A quick note-- I'm putting this up now, because I have to go out of town tomorrow and I won't get a chance to put it up in the morning. This chapter is long... over 7,000 words. Sorry...
Thanks for your support, everyone!
Chapter 1—Aurora (as in Colorado, not Borealis) Just being a kid
I was born a small black child…
Sorry, I couldn’t stop myself. That’s an old Steve Martin line from a movie called The Jerk. The name pretty much sums up the plot, but he was funny as hell and I never forgot the line. Actually, as far as I know (and anyone in the family would ever admit) I’m 100% Caucasian. My mother was born to two Swedish immigrants who came over on a boat full of orphans, sometime before 1900. They were taken to orphanages in Nebraska, where they awaited adoption by families who were also primarily Scandinavians. My grandparents went to school together during their formative years, both having been adopted by farm families living a few miles apart. They dated in high school and fell in love, whereupon my grandfather asked my grandmother for her hand in marriage. Of course, this required a marriage license to be issued by the state of Nebraska and county clerk. When it was discovered that they’d both been adopted from the same orphanage, that they’d emigrated from the same orphanage in Sweden and that they’d come over on the same boat, it was feared that the two could be brother and sister. Ultimately, some sage working for the county/state determined that they should be allowed to proceed regardless of their bloodlines. Fifty years and eight children later, they both died of natural causes having never produced an idiot child, at least not as far as anyone could prove. There were some whispered allegations among the immediate family that my mother was crazy for marrying my father, but I think they honestly felt that had more to do with bad choices than any real mental incapacity.
Every possibility exists that I was not a pretty baby, although proving it beyond the shadow of a doubt would have been difficult, either one way or the other. All photos, in the late 40’s were either black-and-white or some sickly shade of light tan meant to assimilate flesh tones (of white people, of course, people of color had no such technology available then). The photos I’ve seen depicted me as a bald, round creature of unremarkable size or features. I think I looked like a male child, at the very least, although I suppose even that may have been arguable by a disinterested party not familiar with me personally. All babies of a single race, I think, look pretty much alike. But to my mother, I was on a par with The Gerber Baby, the standard by which all infants were judged back then. Of course, I didn’t have a perfect ringlet of hair like The Gerber Baby and my mouth was a little off-kilter and my nose was a bit broader, but in every other way we were absolute twins! Oh, and I wasn’t a girl, I forgot to mention that, but…
By the time I’d reached my first birthday and hadn’t yet mastered the piano or learned to speak Swedish as a second language, the disappointment of my non-prodigy status began to sink in; I think my family realized that I was really pretty ordinary and began to allow me to abuse myself with impunity. By then, I’d found my legs and instantly transformed myself into a human battering ram. I had so many bumps and bruises on my head, arms, legs and torso that I’m sure my mother was suspected of child abuse. My policy was ‘See obstacle, run over obstacle… oops, damn, that hurts… WAAAAAAA!’ Naturally, my obvious injuries entitled me to lots of cuddling and attention from Mom.
When I was three, I had my first memory. Mom mowed the yard with a push mower (no motor) and she had the habit of mowing a strip of grass and then once she’d reached the fence, she’d stop and pull the mower behind her, stopping to cut out dandelions with a paring knife. When she did this, the blades still turned, and if a small boy happened to try to remove a few blades of grass from them and she didn’t realize he was there—well, it doesn’t take a genius to understand what happened. I didn’t cry, but when red stuff started spurting out the top of my hand every time my heart beat, tender age that I was, I knew something definitely was not quite right. Of course, that’s when the screaming and wailing began (on my mother’s part first, then mine). As the story goes, a neighbor woman called the police while Mom did her level best to keep me from bleeding to death. Did you know that if you jam enough Kleenex up against the end of a finger, you can keep a small boy from spurting all over your begonias? I actually remember parts of the ambulance ride and the smell of the ether in the hospital when they put me under. Bless her heart, our neighbor brought the finger tip to the hospital wrapped in a napkin. Evidently, well intentioned though they may have been, her attempts at preservation lacked the standards required for candidacy as surgical re-attachment. Thank you anyway, Mrs. Woods… I appreciate your efforts on my behalf, even if the finger tissue did contain a little gangrene.
