“Hi Dot. It’s been too long. Stop by again–sometime.” Mom’s given name was Dorothy. Her friends called her “Dot” or “Dottie” before me and my siblings came along. Nicknames, that were logical extensions of Dorothy. It seemed weird at the time.
My given name was William, or William, middle name Arthur. Nobody called me William or Willie–there was the normal Billy, when I was younger, and then Bill. My closest friends called me “Wild Bill,” after I reached adulthood. My middle name was left untouched.
Public school kids were cruel. Nicknames intended as put downs, emphasized worst qualities. “Four eyes,” for glasses wearers; “gimpy,” or “gimp,” named anyone with hitches in their get-a-longs.
In our little town, several residents had unusual nicknames. There was “Peachy” Leach, “Push” Banks, “Silver” Scroggins, “Punk” Dowland; sometimes Floyd Rands was called “Slats.” Never figured the last one out–unless it related to the “Abby And Slats” cartoon.
In high school, I was saddled with “Ice Blue,” because of excess perspiration. I was also nicknamed “shaky” because of excessive nervousness. Neither nickname stuck with me–thank goodness.
Why couldn’t I have had one of the cool nicknames–like, Scooter, Skip, Buzz, Zip, Biff? All of which signified action–toughness. It was just as well, none fit my personality. None except “Wild Bill.” I’ll leave everyone to figure that one out.
As a teen, the sixties rock band–The Cyrkle wasn’t a favorite. They were contemporaries of the Beatles–never as popular.
“Turn Down Day” struck a chord as an anthem to nonconformity. Perhaps an ode to late night revelers that slept till noon the next day? “Red Rubber Ball,” shall I compare thee to the bright summer sun? No way–it wasn’t my groove.
I like to think remembering details from childhood is more a sign of my OCD tendencies, than senility. There were several “hometowns” during these early years, as my father changed careers.
There were kids that stood out from the crowd–remembered because they seemed world-wise beyond their years; were bullies or neighborhood troublemakers. Johnny Farkas, from Miss Kramer’s, Garfield School first grade class, in Canton, Ohio–why did I remember your name?
In Greenville, it was the Graves brothers. During the early fifties, they terrorized my older brother with tales of Russian invasions. They took advantage, hogtied him to a tree, with the warning, “When the noon fire siren blew, the Russians were coming to get him.”
The McNamara brothers lived next door in southwest Canton, Ohio. They had things we didn’t have–a television, and BB guns. The father, apparently had, had some run ins with the law.
In tiny Medora, IL there was a family at the end of the block with a brood of feral, firebrand children. The youngest boy was three, roamed the neighborhood in his diaper–if he wore clothes at all. He could typically be found on their front porch smoking smelly cigars.
Why did some of these little geniuses have all the answers about birds-and-bees? Not that the information given was accurate. Repeating their risqué jokes risked being overheard, and subsequent punishment. Were you one of those guys–Johnny Farkas?
Coffee’s gone cold. It’s a beautiful, sunny Saturday morning. Because of that–and expecting to get treats when they come in–the dogs keep going in and out the back door.
The Holidays are rapidly approaching. My annual Thanksgiving trek northward begins this next week. Where has this year gone? Although, last week seemed to drag on and on.
“Nothing but the dead and dying in my little town,” Said the Paul Simon lyrics. I grew up in a tiny Midwestern town. It has decreased in importance as the years have gone by. Descendants of the people, I knew growing up, still live there.
A white, two-story, frame house still stands. It used to be grandma’s house. My sister and brother-in-law are the present occupants. They’ve kept up many of the old traditions–gardening, canning vegetables, raising chickens.
My hometown may not, now, look like much, but it holds many good memories.
I remember this one time, when my best friend Dave and me, drove out to Jake Murphy’s before the sun came up. Jake’s coon dog’s were raising ten kinds of hell, soon as we drove down the dirt driveway. “I hope Jake remembered that he promised to go fishing with us this morning,” Dave said. “He knows, now,” I answered when the lights came on.
Trust, honesty, and fear, went along with knocking on someone’s door at five in the morning. Jake answered the door, half-asleep; pulling on his bib overalls. He didn’t have an undershirt on. Neither Dave, nor myself, wanted to know, if anything else was missing. Jake grumbled something unintelligible, stumbled across the porch; sat on the steps; put on socks and shoes.
“Good morning sunshine,” I greeted. “I knew it was you guys when I seen them headlights,” Jake bristled in defense. He tossed his fishing gear and cooler in the pickup bed. Jake’s slouchy railroad conductor’s cap barely covered his wild gray hair.
