By the time I reached the age of twelve, I had already owned a three wheeled scooter with a truck box mounted on the front. I could identify virtually every American made automobile and could distinguish between most models.
I learned to drive sneaking my mothers old Chevrolet convertible out of the driveway after she was sound asleep. My first experience with a clutch resulted in running into a concrete storage shed at the end of our driveway. The lights came on next door and the airline pilot occupant threatened to call the police if I didn’t stop the infernal racket. I carefully skipped the old car backward until I was far enough away from the building not to alert my mother in the morning. The older brother of a friend soon taught me how to operate a gear shift and clutch.
Long before I was eligible for a learners permit, I raced the old scooter around the small Miami bedroom community of Miami Springs delivering papers and transporting my mongrel Sheppard / Chow mix with his ears pinned back in the wind. Occasionally I would chance upon a local motorcycle cop and ease up next to him so we could cruise together two abreast until we reached the traffic circle a the center of town. I would grin, knowing in my heart, we were the only two capable people in the known world and I was totally disdainful of my contemporaries who either were still riding bicycles or walking because a bike just wasn’t “cool”. The motorcycle cop learned my first name and I soon began calling him John when I found him directing traffic in front of the junior high school.
It wasn’t long before a friend and I, also being raised by and unsuspecting single parent, would sneak my mothers’ new Chevrolet station wagon out of the driveway and cruise the neighborhood. On other late nights my similarly derelict friend and I would stealthily creep on to the back lot of a local car dealer where the trade-ins were stored. We found the cars were kept unlocked and for convenience the keys were kept under the front seat. We would careen around the unlighted lot in everything from a sporty convertible to VW Micro bus. That activity came to sudden halt when my friend decided one night to take a Ford convertible home and use it the next day to pick up a couple of female classmates after school. He was caught along with the feckless girls and they all wound up spending a night in the local home for the wayward. I lucked out and was off with one of my other friends attempting to sneak into one of the many pool parties conducted by the bikini clad airline stewardesses who lived in the apartments in my neighborhood. Needless to say, the car dealer no longer kept ignition keys in the cars and soon after, installed a security light to illuminate the back lot.
Within a few years, I moved to small Colorado town north of Denver. I lost track of my fellow criminal. I think he went on to become a great lawyer since he was prepared for a life of crime.
The town was sparsely populated and primarily rural. There was no means of public transportation and most of the farm kids learned to drive at an early age. I worked night s and Saturdays after school at an automobile repair shop that adjoined a Chevrolet car dealer. It had a one car showroom and a separate back lot for trade-ins. Walking home late one afternoon, I spied a forlorn ’48 Plymouth convertible parked at the back of the lot. It was a little long in the tooth. Its passenger side fender was dented so that the metal rubbed the tire and the top was ripped in several places and a little worse for wear. It sure would beat walking, I thought, so I asked the salesman if it was for sale and at what price. He told me, “Two hundred and forty-five dollars.” Negotiations began and it was not long before we settled on sixty-five dollars, which just happened to be the total of my savings. The salesman either felt sorry for me or just wanted the jalopy off the lot. I was able to convince and irresponsible aunt who lived in Denver, to sign for me and I was soon off with neither a driver’s license nor insurance. I was fifteen. I drove the car for several years until on my seventeenth, I drove it to the police station to take my drivers test. I had no idea what I was going to do if I failed the test. The law allowed for a license at seventeen without an adults signature.
I drove away from the station as a newly licensed driver.
We hadn’t been married that long and the baby came. We barely knew one another but somehow we both understood this was for real and no matter what, we were not going to give up easily. When the old priest who was to conduct our ceremony asked me if I understood marriage was a Sacrament and wanted my assurance we would be married, “Until death do us part”, I responded by asking him if he knew exactly how his life would turn out fifty or sixty years from now. “I’m only twenty-two years old, Father, and I want to marry this woman. The church says in order to receive its blessing, I have to be here, so if that is what it will take for you to sanction this marriage, I will tell you what you want to hear…I will love and cherish her until my dying day. Now if you want the truth, and I hope you do, I have no idea but I am going to do my damnedest,” or something to that effect. His brow furrowed, he removed his glasses, rubbed his eyes and laid the glasses on the desk in front of him, hesitating a moment or two. I could hear the clock ticking in the background and I think he may have turned to look out the window to hide the big smile that crossed his face. Once he turned back to us he said, “Son, go with God”, while scribbling his name on a church form that sanctioned our marriage and included my commitment to agree to raise our children in the faith. When I passed him in the doorway, he whispered, “That was a first.”
I can’t imagine what she may have thought when she looked out the window of our mountain cabin that morning and watched the front seat of our ragged old Volkswagen create a perfect arc through the air and land twenty feet away on its back in the middle of the narrow dirt road. Even today, I don’t have any idea where I got the strength to rip the seat from its narrow tracks and hurl it down the dusty road. Soon after the wedding, I traded our, it was “ours” after all, now that we were married, racy little Austin Healy for a Studebaker Lark with a rusted through rear floor and deleted heater at manufacture. It had just been painted by one of those shops that advertise on television some ridiculously low price and perform equally low quality work. The little car had very little ornament so there was not much to paint over but somehow the paint shop had managed to cover what little there was.
We left Miami and took the blue roads to Colorado with a brief stop in Western New York State in order to visit the in-laws I had yet to meet. It was quite an adventure. While neither of us was new to uprooting, it was the first time for my new wife to experience extended automobile travel through the South and across the Great Plains. We followed two drunken Appalachian hillbillies early one morning across a beautiful valley. We harbored in some clean but down on their luck rooms in motor courts probably constructed in the thirties. After we crossed the Nebraska state line and about half way to Denver and our destination in Northern Colorado, she insisted there were no mountains and I had been lying to her. “From the looks of things,” she said, “we would soon be living on the lunar surface” Almost before she finished her sentence, the snow cap on Long’s Peak appeared on the horizon and then the dappled green mountains popped into view as if playing their own game of hide and seek.
The first few months in our cabin, adjacent to the Big Thompson River, were hectic but everything was new and exciting. The river roared past our bedroom window following a rain and whispered quietly on those cool dry nights when the daytime temperature reached into the high eighties. I drove the little Studebaker the twenty-five miles each way to campus and back daily, arriving home just in time to watch an episode of McHale’s Navy on the old 1950’s television with its one channel and rabbit ears that caused the black and white picture to roll and sway like a small boat on a big sea, so appropriate for the show. We watched the leaves change and the once green mountains became a beautiful tapestry of color, that at times took our breath away. After several months, and once the snows came, I discovered driving the Studebaker down the mountain canyon was an experience I would not want to share with anyone. A former Air Force friend had owned a Volkswagen that we had driven all over Colorado and Wyoming while I was stationed in Cheyenne and I remembered it was advertised as the car the snow plow operator drove to the snow plow.
I found a 1959 Beetle in a campus trailer park one afternoon advertised for three hundred dollars. It was hard looking by any standard, access was only granted by reaching through the wing window and opening the door from the inside and the hood was wired shut. After speaking with the graduate assistant owner, I learned it had given him good service. He was only selling it, he said, because he had finished his degree and was moving on with his family and needed a station wagon. He also had a thirty foot Airstream for rent but that’s another story. I bought the car and believe it or not soon sold the Studebaker to a single man in town for what I had paid for it. Years later, I would see it parked around town and not looking any worse for wear. I had to eat the cost of the heater I had installed that I scavenged from a forty Ford at the local junkyard but considering the thousands of miles the little car traveled, I was pleased with my results and I am certain the new buyer appreciated it.
The university was on the quarter system. I would arrive early every morning and study in the student union until class time after which I would return to a big soft chair facing a mountain view and continue my class reading assignments until four o”clock and then begin my trek home. I treated it like a job. Unfortunately, I was over my head. I had done poorly in high school and while I had taken basic classes at night school while in the Air Force and attended Miami Dade Junior College briefly, I was not prepared for upper level courses. One youthful professor asked me to write a paper on “dissent” and I had not idea what the word meant no less could I take and intelligent position. At that time in history, because of the Vietnam War, it was all around me and I couldn’t define it.
One of the absolute worst classes was Economics 102. It was taught by a disinterested graduate assistant in a stuffy room accommodating so many that I could hardly breathe and taken from a book by some erudite professor named Samuleson, or some such spelling, whose name I cannot bear to hear today. Individual attention was out of the question and there was no money for a tutor. By the end of the second quarter, I was ready to quit and join the foreign legion. If I could just get through this quarter, I thought, we were going to California for spring break to mooch off my best man who was attending theatrical college in Pasadena.
The last class of the semester ended Friday afternoon and we were on the road early the next morning. The map revealed that Pasadena was a straight shot down Highway 25, over Raton Pass, through Las Vegas, New Mexico with a right turn on Highway 40, across the Painted Desert, through the Petrified Forest and into Southern California. Nothing to it, I thought. We loaded the Volkswagen with our two year old dog, baby food, cloth diapers and a few changes of clothes for ourselves. Once the dog was firmly dug in, in the well behind the rear seat, the baby was cushioned in an old plastic tub in the back seat and our clothing piled next to her to the top of the front seat, we set out.
