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“I hope not.” I tried to contain my own fright and concentrate. What should I do? My Ford was going faster and faster. I didn’t know how the road was empty of other cars at that hour of the afternoon. I had an idea why we kept accelerating, but not how to remedy it.
I was nineteen, in the Army, and only had my first car for a few days. I used my weekend pass to drive by my girlfriend’s house to show it off. She wasn’t home, but her pre-teen brother was, and happy to go for a ride. I knew that if I survived an accident with Bobby in the car their dad would kill me.
I had to go and act the fool and burn rubber when the light turned green, but when I raised my right foot the pedal stayed down. I stood on the brake, but that had little effect. One, two, three blocks and we were catching up to traffic. I saw one route of escape, across the oncoming lanes and into a large parking lot.
“Hang on!” I twisted the wheel to the left and entered the lot, momentarily safe, but it wasn’t an unlimited space. Can I start turning in a circle until the engine blows up? Not at this speed, we’ll roll over.
“Bobby, can you reach the gas pedal and pull it up?”
He leaned across the hump under which the transmission was surely about to seize and felt around for the accelerator. Finally, he pulled it and the car began to slow.
“Thanks. I was afraid we were goners.”
“Me too.” I looked at him and saw a face as white as his platinum blond hair.
I switched off the ignition and stared at the key as the engine died. Why didn’t I think of that?
I pulled the hood release and got out, then raised the hood. The air above the Thunderbird V-8 engine shimmered. I saw what had to be the connection between the four-barrel carburetor and the grommet in the body panel to connect to the gas pedal. It was a jointed connection of thin steel rods.
“Bobby, will you push the gas pedal up and down?”
I saw the rod begin to slide forward and backward. “That’s enough; I see where the problem is.” As the pedal was depressed to the floor, the linked rods hinged beyond a point where the spring couldn’t return them. Either it wasn’t adjusted correctly or it was a really dangerous design . . . or both.
“It’s okay, Bobby. As long as I never floor it, it won’t stick like that again.”
* * *
I learned four things that day:
One: Always know how the controls of a car work, even those you can’t see.
Two: Always make sure critical parts are adjusted properly.
Three: If the engine won’t stop racing, turn off the key. (On modern cars, don’t remove the key —- that locks the steering.)
The sky was still dark and my head throbbed. I pressed my gray-gloved hand to my scalp. When I moved it into the beam of the arc light, the glove was bright crimson.
Working on the rivers was not what I wanted for a career, but in the spring of 1972 I found myself in St. Paul, Minnesota, beginning a new adventure.
It was my first day on the job for Capitol Barge Service, my Army buddy Dan’s dad’s company. I was learning my first task: to take the cables that bound barges together and stack them on the afterdeck of a towboat named Harry Harris.
Mike, the experienced hand who was teaching me “the ropes” peered down from the empty barge and said, “Sorry I didn’t expect that cable to uncoil like that. Uh-oh!” Then up to the skipper, “Hey, the new guy’s hurt. It looks bad.”
The boat was secured to the barge with a “breast-line” and the current held the boat firmly against the barge, so Paul, the pilot, was free to rush down to the main deck and check me out. He pulled me into the galley and shoved me down onto a chair before carefully peeling off my cap. The color left his face as he turned to the first aid kit, grabbed a handful of gauze pads and began pressing them to my wound. “Here’ hold these tight and sit still.”
He stepped back out onto the deck and called up to Mike, “Secure that line. I’m heading back to the office-barge.”
It was only a half-hour into our six a.m. to six p.m. shift and nobody was in the office yet, so he drove me to the Ramsey County Hospital.
At the E.R., a doctor peered into my pupils and asked if I’d blacked out. I said no, so he stitched my wound closed, saying, “You’ll be fine; scalp wounds bleed a lot.” An x-ray backed him up, showing no fracture.
A couple of aspirins later, I was back on the boat. I learned how to secure barges together and to a dock or anchorage, and how to maintain the equipment. When I saw Mike splicing two polylines, I remembered Dad teaching me how to splice rope, so I sat down beside him and began splicing too. Thanks, Dad.
I finished the shift with no further drama and learned much of the basics. At the end of the shift, Dan looked at my bloody clothes and said, “Heck of an initiation we have here, huh?”
