Ashes

 

some memories from

Billy Lee Harman


 

 

 

 

Ashes

 

©2015

by

Billy Lee Harman

(All rights reserved.)

 

HI

www.hitrt.com

1233 Esplanade Avenue

New Orleans, LA 70116

 

Publisher

www.createspace.com

 

ISBN

978-1-522-93429-5


 

 

 

 

For my sister Peggy,
part of the sky of China,
and for my son Patterson.
For every child left behind.

 

Primer

This kid got so dirty
Playing in the ashes.
When they called him home,
When they yelled his name over the ashes,

It was a lump of ashes that answered.
Little lump of ashes, they said,
Here's another lump of ashes for dinner,
To make you sleepy,
And make you grow.

Charles Simic


 

 

Contents

Chapter 1

1946 - 1953

Page 5

Chapter 2

1953 - 1954

Page 23

Chapter 3

1954 - 1956

Page 41

Chapter 4

1956 - 1959

Page 59

Chapter 5

1959 - 1960

Page 77

Chapter 6

1960 - 1962

Page 95

Chapter 7

1962 - 1963

Page 113

Chapter 8

1963

Page 131

Chapter 9

1963 - 1964

Page 149

Chapter 10

1964

Page 167

Chapter 11

1964 - 1965

Page 185

Chapter 12

1965

Page 203

Chapter 13

1965 - 1966

Page 222

Chapter 14

1966

Page 240

Chapter 15

1966 - 1967

Page 258

Chapter 16

Coming Home

Page 276

Chapter 17

1967

Page 295

Chapter 18

1967 - 1968

Page 313

Chapter 19

1968

Page 331

Chapter 20

1968 - 1970

Page 349

Chapter 21

1970 - 1971

Page 367

Chapter 22

1971 - 1972

Page 385

Chapter 23

1972 - 1973

Page 403

Chapter 24

1973

Page 421

Chapter 25

1973 - 1974

Page 439

Chapter 26

1974 - 1975

Page 457

Chapter 27

1975 - 1976

Page 474

Chapter 28

1976

Page 493

Chapter 29

1976 - 1986

Page 509

Chapter 30

1986 - 1996

Page 548

Chapter 31

The Rest of the Millennium

Page 544

 


 


 

 

 

Chapter 1

1946-1953

 

These are memories of mine, or so they seem to me to be while I’m not sure of anything, since I’m not sure that I am.  I didn’t read Descartes’ Discours de la Methode until after I went to prison.  And still I’m not sure that my thinking proves anything. 

            I watched sunlight, yellow through a window shade, as I lay in my crib.

            My mother left a side of the crib down.  I climbed over the side and hung by one hand from its top rail while I stretched my opposite foot toward its bottom rail.  My mother returned to the room and threw me back into the crib and slammed the side up.

            “Get back in there, you little bugger,” she said.

            I sat on the narrow concrete walk beside our apartment in an old brown-shingle house in the little Michigan town Ionia.  My butt began to feel as though it were burning, and I leaped to my feet and staggered up the steps and into our living room, slapping my butt while I shrieked.  My mother pulled down my pants.

            “You’ve got ants in your pants,” she said laughing.

            Sundays my father sat me and my sister Peggy on his knees and read the funny papers to us.  Denny Dimwit, one of the comic strip characters, had big ears on his head that sloped to a point above them.  My father put his hands together beside a lamp and wiggled his thumbs making a shadow that resembled Denny Dimwit’s head with his ears wiggling.

My father also took us to the Shrine Circus, to see Clyde Beatty tame lions in a cage, and I shrieked.  I didn’t shriek for fear of the lions but for fear of a little dog a few seats from us.  I didn’t know the difference between a lion and a dog.

            Sometimes my Aunt Hazel visited us from Grand Rapids.  She had polio, and she clumped as she walked on her steel brace, and she resembled a witch in appearance.  But all of us loved her because she laughed at everything.

            “Do you want to take something to bed with you?” she asked me as she put me into my crib while she was babysitting for Peggy and me.

            “A car,” I said after a moment of wondering at the question.

            “You want to take a car to bed with you?” she laughed.

But she brought me one of my steel toy fire trucks.

            “That’s not a car,” I said.  “It’s a truck.”

            “It’s a car,” she said.  “Go to sleep.”

            She didn’t laugh when she said that, but my father laughed as he held me in his lap, tickling me.  I shrieked, and begged him to stop, but he didn’t stop until I was near weeping.  But sometimes he sang to me while I sat on his lap.

            “There was an old man,” he sang with his voice reminding me of tin toy cars and trucks whose bottoms Peggy told me said they were from Formosa, “and he had a wooden leg.  A ride he couldn’t buy, and a ride he couldn’t beg.  So he got four spools and an old tin can, and he made himself a Ford.  And, the damnedest thing, it ran.”

            Grandma Hogan lived next door in a blue-shingle house on the other side of a wire fence around our brown-shingle house.  She wasn’t our grandmother, but she behaved toward us as though she were, and she got four of her sewing spools and a soup can and made me a car.  She tied a string to the front of it for me to pull it behind me.

            Peggy and I played on the floor in our apartment’s hallway as our parents and Aunt Hazel and Uncle Wally talked in the living room.  Our father emerged from the living room in his blue serge suit and stopped and looked down at Peggy and me.  A glint was in his steel gray eyes.

            Once our Cousin Leonard came with Aunt Hazel and Uncle Wally and played hide and seek with me and Peggy in the hallway.  Once Gramma and Grampa Yankee came with them, and Grampa Yankee showed Peggy and me a quarter, before hiding it in one of his hands.  He closed both of his hands and put them behind him and brought them out.

            “Guess which hand it’s in,” he said to us, “and you can have it.”

            He did that several times and each time showed us the hand we selected was empty.

            “He’s probably sneaking it into his back pocket,” Peggy told me.

            My mother told us her mother had met him at a Daughters of the American Revolution picnic after my mother’s father died.

            “He’s a Spanish American War veteran,” said my mother.  “When she asked him his name, he sang ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy.’”

            My mother and Peggy and I rode a train to Grand Rapids to visit them all.  We flipped one of the seats over, so that Peggy and I could sit on what had been its back, to face our mother.  I leaned my head on a window and thought of my name until it matched the rhythm of the wheels of the train on the tracks.

            “Billeelee, billeelee, billeelee,” I thought.

I accented the second syllable and did it until I forgot how I ordinarily pronounced it and feared I’d never remember.  Tippy, Grandma Yankee’s little black dog, peed on her living room carpet.  She rubbed his nose in the pee.

            “It’s to teach him a lesson,” my mother told me.

            She also told me Grampa Yankee had been a barber before he retired and that he had carried his barber tools in the black satchel he used to carry his empty beer bottles to the store for refund when he bought full ones.  Peggy and I sometimes did that for him, and we bought cigarettes for Aunt Hazel, and my father gave me beer at home in little plastic cups as soon as I could operate them.  But Peggy said she didn’t like its taste.

            Trains passed beyond a field behind our house.  Peggy and I stood in our back yard and pulled imaginary cords above our heads.  Engineers pulled cords above their heads, blowing their steam whistles and grinning at us, as we grinned and waved.

            “They would knock on our door and ask for food,” our mother told us of hoboes during the depression.  “We always gave them something.”

            I wished to be a hobo and ride trains.

            Peggy had a jigsaw puzzle of the Tortoise and the Hare.  She told me its moral of slow and steady winning the race and tried to teach me to tie my shoes.  She took me to school, and we played drop the handkerchief during recess, and I couldn’t catch a girl who dropped it behind me.  But Peggy took a hand of mine as we returned inside, and she took me with her to play with some girls who lived in a house on the far side of Grandma Hogan’s, and I stared at the green eyes and long brown curly hair of the youngest one.  She was about my age.

Peggy and the other girls went around a corner to our neighborhood’s grocery store.

“Leave him here,” said the other girls’ mother.  “I can’t be responsible for him if he’s out of my sight.”

They brought back groceries, and a rubber squirt gun for each girl, but nothing for me.

We played hide and seek in the girls’ back yard.  Neither I nor the youngest girl could count, but the older girls changed the rules to require only that we put our faces to the tree we used as the goal and keep our eyes closed, until all the hiders had hollered “ready.”  When all had, I turned my face from the tree and looked around, seeing no one.

At the back of the yard was a big wooden box with a door on one end.  I walked to the box, thinking some of the girls might be hiding in it, and I heard thumping inside it.  A piece of wood on a nail kept the door from opening.

I turned the piece of wood, and two Dalmatians leaped from the box, one gray and one white and both nearly as tall as I.  They leaped upon me and barked and licked my face as I staggered between them to the front of the house and nearly into the street.  At the curb, because my mother had told me not to go into it, I turned toward home with one foot on the curb and one in the gutter.

As I passed Grandma Hogan’s house she stepped out onto her steps.

“They won’t hurt you,” she said turning away, stepping back inside.

I squeezed through the gate of the wire fence.  I opened it only wide enough for me and walked up the walk beside the house and into our apartment.  I was too afraid to be shrieking or weeping or to say anything to my mother.

“Their dad says he can’t play there anymore,” said Peggy when she returned home a few minutes later.

“He’d better stay home for a while anyway,” said my mother turning to the kitchen

“They can open the gate with their noses,” Peggy whispered to me as she turned.

My father bought a new radio he said was AM/FM and an antenna for our roof.

“It’s a good one,” he said looking at the radio on the little table where he put it.

The icebox we had instead of a refrigerator was on our back porch.  Frank Kishman lived with his wife in the apartment on the other side of the house.  Through the windows of our back porch, I could see him in his black wool coat and cap, sitting for hours at a corner of the garage behind his side of the house, on an empty old nail keg always there, his cane between his legs.

“Don’t talk to him,” said my mother with Peggy agreeing.  “He’s a dirty old man.”

A car hit Peggy.  She ran into the street in front of our house and straddled the car’s bumper as it stopped.  She received stitches in the labia of her vagina.

“I saw mom kissing him,” she said to me of the man who was driving the car, after he had brought flowers to her several times.

My mother gave birth to my sister Nancy.  My father left the job for which he’d worn the blue serge suit.  In a pith helmet in a field, he directed the parking of cars for the Ionia State Free Fair, and he also part-time managed Ionia’s only hotel.

My mother told us what he did at the fairgrounds, and she took us to see him at the hotel in a taxi, because we didn’t have a car.  Checker Superba taxis had little round stools that swung out from the backs of their front seats.  As I sat on one, a driver called me Little Cliff, because my father’s name was Clifford.

“Some people call him Curley,” my mother said of my father.

He combed his straight black hair straight back in what he called a pompadour.  Once Peggy and I walked with our mother to the hotel.  Our mother pushed Nancy in her stroller.

“Look, Mommy,” I said of a black man leaning against a storefront.  “There’s a nigger.”

“Negro, son,” the man said.  “Negro.”

My mother took a hand of mine and pushed more quickly as Peggy took my other hand.

My father stood behind the front desk and showed us carbon paper.  He drew a pig on a receipt book and showed us the duplicate image beneath.  He took us to the lounge in the basement and gave us Coca Cola and cashews as we swiveled in chairs at the low bar with no one else in the lounge.

My father disappeared.  I knew he had reappeared before I saw him.  I was alone in our living room, and I knew he’d come home, and I looked out a window.  In his blue serge suit, he was walking up the walk with his old brown leather suitcase in one hand, and in his other hand was a little red leather rocking chair for me.  Peggy had a little black cloth one.

Our first home in Coldwater was a new white clapboard house on a new street.  It was small, but we lived in the whole house, not in an apartment.  Friends of my father’s welcomed us there.

“There’s a park down the street,” said a man among them.  “They can’t miss it.”

Peggy and I walked until we reached some houses still abuilding.

“Maybe that’s the park,” said Peggy stopping and turning and looking at one.

“We’d better go back,” she said as I stood smelling the sawdust.

A desk in our new living room had a stapler in it.  No staples were in the desk, but I played with the stapler, anyway.  My father planted potatoes in a slope behind our back yard.

“I cut myself,”

said the girl who lived next door to us, after telling me her name was Tommy, showing me a scratch with no blood on her arm, and pointing to her mailbox, as we stood on her porch.

“That’s not a cut,” I said.  “It’s a scratch.”

Dennis Ryder lived across the street and packed a rock into a snowball he threw to the back of my head.  The man who lived in the yellow house on the far side of the vacant lot on the side of our house away from Tommy’s had electric trains on a big plywood table in his basement and showed them to my mother and Peggy and me but didn’t turn them on.  On my fourth birthday, I hung by my butt upside down from an arm of the sofa in our living room, but I couldn’t do it again.

My father gave me what he called a two-gun and holster set.  It was cap pistols with white plastic handles in holsters on a belt.  The belt was so big and the pistols so heavy that I could hardly hold the set to my waist.

My Gramma Harman came to live with us.  She slept on the sofa and sometimes urinated on the living room floor on her way to the bathroom.  She went to a nursing home, a big white clapboard house in Athens, with a screen porch across the front of its second floor.  She sat in a white wicker rocking chair on that porch and asked my mother who I was.  Soon she died, and soon we moved to an apartment, in an old green-shingle house.

“She says you’re bringing her house down on her head,” my mother said of our landlady.

That landlady, whom we called Old Lady Havens, lived in the apartment beneath ours.

“She said you have to stay away from her flowers,” my mother told us.

In the yard were a lot of sunflowers, and a few smaller flowers, but many more weeds.

Once, in the weeds, Peggy and I found an old lawn chair.  Its wooden frame had broken, and sun and rain had faded the canvas, making its colors hardly recognizable.  But Peggy picked it up and looked at its green and yellow and red stripes.

“It’s like Joseph’s coat of many colors,” she said.

My red wagon sat in snow on the concrete front porch.  Its bed rusted around the bolt that held the frame of its front wheels.  A friend of my father’s used a washer to reattach the wheels to the bed.  But no one tried to repair it when it fell apart again.  It lay idle on the porch.

On my fifth Easter, my parents hid in our apartment tin baskets full of candy eggs and cellophane grass, and each had a tin shovel in it.  Peggy and I, after eating some of the candy and removing the grass, took the buckets and shovels into the back yard and dug into sand around where Old Lady Havens’ son burned trash when he came to the house.  Some blue paper obstructed our progress, and I felt the frustration, but Peggy spoke.

“Maybe it’s part of the sky of China,” she said.

Someone gave my mother a sailor suit for me.  She dressed me in it to go to kindergarten at the old brick Franklin School to which Peggy and I walked down Pearl Street.  I felt silly.

“Can you dance a jig?” asked Miss Wilcox, my teacher.

My father gave me another cap pistol but no holster or belt.

“It says ‘trooper’on it,” my mother said pointing at the letters.

I took it to school and pointed it at my classmates and pulled its trigger.

“Don’t do that,” said Miss Wilcox.

“It doesn’t have any caps,” I replied.

“Stop doing it anyway,” she replied to that.

I stopped pulling the trigger, but I pointed it at kids and made noises with my mouth, and she took it from me until the end of the school day.  At nap times I laid my nap rug beside the slide projector and looked up her dress.  I thought her nylons made her seem old.

“You sing beautifully,” I said to her when she tried to teach us to sing, although I thought she sang shrilly.

“Well, thank you, Billy,” she said.

“Kiss your sister goodbye,” my mother said to me as I was going out our door to go to school, and I looked at Nancy looking up at me with a look that seemed to me to be both hopeful and hopeless, but I didn’t kiss her.

Jim Barber’s father raked leaves into a pile in his yard across Jackson Street from ours.

“Don’t jump in them,” my mother said.  “There might be something in them.”

I thought of Dennis Ryder’s rock and snowball.

“I shot you,” I said to Jim as we played in his yard but not in the pile of leaves.

“You missed,” he said when I pretended to kill him with my cap pistol.

“You’re supposed to take your deads,” I said.

“I don’t care,” he said.

“He’s a spoiled rich kid,” my mother said.

            Weekends Peggy and I played in the school’s fire escape.  It was a big steel tube slanting down a side of the building from the second floor to the schoolyard.  We couldn’t open the door at the top, and my arms were hardly long enough to reach both sides of the tube to speed my climb, but I worked my way up to slide down.

            Suzanne Myers’ house was on Pearl Street between my house and the school, and her younger brother had a set of electric trains in the guest house behind their house, and she showed them to me.  Norma Macklin stopped at my house and asked my mother whether I’d like to walk to school with her.  I declined and walked to Suzanne’s house alone to walk with her.

            Miss Wilcox selected me to play Wee Willy Winkie on stage in the school’s Christmas program.  For my costume she borrowed a bathrobe from a daughter of Peggy’s teacher’s.  I feared feeling sillier than I’d felt in the sailor suit.

            “What’s wrong with him,” Miss Wilcox asked my mother, when she came into the audience, to take me backstage to dress.

            “I don’t know,” said my mother looking down at me sitting beside her.

            “He looks like he has a rash or something,” said Miss Wilcox.  “I think maybe you should take him home.”

            “107,” said my mother looking a thermometer she stuck in my mouth at home.  “I’d better get Dr. Socia.”

            “Scarlet fever,” said Dr. Socia next morning, and I stopped hearing from my left ear, but I didn’t tell my mother.

            “Straighten up,” she said when I leaned my head to my left to try to hear her.

And she slapped the left side of my head.

“There’s nothing wrong with you!” she said.

            By the end of Christmas vacation my temperature and hearing returned to normal, and one morning my father set his alarm clock an hour too early for my mother when it awakened him for work, and Peggy and I walked to school in moonlight casting shadows of the maples onto the snow.

            “Look,” said Peggy.  “The shadows are blue.”

            At school we stood and looked at the dark old building.

            “We’d better go back,” she said turning away.

            A chain link fence went up around the schoolyard.  Its posts and a wire along the ground between them were there first, and the wire cut my ankles because I continued my habit of turning into the schoolyard as soon as I reached it, instead of waiting until I reached the walk.  Until the chain links went up, I tripped over the wire every morning, forgetting it was there.

My mother sent me for groceries.  Our neighborhood’s grocery store was on Chicago Street a block from our house.  She gave me a list, and I walked up Jackson Street and through an alley and into the store through its back door, and gave it to the old man who owned the store, and he collected the groceries, while I waited at the counter. 

            “Hahman?” he asked me each time, a pencil and a pad of receipts in his hands.

            “Harman,” I answered each time, as he added our groceries to our account.

            “He’s Polish,” my mother said, and sometimes other old men were in the store.

“Do you want a bottle of pop?” one asked me and asked me what kind when I nodded.

            “Cherry,” I answered because I liked the color.

            “No cherry,” he said looking down into the cooler.  “How about strawberry?”

            I nodded and accepted the bottle he pulled from the cooler and handed to me.

            “Want a fight?” another of the old men asked me.

I silently drank the soda and took our groceries home.

            I composed a song about Cowboy Bill and asked my mother to write it down.  She laid down the paring knife she was using to peel potatoes and picked up a pencil and took a brown paper grocery bag from a drawer and scribbled on it.  I picked up the knife from the counter.

            She dropped the pencil and bag and grabbed the blade of the knife.  I held its handle as she pulled, and her blood dripped to the floor, before she wrapped a dishrag around the hand.  My Aunt Bertha, my Aunt Hazel’s and my mother’s sister, drove from Detroit to visit us that afternoon.

            “What happened to you?” she asked my mother.

            “Billy did it,” said my mother.  “He didn’t mean to.”

            “I wrote a song,” I said as my Aunt Bertha glared at me, and I picked up the sack from the counter and handed it to her.

            “This is just scribbling,” she said throwing the sack back onto the counter.

            One night, when I chose not to eat carrots, my father told me I’d sit there with them in front of me until I did.  But I couldn’t make myself eat any of them and dropped some to the floor, and my father slapped me, and sent me to bed.  Peggy put catsup on carrots.

My mother boiled potatoes every day, but Sunday afternoons my father mashed them, because my mother left lumps in them when she did.  I preferred the potatoes he mashed to the ones no one mashed and preferred the chickens she boiled Sundays to the potatoes.  I preferred her goulash to the chickens but couldn’t make myself eat the largest pieces of tomatoes in it.

            My brother Dewey’s birth was while we lived on Pearl Street.  My mother held something like a bicycle horn against her breasts as she stood in our kitchen naked above her waist.  She sucked milk for Dewey with it, and she offered me some, but I declined.

Dewey had no right forearm, his right wrist and elbow being the same joint, and he had but two fingers besides his thumb on his right hand.  And he couldn’t turn his left palm completely face up, and my mother said a doctor told her to set him on a chair and twist his left arm to turn the hand upward, and she did it a few times.  Dewey screamed.

            “I don’t think this is doing him any good,” she said the last time she did it.

            We moved to an apartment in an old brick house.  Again our landlady lived beneath us, but our apartment was now on the first floor while hers was in the basement, and she didn’t complain about our noise.  And her husband lived with her, and their daughter, Gloria.

            “She’s a little bitch,” my mother said of Gloria, and Peggy agreed but played with her.

            Peggy found a toad in the back yard.  She cut open its belly and sewed it back up and turned the toad loose.  A few weeks later we found the toad again, with a blue scar on its belly, and turned it loose again.  We also found a turtle in the yard, and Peggy and Gloria cut it apart, to watch its heart beat.  I never saw the turtle again and never again saw the toad.

            No books were in our home, except my mother’s Bible and dictionary, and Peggy’s comic books.  The dictionary and the Bible were black and about the same size, but I preferred the Bible for the colorful maps in the back of it, and Peggy read to me from her comic books at bedtime.  But she did that fewer times than my mother had twisted Dewey’s left arm.

            “I don’t feel like it tonight,” she said the last night she did it.

            “Read to him,” said my mother.  “It won’t hurt you.”

            Next morning Gloria walked to school with us.

            “I have to read him bedtime stories,” said Peggy as we entered the schoolyard.

            “Kindergarten baby,” chanted Gloria.  “Stick your head in the gravy.”

            “I’m not in kindergarten,” I said.  “I’m in first grade.”

            That day in school I paid close attention, to everything the teacher said about reading, and I spent most of the day working through the reading book.

            “Look, Jane,” said Dick.  “See Spot.  See Spot jump.”

            That evening, I lay on our living room floor, reading one of Peggy’s comic books, as my parents played cards at the card table they kept in front of the fireplace, which had a sheet metal cover over it, and never a fire in it, while we were there.

            “What are you doing?” my father asked looking down at me.

            “Reading,” I replied looking up at him from the comic book.

            “You can’t read,” he said.

            “Yes, I can,” I told him.

            “Show me,” he replied.

            I read one of the balloons, and I did it without the faltering I’d heard from my classmates, and I stopped and looked up at him again.  He was grinning down at me with that glint in his eyes I’d seen in them in our hallway in Ionia.  He said nothing but turned the grin to my mother and kept it as they resumed their play.

            Carroll Knapp owned that neighborhood’s grocery store and lived in a brick house around the corner toward the school.  His son Larry was in my class, and once I went to his house and saw his mother and thought she was pretty, and their house had wall-to-wall carpeting.  Once Larry came to my house but didn’t come inside.

            “Did you hear about that monster that killed those people?” he asked me as we stood outside the house.  “It was an avalanche or something like that!”

            Kenny Brewster, who was also in our class, lived in a big white house on my street in its block on the far side of Larry’s street.  We played marbles on his wall-to-wall carpeting, and he staked me because I didn’t have any marbles, and I beat him.  And he let me keep my winnings.

            The Hedgelands, Margie and Curly and their two sons and two daughters, lived in the apartment in front of ours.  Margie cut the head from a chicken and let it run around the backyard squawking.  She was a nurse.

            Madge, the youngest of her daughters, was a little older than Peggy.  I lay on the linoleum floor of their living room watching Tom Corbett Space Cadet on their television as Madge walked by above me skinny in jeans.  I liked her blonde hair and freckles.

            Her brother Tom was older than she.  He told me I could get free maps from the gas station down our street toward Chicago Street, and he showed me the symbol for airports on the maps and told me how to write to the airports for information, and I did.  I received much information and kept it, but I didn’t look at it much, because it had few pictures.

            Mumps kept me in our apartment during one Christmas vacation.  I dreamed the knob of the door of the bedroom where my parents slept was in my mouth and growing.  I ran around the apartment screaming, and my mother sent Peggy to Margie for help, and she woke me up and took me back to my bed.

            “If you don’t stay in bed,” said my mother, “you could lose your testicles.”

            I had measles during another Christmas vacation, and chicken pox during another and strep throat during another, but I don’t remember which houses were our homes for those Christmases.  My mother, while I was listening to an advertisement for GMC panel trucks on our radio, told me Hank Williams was dead.  I thought he’d died in a panel truck accident.

            The park Peggy and I hadn’t found from the little white house was across Liberty Street from the school where I learned to read.  Gloria and Peggy and I played tag on picnic tables in piles in the park’s picnic shelter, and Peggy and I tried to climb to the roof of the shelter, but we failed at that.  We climbed into the big green birdbath at the back of the park, but sometimes I failed at that, because I was too short.  I had to stand on its base and reach up to its rim to pull myself up.  I remembered the rail of my crib.

            We climbed over the wire fence at the back of the park and played in the little airplanes in the little airfield there.  Peggy told me that the round green thorny things along the fence were hedge apples and that the red berries on rows of bushes bordering a walk between the birdbath and the bathrooms were currents and poisonous.  Sometimes I went to the park alone, with a picture of a clock my mother drew on an envelope, so I could compare it to the clock on the school to know when to return home.

            Still I couldn’t tie my shoes, and I lost my shoe laces as I walked the log rail fence along the front of the park, thinking of a girl in my class.  Her name was Sheila, and she had short dark hair on her head and on her arms, but I never talked to her.  When I jumped down from the fence to go home I saw that my shoe laces were gone.

            “How could you lose your shoelaces?” my mother asked me.

            The next time she let me go to the park alone, she tied the loops of my laces to each other in a knot, and I saw that I could tie my shoes that way without first tying them the way Peggy had tried to teach me, and no one ever told me that was wrong, and I did it for years.

            “I never get to see my mother anymore,” my mother wept to my father.

            “We’ll put you on a bus to Grand Rapids after payday,” he responded.

            She packed his old leather suitcase, and he carried it across the street for her and hailed a passing Greyhound, and Peggy took care of me and Nancy and Dewey while he worked the next few days.  Gramma Yankee moved to a nursing home, and we all went to visit her there, and stood around her bed.  It was a hospital bed, propping her above me, and she called me Leonard.

            “This is Billy,” my mother told her, but she kept calling me Leonard.

            She died.  My father went with my mother to Grand Rapids.  They took Nancy and Dewey with them but left Peggy and me at home.

            “You wouldn’t understand what it’s about,” my mother told us.
 

 

 

Chapter 2

1953 - 1954

 

           Peggy and I played in our bathtub.  I played in it with my teddy bear, and I hid the teddy bear wet in the back of a closet, beside two small flags beneath a uniform of my father’s.  The uniform was from his having been an American Legion Commander before marrying our mother.  Peggy and I played with the flags on parade days and waved them at the parades.

             My mother found the teddy bear and lectured me, telling me the teddy bear would mold and throwing it into the trash, but she didn’t tell my father.  I feared that she would tell him and that he would spank me with one of the two wide leather belts for the uniform.  Her lecturing me but not telling him told me my crime was severe but not capital.

            Peggy and Gloria found a board loose in a side of the barn behind a house next door to ours.  They and I pulled it out, and we squeezed through the space into the barn, where we found some furniture and some red paint.  We painted the furniture.

My mother said the woman who lived in the house told her she thought we’d done it.  I told her we hadn’t, and she set me on a chair from our dining table and sat in another facing me and lectured me about lying, until I wept and stopped denying.  I didn’t blame Peggy or Gloria, but my mother blamed Gloria, and so I again escaped spanking.

            My mother dressed me in snow leggings for school, and walking home I walked in the deepest snow I could find, to use the leggings.

            “What did you do,” my mother asked me, as she helped me remove the wet leggings, “walk in the deepest snow you could find?”

            The legs of the leggings were too narrow for me to put them on or take them off without removing my shoes.  But I spent recesses sitting on the floor outside my classroom trying to pull them on over them.  My teacher came out to the hallway and saw me doing that.

            My mother threw the leggings away, and the next day I stood in the playground with my school pants blowing in the wind, because they weren’t jeans but dress pants.

            “Look at that kid’s pants,” said an older kid walking past me.

            “I think he should wear jeans to school like the other boys,” my mother told my father as I wondered at the understanding of my teacher and my mother.

            In the park, between a driveway and a toolshed, was a flower bed.  The flowers, as Peggy and I sat among them, were taller than we were.  We could see only the sky and the flowers and each other.

            “Let’s take off our clothes,” said Peggy.

            And we did as I wondered why we did.

I also wondered why people gave us candy when we went trick-or-treating with Gloria.  But I wanted the candy, and we started two nights before Halloween and filled grocery bags with it, each of us filling one and returning home for another and filling the second also.  We talked about tricking people who told us we were one or two nights early and refused to give us candy, and Gloria described many tricks, but we didn’t use any of them.

I fell from a porch into a rosebush, because I couldn’t see sideways, because of my mask.  Thorns on the rosebush cut one of my knuckles.  My mother tried to heal it with Vaseline.

            “He blames me for that,” she said of the scar, decades later.

            For the Halloween parade I dressed as a hobo, putting a pillow inside my shirt to make me look fat, and the pillow slid into one of my trouser legs.  I won, as a prize for the costume, a Hopalong Cassady flashlight and a ride in a covered wagon to Butters’ Buffalo Farm.  The flashlight’s batteries leaked and destroyed it.

            My father gave Peggy and me a quarter to go to the movies at the Tibbits movie theatre.  Admission was twelve cents for each of us, and we discussed what candy to buy with the penny we received in change, part of the question being whether to buy candy that was two-for-a-penny or to buy a box of pieces of candy we could divide between us.  I won a door prize, a box of china doll dishes, with straw in the box for packing.

            “Give them to Peggy,” said my father from the card table, when we returned home with it.  “You can keep the straw, in case I get you a pony.”

            Superman was a short subject before the main movie weekly until after kryptonite turned him invisible.  Then all that was visible of him was typewriter keys moving while he was Clark Kent typing stories for the Daily Planet, and I found that boring but sat through it waiting to see such as Bing Crosby’s head turning in a passageway of a haunted house without his body, or Randolph Scott blowing a head from a body with a shotgun.  But I didn’t enjoy seeing how Ralph Cramden treated his wife and Ed Norton on The Honeymooners on the Hedgelands’ television.  And I didn’t enjoy the violence in cartoons.  I feared for Tweety Bird’s life.

            At school the boys formed gangs for recess.  Neither gang selected me as a member, although I trotted as a horse, as Peggy had taught me.  The others jogged, with their hands in front of them, holding imaginary reins.  But one of the gang members suggested that I be a double agent.  So I jogged silently back and forth between the gangs.

            Ralph Kimble sat beside me in class.  In his desk he had a screwdriver with a white handle with the words “God is love” on it.  I stole it.

            “Have you seen my screwdriver?” Ralph asked me looking into his desk.

            “No,” I said and felt more shame for the stealing after the shame of lying.

            My mother took us to Sunday school.  We walked past the Presbyterian Church with its tall white steeple to the Methodist Church with its short gray bell tower.  Peggy taught me to fold my hands with my fingers inside my fists.

            “Here’s the church,” she taught me to say when I did that, and she taught me next to point my index fingers upward.

            “Here’s the steeple,” she taught me to say when I did that, and next to open my hands and wiggle my other fingers.

            “Open the doors,” she taught me to say, “and see all the people.”

            When I saw Marcia Enos in Sunday school with her raven ringlets and rosy cheeks and white frilly blouses and plaid pleat skirts and knee socks and penny loafers, I thought her appearance was as all girls should appear, but I never spoke to her.  After Sunday school, when I sang the Doxology with the choir in the auditorium, I thought it sounded as music should sound.  And I preferred the stage and slanting aisles of the auditorium to the sanctuary with its pulpit.

            Children roamed our neighborhood freely, until their mothers called them home for supper, and after supper they roamed it freely again.

            “Come home when the street lights come on,” their mothers said as they ran out the door.

            A boy who called his sister Sister lived around the corner away from the one toward the school.  In his back yard, was a barn with a haymow, and a junk car was in front of the barn, and my mother told me that Cousin Leonard had tied a towel around his neck and jumped from a haymow to be like Superman, and broke one of his legs.  The boy and I jumped without towels from the haymow onto the roof of the car and didn’t break any of our legs.

            As some of the children of the neighborhood gathered on the sidewalk in front of that kid’s house, a little blonde girl stepped onto the walk from the driveway of the next further house, and I stared at her and couldn’t stop staring.

            “Billy has a girlfriend,” the other children chanted, but I couldn’t stop staring.

            She bowed her little blonde head but looked up at me from eyes so blue I couldn’t tell them from the sky.  She and I left the other children, and walked up the driveway into her yard, where a pen beside the garage held an Irish setter. Despite my fear of dogs, I followed her into the pen, and onto the roof of the doghouse.  We sat there gazing at the grass of the yard and the flowers around it.  I think her name may have been Laura.

            “I live in Marshall,” she told me.  “My grandparents live here, and sometimes my parents leave me here, in the summer.  Do you want a Popsicle?”

            I felt that I didn’t deserve more happiness than what I already had and didn’t answer.

            “My gramma makes them for me,” she said sliding from the roof.  “I’ll get us some.”

            I watched her walk with the dog to the gate as though they were one person but squeeze through the gate without him.  I watched her and her little blue shorts and little white blouse walk across the grass in the afternoon sun and disappear through a side door into the blue-shingle house.  I feared that she wouldn’t return, but she did return with Kool-Aid ice cubes on Popsicle sticks, one in each of her hands.  I’d never felt happier than I did as we ate them and talked on top of that doghouse in the sun.  But soon she returned to Marshall and I to playing with the other kids.

            “Who’s not ready,” I shouted after counting by fives to a hundred, “holler ‘I!’”

            I opened my eyes and turned my face from the barrel in which we burned trash and saw Laura entering the yard.  Morning glories, the color of her eyes, climbed the fence along that side of the yard.  She stopped beside them and waited for me to walk to her.

            “Can you come to my house and play with me?” she said.  “My gramma doesn’t know where I am.”

            “I’m playing hide and seek with the other kids,” I said.  “And I’m it.”

            I watched her blonde head drop as she turned from me and left my life.

            Jim Shray and I took turns punching each other’s arms in the hall outside our second grade classroom.

            “Why do you limp?” I asked Werner Helfer, as we walked down that hallway on our way out of the school to go home.

            “I used to limp, because I had a hernia operation, and I used to sound German,” he said sounding German to me.  “But I don’t anymore.”

            My first grade teacher stopped us outside her classroom.

            “How’s your reading?” she asked looking down at me.

            “Fine,” I said.

            “Come show me,” she said turning into her classroom.

            We followed her to her desk where she opened a book.

            “Can you read this?” she asked handing it to me.

            I began reading but stopped at the word “ocean.”

            “Sound it out,” she said as I struggled for sense.

            “Okean,” I blurted unable to find any phonetic meaning.

            “It’s ‘ocean,’” she said.  “The ‘c’ sounds like an ‘s,’ not a ‘k.’”

            I thought it sounded like ‘sh’ but thought of something else to say.

            “We’re moving to a lake,” I told her.

            “That’s nice,” she said.  “What lake?”

            “Marble,” I told her.

            “Are you sure it isn’t Marrow Lake?” she asked.  “All the lakes around here have a lot of marrow in them.  They make concrete out of it.”

            It was Marble Lake, but I thought I may have misunderstood my father when he told us we were moving, and so I didn’t tell her that.

            “You can have a dog there,” said my father.

            The house was a cottage with no inside plumbing.  It had an outhouse beside a garage between the house and the road and a hand pump outside the kitchen door.  Peggy and I took turns carrying the slop jars to the outhouse and pumping buckets of water for the kitchen.  We went exploring our first day there and walked to a swamp up the road.  We found a garter snake.

Peggy caught it, and together we cut it in half, with a sharp stone.  Peggy held it as I cut and wished the stone were sharper or the snake less bony.  I felt the frustration as I had when we dug into the blue paper on Pearl Street.

            “Snakes have a lot of hearts,” said Peggy, “because they’re long.”

But we didn’t try to find them or to sew the snake back together.

            We children slept upstairs while our parents slept downstairs.  Peggy and Nancy slept on one side of a folding screen while Dewey and I slept on the other side.  We kept our slop jar on the side where Peggy and Nancy slept.

            An oil space heater downstairs heated the house.  A pipe rose from its top through the second floor and roof, but the upstairs heat came mostly through the stairway and two grates in the floor, and I shivered as my mother gave me baths as I stood on a chair beside the stove.  But the lake was in front of the house, and my father kept his promise, of the dog.

            “It’s a mongrel,” he said of the first one he brought home, a small brown one that refused to descend the stairs after running up them.

            “It’s part springer,” he said of the smaller black one he brought home to replace the brown one, but he soon took that one away also.

            “It’s part German shepherd and part border collie,” he said of the big black and white one he brought home next, and Peggy named him Laddie for Lassie on television, and we chained him to our clothes line.

            The clothesline was a wire between two trees beside the house.  Laddie’s chain slid along it when he ran, until the chain reached the end of the line, jerking him to a stop.  The last time he did that the clip on the chain slipped loose from the line.

            He attacked the Irish setter living next door, and my father and the man who lived next door hollered at the dogs to separate them, but they didn’t stop fighting until my father poured onto them buckets of water he pumped from our well, three buckets of water, one at a time.  Then he chained Laddie to a corner of the garage.  We left him there day and night all year.

Our school was between Quincy and the lake and had two classrooms, one for the first through third grades and one for the fourth through sixth grades, one for Peggy and one for me.  Peggy hosted a beach party for her first birthday at the beach, and she invited friends of hers from Coldwater and our new neighborhood, but no one swam.  Her birthday, the second day of May, was too cold for swimming in a Michigan lake.

            Our landlady left a wooden row boat in the channel in our front yard, and my father used it for fishing with long cane poles, and he taught Peggy and me to row it.  We rowed it all over the lake, and in winter we walked all over the lake on ice so thick that my father drove his car onto it, to fish through it with short fiberglass poles.

            My father caught more blue gills and sun fish and perch than law allowed, and he cleaned them and fried them, and Peggy liked the eggs.  He also gathered beech nuts from beneath the tree at one end of the clothes line and salted them and baked them on cookie sheets.  I dug up some turtle eggs beside the channel and threw them at the beech tree at one end of the clothesline.  The eggs splattered onto clothes my mother had hung on the line.  She didn’t tell my father but whipped me herself.

            “That worse than Dad’s belts,” said Peggy of the narrow patent leather belt my mother took from her housedress to whip me.  “It stings, and Dad folds his double so they won’t hurt us.”

            In winter we walked to Treasure Island and peered into windows of a summer cottage on it but didn’t try to go in.  In woods on the opposite shore near the island we found a hunters’ shack and found inside it a Victrola and bunks with binder twine for mattress ticking. 

My father left the boat in the channel that winter, and the ice cracked one side of it, from bow to stern.  He stopped letting Peggy and me use it without him.  But he kept using it for fishing.

            My mother awakened me from nightmares.  I had erections when she did, and she took me to the slop jar, to pee.  Peggy showed me a huge hollow tree she’d found in the woods near a fence of a cow pasture.  Nails held boards inside it we could use to climb up and out among the limbs.  Peggy again suggested that we remove our clothes.  A cow mooed on the other side of the fence.  Again I had an erection.

            “Do you know what that means?” Peggy asked me.

            “It means I have to pee,” I told her but didn’t pee.

            Phil Boughman and I were in third grade.  Nancy Johnson was in second, but he and I took turns kissing her, because she was blonde and slim while the only girl in our class had black hair and was pudgy.  We lay on a grassy bank along the road at the edge of the schoolyard.  The kisses were long with our mouths shut as we’d seen in movies.  Peggy said Nancy’s sister Patty was a bitch.          

            Phil stole Camel cigarettes and Red Man tobacco from his father.  We smoked the cigarettes and chewed the tobacco beneath a tree that had fallen in the swamp.  I didn’t inhale the smoke, but I accidentally swallowed some tobacco, and gagged and didn’t chew any more.

            “Do you know where babies come from?” asked Phil.

            “From their mothers’ bellies,” I said because my mother had told me that.

            “Yeah,” said Phil.  “But how do they get in there?”

            “From kissing,” I said because my mother had also told me that.

            “You kissed Nancy Johnson,” said Phil, “and she’s not pregnant.”

            “OK,” I said recognizing the validity.  “How?”

            “They have a hole between their legs,” said Phil.  “You have to stick your peeder in it and pee.  I tried it with Nancy Johnson on that big limb that hangs over the lake.  But I couldn’t pee.”

            Nancy’s brother Jimmy had an electric train set.  They lived in a big white house with red trim in a neighborhood beyond some woods from ours.  As I was walking through the woods to play with Jimmy and his train set, Nancy was walking through them toward my neighborhood, and we stopped and stared at each other.

            “I’ll show you mine,” said Nancy, “if you’ll show me yours.”

            “Okay,” I said after thinking a few seconds.

            “You go first,” she said.

            I considered whether I could trust her, and I decided that I couldn’t but that I had nothing to lose, and I unzipped my fly and pulled out my penis.  Nancy looked at it a few seconds and walked on past me as I put it back into my pants.  I turned after her.

            “Show me yours,” I shouted.

            “No,” she shouted back.

            Neighbors drove us without my father to Sunday school at the Methodist Church in Quincy.  On the way, I memorized the Old Testament table of contents in my mother’s Bible, because the lady driving said I should for a contest.  I won a King James Bible, but that stuff about going to hell no matter what I did unless I accepted Christ as my personal savior seemed to me unfair, and so I didn’t go again until my father had a Sunday off from work and drove us there, and then I waited for the others outside, in the car with him.

            “That’s a nice looking woman,” he said of a woman walking past us on the sidewalk.

I looked at her and wondered how he could think that of a woman with gray hair.

            But I learned the meaning of “faith.”  I became sick of sickness, of scarlet fever and mumps and measles and chicken pox and strep throat, and of crying myself to sleep because my teeth were rotten and hurt.  So, in anger in the middle of a night, I decided to stop being sick.  And, excepting some colds, I haven’t been since.

And I learned a little more at Bible School at the East Algansee Baptist Church.  I went there because other kids in the neighborhood did because it provided a bus.   I won a plastic cross that glowed in the dark, and I knew I would, before I did.

            I won it in a drawing in the general assembly after the separate classes.  Each day, the minister drew a number from a basket, and said it was for the quiet seat.  He said that, if you had been quiet, and he drew the number of your seat, you could pick a prize from another basket, and I picked the cross.  Before he called the number, I knew he was going to call mine, and I worried whether I’d been quiet enough and thought I probably hadn’t.  But he said I had, and I selected the white plastic cross because it glowed in the dark, unlike Ralph’s screwdriver.

            And I also learned to recognize the Arabic alphabet there.  I found among what people there called tracts one that translated John 3:16 into about a half dozen languages.  While my teacher talked, I compared the translations to one another, hoping to find a pattern for translating all languages into one another.

            As I sat beside my mother, who was there for the last general assembly of the week, the minister showed a slide of another quotation in Arabic and asked whether anyone knew what language it was.  Two kids raised their hands, and one guessed Chinese, the other Japanese.  I raised my hand just as the minister began to tell us what it was.

            “It’s . . . ,” said the minister, before stopping and pointing at me.

            “Arabic?” I said pronouncing it Araybic, and I saw the minister’s wonder.

“Arabic,” he said.  “That’s correct!”

 And I saw my mother’s wonder.

            Before my father cracked the boat, Peggy rowed to the other side of the lake and made a friend, and after my father cracked the row boat the friend rode a boat with an outboard motor to our channel.  She and Peggy changed into swimsuits on the girls’ side of the screen that divided our bedroom.  I sat on my bed on the other side.

            As they stepped from behind the screen, Peggy pulled down the top of the other girl’s swimsuit, showing me one of the large brown nipples of her breasts that were larger than Peggy’s because she was pudgy.  Diane Frump, the other girl, pulled her suit back up but grinned at me as she did it.  Peggy was laughing.

            The car my father drove on the lake was a 1949 Buick Special he bought to drive from the lake to his job caring for patients at the Coldwater State Home and Training School.  Because the patients needed care every day, while all the attendant nurses wished to have weekends off, my father and the others had every seventh and eighth day off instead of Saturdays and Sundays.  He took Peggy and me with him to pick up his pay check when he didn’t work on a payday.

            “He can play anything,” my father said of a man in a wheel chair. “Ask him to play something.”

            The man was lolling his head on the back of the wheelchair and drooling with his mouth open.

            “On Top of Old Smokey,” I said because then it was my favorite song, and the man played it but didn’t lift his head or stop drooling.

            “If you don’t behave,” my father said stopping to pick up a couple of buckeyes as we walked back to the Buick, “I’ll leave you here.”

            “He doesn’t mean that,” Peggy told me at home.

            He kept buckeyes in his pockets and said they were good for rheumatism.  He also carried a rabbit’s foot in one of his pockets and kept old buckeyes and rabbits’ feet in one of the top two drawers of his ands my mother’s dresser.  We called that drawer Dad’s drawer.

Also in it were some old coins and a small horsehair chain and a hollow brown tin thumb and a pair of what we called scotty dogs, one of them black and one of them white, standing on magnets.  We played with the little plastic Scotty dogs after asking permission and learned from our father that, if we put their bases together and let one of them loose, the magnets turned them nose to tail.  My father also showed us how to put them on opposite sides of a piece of paper and move one with the other across it.

            And he brought home a skinny tow-head patient to spend a day with Peggy.  She and Peggy played dress-up in the garage in a metal row boat our landlady stored there.  Peggy hung a blanket to screen them from my view.

            At Waterworks Park in Coldwater, at a picnic for the State Home’s employees and some of its patients, Peggy and I left the others and the swings and teeter totters to walk the narrow rails across the top of the narrow dam across the shallow creek we called the Coldwater River.

            My father played cards at the Stag Café in Coldwater.  He played euchre for five-cent and ten-cent paper chits.  The Stag called them checks and sold them at face value and accepted them back as cash for purchases there.  My father won and paid for his beer with them until the state of Michigan outlawed using them to buy beer.  Then he spent them on candy bars for us kids.

He brought them home in beer cases, and every night at eight o’clock was candy time, when each of us could select one candy bar from the beer case and eat it listening to Gene Autry.

            “Well, sir,” said Gene Autry through the radio, after clumping along a boardwalk before telling a story, after which we had to go to bed.

            “Do you want to go fishing in the morning?” my father asked me.

            He rose at 5:00 a.m., and the cane poles he used were longer than the boat, and I wanted neither the early rising nor the pre-dawn cold nor waiting for a bite nor managing those heavy poles when I got one.  I swung my line around my father’s once, and we stood in the boat as he untangled the lines, and I ducked when he lifted a hand to do it.  I thought he was going to hit me.

            “Did you think I was going to hit you?” he asked and laughed as I didn’t answer.

            He played cards with Bill Derikson at the Stag and took us to his farm, where he showed us his mule in his barn and his dog in his kitchen, and said the dog could talk.

            “Mama,” said the dog as he held dog biscuits above his nose.  “I’m hungry.”

            Bill and his wife gave us to take home with us some butter they had made.  But I thought the butter tasted like sour milk.  I preferred margarine.

            My father also rose at 5:00 a.m. to go to work.  He ate breakfast alone, a bowl of Wheaties and half of a grapefruit with sugar on it and a glass of water, but the family ate supper together at the dining table near the space heater.  And then he told jokes.

            “A kid farted at the supper table,” he said looking at me and my mother, “and his mother told him not to do that.  The kid asked his mother what he was supposed to do when he had to fart.  She told him to just let it slide out, and he sat for a minute and stuck his hand down the back of his pants and pulled it out and said: ‘Here Ma; here’s one of your slide-outs.”

            He took me to Coldwater for a haircut at Mitch’s barber shop.  The shop had mirrors on the walls in front of the chairs and behind them.  As the barber cut my hair I could see everything and everyone there again and again in the mirrors reflecting the mirrors.  And the fire station was next door to the barber shop.  And the Stag was across the street.

            “Do you know why rape is impossible?” my father asked me as we crossed the street after he nodded to the firemen.

            I shook my head, having no notion what rape was, but knowing he was telling me something he thought was a joke.

            “Because,” he said, “it’s easier for a woman to run with her skirt up than for a man to run with his pants down.”

            He didn’t laugh, because he said people shouldn’t laugh at their own jokes, but neither did I laugh at that one.

            “I know a joke,” I said.

            I told him that a kid asked his father why the sky was blue and that the father replied that he didn’t know.  I told him that the kid next asked his father why leaves are green and that his father again replied that he didn’t know.  And I told him that finally the kid asked his father whether he minded his asking so many questions.

            “Of course not,” I told him the kid’s father replied.  “How else are you going to learn anything?”

            He looked down and gave me a grin and one of his glints.