We were over Raton Pass before we knew it. The weather was mild and the little car just purred along. The heater wasn’t necessary, again another story, because except for the time we crossed the pass the weather was warm and the roads were clear for miles ahead. Just about dark we stopped and ate a few pieces of cold fried chicken and washed it down with a cold drink. I decided to check the map. I knew Highway 25 would eventually intercept Highway 40 and I thought we might be nearing the intersection. I was surprised to find Highway 40 was still miles away and we would need to head north for a while, pass through Santa Fe and then south again to Albuquerque before we had a straight shot to Pasadena. That will never do, I thought, there has got to be a better route. Surprisingly we had stopped to eat and study the map at a wide spot in the road just before a road sign pointing south on which was painted Villanueva, Highway 3. I am sure the mileage was prominently displayed but whatever the number, it didn’t seem to concern me. My pretty wife had her reservations but I was convinced this short cut would save us both miles and time. I wanted to get to Pasadena as soon as the law would allow, lie back on my friends couch, drink a cold beer, enjoy the California sun and forget completely about the last quarter at Colorado State University. I had no idea whether or not I passed Economics 102 and I really didn’t care. After all, I told myself, it is a straight shot to Highway 40 and there is no way we can miss. I was certain the locals had built this road to avoid all of the tourist traffic streaming down Interstate 25 and probably laughed with the knowledge they could cut miles off their trip to Albuquerque. The road appeared on the map like anyone of those many blue roads we took crossing the country from Florida to Colorado, so I muttered to myself, how can we go wrong?
I turned off of Interstate 25 and on to Highway 3 trying to ignore the skepticism on my wife’s face and accelerated. Night began to fall. Within about thirty minutes and twenty five miles, the sky settled behind a mountain ridge before us and I turned on the headlights. Soon after, I spied a road sign on my right that announced…”PAVEMENT ENDS”. While most people would have given the sign a little more thought and may have taken a moment to look at the map again, I wasn’t concerned. Many mountain roads were unpaved. We continued down the road a few miles and passed a small settlement of mobile homes, hog pens, horse corrals, dilapidated barns and abandoned vehicles, yet I still was not concerned. The road began to narrow and the shoulder on one side was primarily rock while the shoulder on the driver’s side dropped off precipitously. Once I turned on my high beams it became clear there was no turning around. The road continued to narrow and with its swale in the center, it was more a rutted wagon track than a road. My option was to back down the road in the dark with a steep drop off on the driver’s side guided by taillights so dim as to be unrecognizable at a distance and no back up lights. I didn’t dare ask my wife to get out of the car in the cold and guide me several miles. Proceeding, the little car would center as the crest of the road rose and fell and the narrow grooves on both sides deepened. Rocks would scrape the floor pan and the bangs and bumps on the undercarriage grew louder and louder. I didn’t dare stop the car because I didn’t think I could get enough traction to keep the little car moving forward. Suddenly there were headlights in our rear view mirror. We crept along at less than five miles per hour and the lights moved closer. They followed us for several miles. My heart started to race. Who else could be on this road at this time of night? I envisaged highwaymen at the very least and rapists or murderers at the very worst. The few times I glanced at the face of my wife in the dim light of the instrument panel, I didn’t like what I saw. Hers was not a happy face. Just about the time I didn’t think the road could become any worse, we rounded a curve and began a steep descent down a thirty percent grade. The road began to widen slightly and the scraping sounds diminished. Around another curve and I could see the headlights of cars traveling down a highway a few miles in the distance at least one thousand feet below us. The road flattened and the lights behind us disappeared as the cars in the distance grew larger.
When we finally reached Highway 40, I stopped briefly to catch my breath and breathed a sigh of relief. Whew! Several hours had passed since we left the interstate. I was perspiring on a cold night in a dry climate. I didn’t dare break the silence in the car, yet I knew we both were relieved. I wasn’t until we finally pulled on to Highway 40 that I muttered, “That was interesting,” and I got a “Uh huh” response. We drove on in silence for several miles. I had no idea what damage had been done to our little car but I didn’t take a moment to look. We traveled on to California and arrived in Pasadena at sunup after driving nonstop except for an occasional fuel stop and a moment to change drivers. We had a wonderful week with our friends and visited as many attractions as possible with our very limited resources.
Once we got home, I felt refreshed enough to get back to the books and no longer feeling a need to join the foreign legion. I graduated a year or so later with a less than stellar GPA but with the knowledge I could do just about anything if I put my mind to it and would just put one foot in front of the other, make no excuses and never give up. The real lesson learned from this adventure was there are NO SHORT CUTS in life and when given a choice between two alternatives, I always try to choose the proven route.
When the front door of the basement level bowling alley opened and closed, which it seemed to do with regularity that night, it made a whooshing sound and affected the pressure in my ears. The nineteenth century building was extremely well insulated and had a low ceiling brightly lighted by florescent bulbs that flickered occasionally and buzzed when all of the sounds of occupancy died. The small four lane hall was accessed by descending a series of slippery metal stairs and entering beneath street grade. The plate glass store front was so black with grime that it obscured the occupants and muffled the noise from within. At night, the bright light from inside could barely be seen at street level. If a person wasn’t looking and didn’t know the small bowling alley existed, he could easily pass by it unnoticed. There was a counter next to the door where the manager stood greeting customers. A series of sconces behind him contained a few dozen shabby bowling shoes of all sizes.
The first foursome to take lane number one that night included a pretty young woman who failed to release the ball early and followed it about half way down the alley before dropping it into the gutter and landing unceremoniously on her cute little rear end with her pleated skirt billowing above her waist. The pinkness of her panties matched the color of her face as her teammates snickered and she reached one hand behind to pick herself up. A pimply faced boy about her age straddled the gutters of two lanes and extended his hand trying not to laugh. I could hear the sound of new customers stomping the snow off their feet between the clamor of bowling balls striking pins, laughter and the beat of rock and roll on the radio behind the owners station. The dingy pit where the pin boys labored, only me that night, smelled of stale bodies, lubricating oil and was not well lighted. A soiled solitary rope dangled from the mechanical pin setter in each bay that was often pulled on the fly as I scrambled over the four foot center wall to reset a game on lane four. Why didn’t the owner assign adjacent lanes on short handed nights like this, I asked myself. There were four lanes normally attended by two pin boys. I only filled in when the regulars were otherwise engaged and normally would stop by after working at the garage on my way to the pool hall for supper. The pool hall was two doors down. It wasn’t difficult work on week nights when there were two pin boys, but on weekends it was at times frantic. The object was to gather the several downed pins and replace them in the semi automatic pin setter as quickly as possible. The pay was not great, ten cents a line, but the place was warm and well lighted and the laughter was contagious. I would often earn a few dollars on weekends and occasionally receive a tip from some benighted adult.
I didn’t look forward to going home to the little shack by the dump on nights like this. The outside temperature had dropped to well below zero and had remained in that vicinity for several days. My water supply, which was contained in a milk jug, had frozen solid. Heat in the little house was provided by an ancient gas propane cook stove and a vented cast iron relic of a previous century. I had never quite mastered the art of banking a fire. I was out of wood and had taken down the majority of the small closet I used in the bedroom to warm the place a few days before. It was mid February and perhaps the coldest night I had ever experienced in my life. I slept in my jeans and pea coat on the old army cot piled high with woolen blankets that could have been survivors of the first world war. I had a small dog for a few weeks but he soon learned the pickings were slim in my house and moved on. Snow had been several feet deep for days and the streets were piled high at their gutters in dirty mounds. In places, they resembled revetments and bunkers from a hard fought battle and were marked with yellow urine stains from stray dogs, frozen expectorant and tobacco juice hurled by passersby during the day. Several of the mounds along the street concealed abandoned cars. They were completely covered with snow and frozen ice. I wondered how their owners would ever find them again. It had been too cold to snow and nothing had melted all week. The streets were frozen and slick requiring the occasional automobile or truck that plied the roadways to be equipped with tire chains that struck the fender wells nosily and rattled in the cold night air. The cold that night would only be surpassed by the many nights I spent guarding a missile site in Nebraska in the middle of a windswept cornfield a few years later, but in those instances, once my shift ended, I could huddle inside a warm Air Force supplied pick up camper in a fur lined parka reading my favorite book.