“Yeah,” I replied, “but you know . . . chicks dig guys with scars.”
* * *
After a few weeks of working on the Capitol boats, Dan’s dad, Jim, called me into his office. “I’ve finalized a deal to start cleaning barges on the Minnesota River and I’d like you to be part of that team.”
I hesitated. The Minnesota was much further from the apartment I shared with Dan than Capitol Barge Service, where the boats, Harry and Mike Harris, were moored in St. Paul. “I only have a motorcycle.”
He said, “You can use my Cadillac when the weather’s bad.” He drove a new, leased Oldsmobile and his ten year old Sedan de Ville had been idle.
“I can’t turn down a deal like that.”
“Welcome to Dakota Barge Service.” He shook my hand and told me how to find the site.
* * *
The next morning I pulled my motorcycle off the freeway at an exit that quickly became a gravel road terminating at the bank of the Minnesota.
I found a respectable-sized crane by a box barge and what looked to me like a home-made towboat, the Dakota. I saw that two holes had been dug in the bank and filled with concrete, where a steel cable anchored each end of the barge.
Two men stood between their pick-up trucks. One waved to me. “You must be Dave.” I said yes and held out my hand. “I’m Ken. Jim put me in charge because I have a pilot’s license. This is Louie; he’s my number two and a welder. The other guys should be here soon.”
“Okay,” I said. “How do we get out there?”
“We’re going to build a ramp.”
When the rest of the guys arrived I met Donovan, Mark and Scott.
“Dave, you and Scott wait here to guide the beams.” He pointed out where he wanted them.
“Before we get down to business, we need to build the ramp from the shore to the work barge.”
The rest went down to the Dakota, from which Louie, Donovan and Mark climbed onto the barge. Ken directed everybody from the crane and Louie made sure each I-beam was hooked, one at a time, in the center so they balanced.
Ken hoisted the first beam out of the barge’s hold and paused while those guys scrambled out and grabbed two heavy lines attached to one end. As Ken began turning the crane, those guys separated along the narrow side-deck, keeping their end above the barge.
When our end swung over the shore we took the remaining lines and guided the beam to where Ken wanted it. With it in position, he lowered it into place and we removed the chains and polylines.
We repeated the procedure with the second beam, but as it touched the earth, Ken released the tension quicker than with the first one. The crane was still supporting most of the weight of the beam. When released, the middle sagged and rebounded. When that happened, the end of the beam bounced about a yard.
The end of the second beam bounced right onto the toe of my boot.
I sat down on the ground and pulled my boot off. My white sock was, well, you guessed it. I almost fainted, fearing that I’d lost a toe or more.
When I pulled the sock off, to my relief, I had only lost a toenail, but it bled for a few minutes. But, with some cotton, gauze and aspirin I was soon back to work.
With the excitement over, Ken and the guys repositioned the beam and we were able to place the decking that joined the two and Louie got busy welding. By quitting time, we were ready for business.
* * *
The next day, Ken said, “I’ve got another easy job for you.”
I glanced down at my foot, “Sure. What do you need?”
He tossed me the keys to his company pick-up (a new 1972 Ford F-100 painted red and white, same as the company’s towboats). “I need you to go to (he named a company) in Shakopee, and pick up two more shore-anchor blocks for the barges we’ll be servicing. They have them ready, with a loop of one-inch cable cast into them. We’re being billed, so just sign for them.”
He lowered his voice, as if afraid he might be overheard. “Now you need to make two trips because each block is right at the truck’s load limit. You also need to follow this route. He gave me a hand-sketched map. It’s about fifteen miles and the only way to avoid the Highway Department’s scale — I can’t risk a fine in case it’s overweight, okay?”
“Uh, oh-kay . . .”
“Be careful, Just try not to take all day.”
Finding the business and getting the first load onto the F-100 was straightforward. The clerk said I didn’t even need to get out of the truck, but I did. I was learning to be extra careful in my new line of work.
I hoped the crane operator was gentler than Ken had been the day before, and he settled the half-ton of reinforced concrete in the Ford’s bed without damaging anything. I noticed that the rear bumper was quite a bit closer to the ground than when empty.
The first few miles were totally forgettable.
Ken’s detour was, well, a little more interesting.
I’d stopped at a four-way sign and turned left.