Jake, secured himself in the window seat, closed the door. It was a good thing, it was summer, and the truck windows were down. Because the stench of musk cologne was overpowering. It almost made up for Jake’s poor hygiene habits.
Junked out lawn mowers, an old wheelbarrow, an old green pickup truck bed–converted into a trailer, and other miscellaneous junk, leaned against Jake’s old garage. Inside, his trusty Mercury Marquis, sported a crude, hand-brushed, dark blue repaint job.
When he wanted to work, Jake did odd jobs around town. But, mostly, when he needed more whiskey. He was a better house painter half-drunk, than most people were, when sober. Most people avoided him. They thought he was odd–a little too strange. He wasn’t “funny strange” or anything like that. He just wasn’t sociable.
That wasn’t why we invited him to come along. Jake Murphy was a “fish witcher.” It was spooky how good he was. He could read water ripples like pages in a book. “Throw over yonder–by that stump,” He’d say. “There’s a big bass waitin’ to strike.” And sure enough, he’d be right.
We stayed all day at Jake’s favorite fishing hole. Caught a few keepers. The sun went down, day gave way to darkness–cricket chirps, and bellowing bullfrogs. An ambiance that called for a roaring campfire. The mosquitoes were hungry–we were too. Jake and I whittled points on sticks to roast hot dogs.
None of us thought to bring hot dog buns. It was too late to do anything about it–so we did without. “That’s enough to keep us from starving–I reckon,” Jake said. “I would sure liked to have had some beans to go with ’em. I’m going to stay up here for a bit–take a smoke break. You fellas go ahead and fish some more.”
“I’ll bet Jake eats lots of beans,” I said. “That’s probably why he farts so much,” Dave joked. “I’ve heard that he survives on beans and peanut butter.” Neither of us knew for sure. On the opposite side of the pond Jake’s cigarette tip glowed bright orange. Campfire light glinted off his raised whiskey bottle.
The catfish didn’t cooperate, we landed a monster snapping turtle, instead. It was an ugly, moss-covered creature, not one bit happy about being caught by two teenage boys. “You want to keep it?” I asked, looking over at Dave. “Naw,” He answered, “Let’s cut it loose.”
Jake sat in an old rocking chair on the dock–nursed a bottle of “Heaven Hill” bourbon whiskey. He sang some nondescript old country song. The drunker he got–the louder he sang. It was more like, wailing from tortured souls in hell, than singing. Nobody was around to complain.
None of us knew exactly how it happened. Jake might have leaned over too far? In his inebriated state–who could really tell? Somehow, Jake rocked himself off the dock into the water. He didn’t really holler much–it was more of a moan.
Dave and me jumped in, pulled Jake out–wet overalls and all. Almost drowning sobered him up pretty quick. He began dancing, jumping, and hollering around the campfire to dry out. Jake’s “war dance” was hilarious. Jake laughed, checked his pockets for fish. What else could he do at that point?
People around town joked about, old Jake rocking off the dock, for a long time after that. The story got twisted into, “While everybody else was rocking ’round the clock, Old Jake, was rocking off the dock.” The joke was really on them–because they missed the big dance! When Jake was drunk, things could get pretty weird.
THE DAILY POST: READY, SET, DONE
As it’s been a while since our last free-write… Set a timer for ten minutes. Write without pause (and no edit!) until you’re out of time.
The place seemed
Time stood still
While we ran
To unison chants of
Red Rover, Red Rover
Send Bobby, right over
Paved over memories
A vacant lot became
Things were not
The way they
Turned out to be
Transcribed from the October 1996 issue of “Good Old Days” magazine, pp. 29-31. Written by Lowell L. Getz, a gentleman from my hometown.
A yellow cardboard sign on a plain wooden stake reads “Estate Sale: Saturday, 9 a.m.- 4 p.m., 1604 South Oak.” It’s the sign we have been looking for–identical to dozens of others provided by the local newspaper giving directions to garage sales, yard sales, and estate sales around town this dreary, damp, early October morning.
A turn to the left, two blocks down on the right; park the car on a side street and walk to 1604. The house is an unpretentious brown two-story, Tudor of the early 1900’s, with peeling paint and frayed shingles. A large silver maple with dying limbs and flaking bark stands in front; two pyramidal senescent spruces guard the north.