A classmate joined me in the pit after he bowled a few lines with friends. I recognized him from passing in the hallways at school but did not know him by name. He extended his hand and said he thought I could use some help. We had met briefly between sets and once he learned I was setting all four lanes by myself, he offered to join me. I had worked with Chile and Spot at the garage all day and only reluctantly inquired about work that night. The sense of relief that crossed the owners face when I came in could have lighted the room. I had no idea the next few hours would be likened to the proverbially one legged man in a butt kicking contest. Although there would be occasional breaks, all four lanes had been occupied since the doors opened and I was exhausted. Setting the four lanes was difficult enough but having to hurl the four foot wall dividing them had taken almost all my energy. We worked together well and during a brief lull around eleven p.m. my new friend asked if I planned to spend the night in the shack. I had no idea he knew I lived alone. I didn’t keep it a secret but I was often so busy working after school and Saturdays and spending time with Wild Bill at the dump that I hadn’t gotten to know many people. When I said I did, he responded with a question, “How would you like to spend the night at my house? I live on the north side of town near the old cemetery. My father is a minister and I am certain he would love to have you. Since it is Saturday night,” he said, “I doubt he will even be awake when we get to my house so we could sleep in the basement. My mother is a great cook and she always attends the late service so we can have breakfast before you go home.” I accepted.
The lanes closed at midnight but there were still a few stragglers finishing up so we weren’t able to leave until around twelve thirty. There was no traffic on the streets. We walked all the way to the boy’s house down the middle of Cleveland Avenue where the snow was soft and not iced over and slick. About halfway to his house, we walked in the island divider separating the street. It was bitter cold and the mucus in my nose froze. My glove less hands were stiff and my finger tips tingled and my feet ached with every step as we walked to his house. My ears felt as if they might crack and fall to the ground any minute. In the several miles or so it took to reach his house we talked about the cold, school, and the subjects we liked and those we didn’t and the teachers we liked and those we didn’t and he asked me how I happened to be living alone. I explained how I had come to Colorado and why and how I had lived with relatives much of my life. I didn’t like Miami that well, although I missed the warmth that night and while I cared deeply for what family I had, I was happier here. I didn’t feel as if I was alone and enjoyed my little house except perhaps on days like this. The subject of girls never came up but it would not have mattered because I didn’t know any.
When we reached the sidewalk to the boy’s house, the porch light was on and a faint light was coming from the front room. The boy’s father came to the door in a house coat and invited me into the foyer once my new friend explained who I was and why he was so late. The house was warm and smelled faintly of black cherry pipe tobacco. I heard what I assumed to be the test pattern on a television in the background and could tell from the man’s hooded eyes, he had probably been sleeping when we arrived. A book was open on the floor adjacent to a recliner facing the door and a reading light was lit. My new friend’s father admonished him for not calling with his whereabouts and remarked how worried his mother had been. “That was just very selfish,” he said. After my friends apology and some further discussion about pin setting and the cold walk home, he advised his father he had invited me to sleep over and told him I was the classmate he had mentioned who lived in the shack on First Street down by the dump. The warmth of the house began settling over me as I removed my old Navy pea coat and handed it to the boy’s father. He laid it on the sofa in the living room and returned to ask me if I would mind waiting in the basement a few minutes while he spoke with his son. By this time my hands had thawed and the pain in my back from the extreme cold had lessened. I discovered I could actually straighten up, and although my shoes were still frozen, I could wiggle my toes as my feet began to thaw.
I descended the dark stairway and located a light switch at the bottom step. The soft light of a table lamp revealed a very inviting room with a couch and a couple of comfortable chairs, a pool table with a red felt cover as well as a table piled high with parlor games. The pool balls were ensconced in the rack on the table top and cues were placed on its sides as if waiting for new play to begin. There were several family photographs on the walls, an attractive elliptical rug on the floor and a large crucifix lighted above the couch. I could not hear the substance of the conversation upstairs but I could discern a distinct rise in its hum as its tones became more animated. No one was shouting but it was clear that the two were not entirely in agreement about something. The conversation lasted for several minutes before I heard footfalls on the wooden stairs leading into the basement. The boy entered the room but he was not smiling. He brushed back his blond hair with the fingers of both hands revealing two red tinged ears that were a sign he was either still cold or embarrassed. I soon learned it wasn’t the cold that caused his ears to redden. He averted his eyes and said, “My dad agreed you would be welcome to stay the night with us, but if you do, he asked that you agree to join Mother and I for church in the morning.”
I hesitated briefly contemplating the long walk home before looking around the warm comfortable room one last time and said, “Would you get my coat?” I don’t remember the boy’s name.
There are things that occur and events that pass in everyone’s life which are so memorable, that no matter how much time passes, they are etched indelibly in our psyche. Having lived so long, I have discovered much of my behavior has been influenced by voices I heard years ago. I can often put a face to the sound and realize some of the people who I thought were long gone are still with me in spirit. They are often standing beside me and occasionally carrying me during those times my legs fail me. I have no doubt the many voices are divinely inspired but it is not the face of a Deity I see but that of ordinary human beings with failures and foibles, learned from their own mistakes. Sadly there are some who do not hear those voices or choose to ignore them.There are things that occur that make one proud and thankful that the people in their life who influenced their behavior were there. Yet in the final analysis it is up to each and every one of us to make good choices and to blame only ourselves when we err or misbehave. There are no excuses and blame is often only a futile attempt to explain away bad behavior or salve ones conscience. I certainly am proud of the stock whereof I came. Were my antecedents perfect, no. Did they make mistakes, yes, we all do but when it came to morality and ethics there could have been no more solid ground. There are things that cause one not to doubt in a doubting world and to be thankful for a strong sense of right and wrong. I don’t think morality has changed much over the years and if everyone would follow the biblical admonition to “Do unto others…” ours would be a better world.
A friend and I found a wallet in the street recently. After a succession of calls, I finally located the owner who claimed it and was very appreciative. It was not the first wallet I had found.
The first wallet I found was lying on the sidewalk a short distance from my home one spring morning along my route to elementary school. I couldn’t have been more than nine. No one could say my mother and I were surfeit with money. We didn’t miss very many meals and we had a more than adequate roof over our heads, but there was very little excess. I was saving for a new three speed English racer I coveted in the Western Auto store window and my mother was doing her best to pay the mortgage and put food on our table.
The wallet contained over three hundred dollars and some change. Three hundred dollars, I thought. It contained more money than I had ever seen in my life. I knew it was more than my mother had earned that month as a secretary in a real estate office. I looked around hoping not to see anyone who may have witnessed me pick it up and put it in my pocket. When I got to school, I hid it inside of my school desk under my arithmetic book when no one was looking and would sneak a peek when on one was looking. I have no idea what Mrs. Sullivan may have said that day. All I could think about was the wallet and the money it contained.
The hobby shop around the corner on Westward Drive, was a small boy’s paradise. I had only been inside the store several times and I had never had enough money to purchase anything other than a roll of caps for my six shooter, yet I still remember the proprietor. He was stooped at the waist with some kind of spinal disease that may have had a hand in his irritability. I don’t think he ever met a kid he liked. However, that day I couldn’t wait until three o’clock for school to be out so I could visit his store.
As soon as the bell rang, I met my dog Rowser, who slept under the portable classroom, and we headed to the hobby store. He waited outside, which was his usual behavior. I went inside to covet the balsa wood airplane kits and every toy and trinket I could see at eye level. I examined several aircraft kits before selecting a J-3 Piper Cub and set it aside while I looked around for something else to buy. After selecting a new cap gun and holster, a daisy air rifle and a few other things, I gathered everything up and started toward the front of the store. I was the only person in the store at the time other than the owner and about halfway to the cash register, I heard my mother say, “Where did you get those toys, son? Where did you get the money?” I knew I couldn’t hide them because she had “eyes in the back of her head” and if she didn’t see them a “little bird” would tell her. I put everything back and shoved the wallet deep in my jeans pocket.
I met Rowser at the door and began the mile long walk home. Along the way I took the wallet from my pocket and examined its contents. It didn’t take long to find a driver’s license and an employee identification card with the mane and address of the owner. It was a woman who it turned out lived two doors down from me in a small apartment building. When I reached the address, I knocked on the door and a young woman answered. I didn’t know what to say so I stuck the wallet under her nose open handedly and uttered, “I found this.” She looked at me for a moment without saying anything and then she burst into tears. She took the wallet from me and picked me up and hugged me so hard that she took my breath away. She said, “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” between sobs and hugged me again. She said she was an airline stewardess and had come in tired from a flight that morning in someone else’s car. She didn’t realize her wallet was missing until she decided to go to the drug store across from her apartment mid afternoon. She had been frantically looking for it ever since. She wiped her tears and hugged me again.
As I walked the two doors to my house, I felt as if I were walking on air. Those toys I selected would have been long forgotten, but I have never forgotten the gratitude on that woman’s face. She told me as I was standing in the doorway, the content of that wallet was all the money she had to buy food and pay her rent.
The court had made it’s decision. It found in favor of the union. The Railroad Worker’s Union had sued the Erie Lackawanna Railroad and its irascible yardmaster when he refused to let its members any longer shelter in the yard cabooses during inclement winter weather. The union said it was unfair and that its members were entitled to take their breaks out of the weather and in the warmth of the old cars. Each had a potbellied stove and a toilet and provided some comfort and protection against the wind and heavy snow flowing off of Lake Erie. The winters in the Buffalo, New York area and throughout the Eastern District that the tough old yardmaster supervised were some of the most severe in the northeast.