Remember, I’d driven his route going there, but with the load it seemed strange and terrifying. First off, I hadn’t noticed how poor the pavement was. The first pot-hole felt a lot deeper than it looked. I had to reassure myself that I hadn’t heard a tire or shock absorber explode or a spring break.
I took a deep breath and told myself to chill out. I told myself to slow down if I had to, but get a grip and finish the trip. But the truck’s front tires seemed to float above the road.
I saw another bump in my path so I turned the steering wheel about one-tenth of its rotation. The truck kept going straight toward the bump. I turned the steering wheel further and watched the bump continue coming straight for my tire. I let off the accelerator and felt the truck lurch to the side.
I broke out in a cold sweat.
I rolled to the shoulder of the road where I sat and shivered for a bit.
“Okay, David,” I said aloud, “You’ve survived so far — you can do this.”
It took all day to fetch and deliver those two concrete monstrosities, but I did it — glad it wasn’t my truck and relieved I had managed to keep it on the road, if barely.
* * *
Soon we were ready for business.
Since four of us would be doing dirty work, Ken suggested we invest in rain suits and good rubber boots that evening. The next day, when we boarded our first “customer,” we saw why. There was coal dust clinging to the walls of the cargo hold and random piles of assorted lumps and piles of coal dust spread across the decks.
Those were swept, hosed and scooped to one corner where coal, rancid grain and water was vacuumed out. Luckily for me, I got to drive a Bobcat mini-tractor and push the piles of bigger debris. I still got dirty and sweaty, but I had a little status and learned what might have been a somewhat marketable skill.
Sometimes we’d have slow days and Ken didn’t mind if we went for a swim. “Just don’t drown.” None of us did.
* * *
If our workload was light and a deckhand was needed on a Capitol boat, I was asked to fill in there. That kept both jobs from becoming too monotonous. I enjoyed the Minnesota’s beautiful natural shores and the contrasting cityscapes of the Mississippi through the Twin Cities.
At St. Anthony Falls, I studied how the giant lock gates opened and closed, powered by large hydraulic cylinders. The upstream set let water flow in and the lower set let it flow out. Larry, the pilot of the Mike Harris, said, “If the gates were ever opened at the same time, the flow is so powerful they couldn’t be closed again.”
Next to each lock was a dam with vertically-movable gates that could be adjusted according to whether the river was high with spring floods or low during drier periods.
While researching this memoir, I learned that these locks were ordered closed to prevent further spread of an invasive fish species, but tours are still available and worth visiting by anyone in the Twin Cities area.
* * *
That December I got one final shift as deckhand. Ice was forming along the river banks and chunks were flowing through the locks from further north. There was one last tow (fleet) being assembled, bearing wheat bound for Russia.
The decks were treacherous and the wind was brutal, but as we finished that long day’s work I looked up. I felt hypnotized by the beautiful, bright green curtain of light shimmering in the sky — Aurora Borealis.
“So, David, you’ll be a civilian soon; what are your plans?” Mom’s brother, my uncle Herbert, with Aunt Mary, had come to visit Mom a couple of weeks before my release from active duty and I happened to be home.“I’ve met a few good guys from California. I plan to head out there. One of their mothers works at McDonnell-Douglas and she said they’re hiring.”
“California.” He frowned. “I hope you’re not going to become one of those long-haired, dope-smoking hippies!”
“As a matter of fact, I’m looking forward to letting my hair grow some and I couldn’t care less if you like it.” I turned to Mom, kissed her cheek and walked out the door. Without looking back I headed toward St. Louis for what could be my farewell visit to the U.S.O. and maybe to say good-bye to a friend or two.
I was fuming. Unlike Dad and almost every one of my relatives of his generation, I had never even tasted alcohol and certainly had no interest in using something illegal. I thought Uncle Herb knew me better than that.
* * *
Herb was Mom’s baby brother. When she was six years old and he was an infant, his and Aunt Trudy’s father had died. Big John had grown children when he married Grandma Alma, one son being older than she was. The older children had inherited the estate.
Grandma had to go to work at what she was good at and became the live-in cook for the August Busch family in their mansion, and others, until shortly before her death while I was in the service.
Herb and Trudy, because John was a Mason, were accepted into the Masonic Home for Orphans, where he was the youngest baby to be accepted there. Mom was placed into another orphanage where Grandma had to pay for her care.