We are a little late. People are already in the house, and a line is waiting at the side door. Four people are allowed in at five-minute intervals. As we wait, we hear fragments of conversations: “…died a couple of months ago…” “in her early 90’s…” “visiting nurse found her in bed…” “husband had been dead for about 20 years…” “lived here most of her life…” “…no family left.”
Our turn to enter. Three steps down to the right and into a single-car garage that has not felt the tread of tires for years. A look around. A collection of rakes, hoes, shovels, and forks, their handles worn and loose, the effects of untold hours spent preparing flower beds, planting shrubs, cleaning the yard in spring, and planting “victory gardens.” How many blisters had they caused? How many sore backs? How many compliments from passersby had they heard? And we can almost smell the smoke of the countless piles of burning autumn leaves.
In the back corner rests a scratched and dented little red tricycle. I can still feel the sting of scraped knees and elbows. Next to it leans a boy’s faded blue balloon-tired Schwinn bicycle, the tires flat and brittle from decades of idleness. The paint on the upper bar is worn down to the bare metal. How many rounds of delivering the morning papers did it take the swinging bag to wear away the paint? And, how much was worn away by the twisting dress of a freckle-faced girl as he rode her to Chet Towse’s drugstore for vanilla phosphates after school.
We climbed back up the steps and into the kitchen. The table and counters are covered with chipped dishes, dented pans, worn cooking utensils and myriad other small, commonplace kitchen items that unknowingly weave together the everyday events in a family’s life.
I pick up a smooth, shiny rolling-pin; one handle sticks. How many Thanksgiving mincemeat pies? How many coconut cream pies for PTA socials? I can almost taste them.
Also on the counter sits a set of silver-plated dinnerware, the plating worn from the bases of the forks and spoons and from the edges of the knives. We can only imagine the conversations to which they were privy over long-forgotten Thanksgiving dinners, Christmas Eve dinners, hectic evening meals, family holiday get-togethers, and lazy summer Sunday breakfasts.
On the back counter stands a small cereal bowl, the lone survivor of a set of dishes, the others long since broken and discarded. Only a faint purple flower design remains from the hurried scrapings of the spoon as the second bowl of Wheaties was gulped down after the paper rounds so he could make last bell at school.
And years later, even more was scratched away by the unsteady spoon held by stiff, swollen arthritic fingers as she ate bran cereal while watching the evening news. “When you are hurting and all by yourself, it just isn’t worth the fuss to try to fix a real meal.”
I move into the dining room. Along the walls are arranged an oaken breakfront, a small tea-table with large wheels, and an old music case now holding tablecloths and napkins. In the middle of the room is a round oaken table with a single large pedestal. On the table sits a china set, the gold trim worn away from countless washings; again, we heat the din and laughter of countless meal-time conversations. Also on the table are a cut-glass pitcher, a Fostoria crystal service and china serving dishes; once cherished wedding presents.
At one edge I find an inexpensive tin cake holder, the faded clowns and balloons barely visible–a turn of the base brings the metallic tinkling of Happy Birthday. In the background we can hear the faint giggling chatter of little kids as the candles were blown out and the silent wishes made. Did they ever come true?
On top of the music case rests an old Sears and Roebuck Silvertone radio. It is plugged in. A twist of the switch and the green “tuning eye” lights up, but no sound escapes the brown cloth-covered speaker–only the unheard echoes of Roosevelt’s fireside chats, the call of Joe Louis prize fights, the War of the Worlds broadcast, the clatter of Fibber McGee and Molly‘s cluttered closet, Lum and Abner‘s chuckles at the Jot-‘Em-Down store, Gabriel Heatter‘s “There’s good news tonight” wartime broadcasts, The Romance of Helen Trent and the haunting music of I Love a Mystery. We go on into the living room where we find a large sagging flowered sofa, an equally sagging matching chair, and a newer reclining rocker with a built-in heater. “The heat feels good on your aching joints.”
By the window sits a Boston rocker, the ends of the rockers deeply grooved with puppy teeth marks. “How could you even think of refinishing it and removing the only traces of his very first pet?”
In the far corner stands a grandfather clock with three weights and a slowly swinging pendulum. How many times did the weights run their downward course? How many times did the chimes mark the hours, the quarter-hours? How many times did the pendulum make its arching back-and-forth trip? How many ticks, how many tocks, in the life of a family?
Against the near wall, an upright Baldwin piano stands, its ivory keys yellowed and chipped with age and the long hours of fingers stroking them. How many winter nights were made more cheerful by the sound of the notes? How many tears were dried away by the determined buffeting of the keys?