He had begun his career at seventeen, shoveling cow manure out of cattle transport cars by hand and had worked for the railroad for forty years by the time the trial occurred. He was known by labor and the unions as fair but when crossed, he could be one of the toughest of the tough. Although he had risen in rank from the very bottom and after thirty years became one of the rare rank and file to sew on his stripes, he was not terribly sympathetic to malingering union members. He had worked hard six days a week on every conceivable shift in all types of weather imaginable to reach management and he was not going to let a few pathetic wastrels destroy his company or what he had aspired a life time to achieve. Although he had been a union member for thirty years, he believed that unions were the scourge of American industry and had watched throughout his career as new rules and prohibitions were causing the slow death of his beloved railroad. Between the strikes, slowdowns, insane work rules and the thousand little cuts brought about by a menacing union hierarchy, his company was in bankruptcy. The industry was being strangled in its own juices.
The truth of the matter was that cabooses were never to be used in the yard. They were a tool of a moving train that housed work crews and sheltered those who traveled throughout the rail system. However there were always a few in the yard either under maintenance or just waiting to be attached to the next train out and although they had never been used for the purpose that created the law suit, the yardmaster had voluntarily offered them a few years before for occasional work breaks. His caveat to those who were to use them was they should keep them clean and ready for their real purpose…his request was ignored. Once the legal ruling came down, and while the union was celebrating its victory, he quietly moved the cabooses a few miles down the tracks to Pennsylvania where New York’s work rules didn’t apply.
He was over six feet tall, wore his thinning hair in a buzz cut, smoked a meerschaum pipe and complemented his white shirts with colorful bow ties. He kept his Oxford shoes at a high shine. His suits were of quality though not expensive and he wore one every day, rain or shine. He filled them out much like a former linebacker hosting an NBC sports channel. He had a deep voice and more penetrating blue eyes than Cool Hand Luke. He was a hard drinker but he never let it affect his work. He rarely made apologies and to my knowledge never deliberately missed a day of work. He wasn’t profane yet he understood the tongue of the yard. He would never swear or use gutter language in front of women or children. He was born a Lutheran but followed the love of his life into the Catholic Church and rarely missed mass. He was stubborn to a fault and would argue with a tree. He would intimidate any opponent if he could. He didn’t like to lose. He had never darkened the door of a college or university and I never knew if he finished high school. He grew up tough and one of his greatest regrets was he had missed the Second World War because he had been employed in an industry critical to the war effort.
Our first meeting was awkward but that was to be expected. When we met for the first time, we had one person in common that may have been the second most important person in his life other than his wife of forty years, his son and perhaps his God.
Elizabeth, Betty to her many friends, was the love of his life and may have been the only woman he had ever dated. They met when she was fifteen and he was sixteen and had married very young. They lived for years above his parents while he worked his way up the railroad hierarchy and had two children of which he was very proud. He just didn’t always know how to verbalize it. He and his wife never owned their own home until after he retired. Although they shared a lot of interests after their children were raised, his life was devoted to her. A good cigar and an expensive car were his only two interests other than Betty. They rarely argued but when they did, it could be lively. I’m told that once when Betty packed her bag, he took it from her and dumped the contents on the living room floor. “If she was going anywhere, he was going with her,” he said. One of their common interests was collecting porcelain bird figurines. With the exception of a parakeet, they never had a pet, so the figurines may have served as a surrogate and there were several to be found around the house.
I am not sure he always liked me and at times we would butt heads. There were both good times and bad for us but in the final analysis, we always respected one another. The day before he died, he acknowledged that he had not always treated me fairly and offered a faint apology. We were just from different generations brought together by one common interest.
A few years before he died, Betty became an Alzheimer patient and steadily declined until his care for her affected his own health requiring her to be placed in a nursing home. He bathed her and cared for her every day and throughout the night for several years often waking up every two hours to sooth her and turn her in her hospital bed in the living room. He trusted no one for her care. He visited her every day at the nursing home for several more years and said he could always tell from her eyes that she recognized him. He was devastated by her death and hoped to join her as soon as the Lord would allow.
He came to live with us briefly until it was necessary to find an assisted living facility close by to accommodate him. His irascibility soon got him evicted from the neighboring facility and we found another place in a small town close by.
As death approached, my wife and I joined him in a small hospital room in Commerce, Georgia. I waited outside of his room until I was told that the end was near and joined her in his room. We sat quietly for a few minutes as his breathing became more labored and then he rose up from the waist with his right hand extended out with his palm upward. His piercing blue eyes sparkled and a near beatific smile crossed his face. He then lay back in the bed and took his last breath. At the moment of his death, I looked out of the hospital room window beside his bed and watched as two beautiful turtle doves that had been standing vigil on a telephone line, flew away together into the darkening night sky.
His name was Gordon Walter Sear, and he was my father-in-law.
It was an unusually cool evening for South Florida, even for late December. A gentle moist breeze was stirring off Biscayne Bay with the pervasive smell of fresh smoked fish and the familiar sounds of boatmen and merchants readying the fishing fleet for the next day. The huge silver moon, made famous by Miami, illuminated the night sky. The slight aroma of citrus and damp earth commingled with exhaust fumes from the many automobiles idling at the traffic light on the corner of First Street and Second Avenue heightened her senses. The night chill raised goose bumps on the back of Patsy’s neck as she searched the length of the street both ways for her last customer of the day. The speakers broadcasting the day’s news just above the front door of the shop had drawn the attention of several passersby. They were talking quietly among themselves about the revelation that Bell Labs had announced transistors to replace vacuum tubes in radios. One listener laughed and suggested that they will never work. The announcer then began describing how the weather for the Orange Bowl Parade on New Year’s Eve was expected to be perfect with just a little wind coming off the ocean and temperature in the seventies.
She couldn’t see them but she knew the parking spaces down the middle of Biscayne Boulevard were filling as diners and party goers were readying for Christmas celebrations. The McAllister Hotel built on the corner of First Street and Biscayne Boulevard had a large ballroom where famous “Big Bands” performed on Friday and Saturday nights. Tommy Dorsey and his band had been playing there for the last few weeks and was expected to remain until after Christmas. It was the day before Christmas Eve. It was late for Patsy since she had been in the shop since nine that morning, but early for the many night people and revelers walking down First Street toward the McAllister and she was feeling a little wistful. Patsy was facing the street standing in the open doorway of the Ermey Barber Shop in her long sleeved white uniform. The Ermey was one of the earliest hotels to have been built in downtown Miami just a block or so away from the now famous McAllister but its barber shop was unlike many barber shops in Miami in the forties, it was air conditioned. The air conditioning and the two pretty manicurists were an attraction for many of its male customers.
The McAllister was the first high rise hotel to grace the Miami skyline but the Ermey was one of its oldest hotels. The McAllister was eleven stories tall with shops on the main floor and shaded porches facing the ocean and beautiful Bayfront Park. The park was immediately across the boulevard with its band shell and coconut palms and access to the fishing fleet and its many piers and promenades. The hotel had housed military personnel once the war started and German U-boats began plying the waters off Miami Beach sinking merchant shipping at will. Street lights had been extinguished and drapes and window coverings drawn during the war. When the McAllister was first built in 1920, long before Pearl Harbor, it was ablaze with lights and could easily be seen from anywhere on Miami Beach and from boats and ships off shore. Aircraft often used its lights as final approaches fix for their night landings on the East/West runway at the Miami Airport a few miles to the west. Patsy could hear the sounds of the trolley one street over on Flagler Street as passengers rang the bell to disembark and brakes squealed on the steel rails. She knew she would be on the trolley heading home to her four year old son in less than an hour once Mr. Tennyson arrived and departed.
She didn’t want to miss him but she was anxious to get home. He was her last customer of the day and he had a standing appointment, rain or shine, for every Friday at five. He had phoned earlier in the day and asked to move his appointment up a few days because he had learned that the shop would be closed on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, Wednesday and Thursday. He wanted to wish her a Merry Christmas. Normally he didn’t have to call, it was just understood he would arrive every Friday afternoon at five o’clock. He was one of her favorite customers and it was unusual for him to be late. Punctuality was almost sacred, he had told her. People depend on others and if they cannot be on time how can one expect to trust them in other matters far more substantial? He had been a school teacher before he retired and would never have tolerated a student’s tardiness. It was not like him, she thought to herself, as she watched the late Christmas shoppers bustle between stores overwhelmed with packages, some of which were brightly wrapped. She glanced over her shoulder at the clock just over her work station and saw the large jar of pennies on the counter. He is a funny little man, she thought, as she considered the large jar. There must be eight or nine dollars worth of pennies in it. Mr. Tennyson had tipped her with pennies all year long and although some of her co-workers kidded her about his tipping practice they all liked him and thought he was doing the best he could, after all he was retired and living on a small pension. It may be all he can manage, she thought. He had told her early on to, “Save your Pennies Patsy and they will make dollars.” She was actually a little concerned by his tardiness because he was in his eighties and had remarked on several occasions that his health was not good. He never really complained but “Some days were just longer than others,” he had said.