Mother was never quite the same from that day on. Many times (in fact, whenever he was mad at me for any reason) Dad threw it in my face how much I’d taken out of my mother that day. If only I’d had the sense not to stick my fingers in that mower… well, it’s water under the bridge at this point. No harm no foul, they say… I learned to use the finger almost as well as any other, and since it was missing one joint, I could gross the other kids out by setting it against my nose and acting like I was mining for nose nuggets. Come to think of it, it just may have been the beginning of my comedy career. I was class clown from my very first days in school. What's that? If I act like a fool and make the other kids laugh, the teachers will pay attention to me and tell me to shut up? Hmmm... this could be useful in upcoming years.
Somehow I made the transformation from toddler to pre-schooler to Kindergartner. That’s when the real fun started. By then, I’d grown some blondish-brown hair on my head and took on the appearance of a somewhat normal boy. Trust me, it was in appearance only.
I’m sure you’ve heard it a thousand times from all the other old farts you’ve come into contact with, but I remember “the good old days”. Yes, it’s true… I walked four miles to school and five miles home—uphill both ways, of course. It snowed every day, too, a situation that made it tough on me, since my family couldn’t afford to buy me boots or a coat. Funniest part of it is, though, I don’t remember standing out from the other kids in any perceivable way, at least in terms of attire. Blue jeans (not Levis, no one could afford them), shirt (the kind that buttoned up the front, with a collar and no damned advertising or writing on it) and either tennis shoes (for the athletic kids) or brown, lace-up brogans became the uniform of the day. Mom would enforce the “sweater and jacket” rule upon leaving the house, but the hollyhock bush in Mrs. Jacobson’s front yard provided adequate cover to hide them until we could get back there after school to pick them up.
Only dorks and losers wore sweaters, and, of course, we were neither. Nerds and geeks had not yet been invented, although the personality type certainly existed. In those days we called them ‘dorks’ or ‘pansies’ and every homeroom had at least one. He was the kid who buttoned the top button on his shirt, his hair was neatly combed, he didn’t play kickball on the playground, and you’d be likely to catch him munching his own boogers if you sat behind him, one row to the side. He didn’t pass notes and you certainly would never dream of including him in any after-school activities. More often than not, his name was Herbert (never ever Herb) and he was an only child—and the class suck-up. We knew him as ‘four-eyes’ or ‘the wheezer’. His supply of freshly sharpened pencils was legendary, and he never used the pencil sharpener in class. He carried the only briefcase in our class, the contents of which remain a mystery to this day. I’m sure it would have contained at least one slide rule (we didn’t have calculators in those days), a nasal inhaler (those guys always had asthma) and a generous supply of gumdrops and candy corn, most of which I stole every day. Of course, he was always a good source of answers for tests, so I always made sure to find a desk with a vantage point toward his test paper. In those days, everyone carried a pink Eberhard-Faber eraser. If such statistics had been kept, I may have set a school record for number of erasers used during a single term. So many, in fact, my mother accused me of losing them. I used to erase so much that I’d wear a hole in every test paper in at least one spot. Several times, Mrs. Blaylock (my fifth-grade teacher) kept me after school to remind me that I needed to do my own work. Of course, I was horrified that she could make the implication that I had ‘borrowed’ an answer or two from Herbert.
After a while, I think Herbert realized that he was providing me with an ‘A’ in math and got tired of it. He started putting a blank piece of paper over his answer sheet, and my mid-term grade dropped to a ‘D’. Immediate action would be required. Through a carefully thought-out plan implemented and carried out to the last detail, I determined Herbert’s after-school itinerary and staked out a locale on the flank of his route. Then, as he rode by, I’d jump out from behind Mrs. Jacobson’s hollyhock bush (God, how I loved that spot!) and knock him off his bicycle, reminding him that it might be best for his health if he stopped covering up his paper. Not only did the exercise teach me tracking skills, but after a while, as Herbert got sick of being assaulted every afternoon, he began taking different routes, forcing me to develop a network of spies who supplied me with his escape plans. After a week or two, not only did he not cover up his paper, he placed it neatly on my side of the desk, where I could not possibly fail to see it. By this time, Mrs. Blaylock was probably wise to me, but she turned a blind eye to the whole thing as long as I was shrewd enough to miss a couple of questions on purpose and Herbert’s paper and my own were not carbon copies. On the first day of sixth grade, when I found out that Herbert and I didn’t have the same teacher, I spent the better part of the day in the Principal’s office trying to get them to put me into his class. I failed, and so did my grade point average. Damn you, Herbert!