Herbert learned about vehicles and mechanics and, after the Pearl Harbor attack, joined the Army. He served in North Africa, Sicily and Italy, where he earned the Legion of Merit medal and a certificate of appreciation from a city in Italy. By then he was a Tech Sergeant in charge of logistics, including aiding not just our military, but Italian civilians in his area.
After the war, Herb took a supervisory-level job at the St. Louis branch of a large corporation. He married the prettiest wife, had the prettiest dog (a collie named Caesar) and bought the neatest brick house in an upper-middle-class neighborhood. He always drove a new Chrysler and vacationed in Phoenix every Christmas.
I had looked up to him . . . until that unfortunate day in 1968.
* * *
I didn’t see him for over twenty years.
By the late eighties, fortunately, I had proved myself to be a productive, law-abiding citizen with a good career and, without speaking of that incident, we mutually decided to let bygones be bygones, forgiven — or forgotten about.
I’m happy that we were able to spend his final decades showing mutual respect for one another.
My favorite winter activity has always been reading, but if we got enough snow I liked to sled down Monk’s Mound or let my Samoyed pull me. Huppy, given that name by my then two-year-old nephew, Roger, loved nothing more than pulling me. Huppy died while I was in the Army from a fatal penicillin reaction, an allergy which I share.
When I was in High School I learned to ice-skate. I had traded something (as I did for many of my acquisitions) for a pair of hockey skates that my pal, Bennie, had inherited from an older brother. Snow never lasted long, but sometimes ice would.
In my neighborhood, we didn’t have access to a rink, but on those days when the St. Louis area was cold enough for long enough that one of the local ponds froze solid enough to hold us, we skated. Those of us with skates would maneuver around those who were merely slip-sliding in their shoes and those who were belly-flopping on sleds. A stomped tin can and an assortment of sticks gleaned from dormant trees were our hockey equipment. Of course, bumps and bruises usually resulted, but we had great fun while it lasted and rarely did anyone break through the ice.
Our games were always fun, but one walk home definitely was not. We had a habit of leaving our shoes on a log lying near the shore of the pond, close to a small fire where we could periodically warm our hands. On that afternoon I had parked my sneakers at the end of the log. As the sky darkened and we ended our game, I found that the fire had spread close enough to the log that the rubber toes of my low-tops had melted.
Fortunately my skates came with blade guards, but the long walk home not only made my ankles sore, but my conscience was in agony, dreading telling Mom I needed to buy another pair of shoes. She was not happy either.
I didn’t remember going over the car’s hood, but I knew where I was and how I got there.
I was lying on my back and strangers were looking down at me. Somebody said, “You’ve been in an accident — don’t move. Does anything hurt?”
I remembered my front tire touching the right side of a Buick’s front bumper and thinking: This is it. It’s been a good life.
But then I realized the full coverage helmet I’d been wearing, its chin strap securely buckled, was not on me. “Who took my helmet off me?” I demanded. “I sure hope I’m not paralyzed because some untrained idiot moved my broken neck!” My consciousness turned off again before I could wiggle my toes.
* * *
I had recently gotten a new job in Gardena, but still lived in Long Beach. That meant I needed to commute on freeways, so I had started driving the car instead of riding the Kawasaki. That evening I had decided to take a short ride after supper to keep the bike’s internals clean and lubricated and the battery charged, but mostly because I missed riding it. I had only ridden a few miles down PCH and back towards home.
I’d crossed Bellflower and was almost at 7th Street, in the “Iron Triangle,” when I noticed a car coming the opposite direction wiggle. He moved into the left turn lane, I thought, and he’s coming too fast — he isn’t going to stop.
No problem, I told myself. My light had just turned green when I was about 50 yards from it. There’s nobody near me so I’ll just pull into the left lane and go behind him. I was used to dealing with car drivers who didn’t signal and ignored red lights.
Sure enough, he began his turn. That’s when I saw the middle-aged woman in the passenger seat and read her lips — “STOP!” — which the driver did.
Great, I thought, and there are other cars coming this way. If I swerve behind him, I’ll hit them head-on. I can’t stop. I need to swerve and cross in front of him. I was already braking and I almost made it.