The old man had moved to Miami from Reading, Pennsylvania a couple of years earlier and had been coming into the shop every Friday afternoon almost since he stepped of the train at the station just a few blocks to the North in downtown Miami. He had buried his wife of fifty years and had lost an only son somewhere on some remote French battlefield in World War I. He lived alone and appeared to be very comfortable with the fact. He told her once that a man could not be lonely unless he did not like the company he was keeping. He always delivered these little homilies with a twinkle in his eye and a humble grin. She had been told by someone that he lived on Ocean Drive in a small efficiency apartment not far from the beach. He was only a block from the water he had said, but confessed to her he had never set foot in the ocean. He didn’t like salt water and preferred the refreshing water of cool mountain lakes. He just liked to look at it and listen as it spoke to him when it assumed its many different moods. “The ocean was a lot like many people,” he said. “Mercurial and quixotic…sometimes quick to anger but yet sometimes soft, gentle and caressing. When the ocean was angry, he could feel its wrath and when it was happy he could feel its bliss.” He especially liked to sit and watch the sun rise over the beach in the morning and listen to the gentle murmur of the water as it came and went caressing the shore.
He did not own a car and other than having morning coffee with several similarly aged retirees and cronies at the corner pharmacy every morning and spending afternoons in the Miami Beach library, he had few interests. He could ride the trolley from Miami Beach across the causeway to downtown Miami for a nickel. His visit to the barber shop in Miami was one of his favorite outings.
He had been a history and philosophy teacher at a private prep school for girls and had never held but one job throughout his career. He was a student of philosophy and had read all the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Although he celebrated Christmas and acknowledged Jesus Christ, his religious beliefs tended toward Deism. He said he missed Pennsylvania and many of his students but not terribly. There had been good times and bad times.
He missed his deceased wife the most. They had grown up together and often would complete one another’s sentences. He said the worst part of her being gone was that he always had something to tell her. He still talked to her in his quiet time and knew she was with him. It wasn’t prayer really, just conversation.
He spoke of his son occasionally but the loss was so distant that time had dimmed his vision of the boy. He didn’t see him as a soldier on a distant battlefield but a child in the old tire swing in the backyard. He hated even the thought of war and believed it was created for the benefit of the wealthy, the big New York bankers and the munitions makers and fought by the children of the farmers and teachers and firemen of the nation…the little people. “What if they called a war and no one came?” he said.
Although he believed in the existence of a Deity, he eschewed the dogma of organized religion and believed in his heart that in spite of all the philosophers, great teachers, theologians and thinkers on both sides of the issue, there had to be a first purpose. There was no other explanation for the cooing of a newborn baby, the moon rising on the horizon or fresh flowers in the springtime. If people wanted to believe otherwise, that was okay by him but his life and his love of fifty years was not for naught. He could never believe “this is all there is” and that life was merely a series of coincidences and totally random. He loved the pageantry of Christmas and would stop by Burdines Department Store just to watch the young mothers and their children petition Santa Claus.
The barber shop was across the street from the Huntington Building that housed lawyers and doctors and Indian chiefs…at least some of those housed there thought they were chiefs especially when they spoke to the Indians around them. All of the shops customers were tolerated and while a few were disagreeable, the proprietor, a middle aged blond from Eastern Europe somewhere, taunted and teased them all while happily taking their money. The shop was convenient to the many hotels and retail establishments in downtown Miami and especially to both the City and Federal Courts. Patsy, above all, disliked lawyers because she thought the only reason we needed them was to protect us from other lawyers. They were the brashest and most disagreeable of her customers. Shakespeare got it right she had often thought…”Kill all of the lawyers.”
She had remarked to a Miami Herald reporter once who printed her comments in the entertainment section of the paper, along with those of other single women, that “Most men when they come into a barber shop are generally tired. About half of them want to relax. Then you have the wife doesn’t understand me type looking for a morale pickup, and of course the small percentage of the out of town wolf. You can spot the married man who denies the existence of a wife for out of town purposes, right off the bat. He’s the older bird and reasonably prosperous. He’s subtle and the conversation runs this gamut: the weather, news in the headlines, business problems and what are you doing for dinner tonight? This middle age Romeo doesn’t like his manicure in the barber chair-he waits for the table.”
Saturdays were nonstop. Some days Patsy gave twenty or thirty manicures and often made as much as ten dollars in tips. This coming Saturday was going to be overwhelming because the shop will have been closed for two days. She looked forward to not having to work either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day but unfortunately with her present financial situation Christmas was just going to be another day. She felt bad for her son who was looking forward to a visit from Santa Claus. It sure was going to be meager this year, she thought. She had worked six days a week, ten hours a day for the past four years and always sighed a breath of relief when a National or major holiday arrived. She was off on the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Years Day. This year had been especially tough because her son who had lived with her sister and brother-in-law after her divorce and almost since birth had come to live with her after three years. Her sister’s pregnancy was a difficult one and since she had already lost one child in childbirth, everyone thought it would be best if the boy returned to his mother. He now had become a community child.
It was virtually impossible to find a sitter and especially someone reliable who she could afford, so she had arranged to share a large house with several other single working women who could exchange housekeeping and babysitting chores among themselves. A colored lady who cleaned for one of her customers would often come in for a few hours or spend the day when she was in a bind. The boy had not yet started school and had been sick with ear aches and other youthful maladies all year so doctor’s expense, clothing, special foods and all of what accompanied having a child in the home had absorbed most all her earnings. She had eight dollars in her bank account. Thankfully the trolley fare was only five cents and with today’s paycheck and tips for the week, she would have just enough to contribute to the household food budget and pay her portion of the rent. No matter how hard she tried, she never seemed to accumulate just that little extra. She had no idea what she was going to do about Christmas. She had purchased a small tree and her housemates had made some handmade gifts for the boy’s Christmas. Her sister had crafted a bow and several sharp pointed arrows. Her boyfriend had removed the tips suggesting they were too dangerous for a four year old…raising a child was new to them all. They had decorated the small tree with a sequence of popcorn and cranberries and a string of lights that rarely worked. If one bulb burned out, they would have to test each one to relight the string again.
Leroy Williams was the shine boy. He was not really a boy but that’s what the barbers called him behind his back. When he was not polishing the footwear of someone in the barber chair, he stayed busy at a stand in a small alcove at the rear of the shop repairing and shining the boots and shoes that were dropped off daily. He would move his brushes and rags and a variety of waxes and chemicals to the foot of the chair and whistle while he knelt on one knee and polished and buffed a customer’s shoes to a gloss. He took his responsibilities and his appearance very seriously and showed up every day in a worn but newly pressed black suit with highly creased trousers and a vest, wearing shiny black and white oxford shoes. His white shirts gleamed almost as brightly as his one gold left front tooth and the massive pocket watch that hung on a chain connected somehow to a fob that protruded from the small pocket of his three button vest. The only thing that seemed to change daily was his brightly colored tie. Once he arrived, he would change into a heavy apron and clean work trousers, remove his white shirt and tie and replace them with an open collared short sleeved shirt. He had a smile for everyone and he was especially protective of the women that worked in the shop. He had cauliflower ears and a wide flattened nose and looked every bit the pugilist he once was. While he didn’t brag about his prowess, it was well known that he had gone undefeated as a prize fighter as a young man. His long arms were powerful and sinewy and his large hands seemed to dwarf the shoe brush he moved rapidly over a customers’s shoe clad feet. He was not a big man, maybe five foot six or eight, but if a customer became a little too loud or suggestive or began using racy or offensive language he would say, “No Sir, we don’t act that way in here. We haves a rule dat if sumthin’ somebody says would offend another body, then it would offend our ladies and that just ain’t right. We’s a family here,” he would say. “We takes care of one ‘nother. We don’t do no gutter or no street language in de shop, so take it outside. We don’t want no trouble or no discombobulation in dis here shop.” Then he would return to repairing or shining shoes or sweeping up around each barbers station while whistling lightly almost under he breath as if nothing had happened. It went without saying that no one put a hand on the women working in the shop. He always escorted Miss Vi to and from the bank morning and night. In exchange, both the barbers and manicurist shared a portion of their tip earnings every day. If it were dark he would often walk Patsy to the trolley and wait until it was out of sight before he went on his way to Liberty City. The one remaining manicurist, Lydia, caught a ride in her boyfriends new Ford both morning and night. He worked in the area and they planned to marry soon.