On the piano bench is piled a large stack of sheet music. Leaf through the folded sheets–Little White Lies, with a picture of Rudy Vallee; Don’t Cry Swanee, with Al Jolson; I Want My Mammy, with Al Jolson in blackface; and Memories, its pages worn and brittle, crumbling edges held together by yellowing tape.
Upstairs next. As we move toward the stairway we pass the line of people already checking out with their purchases. Their arms are filled with bits and pieces of the fabric of a family, now being unwoven and forever scattered to the winds.
Up the stairs and down the hall. To the left is a small bedroom with a small wooden bed. Near the head of the bed stands a small desk. Although the room has been painted several times, nail heads still protrude from the walls and ceiling. Which one held the picture of Dizzy Dean? Which one Lucky Lindy? To which was attached the model of the China Clipper? To which the Curtiss Jenny biplane?
At the opposite end of the room is a closet, the thick wooden rod bending under the weight of tightly packed, little-worn women’s sweaters, blouses, skirts, dresses, jackets and coats, all long since out of style. “Really should give them to the Salvation Army, but you never know, they may come back in style again.” They never did.
And, at the very end of the rod, pressed tightly against the wall, hangs a Boy Scout uniform, the unbending khaki fabric stiff with age, with a red and white Troop 107 patch on the shoulder.
On the bed is a large cardboard box of picture frames, the pictures still in them. Shuffle through the box. A young couple dressed in the 1890’s styles stares into the camera with their frozen, bulging eyes. In another, a man wears an open coat, a watch chain drooping across a buttoned vest. The woman wears a thick, heavy form-fitting dress buttoned up to the neck.
Another show a young couple under a flowered wooden arch with a sign at the top, “Senior Memories of 1921.” She wears a short straight dress baring long slender legs, and two strands of bead hanging down to her waist. He wears a shirt with a rounded cellophane collar and a narrow-lapelled tuxedo jacket. In another, a small boy looks up into the camera, his bright eyes aglow with excitement as he clutches a floppy-eared spotted pup.
In the bottom of the box, a heavy wooden frame encased the picture of a uniformed young man with the same sparkling eyes and a forced embarrassed grin, the large bill of his Army Air Corps cap making his boyish face look even younger than its years. We turn the frame over. Stuck in the back is a folded yellowed newspaper clipping. Only the small headline shows–“Local Airman Killed Over Germany.”
We move across the hall into the master bedroom. Here we find a small vanity, a nightstand, a wicker-bottomed chair and a large dresser with an equally large mirror. On the dresser top, a well-used tarnished silver mirror, comb and brush set; strands of broken gray are still entangled in the brush. On the near wall, a closet, the rod closely packed with more women’s clothing. Although of a more recent vintage, most are no longer in style. It’s a lifetime collection of changing fashions.
Next to the window is an iron bed, the maroon paint faded and cracked with time. Recorded in the cracks are the excitement of newfound shared intimacies, sudden awakenings to feverish cries from across the hall, late-night sighs of relief when the front door opened signaling that he was safely in, worried sleepless wartime nights wondering where her was and if he is safe, silent sobbing clutches after the telegram arrived, the sinking sensation of despair the morning there was only heavy stillness next to her in the bed, years of solitary restless nights and wandering dreams of what had been, and finally the quiet, gentle release. All these and an iron bed in need of paint–$25.
As we leave the room we see the music box–jewelry chest on the vanity. Three flaking brown glue stains inside the top are a reminder of a long-lost mirror. A twist of the key, Memories–his first Christmas present to her? Inside the box lies a tangle of clamp earrings, worn costume necklaces and broken brooches. Each just matches one of the dresses or sweaters in the closets.
At the bottom in one corner, a small brooch with seven green rhinestones, partially wrapped in brittle browning tissue paper, the creases cracked from countless unfoldings and foldings. As I open the tissue paper I sense the scent of pine drifting from a green red and blue light-enshrouded tree of a long-ago Christmas morning.
I examine the pin more closely. In the reflections from the stones I see the excited bright eyes of a small boy sitting in a disarray of torn paper and open boxes looking up expectantly at the delicate, slender fingers of the young woman holding the pin to the breast of her faded pink chenille robe as she exclaims, “Oh, how beautiful! Mommy will treasure this forever.”
“Forever” ended today with a yellow cardboard sign on a plain wooden stake: “Estate Sale: Saturday, 9 a. m.- 4 p. m., 1604 South Oak.”