I don’t remember much of elementary school, praise be to God. I do remember that Mom scheduled a committee of mothers to protest at the school board when the cost of a half-pint of milk doubled from 1¢ to 2¢. Think about it… what would you do if the cost of a necessary commodity jumped by 100% overnight? In those days, mothers were the single most powerful bloc of constituents that a school board was forced to contend with. None of them worked outside the home, so they had plenty of time to plan. I still think that may be the single biggest reason why kids learned more fifty years ago… if I came home and whined about something at school, she investigated. If, in the off chance that I actually told the truth, she was down there, both guns blazing. God help me, though, if it turned out that I fed her a line of bull. The woman knew how to get results. Justice was swift at our house—there were no ‘Wait until your father gets home!’ threats. She’d just grab me by the arm, right in front of my friends, and give me a couple of swats across the butt with her open hand, just as hard as she could possibly smack me. Of course, the humiliation of being swatted in front of my friends kept me from bawling, and her finger wagging in front of my nose as she read me the riot act got her point across in no uncertain terms—Wise up, idiot, or you’ll, by God, wish you had! The woman took no prisoners. She had a way of exerting her authority that left no ambiguities about her intentions. I think this was due to caffeine levels at least five times above those recommended as being safe. She drank at least three pots of coffee every day of her life. I don’t know what the price of coffee was in the ‘50’s, but I’m sure that if she’d bought stock in Folgers, her purchases alone would have made us multimillionaires. If she’d quit buying coffee, we’d have had Columbian lobbyists visiting our home, begging her to resume; the entire South American GNP would have teetered on the brink of ruin. I thought it was odd that we kept sand bags in the back room of our house, so I asked Dad about it. He took me aside and quietly explained that it wasn’t sand, it was coffee, and never to mention it to anyone. It was our darkest family secret—Mom had a coffee Jones. Our percolator was never shiny like the neighbors, due, no doubt, to exertion. In fact, we had a whole cupboard of coffeemakers, both electric and manual. We had aluminum, glass-top, porcelain… you name it—we had it.
Mom got together with the ladies in the neighborhood every day to drink coffee and gossip about whoever didn’t show up. My bedroom was in the basement and through our heating ducts I could hear anything said in the kitchen. It was my most closely guarded secret. Once, when I stayed home from school (due to either sickness or the fact that I had a test I wasn’t prepared for, I forget the exact reason) Mom forgot I was down there. Around 9:30 a.m., her friends started showing up and soon, the airwaves were filled with language that would have made a sailor blush. That particular tone of laughter, especially coming from those women, was unrecognizable. It was on that day that I learned that Mrs. Irthum wasn’t referring to her cat when she talked about ‘her pussy getting wet and quivering’. Of course, I parlayed my new found information into all sorts of urban legends permeated throughout the neighborhood for weeks and I was instantly the most popular kid on the block. My mother couldn’t figure out why I suddenly seemed to get sick one day a week each week, until one day she was cleaning my room and found my notepad with some rather strange annotations. That was when I got the visit from my father after dinner and he explained a few things about how babies were made and so forth. I listened politely… I didn’t have the heart to tell him that he was about a year too late. After that, my days home from school became practically non-existent and my room a lot cooler—due, no doubt, to the re-routing of that heating duct into the recreation room.
Mothers, in their attempts to enrich their sons’ lives, often resort to unconventional tactics. For example, my mother (your great grandmother) believed that the accordion was an instrument that people actually enjoyed. I never really inquired how she came to this conclusion (not that it would have mattered one iota), but one of her fondest dreams for my future included my coronation as the next Myron Floren.
What? You’ve never heard of Myron Floren, the Polka King? Mr. Floren was the accordion guru of the Fifties, having nailed down a position of prominence in the Lawrence Welk Orchestra. On Sunday evenings in homes across the country, kids were sitting down to watch Bonanza or Walt Disney Presents or even Ed Sullivan Theater.
In my house, the couch was filled with Mom and Dad flanking me, attempting to keep me upright, silent and paying full attention to the mellifluous renditions of The Beer Barrel Polka. After the first week or so, I wasn’t allowed to go to the bathroom except during commercials, given my history of not returning for twenty to thirty minutes. I still can’t understand why I always seemed to get a tummy ache or bowel attack during that show. I can remember holding my breath to see if I could pass out or get polio… anything that would require my presence somewhere else. As I daydreamed, I’d set up mental scenarios with me laying on my deathbed on Sunday night, my parents at my side. Through her tears, my mother would ask if there was anything she could do, and I’d look up at her in my most pitiful expression and ask if I could watch Leave It To Beaver one last time…
It was usually about that time that she’d smack me on the side of the head. How could I ever learn if I didn’t listen?