Viola Lutz owned the place. The head barber was Italian who spoke broken English and had been promised by Miss Vi, as she was referred to by everyone, that he would have first right of refusal if she ever sold the shop. She was a pleasant woman, attractive in a middle aged sort of way with a large bust and a small waist and so vain, she would drink hot coffee through a straw to prevent smearing her lipstick. The mirrors on every wall created a hologram and she could often be seen admiring her figure in the reflected light. There were a few a men who frequented the shop who she would share her ample bosom with by bending over and revealing smooth white skin almost to her navel. In spite of her peculiarities, she was easy to work for and very fair. The shop had originally been owned by her first husband who had run off to New Orleans with a nineteen year old manicurist before Patsy arrived. She took over ownership and management of the shop and appeared to be happy to be rid of him. If she dated, she kept it to herself. She arrived early every day and always remained until long after closing.
Patsy scanned the street once more before thinking she would return to her work station and start cleaning up before closing. Leroy had already swept and dusted for the third or fourth time. Her eyes diverted from a cop shaking his finger at a driver at the traffic light to the front door of Hartley’s Ladies Clothing store on the corner of Second Avenue. She had shown him the shortcut to the trolley and they would walk between the aisles of ladies undergarments, hats and gloves and the most recent rage in knee length dresses and skirts before exiting the store on Flagler at the trolley stop. There he was, holding the door for a package laden woman with one hand and tipping his hat with the other. Good, he was safe, she thought. She waved to catch his eye and he raised his silver tipped cane in salute while quickening his pace. Entering the shop, he kissed her on the cheek and said breathlessly, “I am so sorry, I hate to be late. Traffic is really no worse than normal, but a lady in a classy convertible rear ended a produce truck, one of those open sided jobs and oranges and grapefruit were scattered all over the causeway. It was a mess. People were both running up and down the side of the street and in the street picking up the fruit and everything was stopped. Actually I took the early trolley just to make sure I would not be late. So how are you Patsy? Are you and the boy ready for a great Christmas?” he asked.
Vi pushed through the curtain covering the entrance to the back room and effusively greeted him with a shallow bow revealing a profusion of milk white breasts. She kissed him square on the mouth and hugged him as his face reddened and his glasses fell off his nose and landed on the floor. He fumbled with his cane as she gave him a bear hug and said “Merry Christmas,” in her high middle European voice. “We were all getting a little worried about you. Leroy, Mr. Tennyson is here.”
“How you be sir, it sho is good to be seein’ you again…Merry Christmas, sir. We all be waitin’ fer ya. You be our very last customer this evenin’ so I is goin’ to lock de front do and turn over de welcome mat. Don’t be none troubled by me cleaning up a bit ’round ya. I already done cleaned up for Miss Patsy and big Al.” Leroy leaned over with a clean white towel and wiped the seat of the manicurist table just before the old man dropped into it.
“I didn’t plan a haircut tonight,” he said, “so if Al doesn’t mind I will just come back on Friday night at my normal time. I will be getting a little raggedy around the edges by then and may even need a shave. I will undoubtedly need a shine, Leroy.”
The old man sat back in the chair and handed Patsy a foil wrapped package with a big red bow that she thought might be a book and said, “I am truly sorry I am late tonight and I hope I haven’t detained you. I can not tell you enough how much it has meant for me this entire year to live a little vicariously through you and your boy. I know you have had to struggle but you never complained. You always brought just a little sunshine into my day. Thank you for sharing so much with me. I have often been reminded of my own youth and the beautiful times I had with my wife and son. Christmas was always a very special time of the year for us and I miss them terribly. I knew you were special when you took the pennies I gave you after every visit and neither complained or laughed or made fun of what might have been considered a rather small gratuity by some. I was taught very early in life that if one is careful and honors some very basic principles, if he or she treats people with courtesy and respect and essentially lives by the golden rule that time will smooth over all the bumps and dips in the road.” He asked her if she knew how many pennies were in the jar and she looked down, shuffled her feet, smiled and said, “No, but if I had to guess, there is probably eight to nine hundred. I actually had to replace the jar sometime this summer because the first jar was too small and would no longer contain them all.”
“Close, you have a good eye,” he said while adjusting his glasses and straightening his tie nervously, “but there are more-there are one thousand pennies. Open your gift. It is a little something for you and the boy to celebrate Christmas.”
Patsy rubbed her palms on the small white towel she normally placed under a customers hand to begin a manicure and carefully began opening the brightly wrapped package without tearing the packaging. It was a book. It was a leather bound edition entitled “The Selected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson”.
“Open it,” he said. She opened it to the fly page where he had inscribed: My Dear Patsy, My gift to you this Christmas are the few simple words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, if you can manage to live by them very little else will matter…’What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is harder because you will always find those that think they know what your duty is better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the worlds’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after your own; but the great man (or woman) is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”
In between the pages of the book were ten crisp one hundred dollar bills.
This story is dedicated to Patricia Brinkley Paul, known as mother to me, Patsy to her friends. While the characters are fictional, it is a story she told that I remember from my youth. She was a remarkable woman in man ways but would certainly be considered a “piece of work” by today’s definition. She was scrupulously honest, almost to a fault dedicated to learning, outspoken to her own detriment and as stubborn as a South Georgia mule. When I finally met my father and asked him why they divorced, he said, “She got me for insubordination.” She always told me that once I got older, I would understand…I UNDERSTAND!
I left the classroom a few minutes before three that afternoon. My last class of the day ended on the second floor at the east end of the building. Not wanting to carry my books to work and then home in the forecast snow, I had to navigate the stairway and long wide hallway toward the west end of the building, being careful to avoid the main office where I knew the Assistant Principal would be lurking. He had a way of picking me out of a crowd. I would have to literally swim upstream through a sea of teenagers coming down the stairs in the middle of the building and hope that Mr. Williston would be harassing some other unlucky miscreant when I passed the office. The principal of the high school was a balding grandfatherly guy who never raised his voice. Much like the mafia, he had appointed the severest looking guy in the school system to do his dirty work. Mr. Williston was his hit man. He was about six feet four and wore a permanent frown. He skulked around the halls and would always show up just in time to figuratively bash some heads. He seemed to take great pride in intimidating students and the word was, his daughter who was one of our classmates, was afraid of him. His face would lighten rarely— usually only when he came upon members of one of the athletic teams. It was obvious his pets were primarily jocks and there was no doubt if you made his list of undesirables it would be impossible to get off of it. Just as I thought I might have escaped undetected, Williston saw me in the first floor stairwell. “Where do you think you’re getting to?” he yelled over the heads of several girls congregating around their lockers just outside of the school cafeteria. “Detention study hall is conducted on the second floor in the library. You are not heading in the direction of the library,” he said. As I turned to head back up the stairs in the direction of the study hall, another unfortunate classmate drew his attention and I was able to divert down the main hall toward the exit at the east end of the building. I skipped down the stairway to the street level taking two and three stairs in my stride and out the side entrance. Phew, I thought, one more escape. I knew I would pay a price for disobedience but Williston would not hear that I had a job I depended on and an hour of study hall would cause me to lose it. Somehow the ends justified the means in my mind.
The afternoon sky was dark and the clouds settled just over the tops of the buildings downtown. They looked like steel wool with their edges woven in circles. It was now at least thirty degrees colder than on my walk down First Street that morning. Jeez that was a close call with Williston. I didn’t like Williston and I had no doubt that the feeling was mutual. I don’t think he ever gave me a chance. There was no explaining that I did not deserve detention study hall. He was punishing me for a fight in the hallway I finished but did not start. I wasn’t a joiner and found out early that if you didn’t fit in, someone would try to take you out. A new kid from Chicago wanted to prove his prowess and pushed me up against the wall a few weeks earlier. When I didn’t back down, he began swinging with all of his friends gathering around. The ubiquitous Mr. Williston broke up the fight and insisted I had started it. While I didn’t necessarily get the best of the attacker, there was some poetic justice in the fact he broke his hand on my hard head. It turned out he was on the wrestling team and served no time.
I dodged in and out of the many students hustling to get aboard the school buses idling at the curb and walked hurriedly toward the shop on Cleveland Avenue where I worked every day after school until six. An upper classmens’ car backfired sounding much like a gunshot echoing off the sides of both the buildings and the buses. As I hurried past the Conoco station on the way downtown, a few blocks to the west, I waved hello to Howard Gowdy who was servicing an old grey Dodge with an older woman in the driver’s seat.
As I crossed the street at the four-way stop, I thought, If I had the time and money I would sure like to stop in the creamery for an ice cream cone with the many other teenagers who were on their way to various destinations around town. I had neither the time nor the money. I had to clock in by four o’clock and needed every bit of the sixty cents an hour Chili and Spot paid me to sweep up, wash and clean customer’s cars in for repair and run for parts at the two parts stores in town.