At the Stag I sat between him and another man while a cuspidor sat on the floor between my feet.  My father bought me a Coca Cola, and I drank it slowly as the men slammed their knuckles on the table and spit into the spittoons and drank beer, as they played their cards.  My father pulled from a pocket the tin thumb from his dresser drawer, and he took a drag from one of the men’s cigarettes, although he didn’t smoke.  He stuffed the cigarette into the thumb with his handkerchief, and pulled the handkerchief out and showed it, with no burn or smudge.  The men grinned and returned to playing cards.

I left the Stag to spend my bi-weekly ten-cent allowance.  The Stag was on Monroe Street, a half block from Chicago Street, and all of Coldwater’s three dime stores were on Chicago Street less than two blocks from the Stag, Murphy’s and Newbury’s to the left of the corner, Tribolet’s to the right.  I shopped the toy department of each of them several times before spending the dime.  Murphy’s toy department, which was half of its basement, was the biggest.  But Newbury’s manager accepted my dime for things he priced at twelve cents.

Sometimes some of my friends and I hid behind the garage beside the school, to walk home from school, instead of taking the bus.  When my father passed us as we walked, we jumped into the ditch beside the road, to keep him from offering us a ride.  We resumed walking after he passed.

              Peggy and I and some friends of hers found some wooden doors in the garage and tried to use them as rafts in our channel.  I fell from mine and sunk to the bottom because I couldn’t swim, and I bounced to the top and gasped in a breath and sunk to the bottom several times, to make my way out of the channel. Peggy sat on her door and laughed until I was out.

            Bob Trana’s grandparents owned the store at the lake with a public beach and a raft from which people dove, and Bob gave me a tire tube I used to float from our channel to the raft, until my father told me to stop doing it.

            “What if it goes flat?” he asked.

            I waded toward the raft from the beach behind the store, hoping I could hold my breath long enough to kick my way from the drop-off to the raft, with my head underwater.

            “Can you swim?” a man asked me as I waded.

            “A little,” I replied.

            “Show me,” he said.

I lay face down in the shallow water and flapped my arms.  Peggy led Laddie on his chain to the beach and swam with him to the raft and shit beneath the water.  The shit floated.

            I swung on birches.  I climbed to their tops behind our garage and swung in the wind until my mother told my father she’d seen me doing it.  My father told me to stop doing it.

            “What if the bow breaks?” he asked me.

            A dead stub of one was beside the trunk of a live one, and I stood on the dead stub to reach a dead limb of the live tree, to climb into it.  The limb broke, and I fell on my back, with the stub between one of arms and my chest.  I was grateful.
 

 

 

Chapter 3

1954 - 1956

           

           My father drove us to visit Uncle Alvy, who lived with his family on a farm with two horses, one palomino and one pinto.  My father rode the palomino, with the stirrups holding his knees higher than the saddle, and Peggy sat on the pinto with her legs too short to reach the stirrups.  But my mother said I was too small for that.

            Uncle Alvy and his wife gave us two kittens, a black and white calico for Peggy, a gray tiger for me.  My father stopped to see Laverne, saying Laverne was his youngest brother, but he didn’t say how Alvy was an uncle.  He said Laverne was a stone mason, and the house where we stopped was a little stone one, but he wasn’t at home.

            I named my kitten Cuddles and sat on my bed with him in my lap and told him he was my only friend.  When my father cleaned fish, on a board he’d nailed to the tree against which I’d thrown the turtle eggs, he threw the heads and guts to the kittens.  But the kittens soon disappeared, first the calico, then Cuddles.

            My father drove us to Grand Rapids.  I smelled the cereal toasting as he drove us past the Post and Kellogg plants in Battle Creek.  All of us stayed with Aunt Hazel and Uncle Wally for a week, and Peggy and I stayed with them another week, after the others returned home.

            Aunt Hazel and Uncle Wally lived in a house like the house beside it.  I went into the house beside it thinking it was theirs, and a woman standing in its living room stared silently at me, until I turned and left.  I didn’t know my mistake until I stepped outside.

            Cousin Leonard was in prison.  Some of his belongings were in the basement.  I found a bullwhip and a New Testament, and Uncle Wally taught me to crack the whip, and Aunt Hazel gave me the New Testament.  The whip whipped back at me when I cracked it, but I stood on the sidewalk in front of the house, cracking it for hours.  I took the New Testament home.

The next summer they lived in a big old house.  In that house, they had two parakeets they called Pat and Mike, and Uncle Wally had a pellet pistol and showed us that it would penetrate a newspaper he leaned against a screen in the window beside the bird cage.  And, from that house, he drove us to Muskegon State Park to see Lake Michigan.

            “We won’t be able to see all the way across it,” Peggy told me.  “It’s because the Earth is round, and the other side is further away than the horizon, but you can’t get to the horizon.  It’s always as far away as you can see.”

            We played among the dunes, and we went inside a log blockhouse that was there, and back in Grand Rapids Aunt Hazel and Uncle Wally took us to an amusement park.  There I shrieked, when a goblin or ghost jumped in front of our car in the spook house, and I couldn’t stop shrieking until the ride ended.  So next they put me on a horse on a merry-go-round.

            “That won’t scare you,” said Peggy of that.

            And they took us to John Ball Park, and Peggy and I climbed wooden stairs to the top of a hill, while Aunt Hazel and Uncle Wally waited at the bottom.

            “My heart can’t handle it,” said Aunt Hazel.

Peggy and I took turns sitting in the lap of a bronze statue of John Ball at the bottom of the hill.  And Uncle Wally and Aunt Hazel drank Frankenmuth Ale as Uncle Wally drove, and they left some of it in the bottom of each bottle, for me and Peggy in the back seat.  And Peggy and I stole cigarette butts from their ashtrays and smoked them behind some kitchen cabinets the landlord had stored in the basement.

            “I wish you’d save the long ones for me,” laughed Aunt Hazel when she noticed we were doing that, and Uncle Wally took us fishing with rods and reels at a damn on the Grand River.

There I caught the biggest fish I’d ever seen, pulling its weight for many minutes, but Uncle Wally set it free.

“It’s a carp,” he said as he took out the hook.  “They’re not good-eating.”

I silently watched it swim away.

            I found a pith helmet with a badge on it Uncle Wally had worn while a security guard.  I wore it all week, and a boy in the neighborhood threw dirt on me, and I responded by doing the same to him as we laughed.  After the bath Aunt Hazel laughed me into taking, I asked Uncle Wally whether I could have the pith helmet, and he refused.

            “Oh, give it to him!” said Aunt Hazel.  “What do you need it for?”

            “Well,” he said, “he can’t have the badge.”

            He removed the badge and handed me the helmet without looking at me.

            But, back at the lake, Phil Boughman gave me a brass insignia with the United States Seal on it.  And, also for no reason I knew, my father gave me the jacket from his American Legion Commander uniform.  The jacket was too big for me, and the screw on the insignia dug into my forehead, but I wandered the lake in the helmet and jacket for weeks.

Peggy’s main school friends were Carolyn Hard and Colleen Wilmarth.  Colleen’s mother led a Brownie troop in their yellow wooden house between the school and Quincy, and Carolyn lived on a Farm and belonged to 4-H, and Peggy joined both 4-H and the Brownies.  Carolyn’s sister Joyce was the pudgy girl in my class, and I walked with Peggy to their farm where and Joyce and I threw dry corncobs at each other in the corn crib, for fun.

At school I finished my schoolwork ahead of the others and whispered to some of the others while they worked on theirs.  Our teacher, Mrs. Pomranka, came to my desk and grabbed my trapezius muscles.  She picked me up and shook me.

            “If you finish your work early,” she said after dropping me back into my seat, “don’t bother the other pupils.”

            The next time I finished early, I walked to the table where the toys were and took the Legos back to my desk and began building little red and white houses, but Mrs. Pomranka told me to take them back to the table.

            “Just sit and be quiet,” she said.

            But, when I began third grade, my parents accidentally bought me a fourth grade phonics book, and Mrs. Pomranka didn’t ask them to exchange it but instead put me in the fourth grade phonics class, and I outperformed the fourth graders in it.

            “Mrs. Pomranka says you can skip a grade if you want to,” my mother told me after the next parent and teacher conference, “but you wouldn’t be with kids your own age.”

            My heart rose and sunk between those clauses, but I didn’t tell my mother that I had few friends of any age, and I kept doing my schoolwork as I had.  And my mother showed my father the next report card I took home.  The grades on it, except two A minuses, were all A’s.

            “That’s good,” he said.  “Get all A’s, and I’ll give you a dollar.

            Mrs. Pomranka put but one A minus on my next report card and none on the next.

            “Show it to your dad when he gets home,” my mother said.

            I sat upstairs on my bed and waited.  I heard the car come into the driveway and my father come into the house.  But I didn’t move from the bed.

            “Go upstairs,” said my mother.  “Billy’s got something to show you.”

            I listened to his steps on the stairs, and I waited until he walked to the bed and stopped before me looking down at me, before I handed the report card to him..

            “That’s good,” he said handing it back to me, and he turned back to the stairs.

            “What about my dollar?” I asked nearly weeping as I took it back from him.

            “You’ll get your dollar,” he said turning only his head back, and when he came home next day he came upstairs and gave me the dollar, and it wasn’t a payday.

            I roamed the lake with Phil Boughman, and I watched cowboys break chairs over each other’s backs on Bob Trana’s television, and my father bought me a BB gun for my birthday.      “Can you hit that?” my father said pointing to a tiny silhouette in the top of a tree across the road, as all my family stood in the yard to watch me try the BB gun.

            It had a telescopic sight, and I looked through it at the silhouette, and still I saw only a silhouette.  But I pulled the trigger and saw it fall through the branches and ran across the road and found it.  It was a yellow warbler.

I picked it up from the leaves and held it in one hand.  I carried it warm and limp and dead across the road and showed it to my father.  He nodded, said nothing more, and returned to the house with the others.

            But that didn’t stop Phil and me from trying to shoot starlings living in a bird house between the lake another cottage.   And I wondered why the man living in the cottage came out and told us to stop.  I thought that was the purpose of BB guns.

            But, because other kids’ BB guns didn’t have a scope, Phil and I removed mine.  And I broke its plastic stock, by bracing it against a foot to cock it, but I didn’t mean to do that.  Bob’s Daisy Red Ryder had a wooden stock, and he shot me with it hitting my neck, but the hit didn’t bleed.  Phil shot my right index finger with my BB gun while I was trying to help him aim it by drawing an imaginary line to the end of its barrel to an empty cardboard BB container I’d set on a tree limb.  That hit bled and hurt, but I kept hanging out with Phil, and we went on a crime spree. 

It began on Treasure Island.  We walked there on the ice and found that no one had locked the front door of the cottage.  We went inside and found in the kitchen a hunting knife and a .22 caliber rifle and talked about stealing them but left them there.

            “Where can we keep them?” asked Phil.

            We walked back across the lake and tried opening the front door of a cottage near the one with the birdhouse in front of it.  We broke a windowpane in the door and reached through the opening to unlock the door.  From that cottage we stole paring knives. 

            We could hide those, and we tried to use them to cut putty from windows, instead of breaking the panes.  We failed at that, and we broke more panes, and I used a paring knife to cut some of the porch screen of the next cottage we entered.  I did that as we were leaving, curious to see whether the knife would cut them, and I cut several because it easily cut straight between the strands.  In the next cottage Phil kicked through a window, and there we found fedoras in a bedroom closet, and we put them on our heads and trounced on the bed.  In the next, we broke a chandelier hanging near a banister as we slid down it, and we broke a television screen.  We tried to pull the television away from the wall to look inside it, but we pulled to close to its top, and it fell on its face.  The next cottage we entered was Margo’s.

Margo was a friend of Peggy’s who was there with her family only in summer, and there we found some Winston cigarettes and some books of matches, and trying to smoke the cigarettes we set afire some bedroom curtains.  We pulled the curtains from the window and stomped out the fire as I wondered whether that was the bedroom where Margo slept.  And I wondered how she’d feel about what we’d done.

            We did all that in three days, and the fourth morning police knocked on my door, and told my mother that neighbors had seen us.  I told the police the truth, except that I denied stealing the paring knives, which I’d hidden beneath the propane tank outside our house for fueling our kitchen stove.  I thought stealing was worse than vandalism, and I thought that both were worse than lying, and my mother supported my lie.

            She told me she’d asked the police why I would steal paring knives and not steal that hunting knife and rifle.  My sentence was a year of probation and restriction to my home, except to go to school or church or places with my parents, and so I spent much of that year with my mother.  We sat at our dining table and drank coffee and ate Crest Stix and talked.

            Crest Stix were like donuts but didn’t have holes and weren’t round.  They came in two kinds we called brown and white, white with powdered sugar, brown with nuts.  Crest Stix and coffee were also my breakfast, because I preferred them to my father’s Wheaties and grapefruit and water, and I preferred the brown Crest Stix to the white ones and dunked them in the coffee.

            As I did that, my mother told me that my father had been a fireman and had shoveled coal in the Navy in World War I, and I thought those were different jobs.  She told me he’d joined the Navy because the Army rejected him for medical reasons and that the Navy discharged him after six months that included a trip to France on the ship on which he was a fireman.  And she told me he’d quit high school but received his high school diploma after the Navy discharged him.

            She told me that he was the only member of his family to graduate from high school, that he took a correspondence course to learn accounting, and that he won election to be St. Joseph County’s County Clerk.  She told me that his first wife died and that his second wife divorced him because he fell asleep at the opera.  And she told me he’d died twice.

            She told he’d bought a brand new 1932 Chevrolet and driven it beneath a moving freight train and that doctors brought him back to life once by electric shock and once by adrenalin.  She told me that he told her he’d heard beautiful music during that and that doctors told him he had but six months more to live.  And she told me she met him at a bus stop in Grand Rapids.

            She told me he had a big diamond ring on a finger then, and she told me he told her he might get her one like it, and she showed me her tiny engagement ring.

“He pawned the big one and bought me this,” she said.

She told me he was an accountant for a hospital in Grand Rapids then and that Peggy’s birth was in Grand Rapids but at a different hospital.  She said she wasn’t a virgin when she married, because my father had told her he wouldn’t buy a car without taking it for a test drive, and she told me she dropped out school after three efforts to pass the ninth grade.  She told me that her failure was because of a nervous breakdown and that a teacher had tried to help her.

By then the little school had closed, and I was going to the big new elementary school in Quincy, and Peggy to the junior high school there.  The bus from the town schools stopped in front of the store, instead of continuing to the end of our neighborhood and circling past Margo’s house for the return trip, as had the bus to the little school.  To go home from the stop at the store, I walked among the trees between the cottages and the road, and I heard Bob and Phil shouting my name from Phil’s yard.  I stopped and waited for them but didn’t turn, and they ran to me and punched my face, from behind me.

“You fucking snitch,” they said as they did it, and I began to run.

“Mommy,” I shrieked as I ran the rest of my way home, aware of the apparent cowardice of that.

“You’re not hurt!” my mother said.  “What are you screaming about?”

I was happy that Phil and Bob weren’t in my class in town but not happy that I had no friends in that class.  My father didn’t teach me baseball, and during recesses I played in the empty field at the back of the playground, instead of on the ball diamond with most of the boys.  Another boy who didn’t play ball gave me a first-baseman’s mitt, but I traded it to another boy for a Hopalong Cassady jackknife, thinking of the flashlight I’d won.

We derelicts found an empty 55 gallon cardboard tar barrel and took turns rolling in it down an embankment along the back of the schoolyard.  My clothes, which my mother seldom washed, smelled of tar.  But the school administration soon forbade that.

“The principle said all boys must play baseball during recess,” said my teacher.

When teams chose members they chose me last, and I walked my first time at bat because I didn’t swing, because I didn’t know how to decide whether I should swing, and I chased a ball that rolled past me as I stood at first base, as the others stood gaping at me.

“You can be umpire,” said Laverne during the resulting discussion.

All the boys respected Laverne, and he told me to stand behind the catcher and decide whether a pitch was a ball or a strike, and he told me how to decide and which fingers to use to show the count and how to decide whether a runner was safe or out at home and how to signal that decision, and I remembered and followed his instructions, until he slid into third base.

Everyone turned to me, and I wondered why everyone was looking at me, because Laverne hadn’t told me of any responsibility for third base.  He told me then, but I had no basis for a decision, because I hadn’t been watching third base.  I had no notion what to do.

“Come on, Bill,” said Laverne.  “Say I’m safe.  I’m your friend.”

I knew that was no basis for a decision but that I had no other.

“Okay,” I said.  “You’re safe.”

“What?” shouted Laverne.

Everyone was glaring at me, not gaping at me as they had when I chased the ball from first base, and Laverne offered no other way for me to participate.  So I began staying in the classroom during recess.  I played checkers with Shirley Rogers.

Her brothers, Johnny and Roy Rogers, were friends of Peggy’s.  Peggy told me she’d befriended Roy because of his name and Johnny because she liked him more than she liked Roy.  But I easily beat Shirley at checkers and didn’t stop doing it, despite the shame and compassion I felt when I watched her little blonde head drop in shame, as I jumped her men.

Peggy told me that she and her friends walked downtown during lunch hour and shoplifted.  She offered to take me with them and teach me how to do it, but I’d had enough of crime, for a while.  And the Principal rescinded the requirement to play baseball.

I played on the giant stride, some chains hanging from the top of a steel post, with handles on the bottom ends of the chains so kids could run around the post and swing on them.  And I picked a fight with a big guy, because I though he was too fat and stupid to defend himself against my taunts, and because I thought the others would admire my courage.  He hit me once, giving me a black eye, and I quit the fight.

“What happened to you?” my teacher asked me after recess.

“Nothing,” I said in my shame of my cruelty and cowardice.

“Your teacher says you’re brave,” my mother told me after her next conference with my teacher, “for not telling her what that guy did to you.”

But I befriended Todd Ellis, a kid much like the one who had punched me out, and his father was a doctor who owned a summer cottage two doors from Margo’s.  By then, my probation officer had lifted my restriction, and I went to Todd’s cottage and slid with him down its tin roof and flew about a yard from it to the flat roof of his garage.  And we set the woods afire by burning a plastic bean shooter.

The bean shooter was Todd’s and the matches his parents’.  Gravel was in piles along the road through the woods between my cottage and Nancy Johnson’s, and we lit the bean shooter and left it burning on gravel near the bottom of one of the piles, on its side toward the woods.  When we returned, my mother and some of our neighbors were standing in their yards watching the woods burn, and we watched the fire truck scream past the fire and circle past Margo’s and Todd’s cottages and return and hose it down.

“Were you playing with matches?” my mother asked me, and I lied again.

Todd, like Margo, was at the lake only for vacations, but the family that had taken us to Sunday school moved away, and Chesty Blackman moved into their house and had an old areal bomb in his garage.  He and I decided to buy a Turn-a-Craft, one of the small plywood speedboats a man whose name was Turner built in a pole barn, at a new landing on Chesty’s side of the store.  To buy it we were going to save the cash neither of us had, and soon he also moved away, but I found another friend.

Chuck Fitzgerald moved to our neighborhood because his father’s company transferred him to management of a factory between the lake and Quincy.  Chuck called trees challenges and climbing them conquering them, and together we conquered a tree whose trunk was too wide for shinnying, although its lowest limb grew from it far above our heads.  We conquered that challenge by jumping from the ground to and end of a limb hanging near enough to the ground.

Chuck’s father set up a workshop, in the basement of their house across the road from the lakefront cottages, and Chuck used it to turn two-by-fours into what he said were freighters.  He cut one end of a section of a two-by-four to a point and rounded its corners and edges with a plane, and he nailed a slice of a two-by-two to each end of the section of two-by-four, saying the two-by-two blocks were the bridge and the crew quarters.  We floated the freighters on the lake.

And, after floating them, we destroyed them.  Chuck drilled holes in them and put into each hole an explosive rivet from his father’s shop.  We built bonfires in his driveway and put the freighters in the bonfires and watched the rivets explode and splinter the freighters.

Chuck also had a slingshot, because all the boys at the lake who had enough buying power had slingshots, wooden ones with thick tubes of rubber powering leather slings.  Chuck killed frogs with his slingshot, and his mother boiled their legs in salt water, and he ate them.  He offered some to me, but I declined the offer, thinking of them alive.

He came to my yard and, by having me crouch in front of my father’s car and look at it from that point of view, pointed out to me that his father’s blue 1952 Buick Roadmaster was bigger than my father’s black 1949 Buick Special.  .

“Look at ours like that,” he said, “and you’ll see.”

But before I did my father came out of our house.

“Want a beer, Bill?” he asked me.

I looked at him and shook my head.

“What’s the matter?” he asked me before turning back into the house.  “Don’t want to drink beer in front of your churchy friends?”

I didn’t reply and went with Chuck to his house.  I looked at the front of his father’s car and saw that he was correct and appreciated the lesson in perspective.  I don’t remember that Chuck went to church, but I remember that my father wrecked the Buick and bought an older Dodge and drove our family in it to a reunion of past American Legion Commanders, in a grange hall in another town.  I stood with him and others, in front of the old white clapboard meeting hall with a steeple that made me think it had been a church, as they drank Four Roses whiskey from a pint bottle.  On our way home, the car slid on some ice on a bridge between Quincy and the little school and spun and flipped upside down, into the road’s drainage ditch.

I flew out of the car and over a fence and into a cornfield.  I don’t remember flying out of the car, but I remember getting up and finding that only my mother had not flown out of it and was lying on the inside of the top of the car, with the back seat on top of her.  The others of us waited for the ambulance for her in the living room of a farm house across the road.

She also went to the hospital when she fell drunk from the stairs in our cottage.  They had no banister, and she fell sideways and bounced from the sofa, to the coffee table and on to floor.  And also while we lived at the lake she went to the hospital to give birth to my sister Sally.

Chuck invited me to spend a night with him in a pup tent in his back yard, but his mother decided we shouldn’t do that, because she heard rain was coming.

“Isn’t that what tents are for?” I asked Chuck.

He took that argument to his mother, and she told him we could spend the night in sleeping bags, but in his room.  Chuck put on pajamas, but I’d thought we’d sleep in our clothes, and so I hadn’t brought my ragged pajamas.  So I undressed to my underwear.

 As I climbed into the sleeping bag in which Chuck wasn’t, he pointed at my toes raw and red because I seldom bathed or changed my socks.  My mother seldom washed our clothes.  It wasn’t easy with her wringer washer.

“I’ve seen toes like that,” said Chuck.  “They’re going to fall off.”

An advertisement on the back of a comic book said I could win a bow and arrows by selling White Cloverine Salve, and I cut out the form and filled it out and mailed it, and received a dozen tins of the salve.

“Want to buy some White Cloverine Salve?” I asked when people answered my knock on their doors.

I knocked on every door in the neighborhood and sold two tins and quit trying, and the company sent a letter to my parents, demanding the cash for the salve.  My father sent it, and the company sent me a stick and a string and three target arrows that wouldn’t stick in our garage doors, and I lost them by shooting them into a squirrel nest in the beech tree on which I’d splattered the turtle eggs.  But a woman in the neighborhood wired water heater switches for the plant Chuck’s father managed, and she hired Peggy and me to remove screws from them in her garage to speed up her process, because the plant paid her by the switch.

I shopped the advertisements on the backs of comic books and showed Chuck pictures of things I would buy.  I sat in the garage and removed the screws until I thought I saw someone standing near the door.  I saw no one when I turned to look.

I began leaving some of the screws in the switches, and my mother told me that the woman told her that we were doing that, and that she couldn’t use us anymore.  I ordered a pedometer for my ankle and couldn’t make it work and spent the rest of the money the woman had paid me on bottles of Coca Cola and frozen Milkshake candy bars with Popsicle sticks in them, and playing the juke box, at the store.  On the swings behind the store, I drank the pop and ate the candy and listened to the music from the outside speakers, and no one accused me of costing Peggy her job.

I led Laddie on his chain to Chuck’s yard, and he rolled onto his back and scratched it on the grass with his legs in the air, as Chuck’s mother watched and scowled.  For Christmas my father bought me an electric train set with a replica of a steam locomotive instead of a diesel one.  And he bought Peggy black figure skates instead of white ones,  

Another Christmas, he took me to Quincy’s dime store and asked me what I’d like for Christmas, and I told him I wanted a model airplane.  He pointed to a bomber with propellers, and I told him I’d rather have a jet and pointed to a model of a B-47, and he bought it then but wrapped it and put it beneath the tree.  When I glued it together, not reading the directions, I omitted several of its parts.

Another Christmas he gave me a wind-up bulldozer, and I wound it up and watched it climb over things, until one of its rubber tracks broke.  He gave me a slinky, and I watched it go down stairs with no help from me, until I tangled it as I had tangled the fishing lines.  And he gave me square American logs when I asked him for round Lincoln logs.  But I built houses with them as I had with the Legos at school.  And I built a blockhouse like the one in the dunes.

He gave Peggy a bicycle for Christmas.  I couldn’t ride it, but another kid at the lake had a smaller bicycle I could ride, if I started it down the hill between our cottage and the channel before picking up my feet.  That kid and I made machine guns, using as turrets empty wire spools from the plant for which I had worked, and broom handles as barrels.

Chuck had a bicycle bigger than Peggy’s in his garage, and he could ride it, but he didn’t.  I could ride it if he started me by pushing me, and I rode it to Margo’s house and around the loop there, and back past where Todd and I had set the woods afire.

My father said that, because our landlady was selling the cottage, we were moving back to Coldwater.  And my mother told me a hole I found beside the house one day when I came home from school was for a septic tank for the new owners to have an inside toilet.  Dozens of frogs were in the hole.

I used my American logs to build a house for them, and I stuck Popsicle sticks from my frozen Milkshake candy bars into the dirt in front of the house, and I used some of my mother’s sewing thread to tie some of the frogs to the sticks.  An extraordinarily small frog died with legs as blue as the scar on the belly of the toad Peggy had cut open.  I cut all the frogs loose and tore down the house.

Our landlady at the lake also owned our new home in Coldwater.  It was a big old gray stucco house whose previous owners had died.  In it were their furniture and cooking utensils and dinnerware, a Victrola with phonograph records and a bookcase with books, and much else.

The house had a parlor besides the living room and a pantry besides the kitchen and a workshop behind a storeroom behind the kitchen.  Sally slept in her crib in the downstairs bedroom where my parents slept, and Nancy and Peggy shared one of the upstairs bedrooms, while Dewey and I shared another.  On the door to the closet of an upstairs room without a bed, was a picture of Jane Russell lying in a haystack, and I threw darts at it.   I took care not to hit Miss Russell but took less care with the phonograph records.  I used them as Frisbees. 

 The workshop had a workbench with a vice and some old hammers.  And it had photographs of lightning over the windows above the workbench.  My father bought me a saw and a plane and a new hammer for Christmas, and Larry Knapp’s grocer father delivered our groceries and gave me some orange crates, for building materials.

In the backyard, where I sailed the old 78 RPM phonograph records and left the pieces to melt in the sun, were an apple tree and a cherry tree and a plumb tree and a butternut tree and grapevines, and a pear tree grew among weeds behind the backyard, and rhubarb was in a yard next door.  Coldwater’s A&P supermarket faced Pearl Street behind the weeds at the back of our yard, and many children lived on our block of our street, Washington Street.  Besides me and my siblings were the Graces and the Johnsons and the Cornells and the Tabors.

Verle Tabor was about Peggy’s age and Shirley Tabor a little older.  Connie Cornell was a little younger than I, and her brother Donnie was a little younger than Peggy, and her brother Ronnie a little older.  The ages of Audrey and Mary and Carol Johnson ranged from a little younger than Nancy to a little older than I, and the ages of Eddy and Linda and Caroline and David and Nancy Grace ranged from about my sister Nancy’s age to several years older than Peggy, but David was about my age and quickly became my friend.

My workshop opened to our garage, and in the garage was a ladder to an attic over the workshop, and in the attic was a light bulb hanging over a table and two chairs straddling the beams of the ceiling of the workshop, and David and I formed a club with me President and him Treasurer, although we had no treasure.

I found in the workshop a pole about four feet long.  It tapered from one end to the other and had a knob at its narrowest end.  But, unlike a baseball bat’s, its taper curved only into a flare at its widest end.

“Maybe it’s a bedpost,” I said showing it to David.

So we called it the bedpost, but we used it to hit rocks across the back yards of the houses where the other children lived, because we had no ball or bat.

            I built a guitar of a cigar box and some of my father’s nylon fishing line and a board from an orange crate.


 

 

 

 

Chapter 4

1956 - 1959

           

Bob McNall was about a year younger than I and lived in a big brick house on Pearl Street beside the A&P store.  His father was a tax accountant, and my father had known him when my father was a County Clerk, and my mother had taken me to their house when we lived beneath Old Lady Havens.  Then Bob hid behind his mother’s skirt.

Bob’s grandmother was a realtor and owned the house.  And her office was in the side of the house toward the store while Bob’s father’s was in the other side of the house and had a desk at an end of it for Bob.  Bob also became a friend of mine, but I spent much more time with David, although David’s father worked at the State Home doing what my father did. 

David and I wandered our neighborhood and beyond.  Danny Parker and the Ward twins bullied both David and me, and David told me the reason Danny was a bully was that he had a glass eye, because he’d thrown a knife at a tree while he was riding his bicycle.  He said the knife had bounced from the tree and put out the eye.

My father replaced the Dodge with a 1953 Buick Special.  David’s parents had a 1956 Chevrolet and owned their own home, but Chevrolets were cheaper than Buicks, and their house was smaller than ours.  And David and I didn’t talk about those differences.

            Peggy told me people could smoke grapevines.  A fence separated our yard from the yard on the side of our house away from the yard with rhubarb in it, and grapevines arched from the fence over a space with dead vines lying on the ground beneath the live ones, and David and I crawled into the space and tried smoking the hollow dead ones.  They burned my tongue.

            David’s father said he was evangelical, but he smoked Winston cigarettes, and David stole some.  We smoked them in our club house, and we tried to inhale the smoke, but it made us cough and choke.  My mother saw the smoke through a window between the attic and the store room behind our kitchen.  For that, she didn’t spank me but relinquished responsibility to my father, but neither did he spank me.  Instead he sat me in a big chair in the parlor and lectured me from another he placed in front of me.

            “What if you had burned down the house?” he asked me.

            But David and I found plenty else to do.  Behind Coldwater’s sewage disposal plant we swung on vines over the creek we called the Coldwater River.  And Eddy, David’s brother, came home from the Navy and bought a .22 caliber rifle, and he took David and me with him to shoot at squirrels in the trees from which hung the vines, but he didn’t let us try.  He’d sent David a sailor cap when he was in the Navy.  But he said bullets were too expensive.

            We played in the switchyard three blocks south of our street.  A loading dock along the tracks along the freight terminal had a ramp at one end, and we ran from the other end and sailed a few yards into space before landing on the ramp, still running.  And once an engineer gave us a ride on a locomotive and complained about his company trying to fire his fireman and turned the controls over to the fireman and took us out to the ramps along the outside of the locomotive.

            “He doesn’t have to shovel coal,” he said opening panels and showing us gauges on the engine, “but he has to check these.”

            He told us about unions and featherbedding, and I understood hardly anything he said, but that was a glorious time for us.  When the engineer told us he was moving on, David and I climbed down from the engine sadly, but we grinned the rest of the afternoon.  And we climbed ladders to walkways between gas company buildings and stared at a stuffed owl and other things in a big display case in the main hallway of the courthouse

            “Do you know who lives there?” David asked me stopping in front of a house in the second block of Clay Street north of Chicago Street.

            “No,” I said as I stood looking at the screen porch across the front of the house.

            “Linda Sours,” said David gazing at the house as we walked on.  “She’s beautiful.”

            He told me that she was in our grade but that she went to Franklin Elementary School because she lived on the side of Clay Street away from our neighborhood.  It wasn’t the Franklin Elementary School on Pearl Street where I had attended kindergarten but a new one at the south end of Fremont Street.   It served the same neighborhood and was brick but, because it was but one story, had no fire escape.

Peggy’s first boyfriend in Coldwater was Don Smith, and my first girlfriend after our return to Coldwater was Don’s sister Joyce, who was in my fifth grade class at Lincoln Elementary School.  Harold Siler was also in that class, and he had a crush on Judy Bowditch, who was also in that class.  Her father was the Minister of Coldwater’s Baptist Church.

“I love Judy,” chanted Harold.  “You love Joyce.”

Harold swapped names we drew for Christmas gifts to give himself Judy’s name and me Joyce’s.  I wished to give her one of the glass and chrome engagement rings I’d seen at Murphy’s dime store.  But all my family went with me for that and other Christmas shopping.

“You don’t want to buy her a cheap ring,” said my father.  “How about a puzzle?”

So I gave her a jigsaw puzzle, picturing a mill on a stream, and I quit my courtship.

I joined the Cub Scouts.  The pack made bird feeders, by drilling holes in sections of tree limbs, and I hung mine above our concrete back porch outside our kitchen door.  But I had no suet to stuff into the holes, and I had no dimes for the weekly dues for the pack, and so I felt I didn’t belong in Cub Scouts and quit.  The kid who invited me into Cub Scouts was a paper boy, and he took me to work with him once, and I helped him fold the papers he’d deliver.  But I had no bicycle to help him deliver them, and I felt no one would give me the job, if I did have one.

I borrowed books from the Coldwater Public library, and Peggy told me that the Branch County library was in the basement of the courthouse, and she told me it didn’t limit how many books we could borrow.  The city’s limit was three, and during lunch hours I walked across Pearl Street to the courthouse and borrowed from the county as many books as I could carry, and I stacked them on the floor beside my desk at school.  But I didn’t read them.

I checked out Audubon’s Birds of America more often than any other book, wishing to be a birdwatcher for the birds’ colors, but I had no binoculars.  I also often checked out Gray’s Anatomy, because I wished to be scientific, and for its colors.  But the next year Lincoln closed.

For the sixth grade David and I transferred to Franklin and were each other’s only friend there.  An old man helped kids cross Chicago Street a half block from the school and carved little wooden boats and gave them to kids.  But he gave none to David or to me.

            Our teacher, Mrs. Tupalek, was the wife of the owner of Coldwater’s Lincoln and Mercury dealership.  She selected me for safety patrol, but neither I nor my mother could clean my belt, as well as Mrs. Tupalek said I should.  So she removed me from duty.

A picture of the Parthenon was in my history book, and I learned to distinguish the Doric and Ionic and Corinthian orders of Greek Architecture, and I wished to be an architect to build houses people could enjoy more than I enjoyed mine.

            “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Mrs. Tupalek asked me.

            “An architect,” I replied thinking also of Legos and my American logs.

            “Oh,” she said looking down at me.  “There are too many architects.  How about a civil engineer?  Do you like bridges?”

But Linda Sours was in our class, and I agreed with David that she was pretty, and he and I stole kisses from her during recess.

He did it first, and we took turns, but he punched my solar plexus.  As I stood on the sidewalk at the playground entrance to the school, trying to resume breathing while wondering why David had done that, Mrs. Tupalek came out of the school and pounded my back until I stopped gasping.  But she asked me to write a report on Janus, and she asked me to deliver it orally to all the school at the Christmas assembly, but she suggested that I put it in a book and hold the book open in front of me to read it as I spoke.

“That’s okay,” I said.  “I memorized it.”

“Are you sure?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said a little angry at her doubt.

But, as I recited it, I saw Linda in the audience, sitting on the floor of the gymnasium with the other children and looking at me, and I forgot all the rest of my report.

“So that’s what I smell,” said Jim Shray sitting beside me in another assembly and pointing at the hole in the sole of my shoe nearest him and the paper in it.

I had been putting paper into my shoes to keep my socks from wearing through.

“Look at his shoes,” my mother said to my father.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked looking at me.

I didn’t know how to tell him I didn’t because I knew how little money we had.

David’s father bought him a bicycle, with a light on its front fender and a horn in a metal tank between its cross bars, like Peggy’s but bigger and not blue but green.  I gave David a ride on it, because he couldn’t ride it well enough to give me a ride on it, and by then I could.  As we rode into a driveway, I saw some change in the gravel, and jumped from the bicycle.

David wobbled on his handlebars until the bicycle coasted to a stop and fell on its side.  The change was about 75 cents, and we took David’s bicycle to his house and walked to Newbury’s dime store, because we knew Newbury’s sold baseballs at a lower price than did the other dime stores.  We paid the 69 cents and the tax and wandered around downtown for a few minutes before deciding to try out the ball on the diamond at Waterworks Park.

As we walked past the cannons in the park across Chicago Street from the Coldwater library, I saw that the bore of one of the cannons was about the diameter of the baseball, and my fingers slipped from the ball as I tried the fit.  The ball rolled so far into the canon barrel that we could neither reach it nor see it.  But David complained about none of that.

Danny Parker and I had a truce during which he tried to increase my bicycle skills.  His bicycle was also green, but it didn’t have a light or a horn or a tank between its crossbars, and he could step on a pedal and swing a leg over its seat to mount it after pushing it into motion.  And he tried to teach me to do that, and he offered to trade his bicycle to me for my electric train, after I tried and failed to do it several times.

My electric train, because I’d operated on it as Peggy had on the toad, was hardly operational.  So I accepted Danny’s offer, and we went to my house and found my father in our living room, playing cards at the card table.  I asked his permission.

“No,” he said, and I never argued with him, but for Christmas that year he gave me a bicycle much like Danny’s but new and red.

Before Christmas, he hid it beneath a quilt in the storeroom between our kitchen and my workshop, and I snuck a peak but couldn’t tell the color in the darkness.

“I know you snuck a peak,” said my father when I showed surprise at the color Christmas morning, but I rode it all the rest of that cold and drizzly December day.

On another day I gave David a ride on it.  Holbrook’s Wood Products Company was next door to the Grant Hotel at the end of Monroe Street across Park Avenue from the switchyard.  David and I climbed to its roof, to jump from it into a pile of sawdust, and David fell as he landed and cut his head on an Indian club the company had discarded without removing the square end that had attached it to the lathe.  David’s head was bleeding, and I refused to give him a ride home, because I was afraid of being on probation again for being on the roof.  But, after he lied to his father about how he’d cut his head, I felt the shame of the lie and told his father the truth.

After his whipping David came to my back yard.

“You shouldn’t lie,” I told him beneath the apple tree.

“You’re going to hell for swearing,” he replied.

Aunt Hazel died of a heart attack.  My father let me drive his big green Buick part of the way to Grand Rapids.  I swerved across the center line and overcompensated and swerved to the shoulder and overcompensated again and served back across the center line.  I repeated that cycle continually for about fifteen minutes.  My father took back the wheel.

All of my family slept in the apartment in the big old house, and I shared a bed with Uncle Wally and Cousin Leonard, who was home from prison.  I awoke and found a hand in the front of my underpants and lay quiet in fear of awakening or angering whoever’s hand it was.  I don’t remember whether I was asleep when the hand withdrew.

Buzz Travelbee became Peggy’s boyfriend.  His name was Rolland, but his family and everyone else who knew him called him Buzz, and I liked him.  He wore a black cowboy hat and black cowboy boots and jeans low on his butt.  And he could play guitar and do lariat tricks and stick a knife by throwing it.  And he was kind to me.

He had a switchblade, and he tried to teach me to throw it and stick it into the trunk of the apple tree, but when I tried it hit the tree sideways and fell to the ground in pieces.  With one hand, Buzz wordlessly picked up the wooden covers that had broken from the handle and the blade and a spring and some other parts, and he laid them in the palm of his other hand.  He quietly looked at them for a few seconds touching them with a finger.

“Maybe I can fix it,” he said.

He was on probation, and he worked on a farm as a stipulation of his probation, and Peggy visited him on the farm and took me.

“Want to see me pitch Itslitch?” he asked us showing us the inside of the barn.

As he pitched it from the silo to the cow trough, he told us it was alfalfa with some chemicals in it, to make it healthier for the cows.

Peggy eloped with him.  They and Chris Sellers’ sister Eve and a friend of Buzz’s pitched pup tents in woods behind a cornfield across Sprague Street from Branch County’s fairgrounds.  Police found them by a report of the fire they built.

“The police complained about getting their shoes muddy walking across the cornfield,” my mother told me.

Buzz was eighteen and Peggy fourteen.  Buzz went to prison for two years for statutory rape.  Peggy went to reform school for two weeks.

“The judge said it’s to teach her a lesson,” my mother told me.

On the weekend between the two weeks, my father drove the rest of the family to visit her, but we kids waited in the car.  I looked up at the wire mesh covering the windows of the second story of the brick building and saw her waving to us from one of them.  I tried to smile, but my mouth didn’t move, and I didn’t wave.

The first Saturday after her release, she and I stood talking in the front yard of our old house, shuffling our feet in the autumn leaves on the ground.

“Uncle Wally screwed me when I was nine,” she told me.  “He told me not to tell anyone, and I didn’t, then.  But I told the psychologist at the reform school.”

“I’m glad Hazel didn’t live to know about it,” my mother said to all of us.

“Nothing we can do about it now,” my father said and didn’t prosecute.

When David and I passed from the sixth grade at Franklin to the seventh grade at Roosevelt Junior High School on Washington Street behind empty Lincoln Elementary, David’s passing was on the condition that he improve his academic performance, and his mother asked school officials to put us in no classes together.

“She said you’re a bad influence on me,” David told me.

The Minister of the little blue-shingle Assembly of God church on the corner of Monroe and Washington Streets was the seventh grade mathematics teacher.  Kids called him Little Hitler because of his little mustache and because his name was Afred J. Hamlin, and I couldn’t understand what he told my class about fractions, but David explained it to me on the front steps of my house.  But, at the end of that first marking period, David’s teachers sent him back to the sixth grade.

“I’m the third biggest whore in Coldwater,” Peggy told me.  “Doris is the second biggest, and Verle’s the biggest.”

Doris Elkin was Peggy’s closest friend, but I saw more of Verle because I could see her house from the studio couch in our living room, from which one afternoon I watched her and Peggy walking across the street toward our house.  Verle was barefoot in a blue bathrobe and stopped and stood in front of me as I leaned back on the couch.  She put her hands on the lapels of her robe.

“Should I show him?” she asked Peggy.

“No,” said Peggy as I sat there hoping.

Peggy told me she knew a kid who said he had a spaceship in his garage and could go to Mars in it.  She said that he showed her the ship but that they didn’t go anywhere in it, and I wanted her to take me there and show me, but she didn’t offer.  And I didn’t ask.

David and I rode our bicycles to Marble Lake, and I introduced him to Chuck and found that he was hanging out with Phil and Bob, and we five went into the woods together.  Near the tree Chuck and I had conquered by way of its low-hanging bow, Chuck and Phil and Bob compared their pubic hair, but David and I abstained.  We stood silent.

“Are you ashamed of me?” Chuck asked me behind the store away from the others.

“No,” I said, and I didn’t know why he was asking, but I vomited beneath the swings while I thought no one could see me.

Jim, Shirley Tabor’s boyfriend, bought a Harley Davidson and gave me a ride on it.

“I had it up to seventy,” he told Shirley when we returned to her house.

“With him on the back?” she exclaimed as I stood happy from the wind.

“You can’t tell me he’s not getting some of that,” my father said as he and my mother played cards in our living room, as Jim sat on the edge of the Tabors’ front porch with his hands clasped behind Shirley’s butt as she stood on the ground in front of him.

“Why don’t you show him what it will do?” my mother asked my father.

She was referring to the Buick, and I went with him to Byers’ Landing, to fish with him in a rowboat he rented there.  People of Coldwater called a curve past a junkyard between Coldwater and the landing Dead Man’s Curve because of the concrete barriers of a bridge on it.  The long cane poles extended from beneath the dashboard of the Buick through the back window on the passenger side and back past the end of the car, and the wind vents in front of the front windows were as open as they could be because my father liked wind, when he took Dead Man’s Curve that day.  The wind forced my eyes nearly shut but not so nearly that I couldn’t see that the speedometer said we were going ninety.  And my father said not one word.

I opened the Buick’s hood at home and saw that its engine was a straight eight with a one-barrel carburetor.  My father gave me a quarter to wash and wax it in our front yard and complained about streaks of wax I left.  I don’t think I ever removed them all.

The Tabors had a pear tree in their back yard at the end of their driveway.  I climbed it not for the pears but because it was a tree.  My father saw me from the card table.

“I don’t want you stealing those pears,” he said.

“I was just climbing the tree,” I replied.

“Don’t tell me that,” he said as I stood weeping.

From the Tabors’ back yard past the Graces’ were no fences.  The neighborhood’s kids treated those four yards as one big yard and their playground, and they included each other’s front porch in that playground, and David treated Richard Johnson as a carnival ride.  Richard was a brother of the Johnson girls’ mother and was an adult but didn’t behave as one.

“Shake hands with Richard,” said David to me on the Johnsons’ front porch.

He offered a hand to Richard, and Richard took it and shook David all over the porch, but I didn’t try it.

“Are you going to marry that girl?” the Johnson girls’ father asked Ronnie Cornell as he stepped out to his porch next door.

“Not unless the rubber’s got a hole in it,” said Ronnie.

“Have you ever thought about Connie?” David asked me as we stood in the Johnsons’ back yard as Connie stepped out to hers.

“What about her?” I asked looking at her.

“Blond hair,” said David, “blue eyes, and . . . .”

He waved his hands to indicate the shape of a Coca Cola bottle.

“Yeah,” I said still looking at Connie, “dirty blonde hair, blue eyes and . . . .”

And I waved my hands to indicate the shape of a fence post.

But I thought about what he said.  And, when he organized games of spin the bottle with Connie and the Johnson girls and his sister Nancy in his back yard, and after that post office in the basement of his house, I cheated all I could for kisses from Connie.  And Connie invented a kissing game and invited only me to play it with her.

Her rules were that I could win a kiss from her for each of her hula hoop tricks I matched.  She let me use her hula hoop because I didn’t have one because I didn’t have 69 cents to buy one.  I matched her tricks, despite my lack of practice, but she refused the kisses.

“I wouldn’t win anything, if you didn’t do it,” she said.

But, with no word of warning, as she sat on her bicycle in her front yard, she leaned toward me, and kissed me.  And it wasn’t a movie kiss or what we’d done playing spin the bottle or post office.  It was a long warm wet one.

I thought it should disgust me.  But I knew it changed my life.  I felt I’d found home.

But our lives didn’t match as well as our mouths.  Because her father owned a truck he used to haul Lincolns and Thunderbirds for Ford Motor Company, her house was the biggest and nicest on the block, and she was also otherwise more fortunate than I.  She won that bicycle in a drawing at the county fair and a Dalmatian from the Fire Department in a coloring contest at school.  And her brother Donnie had a little Allstate motorcycle he rode to school.

And he gave me a ride to school on it once, when he was in the eighth grade while I was in the seventh and Connie in the sixth, still going to Franklin.  Each morning for weeks, I watched and waited for him to come out of his house before I left for school, but he never gave me another ride on it.  And, before we stopped playing spin the bottle, Bill Griffith joined us in a game on my back porch beneath my birdfeeder.  And he was also more fortunate than I.  His kissing Connie worried me.

But he never returned to our neighborhood, and I found beautiful the backs of Connie’s knees between her knee socks and her skirt, as she rode her bicycle in front of me on mine over maple seeds on a wet street beneath the maple trees after a rain.  But I weighed against that her parrot in a cage in her front yard, sounding like a wolf whistle when girls passed, and her spider monkey.  The monkey scratched and bit me when I tried to untangle its leash from the clothesline where her mother tied it in their back yard.

 So I bought her a gold-plated charm bracelet with a charm in the shape of a heart with her initials on it.  I ordered it by mail, paying five Bazooka bubblegum wrappers and a quarter, my bi-weekly allowance then.  When it arrived I crossed the street and knocked on her door.

“You expect me to wear something you bought with bubblegum wrappers?” she asked.

So I tried salesmanship again, responding to a comic book advertisement for selling Christmas cards door-to-door, but I fared no better at that than I had selling the salve.  And I knocked on Joyce Smith’s door on Monroe Street, not knowing she’d moved there from her big old ramshackle house on Cutter Avenue, and she answered the door.  Neither of us indicated that we recognized the other.

“Do you want to buy some Christmas cards?” I asked and silently turned away when she silently shook her head.

So I turned to crime again.  I knocked on no more doors, and I spent the little money I’d received from the few boxes of cards I sold, and my father again paid for my failure.  And I befriended Donny Shellenbarger and shoplifted with him.

He was about a year younger than Bob McNall and lived on Clay Street between Washington Street and Pearl Street about a block from Bob’s house.  Donny also stole money from his father’s wallet when his father came home drunk on paydays and passed out in a chair in his living room after Donny’s mother went to bed.  Donny and I stole mostly cheap things from the dime stores and phonograph records from the basement of the Music Mart and girly magazines from Roby’s drugstore, but we also stole cases of Coca Cola from trucks behind the A&P store, unloading from one side of the truck while the driver unloaded from the other.