At some point in time, I remember being driven to the music store, where I was taken into a back room with the world’s fattest woman, Mrs. Beasley. I’m sure she didn’t have a first name. She didn’t need one. Her neon purple dress stood out because the satiny material was a different shade every time she moved, and it reminded me of the big curtain at the Fox Theatre. Plus, it made the twelve pounds of rouge on her cheeks look like Christmas ornaments sitting on top.
Immediately, I knew why Mrs. Beasley chose to become an accordion teacher. She could actually lift the damn thing! Have you ever picked one up? They’re huge! Once, when she was sick, I had a substitute teacher, a thin little man. When it came time for my lesson, he merely picked the accordion up with a hydraulic wench and sat it on my lap. Once I decided to try to lift it myself. The next day I woke up in a ward in Presbyterian Hospital, recovering from hernia surgery. (That reminds me, why do they call them ‘hernias’? Women don’t get them, so shouldn’t they be called ‘hisnias’?)
After four years and roughly a quarter of a million dollars invested in my stardom, I think my mother realized that Myron Floren was sleeping quite soundly knowing that I was a contender for his throne. One day, my accordion was miraculously transformed into a new pair of size six Ridell baseball cleats and a Wilson A-2000 ball glove, and the rest is history. I’m sure Mom would have liked to keep that accordion, just in case I changed my mind at some later date. Dad probably pointed out that the house simply couldn’t support that much weight in the attic.
Bad Stuff didn’t happen to me. I don’t know why, but it didn’t. I think my mother had me permanently removed from the Bad Stuff List when I was little. I’ve never really had it explained to me by a medical professional or other scientist, but I’m sure there is some hidden procedure for such things, and I’m even surer that my mother would have been aware of it. Every time I’d slice my leg open throwing knives with the neighbor kid or run into the cast iron clothesline post after dark while playing tag, she put a cold compress on my head until I woke up, and say, “Momma won’t let anything Bad happen to you”.
I don’t know what it cost her to get such coverage, but it couldn’t have been cheap. She always complained about me ‘eating her out of house and home’ or ‘having a hollow leg’ or ‘costing her an arm and leg for school clothes’, so I think Bad Stuff insurance would be expensive for a kid like me. I was high risk, for sure. We never waited in doctor’s offices. As soon as my mom walked in, either dragging or carrying me, we were immediately escorted back to the Secret Room, where Dr. Slagle kept anything Bad from happening. I think her insurance entitled her to such service, although it may have had something to do with the fact that I tended to drip blood on his carpet.
I was an active, inquisitive (if not intellectually gifted) child, I’m told. Any electrical wall socket was a source of wonder and amazement. Plug any machine into it and it would instantaneously begin to perform its designated function. Now, at some level, I suspected that there might be more to it, but it didn’t stop me from experimenting. As I said, I wasn’t intellectually gifted. When I was seven, my best friend, Dale Irthum, and I knew just about everything, but somehow electricity escaped us (probably because Dale was just six and not anywhere near as smart as me).
I needed to find out if that magic wall socket could make me sing like the lady on Romper Room, so I grabbed two plastic-handled screwdrivers and inserted the blades into the slots. Nothing happened, so I asked Dale to grab the metal blades and see if he could get them to go a little deeper into the sockets, and he was only too happy to comply. I think it was just about then that Dale’s eyes tried to bug completely out of his head, and his tongue started shooting slobber all over the place. His body started shaking and forced me to pull the screwdrivers out of the socket!
As I recall, my mother made a mad dash for Dr. Slagle’s office with Dale. I guess Bad Stuff insurance policies cover the neighbor kids, too. But, I never did get to find out if I could sing like Miss Cheryl.
I couldn’t get Dale to help me after that, either, because he became the cleanest kid on the block. According to his mother, he was taking a bath whenever I knocked on the front door. It wasn’t an all-bad situation, however. I may have had one less playmate, but I was the only kid in the neighborhood with his own restraining order.