* * *
The E.R. found no broken bones or serious trauma, so I was released with the worst headache that lasted for days and the inability to tilt my head without dizziness. The front of my helmet was badly scratched, but I still had my face. After talking with my dentist and my chiropractor, we deduced that my temporo-mandibular nerve had been stressed by my helmet strap and a massage to that area hurt, but cured it almost immediately.
The Buick driver and his wife had claimed that I had run a red light, but I found a witness, a CSULB student, who backed up my allegation that he had run the red left turn arrow and was at fault.
His insurance bought me a used second car and claimed my totaled Kawasaki. I sold my BMW show-bike to remove temptation and didn’t ride again for 17 years.
“No, no, no, can’t you hold your hands like I am!” Dad bellowed, attracting Mom’s attention.
“Floyd, can’t you see you’re confusing him? You know he isn’t left-handed like you are.”
“David, pretend you’re looking in a mirror and Daddy’s hands are your reflection. There, now you’re getting it.”
* * *
All I had done was ask Daddy why he had those two funny sticks behind his bedroom door. I hadn’t expected a golf lesson, although I might have expected him to lose his temper in frustration.
I didn’t set foot on a golf course until I was twenty-five and Dad had been dead half of my life, but I remembered how to hold a club. “You know, Dan,” I said to my friend, “I’m pretty sure Dad never played golf. I still don’t know why he had a driver and a putter. The only time he even watched golf on tv was if we visited Uncle Joe and he was watching a match.”
I was in my sixties before I casually mentioned those clubs to my sister that she explained. “Didn’t you know Daddy had been a caddy in Hot Springs when he was a teen? I guess they reminded him of those good times.”
The only sports Dad showed any interest in had been the Friday or Saturday night wrestling or boxing matches on television. That made a certain sense, as I’d heard about so many times Dad had gotten into fights.
Now, my brother-in-law, Claude, loved baseball and had even tried out for the St. Louis Cardinals. He didn’t make the team because he was blind in one eye, but that didn’t prevent his being a life-long Cards fan.
Claude gave me my first fielder’s glove and taught me how to bat, catch and pitch. He took me to see my first in-person game at the old Busch Stadium on Grand Avenue, where I got to see the only out-of-the-park home run I’ve ever witnessed. When Marcia had married Claude they couldn’t afford a television, so every summer weekend Claude would be in our living room. After the game he’d take me outside for some practice.
I never got to play on a team, but he taught me how to place-hit and throw a knuckler, slider and curve. One day he was practicing pitching to me and threw a slider that clipped the top of the catcher’s mitt I was wearing and hit me right between the eyes, laying me out cold. I woke up with him bent over me, his face as white as mine probably was, minus the red welt above my nose.
When spring came around in my Freshman year at high school, I wanted to try out for the team. I was so excited that my blood pressure must have been off the chart, had it been checked. When my turn finally came to step to the coaches desk to sign up, he took one look at me and said, “I can’t let you play.”
He pointed to my shirt. I looked down and saw a trail of crimson that had dripped from my nose. “I’d lose my job, that’s why.”
I was heart-broken and never tried again. I had had occasional nosebleeds, but so had my sister, Jackie, so I hadn’t thought it that big of a deal. By the time I joined the Army they had stopped. C’est la vie.
My first Army home was Fort Leonard Wood (Lost In The Woods). I was a full-sized “little green man” in a land of perfectly parallel and perpendicular buildings, exercise yards and parade fields.
Lawns were precisely trimmed grass and the rest was rock-strewn sandy soil with some wooded areas. I gave myself a bloody nose my first night there walking into a post in the middle of the blacked-out reception area barracks, sprained my ankle the third evening when I stepped on a rock that rolled and pitched me down an incline, and ran into a tree while on night maneuvers. Night vision was not my strength. When the sergeant said keep your head down on the infiltration course, I slithered like a slug beneath barbed wire and machine gun fire, not taking any more chances.
Next was Scott Air Force Base where I stayed two weeks, waiting to be assigned to one of the four Nike Hercules missile batteries surrounding St. Louis. Just long enough to learn that Airmen not only got to see airplanes up close, but also got better food than Soldiers.