We also took from behind the store a cardboard box big enough for both Donny and Me to sit in it, and we stashed the Coca Cola in the box, and drank it warm.  And we broke into the Coca Cola warehouse across Sprague Street from the fairgrounds.  We climbed onto the oil tank behind it and broke a window and climbed in.  But we decided the cases of Coca Cola were too heavy to carry home.  We looked for cash but found none.

I also recruited Bob McNall into my crime spree.  That was easy, because Bob was robbing his sick mother taking cash from her wallet, as Donny did his father.  Her illness kept her from leaving her house, but Bob’s father gave her a twenty-dollar-bill each week to buy groceries from the A&P store, and she put the twenties into a red leather wallet in the top center drawer of a small desk in their living room and left them there.

Bob’s parents and grandparents gave him cash and things my parents couldn’t afford to give me. They gave him a microscope and a big electric train set, and the first color television I saw was in his living room where I watched with him the map burning red and yellow on Bonanza, before my father bought our first black and white television.  My father put our television in our parlor, and its vertical and horizontal holds frequently lost hold, and I became the family’s main expert in turning the knobs to regain their grip.

“Do you believe that’s true?” my father asked me as we watched news of the Sputnik.

Bob’s father taught him to play chess, and Bob taught me to play chess, and his father kibitzed.  I decided to shrink my castle to swap one of its pawns for another queen, and that left my king no room to move in his castle, and Bob’s father told Bob what to do about that.  He told him to move a knight beside the corner pawn of the castle I had shrunk.

“That’s stupid!” I said seeing that the move left my bishop open to take Bob’s queen.

“Checkmate,” he said making me feel stupid.

My father gave me a microscope for Christmas, but it was 150-power while Bob’s was 500-power, and Christmas day I broke the light he gave me for it.

“What are you crying about?” said my father when I told him what I had done, and I wept more because I couldn’t tell him I was crying about his money.

Bob bought a white hamster, because hamsters were a fad among kids there then, and I spent two weeks’ allowance to buy cheaper brown one.  Bob built a cage for his in his grandfather’s workshop in the back of his garage, and I built a smaller one of scrap lumber and window screen in my workshop, and my hamster soon died.  I never cleaned its cage.

But I stole more methodically than did Bob.  We stole car magazines by hiding them beneath our coats, but I sewed a pocket inside a Navy pea coat someone had given my mother for me, and used that for stealing smaller things.  And I stole a copy of Moby Dick from the Coldwater Public Library and hollowed it for stealing small things.  I stole some of those glass and chrome engagement rings from Murphy’s.  But I didn’t offer one to Connie.

And I didn’t recruit David into my thievery, but he and I climbed over the fence around the gas company and drove the company’s cars, until a man working that Saturday saw us.

“There’s a guy looking out the window,” said David.  “Let’s get out of here.”

We ran, and David jumped between the top rail of the fence around the yard and a strand of barbed wire above the rail, but I stopped.  The man caught up with me, but he told me to go home and not to come back, and I slowly climbed through the gap through which David had jumped.  I found him waiting for me behind a tree in the woods.

“I saw that guy talking to you,” said David.  “Why didn’t you run?”

“I don’t know,” I said knowing my cause was cowardice.

“I was afraid to come back,” David said to me then.  “I’m sorry.”

Terry Knowles caught Bob and me stealing magazines.  Terry was about Peggy’s age and worked at the bus station.  We stole the magazines at Roby’s Drugstore, but we took them to the bus station, planning to steal more there.  Terry stopped us as we were leaving with only the ones from Roby’s.

“Are you going to pay for those magazines?” he asked.

“We didn’t get them here,” I told him.

“Where did you get them?” he asked.

“At Roby’s,” I answered.

“I’ll call him,” he replied.

He dialed the telephone on the counter.

“He said he stamps the dates in all his magazines when they come in,” he said hanging up the telephone.  “Mind if I take a look at those?”

We put them on the counter and watched as Terry flipped through their pages.

“I don’t see any dates,” said Terry.  “Do you want me to call your parents?”

“No,” Bob and I said together, although my parents had no telephone.

We walked out slowly, and we walked to the nearest corner, but we ran the block from that corner past what had been the Tibbits movie theatre, where I had seen Superman turn invisible, to Bob’s house.

Bob learned of some nudist magazines we could see without stealing them.  Dewey Harris, whose father owned a heating repair company, had a stash of them beneath the porch of a house next door to his.  Bob and I pulled a piece of lattice away from an end of the porch and crawled beneath it.  I thought the pubic hair was ugly.  But I didn’t feel it was.

 

 

 

Chapter 5

1959 - 1960

 

Donny’s mother helped him and me set up on their living room floor an HO gauge electric train set she gave him for Christmas.  She was on her knees in a short blue nightgown that covered little of her large breasts.  And my mother revealed more to me about her.

“She swears like a sailor,” my mother told me after meeting her in a house on the corner of Pearl and Clay next door to Donnie’s, where a friend of my mother’s lived.

Donny and I kept the girly magazines we stole in an attic at an end of the hallway outside his bedroom and decorated its rafters with pictures we tore out of them.  I tore out others and decorated the walls of the room I shared with Dewey.  No one in my family said anything to me about that.  And Donny and I expanded our crime spree.  We tried to expand his train set.

An alley separated the front part of the Golden Rule Shop from its back part.  Its front part sold toys and clothing and furniture for babies while its back part sold toys for older children.  Donny and I decided to steal HO gauge accessories from the back part of the shop.

Planning to cut a hole in its plate glass window facing the alley, we climbed over the fence around Legg Lumber Company on a Sunday, and stole two of the little glass-cutters people use for scratching window glass before breaking it to fit windows.  Donny snuck out of his house at midnight by sneaking through the attic and onto the roof outside its window and sliding down a tree.  I snuck through my bedroom’s window and slid down a tree behind my workshop.

We met in the alley and quickly learned we couldn’t cut a hole in the window with those little glass-scratchers.  So we wandered Coldwater’s alleys, looking for a way to steal something else, until a police car turned into the alley behind Murphy’s and Newbury’s dime stores.  I stopped, but Donny ran around a corner of the alley, toward Sweeny Buick and Pontiac.

The police didn’t arrest me, but they asked me where I lived before telling me to go home, and next morning police were at my house.  My parents let them search my room, and neither did they say anything to me about the pictures of naked women on its walls, but I took the pictures down immediately after they left.  The next day they came to my house again and drove me to the police station in the back of City Hall.

“This is a detective from Lansing,” a policeman in a uniform told me pointing a thumb at a man in civilian clothes, and I told him all I remembered doing that I thought was illegal, from shoplifting to the Golden Rule shop.

“What about the car dealership?” asked the detective.  “Sweeny’s.”

Bob McNall and I had killed the battery of a car in Sweeny’s used car lot by driving the car by its starter motor.  And we decided a white 1960 Pontiac convertible with blue Naugahyde upholstery in Sweeny’s showroom was the nicest car we’d ever seen.  And we bought bottles of Coca Cola from a machine in Sweeny’s garage, because we knew no other place that sold them for a nickel, and they were colder than those Donny and I had stolen.

I remembered all that while the detective waited for my answer.

“You didn’t break in that night,” he asked me, “and steal anything?”

“No,” I said, but he said he didn’t believe me, and I began to weep.

“If you didn’t do it,” he asked me next, “why are you crying?

“Because you’re accusing me of something I didn’t do,” I sniveled.

“I think it’s because you have a guilty conscience,” he said.

The Probate Judge ordered my parents to take me to Battle Creek for psychiatric evaluation.  A woman interviewed me while my parents sat in the waiting room.  She asked me to draw pictures of a man and a woman.

“Why doesn’t the woman have any breasts?” she asked me.
            I didn’t tell her that I thought drawing them would be wrong, and that I thought she’d think I was wrong in doing it, and I began to weep again.

“Why are you so unhappy?” she asked me.

“I don’t know,” I sobbed and didn’t know.

My sentence was two years of probation and restriction.

“The psychiatrist recommended that you go to a foster home,” my mother told me, “but the judge said a child should be with his parents.”

I didn’t tell her I thought I might have more and be happier in a foster home, and the judge ordered my father to take me to the stores I’d robbed, to return what I’d stolen.

“He seemed like a nice kid,” said the manager of Newbury’s who had let me buy twelve-cent toys for a dime, and I wept still more.

“Donny’s parents took him and moved away,” my mother told me, “because the judge said he wouldn’t prosecute if they did.”

I went to Sunday school with Bob, at the little Assembly of God church on the corner of Washington and Monroe Streets, to be away from home while I was on restriction.  Martha Colvin went to that church and lived with her mother, in half of the house in which the Johnson’s lived, the half nearest David’s house.  Bob had a crush on Martha although she was older than Peggy.

“My dad says I’ve got the bug,” he’d told me as he and I designed car bodies at his desk.

In Church we sat on each side of Theresa Bennett and shoved our hands up her dress.

At school dances, I took turns with John Cochrane, dancing with Sharon Casey.  I thought she was cute, but I never spoke to her besides asking her to dance, and I was afraid of what she might think of my hands sweating.  The Longs moved into the old brown shingle house two houses from David’s across Washington Street from the Church.

I walked home from school with a girl who lived with them and was in eighth grade.

“Eat me, son,” she said to me as we walked, for no reason I understood.  “Eat me.”

“You’d better watch out for that girl,” my father told me.  “She’ll eat you alive.”

I spent most of my restriction in our back yard.  I made a swing of a board and a rope Buzz had left at our house and hung it from a limb of the apple tree and sat on it and sang songs from Hit Parade magazines Buzz had also left.  With my BB gun, I shot a sparrow from one of the birches behind the workshop, but it didn’t stop moving while I shot it many more times as it lay on the ground.

Marsha Forbes lived in a big black stucco house on the corner of our block furthest from the Longs’ brown shingle house.  I thought she might have been the little blonde girl whose grandparents lived near us on Marshall Street.  Bob told me he knew her, but I never spoke with her, and she moved away. 

The Kurts moved into that house with two small sons and a smaller daughter, and I found Dewey with the Kurt boys beneath the pear tree in the weeds between our house and the A&P store, and one of them was holding a yellow tiger cat while Dewey threw pears at it.

The holding boy looked up at me and let the it run away.

“I told you to hold him!” Dewey said before seeing me.

I made a slingshot, by tying a leaking tube I’d replaced in one my bicycle tires to two limbs of the apple tree, and I used it to shoot apples at the Kurt boys as they played in their yard a half block away.  In the winter, we had a snow and a thaw and a freeze all in one week, and I skated around our cherry tree in the black figure skates my father had given to Peggy at the lake.  Because Connie was still in the sixth grade at Franklin I never saw her.

Bob Long asked me to be his locker mate, and I accepted because no one else asked me to do that, but I never went to his old brown-shingle home.  I took shop to learn to make things, but the first six week marking period of the course was drawing in the drafting room, not building in the shop.  Kids called Dale Otis Daily Odor, and he slept through our drafting classes, and I felt sorry for him and asked him to be my locker mate.

“Did I do something wrong?” Bob asked me.

            I couldn’t find my mathematics book and fell further behind the others in Little Hitler’s class.  Because of its cost, I didn’t tell my parents I’d lost it until I’d looked for it for weeks, and soon I lost the second one they bought me.  I finished the year without one.

            But I excelled in drafting.  Each day, Mr. McGee, the shop teacher, drew two views of an object on the chalk board, and asked us to draw the third view.  For one, only Jim Barber and I suggested a third view, and our views were different from one another.

            “Why don’t you both make a model,” said Mr. McGee.  “Use anything you want, paper or cardboard, whatever.  Then we’ll be able to see which of you is right.  You can bring the models to me tomorrow.”

            I used cardboard from the back of a writing tablet.  I used a ruler to draw each side, and the ruler and a razor blade my father had discarded to cut along the lines, and Scotch tape to join the sides.  And I put all the tape inside, except for two edges of a side I used as a door, to put the tape inside the model.  Jim used paper and Scotch tape and put all the tape outside and omitted one of the sides.  Mr. McGee, after seeing that we were both correct, questioned only me.

            “Do you mind if I put this in the case over there?” he asked.

            The case was a set of wooden shelves with glass fronts through which we could see drafting tools and other examples of what he was trying to teach, and he gave me one of the pieces of Masonite we were using as drawing boards, to take home.

            “It’s an extra one,” he said.

            And, the next marking period, when we moved to the shop, he asked me to share his bench at the front of the shop, while the other students shared with each other.  And I stayed after school to help him and my geography teacher build a cabinet for my geography teacher’s stereo equipment and enjoyed hearing them call each other Charlie and Doug and seeing Charlie smoke.  And Doug, Doug Hoopengarner, who also taught chorus and directed the choir for Methodist Church where I’d enjoyed the Doxology, appointed me business manager for the school’s newspaper.  He founded it that year.

            “Can I have my nickel back,” Jim Barber asked me while I was doing the sales part of that job, “if I don’t like what I read?”

            “Yeah,” I replied, feeling as I had when Laverne asked me whether he was safe at third base three years earlier.  “I guess so.”

            He came back to me later that day and said he didn’t like what he’d read.  I refunded his nickel and took back the paper and heard about that in geography class.  Mr. Hoopengarner didn’t name me but told the class what I’d done.

            “We’ve got people buying our own newspapers back,” he said.

            So I resigned and suffered a similar fate in Charlie’s shop class.

            Bob McNall had a set of handicraft books he told me his father had given him for Christmas the year before he gave him his fancy black and white Schwinn bicycle.  He said his father had asked him whether he’d rather have the books or a bicycle and pointed out that he could use the books to build many things.  He said he’d accepted his father’s reasoning.

The winter Bob received the bicycle, he and I decided to ride our bicycles to Marble Lake, but his father caught up with us at the railroad tracks on the Coldwater side of Quincy and took us back to Coldwater with our bicycles protruding from the trunk of his black and white 1956 Ford Sedan.  But I found in one of the handicraft books instructions for building a model of a sailing sloop and borrowed the book and took it to school and showed it Charlie McGee. The boat would be more than two feet from bow to stern and more than a yard from keel to masthead. 

            “I wouldn’t approve this project for anyone else,” he told me as he handed the book back to me.  “But I think you can handle it.”

            But I didn’t handle it.  I build the form on which I was to build the hull, and I cut the strips of wood I was to tack to the form before sealing them together and sanding and varnishing them, and I tacked some of them to the form.  But I handled the project no further and spent most of the rest of the year goofing with the others in my class.

            And that wasn’t the worst way I disappointed Charlie.  Mrs. Butts, my first seventh grade English teacher, quit teaching to accept a job keeping books for one of Coldwater’s lumber company from which I didn’t steal a glass-scrathcer.  And Nancy McGee, Charlie McGee’s wife, agreed to take her teaching job.

Mrs. Butts had asked in class the amount of allowance each of her students received.  Steve Wettle, whose family owned a kennel near the Coldwater Country Club, said he received ten dollars per week.  He said he had to buy clothes with it, but he also said his father had given him a half-share of General Motors stock for his birthday, to teach him financial management.  I hoped Nancy McGee wouldn’t make me feel the way that had made me feel.  And all Charlie’s students hoped she’d be as informal as Charlie was.

            And her curly black hair and bright blue eyes and rosy cheeks pleased us also.  I thought her butt was a little too big, but generally I agreed with the consensus of the other boys in my class, that she was pretty.  But she asked us to sit in our seats and not talk, while she was trying to teach us English, and the boys rebelled.

Some of us called her Nancy to her face.  Because we liked him, we called Charlie by his first name when we talked about him but not when we talked to him, and Junior Zabonick shook a fist in Nancy McGee’s face when she told him to sit down.  She sent him to the Principal’s office, and soon she made a habit of sending boys to the Principal’s office, and once she sent me there.

            “Mrs. McGee?” asked the Principal’s secretary.

            I nodded.

            “Study hall,” she said and returned to her work.

            “You’re going to have to do some kind of project,” Charlie said to me at the beginning of the last marking period of the year, after his wife had wept in my English class nearly every day for months, and I built a small bookcase from some scrap plywood I found in the shop.

            “Those are some nice dado joints,” Jim Barber said.

            Neither Charlie nor Nancy returned the next year.

            “She swore she’d never teach again,” said John Wilson.

            John lived next door to Mrs. Butts.  I went to his house before she quit teaching.  He built model airplanes in his basement where he and his father shared ham radio equipment.  He pushed me against a wall down there.  He said we should pretend I was a girl.

            Peggy cleaned the Renshaws’ big brick house on Pearl Street a few blocks west of Bob’s.  Oscar Renshaw taught sociology and economics at the high school, and Mrs. Renshaw hired Peggy and gave her for me a set of things for electrical experiments her sons’ had left behind when they went to college, and I used the telephone generator in the set to shock myself.  She also gave Peggy a Roy Rogers and Dale Evans paper doll set, and Peggy gave that to me also because of Roy Rogers, but I played with it because of Dale Evans.

My probation officer, whom kids called the one-armed bandit because he had an arm like Dewey’s, promised to give me a set of electronics encyclopedias.  He didn’t, but in the summer he let the Kiwanis Club send me to summer camp, at Camp Kimble on Long Lake.  Each year the Kiwanis Club sent poor kids there the week before the paying kids began going.

It sent me there three summers. One year, when a representative of the club came to my house to invite me, I sat on the sofa in our parlor flipping the propeller of a model airplane engine.  I’d stolen it from Otto’s Sporting Goods with Bob.

“What’s that you’ve got there?” asked the Kiwanis representative interrupting his conversation with my parents, and I silently held it up and returned to flipping its propeller.

I hadn’t found a way to steal an airplane for it, or a fuel tank or a fuel line, or fuel.  I thought about building an airplane from balsa scraps David and I took from behind Carlisle’s bobber factory.  I never did, but Mr. Carlisle took me to a Kiwanis banquet for fathers and sons because he had no son, and I sat silent while others talked about baseball after seeing a film of a game.

Camp Kimball was on Long Lake and had cabins with triple bunks.  Because it had no showers for the campers, Mr. Kimble ordered that all the campers swim during the hour he scheduled for swimming, but many of us disobeyed that rule.  The lake, so early in the summer, was too cold for swimming.

But I liked being away from home and having some money to spend.  A requirement was that each camper deposit at least three dollars at the camp’s store at the beginning of the week.  My father gave me three dollars, and the store gave me a card it punched as I spent it, and I didn’t spend it on candy.  Each year bought a leather link belt I had to assemble and a lanyard I had to braid.  I had candy at home.

“He has more guts than any of you,” said my counselor to my cabin mates one year, as I sat braiding as they talked and played.

And I liked the food.  I ate piece after piece of dry toast with jelly, and I made the runs from my cabin’s table to the stainless steel milk dispenser in the kitchen, to refill our stainless steel milk pitcher with the cold fresh milk.  And I liked singing in the dining hall under the leadership of a counselor with short black hair reminding me of the Sheila about whom I was thinking when I lost my shoe laces.

“Little red caboose, chug, chug, chug,” we sang as I remembered my favorite kindergarten story, about a little engine that could.

In kindergarten, I also liked the story about Little Black Sambo outrunning the tiger, and at camp I liked playing on the giant stride with Carol.  She was a little younger than I and had long brown curly hair and big green eyes reminding me of the girl whose father owned the dogs that chased me home in Ionia.  And I liked running in the woods playing capture the flag, reminding me of being a spy when I was in second grade, but some kids didn’t like camp.

Jimmy, who always had boogers visible in his nose, ran away and eventually killed himself.  And my testicles took too long to stop hurting from goosing.  It was a fad one year.

“Don’t,” I begged a kid.  “I think I’ve got something wrong with my nuts.”

That kid became my closest friend for that week.  He called me Heathcliff because that’s what I told him my name was when he asked.  Peggy had told me about Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, but then I was thinking of Red Skelton’s seagulls, and I called the kid Seymour.

“Hey, Heathcliff!” Skelton said as he flapped his elbows with his fists in his armpits.

“Yeah, Seymour?” He said as he did the same while facing in the other direction.

No one else called the other kid Seymour, but everyone at that camp that week called me Heathcliff, and each of us wore a Nazi helmet that week.  Our counselor loaned him one with a shiny finish of varnish, and another counselor loaned me one with no varnish and a bullet hole in the front of it, and the steel the bullet had pushed inside rubbed on my forehead.  But I bore it as I had the U. S. Army insignia I’d put on the front of the pith helmet at Marble Lake.

“She’s grown,” I said of Sally when I returned home..

“You’ve only been gone a week,” replied my father.

When my probation officer released me from restriction I walked across the street to Connie’s house.  Her father had bought a cabin cruiser, and it was on its trailer in her back yard, and I found her there.  Her Dalmatian had grown large and humped one of my legs.

            “Do you know why he’s doing that?” she asked me.

            Her father enclosed her front porch with glass louvers no one ever opened.  In the seclusion I sang to her songs I’d learned from the Buzz’s Hit Parade magazines.  And she leaned against the louvers and listened.

            “You’re my second-favorite singer,” she said.

            “Who’s your favorite?” I asked her.

            “Pat Boone,” she said.

            The Rudy family moved into the house across Washington Street from the Johnsons’.  Terry Rudy was younger than Donny Shellenbarger while his sister Sharon was about my age while their sister Billie was about a year younger than I.  I thought Billie was prettier than Sharon, but I preferred Sharon because Billie was pudgier, and I began spending time with her.

            “I see how you look at her,” said Connie.

            Connie’s mother gave my mother for me clothes Donnie and Ronnie had outgrown and a new pair of Converse All-Stars she said she’d bought too small for Donnie.  I had worn out my shoes again and felt the freedom of the new ones running across the street on the gravel of the alley past the Rudy’s house to the A&P store, and I used my mother’s thread and needles to narrow the legs of the pale blue jeans she gave me, because people were pegging pants then.  And, because Connie had told me people said Donnie was a swamp, I used some of Peggy’s lipstick to write “swamp” on the back of a jacket Reverend Hamlin’s wife had given me.

“It’s not something to be proud of,” Connie told me.

            We moved again.  My mother said our landlady was tearing down the house to expand the A&P store’s parking lot, but I thought it might be because our furnace was spewing soot from its chimney, blackening snow all over the neighborhood.  Our new home was across the street from the wood products company where David had cut his head.

            Sam Dodd, one of my classmates, had lived in it.  His family had renovated it before moving out of it.  Mark Putnam, a friend of Sam’s whose father owned Coldwater’s funeral parlor beside the cannon where I’d lost the baseball, reminded me of that during gym class on the balcony of our school’s gymnasium.  Ropes for climbing hung from the ceiling of the gym, and we were taking turns swinging on them from the balcony, dropping onto wrestling mats.  He spoke as I caught the rope for my turn.

            “That’s a nice house,” he said.  “You’d better not fuck it up.”

            Gene Hedgeland, who was still a friend of Peggy’s, borrowed a pickup truck to help us move.  My father paid our landlady $500 for everything in the old house because our new home had no furniture already in it.  My family had never before owned furniture.

            My parents shared a downstairs bedroom, and Sally and Nancy shared an upstairs bedroom while Dewey and I shared another, but Peggy had her own bedroom in the front of the house overlooking the street.  I unbraided the rope of the swing I’d hung from the apple tree and used two of the strands to hang a pipe from a limb from the walnut tree between our new house and the bar our new landlord owned next door.  A lilac bush was also in the side yard, between the walnut tree and the windows of the bar’s restrooms, and a maple tree was in the front yard.

Smitty, our landlord, tended his own bar, and my parents were customers of his, and I spent hours swinging on the trapeze upside down between the lilac bush and the eve over our dining room window.  Our garage was separate from our house, and our bathroom window faced it, and I saw Peggy through the window when I went between the house and the garage to light matches by shooting them from my BB gun at the blue shingles of the house.  I saw her pubic hair, as she emerged from the bathtub, and I watched her preen at the sink.

Connie entered the seventh grade as I entered the eighth, and so we were in the same school again, but we seldom saw each other.  For Christmas vacation, her family took the boat to Florida, and she returned with a tan and many more freckles.  I thought the tan and freckles made her uglier.

Bob McNall and I decided to play hooky, to look at car and muscle-builder magazines in the room where the picture of Jane Russell was, before the demolition of the house.  Because the house had no heat, Bob and I changed our minds and went to school a few minutes after classes began for the day, fearing repercussion for tardiness.  But I knew no one to ask why we were late.

            Homer Foundry burned that year.  My family and our neighbors stood in our front yards and watched the flames rise into the sky three blocks away.  David and I explored the ruins and looked for money in some vending machines but found only candy bars that had melted.  We drove electric scooters, until sand on the floor bogged them down, and we climbed to a roof that hadn’t fallen.  We peered through windows that had broken at the floor far below.

The Grant Hotel was across Monroe Street from the bar.  It had served passengers from the train station at the end of Monroe Street before passenger trains stopped passing through Coldwater.  Now it was a rooming house with a bar Old Man Grant tended, and most of his tenants spent most of their time in the bar, and my parents seldom drank there.  The fire didn’t hurt the hotel, but a maple tree in front of the wood products company fell onto it, smashing the wide roof over the sidewalk in front of it.  Old man Grant closed the bar and never reopened it.

            Ending my probation didn’t end my going to church.  At a church picnic at Parkhurst Park, Bob and I grabbed Sandy Bird’s breasts, and she called me Horny Harman.  Mrs. Hamlin gave me an old record player and loaned me a collection of classical records.

            I enrolled in shop again, but Mr. Reeg was no Charlie McGee, and I switched to Mr. Hoopengarner’s chorus class at the end of the first marking period.  I couldn’t make my voice match the pitches on the paper, and I had no white shirt for performances and wore one with black stripes that had faded, one Mrs. Hamlin had given me saying her adult son had outgrown it.

Mrs. Hamlin also gave me a piano, when the church and the parsonage moved from the little gray-shingled ones on Washington Street to bigger white-clapboard ones on Perkins Street, because she bought a newer piano for the newer parsonage.  The one she gave me was out of tune, and I never tried to tune it, or to play it.  But we kept it in our dining room.

            I befriended another derelict.  During a basketball game in the school’s gymnasium, he called me Harmy as we sat in the balcony watching, and I put him into a headlock.  Boys nearby talked us into taking the fight to the boys’ bathroom where I took a swing at him.  He leaned back, and the swing fell short, but it ended the fight.  It also ended our friendship.

            Boys in that school then punched each other’s arms for fun, but Larry Camp asked me what was wrong with me when I punched his, and I told Richard Linsky’s anger exceeded Larry’s when I told him I knew karate and punched him in gym class.  The gym teacher, Coach Van Meter, gave us boxing gloves and told us to settle our conflict by the rules and formed our classmates around us as a ring.  We knew no rules and mostly stood looking at each other as our classmates stared at us.

            Coach Van Meter was also a study hall monitor.  And, for talking in study hall, he took me out to the hallway and beat my butt, with a one-by-four board about four feet long with holes in it to make it sting and one end narrower as a handle, but I felt no pain.  In gym class he put athletes’ foot powder in boxes and put the boxes in the shower and told his gym class to walk through them.  I had bleeding ingrown toenails and showed him.

            “Should I go through with toes like that?” I asked him.

            “No,” he said and turned away saying nothing more.

            As I sat on a bench in the locker room changing out of my gym clothes, Harold Siler sat on a bench behind me changing into his, and he bumped against me.  He did it several times, and I leaped to my feet and turned around and asked him what his problem was, and he stood and asked me what mine was.  He asked the others staring at us what was wrong with me.

            Another day I skipped gym class and went with Bob and Danny Waite and some others to the Waites’ old brown-shingle house further down Washington Street.  No parents were there, and we sat in the kitchen smoking cigarettes and talking, with Bob Waite talking most.  He said he’d fucked sheep at the stockyards.

            “I tried pigs,” he said.  “But their pussies twist your dick like their tails!  Do you know the difference between cow shit and pig shit?  Pig shit has a left-handed twang.”

            Bob was older than Danny.  Dale Ann, their sister, was younger than both and had rotten teeth.  All of them were skinny, and so was Danny Parker, who wasn’t there.  Danny befriended Donnie Cornell and asked me about Connie.

            “Are you getting any of that?” he asked me.  “She’s skinny, but I wouldn’t blame you.  The meat’s sweetest closest to the bone.”

            For the last marking period I quit chorus to take a six week class in comparative languages.  Mrs. Stefaniac taught it to introduce students to several Western European languages.  I paid little attention but learned the differences were hardly systematic.

That year, for Mrs. Hawley’s mathematics class, I didn’t lose my book.  And I did in my head in class the homework she assigned and wrote the answers in my work book.  She gave me C’s, because I didn’t show my work, but my answers were correct.

I finished few of the sections of the junior high school achievement tests, and I saw that most of the other students put down their pencils before the proctor said time was up, but I outscored all of them despite flipping back to answer some questions before starting the sections after the ones I didn’t finish.

            “Billy’s been holding out on me,” said Mrs. Hawley to my mathematics class.  “He scored at twelfth grade level in arithmetic and at twelve plus in reading.”

            When the Principal called the ten top performers to the stage, I guessed that the other students had guessed on the tests, when he called me first.  And Mrs. Hawley pinned a chrysanthemum onto each of us, as we stood side by side on the stage, but she struggled with mine.  I was in a shirt of sheer material Mrs. Hamlin had given me.

            “I don’t know if this stuff will hold the pin,” she said.

            The School Board sponsored a junior high school graduation party at Coldwater’s Masonic temple that evening.  Suzanne Myers, the girl who had shown me her brother’s electric train set when we were in kindergarten, sat in a folding chair at the top of the stairs leading from the foyer to the ballroom.  Jim Boyer stood in front of her offering her a corsage.

            Our classmates called him the professor because he talked a lot about science and philosophy.  Suzanne sat silent, neither refusing nor accepting the corsage, and the professor quit and carried it away.  I felt the embarrassment of both of them.

            I hadn’t seen much of David that year, although he was again in the seventh grade and stayed there all year, but I went to see him in the summer.  He had moved to a big house on Marshall Street with a barn behind it where we found a bicycle so old that it didn’t have brakes or a coaster axle.  We also found some golf clubs we used to hit rocks in his back yard.

And in our wanderings we found some condoms beside U.S. 12 west of town.

            “Maybe you shit in them,” I said reading what the package said about sanitation.

            Each of us inflated one, and we carried them into a gas station as we walked back to town, because David said he wanted a drink of water.  Some men talking in the station stopped talking and stared at us.  And they didn’t laugh.


 

 

 

 

Chapter 6

1960 - 1962

 

David’s sister Nancy went with David and me to Parkhurst Park.  We climbed the fence behind the bird bath and went into some houses under construction.  Coldwater’s airfield was then west of town.

“Girls have three holes,” David told me.  “Nancy’ll show you if you want.”

“No,” I said as she bowed her head while looking up at me.  “That’s OK.”

            Later that summer Billy Kling and I agreed to save our money to buy a Turn-a-Craft.  Billy was about Donny Shellenbarger’s age, and our plan was to save money we’d earn by picking strawberries for a nickel per quart, and we opened a joint savings account at the Southern Michigan National Bank.  The farmer showed me I was bruising berries, and he refused to pay me for some of the quarts I picked, and we quit picking with about $1.50 in the account.

            Billy had a Weimeraner, a big brown one with yellow eyes, and his parents had a cottage at Rose Lake.  The Weimaraner vomited what seemed to me to be a large yellow turd, in the back seat of Billy’s father’s old gray Plymouth, on our way to the cottage.  Billy and I rowed their boat across the lake, but his mother said doing that was too dangerous, and we didn’t do it again.  Professor Boyer lived in a cottage next door to the Klings’ and had an electric guitar.  He showed me some of what he was learning on it.

            Connie invited me to go out on the cabin cruiser with her and Donnie and Donnie’s girlfriend Sharon on Marble Lake.  Donnie pulled the boat there behind the new red Ford Galaxy convertible he had bought with his father’s help from funds from a chain link fence company they were establishing.  He launched the boat from the landing near Chesty Blackman’s house and anchored it in the middle of the lake.

            It was the biggest boat on the lake, and other boats surrounded it, their occupants staring.  I lay with Connie on the roof of the cabin while Donnie and Sharon stayed below inside it.  I felt silly and hardly said a word while we were there, but Connie also invited me to go with her and Donnie and Sharon to Lansing to visit relatives of hers and Donnie’s, and Donnie let me drive the convertible.   But I drove it past the relatives’ house, and backed it up when Donnie told me I’d missed the driveway, and I hardly spoke to Donnie or Sharon or the relatives.

On our way out of Lansing to return to Coldwater, Donnie stopped the car at a MacDonald’s, and asked us what we wanted.  I had never seen a MacDonald’s, and so I had no notion of the possibilities, and so I didn’t answer.  Connie told him we each wanted a hamburger and a Coke.  Then Donnie turned and looked at me.  Still I sat silent.

            “You want to go in and get them?” he said.

            Again I sat silent with no notion what to do.

            “He doesn’t have any money,” said Connie

            Peggy didn’t return to school that year.  She quit to marry Jack Bussing, a gaunt guy with green teeth, who’d made her pregnant.  But they rented the one-room brown-shingle house beside the fence in front of the high school’s front parking lot.

“Billy can eat lunch with me,” she told our mother, and I did.

Other kids walked past her house to a little store up the street.

My mother ordered me on credit a winter coat I saw in the Montgomery Ward catalog.  I showed it to her because it reminded me of one the character Buzz was often in on the TV show Route 66.  In the Halloween parade I wore it and a black straw cowboy hat I bought for 98 cents.

I had joined the Pep Club, because my football coach civics teacher told my civics class that everyone who wasn’t in sports should join it to show school spirit, and I helped decorate the float.  The float was a trailer with what the club designed to be a cardboard replica of the car that flew on flubber in the movie The Absent Minded Professor.  The Pep Club President asked me to ride in it and spray CO2 from a fire extinguisher to make it appear to be floating on clouds.

I also dressed in that new coat to trick or treat with David.

“He still goes trick-or-treating,” said Doug Fee at school, loudly in a hallway.

I went to no more Pep Club meetings and to no pep rallies.

I produced the Christmas pageant for Mrs. Hamlin’s church.  I designed the cardboard manger scene and helped build it, and I selected some of the Gospel According to Luke to read from the church’s balcony, as other church members portraying shepherds and wise men walked up one of the aisles to the cardboard scene.  I asked Bob McNall to sit beside me, shining a flashlight on the actors in the procession, with the inside of the church otherwise dark.

“Maybe Bob should read it,” said Mrs. Hamlin.  “He has such a nice deep voice.”

“I thought I would,” I told her quietly.

She looked at me, and she and Bob looked at each other, and they agreed to let me.

Bob bought a copy of a biography of Elvis Presley and a copy of Betty White’s Teenage Dance Book.  David also accepted Presley’s popularity, and he sang his songs and imitated his movements, but Bob’s father said that rock and roll was noise and that Presley would lose his voice before he was thirty besides that Frank Sinatra couldn’t carry a tune.  I told David what he said about Presley, but I borrowed the biography from Bob and read it, and I memorized Betty White’s diagram for doing the Lindy hop and practiced the steps in Bob’s living room.

“Bill can do the Lindy hop,” Bob said to his father passing through their living room.

“Oh yeah?” replied his father.

“Show him,” Bob said to me.

I did, and his father laughed, and continued on through the living room to his office.

“Some people are backsliders,” said Mrs. Hamlin when Bob told her Presley went to the Assembly of God Church.

My mother bought me Wild Root Cream Oil at the grocery store where we were then charging our groceries.  I parted my hair on both sides and combed it to the middle of the top of my head, so that a point of it hung onto my forehead, as did Sal Mineo.  I used the Wild Root Cream Oil to keep it that way, and I used a razor blade my father had discarded to cut my initials into one of my forearms, because I thought I wanted a tattoo.

“Show her your tattoo,” Bob said to me as we talked with Mrs. Hamlin in the old gray-shingle parsonage.

Mrs. Hamlin looked and frowned but said nothing.  Neither did I say anything, but I was glad I’d had no money for India ink, to make the marks more permanent.  In a few days the tattoo was less visible than my scar from falling into the rose bush.

My bicycle tires and chain wore out, and I had to steer it by holding onto the center of the handlebars, because I’d turned them upside down because other kids there were doing that then.  By leaning down on handle grips I had worn away the grooves that were in the center of the handlebars to keep them in place.  So the bicycle was hardly operable.

Two dwarfs’ father set up Coldwater’s only bicycle repair shop.  Kids called them midgets but respected their work, especially the bicycles they’d turned into tricycles and powered with electric motors and car batteries and drove to the Main Theatre, the movie theatre on Chicago Street that replaced the Tibbits.  They charged but a dime for chain links and installed them at no charge, and I paid them several dimes but I never had enough cash for new tires, and so I retired my bicycle to our garage and never road it again. 

Dolf the Tailor also had an electric cart.  But he didn’t build his cart or repair bicycles.  He sat in it in front of Jewel’s drugstore with his crutches and sold pencils.  My father gave him nickels and told him to keep his pencils.  Dolf’s price for the pencils was two for a nickel.

Professor Boyer built what he called a matchbox computer, a cardboard frame with little matchboxes in it, for playing tic-tac-toe.  He wrote a move on the outside of each matchbox, and he wrote the most auspicious responding move inside the matchbox, and he used many matchboxes because he didn’t recognize the symmetry of the playing field.  Recognizing the redundancy, I expressed all the possibilities on one side of a sheet of notebook paper, and received silence when I showed it to him.

David’s parents bought a new little house on West Chicago Street.  David, telling me about offers and counter offers in the purchase process, used the terms “ten” and “ten-five” to express thousands of dollars.  Paul Raymond was bigger and older than I was but in a grade between mine and Billy Kling’s.  He and Billy and I went to see David in his new house but found him not at home.  In a clump of trees behind the house we talked about sex.

“We’ll take turns,” said Paul to Billy.  “First you be the girl, and then I’ll be the girl.  We’ll pretend our assholes are cunts.”

He tried to stick his penis into Billy’s rectum while Billy was on his hands and knees with his pants around his knees.

“It won’t fit,” Paul said to me.  “Let me try you.”

“Nah,” I told him.

“You sure?” he asked.  “It’s fun.  It doesn’t hurt.”

“Nah,” I said again.

My only failing marking period grade was from Mrs. Hayes for ninth grade English.

“If you don’t do the homework,” she said scowling at me, “I can’t pass you.”

I understood, but I didn’t start doing my homework, and she never flunked me again.

She suggested that I enter a literary contest, and she said I might win the prize, a pen.  I wrote a page about people enjoying stereo systems because they enjoyed turning knobs and talking about woofers and tweeters.  I didn’t win the pen, but Mrs. Hayes took my contribution to the Coldwater Daily Reporter, and an acquaintance of my mother’s clipped it out of the paper and gave it to my mother.  She showed it to me before she put it in a box on her dresser that had contained a collection of Evening of Paris toilet water my father had given to her before my birth.  We called it the glass box.

 My civics teacher, who was also a football coach, told his students to read Animal Farm.  I didn’t, and I laughed and pointed when Bob McNall and I saw him in Bermuda shorts in front of the Gambles store, where my father had charged my bicycle.  I asked him what they were.

“Bermuda shorts,” he said frowning and turned away from us and walked into the store.

As I learned algebra, I forgot the system of calculation I had used to do arithmetic in my head, and I thought algebra was making me stupid.  I was taking shop again, and my shop teacher was also a football coach, and he collected donations from others in my shop class to buy me a haircut.  I took the cash to Carl Stempian’s shop in the basement of the Branch County Savings Bank.  Carl cut my swamp cut into the crew cut then in fashion.  His was Coldwater’s most popular barber shop then.

“Don’t you have any pride?” Jim Barber asked me.  “I wouldn’t have taken the money, and I wouldn’t let anyone tell me how to cut my hair.”

My shop project for that year was a small box with a chess board on top and drawers in it for the pieces.  I bought the materials, some wood and a black linoleum tile and a white one to cut into the squares for the chessboard and some contact cement to glue them to it, at the lumber company where Mrs. Butts worked.  But I didn’t finish the project, but instead used the shop’s lathe to make a scrap piece mahogany resemble a chess bishop, and called it a lamp.  And I didn’t cut the slit to make the top resemble a miter.  And I didn’t buy the lamp hardware.

Peggy named her son John for Jack but called him Johnnie.  They moved in with Jack’s parents on Clay Street behind the wood products company.  Peggy left Jack because he beat her, but my Father drove her back around the block, and my mother and I rode with them.

“I love him,” said Peggy to my father in the living room, apparently changing her mind.

She was weeping, and my father kissed her, and outside we found that someone had driven around the corner from Race Street and smashed into the back of our Buick.  My father bought a blue and white 1954 Chevrolet sedan at the junkyard where a wrecker took the Buick.  It was the cheapest Chevrolet model and had a dent beneath its right taillight.

Jack had a guitar.  It was a cheap Stella model I’d seen Elvis Presley hold as he sang in a movie.  He let me hold it, as I sat in a chair in in his family’s living room, but he told me to be careful with it.  He asked me to help his family move, and he paid me with things they didn’t want and told me I could sell them for cash at the junkyard near the gas company, and I took most of them there in my red wagon I had somewhat repaired.  The man there weighed it and paid me 27 cents, but Jack gave me another fifty cents, when I told him that.

“I thought it would be more,” he said as we walked side by side on Pearl Street, with me struggling a little to keep up with his long strides.

From the junk he gave me, I kept a speaker from a television and one from a wooden console radio, to try to build a stereo system.  I turned my bookshelves from Charlie McGee’s class into a speaker cabinet and connected it to an old phonograph Mrs. Hamlin had given me.  Because it had a temporary magnet, I couldn’t use the radio’s speaker as a speaker, but I used the copper wire from its coil for many things for years.  I had moved to Peggy’s room when she married and had collected in it many things I thought I might be able to use.  I kept a vacuum cleaner, from the house on Washington Street, for its motor and its long electrical cord.

When I enrolled in tenth grade, I didn’t fill my schedule with classes as I had since entering seventh grade, and so I had a study hall and did my homework there and raised my grades from mostly C’s to mostly A’s.  Connie was then in ninth grade, and so we were attending the same school again, and she and her family moved to a house a block behind ours.  But, although I thought of her often, I saw her seldom.

Behind my house was a fence, and beyond the fence was White Chevrolet’s used car lot, and across Division Street from the car lot was Connie’s house.  Thinking of her, I wore down the wire fence by climbing over it, after lengthening my walk home from school by two blocks to walk past her house.  As I did that, I felt that other people were watching me, but she never came out.   Nor did she speak to me the few times I saw her in hallways at school.  But she did at a school dance.

I didn’t go to football games, but that night I walked to the school after that night’s game, to go to the dance.   We didn’t dance, but her mother drove us to her house after the dance, in the back seat of her new blue Buick.  I put an arm across Connie’s shoulders in her new tweed winter coat and left it there until we reached her house.

I didn’t go into her house that night, but I soon made a habit of going into it to sit on her sofa sweating through my shirt as we hugged and kissed, as her mother napped in a reclining chair on the other side of the room.

“He has halitosis,” Connie said of her small dog when he jumped onto the sofa, and I neither replied to that nor asked her what had happened to the Dalmatian or what had happened to the boat her father had bought on Washington Street, but she told me her father had sold the boat to buy the bigger older one between their house and the sidewalk along the Perkins Street side of the house, and she told me he planned to rebuild it but wasn’t working much on it.

At school that year, a fashion was boys keeping their shirttails out, and the school’s administration ordered them to tuck them in.  Many of the boys rebelled by tucking them in but borrowing old wide neckties of their fathers’ to mock the principal’s saying we should dress nicely.  But, the day of the protest, I didn’t borrow one of my father’s old ties, and I didn’t leave out the tail of my shirt, a pink one Mrs. Hamlin had given me.

“At least untuck your shirt,” said Jim Barber.

“This shirt’s supposed to be in,” I told him.

Thinking geometry was the study of shapes, and still appreciating architecture, I took geometry that year.  As drafting for shop had in the seventh grade, having to learn theorems for geometry in the tenth grade irritated me in the beginning, but I also excelled at that.  And I thought the Pythagorean theorem was more useful than algebra.  The teacher, Mrs. Trebilcock, had gray hair and chains on her glasses.  But I liked the shape of her legs above her style of shoes.

Mr. Mejia, my English teacher, was Mexican.  And I once corrected him when he called a gerund a participle when he wrote it on the chalkboard.  But I knew that because I learned in his class that English grammar is as systematic as mathematics.  And I appreciated that and some praise I received from him.  And the praise was for ignoring him. 

Coldwater’s government paid a man Coldwater’s citizens called Mort the Street Cleaner to sweep Coldwater’s gutters.  A big machine swept them, but Mort also swept them with a broom as he had for many years, pushing the trash into a shovel and emptying the shovel into an orange wooden cart he pushed.  And the City Restaurant next door to the bus station fed him for free, until he complained to the county’s health department, about a bug he found in his soup.

I wrote that story as Mr. Mejia explained things I already understood, and he came to my desk and picked up my notebook, and read it.

“You have a latent literary ability,” he said.

            But, while appreciating his not telling me I should have been paying attention, I didn’t accept the praise graciously.

“What do you mean, latent?” I said.

“‘Latent’ means . . . ,” he began to reply.

“I know what ‘latent’ means,” I said.

He silently laid the notebook on my desk and continued the explanation of grammar my writing of Mort had interrupted.

The old Chevrolet began to fail, and some mornings my father walked to work, because he couldn’t start it.  One Saturday David and I pushed it to start it while my father was at work, and I drove it around the block before returning it to the driveway, struggling with its manual transmission.  That evening my father handed me his only tools, a pair of pliers and a flathead screwdriver with a chip in its end, and asked me to try to fix the car’s starter.  I crawled beneath the car, and pried loose a metal strap around the starter motor, and sparks flew.  Fearing electrical shock, I quit trying to repair the starter, and I didn’t reattach the strap.

“I couldn’t fix it,” I said to my father as he sat at his card table with my mother, and he silently accepted the return of the tools.

 I took driver training that year.  Mr. Lopez, the driver training teacher, suggested to me that I draw cartoons about driver training for the school newspaper.  With a pen and ink and paper belonging to the newspaper, I drew a picture of the Alamo drive-in restaurant where kids with cars hung out at night, with a car with its front inside the restaurant.  On top of the car was a sigh saying it was for driver training.  Inside it were two people.

“The sign said, ‘Drive in restaurant,’” said the caption at the bottom.

I watched people read it, and I saw no one laugh at it, and I never drew another cartoon.  I joined the chess club and went to Battle Creek for a meet, and my opponent moved quickly, and I responded quickly.  I quit the chess club because he beat me quickly.

When I received my learner’s driving permit, my father let me drive his Chevrolet with all the family in it, for a Sunday drive.  The driver training car had an automatic transmission, and I tried to turn the corner at the little school between Quincy and Marble Lake in third gear, because of the difficulty of downshifting.   I understood the mechanics well enough to know I couldn’t do that if I decelerated, and I tried to compensate by turning wide, into the left lane.

Kenny Stempian, who was a son of the barber Carl and had been a friend of Peggy’s at the lake, came over the hill in a black Plymouth Valiant.  To avoid collision, I kept turning and drove into the ditch, and on into the cornfield on the side of the ditch away from the road.  There, the car stalled, because by then it was moving too slowly for third gear.

“Oh, no!” my mother screamed as we entered the ditch.  “Another wreck!”

“You’ll never drive this car again,” my father said when we stopped.

“I’m glad you didn’t try to stay on the road,” said my mother as my father drove us across the cornfield to the farmer’s driveway.  “We would have turned over in the ditch.”

Kenny stopped but said nothing to us and drove on as my father did.

Tiger Stout had told me what I wrote about Mort the Street Cleaner.  Tiger’s name was Larry Shaw, but his foster parents’ name was Stout, and people called him Tiger because he was short.  He was older than I was but shorter, and we played Old Maid and Slap Jack on the floor of his bedroom, as he told me he wished to be an Army chaplain but was too short.  He had his class ring, and it was the biggest available, and he and I once drank beer in Jack’s and Peggy’s apartment.  They’d moved into the one on Washington Street that had been the Johnsons’.

Tiger and I, after drinking with Jack a few bottles of his beer, walked to Marble Lake.  We tried to sleep in the bathhouse at the beach at the landing where Donnie had launched the cabin cruiser.  But the night was cold, and at dawn we quit trying and launched some of the wooden picnic tables into the lake, before walking back to Coldwater.  My mother told me she read about that in the Coldwater Daily Reporter.  But she didn’t ask me whether Tiger and I had done it.

Tiger also took me to the back room of the Goody Shop after it closed.  Tom Button, the man who made the doughnuts there nights, was what we called deaf and dumb.  And he sold the doughnuts for 25 cents per dozen, to anyone who went there at night while he was making them, and he did other things to the many boys who went there then.  The boys, when they weren’t there for him to do those things, called him Blowboy Button.  But Tiger and I went there only for the doughnuts.

We took them to the City Restaurant and shared them with the owners because they let us hang out there and shoot the cue ball on the pool table while spending no money.  But, to make some money, Tiger took me to the home of a guy who sometimes called himself Leonard Colvin but sometimes called himself Leonard Murray and told us Roy Rogers’ real name was Leonard Sly.  He was about Peggy’s age, and Peggy told me she knew him and said Murray was his father’s name and Colvin his mother’s, or the other way around.