In fairness, I should tell you that I did have the opportunity to experience the Cub Scouts and to a lesser extent, the Boy Scouts. Honestly, it didn’t hold my interest very well, because it involved a lot of memorization of oaths and other information I regarded as largely unnecessary. Sure, I knew that I needed to tell the truth, go to church, be kind to animals and treat everyone in a civil manner, but I didn’t need to stand around in front of a bunch of other kids in blue shirts and ridiculous blue-and-yellow kerchiefs and parrot some mumbo-jumbo back to my elders. It was bad enough that I had to stand up and say the Pledge of Allegiance every morning in school… I didn’t feel the need for any further reinforcement of citizenship. I stayed in Pack 100 for several years because I think it pleased Dad. He seemed to enjoy the camp-outs, it gave him the opportunity to sit up all night, drinking beer and playing poker with the other leaders.
Meanwhile, us kids were freezing our asses off, sleeping on the ground. The Rocky Mountains after dark can be cruel and unaccommodating. With a little practice, I could time my shivers to coincide with the beat of the music the troop leaders played inside the bunkhouse, that bastion of warmth and camaraderie reserved for the adults. No one ever explained to me why the leaders slept in bunks with mattresses inside a heated barracks while we slept on the ground with a rolled up blanket for a pillow. I didn’t have a sleeping bag—that was a luxury only the rich kids had—so I made do with old army blankets Dad had picked up at Army Surplus sometime after WW ll. It was probably meant as a reminder of how good we had it at home. It worked. Suffice to say, my time in Scouts was sufficient to pre-indoctrinate me to the rigors of military service, but somehow the leadership lessons failed to take hold. Maybe I just wasn’t cut out for the rigors of privation.
Personally, I've always thought spring was over-rated. Americans are very easily impressed. I could cite hundreds of examples to illustrate, but it would belabor the point. You can't turn on the Idiot Box without being besieged by promises of green grass, wonderful vacations, fewer insects, better cuts of meat, and SUV’s; those over-powered-10 miles to the gallon-hormone dedicated-nothing down-0% financed-cost more than your house-all terrain-death traps.
SUV’s didn’t exist when I was growing up, but they would have been the answer to my father’s dreams. In my mind, I can envision the meetings at General Motors (my father would drive nothing else). The design engineers would sit around discussion tables, salivating at the possibility of modifying the new model just a bit, to incorporate an extra bell or whistle that would impress Dad. My father was the poster boy for high-tech gimmickry. In 1954, he owned the only new Chevrolet station wagon in the neighborhood capable of shooting high-pressure jets of water onto the hubcaps while he drove around. Of course, the pump and reservoir of fluid were so large they left no room for windshield washers, but the inability to see the road was a small price to pay for having perpetually shiny hubcaps.
Thereby, since he drove the baddest wagon on the block, his primary mission in life became finding situations capable of testing all the design functions. This normally meant leaving the pavement behind. We lived in Colorado, so this was a no-brainer. My father's insistence that no terrain existed that his little marvel of modern engineering couldn't conquer (and because four-wheel drive was a luxury only found in Jeeps), I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to free our Chevy from holes large enough to swallow a Volkswagen, while in pursuit of The Perfect Fishing Hole.
My dad was not a person likely to be mistaken for a wilderness outfitter. He loved to go fishing, camping or preferably both, but somehow, the planning of such an outing escaped him. He really did enjoy taking me with him. I think it was his idea of male bonding. His concept of equipment for a camping trip was two blankets, a canteen of water (for me), a skillet, a couple of assorted rods and tackle boxes, 2 coolers of beer (one was for emergencies or the trip home, whichever came first), a carton of Camels, and a roll of toilet paper.
Once, I suggested that maybe we ought to buy a lantern, or maybe take along a little something to keep my stomach from roaring in my ears, but I was informed that we'd soon have plenty of fish to eat. Besides, my dad semi-patiently explained, there is nothing better than sitting around a campfire with only its light to protect us. After all, ghost stories aren’t any fun in the light.
Sounds idyllic, you say? Yea, well, tell that to an eight-year-old who is wandering around in the dark, looking for berries, wild onions (gag), grass, mushrooms or damn near anything remotely edible to shove down his throat to get his stomach to shut up! By first light, I would be starting to get a little sleepy, considering I’d been up most of the night trying to forget the sounds of bears fighting just out of sight. By this time, I was praying that I was in the Boy Scout Camp I hated so much.
It was out of the question, of course, but I also wished we'd brought along some insect repellant. I swear I was awakened by the sound of two mosquitoes arguing. They couldn’t agree whether to eat me here or take me back to the family. Evidently, they concluded it was best to remain here, figuring if they took me back, the big ones would get me.