My home for thirty-three months was Alpha Battery outside the tiny town of Marine, Illinois. I went to Marine to cash my paycheck and get haircuts. Some of the guys also went there to drink at Rosie’s Bar, where beer was stronger than at our one-room PX. The young men in town didn’t care for us because the girls did. The Town Constablepicked up our Mess Hall’s scraps once a week for his pigs.
One winter evening a city-slicker from Chicago called the Sergeant of the Guard to report that a “herd of buffalo” were stampeding past his guard booth. Everyone on duty rushed outside to see a group of dairy cows plodding back to the barn down the road to be milked.
Some evenings and weekends my buddy and I would venture to the town of Highland where the owner of the Lory Theater admitted “Nike guys” for fifty cents to see a couple of recent (or older) movies. Carhops at the Dog’n’Suds drive-in,would chat with us. We tipped better than the local guys.
One evening, as we were returning from Highland the car in front of us swerved to miss hitting a racoon and lost control. That car went off the road, rolled completely in mid-air as it sailed across a drainage ditch, and landed on its wheels facing the opposite direction. As it rolled, the passenger door flew open and the passenger fell out.
Dan stopped his Mustang and we ran to help. We found thedriver unhurt and her pregnant passenger lying on her back in tall grass, conscious but in pain. We tried unsuccessfully to get passing drivers to call an ambulance until another Nike guy came by. Two weeks later we learned that the baby had been born on time. Child and mother were fine.
* * *
There was one more place, for the shortest time, but the most thrilling of all my Army homes.
One Thursday morning in September the First Sergeant stepped before our morning assembly and called us to attention. “Gentlemen, the Captain has an announcement.”
Our Battery Commander stepped forward and said. “We just received a SNAP call from Adcap. Platoon Sergeants, commence crew drills and select your teams; I want a perfect score. We fly out of Scott Saturday evening. Lets shoot down some drones!”
I’d heard of the Short Notice Annual Practice calls and wanted to be chosen to at least see a missile being fired, and hopefully crew one. I was good enough (or lucky enough) to go twice.
Saturday night the chosen team, myself included, boarded the American Flyer Airline L-188 turboprop plane for the overnight flight to Biggs AFB adjacent to Fort Bliss, near El Paso, Texas.
From Biggs, we went by bus to McGregor Range in the New Mexico desert, Northeast of El Paso. McGregor is surrounded by prickly pear cactus, jackrabbits and rattlesnakes.
We shared a barracks with another unit; once with Greek soldiers and once with Turks. I had hoped to be stationed in Italy, Greece or Germany after my contracted thirteen months defending St. Louis, but meeting Greek soldiers in New Mexico was the closest I came.
SNAP did allow me my first and second opportunities to travel outside the U.S. though, as some friends and I walked across the Rio Grande River to visit Ciudad Juarez a couple of times. I people-watched, then bought a tambourine and the most comfortable cowboy boots.
Re-entering the U.S., we had to pay a two-cent toll and say where we were born. The Border Patrol agent meant what country, but one fellow from Arkansas misunderstood and drawled, “Oil Trough.”
The agent’s eyes opened wide and a couple of seconds passed before he exclaimed, “Where the hell is that?”
Later, I recounted the incident to my uncle Joe, who said, “That’s where I was born!”
Oh, by the way, we successfully shot down our four target drones.
I’ve talked and written about Frogtown, my early childhood home. But it wasn’t really a town, just a neighborhood in the corner of East St. Louis.
Of course, Mom and I window-shopped in St. Louis in the holiday season and I enjoyed the elaborate window displays and huge toy departments in its grand department stores. I loved the St. Louis Zoo and Municipal Art Museum and riding electric streetcars. But my school-clothing purchases and rare visits to the movie theater were in the birthplace of Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Jimmy Connors, Steamboat Willie and was the former residence of Miles Davis and Ike & Tina Turner.
There were some real characters in Frogtown, Like two adult brothers who were complete opposites. Floyd always seemed angry, scowling and silent, while Lloyd was (if simple) happy and talkative. Floyd scared me, but not Lloyd, who carried a ring of dozens of odd keys which he showed off to everyone he passed, always saying, “I got the keys. Get the car tomorrow.”
And the widowed lady down the street’s adult daughters, who were professional dancers. When home on summer days, they’d be out in their mother’s kitchen garden, scandalously bare legged and barefoot, weeding and pruning.