“I was in love with your sister Peggy,” he told me.  “But she liked Buzz better.”

He was living with his mother, but he had a 1954 Oldsmobile in her yard, and he said he was rebuilding it.  He said it needed a carburetor, and he told us a car like it was in Way Oldsmobile’s used car lot, and he asked Tiger and me to steal its carburetor.  He loaned us an adjustable wrench and two screwdrivers, one Phillips and one flathead, and a pair of pliers.  He said he’d pay us five dollars.  We went to the lot after dark and tried.

But the adjustable wrench was too wide to fit where we needed it to fit to loosen the nuts holding the carburetor to the manifold, and the only use we found for the pliers was to bend the fuel line until it broke, and we quit trying and went home.

“Let’s not do anything like that again,” I said to Tiger.

“Yeah,” he said.  “You’re right.  That was stupid.”

And in the summer he found us legal ways to earn cash.

The first way he found was bailing hay.  My part of the job was to stand on the front of a trailer behind the bailing machine and grab bails by their bailing wire and throw them from the machine onto the trailer.  More than thirty years passed before I did a job I found more difficult.  I learned that day how farmers earned the name “redneck”.  I earned it in that summer sun.

We ate in the farmer’s dining room at a long table with an oilcloth cover, and I had never seen so much food in any one place outside a grocery store, and I ate more than I had ever eaten at one sitting and more than I have since.  And no one there seemed to me to think I was eating too much.  But that job was for but that one day.

The next job Tiger found for us was helping a minister destroy a house.  Tiger told me the minister had retired from his ministry in Angola and had decided to move to Coldwater with his wife.  He paid us 75 cents per hour to do anything he asked us to do, and he asked us to strip plaster from the lathing of the walls and to rip the lathing from the studs, and he asked us to tear down the brick chimney by removing bricks from it in the basement.

We stripped the plaster and ripped the lathing, and we removed bricks from the bottom of the chimney until it fell from the house’s roof through its two floors to its basement, where Tiger and I stood staring at it as it fell in a cloud of dust.

And next, that August, he asked me to paint the tin roof.

“You should ask him for more money for that,” said Tiger.

But I didn’t because I was afraid he’d fire us if I did that.

He fired us anyway, saying we had done all we could do for him, but the Branch County fair was the next week, and it provided us our next job, and I’d wished for that one.  Thinking of carnival travel, I’d remembered the trains passing behind our house in Ionia, and I imagined the life of the hoboes my mother had told me traveled on them.  I didn’t expect anyone to hire us, but we wandered the fairgrounds the day before the fair opened, asking people whether they needed any help setting up.

“Yes,” said Bob Bradburn.

We helped set up some games he owned.  And, as he paid us for that work, I mustered the courage to ask him ask him whether he needed any help the rest of the week.

“You can blow up balloons for Ruth,” he said making me feel as though I had suddenly come to life.  “She’ll pay you six dollars a day and fifty cents for eats.”

Ruth, Bob’s wife, operated one of the games I had helped set up, a balloon game where customers threw darts at balloons to win prizes, and I quickly learned that carnies called that game a balloon dart and called carnival concessions joints and called customers marks.

The dart boards were three sheets of fiberboard in four foot by eight foot wooden frames that swiveled on pins at the center of the top and bottom of each, and my job was to stand behind the boards and fill empty teddy bear boxes with balloons I inflated and to hang the balloons on hooks the marks emptied, when Ruth turned the boards.

But, when no marks were on the midway, I sat on the counter and talked with Ruth.  And Nancy and Ricky, Ruth’s and Bob’s children, often joined me in the back of the joint.  They helped me fill the boxes and asked me about myself, and they could blow up balloons more quickly with their mouths than I could with the little hand pump Ruth gave me, and soon so could I.  Soon I could inflate a balloon with one breath and tie it nearly as quickly as I had inflated it.  And I blew up thousands of balloons that week and enjoyed every minute of it.

And I enjoyed the pie alamode I bought with the fifty cents Ruth gave me once a day for lunch.  And I saved half of the fifty cents, by eating at one of what Ruth told me were committee joints, where The 4-H sold blueberry pie alamode for a quarter.  She said carnies called it a committee joint because the local fair committee let marks operate it.

But mornings I spent my savings.  Before the show opened I went to the Penney’s store to buy clothes.  I bought four white broadcloth shirts with button-down collars and three pair of black gabardine trousers and one pair of olive green ones and four pair of white socks, and a pair of black loafers at Luedders’ shoe store, two door east of Penney’s.  I did that in four trips, the first two to decide what to buy, the third to buy the clothing at Penny’s, when I had the cash to buy all that, and the fourth to buy the shoes.  It was the first clothing I had ever bought, and Ruth gave me a huge gift at the end of the week, the day before we were to strike the joints.

“Do you want to go to Marshall with us?” she asked.  “You can sleep in the back of the REO.  We have a rollaway bed you can use.”

“Yes,” I said grinning, at the thought of going on the road.

“Will it be alright with your parents?” she asked me.

“Yes,” I said again, with no doubt in my mind.

“You’d better ask them anyway,” she said.

She told me that, if they gave me permission, I could meet her and Bob at Bell’s restaurant the morning after we tore down the joints.  My parents only nodded and went back to their cards when I told them Bob and Ruth wanted me to go to Marshall with them.  But my father loaned me his old leather suitcase, and my mother went with us, when he drove me to Bell’s.

My mother kissed me when I opened the car door in front of the restaurant, and I leaned across her to kiss my father, but he didn’t kiss me.

Then was the only time he ever shook hands with me.

            “We’re going to Winn Schuler’s for dinner,” said Bob after parking his family’s camper trailer on the fairgrounds in Marshall.  “We go there every year.”

I remembered my father telling me that Schuler’s was the finest restaurant between Detroit and Chicago, and I thought Bob might ask me to go with them, but he didn’t.

            “There’s a movie theatre down the street,” he said next as we stood beside the old GMC panel truck he used to pull his camper trailer and used as his family’s car on the road, “if you need something to do while we’re doing that.”

            After seeing The Manchurian Candidate and thinking it psychologically profound, I found a men’s clothing store and bought an olive green trench coat with a removable liner, before walking back to the fairgrounds.

Across the midway from Ruth’s joint that week was a guy standing on a platform at the rear of a semi-truck trailer offering people chances to win major appliances for a dollar.  I asked her how he could afford to do that, and she didn’t answer me but told Bob what I’d asked, and told him I was pretty quick.  And, at the end of that week, she surprised me with a gift much bigger than taking me to Marshall.

“Do you have a driver’s license?” she asked me.

“Yes,” I said, then having my permanent license.

“We’re jumping south after this spot,” she said.  “The guy who was going to drive the REO quit.  If we pull our camper trailer with the REO, can you drive the panel truck to Alabama?  You can stop and ask your parents on our way through Coldwater.”

I had never been south of Angola, which was in Indiana about twenty miles of Coldwater, while Marshall was about twenty miles north of Coldwater.

Huntsville, the spot in Alabama they were to play next, was more than five hundred miles south of Coldwater.

I felt that my life had exploded into freedom.

 

 

Chapter 7

1962 - 1963

   

After teardown we stopped for breakfast at a truck stop where I-94 crossed U.S. 27.  Ruth and Bob and Nancy and Ricky all ordered country ham and eggs.  And so did I.

            “Have you ever had country ham?” Ruth asked me.

            “No,” I said.

            “It’s salty,” she said.  “You might not like it.”

            “I’ll try it,” I said.

            After breakfast I stood behind her and Bob in line at the cash register.

            “I’ll get yours,” said Bob to me, and I held up my hand holding the cash for payment.

            “Whenever anyone offers you something for nothing,” said Ruth, “take it, even if you don’t want it.  You might be able to sell it to somebody.”

            U.S. 27 was Division Street in Coldwater, and the other trucks waited for me in the vacant lot where Connie’s father parked his truck when he was at home, while I drove the panel truck down Monroe Street.

Then was the first time I knew anyone to lock our front door.  I rang the doorbell, and my mother came to the door in her bathrobe, and rubbed an eye with a fist as she opened the door.  Dawn was just then breaking.

            “I’m driving one of the trucks to Alabama,” I said.  “I’ll be back in a few days.”

            She nodded and closed the door and turned away as I watched through its window.

            Lester and Ricky and Nancy rode with me.  Lester set cats in Bob’s six-cat, a joint where marks threw balls at things resembling cats, hoping to win teddy bears or poodle dogs by knocking the cat forms from the shelf where Lester set them.  He seemed to me to be older than Bob, but Ruth told me the reason he didn’t drive the panel truck was that he didn’t have a driver’s license, and he and Ricky and Nancy slept much of the way to Huntsville.

            In Indianapolis the brakes on the panel truck stopped working.  Because Bob and Ruth were leading our way in the REO, I had no way to tell them the brakes had failed, and I had to use the clutch to brake.  Since I’d driven my family into the cornfield, I’d given some thought to how manual transmissions worked, but I ran the last red light before the bridge crossing the Ohio River into Louisville.  When Bob pulled the REO into a truck stop for fuel I happily let the panel truck coast to a stop near a gasoline pump.  But I thought I might have caused the brake failure.

            “There’s something wrong with the brakes,” I told Bob shamefully.

            “I wondered why you ran that red light back there,” he replied.

            A mechanic put the truck on a lift and adjusted the brakes and said that was all they needed.  I nodded often as my passengers slept, but I memorized every turn of the five hundred miles, and I couldn’t sleep when we arrived.  Part of the reason was the lumber in the truck.

            Carnies call their concessions joints because the frames of most of them then were two-by-fours hinges joined together.  My bed while the others slept was the lumber of the joints I’d hauled in the panel truck.    The rollaway was too deep in the REO for me to open it.

            After about an hour, I quit trying to sleep and stood outside the panel truck on the red clay that gives Huntsville’s Redstone Arsenal its name, until Bob came out of his camper trailer and paid me for the trip.

            “Is that enough?” he asked me after counting four five-dollar-bills and handing them to me, and I thought it was enough but didn’t answer because I was thinking of the bus fare Ruth had told me they’d pay for my return to Coldwater, and I wasn’t sure Bob knew her promise.

            “Is that enough?” he said after counting out two more five-dollar bills.

            Still I didn’t answer as he counted out two more.

            “That’s enough,” he said.  “Willard will drive you to the bus station.”

            Willard operated Bob’s six-cat.  Carnies called it a six-cat because most six-cats had but six cats, but Willard’s had sixteen cats with Willard working the eight on one side of the joint, while another agent worked the eight on the other side.  The reason Willard hadn’t driven the panel truck to Huntsville was that he drove his new air-conditioned Chevrolet Impala hardtop.  He drove me to the bus station in it, and he went inside with me and bought the ticket and handed it to me, and turned away.  But, before he reached the door, he stopped and turned back.

            “See you next year,” he said and turned again and walked on out.

            While I awaited the bus, two African American kids asked me whether I’d like them to shine my new shoes, and I accepted the offer to share my new wealth.

            “Which one?” one of them asked.

            “Both,” I said wondering at the question.

            “How can we both shine your shoes?” the other asked.

            “One can shine each,” I said and gave each of them a dollar when they finished.

            On the bus, a young woman with sandy hair and a gray wool dress with dart seams over the points of her breasts sat beside me and fell asleep and leaned her head on my shoulder nearest her, and I felt grateful for the trust.

            “Sorry,” she said, when she awoke.

            “That’s alright,” I happily told her.

            She and I didn’t speak to one another again, but I stayed awake until she left the bus in a small town in Tennessee, and from there I slept most my way back to Coldwater.

            Although the weather was warm and dry, I wore my new coat with some of my other new clothes the first day of school, and I was reluctant to remove the coat to put it in my locker.

            “Nice rain coat,” said Jim Barber.

            “It’s an all-weather coat,” I said.

            Mr. Dennis, the Principal, gave me a job on the cafeteria line.  I was grateful for the money but thought the other students might think me ridiculous in the paper hat.  So, after my only shift, I went to Mr. Dennis’s office and told him I wanted to take chemistry instead.

            “I was trying to do you a favor!” he said.  “Get out of here!”

            He slammed the door behind me but let me take chemistry.

But, either way, whether I took chemistry, or served lunch during that hour, I would have no study hall that year.  So my grades dropped back from mostly A’s with some B’s to mostly C’s with some B’s.  The B’s were because I did some homework in class instead of listening.

Mrs. Watson, my second year algebra teacher, limited my ability to do that by including me among the students she asked to write homework problems on the chalkboard during class.  The others copied from their homework papers, but I took the book to the chalkboard and did the problems there, and did them correctly.  But one day I couldn’t.

            I sometimes literally lost my focus.  It was the opposite of tunnel vision, keeping me from seeing things, if I looked directly at them.  And, when that happened, as it did that day in algebra class, I couldn’t concentrate, on anything.

            “There’s something wrong with my eyes,” I told Mrs. Watson.

            “Yeah,” she responded.  “You just didn’t do your homework.”

But that was the first year Coldwater High School offered a college preparatory English course, and my tenth grade grades earned me entrance into it, and the teacher impressed me immediately.  He was blind, and he had but one eye, and a milky cornea concealed the pupil and iris of the one he had, and he hid all that behind his dark glasses only on the first day of class, and he seldom put his glass eye into the empty socket.  And his nose leaned to a side of his face.

He told my class that someone had poured acid onto his face when he was a baby and that he’d broken his nose falling because he couldn’t see, and he told us that he’d worked his way through college by playing piano in bars and that he once went to a bar in a cellar to audition for a gig, and that no one told him the bar was in a cellar.  He said that he could hear doorways but not stairways and that he fell all the way down the stairs and through swinging doors into the bar.  And he said the bartender threw him back out thinking he was drunk.

            And he let us call him Woody.  His name was James Elwood McClellan, and he added to my understanding of grammar understanding of the importance of semantics, and of the importance of style.  He taught me to consider precise meanings of words before using them and to avoid not only ambiguity but also redundancy and other waste of words.  And he taught me the didactic function of fiction.

            And he welcomed any of his students to his home, and I went there sometimes only to listen, to whatever he might choose to say.  My grades in his class were mostly B pluses while students who ordinarily received A’s ordinarily received B’s from him.  And most of us accepted his reasons for our grades.

            David was in no school that year.  His sixteenth birthday was during the fall of his final year in the eighth grade and his seventeenth during the fall I entered the eleventh.  A birthday gift his father gave him was permission for him to enlist in the Army.

            My relationship with Connie hadn’t changed much.  Her mother let no one wear shoes on the new carpeting in their house, and snow in the winter soaked through my shoes, and turned my new white socks blue.  And that shamed me.

            “My shoes do that sometimes,” said Donnie.

            And my new trousers were too short.

            “Are those high water pants?” asked Donnie.

            Sometimes she and I went for walks away from her house.  We walked to the railroad trestle between my house and what remained of Homer Foundry.  But one of her feet slipped between two of the ties, and I laughed as I stood looking at her, instead of helping her.

            “You’re laughing at me?” she asked looking up at me with the foot beneath the bridge, and I stopped laughing but didn’t help her and said nothing when she pulled her leg from between the ties, as I looked at the blood from the tie scraping through her nylon stockings.

            She befriended the girl who lived in a house several doors from hers on Perkins Street.  The girl’s name was Cynthia, and her boyfriend was Don Smith, Peggy’s first boyfriend in Coldwater.  She was an Elvis Presley fan, and Connie became one and said her favorite song was “Teddy Bear,” as she sat on my lap in a big chair in Cynthia’s living room.  My arms were around her, with my hands clasped behind her, as Cynthia’s father entered the house.

            “Are you holding hands with yourself?” he asked me as he passed through the living room.

            He’s a Cootie,” Connie told me.  “That’s some kind of big deal in the Masons or something.”

            I thought he was fat and his house not much nicer than mine, but the reason I stopped going there was that Connie’s father sold his truck and bought a farm on Snow Prairie Road southeast of Bronson, about ten miles from Coldwater.  He paid tuition for Connie to finish the year at Coldwater High School, but that stopped our being together outside school, until my father surprised me.  He traded in his blue and white 1954 Chevrolet sedan.

            “Look out front,” he said to me as I entered the house after school, and I did and saw at the curb a red and white 1955 Chevrolet Belair hardtop.

            “Is that ours?” I asked him.

            “It is now,” he answered.

            “It’s a hardtop,” I exclaimed.

            “What did you think it would be,” he asked.  “a convertible?”

            “No middle roof supports,” I tried to explain.  “It’s not a sedan.”

            He frowned and turned away, and I was both happy about the car and unhappy about being unable to tell him why, but I managed to muster the courage to ask him to let me borrow it to drive to Connie’s farm.  He said nothing about what I’d done in the blue one, and I drove ninety miles an hour through the lake neighborhoods, between our house and Connie’s.  And, on the farm, she and I found plenty of places to walk and talk and kiss.

            One was at a tree that had fallen on the far side of the main field.  I had an erection as we sat leaning against it hugging and kissing, and my embarrassment kept me from adjusting it, when we stood to walk back to the house.  As we walked, Connie looked at the protrusion in my trousers, but neither of us said anything.

I treated the barn as a playground.  A rope hung from a rafter, and I swung on it from a ladder to the haymow and dropped from it to the floor, as I had from the balcony in the junior high school gym.  Connie neither smiled nor spoke as she watched.

            Her father asked me to disc the main field.  And I began doing it, pulling the discs behind his old rusty tractor, as Connie stood behind me on the hitch.  I stuck the tractor in muck, and Connie’s father and Donnie dug it out with shovels, as I stood silent and watched.

            “If you were a farmer,” said her father, “you could smell muck.”

            For Connie’s sixteenth birthday I gave her a bottle of Ambush perfume.  She had told me she liked it, and I used most of my remaining carnival money to buy it, but I didn’t know how to give.  I wrapped the bottle in its box and put it in the glove compartment of my father’s car and showed it to her by kicking the latch button while she sat behind it.

            “Is that for me?” she said.  “Thank you!”

            When she acquired her driver’s license, her father bought her a yellow and white Nash Metropolitan, and he asked me to take her and it into one of his fields and teach her to drive it.  It had a manual transmission, and Connie killed the engine each time she engaged the clutch, and she wept when I told her to do it slowly.  She learned by herself after I left.

            After she learned she drove the car to school.  Mark Hebner, who was bigger than nearly any other kid in the school, was also one of my few friends and suggested that we see how many kids could ride in that little two-person car.  We tried three in the front seat and one in the space behind the front seat and two sitting on the back fenders with their feet in the trunk and Mark standing on the back bumper and holding onto the trunk lid.  Connie drove the car a few yards in the student parking lot.  Its frame bounced on its axles.

            I used the last of my carnival money to make the first payment on a class ring much smaller than Tiger’s.  After hearing the prices, I asked the saleswoman to order a smaller one, but she said the next smaller size was for girls.  My mother, from cash my father gave her for things we couldn’t charge at the grocery store, gave me the cash for the remaining payments.

            The day after I made the last payment and took the ring home I gave it to Connie.  She wound angora yarn around it, to keep it from falling from her left ring finger, and so we were going steady.  But the steadiness nearly ended when I asked her to see a movie with me but didn’t have the cash for admission and was afraid to ask my father either for the cash or for the use of his car.

The night of the date, I sat in the big old chair in our living room, trying to muster the courage to awaken him from his nap on the sofa in front of me.  Our doorbell rang about an hour after the film was to begin, and I went to the door and found Connie standing on our little concrete front porch, with her mother on one of the steps behind her.  When I opened the door, Connie handed me the class ring, with no angora.

            “Nobody stands me up,” she said.

            I took the ring, and she turned away, and stepped down the steps.  As she passed her mother, her mother looked at me with a look that told me she was unhappy, for all of us.  I closed the door and turned away from it before they reached her mother’s car.

            In the next week, I didn’t speak when I saw Connie at school, and she turned away.  But, the following week, she began driving past my house and turning past the bar before driving home after school.  The third time I saw her do that, I ran from the front door of our house to its back door, and through the bar’s parking lot and into the street.  She stopped, and I walked around her car, and opened the passenger door and climbed in beside her, and she wept as we kissed and hugged, and she accepted the class ring again.  But neither of us said we were sorry.

            I worried about that when I asked her to the junior prom, but she accepted without reminding me, and my mother helped me again.  She ordered a black suit I selected from the Montgomery Ward catalog and scraped together enough cash for the corsage.  And she scraped together a little more for whatever else we might wish to do that night.

            Mark Hebner suggested that we double with him and his girlfriend and that we all meet at the school before the prom and after it go in his Falcon to the Toll House Restaurant where the Indiana Toll Road crossed U.S. 27.  I drove my father’s car to the farm to pick up Connie, but I was no more gracious with the corsage than with the Ambush, and her mother pinned it onto her dress.  And her mother suggested that Connie follow me to Coldwater in her car.

            “There’s no reason for you to drive all the way out here again,” she told me.  “You can take your car home, in case your family needs it.”

            Mark and his girlfriend met us at Connie’s locker as she was taking off her coat.

            “I thought you said you’d never wear anything but white socks,” said Connie.

            “Not with a suit,” I said looking down at my black socks from the grocery store.

            None of us danced, and none of us spoke much, and most of what we said was about the decorations.  At the restaurant, I searched the menu for something the little cash I had could buy, and I selected fish sticks.  The others waited for me and ordered the same.

            After we ate, Mark drove us to Connie’s car in the school’s student parking lot, and I drove us back to my house and parked it in our driveway.  My father nearly never went out at night, but he had that night and returned as Connie and I hugged and kissed in the driveway, and he tried to drive between us and the bushes between the driveway and our front yard.  His back bumper scraped Connie’s car, and he parked his car in the garage, where he’d never parked it.

            Without looking at us, he silently walked past us, and into the house.

            Connie began to weep.

            “What’s my father going to say?” she sobbed.  “He gave me this car!”

            Next morning her father brought her to my house as my parents played cards.

            “What are we going to do about this?” he asked my father in our living room.

            My father took a twenty-dollar bill from his wallet and held it out to Connie’s father, who silently shook his head and turned away, and Connie silently followed him out.

            She had glanced at me when they came in but didn’t as they left, and we never spoke to one another about that, leaving our relationship as it was.

            “What’s your favorite book?” I asked her as we stood in her front yard.

            “I don’t know,” she said.  “Maybe To Kill a Mockingbird.”

            “Woody says it’s sentimental,” I told her knowing nothing else about it.

            “I think you love Woody more than you do me,” she replied.

            My mother bought some magazine subscriptions from a door-to-door salesman.  She bought Popular Mechanics for me, but I read an article about Eisenhower in the Saturday Evening Post, and it said he went to West Point because his family couldn’t afford college tuition.  And that was the first year Coldwater High School had a guidance counselor, and he began his job by calling each student to his office, with the student’s parents.

            He was Mr. Houston, who had been my junior high school Principal, and his office was a tiny room with a door and window to the study hall and a window to the library.

            “What do you want to do after you graduate?” he asked me as my mother sat beside me.

            “I think I’d like to go to West Point,” I said.

            “Your scores say you can,” said Mr. Houston as my mother stared at me.  “But why?”

“I’ve always wanted to be a soldier,” I said.

            I was thinking of some little plastic toy soldiers I’d had at the lake and that, because of the smell of the plastic, I hadn’t played with them much.  But Mr. Houston advised me to ask the librarian to help me learn the admission process.  My mother told me I should tell my father.

            “You graduate from high school,” he replied as we stood in our living room with my back to the sofa and his to the card table, “and after that I don’t give a shit what you do.”

But I took Mr. Houston’s advice, and the librarian helped me discover how to request a nomination from Michigan’s United States Senator Philip A. Hart, and he responded with a letter telling me that he used Civil Service Examination scores as selection criteria and that he had arranged for me to take the examination at Coldwater’s City Hall.

A few weeks after I took the examinations, I received a telegram from the Senator congratulating me on my receiving a principle nomination, and Woody told me I’d be the first Coldwater resident to go to West Point.

I also went out for wrestling that year.  I didn’t have funding for wrestling shoes, but the coach let me wear tennis shoes and taped them onto my feet before matches, and he gave me sweat clothes a wrestler had left in the locker room when he graduated.  But I was no good at it.

I didn’t make varsity, and I pinned myself with a West Point ride, in the only junior varsity meet my parents attended.  I heard the coach shouting for me to get my shoulders up, and I was trying to do that when I heard the referee slap the mat, giving my opponent the win.  I stood and looked at the referee with my jaw hanging open, and the coach argued with the referee that I had control of my opponent, but the referee stood by his decision.

And Jack also easily pinned me on our dirty linoleum kitchen floor.

But I wrestled in one varsity meet.  My weight class was 120 pounds, and our varsity wrestler in that class couldn’t make weight and wrestled 127 in the regional tournament in Battle Creek, leaving me to fill the gap.  And I drove my father’s car to the meet, because the coach said the school had no bus available, and that he needed volunteers.

When I arrived at the school, he told me he had enough cars, but he said Duane Palmeteer could ride with me.  I thought, because Duane had about as many friend as I, that the coach’s reasoning might have been that no one else desired his or my company.  But Duane and I set out for Battle Creek together following the other cars.

On a tight curve between Coldwater and Union City my father’s right rear tire blew out.   The car spun around on the ice and snow and rolled backward and stopped between two trees in a barnyard.  The farmer saved us some time by using forks on the front of his tractor to lift the back of the car.  The rest of the team waited, while Duane and I changed the tire, but we weren’t late for the meet.  My main shame was from seeing that the flat tire was bald.

We arrived early enough to lose some cash by flipping coins with an African American kid in a hallway outside the gymnasium.  He was doing something with one of his thumbs, and my teammates told each other that he might have been cheating, but I couldn’t see how.  I tried a West Point ride in my match but lost by my opponent pinning me without my help.

The last day of school that school year, Connie and I took her car to a bridge on the Coldwater River near where David and I had swung on vines, and we lay in grass beside the bridge and watched the sunlight on the pebbles beneath the ripples of the flowing shallow water.

“I’m not going to school in Coldwater next year,” said Connie.  “You know my father has to pay tuition, and I don’t know how things are between us.”

I thought about how things were between us and said nothing.

“I think I’d better give this back to you,” she said removing the class ring from the finger, and she unwound the yarn from it and gave it back to me.

“I’ll see you in ten years,” I said accepting the ring, “when I get my PhD.”

She drove me to my house, where I put the ring on my own right ring finger, and that summer Woody taught a course in creative writing.  My mother talked my father into paying my tuition for the course.  And I began to make friends of whom I felt proud.

One afternoon before class, I met some of my classmates at the Coldwater Public Library, where we sat at one of the old wooden tables and talked of what we were learning in the class.

“Do you want to ride to class with us?” one of the girls asked me.

I happily readily accepted.  And, as we descended the steps from the entrance to the library, Connie was ascending them.  She stopped and turned and leaned back on the railing.

“Don’t you love me anymore, Bill?” she asked me.

“No,” I said, and I continued down the steps and into the car, where I looked back and saw her still leaning on the rail, with her head down, weeping.

I asked for a guitar for Christmas, and the Kay my father ordered through the Montgomery Ward catalog was cheap, but it was like Jack’s Stella like the one I’d seen Elvis Presley hold in a movie as he sang.  A booklet with it told how to tune the strings relative to one another, but I didn’t know how to tune them relative to the piano Mrs. Hamlin had given me, or how to tune them to one in tune.  One note at a time I played “The Old Rugged Cross” before the congregation in church.  I knew no music theory.  I knew no chords.

“She has kids so she can collect Aid for Dependent Children,” my mother said of a woman who lived across the street from us, and I drank coffee with the woman in the kitchen of the old brick house she shared with her children.

“Are you getting any of that?” my father asked me.

I neither replied nor again drank coffee with her.

The birth of my brother Jerry made us six.  We were Peggy Lou and Billy Lee and Nancy Kay and Dewey Ray and Sally Sue and Jerry Dee.  My mother told me that finding a name that rimed with Lee wasn’t easy but that my father knew someone whose name was Dee.  Peggy named her second son Don and called him Donnie.

Peggy and Jack and Johnnie and Donnie moved to the second floor of the house on the south side of the car lot across Division Street from what had been Connie’s house.  Jack read in a magazine an article about Italian race car driver Tazio Nuvelari, and he loaned me the magazine so I could read it, and I did.  But Peggy told me of other behavior of Jack’s.

“He threw me down the stairs,” she said, “and he threw the alarm clock after me, because I told him to get up and go to work.  He hurt his hand changing a tire and stayed home from work because of that.  He stays home from work because of anything.”

She told me that as we played Scrabble in her apartment.  She was in a flowery full skirt she said she liked.  But she was barefoot.

“He says Johnnie’s yours,” she said.  “And he tries to stick it in every hole I’ve got.”

My father had retired and worked part time checking card tables in the card room of the bar next door to the Stag but quit because he was getting sick.  He had an infection in one of his feet, and he fell into my arms in our foyer once as I came in from class, and doctors at the Veterans Hospital in Ann Arbor gave him a set of false teeth.  And they told him he was diabetic and would die in six months if he didn’t stop drinking beer.

“If I can’t drink beer,” he said, “I don’t want to live.”

But I saw no glint in his gray eyes, as he looked up at me when I caught his fall in the foyer, and I remembered the first time I didn’t cry when he spanked me.  We were also in that foyer then, and I had come home late for supper, and he didn’t bother with a belt but wrapped one arm around my back, to hit my butt with his other hand.  I began to cry but stopped myself, and he stopped hitting me and stood up, and looked at me with what I thought was wonder.  And I thought I also saw regret of losing control of me and shame of not knowing he had.  Now I saw too much fear for regret and too much wonder for shame.

I drove him to Ann Arbor to pick up his new teeth.  We stopped for hamburgers on our way back to Coldwater.  He took the teeth out of his mouth and never tried them again.

“Let’s go to Lansing,” he said.

His second wife and her children lived in Lansing.  His son by her owned a dry-cleaning service, but we went to his house and rang the doorbell, and his wife opened the door.  My father introduced himself to her.

“He’s at the shop,” she said.

While she made telephone calls trying to find him, we sat in the kitchen of her modern ranch-style house and drank coffee and Coca Cola, at her colonial-style kitchen table.  I drank the Coca Cola while my father drank the coffee.  I’d never seen him drink coffee.

“I don’t know where he is,” she said after several calls.

A young boy entered the kitchen.

“This is Kip,” she said, “Clifford H. Harman, III.”

She tried another telephone call.

My family called her husband Brother Budd, and Kip said nothing to us as he sat with us at the table, and neither did we say anything to him.

“I’m sorry,” his mother said, hanging up again.

“That’s alright,” said my father.  “Tell him we stopped by.”

“I will,” she said, and she walked us to her door.

The next week, when I came home from Woody’s class, I found my father standing at the card table looking at things in a cardboard box on it.  I stood beside him and looked into the box as he took from it a double-exposure photograph and showed it to me and told me he’d done it.  And next he took from it a drawing, a picture in pencil on Manila paper, of the face of a woman.

“Isn’t she beautiful?” he asked me.

He looked at me with his gray eyes glistening, and I understood that it was of his wife who had died before he married Budd’s mother and that he had drawn the portrait, but I thought her appearance was old fashion.  I neither answered him nor asked him whence had come the box, and he returned the picture to the box, as I turned to go up to my room.  A few days later he had a stroke and went to Ann Arbor in an ambulance.

I wasn’t at home.  My mother rode with him in the ambulance.  She rode back alone.

“He’s paralyzed from the neck down,” she told me, “and he can’t talk.”

 

 

 

Chapter 8

1963

 

A few days after that, I drove my mother to the hospital, but I waited in the hallway while she visited him.  On our way back to Coldwater, I drove I-94 at about ninety miles per hour, until the engine made unusual noises and stopped.  A passing driver called the police for us, and a wrecker took the car and us to a garage, where a mechanic repaired the rockers.

My mother promised the mechanic she’d send him the money.

“I don’t have it with me,” she said.  “That’s the best we can do.”

My creative writing course had ended, and I had written to Bob and Ruth and learned that they would be playing the Cass County fair the next week, and I hitchhiked the sixty miles to Cassopolis.  But, a few days later, as I was returning from eating my blueberry pie alamode, at a Cass County committee joint, I heard my name.  It came from the fair’s public address system.

“Would Bill Harman please come to the Fair Secretary’s office,” it said.

“Did you hear that?” Ruth asked me as I passed her joint on my way there.

“Yes,” I said and walked on to the little white clapboard office building.

“Are you Bill Harman?” a man asked me in front of the building.

“Yes,” I said, stopping because I thought he’d sent the message.

“I think your dad’s dead,” he said and walked past me and away.

“You need to call this number,” said a woman behind the counter inside the building, handing me a slip of paper and putting a telephone on the counter.  “She said to call collect.”

“Commercial,” said Smitty answering the telephone in the bar.

“Oh yeah,” he said after agreeing to pay for the call.  “I’ll have someone go get her.”

“Your dad’s dead,” said my mother.  “Can you come home?”

“Is Sunday soon enough?” I asked.  “We tear down Saturday.”

“That’s alright,” she said.  “Bertha’s here.  The funeral isn’t until Tuesday.  I told him you were working the last time I could go see him.  His eyes lit up when I told him that.”

I walked past Ruth to the REO and sat on the rollaway.  I tried to weep, but I couldn’t and rose and returned to the joint, where I sat on its counter with my feet on it and my back leaning on the frame of its sidewall.

“My dad’s dead,” I said with something between a cry and a groan.

Ruth looked at me briefly, returned her look to the midway void of marks, and said nothing.

“I feel like he’s still alive somewhere,” I said because I did feel that.

“I know what you mean,” she replied.  “We’ll buy you a bus ticket.”

“If it’s alright with you,” I said, “I’ll work the rest of the week.”

After teardown Bob drove me in the panel truck to the bus station.

“You don’t have to come back,” he said after buying the ticket.

“I will,” I said as he handed it to me, “if it’s alright with you.”

“It’s alright with me,” he said.  “You can work the basketball in La Porte.  Ruth and I won’t be there, but Willard will be with the six-cat.”

And he bought me a ticket from Coldwater to La Porte.  But I appreciated more the promotion from what carnies called town mark sucker help to concession agent.  And my father’s death hardly dampened that appreciation.

In Coldwater, my Uncle Jim drove me to the funeral parlor, to see my father’s body.  It was at Gillespie’s, across Division Street from the funeral parlor whose owner’s son had told me not to fuck up our house, and I thought of the mess I’d made of my room and of our floors my mother never waxed and of the Formica coming loose from the kitchen counters and the roaches scurrying beneath it when I turned on the light for a snack at night.  Jim, Aunt Bertha’s husband, left me alone beside the coffin.

My father was in his blue serge suit.  Except for other funerals, he hadn’t been in it since we left Ionia, and Jim and Bertha had bought him a new white shirt and a narrow polyester tie.  I didn’t feel that what I saw there was my father, and I leaned forward to look more closely at that strange apparition, as Jim reentered the room.

I jumped, feeling I was doing something wrong but having no notion what, and Jim’s look at me made me feel more that way.  But Peggy helped me through it all giggling with me at the funeral.  Reverend Hamlin, whom I doubted had met my father, presided.

Peggy and I sat together in a pew behind our father’s children from his second marriage, and they glanced back at us as we giggled at Reverend Hamlin’s eulogy, and that made us giggle more.  But my feelings changed at the cemetery, where Old Glory draped the coffin as an American Legion honor guard gave my father a 21-gun salute, before folding the flag for my mother.  One of the members of the guard folding it took it to her as she sat in a folding chair. 

As she accepted it her head dropped in tears.  That was when I learned my mother loved my father.  I hung the flag over the side window of my room, but the next day I was on a bus heading for La Porte, Indiana.

I had a layover in Michigan City, several hours in the largest city in which I’d ever been alone, and I spent the time seeing its central business district.  I found a men’s clothing store and bought a shirt with green pinstripes and a snap tab collar.  It was the fanciest shirt I’d bought. 

In La Porte, I walked to the fairgrounds and found that Willard and the others who worked the six-cat with him had already set up both it and the basketball joint, and I walked around the midway.  It was the largest midway I’d ever seen, an oval with two pair of Ferris wheels, one pair on each side.  Willard said it was a mile around.

We had another day before the show would open, and Willard took me to a cigar store down town, but not to buy cigars.  He nodded to the man behind the counter but walked past him into its back room.  There, men were playing poker, at several tables.

Willard stood and watched the play for a few minutes.

“Come on,” he said to me, saying nothing to anyone else.

He walked out of the store and stopped on the sidewalk.

“It’s a tough house,” he said.  “I wouldn’t get into it.”

We got back into his car and returned to the lot.

“I run a poker game in my apartment in Phenix City,” he said as he drove.  “I serve steaks after the game.  Phenix City used to be wide open gambling until somebody killed the Attorney General for trying to clean it up.  I quit school and ran away from home when I was thirteen, and a guy put me to work dealing blackjack, in one of the casinos.  It’s still pretty wide open but not like it was.  There’s a movie about it.  The Phenix City Story.”

That night, Willard and I sat on the counter of the six-cat while Lester leaned on the frame of the trough where the cats fell, reading one of his Louis L’Amour paperbacks.  Willard pulled a new deck of cards from a pocket and told me to open it and shuffle the cards, and show them to him one at a time and stack them face down on the counter, but not to show him the last one.  I tore off the cellophane and did what he told me to do.

“It’s the jack of clubs,” he said of the last card, and he was correct.

He could count cards, and he told me he bought a new air-conditioned Impala every year, and his clothes accorded with current fashion.  And he had about a dozen pair of shoes in the trunk of his car and told me that he never paid less than sixteen dollars for a pair of shoes and that the best shoes had leather soles but rubber heels and that wearing the same pair of shoes two days in a row was unhealthy.  But I couldn’t do my new job.

I could take the marks’ quarters and make change and hand them the balls, but I couldn’t get myself to call marks in, and so I silently let them pass.  And I was so grateful when three of them played my joint that I let them steal most of the stock.  I wasn’t paying attention.

While one of them played, another of them talked to me, while the other stole.  After they left, I saw by the number of teddy bears and poodle dogs remaining that the one who stole must have made several trips, and my pay was 25 percent of my receipts after deducting the cost of the stock and the price we paid the ride company for the privilege of operating the joint on the lot it booked.  So, for that night, my net income was a debt to Bob.

But, instead of increasing the shame I already felt, Willard showed me how to give the neck ribbons an extra twist around the nails from which we hung the prizes.

“It won’t be as easy to steal them that way,” he said.

I followed his instructions, and I also forced myself to pay more attention because I knew that was mainly how I’d lost the stock, but still I couldn’t get myself to call in the marks.  My pay for that spot was far less than Ruth had paid me to blow up balloons.  And my pay for the next spot wasn’t much more.

But Bob let me keep the job, and Willard educated me in other ways, and I shared motel rooms with him when the REO was at spots Bob and Ruth played without us.  Willard bought a bottle of Manischewitz we drank in the front seat of his car, and he took me to a pool hall and let me break, and he ran the table as soon as I missed.  He stopped playing after three games.

“I feel like I’m playing with myself,” he said.

The night before setup in a spot we played with Bob and Ruth, we shared a motel room because again lumber blocked the way to the rollaway, and we shared a bed in it because Willard said we didn’t need to waste the money for two.  In the night, he moved close to me, and I moved away from him.  He moved again, and I moved again, and he moved again.

When I reached the edge of the bed on my side of it, I got out of it and walked around to the other side and got in again, and he didn’t move toward me again.  The next day as we talked with Bob, I told him Willard had done that, and Bob laughed.  I also told Bob how Willard announced giving away prizes.

“Here goess I winner here,” said Willard.

Bob also laughed when I told him that.

I asked Bob how much he thought I’d paid for one of my white button-down-collar shirts I’d bought a Penney’s.

“A dollar ninety-eight,” he said.

“Ninety-eight cents,” I said.  “It’s worth more than that.  I paid four bucks for my snap-tab.  I bet you paid more than that for that shirt.  And it doesn’t look as nice.”

“Willard gave me this shirt for my birthday,” said Bob.

Willard told me assholes were cleaner than vaginas, and he went to a doctor and told me the doctor told him to masturbate, and he left the show for a couple of days when we jumped south.  We had three days with nothing to do, between setting up and opening in Columbia, Tennessee.  He said he had something he had to do in Nashville.

“Can I go?” I asked.

“No,” he answered.

In one spot, when I was helping set up the six-cat, I noticed a steel rod protruding from sides of the ends of two two-by-fours that ran along the sides of the joint.  And I saw by grooves in the paint that the two-by-fours weren’t two-by-fours but pairs of one-by-fours.  So I asked Bob their purpose.

“Those are accessories,” he told me.

“What did he ask?” asked Willard.

“What those are.” Bob answered.

“Those are necessities,” said Willard.

A mark accused me of being a thief, while I was operating the basketball joint beside the six-cat, and he said he was going to kick my ass.  I stepped to the corner of the six-cat and leaned around it to the agent operating that side of it.  Willard was operating the other side.

“Hey Rube,” I quietly said.

“What?” asked the agent.

“Hey Rube,” I said again.

The mark stepped to the net that returned the balls to me from the baskets and grabbed a ball there and threw it over the back of the joint and walked away.  I retrieved the ball and said nothing more to the agent and nothing to Willard.  I was sick of that basketball joint.

But a blond girl I found attractive played the joint several time and asked me about myself, and I gave her some free shots, but I didn’t carry it further.

“What happened to your girlfriend?” asked Willard after the show closed.

My family wasn’t in much trouble financially, because my father’s trips to Ann Arbor had increased his Veterans’ disability rating, but I learned when I returned home that autumn that Peggy had left Jack and had left Johnny and Donny with him.  And, if anyone knew where she went, no one told me.  I knew few details but understood.

At school I learned that clothing fashions had changed, and that a new men’s clothing store had opened on Chicago Street, competing with the only other one competing with Penney’s.  Al Reyburn, the new store’s owner, had moved to Coldwater from Kalamazoo and had hired one of my class mates to work for him and promote his store’s current fashions at school.  Cory’s Best, the other of Coldwater’s men’s clothing stores, sold more traditional clothing although Mr. Cory’s son Bill was also a classmate of mine.

Glen Sites, my classmate working for Al, showed me some belts on my first visit there.

“Check out these new belts,” he said to me as he spun the rack on which the belts hung.

I initially thought they couldn’t be in fashion because they were wider than the Ivy League belts that had been in fashion the year before.  But I saw at school that other kids were in them, and also in shirts with button-down collars wider than the button-down collars on my Penney’s shirts, and also in ascots.  So I spent most of my carnival cash at Reyburn’s.

“I heard you’re pretty good in McClellan’s English class,” said Glen to me.

Woody taught both eleventh and twelfth grade college preparatory English.

“Can you help me with a book report on The Catcher in the Rye,” he asked.

Woody had mentioned it in class.  And, in about a week, I had read it and every other book Salinger had published.  But I neither knew nor asked how Glen knew that.

“I could tell you what I think about it,” I said shrugging at the question.

“Can you come to my office tomorrow night?” he asked.  “I’ll be there after the store closes.  You can come to the back door at about seven.  Is that alright?”

At 7:00 p.m. the next evening, I knocked on the back door of the store, and Glen let me into the room between the sales floor and the back door, where Al had put a desk for Glen to use for anything, but we talked little about The Catcher in the Rye.

“Do you have a girlfriend?” Glen asked.

“No,” I told him.  “Not a steady one.”

“Can you get a date?” he asked.  “I’m thinking you might want to double with Marcia and me some night.”

Marcia was Marcia Enos, the girl with raven ringlets I’d thought was the ideal girl at the Methodist Church when I was seven, and now she was a cheerleader and going steady with Glen.

“Sure,” I said.  “I guess so.”

Skip Bobier, whose father owned the lumber company from which Donny Shellenbarger and I had stolen the glasscutters to burglarize the Golden Rule Shop, was the most popular girl in the school and was also a cheerleader.  I saw her in a school hallway with Terry Ward, the Ward twin who had bullied David and me most, and now played varsity football and basketball.  And I heard part of their conversation.

“At least I have two eyebrows,” said Skip to Terry.

I saw that his eyebrows grew together above his nose.

Woody assigned a speech.  The subject could be anything, and the student would have to deliver it, to the whole class.  I decided to make popularity my subject and asked Skip to meet me in the school library.

“I’m doing my speech for McClellan’s class on popularity,” I told her.  “And, since you’re the most popular girl in the school, I wonder if I could interview you for it.”

“I don’t know if I’m that popular,” she replied to that.  “But I’ll help if I can.”
            I went through my short list of questions quickly and turned to my main question.

“Glen Sites asked me to get a date to double with him and Marcia,” I told her.

“I’m sort of going steady with Terry Ward,” she said.  “But thanks for asking me.”

“Did you find a date?” Glen asked me in a school hallway a few days later.

“Nah,” I said.  “I asked Skip Bobier, but she said she’s going with Terry Ward.”

“Skip Bobier!” Glen exclaimed.  “She’s the most popular girl in school!  Why didn’t you ask somebody like Drenda Houston?”

Drenda was the Guidance Counselor’s daughter.  And Chris Sellars, a brother of the girl of the couple that had tried to elope with Peggy and Buzz, had told me that he’d screwed her.  She had been pudgy but was thinning down, and I liked her blond hair and her freckles, but I said none of that to Glen.  I thought he might have known or guessed it all.

I didn’t ask her out, and I never spoke to Glen again outside the store, and I wrote my paper about something I saw Chris Quick do.

“Chris Quick is one of the most popular kids in the school,” I told my English class.  “And I saw him in front of his locker with a wooden penis in his mouth.”

“That’s enough, Mr. Harman,” said Woody.  “I think you’d better sit down.”

I sat down, but he somewhat apologized, a few days later.

“Maybe I shouldn’t have stopped you,” he told me at his house.

A few weeks later, Chris died in an automobile accident, and Mr. Dennis gave all the students the option of sitting in homeroom or going to the funeral.

“I didn’t like him when he was alive,” I told Larry Neitzert as we sat together in a nearly empty classroom during the funeral.  “I don’t know why I’d go to the funeral.”

“I didn’t like him either,” said Larry whose family owned a florist shop.  “I don’t think anybody did.  But they wanted to get out of school.”

To have a study hall instead of gym class, I went out for cross country, but I washed out.  The team ran to the Coldwater Country Club for practice, and I stopped along the way to talk with Harold Colvin while he was taking a break from his job, at a small factory beside the road.  Harold was the boyfriend of Martha Goebel, the young woman who went to Reverend Hamlin’s church and was older than Bob McNall, while he had a crush on her.

I stopped more from tiredness than from wishing to talk with Harold, and my disinclination to run cost me my team membership, but not that day.  While the coach was out of town with the varsity team for a meet, nearly every runner not on the varsity team skipped practice, and I was gladly among them.  The coach kicked all the skippers off the team.

I learned in gym class that I could dash a hundred yards in not much longer than ten seconds, but I didn’t go out for track because I thought I’d have to do all the other track things, and I didn’t know whether I could put shots or do whatever else track included besides running.

But, with my clothes in current fashion and my success in Woody’s class, I found two friends who were less athletic than I and cared nothing for sports, thinking themselves intellectual.

Dick Atkinson’s father earned his living by what my father and David’s had done at the State Home, but he and his brother had been in business in Columbia, and they had a patent for eagle claw tether stakes they had invented and tried to market.

The stakes were aluminum, with three prongs protruding from their tops and curving downward, and another piece of aluminum swiveling above the prongs.  You could drive them into the ground and chain your dog to the swivel, and the dogs’ pulling dug the stakes further into the ground, instead of pulling them from it.  Dick had one of the stakes and some Eagle Claw Tether Stake Company envelopes and showed them to me in his party room.

His brother was studying special education at Wabash College, leaving Dick both of the upstairs bedrooms of their old house across Grand Street from Parkhurst Park, and he used one of them for parties.  In that room, besides drinking beer, he told me about his brother’s Volvo and talked about music and books.  He introduced me to Simon and Garfunkel and Jack Kerouac.

Bob Kubiac, the other of the two friends I made at school that year, was also a friend of Dick’s.  I don’t know how Kubiac’s father earned his living, because he refused to talk about his parents or to invite friends to his home, a tidy little white clapboard house about ten miles north of town in Girard.  But we were all nonconformists, and Kubiac sneered at popular people, particularly girls.

Phil Teeter was an extremely large varsity football player.  Chris Culy, Phil’s girlfriend, was a cheerleader of ordinary size.  And both of their fathers were civic leaders.

“He spins her on the end of his dick like a pinwheel,” said Kubiac.

And Woody fed my nonconformity by moving from town into an old brick schoolhouse and telling me he was harboring an Air Force deserter in the garage beside it.

“Don’t tell anyone I told you,” he said.  “I could be in a lot of trouble.”