At that point I didn’t much care. At 10,000 feet in elevation, the Colorado night is frigid, and it was impossible to sleep through the conversation my teeth were having. I unsuccessfully tried to keep warm in that same Army surplus World War II blanket I told you about some time back.
After the sun comes up in the Colorado Rockies (if it isn't raining or snowing), you can usually control your body's shaking long enough to bait a hook. I no longer cared about anything but food as I desperately tried to dispel my thoughts of patricide. Hell, I even thought of ways to kill him with food! Did you ever sit and think about how painful and agonizing it would be to be smothered by a baloney sandwich? Well, I did... and I was able to dispel the notion only temporarily when he asked me what I was grinning about.
"Oh, nothing…" was the reply, as I tried to look pitiful enough to convince him that we should hop in the Chevy and head for civilization and get something to eat. More often than not, he seemed to know when I was truly miserable and he would acquiesce to my desires-- but not without bemoaning my lack of fortitude during the entire 51 miles back to the trailhead. I could quote him chapter and verse after awhile, as each homily invariably began, "Bobby Ray, someday you'll thank me for this"...
I'm still trying to find time to do that. And I still can't eat baloney, it being a murder weapon and all…
The neighborhood where I grew up was a mixture of old and new. Most of the newer homes, like ours, were single story, 3-bedroom ranch-styles with unfinished basements, sitting on quarter-acre lots. A couple of blocks away, the homes were much older brick multi-story dwellings, and most were falling into various stages of disrepair. Many had long since been sub-divided into apartments.
Lowell J.C. Newman lived in just such a home with his mother and brother, Curt. The place was dingy and had a certain musty odor. It wasn’t unpleasant exactly, although I always associated it with the bodies inevitably buried either in the walls or the cellar. The place took on the outward appearance of a mausoleum and there wasn’t thirty inches of uncluttered space available anywhere inside.
Lowell was the ‘poor’ kid in the neighborhood. We know he was, because our fathers said so. Besides, his mother was divorced, so she was obviously a woman of questionable virtue. In those days, anyone who got a divorce was trash… period.
I could never understand why my father was always the one who’d come to look for me if I didn’t come home on time. If I were late for supper while playing ball, he’d be mad as hell when he finally found me. But, if he located me at Lowell’s place, he was always extremely cordial to Mrs. Newman (or Cindy, as he called her). Whenever he was around her, he liked to joke and smile a lot. I think he just felt sorry for her, since she didn’t have a husband. For some reason, Mom didn’t seem to be quite as crazy about her as Dad was, and she always asked me a lot of questions when we got home, about what Dad and Mrs. Newman talked about. I think she was concerned that Dad wouldn’t be nice enough, but she really had nothing to worry about, because once I overheard him offer her a trip around the world. I don’t think she took it, though. I looked on the map, but I couldn’t find Highway 69.
Lowell’s brother, Curt, was cool. He was three or four years older than us. Curt was almost old enough to drive, and he spent a lot of time in the bathroom. His hair was jet-black and he combed it straight back, but it was ‘poofed’ up, and one little curl hung down over his forehead. He said he was the next Sal Mineo. Only a few of his shirts had any sleeves in them, either. He lifted weights at all times he didn’t spend in the bathroom, so his arms probably wouldn’t fit, anyway. He’s the only guy I ever knew who smoked while he pumped iron. Also, he had a huge vein in his neck that stood out about two inches when he was straining doing curls or bench presses. I remember thinking that it looked like a night-crawler worm had entered his mouth while he was sleeping and taken up residence in his neck.
I had to stop going over to Lowell J.C.’s house after Dad found out they were Quakers. He said that Quakers were fanatics who were very closely tied in with the Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons, Holy Rollers and probably even the Baptists and Communists. Besides, he said, it was a known fact that Quaker women were all a bunch of liars who made up stories, just to get honest family men into trouble with their wives. And Dad would know, too, he was an expert on religion. He took us to church every Sunday. Usually he came back to pick us up, too, if he didn’t have another commitment.
