetylene torch, learned how to throw pots, paint signs. The only disadvantage was that when I heard a joke, it’d almost certainly have been told on Saturday Night Live or Happy Days or Saved by the Bell, and what I found fresh and funny and new would’ve been heard by others several times before. My cultural references stopped. When everyone was breathless over Who Shot JR, I didn’t have any idea who JR was and when my friends said “Dyn-O-Mite!” I had no clue why. I made things and read books, I didn’t watch shows. Working at the school I cleaned up and on my lunch hour read kids’ books. When I sold ski tickets I read a book a day. In the afternoons I’d bang out rings, sew hats, play harmonica. I’d read a book while lying in bed instead of watching Jay Leno.
We’re not anti-technology. I think it was great for me not to have a TV all those years, but we have one now, in our bedroom with an over-the-air antenna. In the living room we have one hooked up to a DVD, VCR and Netflix, and the kids have devices to play games. They can use them whenever they’ve done their schoolwork and chores, but we have control.
Edward has an X-box, which I had to take apart a couple times to open the DVD drawer. I finally removed the entire plastic case. The warranty is, of course, voided, but since when is a warranty worth the hassle? On most fairly cheap items the “shipping and handling” charge is equal to the original price! This is no warranty at all, and should be clearly stated on the package. Harry Truman once proposed a law that whoever manufactured a product would be required to provide replacement parts for 25 years. I have hundreds of VCR tapes which I have no intention of trashing, but they’re only playable on VCRs, which are less and less available. I pick them up for $5 or $10 at the thrift store, but if one craps out it can’t be fixed. I once picked up a fancy VCR which originally sold for a thousand dollars and was worthy of the price–case of cast aluminum, solid steel parts–but was made before remote controls, so it sold for $1. I used it for years but when a minor part wore out it was unavailable at any price, and a VCR which had given good service for fifteen years was a piece of junk for want of a $2 part. By then a new VCR sold for $25, but it was plastic. It wouldn’t last a fifth as long.
It’s a mixed bag. Had Harry Truman had his way, no new VCRs would’ve been available at $25, but parts for quality VCRs would have kept most out of the landfill. Electronic products have a short life, but why is debatable; many are simply obsolete. At the school sale there were entire pallets stacked with computers, shrink-wrapped, 6 feet high, for a dollar. No takers. Huge, heavy, fancy rear-projection TVs which sold for thousands were five years later selling for $100, and cell phones more than a few years old are worth nothing at all. Twenty-five years is too long to be practical, but five or ten would be nice.
I propose a similar law. No crazy screws. All products should be serviceable with regular tools. I like puttering with old mechanical things, and they don’t have screws with a triangle on top. I’m glad to see them in demand, too. Typewriters I picked up for $5 years ago are being refurbished and sold for hundreds. Old box cameras I paid 59¢ for as a child are $50 and up. Antique sewing machines I’d buy for $20 sell for hundreds. Old toasters, coffee pots, fans, clocks, movie projectors, adding machines sit in the corner of my attic. My wife isn’t always happy, but love me, love my junk.
Fran’s letter was written on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. She and Ray had just returned from a lovely honeymoon in Jamaica and she was the happiest she’d been in years. Ray had found a job after almost a year, and she’d put the chaos behind her. Her oldest son, his wife and daughter lived close by, her daughter not many miles away and her second son was doing well in school. Sam was happy with his new job, for an accounting firm, but Barry was dealing with Verizon termination #2, but with Sam’s income, the second job loss didn’t hurt so much. Robin held the robin until November, which was National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, a challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in a month, and in 30 days he had a first draft. Not necessarily a good novel, he pointed out, and described his as “horrendous”, involving telepathic mind-controlling space aliens and too many plot twists to follow. Luanne had discovered ultra-couponing, and they’d seen a candy display at the pharmacy with candy at 99¢, buy one, get one free.  In addition, there were 50¢ coupons on each package, so after the coupons, they were–free!  He bought them all–a dozen bars or so–for a few cents in sales tax.
I continued my memoirs and decided I’d be all scribbled out at 1000 pages.  I typed 130 pages and took it to the mountains at Thanksgiving.  My sister’d also been writing a book, a new version, balanced, fair, well written. She related a hilarious tale from the first grade. Seeing that her friends with bag lunches could trade sandwiches and desserts, she decided she wanted a bag lunch as well.  It became a test of her mother’s love. Mother failed miserably. Instead of making a sandwich, she had Genny make her own sandwich.  Strike one.  She packed an apple for dessert, worthless for a trade.  Strike two.  Finally, she packed it in a grocery bag instead of a lunch-sized bag.  Strike three, her mother didn’t love her! She was so overcome by emotion she sat under a pine tree, cried and was late for school.  When she arrived the teacher saw she was upset, but instead of telling the teacher that her mother didn’t love her and her lunch bag was too big, she said three boys had chased her.