I wrote to Senator Hart and told him I’d rather be a nonconformist than a soldier, and Woody told me the Principal suggested that my decision might be his fault, and he told me I might reconsider passing up what might be the chance of a lifetime.  But my motive wasn’t Kerouac or Kubiac, or the deserter in Woody’s garage I’d never met, and I had no problem with Chris Culy or with her father owning the jewelry store where I had bought my class ring.  My motives were my not having117 dollars, which I’d need to pay for the West Point uniforms, and my fear that I couldn’t handle the discipline.

“Did you hear that somebody shot the President?” Jim Parks asked me in the school library.  “Didn’t kill him though.  Just winged him.”

My next class, after Jim told me that, was physics.  By then I’d learned that Kennedy was dead, and my physics teacher sat on a stool behind the counter at the front of the classroom, behind a Bunsen burner that was there because the classroom was also for chemistry.  He closed his eyes, presumably to pray, and I quietly moved with some of my classmates from the classroom into the storeroom for laboratory equipment and chemicals.  We closed the door and whispered there as we ordinarily did in class.  And I noted no extraordinary emotion.

Mr. Terdal, the physics teacher, had given me an A for the first marking period and told my class it was the first A he’d given anyone, but my performance diminished when we moved from basic machines to more theoretical physics.  Despite his praying, most of his students appreciated him, not excepting those in the storeroom.  But Kubiac gave the assassination a different focus.

Kubiac wasn’t Irish, but he suggested that we have a wake for Kennedy, in Atkinson’s party room.  He said he’d bring hard cider, if Dick would bring some bourbon, so we could mix what he said were stone fences.  And we invited every student who talked with us.

I spent much of the day off from school for mourning watching the funeral on television and trying to weep as I had tried to weep when my father died.  But I asked my mother to buy me a case of beer for the wake, and Dick’s dad bought him a fifth of bourbon, to mix with Kubiac’s cider.    But no one accepted our invitation.

Dick’s father spent the evening at the Elks club, but his mother stayed at home alone down stairs, as Dick and Kubiac and I listened to music and laughed and talked drinking upstairs.

“Dickie,” she shouted up the stairs.  “What are you doing up there?”

“Oh, shut up,” Dickie shouted from where he sat, “you old bag!”

She was quiet for a few minutes before shouting the same shout again.  Dick repeated his reply, and we continued our conversation, but not for long.  I heard her climbing the stairs.

“Oh shit!” said Kubiac.  “Here she comes!”

He rose from where he sat and began pushing furniture against the door to the stairs.

“Come on!” he said.  “Give me a hand!”

Dick and I helped him move a chest of drawers, and he pulled me out to the roof of the living room bay window, nearly pushing me from it.

“Get back!” he said.  “She’ll see you!”

Dick was sitting in a chair with his feet on an open drawer of the chest of drawers.

“Don’t let her in!” said Kubiac.

I left the roof and stood beside Dick and watched the doorknob turn.  A few seconds after it stopped turning, the chest of drawers began to move, as the door began to open.  I saw through the opening that Dick’s mother was sitting on a clothes hamper on the other side of the landing.  She was in a shorty nightgown and pushing the door with her feet.  I hoped my mother would never get that old and drunk.

Kubiac left the roof and pushed the dresser to reclose the door.  Dick’s mother quit her efforts and went back downstairs, and we resumed our conversation, but again not for long.  Kubiac said he was hungry.

“Do you think she passed out yet?” he asked Dick.

“I don’t know,” said Dick.  “I don’t hear anything.”

“I’ll go see,” said Kubiac leaving his chair again.

He pulled the chest of drawers away from the door and went downstairs and returned with a can of corned beef hash and a fork.  He ate all the corned beef hash and began to vomit all over the room, but by then all three of us were ready to pass out, and we did.  Kubiac passed out on the floor of the party room, Atkinson on a sofa in it, and I on Dick’s bed.

In the morning, we awoke to the smell of Kubiac’s puke, and we agreed we needed to make a trip to a Laundromat.  We loaded into the trunk of my father’s car everything portable on which we saw vomit.  And I drove us to the nearest of Coldwater’s two Laundromats.

As we entered the parking lot, an old man was leaving it while watching a lawnmower handle protruding from the trunk of his car, instead of watching where he was going.  He drove into a rear fender of my father’s car I’d de facto inherited because my mother never learned to drive.  And he asked me why I hadn’t honked its horn.

Kubiac took charge and interrogated the old man for his driver’s license and insurance information.  His driver’s license had expired, and he had no insurance documentation with him, but he gave us his address.  We did the laundry and took it back to Atkinson’s house and went to the man’s big brick house on Chicago Street.  We talked with him in his kitchen, and his insurance company sent my mother a check, but she didn’t use it to repair the car.  And I quit wrestling before our first meet that season.

The coach matched me with Chris Sellers for practice.  Chris was in the 133 pound weight class while I was starving myself to wrestle 120 again.  He threw me about as a rag doll.

“You were going to be one of my powers this year,” said the coach when I told him in the locker room that I was quitting, and I told him I was tired of the hunger from making weight.

He told me he’d planned to have me wrestle 127, and I wondered how I could be a power at 127 when I’d been a waste at 120, but my shame from that kept me from reminding him of it.

I attended the auditions for a hootenanny in the school gymnasium.  Afraid to audition, I left the gym and drove most of my way home, before turning back.  I don’t remember what song I sang to win acceptance from the judges.

In a snow storm, I drove my father’s car into the fence around the school’s sports fields, because I was singing.  A man stopped and helped me return the car to the street and told me he wouldn’t tell anyone what I had done to the fence.  I looked at the damage the car had done to the fence and at the slits the chain link fence had cut above the car’s right headlight.

“What were you doing?” my mother asked me.  “Singing?”

Telling me her parents worked for a carnival, Woody talked me into performing a duet with Cecelia Miller at the hootenanny, and he suggested that we sing “Lemon Tree.”  But Cecelia attended no rehearsals, and the faculty organizer told me she had to hear something before the performance, and I sang it alone and a capella.  And the advisor accepted that.

“I heard you can sing,” said Atkinson to me next evening.

Cecelia showed up for the hootenanny, and I gave Professor Boyer the sheet music a few minutes before our performance, and asked him to accompany us.

“I might be able to strum some of the chords,” he replied.

But I didn’t hear his chords.  All I heard was my voice and Cecelia’s.  They weren’t in harmony, and Cecelia didn’t come to school the next day, or ever again.

I talked my mother into trading my father’s car for a gray 1951 Austin of England four-door-sedan I saw at White’s car lot behind our house.  It didn’t run well, and Kubiac laughed at it and told me its swaying was because it had no shock absorbers, but he tried to help me make it run better.  He rode with me to a foreign car dealership in Battle Creek to buy a crank for it and arranged for us to work on it in the school’s automobile mechanics shop.

I could buy the crank and gasoline because my mother gave me more money than my father had.  My father had opened a charge account at the Sinclair station on the south side of the vacant lot where Connie’s father had parked his truck.  My mother told the owner to let me charge there whatever I requested.

But Kubiac and I failed to improve the running of the Austin, and so I asked my mother to trade it for a turquoise 1961 Corvair station wagon I also saw in White’s lot, and the Corvair did run well.

And soon my respectability took another step forward.  Woody told my English class that a rich man had come to town and bought the big red house where the Van Whys had lived and that he was organizing a project to restore the Tibbets Opera House.  Jim Van Why had been a classmate of mine, and his father had owned Coldwater’s only hotel, and the house was the biggest in Coldwater.

After school, I drove to the opera house, which had been vacant since it stopped being a movie theatre while my family lived at the lake.  George Vaughn Lowther, a tall thin man with long red hair and a goatee, was the project’s theatrical director and introduced himself to me and became my friend.  And I became the project’s first volunteer.
 

 

 

Chapter 9

1963 - 1964

 

A few weeks after Vaughn befriended me, Peggy returned to Coldwater and went to work as a waitress at the Arlington Inn, the hotel Van Why’s father had owned.

She told me she had been in Fort Wayne and had learned waitressing there at the Lucky Shoe bar and grill.  She didn’t tell me how she’d acquired the funds to go there, but she told me she’d found a room at the Keenan Hotel and the job at the bar quickly, and part of her pay at the Arlington was a room in it.  And it was a half block from the opera house.

Vaughn told me Stilson, the rich guy who was organizing the restoration project, had recruited him from the Fort Wayne Civic Theatre.  He told me that he’d been Stage Manager there and that he was on probation for forging checks and that Stilson knew it but that I shouldn’t tell anyone.  And soon Vaughn also befriended Peggy.

And, in an audition, he selected me over the older brother of Todd Ellis, to play the junior Clarence in a production of Life with Father he would direct at the opera house, and Charlotte Button would play my girlfriend.

Charlotte was the daughter of Tom Button and had been a pudgy little tow-head girl when we were in elementary school.  Now she was less pudgy while still being very blonde, and I enjoyed having her on my lap during rehearsals, and I asked her out for New Year’s Eve.  My life suddenly was full of hope.

We spent New Year’s Eve in Atkinson’s party room.  Larry Camp and Kubiac and Atkinson were there but no other girl.  I took beer for myself and a pint of sloe gin for Charlotte, and we spent most of the evening in a big chair, trying to kiss.

But she pushed her lips against mine as I had pushed mine against Nancy Johnson’s, not softly or warmly or wetly, as had Connie.  She proved herself a willing learner and opened her mouth and tried to use her tongue.  But, as far as I could feel, she just didn’t get it.

And the play didn’t open.  None of us actors learned our lines.  Miss Gaviglio, the high school’s drama teacher, watched a rehearsal for Stilson and told him we weren’t getting the job done.  But I had plenty of other things keeping me busy in my budding life.

Mr. Terdal, the physics teacher, formed a ski club.  A company had piled a lot of dirt onto a hill between Coldwater and Angola and called it a ski slope and built a ski lodge and ski lifts for it.  And, my first time there, I tried the slope the company said was for the most skillful skiers.

            My first time down the slope, I kept myself from skiing into the lodge by sitting down, when I skied onto ice between it and the snow.  On my second try, my right leg skied over a pile of snow in the middle of the slope, but my left leg didn’t.  Both of my skis came loose, and I dragged them after me by their safety straps, as I rolled in the snow.

            An instructor skied to me when I stopped rolling. 

            “Are you alright?” he asked looking down at me as I lay in the snow.

            “Yeah,” I said and took a lesson before trying again.

            Learning the snow plow ended my fun in skiing because the ski club ended before I learned to control my skiing without it.  A Nutt brother who had graduated from high school showed up drunk at its third outing and took some skis from the rack and skied with no boots.  The school board disbanded the club because his brother was still in school and in the club.

            But I was having other fun driving Peggy and Vaughn to Fort Wayne.  Sometimes we went in my Corvair and sometimes in Vaughn’s old Simca with its four-speed manual transmission with its shift lever on the column.  I drove either car because Vaughn said he didn’t like to drive, and he introduced us to the Fort Wayne Civic Theatre crowd, and to a son of the inventor of television.

Philo T. Farnsworth lived in Ft. Wayne, and Vaughn told me he had invented the camera scanner system that made television possible, but that he was still suing for a patent for it.  His house was a big Cape Cod across a street from a state mental hospital with brick buildings that reminded me of Coldwater’s State Home, and his son and namesake owned a Mercedes Gullwing and lived in the basement with a tall Hispanic woman, and watched music on an oscilloscope there.  A big mirror with a baroque frame the color of gold hung over their twin bed.

            I didn’t meet his father, but I briefly met his mother and wondered at the messy basement and the toast crumbs on the kitchen counters in their house, where I also saw a big room with wall-to-wall carpeting and a grand piano.  I also went to the Lucky Shoe with Peggy and thought it was a dive.  And she introduced me to friends of hers in other places.

            “I dress sharp because I think it’s necessary to make one’s way through society,” I said to one of those friends, and he sneered at me.

            I bought some Regal’s Little Havana cigarillos at a shop where Vaughn bought tobacco for his pipe, and I took them home and shared them with Atkinson and Kubiac in Atkinson’s party room, where we had been smoking pipes.  And Vaughn took us to a party in the apartment of Charlie Allen, the Fort Wayne Civic Theatre’s choreographer, and Vaughn said he was gay.  He fed everyone beans and cheese everyone ate and praised although he’d burned the beans.

            A conversation I heard at the party was about a woman discovering her husband sucking the penis of one of the other men at the party in Charlie’s bathroom during another of Charlie’s parties.  As the crowd dwindled, Vaughn and Peggy and I talked about sleeping arrangements, and Vaughn said he’d be sleeping in another friend’s apartment.  Peggy said she’d be sleeping with a guest at the party whose apartment was on the other side of the same building.

            “You can sleep on Charlie’s sofa,” Vaughn said to me.  “He won’t bother you.”

            “I have my work on the sofa,” said Charlie after all the others had gone.  “But you can sleep with me.  I won’t bother you.”

            I couldn’t sleep, and neither did Charlie, through hours of his tossing and turning.

            “You’d be nervous too,” he said, “if you were in bed with a beautiful young girl.”

            Charlie stopped tossing and turning before dawn.  But I arose at dawn and descended his stairs to the street and ascended the stairs to the apartment where Peggy had said she’d be sleeping with the guest whose name she’d said was Lyle.  I knocked on the door.

            “Couldn’t sleep with Charlie?” asked Peggy opening it.  “You can sleep with us.”

            Like Charlie’s, Lyle’s bed was in an alcove of his living room, and Peggy removed her bathrobe and lay down beside Lyle.  I lay between her and the living room until Lyle awoke and removed her brassiere.  Then I left the bed and went to the kitchen.

            I sat at the table there and again tried to sleep, but a few minutes later Peggy came to the kitchen, and sat at the table with me.

            “You should have stayed,” she said.  “I wanted to show you how it’s done.”

            Jay, a friend of Lyle’s, arrived to drive Lyle to work.  But, instead, he let Lyle drive his Austin Healy Sprite to work and let me drive him to work in the Corvair.  He worked for a humane shelter and invited us in.

            “Want to see me kill a cat?” he asked.

            Neither Peggy nor I replied, but he led us into a hallway along some cages, and he pulled a cat the color of Cuddles from one of them by its tail.  He carried it that way to a room with something in it that resembled a Laundromat dryer and threw the cat into it and closed the door.  He pushed a button, and a light came on inside, and he pushed another button.

            “That sound is a vacuum pump,” he said.  “It’s sucking the air out.”

            I watched through the little round window in the door of the machine as the cat’s chest heaved a few times and subsided to stillness.

            “Lyle called me and told me he and Jay both have the clap,” Peggy told me in Coldwater.  “He asked me to have myself checked out to see if they got it from me.  I had myself checked out.  And I don’t have it.  Those assholes.”

            The Tibbits’ restoration committee organized a concert to raise funds.  But, because the opera house needed restoring, the concert was in the high school gymnasium.  And, because the committee didn’t expect people to pay to see opera, it wasn’t an opera.

            It was the Chad Mitchell Trio for the same reason the high school held the hootenanny.

            “They wanted to get Peter, Paul and Mary,” said Woody, “but their price was too high.”

            I and Atkinson and Kubiac volunteered to be ushers for the performance, and that earned us admission to the reception following the concert, in the Arlington’s banquet room.  The hotel’s owner who bought it from the Van Whys had papered the room with red flocking to match the new wallpaper in the opera house.  And he called it the Tibbits Room.

            As Chad Mitchell sat with the other members of his trio eating hors d’oeuvres at a table, Kubiac and Atkinson and I asked him for his autograph, and he asked us for something on which to write it.  We gave him our Ski Club membership cards, and he autographed mine for Bob and Kubiac’s for Bill, and Kubiac and I talked about swapping cards.  We decided against it.

            “Chad Mitchell said he liked the lighting,” said Vaughn to me at the opera house next day.  “I told him I was sorry I couldn’t do some of it.  He said no one else ever tried.”

That Saturday afternoon, Vaughn and I walked the half block from the opera house to the hotel, for Vaughn to drink tea in the hotel’s coffee shop.  Peggy was working, and she kept some Constant Comment and a tea ball in the kitchen for him, and she took a break and joined us in the banquette after she took him his tea.  As we talked, another young woman emerged from the kitchen, and I watched her pass through to the dining room.

            “Who’s that?” I asked.

            “That’s Sandy,” said Peggy.  “Do you want to meet her?”

            “Sure,” I said.  “I guess so.”

            “Why don’t you take your break and join us?” Peggy said to her as she passed us on her way back to the kitchen, and she did.

            “Let’s have a beach party,” said Vaughn.

            “It’s February,” said Sandy.

            “That’s why we need one,” said Vaughn.

            “I don’t have a lei,” said Sandy.

            “Bill can help you with that,” said Vaughn.

            All of us laughed, and we agreed to have the beach party that evening in Vaughn’s apartment, on his kitchen floor.  His apartment was in a gray-shingle house that also housed its owner’s law office across Monroe Street from what had been the Hamlins’ little gray-shingle church.  Vaughn and Peggy left Sandy and me on a blanket on the kitchen floor and went into the bedroom and closed the door.

            As Sandy and I lay on the blanket and kissed, I came as close to thanking God as I had ever done, closer than I ever had at the Assembly of God church.  Her wild black hair and wide green eyes were wonderfully beautiful to me.  And so was her warm wet kissing.

            “Get your tongue out of her mouth,” said Vaughn as he and Peggy emerged from about an hour in the bedroom.  “It’s time to go.”

            Sandy was a sixteen-year-old high school dropout.  She worked part time as a waitress at the hotel and part time at checkout at one of Coldwater’s three supermarkets.  She told me she’d quit school because it bored her, and I found reason to believe it wasn’t because she couldn’t do the work, when she told me Peggy told her I was an intellectual.

            She responded to that by reading Plato’s Dialogues.  I didn’t know Plato had written any or the difference between Plato and Socrates.  And Peggy talked the hotel’s manager into hiring me to bus tables, letting me spend more time with Sandy, and giving me a weekly paycheck.

            “If you fuck her,” Peggy said to me not smiling, “I’ll castrate you.”

            But my happiness was already more than I had ever imagined.

            Peggy told me I should carry the trays with one hand, balancing them on my left hand, over my left shoulder.  I tried, but I compromised by resting them on my left shoulder while steadying them with my right hand.  She didn’t try to correct that.

            I had to wear black trousers and white shirts to do that, and I wore the clothes I’d bought with my first carnival cash, and I felt a little proud of my job.  My only shame was when an old lady whose sidewalk I’d cleared of snow for a quarter when I was in junior high school recognized me when she was having Sunday brunch with her son and his wife and their children.  The busboys made the coffee, and I saw no reason to replace the grounds in the machine each time, and so I decided to save the hotel some expense.

“He’s a good boy,” the old lady said to her son as I refilled her cup.

            “Who makes the coffee?” the son then asked me.

            “The busboys,” I said in my pride in my new job.

            “It’s good,” he said smiling.  “It’s the strongest I’ve ever had.”

            I understood and stopped doing that, and I kept my pride in the job and in earning my keep, and in Sandy.  And the job was a family affair, with Sandy’s mother also a waitress there, and the chef became Peggy’s boyfriend.  I felt at home at work.

            Sandy and I shared the Viceroy cigarettes she parked in an ashtray in the kitchen for drags between deliveries of food.  And the only time I felt silly among the people working there was when she gave me the share of her tips my job required her to give me.  But soon Peggy and the chef and nearly every other employee of the hotel’s lost their jobs.

            Picking up Sandy from work after school I found her drunk.  She told me that the head waitress’ mother had broken her pelvis and that that the chef had responded by sharing cooking wine with all the staff.  She said that, when they had drunk all the wine, he shifted everyone to vodka from the bar.

            “What’s a pelvis?” slurred Sandy.

            I drove her home and returned to the hotel.  Only the front desk clerk was there, and she told me that the owner had come in and closed the restaurant, firing everyone.  He didn’t fire Sandy or her mother, because Sandy had left with me and because her mother had that day off, but Peggy and the chef left the hotel and rented a house trailer together in Battle Creek.

            The chef’s name was Robert Wojciechowski, but the name he used for his job at the hotel was Murphy, and Peggy told me she didn’t know his name was Wojciechowski until after they moved in together.

            “Oh shit,” she told me a policeman had said to him looking at his driver’s license after stopping him for driving drunk in Battle Creek before he came to Coldwater for the job at the Arlington.  “Just change your name to Murphy and get out of town.”

            Harold Stukey, the owner of the hotel, changed its name from the Arlington Inn to Stukey’s Inn, saying he did it to draw business from the Stuckey pecan business in the south, and he redecorated the bar and hired a manager.

            “That’s my depilatory,” said the new manager when I asked him what I smelled, as I stood across the bar from him.

            And he didn’t fire me when I dropped a tray full of water goblets.  I was carrying them from the kitchen to the banquet room while he was coming from the banquet room through the same swinging door.  Every one of the goblets shattered.

            “I’ll get someone else to clean that up,” said the manager pulling some cash from a pocket and handing it to me.  “How about taking my car and going out to Tempo and getting some tapirs for the function tonight.  Get two boxes of ten-inch red ones.  My car’s out back.”

            And his car, a new gray Ford Galaxy convertible, had its top down.

            I didn’t take Sandy to my senior prom.  I told her I didn’t like all that phony stuff.  I took her to Ft. Wayne instead because Peggy had told me Lyle was having a party.  I bought a madras sport jacket at Reyburn’s for the occasion, and Sandy bought a white polyester skirt and matching blouse, and she dropped a cigarette on the skirt on our way.  She burned a small hole in it, and I laughed and remembered Connie’s knee, on the railroad bridge.

            “Yeah?” asked Lyle, opening his door and looking at Sandy and me.

            “We heard you were having a party,” I said.

            “Oh,” he said.  “Come in.”

            He left the door open and walked away.  I closed it behind us, and found a vacant place on the floor at a wall, and we sat there a few minutes.  No one spoke to us.

            “You ready to go?” I asked Sandy.

            She nodded, and we returned to Coldwater, but we spent hours kissing in the Corvair in front of her house and in the woods near where Connie had returned my class ring.  We found a driveway entering the woods and ending about a hundred yards into the trees.  A police car cruised the road with its spotlight shining into the trees but didn’t stop 

I had nearly forgotten Connie, but she crossed our path as we crossed Chicago Street, on our way from the hotel to the opera house with Sandy in new white boots I thought weren’t fashionable.  Connie looked at me, and she kept her face toward me until she’d passed us, but she said nothing.  She slumped her shoulders after she passed and turned her face away.

            “Who’s that?” asked Sandy, looking at Connie and turning to me.

            “A girl I used to go with,” I answered walking on saying no more.

            At the opera house, I told Sandy what I thought of her boots, and I never saw them again.  And, one evening, as we sat in the Corvair beneath the streetlight in front of her house, kissing while one of my hands was beneath her blouse at the bottom of her brassiere, I felt something small and harder than her belly.  I thought it might be a nipple, and the next night I verified my suspicion by pushing her brassiere above it, and she did not resist.

            The next few nights, she wordlessly let me fondler her breasts, and one night I unclipped her brassiere and washed her breasts with water from the top of the Corvair, as we stood outside it in front of her house after a rain, laughing.  But she resisted when I unbuttoned her slacks and tried to push them down.  We were in the lane in the woods.

            “What if something happens?” she asked.

            “I’ll marry you,” I said in reply to that.

            She stopped resisting, and I removed her blouse and her brassiere, and I got out of the car and walked around to her side of it.  I opened the front passenger door and pulled her from the car and removed the remainder of her clothing.  I opened the back door on her side and laid her down on her back on the back seat.

            I removed my clothing, and I climbed in between her legs and felt with fingers the inside of her vagina, but my excitement kept me from having an erection.  Panting, she grabbed my limp penis and tried to stuff it into her wet vagina, but she couldn’t do it.  We silently dressed, and I drove her home, ashamed.

            On the way, I heard her fart, but neither of us laughed or spoke.  And our next effort was in my dirty little bed in my messy bedroom.  That was more successful, although it was awkward and frantic, but I wasn’t sure I ejaculated.

            My mother said nothing about the time Sandy spent with me in my room.  And, one night when we went to my house to spend some, we found that she had locked both the front and the back doors.  I heard Jerry crying, and we walked around to the living room window and looked in, and I saw some motion in the bedroom where were my mother’s bed and Jerry’s crib.

            I drove Sandy to her home and returned to my home and found that my mother had unlocked the front door.  A man with black hair and tattoos but unlike my father in having no beer belly was lying on a rug in the living room.  I left him sleeping and went upstairs to my bed and never spoke about that to anyone.

            Eugene Cecie, a friend of Vaughn’s in Ft. Wayne, owned a coffee house there.  He called it the Fourth Shadow, and people went there to listen to folk music, while drinking espresso in demi tasses.  It had a red candle in a red glass on each table.

            “Red is a warm color,” said Vaughn.

            Gene and Vaughn and I drank some leaper with orange juice in Vaughn’s apartment.  It was an amphetamine Vaughn said he’d obtained from Philo, and we were up all night as Vaughn showed me how to make music by rubbing my fingers on the rims of wine glasses, and I wrote a few pages that made sense to me then and seemed to me to make sense to Vaughn and Gene when I read them to them then.  Later it seemed to me to be gibberish.

            Cecie showed me how, because the two syllables of his name rhymed with “see”, he wrote his name with two C’s with dots in the middle of each to make the C’s resemble eyes.  In the morning we walked up Monroe Street to Jewel’s Drugstore to buy the Sunday Detroit Free Press.  Also, to be hip, I bought a pair of sunglasses. 

Doug Fee, who had ridiculed me for trick-or-treating with David in my Buzz coat, was working the cash register and stared at me but didn’t speak to me, and neither did I to him.  When I returned home, I was miserable and could neither eat nor sleep, but that afternoon Vaughn told me that was a normal effect of coming down from leaper.  I was seldom in the sunglasses, but I talked Atkinson into hitchhiking to California with me after graduation, in honor of Kerouac.

The plan was for the week after our graduation, and to stay in Beverly Hills with Jim Van Why, the son of the former owner of the hotel.  His parents had divorced the year before, and his father had sold the hotel and left Jim’s mother and sister and grandparents in Coldwater, but he’d taken Jim with him.  For Atkinson’s funds for the trip, I talked the hotel’s manager into hiring him, to bus tables with me.

“How can you work with those cigarettes in your mouths?” the manager asked us as we vacuumed the carpeting in the Tibbits Room.

Between then and graduation, I decided to go to Wayne State University in the fall, and I drove to Detroit to look at the campus.  I spent the night at my Aunt Bertha’s house in Lincoln Park, and she drove me to a shopping mall because I told her I needed to buy a birthday gift for my physics teacher, because I had collected some cash for it from my classmates and had the responsibility of selecting it.  She drove me to one and left me there to shop.

A man in the mall tried to solicit me for sex, but I declined his offer and bought a tie tack in the shape of a violin, because Mr. Terdal used a paper clip as a tie clasp and played banjo.  I couldn’t find one in the shape of a banjo, and he didn’t seem to me to be grateful for the violin, when I gave it to him behind the Bunsen burner in front of the class.  He didn’t smile, and no student laughed, and I felt silly.

But I didn’t feel silly after my first trip to the dentist.  Because a dental examination was part of Wayne State’s admission process, my mother paid for an appointment with Dr. McConnell, and he told me I had but two small cavities, and he filled them with no Novocain, and little pain.  I remembered crying myself to sleep at the lake.

The senior trip was to Warren Dunes on Lake Michigan.  The one the previous year was to New York City, and I could afford to go to Warren Dunes but not to New York City, but neither did I go to Warren Dunes.  Mr. Dennis said that no one who didn’t would graduate, but Kubiac and Atkinson and I loaded a case of beer into the trunk of my Corvair, and went to Pokagon State Park instead.

I also once took Sandy there.  The park had a beach on Lake James between the Indiana toll road and Angola.  She was in a swimsuit I thought wasn’t in fashion, and her toes suggested to me that she may have worn shoes too small for her, but I told her as we lay on a blanket that I had copulated with no one but her.

“I thought you said you did with Connie,” she replied while I was hoping she had forgotten that conversation in my dirty little bed, when I asked her about the stretch marks on her breasts after she told me an uncle of hers had taken her virginity when she was nine.

“I used to be fat,” she’d said to explain the stretch marks.

At the park someone threw pebbles at us as we lay on the blanket kissing.  I looked around to see who was doing it.  But I saw no one looking at us.

She paid a photographer to take pictures of her.  Her hair in the photographs seemed to me too much like her mother’s, not wild as it ordinarily was but in waves, and I told her that.  She had the photographer try again, and I thought his second effort beautiful, despite my shame.

“If you had a watch,” my mother asked me.  “What kind of band would you like?”

Mr. Dennis let Kubiac and Atkinson and me graduate, and I gave my tickets for the ceremony to Vaughn and Cecie, besides to Sandy and Peggy and my mother, and I asked Vaughn to obtain some leaper, for after the ceremony.

“I have a graduation present for you,” said Cecie as he and Vaughn and I sat in his living room in Ft. Wayne, smoking cigars as his wife sat in another room after walking through the living room and telling him she couldn’t stand the smell.

He went to another room and returned with some loose leaf document protectors with pictures of a woman in them.  The woman was blonde and nude and in positions I thought appropriate for gymnastics.  I took them but said nothing.

“I’ll give you your real present later,” said Cecie.

He traded me a pair of black trousers for the black suit my mother had bought me for the junior prom.  Before we made the trade, he told me the fabric of the trousers stretched, but I couldn’t detect that it did.  And I thought them not in current fashion.

“This suit fits me,” he said at the ceremony.  “I’ve never been able to find a suit that fits me.”

He didn’t give me another graduation gift, but Sandy gave me a watch with a chrome body and a black leather band, what I had described to my mother.

“I couldn’t get any leaper,” Vaughn told me.  “Philo said people are watching him.”

Sandy and I went to the reception at the Masonic temple.  We didn’t dance, and I played poker with Atkinson and Kubiac and others at a table outside the ballroom, as she stood behind me.  I played a few hands but quit to take Sandy home to my dirty little bed.

She was in a pink angora sweater, and I caught the winding stem of the watch in the yarn of her sweater and pulled it out, as I pulled the sweater over her head.  I didn’t let her see that I’d done that, and next day I took the watch to the jewelry store where she’d bought it, where I’d bought my class ring.  The sales lady loaned me a similar but cheaper one to use while I awaited the repair.

“That’s not the watch I gave you is it?” Sandy asked.

“No,” I said.  “I had to take it to the store for repair.”

“Wally said we can use his car,” said Atkinson of his father.  “He doesn’t think we should hitchhike.  He said he’d help pay for the gas.”

He called his father Wally and his mother Esther.

“That’d miss the point,” I replied.  “Wouldn’t it?”

I hadn’t read On the Road, because it wasn’t in the school or the city or the county library, but I’d read Lonesome Traveler because it was in the school library.  I don’t know whether Dick read either, but he talked his father out of lending us his old Desoto, which had a huge engine burning a lot of gasoline and oil.  We set out south on U.S. 27.

I told Atkinson we couldn’t get rides on freeways, and so we planned to take smaller roads to Kansas City, and from there to jog south to Route 66.  I was in my madras sports jacket, and Atkinson was in one he’d also bought at Reyburn’s, because of more of my advice.   I’d told him we’d stand a better chance of getting rides if we dressed sharp.

“I figured anyone in jackets like that couldn’t be all bad,” said a Missouri highway patrolman who took us to the Kansas state line, where a man Atkinson and I agreed was a mulatto picked us up in an orange and white 1958 Chevrolet station wagon.

“Quiet down, Charles,” the man said many times to a small boy who sat in the back seat while Atkinson and I rode in the front seat with the driver, but the boy made no sound during that ride from Kansas City to Route 66.

Our first ride on Route 66 was in a car with air conditioning, and I felt as though I was stepping into an oven when I stepped out of it in Tulsa, but we didn’t stand long in that heat.

“Where are you going?” asked a young man in a new white Plymouth Fury sedan.

“I can take you all the way,” replied the man with a grin to Atkinson’s telling him L.A.

“Can you drive?” the man asked Atkinson in New Mexico.  “I need to get some sleep.”

The man climbed into the back seat while Atkinson slid into the driver’s seat.  But, as Atkinson drove about five miles per hour under the speed limit, the man didn’t sleep.  He had been driving about ten miles per hour over the speed limit.

“Do you want to take a turn at it?” the man asked me.

I drove about five miles per hour over the speed limit.

Rain fell, as I drove up the continental divide, but it stopped as we crossed a ridge with Arizona desert as far as I could see in front of us, and wild flowers had opened their blooms in the desert, and now the sun shined down on them.

“I can take it now,” said the man sitting up in the back seat.

Forgetting that the car had a manual transmission, I killed the engine by stopping beside the road without downshifting or releasing the clutch, and I felt foolish.

“Sorry,” I said as I slid aside from the driver’s seat.

“That’s alright,” the man said.  “Nice job of driving.”

At the California state line we had to stop while a man in a uniform asked the driver whether we had any produce, and in the Mojave Desert I thought Needles had an appropriate name, for a town in a desert.  In L.A., true to his word, the man drove us to Van Why’s home.  It was in an apartment house in Beverly Hills. 

The man bade us farewell, and we walked up the walk with lawn with palm trees on each side, to the door.  And Jim answered the bell and greeted us and entertained us as the old friends we were and took us to Hollywood and Vine and the Walk of Fame and to Muscle Beach and Malibu State Surfing Beach and San Clemente Beach.  I nearly drowned in undertow at San Clemente, but I lay grateful on the sand after thrashing my way to shore, as I looked at the sun through my eyelids and at a house on a cliff Jim said might belong to Richard Nixon.

And he took us to the first Cinerama movie theatre, where we saw Jimmy Durante’s nose in front of us and on both sides of us, as he kicked the bucket in It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.

And he took us to Tijuana.
 

 

 

Chapter 10

1964

   

“There’s a bar in Tijuana called the Blue Fox,” Van Why told us as we ate hamburgers on the way there, in a diner in San Diego where sailors were playing a pinball machine.

“A donkey screws a woman in a pit while guys stand around it trying to piss on her.  If they can do it they get free beer, but nobody can because they have hard-ons.  But I haven’t been able to find it.”

Neither did we find it, but we found other bars, with somewhat similar entertainment.  As we entered one, a woman near the door pushed one of her hands down the front of my pants and fondled my penis and testicles, and that felt good to me.  But we rejected her solicitations and sat at a table without her and ordered beer.  I had never bought beer legally.

            Atkinson disappeared from our sight for about a half hour, as Van Why and I watched women I thought were ugly dance in nothing but pasties and G-strings, and Atkinson refused to say where he’d been or what he’d been doing when he returned.  On the street, I bought a switchblade from a guy selling them from an attaché case, but its tin handle with its covering of plastic that resembled pearl wasn’t as substantial as the wooden handle of Buzz’s.  Atkinson looked at bongo drums in an outdoor market but decided they were too big to carry hitchhiking.  A small boy on a street near the market offered to sell us bubble gum.

            “They usually try to sell you their sister,” said Van Why.

            But back in Beverly Hills he mentioned that Nancy Wilson was performing at the Coconut Grove of the Ambassador Hotel.  That was the year she dethroned Ella Fitzgerald from her long reign of the Playboy Jazz Poll, and I had heard a recording of her in Lyle’s apartment, and I wished to see her.  Atkinson and I spent most of our remaining cash at a table where we drank Coca Cola because the waiter asked me to show him some identification.

            “He’s not 21!” exclaimed the waiter, staring at my driver’s license, and Van Why and Atkinson didn’t try their luck with him.

            I had to urinate during all of her performance but didn’t because I didn’t wish to miss a minute of it.  She was in a long white sequin dress with Les Brown and his Band Renown behind her.  Her long clear blue notes did not disappoint me.

            We decided on sweatshirts and jeans for our return to Coldwater, and to take a more northern route, to see more of America.  To launch us out of the city Jim’s father drove us to Pasadena.  He dropped us on a U.S. highway heading east.

            “The other businessmen on Chicago Street resented that I was the only one of them making more than $10,000 a year,” he had told us.

            “How can you smoke in this heat?” Atkinson asked me in Nevada.

            We went into a drugstore in Las Vegas to see a slot machine.

            The driver who took us into Utah pointed to cars rusting in yards beside small ramshackle houses and told us that Indians bought cars and drove them until they ran out of oil and left them like that and bought other old cars to replace them.  A driver who picked us up where that man dropped us drove us into a mountain gorge on his way hunting and pointed out an eagle flying along a cliff above us.  I lit a cigarette.

            “Put that out,” said the other man in the front seat, and I put it out in the ashtray on the back of the front seat.

            “That ashtray has never had an ash in it,” said the driver.

            “It’s illegal to hitchhike in Colorado,” said a Colorado highway patrolman.

            “It’s a long walk to Michigan,” I said in response to that.

            “The pioneers never thought about catching a ride,” drawled the patrolman.

            We walked to a filling station and begged a ride to the bus station in Denver, where we bought tickets to the Kansas state line, where we stood most of a morning.  A Turkish air force sergeant picked us up in a new green Chevrolet Biscayne sedan and drove us all the way across the state at about 45 miles per hour.  I was glad to get out in Kansas City.

            In Indianapolis, a car full of African American men stopped, but we declined the ride.

            “There’s no room for us,” said Atkinson.

            “We’ll make room,” said the driver.

            “That’s alright,” said Atkinson.  “Thanks.”

            Our trip to L.A. took 59 hours and our return trip five days.  After a full night of sleep, I drove to Sandy’s house and took her to Battle Creek, to the house trailer where Peggy was living with Bob.  No one was there, but I they hadn’t locked the front door, and we went in.

            We walked through the trailer and looked into the bedrooms to see if they were sleeping.  I considered using one of the empty beds to make love with Sandy but decided it would be like sleeping with them.  So I drove Sandy back to Coldwater to my dirty little bed.

            “Did you use our bed?” Peggy asked me.

            “Nah,” I said.  “We just drove back to Coldwater.”

            “You should have,” Peggy replied.

            Atkinson celebrated our trip with a party, partly because his parents were in Philadelphia visiting his brother, who had graduated from Wabash College and was entering graduate school at Temple.  Kubiac and Atkinson and I started partying in the morning, and others began arriving in the afternoon, and we used the whole house.  We sat in the living room and watched the cars arrive in the driveway outside the bay window.

            Fred Davenport and John Hicks had also traveled to California but not by hitchhiking.  Fred’s father owned a gravel pit, and John’s father owned an automobile repair shop, and they went to California in John’s 1957 Chevrolet he had used his father’s shop to renovate.  Fred arrived first and was sitting in Atkinson’s living room when John arrived.

            When John’s ‘57 Chevrolet came into the driveway, Fred rose from his seat and walked into the dining room and out the side door and met John between the car and the door, and he knocked him down by punching him in his face.

John got to his feet and into his car and drove away, and Fred walked back into the house and sat down again, saying nothing.

            Later in the afternoon, I picked up Sandy from work, and I took her into Atkinson’s parents’ bed.  Their bedroom opened to the living room, and I put Sandy’s brassiere on over my shirt and showed it to the boys in the living room, as they laughed.  That evening I took her upstairs to Atkinson’s bed that had been his brother’s, while Larry Camp sat with the only other girl at the party, on the bed that had been Atkinson’s.  I had told Larry in physics class about me and Sandy, and showed her my wallet picture of her, saying she looked like Elsa Martinelli.

            “I thought you were lying,” Larry said to me later.

            Still later, I decided to make love to her in the flower bed where Peggy and I had removed our clothing when I was seven, in the park across Grand Street from Atkinson’s house.  Mark Hebner, who had bought from me the guitar my father had given me for Christmas, decided to see by the spotlight on the old pickup truck he then had.  He drove into the park, and Sandy and I decided against my plan, and returned to the house.

            We ran out of beer, and Atkinson drove his father’s Desoto to buy some more, and Sandy and others went with him.  One of the others was Fred Culy, the brother of the girl Kubiac had said spun on the dick of her jock boyfriend, like a pinwheel.

            “Culy was kissing her,” Atkinson told me in the living room when they returned.

            When Fred entered the room, I tried to hit him with a haymaker, across the back of the sofa between him and me.  I missed, and he ran through the dining room and out the door and across the street, with me chasing him.  I ran out of wind when we reached the rail fence from which I’d lost my shoe laces.

            I stopped, and Fred stopped, and I regained my breath and resumed chasing him.  We did that once more before I decided to quit trying and walked back across the street to the house.  Fred got into his car and drove away.

            “She wasn’t exactly resisting,” said Atkinson then.

            Atkinson had lost his virginity to Alice Harris.  Alice was the daughter of Coldwater’s City Clerk, whom my father had known when County Clerk of St. Joseph County, but she wasn’t at the party.  Kubiac said she was also screwing Steve Wettle, the kid whose father owned the kennel north of town, and he called her Alice Coldwater.

            He said she was also screwing Sandy Stockwell.  Sandy Stockwell was Coldwater High School’s only African American student and said he wasn’t negro but Puerto Rican.   Atkinson’s parents returned while all that was going through my mind, and Wally drove the Desoto to the Elks’ club, and Esther went to bed.

            The remaining partiers went upstairs.  We continued the party in Dick’s party room until we heard Esther scream.  Atkinson went downstairs and returned a few minutes later.

            “Everybody has to leave,” he told us.  “Someone tried to rape my mother.”

            In the driveway, before driving away, some of us discussed the situation.

            “It was probably Fairchild,” said Kubiac.  “I heard he screws his girlfriend.”

            Al, Fairchild, left before that discussion.  His girlfriend was blonde, and I thought she bleached her hair, but I also thought she was pretty but lonely.  During the discussion, Sandy was waiting for me in the Corvair, and I didn’t wonder what Kubiac thought of her and me.

            “We’re not going to set up the basketball in this spot,” said Willard when I rejoined him in Hartford, Michigan.  “Why don’t you set cats for me.  You’ll make more money than you did working the basketball.  I’ll pay you a sawbuck a day.”

            A sawbuck was what carnies called a ten-dollar bill.  He didn’t pay me for eats, but still it was $3.50 per day more than Ruth had paid me, and I didn’t need to call in marks.  So, with his lifting that load from my mind, I was having fun again and didn’t ask what had become of Lester.

            Sandy came to see me in Hartford.  She walked up to the joint with Lee Treat, whose father owned one of Coldwater’s two automobile parts stores, and I recognized neither of them.  Sandy had cut her hair and was sweating on that July day.

            “Don’t you remember me?” she said.  “You’ve been gone less than a week!”

            “Yeah,” I said, remembering her voice, and looking into her eyes.

            “I’ll catch you later,” Lee said as she turned and walked off down the midway.

            I told Willard I’d be right back, and I climbed over the counter and took Sandy for a free ride on the sky wheel, before I took her to the REO.

“I’m with it,” I told the man operating the sky wheel, and I scratched my head as Ruth had told me to do when I said that.

“What?” asked the man, but he let us ride free anyway.

Opening the back doors of the REO, I felt the heat inside and decided not to take Sandy to the rollaway bed in it and closed the doors, after telling her that was where I slept.

            “I’ve got a blanket you can use,” said a man in the cab of a truck beside the REO.

            “No,” I said.  “That’s alright.  Thanks.”

            “You sure?” asked the man.

            “Yeah,” I said.  “But thanks, anyway.”

            “She’s too old for you,” said Willard when I returned to the joint without her.

            “She’s seventeen,” I said.

            “She’s too old for you anyway,” he said and didn’t grin as he said it.

            I thought about what he meant but didn’t ask him.  I had packed my eight-by-ten picture of her but couldn’t find it in the next spot.  I guessed I’d left it and a pair of Jarman wingtip shoes in the hotel room I’d shared with Willard before we set up.

            Dick, the other agent in the six-cat, did Willard’s tax returns in Phenix City and traveled with a white German shepherd he called Misty.  In a small Italian restaurant in Hartford, he sent his spaghetti back to the kitchen several times, saying it wasn’t exactly al dente.  The restaurant’s owner waited on us and apologized each time.

            In a restaurant in Charlotte, Willard said his steak wasn’t rare enough, and the owner of that restaurant gave us free desert, and I enjoyed my hot fudge sundae, more than I had my steak.  And in Charlotte I also learned why those accessories Willard had called necessities were necessary.  Opening night two policemen walked up to the joint.

            “Who’s in charge?” one of them asked Dick, who looked at Willard.

            “Mind if we look around?” the other one asked Willard.

            “Not at all,” replied Willard.

            “Where’s the door?” one of them then asked Willard.

            “I’m afraid you’ll have to climb over the counter,” Willard replied.

            As the policemen climbed into the joint, Dick climbed out and pulled from its hinge the nail holding the bottom of the brace supporting his end of the awning, and looked at me.

            “Want to get the other end?” he said.

            I climbed out of the joint and helped him lower the awning, and then I climbed back into the joint, but Dick didn’t.

            “We’re closed for the night,” Willard said to me.  “I have to go downtown for a while.”

            About an hour after the show closed, he returned and found me waiting in the joint, with the awning still down but the lights on.

            “Why didn’t you go with Dick?” he asked me.

            “I didn’t know he was leaving,” I answered.

            About an hour later, Dick returned with Bob, and they weren’t smiling.

            “They said we can operate it if we take out the G,” Willard told them.

            “Yeah, right,” Bob replied to that, and then all of them were laughing.

            We struck the joint and had it in the truck and on the road by dawn.

            “What’s a G?” I asked Willard as I rode with him out of town.

            “It stands for ‘gaff’,” he answered.  “There are three kinds of carnival joints, hanky-pankies and flat stores, and alibis.  Hanky-pankies are like Ruth’s balloon dart and your basketball.  Anybody can win who’s good enough.  Nobody can beat a flat store.  The six-cat’s an alibi.”

            That explained to me things I’d heard but hadn’t understood before.  Ruth had told me I could flat the basketball joint by kicking the two-by-four it had as a foul line while a mark was shooting.  And she had laughed at me and told Bob when I pointed out how big the prizes were in a joint I later learned was flat.  I was proud of the trust Willard now showed me.

            “‘Gaff’, he continued, “is another word for ‘alibi’.  You can control the joint to let the mark win if you want to throw some stock to make other marks think they can win.  But you have to hook the mark further by telling him he did something different when he won than what he did when he didn’t.  We’re lucky they didn’t throw both our asses in the can.”

            “They call that getting your joint sloughed,” Ruth told me the next time I saw her.

            I left some cash with my mother when we passed through Coldwater on our jump south.  When I returned to Coldwater, to prepare for my entrance at Wayne State, I found that she had spent most of the cash on some pictures of me.  Before leaving I’d received card from a photographer, saying that part of the graduation process was going to the hotel for him to take my picture, and I and my mother fell for the scam.

            I told my mother I’d needed the cash for college, and then I felt worse about how that made her feel than I did about not having the cash, and it wasn’t nearly enough to buy me a beginning in college.  And learning that Sandy was in Florida, visiting an aunt and an uncle in the Air Force at Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City, increased my unhappiness.  But Vaughn solved that problem a few days after my return.

            “Do you want to see Sandy?” he asked me standing on my little front porch after ringing our doorbell, the only time he ever came to my home.

            “Yeah,” I said wondering how he’d learned of her return when I hadn’t.

            “I have a job in Florida,” he said, “at the opera house in Sarasota, and I need a ride.  We can split the gas, if you have time before you have to register at Wayne State.”

            “I have time,” I said.  “Registration isn’t for three more weeks.”

            On the way, we stopped in Columbia, Tennessee.  We found Bob on the midway of the county fair he was playing there, and I borrowed twenty dollars from him and told him I’d work for him in the next spot to pay him back, before returning Michigan.  He looked at Vaughn for second but gave me the twenty.

            From there I drove us into the night and into Hurricane Dora.  Wind blew tree limbs in front of us and over us and blew the Corvair from side to side across the road.  I felt I couldn’t drive anymore and asked Vaughn to drive awhile, but I resumed driving after less than a half hour of trying to sleep, because Vaughn’s complaining about the wind kept me awake.

            In Tallahassee he paid for a motel room, but for one with but one bed because of the price, and so neither did I get much sleep there.  In the morning, as we had agreed before leaving Coldwater, I dropped him at the Tallahassee airport and headed west to Panama City.  By then, the wind had diminished, but not much.

            I found a telephone booth on the beach and called Sandy for directions, while watching the waves and sitting on the bench in the booth with both of my feet up against its doors, to keep the wind from blowing them open.

            The aunt and uncle lived in a one story cinder block house the government furnished for them on the base.  As Sandy and I sat on the sofa, while her uncle sat in a chair watching television while her aunt sat in another with their baby, I watched a huge roach walk across the living room.  The others ignored it.

            “Where’s he going to sleep?” asked the aunt.

            “With me,” said Sandy, and no one disagreed.

            So I slept with her the remaining nights of that week, but I left Sunday to rejoin Bob in Pulaski, Tennessee.

The solenoid on the Corvair’s starter motor was failing, and I sometimes had to crawl under the engine and short the solenoid to start the car, and once I had started it in gear in front of Sandy’s house.  I jumped to my feet and tried to stop it before it hit anything, but a telephone pole between the street and the sidewalk stopped it, after it climbed the curb.  By the time I reached Pulaski, I had to start it that way every time I started it, and I borrowed twenty dollars from Willard for the repair.  At the end of the week I repaid the twenty dollars I’d borrowed from Bob.  And I asked Willard whether he wanted me to repay him.