No, it was painfully obvious that Lowell J.C. would never amount to a hill of beans. The poor kid just didn’t have what it took. I lost touch with Lowell J.C. not long afterwards. When it came time for college, and the rest of us were serving our country in Viet Nam, he had to settle for some little technical school back east. I think it was called the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Poor bastard will probably never get the chance to drive big rigs or work at the cement plant like the rest of us. I got a call from him years later. He’d been forced to sell everything and move to some God-forsaken South Seas island called Bali. Now that I think about it, he didn’t sound real unhappy…
As a kid, I had lots of hobbies, ranging from playing ball to fighting—or fighting while I played ball. Okay, so it was the same thing— I never claimed to be a Renaissance man. Most everything else was in support of one of those two activities. When it rained, I usually hung out in our local pool hall.
In those days, the pool hall was my mother’s worst nightmare. The mere mention of the AAA Billiards or Colfax Pool Hall was enough to provoke her to near-hysterical fits. If you were a mother, and your ten-year-old son was caught in a pool hall, the personal embarrassment would have been enough to force you to avoid coffee klatches for the next ten years. Good families just didn’t allow that sort of behavior. There were thieves, drug addicts, marijuana users, drunks and construction workers in there… even the occasional banker or (cringe) farmer! Come to think of it, most of the people I met there would fit into several of those categories. But, I loved them all, even the ones who totally ignored me.
So, there I was, down at the pool hall every chance I got. I learned to park my bike behind the dumpster, where my mother couldn’t see it if she happened to drive by, which she certainly would if I weren’t home in time for supper. I learned this behavior riding with her in the evenings, when she went looking for Dad at one of the local taverns. He always parked his truck in the rear of the establishment, apparently assuming that she wouldn’t bother to drive around back. He was wrong. She always found him. But, he forced her to come inside (which he knew she hated). Once there, she’d try to reason with him in a civil manner. Of course, her strategy never worked, because there were no threats attached. He’d deal another hand of poker or pitch, with the promise that he’d be home just as soon as the hand was over. That hand nearly always lasted until closing time.
It was worth the whipping I’d get if Mom caught me, though. Not only did I get the opportunity to hone my math skills by figuring out all those angles to bank or cut the balls into the pockets and sharpen my visual acuity and motor skills as I practiced my stroke and ‘english’, I also learned to spit through the hole in my front teeth and how to say “fuckin’-A” at the appropriate times. Roughly translated, it meant ‘yes’ or ‘you betcha’, but it was reserved for times when a milder rebuke or statement would not have stated one’s case strongly enough.
I racked balls for the first couple of years, since I was too young, inexperienced and small to really offer much of a challenge to many of the guys who frequented the place. Most seemed to either like or ignore me enough for me to become a fixture there. I worked for tips, and depending on the results of the games, sometimes I would walk out of there with a couple of dollars a day, even after buying my friends cokes, candy, cigarettes, etc. The owner, Tommy The Pollock (or just ‘Pollock’ to his close friends), wouldn’t sell us beer. He’d turn his back if one of the guys offered us a sip out of his glass, but if he caught someone buying it for us, he’d throw him out.
I think I was the only person in the place, other than Loren Reicher, who didn’t smoke. There was a lot of pressure put on me to light one up and be a man, but I didn’t buy into it, mainly because my father had indoctrinated me to smoking when I was six. I kept begging him to let me ‘be a man, too’. Never one to deny me an opportunity to demonstrate my manhood, Dad told me to take a deep drag off his unfiltered Camel, and hold the smoke in my lungs just as long as I could. I promptly obeyed and just as promptly assumed the color of our front yard. In fairness, I must admit that Dad did stay beside me for the hour that I spent worshipping the porcelain idol in our bathroom. I tried to hide my tears. That was the last cigarette that touched my lips in the fifty-plus years since; pleasure like that, I can do without.
Loren “The Geek” Reicher is, to this day, one of my heroes. He bought me chocolate bars that tasted like oranges, even when I didn’t earn them. He genuinely liked me, I think. Loren had a physical deformity of his spine, and most guys called him “Geek” or “Hunchback” or “Beluga”, a name I didn’t understand for many years. Of course, they never called him that to his face, because he would have destroyed them in any game they could have chosen, other than physical fighting. I never ever saw him lose. Loren was about 5’3” or so, and probably didn’t weigh more than 110 lbs., but he was one of the most intriguing men I ever met. He spoke Latin fluently and made his living as an engineer for the Martin-Marietta Company, a designer of several space shuttles and other aeronautical equipment. No one could match his intellect or his wheels. Loren was the proud owner of a brand-spanking-new, silver 1963 Corvette Sting-Ray, the ‘car among cars’ in those days. Only one person dared question Loren’s choice of motoring magnificence— Phil “Blinky” Talbot.