The old stucco filling station constructed sometime in the early part of the century had two large dingy windows piled high with boxes, new and discarded auto parts and five quart cans of motor oil. One window had a crack that ran from top to bottom. It had been repaired by connecting two small one by four pieces of lumber with a bolt, in the center of the store front. There were two old-fashioned lighted glass-topped gasoline pumps, an air hose and a bulk oil tank on the island under the porte- co- chere which extended all the way to the street. Automobiles and drivers would always be out of the weather when filling up at Howard Gowdy’s Conoco station. Mr. Gowdy waved back while continuing to wash the front windows of the grey four door sedan with his other hand. A black hose protruded from the side of the car resembling some sort of grotesque animal tail curving upward and disappearing into the gas pump. I helped Mr. Gowdy service cars occasionally after finishing up at the shop. I had learned he was married to a tiny bespectacled bird of a woman who kept her silver streaked hair in a traditional schoolmarm’s bun. She taught English at the high school. I didn’t hold that against him. I really liked Howard and had been told by “someone in the know”, they both had been spinsters and married late in life. He wore his usual starched brown attendant’s uniform with the signature red shop rag in one back pocket and a small whisk broom protruding from the other. “Howard” was embroidered over the left breast pocket and a large Conoco insignia adorned the pocket just above his right breast. I could see pens and pencils protruding from a plastic pocket protector even from my distance across the street. He would often sell gas on credit and was always scribbling in a small spiral notebook where he kept count of fuel dispensed and the names and addresses of customers. His records were kept both by the driver’s name and the color of his or her automobile. He could always put the driver’s name with a car and would call every driver by name when he stopped in the station.
Mr. Gowdy’s gasoline station was one of the highest volume Conoco filling stations in Northern Colorado. His office wall was festooned with wooden and brass plaques celebrating another sales award or commendation of some sort. I heard the pneumatic bell ring that crossed the apron leading to the pumps clang loudly before I actually saw Mr. Gowdy. I always referred to him as Mister Gowdy in respect for his age but many just referred to him as Howard. He didn’t seem to mind. The bells incessant ringing signaled that this tired old outdated service station was thriving. Gowdy was a nice man who displayed by his every action he not only loved his work but enjoyed serving the customer. He had a mechanic, a man older than he, who worked quietly in the service bays while Howard attended the gasoline island, sweeping out cars, collecting payment and dispensing oil from the large bulk tank in the middle of the two pumps. He looked to be in his late sixties but he moved like a man many years his junior. The mechanic could have been a mute as far as I knew because he never said anything to me and only nodded to Mr. Gowdy when asked a question. They seemed to have their own unique system of communicating. “Looks to me we’re comin’ up a big snow,” he said as I passed the station. “Better get on home after work. I just may be closing up a little early tonight.” I sensed he liked me and the feeling was mutual.
My work at the shop passed quickly. I followed Chili in the shop car while he delivered an Imperial convertible to a customer’s home just beyond the high school. It never really seemed like work when I got to drive and I always found a way to cover a few extra blocks when I thought no one was looking. I would cruise by the community pool on hot afternoons and on a few occasions circled Workman’s Drive-in at the north end of town. Workman’s was a popular after school destination where kids could connect and order a burger and coke or take their favorite girl after a movie. I didn’t have a favorite girl. I didn’t own a car and the little money I had couldn’t be spent on hamburgers and cokes at the local teenage hot spot.
I had never mentioned to Chili that not only did I not have a license but I was only fifteen and couldn’t get one until I was seventeen. I lived alone and did not have a guardian to sign for me. My closest relative lived in Denver, sixty miles away. Chili never asked, so I just didn’t think it was important. Frank had allowed me to drive all over the state for the past two summers so he must have assumed I had a license. My learners restricted license had been revoked in Florida for two years because I had been involved in a minor accident on an old Cushman scooter and an automobile driven by an older classmate. The driver ran a stop sign and I plowed into the driver’s side door of his parents 1955 Chevrolet. Although he was at fault and there was very little damage to either my scooter or his car, I did not have liability insurance and under Florida law, I was responsible. I had somehow failed to mention the fact to Frank.
When I left the shop sharply at six, the streets were covered with about an inch of snow. I cut through the alley behind the shop and walked down Fourth Street. I passed the Chevrolet dealership and slowed to admire a white 1960 Impala convertible on the showroom floor. If I just had a car, any car, my life would be so much simpler, I thought. There was no public transportation in town so a car would make a real difference. Before Frank left for Florida, he would stop by and help me refill the old milk can that served as my water supply, but he had already left for Florida. I didn’t have a lot of extra clothes, so weight wasn’t a problem but trips to the wash-house a few miles away were terribly inconvenient. I don’t even recall how I got to the grocery store. A bicycle would have helped but at fifteen I thought I was much too old to ride a bike, no less be seen on one.
Just as I crossed the street beyond the dealership paralleling the railroad tracks, I saw an old convertible parked on the back of the used car lot. Its canvas top was worn and one of the rear fenders was dented nearly to the tire but it looked drivable. Its faded maroon paint needed a good shine but it would sure beat walking. It was a Plymouth according to the insignia just under the hood latch on the front of the car but of indeterminate age. It was covered by about an inch of snow and the driver’s side window was open. Out of curiosity, I thought I would get a closer look and roll up the window to keep the now increasing snowfall from ruining the interior. The sun had set and it was already dark, but the old car was lighted by the lights of a small building that must have been the sales office. I opened the door and just as I began rolling up the window a deep voice from immediately behind me startled me when a large man asked, “Can I help you kid?” Haltingly I told the man I had seen the car and noticed its window was open and the snow was beginning to build. I told him I worked at the garage around the corner and was heading home before the snow really settled in. He said, “Why thanks kid, that was thoughtful. I have no idea why a window would be open on a blustery day like this but we just took the car in on trade yesterday and the service guy must have overlooked the window when he parked it back here. Are you interested in the car?” he asked. “I would love to have a car sir, but I just can’t afford one.” “Oh come on, let me sell you that little number, Bud. I’ll get it into your budget,” he exclaimed as he extended his hand and said, “My name is Lucky, what is your name?” I told him my name and he said, “You can have that little number tonight for $265, drive out, including taxes and title. That is a steal,” he said. “I haven’t driven it but one of the guys in the service department said it runs good and the top goes up and down just like a Marlboro flip top box.” He laughed and said, “It won’t be on the lot long, you had better hop on it.” I told him, “I wish I could but I didn’t have enough money to pay attention.” He laughed again and reached out his hand once more. “Well, keep it in mind boy but don’t dawdle because it will surely move soon.”
By that time, the snow was coming down hard and the flakes were the size of dimes. The wind had died down a little and I could see a hint of a full moon moving in and out of the clouds. The scruffy little convertible was almost entirely covered with snow and my footprints were filled to their rounded edges. “There is a front moving through,” the salesman said. “We may be in for a lot of snow.”
I walked down Fourth Street, crossed Garfield Avenue and saw Howard’s station was closed. I passed the darkened school and picked up my pace, fumbling with the last button on the old navy pea coat I wore, while brushing the snow out of my hair. I made a left and crossed a small park on my way to First Street and the four or five remaining blocks to my little house. The snow was dry and fell loosely from my head and coat. It made a squeaking noise under my feet and surprisingly wasn’t slippery. Although it was cold, I was enjoying the silence and beauty of the night. I threw my head back and tried to catch the large flakes of snow on my tongue.
By the time I arrived at the feed lot and approached the front door of the dark little house, I was starting to shiver and saw the front stoop was piled high with snow. My feet were now wet, and I found a small drift on snow just inside the house that the wind had driven through a longitudinal crack in the door. It was getting colder and I had just enough wood for one more fire. I still had not mastered the art of banking a fire and it would often be bitter cold in the house when I awoke in the morning. Wild Bill, who managed the city dump, would often set aside wood scraps and discarded lumber next to a small building and under a shed roof that protected it from the elements. He was the same person who had given me an old World War II aviator’s coat and the pea coat I was currently wearing. He never said much but always seemed to anticipate my needs. Now that Frank was gone, he was one of the few people in the community to reach out to me. Although I really wasn’t lonely, there were times I just needed someone to talk to. My little house was only a few hundred yards from the dump, so on those long days in early fall when the weather was still warm and on the nights I did not stop by Howard’s station, I would visit Wild Bill and keep him company. He was on the site from early morning until dark, six days a week. Growing up in South Florida had not prepared me for this kind of cold. On the coldest days living in Miami, I would warm myself in front of the stove in the kitchen and hurriedly put on my clothes. Cold weather was so unusual in South Florida that my mother’s car did not have a heater. I rarely wore a jacket and on those few occasions I did, it would almost always be left in the classroom because of the warm afternoons.
I first lit the gas stove to take the chill off the room and then I started a small fire in the pot-bellied stove in the corner. The little house consisted of two rooms. The bedroom in the back, contained an old metal cot piled high with green woolen army blankets. It had a closet in one corner and I had nailed a small oil painting of a sailfish on the outside wall and drawn a frame in crayon surrounding it. Both rooms consisted of unpainted pine butt board nailed horizontally up to the ceiling which was open to the roof decking. There was no insulation on any of the walls or in the ceiling. A single bulb illuminated both rooms because the rafters were open above the dividing wall. The front room contained a pot-bellied stove in one corner, a small four burner gas stove and a folding table with two chairs under a side window on one outside wall and across the room from the stove and table was a small refrigerator. There was a dish cabinet with a porcelain top on the front wall under the window with one large door and several drawers that contained silverware. Wild Bill had given me a small carpet remnant to cover the concrete floor and Frank’s wife Lillie had given me an old bowling pin that I used as a decoration.