            “Sure,” he said.  “You borrowed it from me?”

            Before getting into the car to return to Michigan I saw that its tires were bald.  I began driving north, but within a few miles I recognized that I hadn’t the funds to replace the tires if they failed on the way and that I’d need far more for college, and so I drove back to Panama City.  I found no one at the house on base and telephoned Sandy and found that her aunt and uncle had moved to a house off base.

            “I decided to join the Marines instead of going to Wayne State,” I told her when she came out of the house to greet me.

            “I like their uniforms,” she said.

            Next morning the Marine recruiting office I found wasn’t open, but I found an Army recruiting office open on the same side of the street in the same block, and a sergeant in it took me to a back room and asked me to sit down and answer the hundred questions of Armed Forces Qualification Test.

            “You only missed one,” he said.  “I’ve never seen anyone do that well.”

            “Which question did I miss?” I asked him.

            “I don’t know,” he said sitting down behind a desk.  “I’d have to look”

            Coldwater High School had laminated a card with my grade point average for each academic area and given it to me for my wallet.  The recruiting sergeant accepted that as proof that I’d graduated from high school, but he said he also needed a copy of my birth certificate, to prove my age.  So I had a few more days and nights with Sandy.

            “I’ll have to write to Michigan,” said the sergeant.  “It’ll take about a week.”

            Sandy slept in the room where the baby slept.  So we tried to make love quietly when we were in bed.  She had an organism on a beach below a restaurant, while we kissed with one of my knees between her legs, and we didn’t try to explain that to each other.

            We tried making love in the water and in sand where a dune hid us from the beach, but I stepped on an electric eel or something else electric while we waded back to the beach, and she had no organism as I found no tenderness on the sand in the light of day.

            “How about taking us to get some pizza and beer,” her uncle said to me when he brought home some of his Air Force buddies.

His buddies paid for the beer but asked me to pay for the pizza.  And paying for it took most of my remaining cash.  Sandy, drunk on the beer, punned on the pizza.

            “Pizzanya,” she said again and again, laughing.

            We went to bed while the others kept drinking, and we began to make love while the baby was with the others, but one of the Air Force guys interrupted us.

            “Sorry,” he said.  “I just have to get a diaper for the baby.”

            “Pizzanya,” I said laughing, and Sandy laughed, but he didn’t.

            “What?” he said, stomping from the dresser to the bed.

            “Pizzanya,” I said laughing again.

            “I’m going to kick your ass,” he said.

            “You can try,” I said.  “I’ll be outside in a minute.”

            “You’d better be,” he said.  “I’ll give you one minute.  And, if you’re not out there, I’ll come back in here and drag your ass out of that bed.”

            “Wait here,” I said to Sandy as I dressed.  “I’ll be back after I kick his ass.”

            But, instead of waiting, she followed me out to the front yard and watched.

            “We don’t have to do this,” I began to say as one of the guy’s fists hit me.

It hit my lower lip while it was over my lower incisors as I said the “v” in “have”.  The incisors went through the lip.  I dropped to my knees.

            “Don’t hit me again,” I begged with my arms over my head as he pounded on it.

            He stopped and went into the house, and Sandy came to me and led me into the bathroom, where she and her aunt tried to stop my bleeding.

            “Do you want to go to the hospital?” asked her aunt.

            “No,” I said.  “I’m alright.”

            “Are you sure?” she asked.  “You might need stitches.”

            “No,” I said again.  “I’m alright.”

            Sandy and I didn’t make love that night, and kissing was difficult for me during the two days remaining before I left to enlist in the Army, leaving the Corvair in the front yard and my switchblade with the uncle.

            “They won’t let you have it in basic,” he said.  “I’ll keep it for you.”

            At the recruiting office, I kissed Sandy goodbye, as well as I could.

            When I reached the Recruiting Main Station in Montgomery, my only cash was a Kennedy half dollar I’d received from a mark, and I found I’d lost my comb.  I spent the fifty cents on a comb and a pack of cigarettes.  Food, of course, cost me nothing there.

            The man in the bunk above mine had left the Marines to join the Army, and he showed me how to make my bunk with hospital corners and how to use one of the two blankets I’d received, as a dust cover for the pillow.  After several days of physical and mental examinations a corporal took some of us into a room where a sergeant sat at a desk with his back to a wall.  He told us to sit in the chairs that lined the other three walls.

            “I hope they don’t send us to Vietnam,” said a man sitting beside me.

            “Where’s Vietnam?” I asked him.

            “Haven’t you heard about the shit going on over there?” he asked me.

            “Who wants to go to Europe?” asked the sergeant, stopping my reply.

            My hand shot up, although I had no idea what was going on in Vietnam, and mine was the only hand to rise.  The sergeant told me to sit in the chair beside the desk and asked me my name and shuffled through a pile of brown folders on his desk and pulled one from it.  He opened it and flipped through some paper a couple of metal fasteners held inside it.

            “Good thing,” he said.  “Because we don’t have a quota for heavy equipment.”

            The sergeant in Panama City had asked me what I wished to do in the Army, and I had told him I wished to operate heavy equipment, remembering my wind-up bulldozer.

            “How about tanks?” I asked the sergeant.  “They’re heavy.”

            “Armor in Europe,” said the sergeant, grinning at me.  “You got it.”

            He wrote in the file and called another recruit to the desk.

            After swearing to support and defend the Constitution of the United States along with a roomful of other enlistees, I rode with those others on a bus to Fort Jackson, South Carolina.  The bus stopped in front of a one-story beige-clapboard building with a front porch as wide as the building, and a sign as wide as the porch on its roof.

            “Welcome to the United States Army,” said the sign.

            We disembarked from the bus and stood smoking and talking in front of the porch until a corporal stepped out of the building and put his hands on the porch railing.

            “I don’t want to see any goddamned cigarette butts on the ground!” he shouted.

            “It’s nice that someone knows his sizes,” said a private issuing me uniforms the next day.

            He smiled at me, but a sergeant didn’t, at the end of the uniform issue line.

            “What’s your service number?” he asked me as I stood beside my duffle bag.

A duffle bag, for carrying the uniforms, was the first item each of us received.

            “I haven’t memorized it yet,” I said as the sergeant stood ready to stencil it on the bag.

            “You haven’t memorized it?” shouted the sergeant.  “Do you call yourself a soldier?”

            Next I received a haircut that made my new comb useless, and next I had to figure out what to do with the four pair of boxer shorts and four T-shirts I’d received, because my habit had been to change my underwear but once a week.  My solution was to change my underwear every two days because the Army did my laundry once a week.  That left me one set to wear while the other three were in the laundry.

            But I had no problem with tidiness, although what was in my room at home was wherever I’d last used it, because the Army told me where to put everything and how to put it there, exactly how to hang it or fold it or roll it, and how to shine some of it.

            And I had no problem with scheduling when or how long to do anything.

            “Two minutes!” shouted my platoon sergeant, looking at his watch in front of the barracks as we stood in rows after running out of the barracks because he’d blown a whistle.  “It took you two minutes to get out here!  That’s not good enough!  Let’s try it again!  Fall out!”

            We ran back into the barracks and waited for the whistle and ran back out.

            “That’s better,” shouted the platoon sergeant.  “One and a half minutes.  “But it’s still not good enough.  You should be able to do it in a minute and a half with your footlockers.  Let’s try it with your footlockers.”

            We ran back into the barracks, shouldered our foot lockers we’d carefully arranged by previous orders, and waited for the whistle.  When he blew it again, we carried the footlockers out to the street and stood at attention again, with them on our shoulders.  My bunk was on the second floor, and I was nearly weeping, when he spoke again.

            “Very good!” he shouted.  “A minute and a half!  Let’s try it again without footlockers!”

            “One minute!” shouted the sergeant glancing at his watch after we carried our footlockers back to our bunks and awaited the whistle again and returned to the street.  “Good enough for today.  Right face, double time, march!”

            And we ran off down the street to see what would befall us next.

            I befriended an Alabama boy who’d ridden with me on the bus from Montgomery.  He was both taller and wider than most of us and found the running more troublesome than did most of us.  And our squad leader, a trainee the Army had given an armband with corporal stripes on it and authority to give orders to a dozen of us, took his assignment seriously while we called him a candy-striper because the stripes were his but temporarily.

            “His dad’s a lieutenant colonel,” the Alabama boy told me.  “I guess he’s trying to prove something to him.”

            “You two,” said the candy-striper to the Alabama boy and me one evening after chow.  “Out in the company street.”

            Across the company street from the barracks was a field of sand about the size of a football field and about six feet below the street.  We used it for the calisthenics the Army called the Army dozen.  We and our leaders called the sand field the snake pit.

             “I think you’re a couple of duds,” said the candy-stripers to us as he stood in front of us as we stood at attention side by side in the street with our backs to the snake pit.  “When I give you the command to double time, you start running around the snake pit, until I tell you to stop.  And, if I catch up with you, I’m going to kick your asses.”

            The candy-striper didn’t catch up with me, but he ran behind the Alabama boy kicking his butt, every time he caught up with him.

            “Halt!” he shouted when we returned to where he’d started us.  “Into the snake pit!”

            “Do you know what a duck is?” asked the candy-striper standing again in front of us, after we ran down the log steps behind us.

            “I think so,” said the Alabama boy as the candy-striper glared at him.

            “Do you know how a duck walks?” the candy-striper shouted into his face.

            “No,” said the Alabama boy, and the candy-striper sneered and squatted.

            “Like this,” he said and waddled in a circle as I struggled not to sneer at him.  “Here’s what I want you to do.  I want you to walk like a duck to the other side of the snake pit and back here.  The first one back can go back to the barracks.”


 

 

 

 

Chapter 11

1964 - 1965

 

I was the first one back.  But I couldn’t walk back up the log steps, and so I crawled up them and pushed myself to my feet at the top, with my hands.  I used the bannister to pull myself up the stairs in the barracks and sat on my bunk until the Alabama boy returned.  I could have slid to the foot of my bunk and watched the rest of the torture from the window there.  But I was in a sloth of despond.

            “Fuck him,” quietly said the Alabama boy, sitting on his bunk, beside mine.

            And next morning he stopped me on my way out to the morning formation.

            “Wait a minute,” he said stepping in front of me, as the others went outside.

            When all of them had left the squad room, he went to the candy-striper’s footlocker and put a hand on each of the toes of the boots the candy-striper had spit-shined and displayed on top of it, and he pointed to the middle of the candy-striper’s bunk tight for inspection.

            “Grab the middle of that blanket,” he said, “and give it a jerk.”

            We did all that and were out of there and in formation before our platoon sergeant called our platoon to attention.  That evening, while the rest of us rested from the day’s training, the candy-striper was cleaning the grease trap behind the mess hall.  And we had a new squad leader.

            But I limped all my remaining time in basic training.  And I was one of the trainees doing pushups in a puddle with the Alabama boy because neither of us could keep up with the others when we ran.  And I misjudged the new squad leader, who was older than the other trainees in the platoon, and knelt and prayed beside his bunk each night before getting into it.

            “I’m glad you’re the squad leader,” I told him his first evening in that position.

            “Get a brush and a bucket of soapy water,” he replied, “and clean the stairway.”

            And he didn’t go with the rest of us to drink beer at the PX snack bar.  We didn’t train Saturday afternoons, and our trainers turned us loose on our third Saturday, to go anywhere on post.  And most of us went to the snack bar.

            That was the second time in my life I drank beer legally.  And another expansion of my horizon during that training was that African Americans were in our company.  And one of them, whose name was Jennings, slept in the bunk above mine.

            “Maybe we can go downtown together when we get a pass,” he said to me as we stood at the head of our bunks, after we returned from the snack bar.

            “Yeah,” I replied.  “Okay.”

            The next Saturday, we had evening passes to go anywhere, and I had some cash because we’d received our first pay.  I donned my dress greens for the first time and joined the line outside the orderly room.  A sergeant sitting at a desk inside handed out the passes.

            “What’s your fifth General Order,” he asked me as I stood before the desk.

            “You sure of that?” the sergeant asked me after I quoted it easily because by then I had memorized not only my service number but also the General Orders and the Code of Conduct.

            “Yes, sergeant,” I said nearly certain.

            “Would you bet your life on it?” asked the sergeant.

            “Yes, sergeant,” I said less certainly.

            “I’m not sure I would,” said the sergeant looking at me, but he handed me my pass and turned to the trainee behind me and asked him another question, as I turned to the door with my ticket to temporary freedom in hand.

            “Ready?” I asked Jennings when I returned to the barracks and found him at our bunks.

            “Ready for what?” he asked me.

            “To go downtown,” I answered.

            “Oh,” he said after looking at me and pausing a couple of seconds.  “Yeah.  Come on.”

            Wondering at the pause, I limped behind him down the stairs of our barracks and up the stairs of the barracks beside ours and into a small room at the end of the squad bay, where one of the cooks slept.  There I found about a half dozen other African Americans sitting and standing and talking and laughing.  When we entered, they stopped talking and laughing, and looked at me.

            I knew none of them, and Jennings didn’t introduce me to them, and they didn’t speak to me.  They resumed talking to each other, and I stood beside the door for a few minutes, and quietly opened the door and slunk out.  I returned to my barracks and joined some white boys.

            We rode a Greyhound bus from Ft. Jackson into Columbia and found a bar with a round table big enough for all of us.  One of my fellow trainees loaned me his driver’s license because the minimum age to drink off the Army post in South Carolina was 21.  He showed the waitress his Army identification card.

            “You two guys have the same name,” said the waitress looking at his driver’s license when I showed it to her, but she grinned and brought us what we ordered.

            But, because we had to sign back in by midnight, we didn’t drink much.  And I stayed on post during the remainder of my training there.  It consumed my concentration.

            Excepting my difficulty running, I excelled in it and drew some pride from it, and I received some praise from the candy-striper.  A horizontal ladder was beside the mess hall, above where we stood in line waiting to go inside for chow, and I was on it one evening after chow.  I was trying to be in shape for the physical fitness test at the end of the training.

            “I was wrong about you,” the candy-striper said as he walked past in the street.  “I thought you were a dud.”

            I said nothing but smiled.  And I enjoyed bivouac, sleeping outside in a pup tent during a rain storm, remembering Chuck Fitzgerald’s mother’s not letting us do that.  And I preferred C-rations to my mother’s cooking and hung a P-38, one of the little can-openers that were in every box of them, on my dog tag chain.  The Alabama boy had pointed out to me that some of our trainers had them on their dog tag chains.  I even enjoyed the infiltration course.

            We had to crawl in mud beneath barbed wire while tracer rounds flew about a foot above the wire.  And I found in myself more excitement than fear when I tossed a hand grenade onto the top of a concrete wall over which I tried to throw it.  It bounced twice before rolling over it.

            “Holy shit,” said a sergeant standing behind me, but I saw that a drain was at the bottom of the wall, into which the grenade would have rolled had it fallen to our side of it.

I looked at the drain and at the sergeant, and I stepped to the periscope there for us to see the damage we did to the dirt on the other side of the wall, but I saw nothing but dust because the grenade fell too close to the wall for me to see it explode.   

            And I out-performed the Alabama boy on the rifle range.  He said he’d easily qualify expert, the highest of the Army’s three weapons qualification levels, because he’d hunted all his life in Alabama.  He qualified marksman, the lowest of the three levels, while I easily qualified expert by following instructions.  My only problem with the rifle range was that I wished to spend more time there.  Firing the M-14 the Army assigned me was my favorite training.

            But a sergeant played a trick on me by sending me to the next range for firing line while I awaited my turn to fire at as many of the silhouettes of human torsos as I could.  I thought I’d misheard him and walked to next range and asked a sergeant there for some firing lime.  That sergeant misheard me and sent me back to the sergeant who’d sent me.

            “I know what a firing line is,” I told him after recognizing his intentions during my walk back.  “I thought you wanted lime for marking the firing lines.”

            He scowled and walked away while I resumed awaiting my turn to fire.

            And my difficulty running caused me to miss a day of training, by violating what the Alabama boy told me was a military tradition, never to volunteer for anything.  I volunteered for laundry detail, but I was happy I missed that day of training as I lay in a pile of sheets in the back of a truck, as I watched my platoon running back for evening chow.  They were running with their rifles over their heads.

On the physical training test I surprised and delighted myself by scoring the maximum on the grenade throw.  And I scored the maximum on the parallel ladder, although that December day was much colder than was ordinary for South Carolina, and I couldn’t open my hands enough to drop from the last rung I needed to reach for the maximum score.  A sergeant saw my problem and hurried to me and wrapped his arms around my legs to lift me to unhook me.

            “Thanks,” I said as he grinned, and gave me a pat on my back.

            I thought I might score maximum on the run by flopping my legs in front of me.  I didn’t, and the run was the only test for which I didn’t score maximum, but neither did anyone else in my company score maximum on all the tests.  The highest scores were 498 of the 500 possible points, but my score for the mile run dropped me lower than that, and so I stood with the others as the two who scored 498 climbed into the Company Commander’s new Buick Riviera.  He had promised to drive back to the barracks whoever scored highest.  My next ride in a motor vehicle was on a bus, to Fort Knox, Kentucky

            The Army’s Armor Training Center was there, but we stopped for an hour in North Carolina for lunch, and I went for a walk.  I stopped in a jewelry store to buy a Christmas gift for Sandy.  Peggy had written and told me she was home from Florida.

            “What town are we in?” I asked a woman behind a display case.

            “Asheville,” she said.

            “Nashville?” I asked.

            “Asheville,” she said.

            I thought that she’d repeated “Nashville” and that I was in Tennessee.

            I asked her whether she had any charm bracelets, and I selected a silver one from a card of them she showed me, and asked her if she had any charms.  I looked for a tank on the card of those she showed me and finding none asked her if she had any.  She said she didn’t think so, and showed me a rifle, and I bought it.

            Fort Knox was colder than Fort Jackson.  I cracked the plastic lamination on my Army identification card fidgeting with it while I stood in line outside the supply room waiting to pick up my bedding.  Next morning, I had a chance to volunteer again, but I didn’t.

            A sergeant asked us, as we stood in the morning formation, whether any of us wished to go to jump school.  I wished to jump out of airplanes but didn’t wish to do all the running for which airborne training had a reputation.  So I decided to stick with tanks.

That afternoon, I went to the PX and bought an instamatic camera for myself for my travels and a carton of Kools for Peggy for Christmas, and next morning I was on a bus heading back to Coldwater on leave for Christmas.  My mother had acquired our family’s first telephone, and I used it to call Sandy to tell her I was also home, and her mother answered.  She let me talk to Sandy, but Sandy told me her father had forbidden her to see me, but she did.

We agreed to meet on the corner between her house and mine nearest hers.  I walked to the corner, and we walked back to my house and made love again in my dirty little bed, and I walked her back to the corner.  The last time I kissed her was at that corner.

            “Something happened in Florida I can’t tell you about,” she said.

            “Why can’t you tell me?” I asked.

            “I just can’t,” she said.

            “We always talk to each other,” I argued.

            “I can’t,” she said again, and I never saw her again.

            My mother told me that the bank had taken the Corvair but that she was still paying for it, because the bank couldn’t sell it for much because the tires were bald, and because someone had stolen its radio.  I wore my greens to the Alibi, the bar that was the last place my father had worked, to see my mother.  She was sitting at a table, with her friends Howard and Theresa, whom she knew from the Commercial.

            “There’s a punk,” said Sandy’s father, who was sitting with others at another table.

            I looked at him but said nothing and sat with my mother and Howard and Theresa and drank a bottle of Coca Cola because still I wasn’t 21.

            “What kind of Christmas present is a carton of cigarettes,” asked Peggy on Christmas.

            But she and Bob took me to Battle Creek to see Charlotte Button, who then was working on an associate’s degree at Kellogg Community College, and living in an apartment.  She came to the door in a flowery pink flannel nightgown.  Peggy and Bob went away for a few hours.

            I suspected that no clothing was beneath the nightgown, and I tried to muster the courage to test my hypothesis, but I didn’t.

            “Did you get any of that?” Bob asked me as we climbed into his car.

            “That’s none of your business,” I replied.

            “That means you didn’t,” he replied to that as he started the engine.

            His car was a big white Oldsmobile convertible, and the drive back to Coldwater was through a blizzard, and the car slid from the road and hit a guard rail.  I felt guilty for that, but my feeling didn’t stop me from sewing an Armor patch on the left sleeve of the jacket of my greens, and putting them on for Atkinson’s New Year’s Eve party.  And Jim Barber was there.

            “Why are you wearing that patch?” he asked.  “You’re not in a permanent party unit.  You’re still a trainee.”

            “It just means I’m in armor,” I said while knowing he was correct.  “It doesn’t have a division number on it.”

            “Fuck you, Sergeant Kelly,” I screamed at my basic training platoon sergeant from the street in front of my mother’s house, although I had no problem with Sergeant Kelly.

            Our next door neighbors stared at me from their screen porch.

            “You might need this,” said my mother as she sat a bucket beside my bed

I needed it less than a minute after I lay down.

            I hitchhiked back to Fort Knox, where a sergeant told my training platoon that some of us in it would attend the Leadership Preparation course at the Fort Knox Noncommissioned Officer Academy before beginning armor training, and he called my name.

            That two weeks of training made me a candy-striper for the eight weeks of tank training.  When I returned to my platoon, I carried my duffle bag into the barracks, and threw it onto a top bunk at the end of one my platoon’s two rows of bunks.  I knew from basic training that the bunks at that end of the rows were for the platoon’s four squad leaders.

            “The top bunk’s mine,” said another candy-striper.

            He threw my duffle bag onto the bottom bunk and his onto the top one.

            “My stuff was on it first,” I pointed out to him.

            I threw his duffle bag onto the floor and mine again onto the top bunk.  He picked up his duffle bag and threw it onto the bottom bunk, but he gave no other indication that he thought I was correct, and we didn’t become friends there.  My closest friend during those eight weeks wasn’t a candy-striper, but a guy in my squad from Riverside, California.

His name last was Francis, and he and I hitchhiked to Coldwater together, on our first weekend pass from Fort Knox.  My brother Jerry liked him and called him Frankthith.  And I took him to Atkinson’s party room.

            “It’s Saturday night,” I said to Atkinson.  “I thought you’d be having a party.”

            “I don’t have parties,” said Atkinson, “after what happened to my mother.”

            I didn’t remind him of his New Year’s Eve party, and Francis and I returned to my mother’s house and drank beer there, but we didn’t hitchhike back to Fort Knox together.

            “I’ll race you,” I said.  “It’s easier to get a ride alone.”

            Three men picked me up a few miles north of Louisville and gave me a ride to the Louisville Greyhound station.  They were together in the front seat when they stopped.  But one of them joined me in the back.

            “Are you theatre people?” I asked because they talked as Charlie Allen did.

            “Yeah, we’re theatre people,” said the man beside me laughing with the others, and he grabbed my crotch.  “Ooh!  He’s got a big one.”

            “You can drop me here,” I said seeing the bus station.

            “We can take you to Fort Knox,” the one beside me said.

            “That’s alright,” I said.  “The buses run every few minutes.”

            The squad leaders took turns as CQ runner, running errands for permanent party personnel who took turns being in charge of the company’s quarters at night, and I dreamed of Sandy as I slept on a cot in the orderly room.

            “Do you need to go back to the barracks for anything?” the corporal who was CQ asked me as I sat with semen in my boxer shorts, behind a desk across the room from him.

            “No,” I said, unwilling to admit my problem.

            “You sure?” he asked.

            “Yeah,” I said, suspecting that he suspected.

            I learned that M-60 tanks could climb a 60 degree incline and climb over a yard-high vertical obstacle.  The part of the training I most enjoyed was driving them, but I learned my first time driving one that steering could be a problem on a steep incline, if it were rock.  The sergeant in the tank commander’s hatch told me to drive into a rock gorge, and the fifty- ton tank started sliding sideways, and I lost control.

            “What the hell are you doing?” shouted the sergeant.

            The tank reached the bottom of the gorge without sliding too far sideways to continue up the other side.  But the sergeant gave me no grin, and the other trainee with us had worse luck on his turn driving it, bending a fender by hitting a tree.  His name was Harrell, and he was also a candy-striper, and we didn’t laugh on the driving course but did in the barracks.

            “Did you see that sergeant at the motor pool this morning?” Harrell asked me.  “He was trying to straighten the fender with a tanker’s bar.”

            I qualified expert with tank weapons, including the 105 millimeter howitzer, the main gun on the M-60.  The targets on the qualification range were sheets between one-by-fours, and I blew away all the sheets and a few of the one-by-fours after the sheets were gone and did it at maximum effective range with shot rounds, non-explosive solid steel rounds.  The only thing I didn’t enjoy in the training was the weather.

My gloves hardly helped when I changed track blocks by using a five-foot steel tanker’s bar as a wrench handle.  And disassembling and reassembling the breach blocks of the howitzers required removing the gloves.  And doing such is how I spent my nineteenth birthday.

            But the day after graduation from that training came my first airplane trip and my first visit to New York City and my first time on a ship.

            Harrell made the trip with me, but our temporary promotions had ended when we graduated from training, and so we rode the plane and the bus and the ship at the same rank as the other former trainees making the trip.  We flew to New York on a four-engine propeller-driven plane, and we rode a bus through Brooklyn past cars with no wheels, rusting beside curbs.  It was a civilian plane and bus but a Navy ship.

            It was a troopship carrying thousands of soldiers, from Brooklyn Army Terminal to Bremerhaven, Germany.  We slept on orange canvas hammocks, hundreds of them in each compartment, on steel frames in stacks of five.  Nearly everything else on the ship was gray.

            Before we left port an ensign told me and the hundreds of others in my compartment some rules.

            “Any questions?” asked the ensign when he finished reading his list.

            “Yeah,” said one of my compartment mates.  “How long are we going to be on this boat?”

            “It’s not a boat,” said the ensign turning away.  “It’s a ship.”

            “You’re right,” said a sergeant when the ensign left the compartment.  “It’s a fucking boat.”

            One of the rules was to shower with saltwater.  Each of the shower stalls had faucets for saltwater for washing and freshwater for rinsing.  That night, while I was showering following that rule, I saw from the porthole in the stall the Statue of Liberty.  I had been unable to see it before we left port but wasn’t happy seeing it now.  We’d left the harbor hours ago.

            “I heard we had to come back because an officer’s wife was having a baby,” said one of my Army shipmates.  “She was traveling with her husband in a compartment upstairs.”

            I was already sick of the ship.  The sergeant who agreed that the ship was a boat had answered the question the ensign hadn’t answered by telling us we’d be on the ship nine days.  Seeing the Statue of Liberty when I did meant we’d be on the ship at least a half day longer.

            And much of the spaghetti and meatballs we had for dinner that evening hit the deck.  Using our thumbs to anchor our steel trays to the long tables in the galley as we ate wasn’t one of the ensign’s rules.  So, when the ship rolled, many meals slid from the tables.

We all had jobs to do on the ship.  And the job some of us had was to place barf bags side by side behind railings along the gangways.  They were out by 8:00 a.m. each morning and gone by 10:00 a.m.

            But neither Harrell nor I barfed.  And we snickered at our shipmates standing guard with barf bags in their pistol belts.  And, although we didn’t enjoy our job eyeing potatoes and doing other things to help the galley steward, both of us enjoyed the learning.

            We learned, by dumping garbage down a chute and seeing the sea below its bottom end, that the garbage went straight into the sea without treatment.  And we explored the ship as much as we could when we weren’t working, and we found a ladder well below deck near the bow of the ship and found we could nearly fly to its top, by standing at its bottom and waiting until the bow dipped.  The only problem was keeping in touch with the steps and the railings to keep from falling back down from the top.

            And, on the main deck, we stood at the rail and laughed and stared in awe, at the wind and spray in our faces and waves chopping white as far as we could see, and rolling and lifting and dropping the big gray ship on which we stood grinning.  I remembered Peggy telling me why we couldn’t see land beyond Lake Michigan from Muskegon State Park and telling me what white caps were at Marble Lake.  But I was nonetheless glad when we docked at Bremerhaven.

            The Army sent us from there to Frankfurt on a troop train, and one of the other troops in our compartment on the train was from Coldwater, and had played chess with me in my living room on Monroe Street.  I’d easily beaten him every game, and my mother told me I should let him win, but I didn’t.  We found little to say to each other on the train.

            In Frankfurt, the 21st Replacement Battalion sent both me and Harrell to the 3d Armored Division’s replacement detachment at the division’s headquarters at Drake Kaserne, also in Frankfurt.  We carried with us our 201 files, our brown folders like the ones I’d seen on the desk of the sergeant, when I volunteered to go to Europe.  The division billeted its new replacements on the top floor of the building its Adjutant General used for offices, and I and Harrell and the others in our room looked into our 201 files and compared GT scores, the mean of our verbal and arithmetic scores on the Army Classification Battery.  Mine was highest and Harrell’s second.

            “With scores like that,” one of the others asked me, “why are you in tanks?”

            “I joined the Army to be a soldier,” I said remembering Mr. Houston.

            A Specialist 4 entered the room and collected the files and returned next morning and called my name.

            “The chief wants to see you,” he said when I raised my hand.

            He led me downstairs to an office where a chief warrant officer sat behind a desk with my 201 file on it.

            “Can you type?” he asked me looking at my Form 20, my personnel data record.

            I told him the truth, that I had taken a year of typing in high school, but that I finished the course typing but twelve words per minute.

            “Well,” said the chief, “you wouldn’t have to do that much typing.  Do you think you might want to work here?”

            I remembered the cold at Fort Knox and expected Germany to be colder.

            “Yes, sir,” I replied.

            “What was that about?” asked Harrell on my return upstairs.

            “They want me to work here,” I said.

            He and the others looked at me and looked away, and next day they boarded buses to go to units outside Frankfurt, what troops there called the boonies.  And I reported to my job on the first floor of the building where I had accepted the assignment after dropping my duffle bag on my bunk in a room of the barracks next door.  My assignment was to monitoring morning reports from the division’s 3d Brigade, the brigade in Friedberg that had been Elvis Presley’s assignment, and now was Harrell’s.

            I shared the room in the barracks with five clerks and my office with five others.  The approximately five hundred members of the company called it the 503d AG, but its full official name was the 503d Administration Company, Adjutant General.  All the clerks in my office served the division’s 3d Brigade, with me and my Spec. 5 team chief monitoring the morning reports, while the other four clerks did other things.

            The evening of my first day of work I went down town with some of my barracks mates.  One of the vertical wooden rails of the fence behind the barracks was missing, and at the curb outside that gap was a stop for buses that took us to a trolley stop, from which a trolley took us to the center of Frankfurt.  And suddenly I was a city boy.

            But, a few weeks after my arrival, I took a trip to the boonies.  Bortz, my team chief, drove us to Friedburg in a jeep from the motor pool to inspect the morning reports operation there. And, during our lunch break, I went to Harrell’s company and found him standing beside his double bunk in a barracks room bigger than the squad bays in training.

            “Hey, Harrell,” I said.

            “Hey,” he said.  “How’s it going?”

            “I’m here for an inspection,” I said.

            He nodded and pulled on his field jacket.

            “I gotta go,” he said turning away, and both of us returned to work, I to a warm office.

            My barracks mates and I drank beer in guest houses all over Frankfurt and sometimes in strip joints on the Kaiserstrasse.  Once some of us visited the House of Three Colors, a brothel with women standing beside jukeboxes on the ground floor, and once I paid one of them to take me up to her room.  She sat on top of me and pulled up her blouse and brassiere to show me her breasts as I wondered why I was doing that there in that way.

            In the barracks I dropped on the ceramic tile floor of the hallway outside our room the watch Sandy had given me.  The crystal cracked, and the watch stopped running, and I felt I had lost more than the watch.  But I didn’t bother taking it to the PX across the street in front of our barracks for repair.

            John Lewis Benson, one of my barracks mates, sometimes called himself Jean Louee Benzone and laughed, but the rest of us called him Benny.  He found the Jazz Keller, a bar in a basement below Kleinebockenheimerstrasse, a block from the Hauptwache.  He was learning German and told us those names.

            German jazz trombonist Albert Mangelsdorf played on the stage in that cellar whose stone arches made me think of dungeons, and so did famous jazz musicians from other countries, and I met a Jewish girl there once.

            She was a little blonde, and I thought she was pretty, and I walked her to a trolley stop.  The night was cool, and she was in a blue sleeveless dress and had a gold Star of David on a chain around her neck, and I was in a new sports jacket I’d bought at Frankfurt’s central PX.  But I was too shy to offer her the jacket.

            The next weekend I tried to find her again.

            “I’m looking for a pretty blonde,” I told a bartender.

            “Aren’t we all,” he replied laughing at me.

            Benny also talked us into going to Heidelberg to see fireworks over the castle.  We stood among many Germans on a bank of the Rhein.  A girl was taking pictures with a flash camera.

            “Schoen,” she sighed, each time she snapped the shutter.

            Benny laughed at her and told us that the fireworks were brighter than the flash and that the fireworks were also out of its range.

            “She’ll feel stupid,” he said, “when she sees her pictures.”

            Benny was a Spec. 5, and he said he was from Denton, Texas.  He also told us he’d dropped out of high school to join the Army at seventeen and that his father had gone to prison for counterfeiting and that he’d once slept in a dryer in a Laundromat and woke up with “queers” staring into it at him.  He wasn’t much taller than Tiger Stout.

            But he also told me I could request three-day passes, and I requested one and rode a train to Basel, Switzerland.  I spent two nights in a guesthouse and wondered that people wished me good morning when I stepped out onto the streets mornings.  And I walked to ruins of castles on hills above the city where people were picnicking on blankets on the ground.

            And he told me I didn’t need to buy tickets to fly on United States Air Force planes from Rhein-Main Airbase to more distant places.  And I took a leave for a week to see where I could go and flew to Paris because I found no flights to places I thought might be more adventurous.  I checked into a small hotel on the Champs-Élysées near the Arc de Triomphe.

            I stepped back out to the street and saw the Eiffel Tower and set out walking.

 

 

 

Chapter 12

1965

 

I rode a slanting elevator, to the middle observation level of the tower, but I didn’t find an elevator to its top.  From the tower I walked along the Seine to the cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris and spent about a minute in it before walking back along the Seine to the Louvre.  I spent hours in the Louvre.

            I saw the Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa.  But what struck me most was the Nike of Samothrace.  She stood alone at an end of a long hallway, and I saw her as soon as I entered the hallway at its other end, and I couldn’t but stop and stare before ignoring everything else in the hallway as I walked to her.

But a bartender in a little modern bar near my hotel indicated that he didn’t understand what I was saying when I asked for my change from buying a bottle of beer.

“Changay,” I said hoping it was French for “change.”

So I told my barracks mates that the French didn’t like Americans, and I told them about the traffic confusion at the Arc of Triumph, but I tried to learn German.  In a morning work formation my company’s First Sergeant told the company that anyone wishing to learn German could take a conversational German course.  I volunteered again and took two weeks of afternoons off from work for the classes.

            They were at Edwards Kaserne, the post on the other side of the street in front of Drake, and the teacher was a woman who told the class that her husband was an opera singer and that she and he had come to Germany because opera singers can’t make any money in the United States, and I found her attractive but thought the reason she was in turtleneck sweaters might be that she was in her thirties and wished to hide the wrinkles in her neck.

            “You could scar your retinas doing that,” she told me when I rubbed my eyes in class.

            But I learned quickly.  She asked me and another student to see her after class and told us that she had to pick an honor graduate and that her choice had narrowed to the two of us.  Because she never spoke to me again, I assumed that the she’d decided on the other guy, but I took what she taught me to guesthouses and made much use of it.

I found my job tolerable, but I didn’t like working Saturday mornings wishing I had the whole weekend off as I had in high school, but soon after my arrival in Germany the Army stopped the policy of routinely requiring troops to work Saturday mornings.  Each workday morning, we had to stand in a formation to be sure we were all there for work, and that produced a long line at the mess hall for breakfast.  But my legs had healed in Armor training.

When the First Sergeant dismissed the formations most of us sprang into a dash to be at the head of the line.  My roommates and I were always near the front, except the one who had a German girlfriend and changed out of his fatigues into a sport jacket and slacks and tie immediately after work each night, and left the kaserne to be with her.  I admired him and never discovered how he was exempt from the morning formations.

            And I still had my nonconformist spirit and laughed when Benny mocked anything.

            “Do you know what the carpenter said to Jesus when he was nailing him to the cross?” he asked his roommates.  “Would you mind crossing your feet?  I only have one nail left.”

            And he followed that by standing as though he were on the cross, acting as though he were pulling his hands from the nails, and leaning forward as though he hadn’t freed his feet.  And once he told me one of our roommates had received a letter from his girlfriend and told him to let me smell it.  The other roommate held an open envelope beneath my nose.

            “Whoa,” I said stepping back laughing.

            “He knows,” said Benny as we all laughed.

            Some dried squid was inside the envelope.

            But I liked our company’s First Sergeant.

            “That cocksucker,” he shouted in a Monday morning formation, “who broke that window in the barracks this weekend, is lower than snake shit in a wagon track!  He’d climb over sixty Ziegfeld beauties to fuck his dying mother!”

            His name was Twyford, and he lived in a small room in the barracks, although every other enlisted person above the lowest sergeant rank lived with his family or in efficiency apartments the Army called bachelor noncommissioned officer quarters.

            I didn’t like additional duties, such as taking turns at cleaning the mess hall on KP and walking guard, but I had none.   To maximize work time for him the Adjutant General exempted his clerks from KP.  And remembering my basic training exempted me from guard duty.

            Each evening, guard duty began with a formation, in which the Officer of the Day inspected the guards.  He asked them to recite general orders or articles of the Code of Conduct and to demonstrate elements of the manual of arms.  He named the most competent guard supernumerary, reducing his guard duty to waiting in his barracks for one of the other guards to be unable to guard, an event I never knew to occur.

            Another reward for the supernumerary was a three-day pass, but I nearly lost my second three day pass for that and had to perform extra duty other than guard duty, for my behavior during practice for a parade in which all the company participated.

            “Rest,” said the sergeant drilling us for the parade.  “Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.”

            I tipped back my steel helmet and lit a cigarette and didn’t hear him call us to attention.  When I saw the others in the formation come to attention, I stubbed out my cigarette and straightened my helmet, and followed suit.  But the company’s Executive Officer saw my delay, and he told me to report to the First Sergeant after the formation, and I did.

The First Sergeant took me into the Company Commander’s office, where the Company Commander sat behind his desk, while the Executive Officer stood beside it.

            “I didn’t hear the command,” I said after remembering more of my basic training and reporting at attention and saluting, but my punishment was the extra duty of cleaning the latrine at my end of my floor in the barracks, every night for a two weeks.

I cleaned it the first night of those two weeks.  But I didn’t the second night, because that was my second time on guard duty in Germany, and I made Super again.  And, the next morning, I went to the First Sergeant’s office.

            “Top,” I said, “I made Super again on guard duty.  Does that extra duty mean I can’t take my three-day pass?”

            “Why don’t you forget that extra duty shit,” said the First Sergeant.

            And I made Super again the third time I was on guard duty there.  And division policy exempted troops from three months of additional duties if they made Super three times consecutively.  And I outscored everyone in my company, when it went to the division’s rifle range for annual rifle qualification, but I wasn’t certain my score was correct.

            “Fixed you right up, didn’t I,” said the company’s Supply Clerk when a sergeant read the scores.  “I scored you.”

            First Sergeant Twyford had gone on to another assignment, and my first interaction with the new First Sergeant was in the morning formation during which he called me to the front of the formation and handed me a shoebox with an ashtray and a cigarette lighter in it, each bearing the insignia of the 3d Armored Division, a reward for my rifle score.  He also said I might qualify for the United States Army Europe rifle team.  Benny said I might be a sniper next.

            But I took the box with the ashtray and lighter in it to the First Sergeant’s office, and told him I didn’t think my score was accurate, because the Supply Clerk had said it wasn’t.

            “Well,” said the First Sergeant, “leave it here if you don’t want it.”

            I left it on his desk without telling him that I did want it.

            But generally I wasn’t a model soldier.

            “Where did you get that hat?” a sergeant asked me as he inspected me during a morning formation, and I knew he was referring to what nearly a year of sweating had done.

            “Fort Jackson, South Carolina,” I said.

            “Well,” said the sergeant, “you’d better get one in Frankfurt, Germany.”

            And I did, but the one I bought wasn’t regulation, and I made it less so.

            A Spec. 4 in the division’s Headquarters Company was eking out an income by selling caps the troops preferred to standard issue.  They were about the same color, but they had a bigger bill and a button on top, and we modified them further by pushing pieces of coat hanger wire into seams of the bills.  We bent the wire to give the bills shapes we preferred.

            But my next interaction with the First Sergeant was more professional.  I heard that a PFC had earned a promotion to Spec. 4 by attending the division’s Noncommissioned Officer Academy.  Attendance there ordinarily required already holding a rank at least as high as Spec. 4, but I heard the PFC had received a waiver of that requirement by saying he wished to go to the NCO Academy to prepare for attendance at the Army’s Officer Candidate School, and I heard he was Distinguished Graduate of his class at the NCO Academy.  And Benny was applying for admission to the Army’s Flight School to become a warrant officer flying helicopters.

            So I initiated a request to attend the Flight School, and I told the First Sergeant I wished to go to the NCO Academy to prepare for it, and he accepted my request and told me he had been an instructor at the NCO Academy before his promotion to First Sergeant.

            I bought new fatigues and boots and a compact iron and a butane cigarette lighter to melt polish onto my boots.  I thought of the expenditure as an investment with the return on the investment the difference between the PFC pay I was then receiving and the Spec. 4 pay I would receive.  Specialist four pay was 22 dollars per month more than the 93 dollars per month I was receiving after my automatic promotion to private first class.

            Spec. 4 Hendricks, one of my roommates, offered me a bottle of some white stuff he said would make my boots glossier.  But I’d heard that the main instruction at the Academy was to follow instruction and that an instruction there was to put nothing but Kiwi wax on shoes or boots.  So the first Academy instruction I followed was to ignore Hendricks. 

            In a jeep from the motor pool the First Sergeant drove me and a Spec. 4 from the division’s military police company to the Academy in Kirchgoens, and I entered the Academy with the lowest rank in my class and the highest student number, Student Number 70.

The MP Spec. 4 had a reputation for being gung ho and proved it the first week of the five week course by confirming the validity of my ignoring Hendricks.  Our first class was our platoon’s Tactical Sergeant’s telling us how to set up our foot and wall lockers for inspection.  He told us fray the end of a spare trouser belt and roll it and put a rubber band around it for display.  He said the fraying was to fill the center of the roll.  But that evening the MP came to my bunk.

            “I can’t roll it tight enough,” he said showing me the hole its center.

            I unrolled it and frayed the end and rerolled it and handed it back to him.

            “I can’t display it frayed like that,” he said turning and walking away.

            The Tac’s issued little pink slips of paper they called FiFIs for failing to follow instructions.  With each FiFI came five demerits, and by the end of the first week the gung ho MP Spec. 4 had received too many demerits to be there the second week, and I was happy I hadn’t heeded Hendricks.  Hendricks also had a reputation for being gung ho.

            The next weekend I received a weekend pass for being in the top ten percent of my class, and Benny borrowed a jeep from the motor pool, to take me back to Frankfurt for the weekend.  And, as I walked to noon chow that Saturday, a Spec. 4 member of the Personnel Actions team in my office was walking back to the barracks from the mess hall.  He stopped and frowned.

            “I expected that MP to wash out,” he said.  “But I didn’t expect you back so soon.”

            “I’m not,” I said.  “I got a weekend pass for being in the top ten percent of my class.”

            But he, a draftee, turned away with neither a smile nor another word, suggesting to me that he thought I was gung ho, and that I went to the Academy because I was what draftees and many enlistees in their first enlistment called lifers.

            But the next week I fell out of the top ten percent.  The students took turns as candy-stripers in leadership positions in the class, and that week I was a candy-stripe staff sergeant leading my squad that included some soldiers who were staff sergeants every day, and part of my job was supervising cleaning the hallway outside our squad room.  The problem arose when I asked a sergeant to clean a ceiling light fixture.

            “Did you get the top of it?” I asked him as he descended the ladder he was using.

“They’re not going to look at the top,” he replied stepping from the ladder.

“God damn it, Miller,” I said feeling the rank gap.  “Just clean the fucking thing!”

Our leadership class instructors had already instructed us to lead with regard for the dignity of our subordinates and specifically not to use profanity.  And, as I said that to Sergeant Miller, who had been in the Army so long that he’d died his boots black, because the Army issued brown boots when he enlisted, I saw our Tac ascending the stairs.  He looked at me, and I looked away and walked into my squad room and sat on my bunk, with my head in my hands.

As I sat there, thinking I was going the way of the MP, Sergeant Miller entered the squad room and came to my bunk.

“It’s alright,” he said to me.  “I told him you were just kidding around.”

“Thank you, Sergeant Miller,” I replied to that lesson he’d given me.

So I didn’t get the boot, but my score for that leadership position was far below average, and that wasn’t my only error.

 Lights went out at midnight and came on again at 4:00 a.m.  I slept those four hours while the others used flashlights to finish preparing their lockers and uniforms for the next day’s inspection.  I decided that, if I couldn’t finish that preparation by midnight, that wasn’t my scheduling error but the Academy leadership’s.

I took some demerits for that, mostly for not shining my boots to the Academy’s standard, but I didn’t think of it as an error.  But neither did I think keeping in my laundry bag a towel I used to shine my shoes was an error, although one of the instructions was that we keep nothing other than dirty laundry in our laundry bags, and another difference between me and most of my squad was that I otherwise followed the instructions for where to put things.  Some of the others put things in the space beneath the bottoms of their wall lockers and in the space above the squad room’s acoustical ceiling tiles and received FiFI’s when the Tac found them.

My rationale for keeping the towel in the laundry bag was that it was dirty.  But, returning from training one afternoon, I found my laundry on my bunk with the bag on top of the laundry, and the towel on top of the bag.  And a FiFI was on top of the towel.

“Shoeshine rag in laundry bag,” it said.  “Failure to follow instructions.  Five demerits.”

I took my rationalization to the Tac’s office but there learned another lesson I’ve kept.

“Come in, Student Number Seventy,” said the Tac when I knocked on the frame of his open office door.

“Sergeant,” I said at attention at his desk.  “Student Number Seventy.  That was a towel, and it was dirty.”

“You know better than that, Student Number Seventy,” said the sergeant.

And I did know better and turned and left his office without another word.

And next morning he gave me more shame but also pride and incentive.

“Even Student Number Seventy has more than a hundred demerits,” he said to reprimand my platoon.

And I never earned another FiFI, and I was the only student who didn’t during the only formation in which the Tac’s inspected the belt buckles we didn’t display in our footlockers, stopping in front of each of us and telling us to lift our field jackets to show them the buckles.

“Belt buckle not shined,” said a Tac to each student other than me.  “Failure to follow instructions.  Five demerits.”

“Belt buckle,” said my Tac to me, but he cut off his sentence and widened his eyes and passed on to the next man.

And my score as my class’s candy-stripe First Sergeant far exceeded my score as a Squad Leader.  After my first morning formation in that positon my Tac told me my command voice wasn’t loud enough.  But I corrected that as extremely as I could.

“Posts!” I shouted to command the candy-stripe Platoon Sergeants to take their positions to march the class to class, and I nearly spit on myself doing it.

And I corrected the Tac after the next morning formation. 

After turning the formation over to the candy-stripe Company Commander, I took my post behind the furthest man to the left in the rear squad of the second platoon, and the Tac told me after the formation that I should have stood behind the first platoon.

“Sergeant,” I said as I stood at attention before him again, “Field Manual 22-5 says the First Sergeant takes his post behind the rear rank of the second platoon.”

“That’s because most companies have three platoons,” the Tac replied after a pause.  “Ours has two.  So it looks better if you stand behind the first platoon.”

But he cut me no slack, and he tested my following instructions twice more before graduation, the first time as we marched to class after breakfast.

“Student Number Seventy,” I heard him say, “you have ropes all over your field jacket.”

An instruction was to have no loose threads on our uniforms, and between classes that morning I inspected my field jacket for them and used my new cigarette lighter to burn what I found, but I heard the voice again as we marched to lunch.

“Student Number Seventy,” it said.  “You still have ropes all over your field jacket.”

After lunch I found another and burned it, but the Tac said it again as we marched back to classes, and I spent every minute between classes that afternoon looking for ropes.

“He’s fucking with you,” said Sergeant Miller as he watched me at the coat rack, but I found a loose thread behind a button on a cuff and burned it off as I had the others.

“That’s much better, Student Number Seventy,” said the Tac as we marched to supper.

His final test was on the map-reading course.  We walked into the countryside with maps and compasses to learn how to find our way with no help from road signs.  We had learned in class how to read maps’ colors and contour lines and to shoot azimuths with our compasses.