Well, the principal was called – a huge man – and vowed to “get to the bottom of this.”  Genny couldn’t identify any of the mythical bullies, since there weren’t any, and it was resolved with Genny promising to identify the bullies and praying to God not to tell Santa Claus what a bad girl she’d been, lying about her lunch.
We all read to each other, and mother cleared up a few details I’d scrambled.  It was interesting to hear the same incidents from three perspectives, and the unfamiliar details in the lives of other family members. My project was a retelling of my life, a time-lime, with detours for philosophy, the outline rudimentary. At eleven I’d started a diary, and I maintained a journal or record until my late twenties. I stopped because they didn’t seem to do me much good. Page after page of failed romances, I felt like hell.  It didn’t occur to me that the hell was a psychological tape loop installed by the manufacturer, that there wasn’t a plan my father wouldn’t overturn, that any business, project dream or romance would end with a torpedo to the gut.  It surprised me that writing memoirs worked so strongly on my emotions. Scribbling on paper reminded me of the endless treacheries, guilt mongering, worthless promises forgotten before they were made. My own lack of willingness to forgive.
It’s popular to state one should forgive whether another deserves it or not. It didn’t work for me. He’d aced me out of every family activity; I was in none of the plays–Life with Father, A Christmas Carol, Peter Pan–in which everyone else participated. I didn’t go to school with any of my siblings. I was in none of the movies, commercials. I was eighteen before I took part in a family production, the band, and at the pinnacle of our success my father slapped away my first fan. He gutted me, for no reason other than I was liked.
I’m better than he was. I respect my kids. I don’t hurt them, steal their things, feed them rancid and insulting “insights” dressed up as psychology. I treat them right, don’t tear them down, don’t give their things away, sell them without consent, belittle their accomplishments. If I make a promise I try to keep it. A couple years ago I was given a van and thought about selling my Cadillac, which I’d promised to Edward. I saw that he’d be hurt if I sold it, and didn’t. That was the right thing. It made me feel good. Pretending a forgiveness that I didn’t feel, didn’t.  Truth counts. I count. I have integrity. I believe in myself, my essential honesty. That means something. It’s important. Powerful.
I can forgive my father for stealing my tools, wrecking my pond, keeping more than his half of profits, breaking promises. What I won’t forgive is intangible. The contention that others should be forgiven for one’s own comfort–well meaning and truthful as it is for many–is to me the same oppressive crap I was forced into agreeing with when I’d signed up for algebra instead of wood shop.  What is liberating to me isn’t forgiving someone who doesn’t deserve it. I did that for years. I made excuses. My father was a prisoner. His father was a tyrant. Etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. and etc. I forgave him and forgave again, again, again. Still felt like crap.  The truth was, I did forgive him, for everything except that which he took which had no value to him, to anyone but me. My glory.
I won’t pretend to give it a pass. Forgiveness, like respect, is earned. Whatever there is of karma or limbo or heaven and hell or purgatory or repentance, that is for his soul, not mine. I have no guilt for what I don’t feel. He never made things right. That’s the truth, and it gives me peace. The universe can forgive him. It’s not my responsibility. When the fires of hell burn out, he’ll be forgiven.
Back to the Future, or something like it
Christmas came on December 25th, surprising no one. We didn’t have a lot of money, for the fifth or sixth year in a row, but money is the least of considerations at Christmastime. We spent $100 or so at thrift stores and discount outlets, and made several of our presents for each other. Edward made a cute pillow with a funny face, long arms and legs for Clara Kate. Perri made multi-color monkey pillows for the kids which wrapped around their necks. I’d planned to make hats, but the others had tied up the sewing machine for so long and I didn’t have the time. The weather was mild, the house peaceful and warm.
On the final day of 2011 I’d scribbled one thousand pages of  this narrative on twelve legal pads, and after four years and uncounted retellings and rereadings of favorite episodes as bedtime stories, countless questions to my parents, siblings, cousins, friends as to what happened that time so many years ago, and who was there, can you get in touch with them, how did it happen, was that before or after the other thing? At the end of all that, in the hours before the New Year, for no reason other than a thousand pages seemed a good place to stop, I wrote–

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 registered for the draft, but my lottery number 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 away, and was on report for sleeping, though I hadn’t been asleep. 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.