I heard the sound of car tires crunch in the driveway and come to a stop in front of the house. Blowing snow had obscured the front window and I could not see out. I heard two car doors creak open and voices and footfalls approaching the house in the snow. I thought it may be the local police because they had stopped once before several weeks earlier. Whoever it was approaching the house kept their voices low. It was quiet that night other than the crackling of the new fire. The falling snow seemed to magnify and amplify sounds outside the house. I could hear the burros moving around in the feedlot outside and occasionally rubbing against the siding. The outside temperature was below freezing and it was not much warmer inside. I had to scrape a small layer of ice off of my water supply by dipping a tin cup in the old milk can I used to store my drinking water. I still had my coat buttoned to the top when I heard a distinctly male voice say, “There is smoke coming from the chimney, he must be here.” A female voice responded but she spoke so quietly I couldn’t make out what she was saying. There was a loud knock on the door, a shuffling and scraping sound and then the stomping of feet outside on the stoop.
I had very few visitors that fall. The principal of the high school kept horses across the street but rarely did more than nod as I walked past the small corral in late afternoon. He was often accompanied by his daughter who I recognized as a classmate, but she rarely looked up. Locals came and went to the city dump or proceeded on west on First Street away from the small town and toward the farms and ranches that surrounded it. The local police would occasionally drive past the house at night and stopped one afternoon to ask me if someone was living in the shack. It had been unoccupied for years and they seemed surprised to find a teenage boy in residence but they drove off without much further to say. I did notice they would often pass slowly when heading to the dump at night to shoot the thousands of rats that scampered over the dump after dark. After they passed, I would hear the pop, pop, pop of their revolvers and often would see the headlights of more than one car trained on the dumps edge and towards the green scum surface of the small lake beyond. Wild Bill may have told them to keep their eye on me.
Wild Bill’s youngest son had stopped in one afternoon and told me he had a date with “The Widow Woman”. We talked briefly as I admired his ’48 Ford. He seemed to be in a hurry and smelled heavily of after shave. He wore crisply ironed dungarees and a cowboy shirt with pearl buttons. His dark shiny hair was combed into a pompadour and slicked back. His sideburns were thin, irregular and extended to the bottom of his ear lobes. When he stepped out of the car as I greeted him, I noticed he wore western boots. He asked me if I was going to school and when I said, “Yes,” he shook his head and asked, “Why?” He had just turned sixteen and was eligible to drop out. He hated school and he said, “There is just no point to it.” He told me he was going to work with is dad at the dump scavenging copper, tin cans to be sold to the local nursery and anything he thought was salable. He said, “You would be amazed at what people throw away. A fellow can make a good living just selling the pot metal, copper and empty five quart oil cans. Used five quart cans bring a cent and a half at the nursery. If you could use a little extra money, come on over this weekend,” he said. “The trailer factory north of town just dumped a load of copper wire cuttings and sweepings and the dump is full of used cans. Old car batteries will bring fifty cents apiece and my dad makes sure they get throwed out where we can find them. I could use some help,” he said. “My dad lets me use his pickup.” While we talked, he expertly rolled a cigarette with one hand, held a small canvas sack of tobacco in his teeth, struck a match on the zipper of his fly and lit the cigarette. He took a deep drag and blew the smoke in rings above his head. As abruptly as he started talking, he stopped, looked at his watch and said, “I gotta go”. He wiped his boots on the back of his dungarees, blew out a last puff of smoke from his newly lighted cigarette, started his car and backed up. “Come on over on Saturday and I’ll start teaching you the junk business. It sure beats working for the other guy,” he said. “We can make a little money.” Since we were both of similar age, I doubted as he drove away that the strong scent of cologne has anything at all to do with whiskers or shaving.
I opened the front door with just a little trepidation and there were two people standing on my stoop. The male looked to be about twenty and was slapping his gloved hands together while the woman, actually a teenage girl, held a large covered dish out in front of her. I did not recognize the old car but both of the people seemed to know who I was and before I could say “Hello”, the girl said, “Momma’s been worried about you. She sent us here with some hot biscuits.” About that time she opened the top of the covered dish, removed a small cloth covering of some kind and there nestled in a two-quart ceramic bowl were about a dozen butter biscuits, not long out of the oven, steaming in the cold night air. “We just thought you might be a needin’ these on a night like this. If you get up to the dump, just give the bowl back to my dad.” The young man said, “We can’t a be jawin’ cause momma told us to get on home casin’ this storm gets worser. Hope you enjoy them biscuits.” As abruptly as they arrived, they turned and left. I stood there with my mouth open, stuttered a quick “thank you” and watched as they started the car, backed up the drive in its own tracks and turned onto the highway and headed west.
I stood there on the stoop in the cold with the snow falling heavily around me and watched their tail lights disappear over a small rise a mile or so away. I didn’t know their names but they were obviously related to Wild Bill. I sat down at the small kitchen table and ate every last one of the still warm biscuits.
It snowed most of the night but stopped by morning. When I opened the front door in the morning, the sky was cloudless and cerulean blue. There white drifts piled to the horizon in every direction and not the first imprint of man or beast anywhere to be seen.
The empty bowl on the small table was the only evidence someone had been there the night before.
Unlike many whose family was intact, I did not have to be home when the street lights came on. I was a latchkey kid. My mother’s commute and long work schedule resulted in her often leaving the house before I left for school and she rarely got home before six at night. She was much too tired to cook and looked the other way if I could not be found. The “fifties” were a much safer time in the little community in South Florida where I grew up. In case you are being critical of her domestic skills, my mother, in her defense, had established a charge account at the local deli which allowed me a sandwich and carton of milk but no sweets or cokes. I was usually able to fund extras out of money from various odd jobs and from “collecting” unredeemed soda bottles after hours….I referred to my activity as midnight requisitioning or collecting, but I suspect someone a little more legalistic may have defined my activity differently. It didn’t matter that the empty bottles were often found on the back porch of unsuspecting neighbors. I felt that by redeeming them, I was saving the many busy airline people in the apartments on my street the time and aggravation of returning the bottles themselves. I saw it as my community service. I became known as the “Pop Bottle King”.
Jimmy was a fellow traveler. Like me, he was a latchkey kid. His mother was an exotic dancer who worked nights, so we were a perfect match. We had virtually no rules to follow and were easily bored. When not filching pop bottles after dark we would always be looking for something exciting to do.
Once my mother went to sleep, we would occasionally “borrow” her car and cruise the neighborhood or requisition the motorized laundry scooter used by the maids at the motel on the corner and race up and down the alleyway until lights started coming on in the many small apartments. When not climbing the ten foot fence enclosing a community pool and swimming, we would watch for a police car and take off running in opposite directions only to meet at a predetermined hiding place and laugh, while we watched them scour the neighborhood with flashlights and the patrol car’s spotlight. On those nights we were not “borrowing” my mothers car, Jimmy and I had learned somehow that a local car dealer left the ignition keys on the floorboard of unlocked used cars parked on the back lot. The lot was poorly lighted and behind the building, facing away from the street. Any nighttime nefarious activity was concealed. We would wait until the neighborhood was asleep and careen around the unlighted back lot in everything from a sporty convertible to a VW microbus. That activity came to a sudden end when Jimmy decided one night to take a Ford convertible home and use it the next day to pick up a couple of female classmates after school. He was caught along with the feckless girls and they all found themselves spending the night in the local home for wayward girls and boys. Needless to say the car dealer no longer kept the ignition keys in cars on the back lot and soon installed security lighting.
Within a few years I moved to a small Colorado town North of Denver and lost track of my fellow criminal. I think he went on to become a great lawyer, since he was prepared for a life of crime.
Fifty four years ago, and soon after leaving high school and a summer job as a greens keeper in Denver, I found myself unemployed with no skills living in a five dollar a week hotel in a small Northern Colorado town. A friend had arranged for me to start a new job working in the trees for a right-of-way contractor beginning September first. My rent was due and I had no money, not even enough for a pack of cigarettes, no less a good meal. I visited the state unemployment office and found that the only “opportunity” they had available for a young man with my skills was shoveling out the manure in a dairy barn on a farm just west of town. The job was to last the weekend and paid one dollar an hour. A few hours into the day wearing rubber boots and standing knee deep in acrid ammonia smelling cow manure, I had an epiphany…develop a set of skills or be assigned by my own making to a life of drudgery. Frank had told me many times that success or failure was entirely up to me.
I think that Labor Day, so many years ago, may have been one of the most important days of my life. Thus for me it means more than just a picnic or ride in the mountains with the top down, but today that is exactly what I plan to do. Thank you, Lord.