“Find this creek,” said the Tac to me as he pointed to a blue line on the map I was using, and I looked in the direction in which the map told me the creek was, but I saw no creek.

“It’s supposed to be 37 meters that way,” I said to the Tac, “but I don’t see it.”

“Pace it off,” he said next, and I paced counting my paces but never saw it.

I stepped into it, on my 37th pace, but still the grass hid it from my sight.

Failing to find one point on the night map-reading test I had no way to find the points following it, but my academic performance made that failure negligible, because I followed instructions in class.  The instructors, before each class, gave us copies of what they would say, but with blanks in them.  They instructed us to fill in the blanks as they talked.

I did, while other students didn’t, and the only test in class for which I scored less than 95% was in one for which the instructor didn’t follow the ordinary procedure.  And I memorized the acronyms instructors gave us and still remember the fourteen traits of military leadership.  The acronym for them spelled the words “bite” and “luck” and “died” and ended with “jj”.

Bearing, integrity, tact, endurance, loyalty, unselfishness, courage, knowledge, decisiveness, initiative, enthusiasm, dependability, judgment, and justice.

But I blew the Commandant’s Inspection.  Officially the Commandant of the academy was the Commanding General of the division.  But ordinarily his only visits to the academy were to inspect the students once during each cycle.

“What’s your job?” he asked me as I stood in my greens at attention beside my footlocker.

“Monitoring morning reports for the 3d Brigade, sir,” I replied to him.

“What’s the criterion for AWOL on the morning report?” he asked me.

And I thought of many criteria for reporting that a person was absent without leave. He’d have to be absent, and he’d have to have no leave for the absence, etc.  But I could think of none that encompassed them all.

“What do you mean by ‘criterion’?” I asked the major general.

“24 hours,” he said frowning, and he turned to the next student.

I considered telling him that the criterion was that he be absent overnight, which could be the two minutes from a minute before midnight until a minute after midnight, but I knew I’d already broken protocol by replying to a general’s question with a question, and by calling him sir, instead of general.

So I was neither Distinguished Graduate nor first or second Honor Graduate, and I sat in my greens in the academy’s auditorium and watched as those three graduates received their diplomas and their promotions and as the other graduates received their diplomas in order by student number, and I saw that some of them received promotions also.

So, when my turn came, and my First Sergeant preceded me onto the stage, I looked at his hands to see whether either held Spec. 4 insignia, and I grinned when I saw that one of them did.  I climbed the steps to the stage and accepted my diploma and stood at attention while the Tac pinned one of them on one of my sleeves as my First Sergeant pinned the other on the other.  And I left the stage with my First Sergeant.

“I saw that grin,” he said with a grin.  “Your Tac told me you were six tenths of a point short of being Distinguished Graduate.  He said you’d have made it if you hadn’t stashed that shoeshine rag in your laundry bag.  It was that close.”

I thought about the whole situation as he drove me back to Frankfurt.  I had wanted a swagger stick, one of the small riding crops the top three graduates received to betoken their proximity to the excellence of the Tacs who carried swagger sticks during training, but I was happy to be a Spec. 4 after little more than a year in the Army.  The first thing I did after carrying my duffle bag up to my room was to walk across the street to the PX and buy enough Spec. 4 insignia for all my uniforms.  And next I carried the uniforms to the tailor shop that was across the street from the bus stop outside the fence.  I asked the tailor to sew some on the jacket I was in, and on the fatigues I’d be in next day, immediately.

“He still doesn’t have the allocation for the promotion,” said Benny of our First Sergeant, “but he’ll get it.  He’s been running all over the post looking for a special allocation to give you those stripes.  He found one, but he didn’t have it in time to get the orders cut before the graduation, but they’ll make it retroactive to today.”

Part of Benny’s job, in the division’s Personnel Management office, was processing promotions.

“Look at the ‘cruit Spec. 4,” said the personnel Actions draftee when I arrived in my office next morning.

But I quit trying to go to flight school.  Benny’s request failed because his physical examination revealed that he was using one too many prism diopters of focusing power in one of his eyes.  But I quit because I had no wish to tolerate any more extra discipline for a while.

“How’s that warrant officer shit coming?” the First Sergeant asked me the next time we met, as I was returning to the barracks from the mess hall after evening chow.

“I decided not to go,” I told him with no explanation, having none I thought he’d accept.

“I thought you were slipping the slick dick to me,” he said with a grin as he walked on.

But the demand for efficiency at the academy improved my job performance.  Bortz, my Spec. 5 team chief, left on emergency leave because his father died in Gary, Indiana. 

I moved the rifle crate we were using as a file cabinet to between his desk and mine, and I put his typewriter on the floor at the end of the office where the crate had been, and I moved his chair to beside his typewriter.  I rolled back and forth between the desks on the wheels of my chair, using his desk for sorting and reading and writing, and mine for typing.  The reorganization let me easily do both his job and mine.

“Jesus,” said Bortz when he returned from Gary.  “I go away for month, and you change the whole place around.”

But the only change he made was to move his chair back to his desk.  He left his typewriter on the floor, and from then on he did most of the sorting and reading while I did nearly all the typing, easily because I’d increased my speed to about 60 words per minute by then.  Suddenly we were a team.

“You know,” he said to me a few weeks later.  “They were going to ship you out to the boonies when you first got here, because of those three-day passes and taking afternoons off for two weeks for that German course, but I told them to give you a little time.”

  With my new wealth I bought a the PX a stereo tape recorder and a turntable for recording other peoples’ phonograph albums, but I followed those purchases with a letter to the Southern Michigan National Bank in Coldwater, to open a savings account.  When I received the account number, I went to my pay team at the other end of the kaserne and arranged for a Class S allotment, to send most of my pay directly to the savings account.  So I welcomed an offer from the personnel actions draftee.

“I’ll give you ten bucks to take my guard duty for me,” he said.  “It won’t be a problem for you.  You always make Super.”

But, although I expected my NCO Academy training to make making Super easier, I didn’t make Super that time and instead found myself on Edwards Kaserne, walking in the dark between its fence and a barracks, at right shoulder arms.

“Halt!” I said in accordance with my training when I saw someone come around a corner of the barracks and walk toward me.  “Who goes there?”

“Officer of the Day,” said the person approaching me, after halting.

“Advance to be recognized,” I told him as I shifted my rifle from shoulder arms to port arms and waited until he was close enough for me to recognize him, and then I shifted the rifle from port arms to present arms, to salute him.

“Everything quiet?”  he asked me.

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“No problems?” he asked me next.

“No, sir,” I said.

“Good,” he said, and he turned away, but he turned back.

“Aren’t you going to salute me,” he asked.

“Sir,” I said, “this is present arms.”

“Oh,” he said, looking at my rifle, and he returned the salute and walked away, and so I learned that no one after training walked guard according to regulation, and I shifted my rifle to sling arms.

            And, while I was at the academy, my ninety days of exemption from additional duties had expired, and the Commanding General decided my company should pull KP as did all the other companies of the division.  On my first turn at KP, I tried to diminish my suffering from it by arriving early enough to have first choice of jobs for the day, and I selected Dining Room Orderly in the NCO dining room.  I expected the worst of that to be mopping the floor after each meal, but I had never before mopped a floor, and I put too much water on it.

            “It’s almost lunch time,” said the Mess Sergeant seeing me mopping up water I’d put on the floor after breakfast, and so I decided to complain about my company having to pull KP.

I asked the personnel actions draftee for advice because his job was processing requests for miscellaneous personnel actions.  He gave me a blank DA Form 1049, the form the Army called a Request for Personnel Action, and I addressed it to the division’s Inspector General and typed my argument on it and showed it to the draftee.  My rational was that the combat troops trained for combat while clerks did actual productive work.

            “Wow!” said the draftee.  “You can write.”

            My writing gained me an audience with the IG, but he declined to carry the question beyond his office, saying the combat troops were why we were there.  I had better luck with an oral argument when I decided to replace my dog tags with ones that said my religious preference was “agnostic” rather than saying I had “no preference.”  The Spec. 4 whose job was replacing dog tags refused my request, saying agnosticism wasn’t on the list of religions in the relevant Army regulation, but I asked to see his boss.

            “Agnosticism isn’t a religion,” said the lieutenant who was his boss, as I read his nametag saying his name was Antonelli and thought of Mr. Antolini in The Cather in the Rye.          

“But,” I argued, “It’s my religious preference.”

He acceded, after we argued for about half an hour, but my next questioning of the Army’s administration of personal personnel actions failed both in writing and in oral argument.

            I was writing both to Sandy and to Charlotte Button.  Charlotte was replying and sent me a photograph of herself standing at a side of the Tibbits’ proscenium arch, and I was trying to learn to paint by trying to copy it in oil on canvas, but Sandy wasn’t replying.  So I wrote to Peggy and asked her whether she knew what had happened to Sandy.  She replied that Sandy was working as a waitress at Bell’s restaurant.  So I asked her to ask Sandy to write to me.

She replied that she’d asked her and that Sandy had said she would, but still I received no letter from Sandy, until I asked Peggy to ask again.  She replied that she would but that she had no way to make Sandy write to me.  But, after a few more weeks, she did.

 She said that she was in modeling school in Chicago, that she was balancing books on her head and working off her baby fat, and that she had a friend who reminded her of me.  I replied with no mention of the friend, and she replied that she wasn’t pregnant and that I shouldn’t worry about that, but that she had a growth under her heart and that a doctor had told her she had but six months to live.  She said the doctor said the growth was too near her heart for an operation.

“Will you spend the rest of my life with me?” she asked.

“I’d spend the rest of anyone’s life with you,” I replied.

Because the Army paid for airline tickets for emergency leave, I asked the personnel actions draftee whether he thought I could get an emergency leave to go see her, and he said the Army probably wouldn’t approve one for me, because Sandy and I weren’t married. He said emergency leaves were for family emergencies.  But he recommended that I ask a JAG officer.

So I walked to the division’s Judge Advocate General’s office and showed a lieutenant Sandy’s letter.

“Nothing I can do,” he said handing it back to me.  “Try the Chaplain.”

I thought of Lieutenant Antonelli letting me tag myself agnostic.  And I thought I heard a snort as the JAG lieutenant turned away from me.  But I thought of another way to go home before the end of my assignment to Europe. 

 

 

 

Chapter 13

1965 - 1966

 

 Johnson was escalating Eisenhower’s advisory mission in Vietnam into a full scale invasion of the country.  And, while I still had no notion where Vietnam was, I knew that all I had to do to go there was to ask to go.  So I filled out another 1049.

            “Are you out of your mind?” asked Benny.  “Hendricks is a gung ho idiot!  But what’s your excuse?”

            Hendricks had already volunteered to go to Vietnam, and he was using the handicraft shop of the service club at Edwards Kaserne to make himself a big knife to take with him, and the only thing Benny and I had done at the service club was to use a phonograph there, to listen to recordings of Barbra Streisand the service club also had, on my recommendation.

            “Are you self-destructive?” asked the captain in charge of the division’s records and reports teams.

            I told Benny I was tired of Germany and wished to move on to other experiences.  I didn’t answer the Captain, but he endorsed my request, because he couldn’t defy the Commander in Chief.  But months passed before the approval was final.

            Hendricks left, and George Gates, a brother of the captain who had given me extra duty, filled his bunk and fit in well with me and Benny and the others in the room, despite his brother’s being an officer.  He and I once went to the Henninger Tower, a tower the Henninger brewing company built in Sachsenhausan, across the Main from Frankfurt.  We rode the elevator to the top and spit through the open skylight of the restaurant below us.

            We laughed, when a man at a table beneath the skylight looked up, and we went from there to a guest house for hamburgers.  The man who served us our beer and hamburgers at the bar said that he owned the guesthouse and that his name was Lutz and that he called his hamburgers Lutzburgers because they were better than hamburgers.  From there we went to a larger and older guesthouse Benny had shown me, to sit with others at one of its long wooden tables and sing “Ein Zwei Zuffa” and drink Appelwoi, for which Sachsenhausen is famous.

Another night we got drunk prosting each other’s scores at table fussball in another guest house.  Another night, at another guesthouse, with Benny and some of our other roommates, one of the others tried to steal some ashtrays, by hiding them in his sleeves.  But the owner followed us outside.

            “Wo ist mein Aschenbecher?” he demanded.

            George spread his arms and opened his hands and dropped his jaw to indicate that he didn’t know what the man was saying.  And, when our roommate who stole them did the same, the ashtrays fell from his sleeves and shattered on the sidewalk.  After he paid for them, we went on to another guesthouse, where I stole a barstool.

            I took it from the bar to a little slot machine on a wall beside the door.  I sat on the stool in the trench coat I’d bought in Marshall and played the machine for a few minutes before sliding backward from the stool and wrapping the trench coat around the stool and carrying it out the door.  I ran down the street and stashed it beneath a stairway and returned to the guesthouse.  The others were paying their bills, and I paid mine with them, and we left.  I retrieved the stool from the stairway and took it onto a trolley.

            We rode the trolley to the Gasthof Zur John, a guesthouse that sold big ham and cheese sandwiches a half block from the gate to our kaserne, and I sat on the stool at a table there while I ate a sandwich and drank some more beer before taking the stool back to our room.

            But soon it wasn’t my room.  George’s brother returned to the United States, and our new Company Commander made me a squad leader because I was both a Spec. 4 and an NCO Academy graduate, and he ordered that squad leaders not room with their subordinates.  So I moved to a two-man room I shared with a sergeant new to my office.

His name was Pedro Meno Bayona, and he had a tattoo from being in a concentration camp in Guam when he was a child during World War II, and I thought he might be homosexual.  I thought others thought that also, but no one ever said it to me, and we got along alright. He was also the first person I knew to have the Army Commendation Medal.

And I went with him to see a performance of Carmen in German.

            “Carmen, ich liebe dich,” I heard at the Frankfurter Schauspiel.

            But the new CO also had us doing the Army dozen physical training exercises and running around the parade field each morning and pushed us to allocate part of our pay to buy a savings bond each month.  I signed up for that additional Class S allotment, but many in the company refused, and protested vociferously.  And they did it on the parade field.  

            “One, two, stop your bonds!” I chanted with them to the rhythm of our running.

            My second 3d Armored Division First Sergeant also moved on in his career.  But he gave us a First Sergeant’s farewell in the ceremony on the parade field in which he turned us over to our next First Sergeant.  To the Army, the differences between being at attention and being at ease were that one had one’s feet together at attention but apart at ease and that one had one’s hands at one’s sides at attention but behind one’s back at ease, and a similarity was that neither involved talking.

            “At ease,” shouted our outgoing First Sergeant, and we shifted our feet and hands but muttered to one another as he talked with our incoming First Sergeant.

            “At ease!” he shouted again.

            But we didn’t stop muttering.

            “At ease!” he shouted again.

            But we muttered nevertheless.

            “God damn it,” he shouted as I had shouted “posts” as First Sergeant at the NCO Academy, “when I say at ease, I want you to shut your cock-sucking mouths.”

            We chuckled and shut up.

            Yet I thought I was ready for another promotion.  By then, because of Johnson’s escalation, promotions were coming quickly.  PFC’s didn’t have to go to the NCO Academy for early promotion to Spec. 4, and my time in service and time in grade met the minimum requirements for promotion to Spec. 5, and so I asked Bortz to recommend me.

            “Write a recommendation yourself,” said Bortz.  “I’ll take it to the captain.”

            In that 1049, I said that I was six tenths of a point from being Distinguished Graduate at the NCO Academy, and that I had graduated second in that conversational German course.

            “I have no record that you graduated second in that class,” said the captain.

            I told him what the teacher had told me and the other guy, and he endorsed the 1049 to the next higher level of my chain of command, and a few weeks later I stood before a promotion board.  The sergeant major presiding over the board asked me what I’d do were I in charge of a detail raking leaves if one of the men on the detail refused to rake, and I told him that I’d take him aside and counsel him, to learn the reason for his refusal.  I said that what I’d do next would depend on his response.

            “Why would you take him aside?” asked the sergeant major.

            “I learned to at the NCO Academy,” I replied.

            “I’m asking you what you think,” he replied.

            “I think I should follow those instructions,” I replied to that.

            So my board score was meager.  It didn’t disqualify me, but it put me low on the list, and so I turned my attention to other matters while I awaited my turn for promotion.  And, while all that was happening, Benny was trying to teach me to play guitar.

            He’d borrowed one from a friend of his who wasn’t our roommate, and he taught me some open chords and enough harmonics and mechanics to know how to bar to form any major or minor or augmented or diminished or seventh chord, and I found a music shop in downtown Frankfurt and bought an inexpensive classical guitar.

            After I moved in with Sergeant Bayona, Benny introduced me to a guitarist he’d met while processing replacements for the division, but I felt foolish as Benny and I sat on my bunk listening to him play and talk about his playing as he sat on Sergeant Bayona’s bunk.  Benny’s job, besides processing promotions, involved meeting most of the division’s replacements, and he might have introduced me to a son of Roy Rogers’, if he hadn’t drunk himself to death drinking zombies at the enlisted men’s club and drowning in his own vomit in his bunk in the barracks.  But my life was plenty busy enough anyway.

            The sergeant in charge of the records team across the hall from my office tried to hook me up with his sister-in-law who was visiting from the States.  He invited me to his family quarters on Edwards Kaserne to meet her, and I asked him whether she liked Barbra Streisand, and I took my tape recorder with me.  I had used my turntable to tape phonograph recordings of her, but the sergeant several times asked me to turn down the volume, not to disturb the neighbors.  And the sister didn’t seem to me to care much to listen to Barbra Streisand or to talk with me.  So the sergeant replaced me with a guy in his office whose name was Sal.

            “Sal’s a worthless amoeba,” said guy in their office whose name was Bennett, and he asked me whether I’d like to go out drinking with him, and I figured that anyone calling anyone an amoeba couldn’t be all bad, and so I did.

            “I better sign out first,” I said.  “I might break my leg or something.”

            Squad leaders there then had permanent overnight passes, but I didn’t stopped sneaking out through the gap in the fence, until that night.  Bennett and I walked to the orderly room at the other end of the barracks and signed out and walked to the gate at the other end of the kaserne and showed the MP there our passes.  We boarded a bus at the stop there.

            “Do you bowl?” asked Bennett.

            “I never have,” I said.

            “Want to learn?” he asked me.

            Across a parking lot from the Henninger Tower was a bowling alley, and we could see the tower from the bridge to Sachsenhausen, and we walked into an alley that ran in its direction.  The alley ended at a garage, but I climbed onto a shed beside the entrance to the garage, and from the shed I climbed onto the roof of the garage.  Standing up, I saw that the other side of the roof was on the level of the parking lot, and I began walking across the roof. 

But, before I reached the parking lot, I heard beneath my feet a sound I thought walking on tin might make.  But it wasn’t tin but glass, and suddenly I found myself hanging by my fingers from the frame of a skylight, remembering how far below the roof of Homer Foundry its floor was when David and I were on it after it burned.  My fingers slipped from the frame, and next I found myself lying on the floor below, in front of a Volkswagen.

            My heel had hit the Volkswagen’s front bumper, and my ankle hurt too much for me to walk on it when Bennett came into the garage and helped me to my feet, but he let me use him as a crutch to get out of the alley and onto the street.

            “I’ll go get us a taxi,” he said.

            As I lay waiting on grass beside the sidewalk, a man and woman walking past stopped, and looked down at me.

            “Mein bind is gebrochen,” I said.

            “Ya,” said the man.  “Du bist getrunken.”

            And they continued their walking.

            Bennett returned in a taxi, but the driver looked at me and drove away with a back door still open, as soon as Bennett was out of it.

            “I guess I’ll have to call the MP’s,” said Bennett then.

            “What happened?” asked the MP who picked us up, after we were in the patrol car.

            Bennett looked at me as I tried to think how to answer.

            “How about this?” asked the MP.  “You were running across the street dodging the Rad and tripped over the curb.”

            “Rad”, short for “comrade”, was U. S. Army slang for “German”.

            “Sounds good to me,” I said as he drove us away from the curb.

            “Is it broken?” I asked a medic at the 97th General Hospital.

            “Oh, yeah,” he answered grinning.  “It’s broken alright.”

            I wasn’t getrunken enough not to ask whether the cast he put on it should have been as hot as it was, but I fell asleep as soon as a nurse gave me an injection after he replaced the cast with a cooler one, and I didn’t awaken until the next morning.

            By then, a surgeon had screwed and pinned my ankle back together, and the spinal anesthesia for the surgery kept me from feeling either of my legs.  I reached below the hospital gown, and pulled the knee of the leg with the cast on it up, to see what was happening to it.  I was trying and failing to push it back down when a nurse I thought was pretty entered the room.

            “Can’t get it back down,” she said with a smile, “can you.”

            She returned the leg and the gown to where I’d found them.

            “You split your tibia,” said the German surgeon as he showed me an X-ray in the ward to which a medic pushed me next, “and you also fractured your fibula.  We put a pin and a screw in the tibia.  The fibula will take care of itself.  How did you do it?”

            Although I didn’t use the phrase “the Rad”, the surgeon frowned at me when I told him the MP’s story, and I thought I should impress him with how fast I could run.

            “Will I able to run when it heals?” I asked him.

            “Yes,” he said, “you’ll be able to run.”

            “I mean really run,” I said.

            He scowled again and left the room without answering, and the next visitor I received was my company’s Supply Sergeant, conducting what the Army called a line of duty investigation.  The purpose of the investigation was to discover if I was doing anything unlawful when I broke my leg.  So I repeated the MP’s story.

            The sergeant also scowled, but his official report said the injury was in the line of duty, because I had signed out and because he had no proof that I was doing anything anywhere against any law.  I don’t know what Bennett told anyone, but no one further questioned me about what happened, and neither did I volunteer the truth to my next visitor.  That was Benny, bringing me my tape recorder and tapes, after telephoning me to ask me if I needed anything.

            I was in the hospital two weeks.  Of six patients in my ward, one was German and had worked for the United States Army in a railroad yard and lost his legs by falling beneath a moving train, and one was the United States’ Deputy Chief of Mission to the Sudan and had broken an upper arm there.  Neither seemed to me to enjoy hearing my Barbra Streisand recordings.

            The DCM said an American tourist driving by while he was trying to cross a street had hit his elbow with his car.  He couldn’t leave his hospital bed because his doctor was experimenting on him, keeping his elbow in traction above his head, hoping the bones would grow back together.  But the German could get out of bed and into a wheelchair, and race me in mine to the mess hall, and he won every race.

The DCM was patient with my Barbra Streisand recordings, but he was running out of patience with his doctor, after six months of hanging there.  And he suggested that I go see a lieutenant who had driven a Volkswagen head-on into a semi truck and broken much more than an upper arm.  The doctor had him hanging in so many ropes he resembled a fly in a spider web.

            I asked Benny to bring me my guitar, but the next time I saw him was the day I left the hospital, when he borrowed a jeep from the motor pool to drive me back to the barracks.  I was on crutches, and our room was on the third floor of the barracks, but the crutches didn’t slow me down much.  The night I left the hospital I went out drinking with some of my former roommates.

We started at a guest house one of them had recently discovered, and we finished with my putting my broken leg on a table at the Gasthof Zur John, for the others to sign the cast.  And next morning at work I climbed more stairs, because I was to be chief of the reports team for the 2d Brigade in an office on the second floor of the AG building, rather than working for Bortz for the 3d Brigade on the first floor.  While I was in the hospital, nearly half of my company left for Vietnam, and the captain who asked me whether I was self-destructive decided to have Bortz work alone while I trained a clerk new to the company.

“I’m going to keep my bicycle in the office,” said the new guy the minute I met him.

He pointed to a racing bike behind his desk, and I thought that working with him would be hardly sufferable, but I never had to work with him.  That afternoon I received notice of approval of my request to go to Vietnam.  And next morning I had orders and began to pack.

            Benny helped by acquired a footlocker for my belongings I couldn’t carry with me and painted it white to make it appear as though it didn’t belong to the Army.  I disassembled the wooden bar stool and put it and my tape recorder and turntable and other things I didn’t think I’d need before I returned from Vietnam into the footlocker.  I left my guitar with George Gates, because it didn’t fit in the footlocker, and because he told me I couldn’t take it on the airplane and said he’d send it to me whenever I let him know where I thought I’d be for a while.

            Benny arranged to borrow a jeep from the motor pool to drive me to Rhein Main Air Base for my flight, and the day I left he and George carried the footlocker downstairs for me, as I finished packing my duffle bag.

            “I’ll go get the jeep,” said Benny returning for the duffle bag.  “Wait for me with the footlocker.  It’s outside the orderly room”

            But when I reached the bottom of the stairs the footlocker was gone.

            “Did you see a footlocker out there?” I asked the company clerk.

            “It’s in the First Sergeant’s office,” he said.  “He wants to see you.”

            I hobbled into his office and stood beside it in front of his desk.

            “Is that your footlocker?” he asked.

            “Yes, First Sergeant,” I told him.

            “It looks like the Army’s,” he said.

            “Apparently it isn’t,” I told him.

            He looked at me and my crutches.

            “Apparently, my ass,” he said with a scowl.  “Get it out of here.”

            That was regrettably my only encounter with that First Sergeant.

            When Benny returned with the jeep, he and George got it out of there and into to the back of the jeep, and Benny took me and my duffle bag and the footlocker to the air base, and also Sergeant Bayona.  Sergeant Bayona had also received orders for Vietnam, and Benny left him and me and our duffle bags at the plane, saying he’d take the footlocker to the shipping office.  And that day was my first time on a jetliner and my first time in Times Square.

            “We can get a room at the Y,” said Sergeant Bayona at the Port Authority bus terminal.

            “I don’t have enough cash,” I replied.

            “I’ll pay for it,” he responded.  “I’ll give you my address.  Pay me back when you can.”

            I welcomed the chance to spend a night in Manhattan, and he also loaned me twenty dollars, but I didn’t go beyond Times Square.  And, because Sergeant Bayona didn’t drink, I didn’t take advantage of the fact that the minimum age to drink there was eighteen.  Next morning, hoping for better luck next time, I rode a bus from Port Authority to Fort Dix to report to my new company.

            The company was across a field of grass from the bus station.  I walked to it and signed in and learned from the Company Clerk that the company had no duties yet.  He told me that it was forming there and that he didn’t know when it would go to Vietnam and that officially he didn’t know that it was going to Vietnam.

“Why don’t you take a leave and go home or something?” he suggested.  “Most of the company isn’t even here yet.  You’ve got plenty of time.”

So I filled out a form requesting a thirty-day leave, and the clerk took it into an office where a lieutenant signed it, and I signed out and hitchhiked to Coldwater.  When I saw the drive-in movie screen on U. S. 27 on the south side of town I felt I was coming home, but my mother had moved from the house on Monroe Street to a smaller and shabbier one, on Division Street between the drive-in movie and the railroad tracks.  The bar owner had decided to demolish the one on Monroe Street to use the lot for parking.

But she had a telephone I used to call Sandy’s house.

            “I’m an old friend of Sandy’s,” I said.  “Is she at home?”

            “She doesn’t live here anymore,” her mother replied.

            “Do you know where she does live?” I asked her.

            “No,” her mother replied.  “She didn’t tell me.”

            So, as I walked to the Southern Michigan National Bank to withdraw some of my savings, I wondered what I would do with it.  I decided to buy a car, and I telephoned David and asked him if he had one, to transport me in my search for one.  The Army had given him an honorable discharge as a PFC with a Good Conduct Medal.

            He did have a car, and an advertisement in the Coldwater Daily Reporter offered a 1961 Studebaker Lark for sale for 400 dollars, and we took my sister Nancy with us to look at it because I told her I’d give her whatever I bought when I went to Vietnam.  It was a shiny little red car with black naugahyde upholstery, and I asked Nancy whether she liked it, and she said she did.  But we heard a knock in the engine when we took it for a test drive.

            “Valves,” said the seller when I asked him why it was knocking.  “These little six-cylinder flatheads do that.”

            I doubted his honesty, but I paid him his asking price because Nancy had said she liked it, and because I preferred not to spend my leave shopping for a car.  David drove off in his car, and I drove Nancy to our mother’s house in mine, and from there I drove to Charlotte’s parents’ house.  And Charlotte came to the door with a big smile.

I spent most of that leave with her, mostly driving and hugging and kissing her in the Lark, and she invited me to dinner with her parents.  But I had little to say them and then was antipathetic to tomatoes.  I ate the lettuce in the salad but left the tomatoes.

            “You don’t like tomatoes?” her mother asked me.

            “Hello,” was all her deaf father ever said to me.

“Sometimes he wakes up in the night screaming,” she told me in the Lark after dinner when I told her I’d bought doughnuts from at night.        “They used to take him outside town and leave him naked in the woods.  He had to walk home.”

            I’d also seen him often on his bicycle.  Both of Charlotte’s parents rode bicycles wherever they went.  They had no car, but each of their old bicycles had a big wire basket hanging in front of its handlebars, and they always seemed to me to be serene as they rode.  Her father’s name was Tom, and I knew that but never called him anything, not that or Blowboy or Mr. Button.  But I always smiled and waved at him as he passed me on his bicycle.

            “Hello,” he always replied, smiling to my greeting.

            Charlotte and I went to Ft. Wayne to see Peggy.  She and Bob had moved there from Battle Creek.  She had a black naugahyde sofa in the living room of their apartment.  And she told us it was extraordinarily comfortable.  And Charlotte and I spent that night on it.

            Charlotte had brought a flannel nightgown, but I undressed to my Army-issue boxer shorts to try to sleep with her, on that extraordinarily uncomfortable sofa.  Instead of sleeping, we talked and kissed all night, and she let me remove her brassiere and fondle her breasts.  But she stopped me from touching her vagina.

            “Why did you let me take off your bra?” I asked her.

            “I wanted you to have them,” she replied.  “But I can’t do more because I tell my mother everything I do.  I’d be ashamed to tell her I did that.”

            “Bob said that’s the last time you two are staying here,” said Peggy in the morning while Charlotte was in Peggy’s bathroom.  “He couldn’t sleep because you were talking all night.”

            I had no reply to that, but I told her she could have the Lark instead of Nancy, because she had told me her and Bob’s 1958 Ford Police Interceptor wouldn’t last much longer.

            I kept trying to touch Charlotte in other places, once sticking my hand up her red skirt that was part of an outfit with a strawberry motif, but she continued to demur until the day before I was to leave Coldwater to return to my company.

            We lay kissing on my mother’s sofa while no one else was in the house, and I tried several arguments to talk her into going up stairs with me, to Nancy’s bed.  My main arguments were that coitus was beautiful and that I wouldn’t ejaculate inside her, and she added to her argument regarding her mother that she was too small, that she couldn’t use Tampax because she couldn’t fit them inside her.  I told her we could try and at last found a successful argument.

            “I’m going to Vietnam,” I said.  “I don’t know if I’ll come back.”

            “Let’s go upstairs,” she said after a few more minutes of kissing.

            I laid my crutches on the floor to keep anyone from opening the door to Nancy’s bedroom, and I removed all my clothing and got into Nancy’s dirty bed, and from there I watched Charlotte undress.  The shape of her body, the slope of her buttocks and her breasts as she bent to remove her panties, reminded me of the Venus de Milo.  But she was correct in regard to the size of her vagina.

            I ejaculated trying to push my penis into it, and while I was ejaculating I heard my crutches slide, as Nancy opened the door.  She leaned in and looked, and she leaned out and closed the door, and Charlotte and I dressed and returned down stairs.  I drove her home and kissed her goodbye.

            The next morning I was in the Lark heading back to Fort Dix.  David was with me because I asked him to bring the car back and deliver it to Peggy.  I told him I’d pay his expenses and give him some cash for a bus ticket from Fort Wayne to Coldwater.  But I decided to save some cash by driving through Canada instead of paying the I-80 tolls.  We would cross into Canada at Windsor and reenter the United States at Niagara.

            “I wonder why people honeymoon here,” I said as we stood staring at the falls.

            “Yeah,” replied David as a breeze blew spray into our faces.  “They stink.”

            In New York City, we stopped to see Benny, who had returned from Germany before his discharge date and was at Fort Hamilton helping process other troops out of the Army.  He arranged for a double bunk for David and me that night in the big bay for the returnees, and the three of us went to Greenwich Village, to drink some beer.  Benny told us the drinking age was 18, but an old bartender in the first bar we entered refused to serve us, saying we were too young.

            “Maybe the old fart just wants to be extra careful,” Benny said outside.

            We drank a few mugs of beer at O’Henry’s,  gazing at the sawdust and peanut shells on the floor, and returned to Fort Hamilton.  Next morning a policemen stopped me for speeding as I was trying to find our way out of the city, but he looked at my crutches and my Army identification card and told me to be careful and let us go, with no citation.  About two hours later David dropped me at my company and drove away.

            The barracks, like my barracks in basic and armor training, were two-story wooden buildings with open bays of double bunks.  The Army called them temporary wooden barracks, but they had been temporary since the Army built them for the troop buildup for World War II, with a plan to tear them down after the war.  I signed in and went to the barracks and selected an empty bunk on the first floor and talked with my new barracks mates.

They, like the company clerk, told me they didn’t know how long we’d be there.  They also told me they had no duties, and we spent much of our time drinking beer at the PX snack bar behind the bus station, and we could have a three-day pass every weekend if we wished.  And I had a use for three-day passes.

Vaughn wrote to me that he had left Sarasota to be Stage Manager for the Turnau Opera, a summer stock company performing in a barn on Byrdcliffe Mountain above Woodstock, New York.  He invited me to visit him up there, and I used some three-day passes to do that, hitchhiking the 170 miles north.  The first time, I lost my way and went through Connecticut, proudly adding that to the list of states I’d visited.

            But hitchhiking on crutches was quick.  So my ride up the rocky road from Woodstock to the opera company on my first trip there ended hours before dark.  Beside the barn was a ramshackle house that served as the living quarters of the opera company, and I dined with the company in its dining room there, that evening. 

            I found little to say to the professionals, but some young people were there acting as interns, and one of them was a young man who had helped Vaughn at the Tibbits while I was working Carnival after graduating from high school, and he and I sat on the front steps of the ramshackle building where the company slept, talking and watching cars pass after dinner.

            “Bob Dylan has a house further up the mountain,” he told me.  “I saw him once and hollered at him.  I asked him if he was a rolling stone.  He didn’t answer.”

            He laughed, but I didn’t get the joke, and didn’t laugh.

            “Are you a rolling stone?” he shouted laughing again.

But also among the interns were two young women.

            One of them had long red hair, and I thought she was pretty, but I didn’t feel she was.  The other was smaller, and I thought she was mousy and a little dumpy, but to me she was more attractive than the one I thought was prettier.  Her name was Juliet, and I found myself necking with her on a bench, in the yard between the house and the barn.

            Her kissing was wet and warm and receptive.  But, when I placed a hand on her chest below her breasts, she pushed it away.  And she backed away.

            “I’m not that kind of girl,” she said.

            But I was fondling them beneath her brassiere before the end of that weekend, and she told me her mother had a given her a diaphragm for such occasions, and she promised to have her send it if I’d be back the next weekend.

“Oh, sorry,” said one of the singers as he leaned from the front door of the house to the porch where we were kissing and touching on a loveseat, and he leaned back through the door and closed it, leaving us alone in our sensuality.
 

 

 

Chapter 14

1966

 

I also smoked marijuana that weekend.   Vaughn and his young assistant and I stood smoking it on the wide porch of the ramshackle house’s wing where the interns slept.  I tried to feel something from it, and I told Vaughn and his assistant that I did, but I didn’t.

Back at Fort Dix, medics replaced my cast, with one with a rubber heel.  The German surgeon had told me he’d remove the screw and pin from my ankle after it healed, but no one mentioned the possibility of that at Fort Dix, and I didn’t ask about it.  I welcomed the additionally mobility as I hitchhiked back to Woodstock the next weekend.

In Trenton a man picked me up and told me that he was going a few miles north of the city but that he had to stop at his apartment first.  He invited me inside and showed me some magazines with pictures of men and women doing various things naked together.  He didn’t say why he showed them to me or ask me what I thought of them.

Juliet and I walked up the mountain behind the barn and sat on a rock.  I hoped she had her diaphragm, and I tried to unbutton her jeans, but she stopped me.  In the evening I went with her and Vaughn and others to Woodstock’s town hall to see Fellini’s film Juliet of the Spirits.

Juliet paid for her ticket and I for mine, while I felt shame for not paying for both, as I had felt shame for not lending the Jewish girl my jacket in Frankfurt.   We didn’t talk about the film as we sat kissing that night on a settee in the living room of the house while the others slept.  With fingers in her vagina and a knee between her legs I ejaculated.

“I’ll go get my diaphragm,” she said.

“That’s OK,” I responded.

“Are you sure?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I replied.

She returned to the room she shared with the other girl.  I slept on the settee because Vaughn had told me he had to pay the company for me to be there.  I made no more trips to Byrdcliffe Mountain.

One of my barracks mates was a Spec. 4 who had been in the Army more than twice as long as I.  His name was Ken Harmon, and we became friends because of our last names, and he and I hitchhiked together to Philadelphia and to Atlantic City.  The trips were my idea.

In Philadelphia we wandered into a gay bar.  We sat at a table and watched a person we thought was a woman swaying to music on a stage.  No one spoke to us, and we agreed that the person on the stage wasn’t a woman, and left after a few futile minutes of waiting for a waiter.

In Atlantic City we ran out of cash and walked the boardwalk and a street with many bars.  On the street with the bars, a short but wide dark-haired man with tattoos on his arms invited us up to his room, pointing to where another man was peering from behind a curtain of a second story window.  We declined his invitation and tried but failed to sleep on the beach.

            I received a note from Vaughn, saying that the barn had closed for the summer and that he was renting an apartment in New York City, in a house the man who had apologized for seeing me and Juliet kissing owned with a friend of his on West 14th Street.

            Ralph Poisson, another barracks mate of mine, rode a bus with me from Fort Dix to Port Authority and walked with me from there to the apartment.  Vaughn took us to the Guggenheim Museum in the afternoon and in the evening cooked some ham steaks with pineapple sauce and oregano he said was his own recipe.  The apartment was in the basement beneath the floors where the owners lived, and it’s only bed was a sleeper sofa, but we didn’t sleep that night.

            “Have you ever tried acid?” Vaughn asked us.

            The apartment opened to the back yard, and the owners were turning it into a garden, but they hadn’t yet planted anything.  As I sat on a table outside the back door, the dirt that was to be the garden seemed to me to become a field of naked dead bodies, but I decided I was hallucinating it because I was going to Vietnam.  Vaughn told us he was our guide for the trip, and we asked him for permission to go for a walk on the street, and he granted it.

            I expected the lights to seem to me brighter.  They didn’t, but my right hand seemed to me like a fan made of many hands, when I waved it.  I decided that was because I always saw it that way but ordinarily wasn’t so attentive.

Next day, while Vaughn was out of the apartment, I snuck some of the pink powder from its tinfoil wrapping in Vaughn’s attaché case, and wrapped it in a piece of tinfoil from a roll in a cupboard, intending to shared it with Ken.

            Vaughn had mixed it with orange juice, but Ken and I mixed it with beer in a bar in Wrightstown, a little town to which one of Fort Dix’s gates opened.  Ken said that he didn’t care about drugs one way or another and that it didn’t do anything for him.  Neither did it to me then.

            We were at Fort Dix about four months.  To know whether any of them smoked it I talked with others in the company about marijuana.  I found about a half dozen who said they did, and one of them told me one did who was AWOL, and had been long enough to fit the Army’s official criteria for desertion.  He was a Spec. 5 when he went AWOL, and he was a Spec. 5 when he returned and when he left again, amid questions of why he’d received no punishment.  Some of us speculated that he was military intelligence undercover to check on us.  

            I did no work in my months there, and my only training was after the Army removed my cast, jungle training one afternoon in the post’s pine woods with a rifle like an M-14 but with a pistol grip and automatic firing.  It was a model no one used in Vietnam, and we joked that we didn’t know we were going to Vietnam, because no one officially told us we were despite obvious indications.  But in late summer the fact proved itself.

            “We don’t know where we’re going,” said the sergeant first class who was acting as our First Sergeant, as he grinned at us in a rare gathering of all of us into one room.  “But we’re going somewhere soon.  So I suggest you take a thirty day leave.  It’s your last chance.”

            Most of us laughed and signed out and went home.  I hitchhiked back to Coldwater and learned that David had driven the Lark back to Coldwater instead of to Fort Wayne and that Nancy had driven it until the rod that had been knocking went through the engine block.  The car was beside our mother’s house with its engine in pieces on the ground beside it while a friend of Nancy’s tried to repair it.

            The friend said he had no idea how soon he’d finish the repair, but he also said he had a 305 c.c. Honda Superhawk motorcycle with scrambler pipes I could use during my leave, and he showed me how to ride it.  The next day I rode it to Peggy’s house in Ft. Wayne in rain that felt to me like gravel when it hit my face.  The friend had loaned me a helmet but no face shield.

            “I’d made an appointment to have it fixed,” Peggy told me referring to the Lark. 

After a couple of days in Fort Wayne and a few days of riding the bike aimlessly in Coldwater, I rode it to Charlotte’s house.  I had little desire to see her, and I didn’t think she wished to see me, but I watched as her breasts bounced in a sweatshirt as she ran to her driveway from her back yard where her mother and others were standing around a grill.  I thought I saw a smile on her face and light in her eyes, before she stopped running about a yard from me, and spoke.

“I’ve found someone else, Bill,” she said looking at me with no smile or light.  “I’m sorry.”

“That’s OK,” I said and watched her turn away from me and run back to the others.

I backed the motorcycle around before restarting it, because I didn’t think my skill with it had reached the level of turning it around under the power of its engine, in the narrow driveway.  I rode from there to the family home of Alice Harris, the girl Kubiac had called Alice Coldwater, and rang her doorbell.  She grinned with light in her eyes as she bounced down her front steps to see the motorcycle.

“Connie’s in Detroit,” she said.  “Her father sold the farm.  He’s hauling cars again.”

She went back into her house and brought me a slip of paper with Connie’s address on it.  I rode back to my mother’s house without giving Alice a ride, and prepared a bundle of clothes to tie to the back of the bike, for the ride to Detroit next morning.  The vibration of the little motorcycle on that hundred-mile ride troubled me nearly as much as had the rain on the 65-mile ride to Fort Wayne.  But, despite stopping several times to shake off numbness, I was at my Aunt Bertha’s house in Lincoln Park by early afternoon.

I’d had Benny ship my footlocker there, because I wasn’t sure where my mother would be when it arrived wherever I sent it, and cancer had killed my Uncle Jim while I was in Germany.  But I couldn’t carry the footlocker on the motorcycle, and I offered no consolation to my aunt, only asking her for a place to sleep.  I stashed my bundle in an upstairs bedroom and rode to the address Alice had given me.

The house was smaller than Connie’s homes in Coldwater and on the farm, but she told me her father had given her the red Buick Skylark convertible in the driveway, to drive to the business college where she was studying to be a secretary.

She also had a ring with a big diamond in it on her left ring finger.  And she showed me a stereo system in a big wooden cabinet in her living room and told me her fiancé had given it to her.  She said she’d met him at a roller rink, in Elkhart, Indiana.

I took her for a ride on the Honda and stalled it on a busy street near her house and needed to kick it many times to restart it.

“My dad doesn’t let me ride on motorcycles anymore,” she said.  “He says it’s too dangerous since Donnie got in his accident.”

I neither knew nor asked her about Donnie’s accident, but I took her directly home, after restarting the engine.   The house was on a small quiet street but two blocks from the wide busy commercial street where I had stalled the Honda.  We left the Honda behind her house and walked back to the busy street.

In a store near where I had stalled the Honda I bought her a copy of the phonograph album Frank Sinatra then was saying was his last.  Back at her house she played it on the stereo system as we kissed and hugged on her sofa until her father came home with some friends of his and some beer.  One of the friends asked her father whether I wanted a beer.

“He’s not old enough,” said her father scowling.

Connie and I went outside and sat on her front steps and talked.  I told her I’d like to have kids someday but would like them to call me by my first name.  Still I hadn’t read To Kill a Mocking Bird, and so I wasn’t thinking of her telling me on the farm that it was her favorite book, but her reply suggested that she had forgotten Scout calling her father Atticus.

“I think they should respect you,” she said.

She was barefoot in shorts, and I thought her toes were stubby, although I’d enjoyed looking at her thin legs.

In the evening she let me drive her Skylark to a place she said was a lovers’ lane.  We hugged and kissed, and I unfastened her brassiere and touched one of her breasts, feeling its small hard nipple.  But she pushed me away and refastened the brassiere.

“Respect me, Bill,” she said.

A huge red ball trailing fire behind it fell from the sky in front of us.  She locked the car’s passenger door and reached across me and locked the door on its driver side.  She sat straight up, looked at the sky where the ball had been, and looked at me.

“What was that?” she asked me.

“I don’t know,” I answered thinking it might have been a meteor.

“I’m afraid,” she said.  “Let’s go.”

We had decided that I’d sleep in her mother’s sewing room that night, and I drove us to my Aunt Bertha’s house and introduced Connie to her, and she gave us chocolate layer cake and vanilla ice cream with chocolate syrup on it.  Back in the car I remembered that my bundle of clothes was in the house.  I went back inside to retrieve it.

“I’m going to stay at her house tonight,” I told my aunt and said nothing in response to her responding to that with a frown.

“I was going to drive a way and leave you here,” Connie said when I returned to her car. “No one has ever touched me before.”

But we returned to her house and spent most of the night kissing on her living room sofa.

“You’re the only person who’s ever turned me on,” she said.

I asked her to marry me, and she refused my first request, but she agreed after several more.  At about 3:00 a.m., she told me she had to go to work in the morning, to her part-time secretarial job.  After a few hours on a rollaway bed in her mother’s sewing room, I arose and found Connie in a flowery dress with a full skirt, and I felt she was leaving me behind.

But I left her behind again.  On my return to Coldwater, I rode to Atkinson’s house and found him drinking in his party room with Larry Neitzert, our classmate whose parents owned a flower shop near the high school.  Drinking with them, I told them that I was a poor kid and knew the underbelly of Coldwater, and I offered to show it to them.

“Just park in front of the Bluebird any night,” I said.

Atkinson’s father had bought a newer car and given the old DeSoto to Dick.  He drove us downtown and parked in front of the Bluebird, a soda shop across Chicago Street from a newer one, Harry’s.  High school kids hung out at Harry’s, and parents took their younger kids to the Blue Bird, and it wasn’t open at night.  The poor underbelly kids would be at neither soda fountain.  But they’d be walking the streets.

We stepped onto the sidewalk as two girls passed.  

“Do you want to go to a party?” I asked them.

They agreed to go, and one of them told me in the car that she knew my sister Nancy and that she’d always liked me, and at Atkinson’s house I gave her a can of beer and took her into his bedroom.  We undressed and tried coitus in his bed, but I didn’t find her attractive and couldn’t ejaculate, although I tried for several minutes.  I told her to wait and got out of bed and dressed and returned from Dick’s bedroom to his party room.

“It’s your turn,” I said to Neitzert, but he declined.

“She was crying,” Atkinson said after spending less time with her in the bedroom than had I, and we waited for her to emerge from the bedroom and took her and the other girl, who had refused to talk to us, back where we’d found them.

The next day I hitchhiked back to Fort Dix, and a few days later my pubic area began to itch, and I found tiny bugs in my pubic hair.  I had never had crabs, but the tiny bugs seemed to me to resemble crabs, and I mentioned the problem to Ken.  He told me that they probably were crabs and that he’d had them.

“I got this at the dispensary,” he said handing me an olive drab can of DDT powder, and the itching stopped after I found dry dead bugs on my sheets on several mornings.

A few days later my company went through its final preparation for overseas redeployment.  During the process, a Spec. 4 behind a counter examined my DA Form 20 and paused when he looked at my PULHES, my physical profile.  “PULHES” was an acronym for parts of the body, and under each letter was a number, ranging from one to three.  Mine were all ones, except a three beneath the L, for lower extremities.  That was because of my ankle.

The numbers were in pencil, and the Spec. 4 picked up a pencil and erased the three, and replaced it with a one.

“You’re not getting out of it that easy,” he said.

I didn’t bother telling him either that I had broken my leg or that I had volunteered to go to Vietnam.  I considered thanking him, but he turned to the next person in line, and I moved on to the next step in the process.  And a few days later the company flew to San Francisco.

The flight was commercial, but no passengers were on it other than my company, in fatigues.  We rode a bus from the plane to Oakland Army Terminal and retrieved from beneath the bus our duffle bags and the M-14 rifles the Army had assigned us instead of the automatic ones.  We boarded a ship like the one that had taken me to Germany and stashed our duffle bags beneath the bottom hammocks and hung our rifles from the hammock racks.

The trip was 27 days, but the Pacific is more pacific than the Atlantic, and few of us were seasick.  One of the few was a PFC who had been a high school history teacher before his induction.  We others laughed at him standing guard with a barf bag in his pistol belt.