Blinky was Loren’s nemesis; just a cut below Loren in his pool-playing ability but quantum leaps under his intellect. Phil drove a new Honda Super Hawk motorcycle, and it was fast. One night, after several pitchers of ‘Adolph’s finest’ (Coors for the uninitiated), they couldn’t seem to agree which vehicle was superior. Obviously, the Corvette would win a long race, due to its horsepower and the Honda would win a very short race because of its modest weight/horsepower ratio. So, the two men decided that the quarter-mile drag strip outside of town was the perfect distance to prove their vehicle’s superiority. The wager was title for title. Therefore, since the Corvette was worth much more than the Honda, to make the bet equitable, Blinky also agreed that if he lost, he would drop down to his knees and prostrate himself in front of Loren every time he saw him, for a period of one year following the race.
Pollock held the titles and dropped the flag. Forty or fifty spectators watched and wagered as the two streaked down the asphalt, tires squealing and smoke rising. One thousand feet doesn’t sound like very much, and it really isn’t— little more than the length of three football fields. But, it was infinite for the bystanders who could only wait to hear the results, since it was impossible to see who won. I remember hearing guys change bets, based on early results indicating Blinky was off to a fast start. I even wanted to get into the action. Loren never lost… period.
Then, the two combatants drove up, side by side, and Blinky announced that he had, indeed, failed. Amidst the cheers and/or hoots and catcalls, stood one beaming young boy. The proper application of skill and science will usually persevere over bluster and sleight-of-hand. At least it will, when complemented by genius.
Loren, being the person he is, didn’t ask Blinky to give up his beloved bike. However, he did force Blinky to stay off it for thirty days, a fate he regarded as being worse than death. Loren told him that if he caught him riding it, he would never give him his title back. Plus, I think he rather enjoyed the groveling. Fuckin’-A!
Oh, and the pool playing didn’t hurt me too much, either. In 1963, I won a tournament at AAA Billiards in Aurora, Colorado, for the right to play in an exhibition match against Willie Mosconi, the undisputed World’s Champion of pocket billiards. The man was a legend! Sure, it’s true that I only got to the table one time against him before he ran 150 balls in a row and won the match, but for a sixteen-year-old kid, it was a good as hitting the lottery. He was a wonderful man as well as a great player and he provided great inspiration for me.
I guess I was about eleven when I first found out what girls were all about, or thought I knew what they were all about. Up until that time, I’d treated them like soft boys who had brains. I knew they didn’t enjoy playing kickball or football, but I always attributed that to their softness. They spent all their time reading, passing notes, giggling… Hell’s bells, they even studied, for Christ’s sake! Why would any boy who had the least bit of self-esteem want to be involved with them? Then, one beautiful, remarkable, never-to-be-forgotten day, Cheri Duval showed up for school with bumps on her chest. For the next seven years, I salivated whenever she came near. I was worse than Pavlov’s dog; I didn’t need to be trained to ring the bell. She’d walk up and say something and my eyes automatically fixed upon her chest, I couldn’t help myself. Speech, for me, became a forgotten skill whenever she was in the same room as me.
I was smitten. Of course, I wasn’t sure what to do about it. I’d heard about other boys who asked girls to go to the movies, but, for the life of me, I couldn’t understand how anyone would want to go to the movies with a girl, especially Cheri. Once my eyes became accustomed to the darkness, I’d take one glance at the outline of her sweater and never again would I pay any attention to the screen. I’d already had my talk about ‘the birds and bees’ from Mom (Dad didn’t get around to it until a couple of years later), so I understood that it ‘wasn’t nice’ to try to touch those beautiful little orbs. I wasn’t exactly sure why, except that if I touched them too much, she’d have a baby and we’d both go to Hell.
That’s pretty much how it went until five years later when we were sixteen and I found myself in the back seat of Dad’s Mercury Marauder, playing tonsil hockey with Laurel McNall. It turns out that she had chest orbs, too, and after about three unsuccessful tries, she finally got me to touch them. That night, I started down the road to perdition and haven’t once looked back. Cheri ended up marrying a guy named Dale who worked at King Soopers and had his own car. Last I heard, they had four boys of their own. I have no idea what happened to Laurel McNall, but I owe her a debt for which I can never repay for turning me into a legman.