A man I hope to emulate was the 100+ year old father of a lady on the next street (who looked older than him), especially as he strolled the neighborhood carrying a cane that I never saw him lean on. He had a smile for everyone.
My very favorite neighbor man in those early years was Ross G., who was a driver for an interstate trucking company. Once I saw his bare feet as he was relaxing and I was fascinated that the first two toes on one foot were one — “siamese” — with one broad nail. His daughter, a pretty blonde aged between Jackie and I, was the object of my first crush. Her name was Jessie, same as her mother, but Ross called her Skipper.
Ross, with Mom’s permission, gifted me my first pocket knife. It had simulated tortoise-shell sides and one half-inch broken blade. “Don’t cut yourself,” he laughed. Shortly after that his tractor-trailer jackknifed, killing him. Jessie took Skipper and moved back to her home town in North Carolina.
In the mid 1950s, an up-and-coming black family bought a house on our block. Shortly after they moved in, Mom said to Dad over supper, “Mrs. ____ said they’re selling their house. They won’t live with coloreds.” Dad said, “Good riddance.”
Working in construction, Dad helped build a new housing project just beyond the end of our dead-end street, which was sold exclusively to black families. Soon, we were the only white family in the block.
When I think of childhood friends, James and Hayward (both with chocolate-colored skin) top the list. James, wheelchair-bound from polio, educated me about music-with-soul before that term became popular and Hayward tried valiantly to teach me to loosen up my body and dance. I have written how their father helped feed Mom and I until she could get Dad’s Social Security and Veterans benefits for us.
Mom and I moved a year after Dad died because she was warned by black neighbors that white kids, by then the minority, were having a rough time at ESL Senior High School.
A look in Google Earth shows a devastated city, due to business leaving, plummeting tax revenue and corrupt city management. My brother and I visited Frogtown a few years ago. Our house was gone, but fortunately the properties on both sides of the street were bought by a black man who cleared the land and maintains lawns that form a virtual park. Coincidentally, he had the same Army job I had. I’m happy that I returned for a look and got to meet him.
Mom seemed a paradox. She was very self-conscious, but could be a real clown. She was very creative and intelligent, but constantly called herself stupid. She was nice looking, yet thought she was ugly. She had a good singing voice, but would clam up if anyone outside the family heard her. She could be jocular or angry and it didn’t take much to bring either side to the fore.
Mom learned as a young child, when “Papa” died, that he was not her father. Grandma Alma had to go to work as a cook and Mom’s half sibs went to the Masonic Orphanage, but little Constance went to a different orphanage. She didn’t learn until much later in life that she’d been sired by an employer of Alma’s. Connie was born at a home for unwed mothers across the state. When Papa married Alma, he had children that were her age and they inherited his property.
Photos show young Connie as a pretty girl, but a bicycle accident on a cracked sidewalk broke her nose and the inability to afford braces for her teeth only made her self-image worse. Her early teens were spent in a Catholic convent/boarding school, where she learned fine embroidery, but not the employable skills Grandma thought she’d learn. When she didn’t qualify for the factory job Alma had arranged for her at 16, she found work as governess for the children of a respected minister.
At twenty-one, she eloped with a man, who then gave in to parental pressure and had the marriage annulled. Connie didn’t tell him that, while on their “honeymoon,” she had become pregnant.
The minister could not employ an unmarried pregnant woman, so Connie had to stay with her younger sister and her new husband. While there, she was introduced to my Dad by a neighbor lady. Dad proposed to her as she was washing diapers. They were together through the Depression and separated only by the War, until his death nearly 25 years later. She had four children, three fathered by Dad, and nine grandchildren. She died at 88 and is buried next to him.
Mom Spent most of her life in the St. Louis area, but during the Depression had gone with Dad to Arkansas and New Mexico as he sought employment. After I came to California, Sunny married and our sister, Jackie, asked Mom to move to Nashville, Tennessee and help her with her four (then six) children. Mom stayed there for ten years and loved that period, but when Sunny and his wife divorced Mom moved back North to housekeep for him. When her senile dementia progressed to where he could not give her enough of the assistance she needed, Marcia took her until Mom needed to be in a nursing home. She lived there for a while before the sadly typical broken hip and a later sickness and infection took her.