But Dramamine pills were available to anyone, and some of us popped them hoping for an amphetamine high, and I tried crushing some and smoking them in a cigarette, but the only effect I discerned was like drinking tea, and I didn’t do it twice.

Spec. 4’s had no jobs on the ship, but one of the Spec. 4’s gave us something to do to break the boredom, and I proved good at it.  He was one of the company’s marijuana smokers, and he said he had dealt blackjack in Las Vegas before his induction, and he had several decks of cards with him and taught the game to anyone who wished to learn.  We played in ladder wells to keep wind from blowing the cards overboard, and I won most of the time and kept a tally of who owed me what, to collect it in Vietnam.

And I learned on the ship that I’d receive other additional cash in Vietnam.  A sergeant first class called me to a little office near our compartment and asked me whether I’d like to work for the company’s Administrative Services Division.  I said I would, without asking him what my job would be, as I hadn’t asked the warrant officer what my job in Germany would be, and about a week later I received a promotion to specialist five, without having to stand before another promotion board.

When I heard we were passing Hawaii, I looked across the rolling sea, but saw no land.  But the ship stopped in Okinawa, and the Army let us off the ship for eight hours, and most of us walked to a huge night club, less than a mile down the road that passed the ship, to get drunk.  On return to the ship, many of us boarded the ship from the dock side and walked across the deck and jumped from the other side, into the water.

Our first stop on the coast of Vietnam was to let off an artillery battalion, and a rumor that evening said all in it died, before leaving the beach.  But I wasn’t sure of the rumor, and I had no qualms when Sergeant Green, the sergeant first class who had asked me to work in Administrative Services, asked me to be a member of a party of about eight going ashore in Da Nang, to find some of our equipment the Navy had accidentally unloaded there.  And that made me the second person in my company to hit the beach in Vietnam.

The staff sergeant leading the party was the first and fell on his face in the sand when he jumped from the landing craft.  The Navy didn’t drop the ramp, and the drop from the end of it to the sand was about six feet, and I nearly also fell.  The sand was wet, and I sank into it and nearly also tripped, waving my arms to say upright.

The company’s supply sergeant was with us and saw someone he knew and asked him where the nearest whorehouse was.  It was an old French villa, and he and the staff sergeant left the rest of us there, while they went looking for the equipment.  In our afternoon there, I did nothing but sit and drink beer, but some of us accepted the house’s primary services.  I don’t know whether anyone found our equipment.  And I didn’t ask.

Our landing at Cam Ranh Bay made me briefly feel as though I was in the Army.  Walking down the landing craft ramp onto the beach with our rifles and pistol belts and backpacks and steel helmets made me think of Normandy.  But buses with air-conditioning took us from the beach to our company area.

Our company was the 518th Personnel Service Company, and we were to build the Cam Ranh Bay Personnel Service Center to provide personnel and administrative support for the 1st Logistical Command, with help from the 516th Personnel Service Company.

The 516th arrived in Vietnam before we did and set up our squad tents on a flat stretch of sand about a miles from the 516th’s company area and about a half mile from where we would work.  We were to sleep on canvas cots, each with a thin mattress and a pillow and a pillow case and sheets, but no blanket.  The heat there made blankets unnecessary.

The morning of our arrival we received in the tent we were to use as our orderly room the pay the Army owed us from the payday we’d missed on the ship.  And, after I received mine, I stood outside the tent and collected black jack debts as others emerged from it.  And the next thing most of us did was to find our way to the Class VI store.

Class VI was the Army’s ration classification for alcoholic beverages, and the Class VI store at Cam Ranh Bay sold cases of beer and fifths of whiskey, for $2.50 each.  The Army rationed it, allowing us but three cases of beer and three fifths of whiskey per month, but the Vietnamese girls working the cash registers marked our ration cards not once per item but once per purchase.  I was to share a tent with the other members of the Administrative Services team who were neither commissioned nor noncommissioned officers, and one of them was to be the company’s Mail Clerk, and he had keys to the company’s ¾ ton mail truck.  So he drove me and some of our other tent mates to the Class VI store.  I bought a quart of rum and a case of Squirt.

We also bought some ice.  And, when we returned to the company area, we cut a 55-gallon oil drum in half and dug a hole in the sand beneath an end flap of our tent.  We put the half drum in the hole, and put our ice and soft drinks in the half drum and used Styrofoam from a typewriter case as a lid for it, to help the sand slow the melting of the ice.  We spent the rest of the day drinking the soft drinks with the hard liquor we poured into the cans keeping them full.

But soon we improved our living conditions.  Our Assistant Supply Sergeant organized a midnight raid on the Navy for building materials.  He and others of our company took two 2 ½ ton trucks to the Navy yard and stole lumber we used to frame and floor our tents.  And the Army gave the company an electrical generator, and we bought a refrigerator for our tent, at the Cam Ranh Bay PX.  We also bought folding lawn chairs and civilian clothes.

A few days later, the Army gave us more lumber, and we built a mess hall and showers and latrines and a house for the lieutenant colonel who would command the Personnel Service Center.  The heat was a problem in the beginning, and one of us flew home after nearly dying from it, but my biggest problem with it was awakening in the night with an ear in a puddle of sweat in an indentation in my mattress.  And my acclimatization stopped that in the second week.

We built our residential area before building our work area, and I wasn’t one of the main carpenters in building either area, but Sergeant Green gave me a carpentry job in that second week.

“The colonel says our bulletin board is unsightly,” he told me.  “Can you take some of your men and build him a sightly one?”

Our bulletin board was a sheet of half-inch plywood some of us had nailed to two-by-sixes they’d stuck in the sand.

My shipboard promotion made me the highest ranking person in my tent and accordingly Tent Commander, and I began the project with a conference with Spec. 4’s Strickland from Detroit and Reinke from Iowa, but I didn’t need to do any commanding.

“How about something with a roof to keep us out of the rain while we read the bulletins?” I asked them.  “Maybe we could make it look like a schoolhouse because it’s supposed to tell us stuff.  We could paint the outside to look like bricks.”

And we did, with help from others of our tent, and we built a little belfry on top and put in the belfry a jet’s afterburner.  Taylor, our Spec. 4 Mail Clerk, found it and said it looked like a bell.  And Sergeant Green offered some ideas.

He gave us some acetate and suggested that we use it to keep the bulletins from blowing from the boards, and we made frames for the acetate and hung them on hinges and used screen door hooks and eyes to hook them to a two-by-four beneath the roof while the Company Clerk posted the bulletins, and we set the whole thing straddling the boardwalk others had built to keep our feet out of the sand as we walked to the orderly tent.

Sergeant Green told the Supply Sergeant to give us what we needed, and we painted the inside white and the outside red with white lines to resemble mortar between bricks, and Sergeant Green wandered by as we stood surveying our work when we’d finished.

“Now that’s a sightly bulletin board,” he said.

And the colonel ordered others to hang on the most visible side of it a big sheet metal sign with the name of our company on it to let every passing person know who we were.

“I guess he likes it,” said Taylor.

And next we build furniture for our tent.  I used some of the lumber to build a bookcase, with a surface that swung up from covering its bottom two shelves to rest on legs that swung down from the surface, to make it usable as a desk.  I called my invention a wall locker, and Strickland and Reinke each built something similar, and so did others in other tents.

But soon we extended our activities beyond our efforts to make ourselves feel at home.  Cam Ranh Village was a collection of hundreds of tin shacks with concertina wire on all sides of it that didn’t face the bay.  Much of the tin would have been beer cans if anyone had finished the manufacturing process.  One shack said “Hamm’s” hundreds of times and another “Schlitz.”  And nearly every shack was a brothel and a bar.

“I heard only about three hundred people live in the village,” said Strickland.  “The girls come in by boat every day and leave every night.”

MP’s guarded the only land entrance.  And they forbade anyone to enter in a shirt collar without a collar.  On my first visit, I was in jeans I’d cut short and sneakers with no socks, and a sweatshirt with short sleeves and no collar.

“He needs a collar,” said the MP at the gate, but Strickland solved the problem.

“We’ll go in and buy you a shirt and bring it back out,” he said for my tent mates.

And they did, one with short sleeves and a button down collar and a pattern of white shapes of palm trees on a bright red background, and they laughed as Taylor handed it to me.  But, by the end of that day, I liked it so much that I hung it on the front of my bookshelf and kept it there when I wasn’t in it.  I didn’t hire a prostitute that day, but I tried to work up the courage to do it, as I drank beer in the tin shacks.

I was writing to Connie, but not so much that I ever lifted the writing surface of my “wall locker,” and I seldom thought of her while I wasn’t writing to her.  Taylor found a red and white cardboard “exit” sign, and gave it to me saying it matched my shirt, and I tacked it to the writing surface.  And I tacked to a side of the shelves pictures of Sandy and Charlotte.

I sent Connie a money order and asked her to buy a 35 mm camera and send it to me, and the first picture I took with it was of the shirt hanging above the exit sign, and I didn’t send that picture or any other picture I took with the camera to her or to anyone else, because I didn’t bother taking the film to the PX for development, because I was too busy doing other things.

And Sergeant Green, before we began doing our primary duties in the Personnel Services Center others built at the bottom of a hill at the end of about a half mile of sand passing the tents where the company’s junior officers and senior NCO’s slept, took us on a field trip.

He sat in the cab of a deuce and a half, as Taylor drove it to the mainland, with the rest of us in the back.  Our destination was a tourist shop with steam baths and other services, and I felt silly going through the steam bath ritual, and sillier going through the massage ritual.  And I felt silliest when the masseuse asked me whether I wanted a special.

“What’s a special?” I asked.

The masseuse was male and left the room as I lay on my back, with no clothing other than a towel he’d placed over my genitals when I turned over after the massage, and he returned with a young woman and pointed at her.

She seemed to me unhappy.

“No,” I told him.  “Thanks.”

After dressing and joining the others, I bought a wooden walking stick with its head in the shape of a lion’s, and no one asked me for any payment other than for that.  And, with the PX and the Class VI store and the village on the peninsula, I found no reason and had no wish ever to return to the mainland.  In the village, I bought for Peggy a cast iron statue of a woman holding a baby, one of the two Christmas gifts I bought that year.  The other was a little tape recorder I ordered for Connie through the PX catalog.  I had the PX send it directly to her.

I asked her to send me recordings of her, thinking I’d listen to them on Reinke’s little tape recorder, and she sent one.  But I couldn’t listen to it, because Reinke’s recorder didn’t work, and I wrote to Connie telling her that.  For myself I bought at the PX a Hamilton self-winding watch to replace the watch Sandy had given me.  And by then we were working in the PSC.  So I had less leisure time.

Some of our office buildings were tents like the ones in which we slept but with plywood and screens over the sides of the frames.  Others were Quonset huts, and the Administrative Services Division was in one of those, with me and most of my team working at one end and the colonel working in a private office in a corner of the other end.  Sergeant Green and a sergeant major and a chief warrant officer worked at desks between the colonel’s office and a partition behind which we lower-ranking people worked.

My main job was sorting paper coming into and going out of the Personnel Service Center.  The partition was a counter, with shelves beneath it and fiberglass above it concealing us from people in front of it, except through a gap in the fiberglass at the end of the counter nearest the main entrance to the Quonset hut.  I sat at a desk near that opening, when I wasn’t sorting paper into boxes on the shelves or handing it to people who came in the door, or carrying it to the chief warrant officer.  His name was Wright, and he looked at every piece of paper that came into the PSC, before I sorted it.  I don’t know what the sergeant major did.

Others of my team printed orders and other documents on an offset press near the back door of the Quonset hut and did other things Sergeant Green told them to do.  And I did other things he told me to do and officially was in charge of the others behind the partition.  But I seldom told anyone to do anything.

I wasn’t much of a leader.

 

 

 

Chapter 15

1966 - 1967

 

One thing Sergeant Green asked me to do besides sort paper was to account for the PSC’s office supplies.  We used as storage rooms the ConEx containers in which our equipment had ridden on the ship,  and Sergeant Green asked me to build shelves in one of them for the office supplies, and to organization them on the shelves.  And he asked me to manage the inventory.

“Here,” he said handing me a little metal box with a packet of three-by-five index cards in it.  “You can use this.”

“Can,” I typed on a card for the trashcans I stored, “shit, OG107.”

OG107, although the trashcans were gray, was the Army’s official designation for the olive green color it used for fatigues and many other things.

“What if someone inspects that file?” Sergeant Green asked me after inspecting it while I was out of the office building racks for our rifles in another ConEx container.

I typed a new card, but I knew Sergeant Green appreciated my sense of humor, and the biggest problem I had with my job was the hours.  We worked ten hours per day, thirteen days of each two weeks, with half of the company having one Sunday off from work and the other half the next.  And, to keep the PSC open every day, we did the same split for holiday.

But still we found time to drink.  After leaving work at 6:00 p.m. and eating supper in the mess hall, many of us drank until long after midnight, and I was one of them.  And I drank a can of beer between breakfast and going to work.

And breakfast connected me with marijuana.

            “How do you want your eggs?” a cook in the chow line asked me one morning.

            “Can I have a jelly omelet?” I replied.

            “Is that what you mean?” he asked me after scrambling some eggs and flattening them and folding some grape jelly into them, and he and I talked again after evening chow that day.

            His name was Willie Die, and he was an African American from Detroit whose physical stature suggested that he enjoyed his cooking, and he talked about jazz and asked me whether I smoked dope.  He responded to my reply that I did but hadn’t found any in Vietnam by going into the tent where the cooks slept and returning with a newspaper bundle of marijuana. He handed it to me and pointed to the hill where the generator was.

            “Take it up there and roll yourself a joint,” he said.

            Above the generator we’d surrounded with sandbags to block its sound was a bunker we’d dug and lined with sandbags for defense against the improbable possibility of an attack.  I sat on the sandbags and unfolded the newspaper and replaced with pot the tobacco in a dozen of my cigarettes.  I smoked one and rewrapped the remaining marijuana and returned it to Willie.

“Thanks,” I said and left his tent and lit another and walked up the hill behind our tents and sat in one of the latrines we’d built to smoke it.

            I heard the door opening and threw the cigarette between my legs through the hole beneath me as a staff sergeant entered the latrine.

            “What are you smoking?” he asked as he sat on another hole.

            “Viceroys,” I told him.  “Want one?”

            “No,” he said.  “Smells like weed.”

            “Nope,” I told him.  “Just a Viceroy.”

            And, next time I went to the village, I bought my own bundle.  I went with some of my tent mates, but I separated myself from them and wandered from shack to shack whispering my request to Vietnamese people working in them, until one sold me some.  And I buried the bundle I bought in sand outside the sandbags that bordered our tent floor.

But soon I found another friend as adventurous as Willie.

            He came to the 518th from a company on the mainland and joined the Administrative Services Division.  But we didn’t see him at work because Sergeant Green assigned him to operate a flexowriter, a machine for producing the sheets Reinke used to publish orders on the offset press, and the flexowriters were in a van because they required air-conditioning.  And we seldom saw him in the tent because each night immediately after evening chow he changed into civilian clothing and left it and didn’t return until we had turned off the lights for the night.

            But, his second week in the company, Sergeant Green directed that some of us work with him afternoons for a week.  The van had a dozen flexowriters in it, and our new team member was the only person using one, and Sergeant Green said he might need some help occasionally.

Flexowriters were electric typewriters with keyboards their operators used to punch holes in paper tapes that told the machines what to type when the operators fed them through again.  And one key on each keyboard directed punching holes in the tape to tell the machine to stop and wait for the operator to type something directly onto the sheet, and another key on the keyboard told the machine to resume following the instructions on the tape, after the operator typed whatever made that order different from similar orders.  The new guy gave us no instructions, leaving us to figure out the machines on our own, and I figured out how to put some poems on the tapes as I composed them in my mind.  And the new guy, whose name was Cleve Powell, listened as I read some.  And he spoke to me that evening after chow.

            “I’m going to the NCO club,” he said to me on his way out of the tent, while no one other than he and I was in it.

            After changing into my shorts and shirt and drinking a couple of cans of beer, I walked across the half mile of sand between our company area and the Cam Ranh Bay NCO club, which didn’t restrict membership to NCO’s.  I found Cleve drinking rum and Coke alone at a table, and I bought one for myself and joined him at the table, and we talked about books and especially Kerouac.  And, after the club closed, we smoked some of my weed in a pipe I’d bought by then, as we walked the half mile back to our tent, and both of us vomited in the sand.

            “I guess pot and alcohol don’t mix,” said Cleve laughing.

            He and I had the same Sundays and holidays off and complied with the alcohol rationing rules to the extent that we drank all of Cleve’s ration of hard liquor one Sunday or holiday and all of mine the next.  He told me Dylan Thomas drank himself to death at the White Horse Tavern in New York City.  But he never returned to the NCO club.

            The three bottles we drank each day off were a fifth of Johnny Walker Red Label scotch and a fifth of Heublein ready-mixed old fashioneds and a fifth of Heublein ready-mixed martinis.  We also shared a prostitute Cleve had found in the village, and  I nearly ejaculated when she grabbed my erect penis and laughed the first time I performed coitus on her, on a straw mat on a low bed in a back room of one of the shacks.  I thought she was pretty, and I thought she didn’t appear to be oriental, and her breasts were both big and firm.

            I wrote a short story about a homeless person sitting behind a garbage can in an alley in New York City.

            “Sam sat behind a garbage can, and nothing made any difference,” it began.

Cleve suggested I send it to the New Yorker, and a few weeks later I received from the New Yorker a rejection letter, and Cleve said the editors wouldn’t have bothered if they didn’t think the story showed potential.

But Peggy wrote complaining that I didn’t write to her.

            “You’re in Vietnam,” she said.  “We don’t know if you’re alive or dead.”

            I wrote and told her I wasn’t dead but working ten hours a day, and I received a letter from Nancy saying she’d lost her virginity to the second man on the Ferris wheel at the Branch County Fair, in the cab of the truck that carried the wheel from spot to spot.  She said he’d married her in a shirt of mine I’d left at home.  She said she hoped I didn’t mind.

            I wrote to Connie that I’d been expanding my experience by having coitus with prostitutes in the village.

            “I don’t know what you think you’re doing,” she replied.  “But I’m going back to Karl if he’ll have me.”

            I cheered, when I read that, and told the others in the tent that I was free.

Cleve and I spent most of New Year’s Day 1967 at a cove he said he’d learned existed when he was in his last previous company.  Taylor drove us there with our booze and weed and left us to climb down the hill and over the rocks that were between the cove and the road.  We ran in the surf of the South China Sea and drank the booze and smoked the weed and were hardly able to negotiate the rocks to leave.

            “Let’s go to Tokyo,” said Cleve a few days later.  “I took my R&R to Hong Kong, but they let us take both an R&R and a week’s ordinary leave if we want to, and I already cleared it with Green for me.  If you take the leave first they have to let you have both.”

            I had increased my savings allotment because of my combat zone pay and the cheapness of living there.  But I’d kept enough cash to buy at the PX a big black vinyl Leeds luggage flight bag and still have about three hundred dollars remaining to spend in Tokyo.  And the rest and recuperation center at the airport in Yokohama loaned us sport jackets.

Cleve selected the Hotel Takanawa from brochures at the R&R center, and the R&R center took troops around Tokyo dropping them at the hotels they selected, and we checked into adjacent rooms and stashed our bags and went out to the street in front of the hotel.

            “You want girls?” asked a man on the sidewalk.

            “No,” said Cleve.

            “What do you want?” responded the man to that.

            “Pizza,” I said.

            “I know a place with good pizza,” he replied.

            We let him usher us into a car at the curb, and he sat on the left side of the front seat and turned to talk to us, as the car moved through busy Tokyo traffic.  I wondered how he did it until I saw, when we stepped out of the car in front of a restaurant, that the steering wheel was in front of the man on the right side of the seat.  In the restaurant, the talking man led us to a banquette, and brought us two girls.

            “What do you think?” asked Cleve as I searched the menu for pizza.

            “Let’s get the hell out of here,” I said as we slid from the banquette.

            “Where are you going?” asked the man as he followed us outside and down the street in front of the restaurant, talking to us until he turned back when we reached the nearest corner.

We crossed the street at the corner and walked on aimlessly until we found a littler restaurant, where we sat in a banquette beside a glass case with red flowers in it, and I ordered sake.

            “Is that Harry Stalin’s tomb?” I asked Cleve and choked on my sake as I pointed to the case.

            “You died and were buried in Harry Stalin’s tomb,” said Cleve laughing.  “Maybe we can resurrect you with some Suntory.  It’s like scotch but better.”

            We drank Suntory on the rocks, until we ate some ham and cheese sandwiches with no crust on the white bread, and the cashier calculated our bill and change with an abacus beside the cash register.  Next morning, I walked out of the hotel and around a corner and bought a bottle of Suntory, and I took it back to the hotel and knocked on Cleve’s door.  We drank the Suntory as I scribbled on a legal pad Cleve had brought for any writing he might wish to do.

            What I scribbled seemed to me pictorial as what I’d written on leaper had seemed to me to be logical.  When the bottle was empty, we left the hotel and flagged a taxi to go to the Ginza, to buy some shoes not to be in our Army shoes.  One of the salesmen stood behind Cleve, comparing his height to Cleve’s height by gesturing to the tops of their heads, and laughing.

            I bought some black shoes with thin soles and buckles, and Cleve bought a pair of cordovan wingtips with thick soles and weather welts, and called them brogans.  Near the store was the Sapporo Beer Hall, where we sat at one of many big round tables with a white table cloths, and ordered two half-liter bottles of Sapporo.  But I had no fondness for it, and we left as soon as we’d drunk those two bottles of it, and walked to the Tokyo Tower.

            “This is supposed to be nine meters higher than the Eifel Tower,” said Cleve as we peered through a window in the floor of the elevator as we rode to the top.

            Back at the bottom we asked a woman at a news stand where we could have lunch.  She didn’t speak English, but she smiled at us and pointed to a stairway, and we descended it.  At its bottom was a large room with long tables and a cafeteria line.

            We sat at a table, and some people came to us, and Cleve told them we wanted shrimp.  They brought us the biggest fried shrimp I’ve ever seen and charged us nothing for them.  Everyone we saw there smiled all the time we were there.

            “I think it’s the employee cafeteria,” said Cleve.

            From there we walked with no particular purpose.

            “That’s what we’re looking for,” said Cleve peering down a street leading from a traffic circle, and I saw a small sign over a door, and we walked to it.

“Harry’s Bar,” said the sign, and we opened the door and found ourselves in a dark little place with a bar and a few tables and banquettes.

            “I wonder if Hemingway’s in here,” said Cleve.

            Several men from the United States were there.  One of them said he was an airline pilot, and another said he published a culinary magazine, and Cleve talked with everyone.  Bars in Tokyo then closed at 11:00 p.m., but the barmaid said she knew of a night club that was illegally open all night, and Cleve and I went with her and some of the others there and sat at another big round table with a white table cloth and drank and listened to a band playing on a bandstand.

            The barmaid’s name was Toshiko, and she used chopsticks to feed me what she said was Chinese cabbage, although I hadn’t been able to suffer cabbage before then.  About an hour after we arrived, the lights brightened as the band carried its instruments from the bandstand, and waitresses removed the drinks from the tables.  A few minutes later, some men in suits came in and looked around and left, and the lights dimmed as the band returned as the waitresses returned the drinks to the tables, and we resumed what we’d been doing.

            We and Toshiko and another woman from Harry’s climbed into a taxi that dropped Cleve and the other woman at one place and Toshiko at another place.  I tried shoving a hand up Toshiko’s skirt in the taxi, but she pushed it away and left me alone in the back seat of the taxi, and I returned to the hotel.  When I arose a few hours later, I walked back to the liquor store and bought another bottle of Suntory, and again found Cleve in his room.

            He called the woman with whom he’d left the taxi the newspaper because her dress was a print of big black flowers on a white background.  We scribbled some more and drank the Suntory and went out to the street again and again walked without talking of destinations.  Some little kids in black and white uniforms crossed a street in front of us.

            “Look at the little Mickey Mouse kids,” said Cleve as they passed.

            As we walked along a wall along a sidewalk, we saw kids’ shoes hanging by their laces from limbs of a tree, on the other side of the wall.

            “That’s where the Mickey Mouse kids keep their shoes,” said Cleve.

            We wandered until we found ourselves again at Harry’s and spent that evening there and also the next evening.  Toshiko spoke little to me those evenings, but she introduced me to her sister Suzuku, who tended bar while Toshiko did things I thought were more managerial.  I talked with Suzuku and put my high school class ring on one of her thumbs and left it there.

The next evening the newspaper called Cleve away from the others and spoke with him.

“She asked me how much money we have left?” he asked me after their conversation.

            We had too little to pay our bill, but the newspaper paid it for us, and we left the bar.

            “I gave her some money to hold onto for me in case we needed it,” said Cleve outside.

            The next day was my 21st birthday.  I didn’t have enough cash to buy another bottle of Suntory but bought a bottle of Tori.  Cleve had told me it was a cheap kind of Suntory, and I didn’t enjoy it as much, but we drank it.

            In the afternoon, to celebrate my having reached drinking age, we drank a shot of it at a small tall table of the hotel’s small lobby bar.  We also bought some Wolf Brothers Crook cigars and smoked a couple of them on the hotel’s roof, and we gave one to a soldier who rose to the roof and told he was on R&R as we smoked them, and we told him we were writers.  For lunch the next day we ate spaghetti and meatballs at the USO because Cleve had learned we wouldn’t have to pay for it.

            The next morning, on our way back to Vietnam, I lit another cigar.  But a stewardess told me to put it out and didn’t laugh when I told her the no-smoking light wasn’t on.  She said I should consider the other passengers.

            Back in Vietnam, we hitched a ride in a ¾ ton truck from the Cam Ranh Bay airbase to our company, and the soldier to whom we’d given the cigar was also in the truck.

            “I thought you guys said you were writers,” he said.

            “We are,” I said.

            “Yeah,” he said as Cleve remained silent.  “Right.”

            We arrived in our company area in midmorning, and Sergeant Green had told us to go to work as soon as we returned, and I did.  My crew behaved as though I’d never been away, but I felt as though I’d never been there, and I couldn’t remember my job.  A Spec. 4 from the 57th Ordnance Battalion entered the Quonset hut and stood at my window.  He picked up his battalion’s distribution nearly every day.  But I didn’t recognize him.

            “What can I do for you?” I asked rising from my desk and stepping to the counter.

            “My distribution,” he said staring at me.

            “Would somebody help this guy?” I said.

            “This must be what insanity is,” I thought and turned and walked out the back door.

            “I think I’m going crazy,” I told Cleve when I found him after climbing the hill behind the PSC and walking across the sand back to the company area, and he looked at me and sneered and turned and walked away.

            Before chow that evening I thought I’d returned to my ordinary way of thinking, but things in my company never returned to what they’d been before I went to Tokyo, becoming more like what I’d expected from life before arriving in Vietnam.

            Cleve spent less time with me and more with two guys from Hawaii who had joined the company and slept in a tent with an elaborate stereo system on a slope above the other tents.  Willie Dye had left our company and joined one between the 518th and the NCO Club, and I visited him in his tent there and listened as he talked about jazz and played a recording of Herby Hancock, but we didn’t leave his tent to smoke any dope.  I bought Judy Collins’ album In My Life and played it on Reinke’s record player, and I thought it told the history of humanity if one played its second side before playing its first side, and Cleve and I took it to the tent of the former history teacher who had been seasick on the troop ship.

            “I guess you could see it that way,” he said.

            “Fucking history teacher,” I said and wept.

            “He’ll be alright,” said Cleve leading me out of the tent, leaving the album on the turntable and saying nothing to me outside.

            Rain fell for three months.  Instead of a First Sergeant, our company had a sergeant first class in that position, and the one with whom we arrived returned to the United States.  Sergeant Carrino, the one who replaced him, walked about the Personnel Service Center carrying a saw and other tools to repair anything the water broke, as most of the rest of us filled and stacked sandbag to keep the rain from washing our office tents and Quonset huts into the bay.

            And we all liked Carrino until he ordered us to rid our tents of the furniture we had built.  He said it wasn’t uniform enough for military standards and promised us Army-issue wall lockers and footlockers.  We protested by piling our creations on the sand between our tents and the generator and marching in a line around our tents while singing “Silent Night.”

            Carrino, to keep us from turning the pile into a bonfire, gave an M-14 to a Spec. 4 whose name was something like Torrelini and ordered him to guard the pile from us at port arms with no magazine in it.  We chose not to give the kid a hard time and returned to our ordinary evening patterns of behavior.  And Carrino provided the wall lockers but not the footlockers.

            The footlockers were in some of the PSC’s ConEx containers, but Sergeant Green had decided that they’d serve well as file archives, and that we didn’t need them in our tents.  But Reinke asked me whether my key to the padlock on the ConEx container with the office supplies in it fit the padlocks on all the PSC’s ConEx containers.  And I took his hint.

            I led an expedition with Taylor driving the mail truck and Reinke and Strickland riding along to help load it.  My key did fit, and we stole enough footlockers for our tent, and the next day Sergeant Green proved the character I felt he had.  He ordered delivery of the footlockers to the other squad tents without a word to me.

            But next Carrino announced that the lieutenant who was acting as our Company Commander, while the lieutenant colonel who was officially our Company Commander commanded the Personnel Service Center, had decided that we should guard our company area and work area and that the Spec. 5’s would act as sergeants of the guard.  Because the Navy and the Air Force guarded the peninsula, we clerks hadn’t thought we needed to guard our part of it, but ours was not to reason why but to follow orders.  So I found myself Sergeant of the Guard on Reinke’s birthday, and Cleve found himself a guard, and I made him Supernumerary.

            “Cleve,” I said after the acting Company Commander, who was acting as Officer of the Day, turned the guards over to me, without inspecting them, “you’re Super.”

            But Cleve didn’t go back to our tent.  He sat in the orderly tent with me, and Reinke and Strickland and Taylor brought us some of the alcoholic stuff they’d mixed for Reinke’s birthday, in brown plastic tumblers every Army mess hall had then.  I didn’t care what it was or that I shouldn’t have drunk alcohol on guard duty.

            “Here comes Carrino,” said Taylor looking out the screen door.

            I sat my drink on the floor beneath a desk and sat on the desk.

            “Everything quiet?” asked Carrino as he stepped into the tent.

            “Everything’s quiet,” I said as he looked down at my drink.

            He looked from the drink to me, then looked at each of the others in the tent, and turned and left the tent saying nothing more.  I was so drunk by the end of the first four-hour guard shift that I sat down behind the tent and leaned back against its sandbag walls and passed out.  Cleve changed the guards twice before I awoke with a pack of dogs staring at me.

            I stood up slowly, and the dogs turned and went away, and I walked around to the front of the tent and into it and found Cleve sitting at one of the desks reading a book.

            “Thanks, Cleve,” I said to no reply.

            But he introduced me to a new guy in the company who didn’t sleep in our tent.  He was from Maine, and his name was Walter Batchelder, and he was tall and fat in thick glasses with thick black plastic frames.  Cleve said he was alright.

            “We should build a sluice between here and the Class VI store,” said Batchelder.  “It’d save us all these trips, but a problem is that it’s uphill from there.”

            I liked him and agreed to go to Hong Kong with him for R&R, but by then I was also spending some time with the guys from Hawaii, one of whom was tall and blond and made me think of the Beach Boys while the other was smaller and had dark hair.  We called the smaller one Robby, and few of us new his name was Andre Robinson, until he told us he’d received letters from some second-graders.  Then he told us his first name and said one of the second-grade girls asked him whether he was a boy or a girl.

            One Sunday, some of us lined up naked at one end of the row of ConEx along our supply tent and climbed on top of them and jumped from one onto the sand below it, where Robby lay on his back taking pictures with a 35 mm camera.

            Our trips to the village weren’t enough to keep us from being desperately horny, and one night I went to the showers alone and showered with the cold water from the 55 gallon drums on top of the wooden building we’d built, and after showering I lay on my back on one of the wooden benches and masturbated with soap while fearing someone might enter and see that.

            And Cleve and I, who sometimes drank after the others had turned off the lights in our tent and gone to sleep, developed a habit of masturbating while sitting side by side against the sandbags that walled the back of our tent.  And one night we did it while leaning against the sandbags of a bunker on a hill behind the latrines.  We could see tracers streaking red in the air above the mainland across the bay.

            “Maybe we could help each other,” I said.

            “I’m not going to do that,” replied Cleve.

            But soon Cleve’s tour ended.  He left the next evening I was Sergeant of the Guard.  As I stood outside the screen door of the orderly tent, he walked down the boardwalk from the tents to where Taylor waited to drive him to the air base, and I waved farewell to him.  His duffle bag was on his right shoulder, and he lifted his left hand and showed me the back of it, with only its middle finger open from his fist.  He was through with Vietnam.

            But I was still there and still horny.  I slept nude, partly because of the heat, but partly because I was horny.  The morning after Cleve left, while I was trying to sleep after guard duty, I used my sheets only to cover the parts of my body my boxer shorts would have covered had I slept in them.  Strickland had hired a pregnant woman to keep our tent clean and do our laundry, but a girl who wasn’t pregnant spent much time with the pregnant woman in our tent during work days, and I imagined her giving me a “special.”  She didn’t, but time for the trip to Hong Cong arrived, and I hoped for relief there.

            I sold my camera to another guy in the company, and I hit a jackpot on a slot machine at the NCO club two nights before we left, and so I landed in Hong Kong with about $500 in cash.  With hundreds of others, we sat in a room at the R&R center for nearly an hour listening to a major tell us how to deal with prostitutes, to avoid diseases and to avoid paying more than the ordinary rate.  At the Park Hotel, a high rise hotel in the center of Hong Kong, a woman took us into an office and required us to pay in advance for our five nights there.

            Batchelder asked her to recommend a tailor.  I hadn’t returned my sports jacket in Yokohama, but buying suits was something we’d heard people ordinarily did in Hong Cong, and the woman told us she’d send a tailor to Batchelder’s room.  The tailor showed us samples of fabrics and pictures of suits, and each of us ordered two suits from him for delivery the next day, and Batchelder asked him to get him a woman.  He said he’d send one to the hotel’s bar, and I went with Batchelder to the bar to wait for her, and we found another woman there sitting alone.  I sat beside her as Batchelder sat on my other side.

            “You’re a friss cross young man,” she said to me after we’d talked a few minutes.

            “I think she means ‘first class’,” said Batchelder when I asked her what she meant.

            She said her name was Elizabeth, and she invited us to go with her to a private club, after the tailor brought the woman for Batchelder.  Outside we found a taxi, and Elizabeth told its driver where to take us, and she led us into an elevator and pushed a button in it.  When its door opened again, we followed her across a hallway, and she pushed a button beside a door.

A panel beside the door slid up, and a man behind the counter behind the panel asked us our names, and Batchelder told him his.  The man wrote it in a book and on a card and gave the card to Batchelder.  Then he turned to me with his pen in his hand above the book.

            “Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald,” I said.

            “Alright Mr. Fitzgerald,” he said after writing that name in the book and on a card he gave to me and pushing a button to unlock the door, “go right in.”

            We sat in deep soft chairs at a low table and ordered drinks.

            “She’s old,” Batchelder whispered to me, leaning away from the woman the tailor had brought.  “I wonder how I can get rid of her.”

            I leaned to Elizabeth and passed the inquiry to her.

            “Okay,” she said.  “I take care of it.”

            She led the other woman to a corner of the room and talked with her.

“She say we have to give her taxi money,” she said returning to the table but leaving the other woman in the corner, and Batchelder gave her the amount she named.

It was less than what the major had said was the ordinary price of a prostitute, and the woman left without returning to the table, after Elizabeth took the cash to her.  After a couple of drinks at the club, Elizabeth and I left Batchelder on the street in front of its building, and I spent the night with Elizabeth in her apartment.   I licked her vagina and detected no smell.

            Next morning I asked her why her vagina didn’t smell like one, and she showed me a jar of Massengill douche powder and told me to call her Liz, and she invited me to spend the remaining nights of my R&R with her.  I gave her some cash to buy me a couple of bottles of Johnny Walker Red Label scotch, and I went to the hotel for refund of the cash I’d paid for four nights I wouldn’t stay there, and the woman I’d paid required me to give her the address of where I’d be instead.  But she gave me the refund, and from her office I went up to Batchelder’s hotel room, to accept delivery of my new suits.

            The tailor hadn’t rounded the corners of the lapels as I’d had asked him to do, to accord with pictures I’d seen in Playboy magazine, and I asked him to make the changes.  He said he’d need an hour to make them, and Batchelder and I drank Batchhelder’s scotch in Batchelder’s room, until the tailor returned.  Then, in our new suits, we went to Liz’s apartment.

            I asked her to recommend a restaurant, and she took us to a large one on a high floor of a high rise building, and we joined others at a large rectangular table with a white table cloth at a window through which we could see the harbor.  I talked with everyone at the table and paid everyone’s bill, and Liz told me in her apartment that I shouldn’t have done that, and I understood when I counted my cash.  I had less than fifty dollars remaining.

“I thought you friss cross young man,” she said.
 

 

 

Chapter 16

Coming Home

 

But she didn’t ask me to return the key she’d given me, and most of my eating and drinking in my remaining time in Hong Cong was the scotch she’d bought and fried rice she brought home, and I slept on the bed as she slept on the sofa.

            And she introduced me to her son whose name she said was Johnny.  He played on the living room floor with a big plastic toy .50 caliber machine gun that made noises and threw sparks.  Elizabeth said his father was a GI and had given him the gun.

            I saw Batchelder but once between the dinner  and our returning to Vietnam.  We saw the floating market as we crossed to Kowloon to look for the Pier One bar Cleve had told us was there.  We didn’t find it, but we drank in a bar in a basement near where Cleve had told us it was, and I played on the jukebox the Beatles’ song “Hey Jude”.  And I asked Batchelder to lend me a hundred dollars.

            “No,” he said, but he paid for my drink there and in the Playboy Bar on Hong Kong Island, where we went next and sat beside a bar girl with long black hair and large breasts, and I helped him negotiate with her as the major at the R&R center had said we should.

            “You were right,” he said at the R&R center while we were awaiting our flight back to Vietnam. “Her pussy didn’t stink either.”

            Back in Vietnam, as we sat with others at a table beneath the back flaps of the tent beside mine, he showed everyone there a picture he had taken of me with Liz on her sofa.  That shamed me because in the picture she seemed to me older and uglier than I remembered her to be.  And the next downhill change for me was that a kid from Louisiana took Cleve’s cot.

            “Jambalaya, horse shit pie, mother fucker,” he sang as he strummed on a cheap guitar he’d brought to Vietnam, and his first time on guard duty he passed the time stabbing with his bayonet sandbags we had filled in the rain, and he snuck out of the company area nights to crawl beneath the concertina wire around the village to call on a prostitute he told us he married, and he made several trips to the Cam Ranh Bay dispensary to wait in lines longer than the building for treatment of whatever disease he contracted.

            On my last visit to the village, I looked for the girl with the big breasts, but I couldn’t find her.  I wandered from shack to shack with others of my tent until I found a girl I thought pretty enough and ejaculated before my penis was entirely inside her.  I tried to act as though I hadn’t and tried to do it again until I saw dismay on her face and quit trying.

            I used a condom, but I had a sore on my penis the next day, and I stood in line at the dispensary and asked a doctor whether I had syphilis.  He said the sore wasn’t syphilis but a herpetic lesion, and he prescribed tetracycline and told me to take a pill of it every day for thirty days, and not to drink alcoholic or carbonated beverages during those thirty days.  Because I seldom drank them, I drank no carbonated beverages, but I didn’t stop drinking beer.

            Two other troops who replaced people who had come to Vietnam with me on the ship were graduates of Duke University.  They had enlisted in the Army to attend Officer Candidate School and become officers rather than await the draft and become privates.  But they dropped out of OCS and arrived in Vietnam as PFC’s.

            Both claimed to be Christian, but one of them showed us a towel and said it was his girlfriend, although he didn’t drink alcohol or smoke marijuana.  He didn’t use the prostitutes in the village, but he won a contest at the USO and spent three days at an in-country R&R center, and he returned saying he’d lost his virginity.  Still he didn’t booze or smoke, but by then my count of pot smokers in the company had increased from about a half dozen at Fort Dix to most of the company at Cam Ranh Bay, and Ralph Poisson had received a medical discharge for chronic gonorrhea he contracted before arriving in Vietnam, and Ken Harmon had gone to the boonies early in our time there, as punishment for behavior similar to the Louisiana boy’s.

            So I submitted a 1049 requesting to spend the rest of my time in Vietnam in the boonies as a tunnel rat.  I was ready to move on, and a directive came to us ordering reclassifying to combat engineering anyone with a military occupational specialty in armor but not performing in it, and my secondary MOS was armor because of my training at Fort Knox.  Tunnel rats were combat engineers who crawled into tunnels Vietnamese dug, to disarm any booby traps the Vietnamese might have put in them, and I thought that might excite me.  The PSC’s Personnel Management Officer disapproved my 1049, citing a regulation saying the Army could use anyone however it wished, to meet its needs in a combat zone.  But I kept looking for trouble.

Our Assistant Supply Sergeant acquired some steaks from the Navy and organized a big barbecue on the sand above our tents.  Drunk at the barbecue, some of us began tearing shirts from one another, and some tore my red shirt from me.  So I decided to tear the colonel’s shirt from him and tried to recruit some assistance.

            “Alright,” I said when they refused to help me.  “I’ll do it myself.”

            “He must have a sense of humor,” I said when they restrained me.

            I didn’t persist, but a few nights later I picked a fight with a cook, a short guy with tattoos who had a habit of insulting guys bigger than he was.  The big guys restrained themselves from knocking down someone smaller than they.  So I decided to do it for them.

            I heard the guy, whose name was Pearson, mouthing off to one of them behind my tent, and I rose from my lawn chair and set down my beer, and went outside.

            “Hey, Pearson,” I said to him, “why don’t you pick on somebody your own size.”

            “What’s your problem?” he said turning from the big guy to me.

            “You’re an asshole,” I said.  “And I think that’s everybody’s problem.”

            “I don’t want any trouble from you,” he said waving his hands in the air in front of him.

            But I kept insulting him as a crowd gathered.  Sergeant Green walked past and looked at us but didn’t stop to stop us.  And at last I found an insult that provoked Pearson.

            “You’re a fucking coward,” I said.

            One of his fists hit my mouth.  Because my mouth wasn’t open, my teeth didn’t do the damage they did in Florida, and I responded by punching his face with both of my fists.  He fell to his knees and begged me to stop, with his hands over his head, as I had in Panama City.

I let him return to his feet but applied a takedown I’d learned wrestling in high school.  I tried to pin him, but he managed to get his legs around me, and he locked me in a scissor hold.  I returned to my feet, with him hanging from my waist, and I swung his head against one of the supply room’s ConEx containers.  The crowd groaned at the sound of his head hitting the metal, and he loosened his lock on me, and dropped to the ground.  He rose to his feet but waved his hands in the air again apologizing.

            “Let’s go to the mess hall and eat some ice cream,” he said.

            We did, and the crowd disbursed, and that ended the fight.

But, as I returned to my tent, I saw Carrino entering the tent where the junior NCO’s slept, and I thought he might be there to deal with the fight, and I followed him in.

            “You’re drunk,” he said when I began to talk.  “Go to bed.”

            And he repeated the instruction when I tried to keep talking.

            At work next morning, Sergeant Green called me to his desk, but he said nothing to me about the fight.

            “The general’s coming to see the PSC,” he said.  “Do you think you can build the colonel a coffee table?”

            So I scrounged up some Masonite and some scrap lumber and sat in the sand beside the back door of the Quonset hut designing and building a little coffee table.  The PSC’s Personnel Actions Quonset hut was beside ours, and the warrant officer who headed the team in it stepped from it and walked past ours, as I worked on the coffee table.  He stopped and spoke.

            “Hey, Harman,” he said stopping and turning and looking down at me.  “I hear you gave Pearson a boxing lesson last night.”

            “Oh no, sir,” I said looking up.  “I don’t think so.”

            “Well,” said the Personnel Actions Officer, “He was wearing sunglasses in the chow line this morning for some reason.”

            I shrugged.  He walked on.  I finished the table.

            The company provided transportation to work in the back of a deuce and a half, but many of us preferred to walk the half mile of sand from our company area past the tents of the senior NCO’s and junior officers, to smoke some dope before sliding down the hill of sand to the PSC.  One morning, as I slid down the hill, I saw Sergeant Green standing in front of a ConEx container watching a crane unload crates from a deuce and a half.  I stopped beside him.

            “Look at that,” he said pointing up at the crane.

            “Yeah,” I said gazing at the crane.

            He turned and looked at me but said nothing more.

            But, for lunch, I rode the deuce and a half to the company area, and a new kid in the company irritated me more than Pearson had, by squatting instead of sitting, and wincing as he squatted.  And that evening he was in our tent talking to Reinke.  And I started insulting him.

            “You think you can take me?” he asked striding to my cot after ignoring me for a few minutes, but I sat silent beer in hand as he shook his head and walked away.

            I, like Cleve, had finished with Vietnam, and that proved itself also at work one morning, as I sat at my desk.  The back door to the Quonset hut was open, as it nearly always was while we worked in hope of a breeze, and a young woman walked through it.  And she wasn’t Vietnamese.

Her hair was auburn, above the blue stripes of a Red Cross uniform, and her legs below it were dusty but bare above a pair of brown penny loafers.  And I hadn’t seen a Caucasian woman since before I boarded the ship in Oakland.  Except a few stewardesses.

            “Who’s in charge?” she asked Strickland, and Strickland pointed at me.

            She walked to my desk and began to speak, but the sight of her took so much of my attention that I couldn’t understand her words, and I could say nothing.  I stood, literally shaking in my jungle boots the sergeant major had passed on to me from the Assistant Supply Sergeant, who had scrounged a few pair our station on the sand didn’t authorize for us.  And I walked around the partition and past Sergeant Green’s desk to Mr. Wright’s desk as she followed me.

            “He’s in charge,” I told her nodding at Mr. Wright, and I returned to my desk.

            And I was otherwise getting sillier.  I was vaguely aware of the civil rights movement then at a peak in the United States, and my teachers in nearly all white Coldwater had told me that all men were created equal, and I decided to prove it to Sergeant Green.  Cleve didn’t like Sergeant Green, maybe because he’d given him some warnings when he’d transferred to our company from one he’d left under some kind of cloud, and he mocked him for pronouncing “laundry” as “lundry.”  But I liked him, and I walked to the senior NCO tent, and knocked on its screen door.  I wished to show him that few of us blamed him for being African American.

            A party was going in one of our tents, and I invited him to come see how we behaved at night, and he accepted.  We walked across the sand back to the junior enlisted tents, and I led him to the entrance to the one with the party, but I didn’t go inside.  I stood outside pointing.

            “See how black people and white people get along here?” I said.

            He nodded and turned back toward his tent as I joined the party.

I again requested admission to Wayne State University, but my motive wasn’t that it was in a largely African American city, but for what the Army called an early out for school.  Army regulation permitted separation thirty days before college enrollment if it wasn’t more than ninety days before expiration of enlistment.  Wayne State accepted me, and the enrollment date was thirty days before my enlistment expiration, and the Army approved my request.

            I told my tent mates I was a short-timer and didn’t go to work next day.  I drank a can of beer after breakfast as I ordinarily did, and then I drank another one and then another, and I did that all day.  My replacement had already arrived, and I knew no one needed me in the office, but I didn’t care.  And, since no one that evening asked me why I hadn’t gone to work, I tried it again the next day.  But, at about midmorning, Sergeant Green entered the tent.

            “You’d better get your ass to work,” he said looking down at me and my beer in my lawn chair, and he turned and left the tent.

I finished the can of beer and walked across the sand.  I found my replacement sitting at my desk and sat in a chair beside it.  He had told us he was from a tiny town in Tennessee, and he’d shown us a picture he said a girl had sent him of herself sitting naked on a bed, and he’d stood naked on top of his footlocker and pulled his foreskin out from his penis.

            “I’ve got the longest, skinniest dick,” he said.

            While I was training him, a Mexican replacement taught me profanity in Spanish, but now I sat beside my desk and pointed out every mistake I saw my replacement make.

            “Fuck you,” he responded.  “You think you’re so God damned smart.”

            “Harman,” said Sergeant Green from the other side of the partition.

            I walked around the partition and stood in front of his desk.

            “Let’s go for a ride,” he said rising from his chair behind it.

            He drove us in the colonel’s jeep to new office buildings engineers were building for us while they were also building two-story wooden barracks for us.  Sergeant Green got out of the jeep and walked into one of the new one-story wooden office buildings.  I followed him.

            “We need some interior walls to insulate the air-conditioning,” he said.  “You can use that pile of plywood out front.  You don’t have to be in a big hurry.  You’ve got 28 days.”

            The job required 24 sheets of plywood.  The sheets were four feet by eight feet, and the ceiling beams were seven feet above the concrete floor, and the studs were sixteen inches apart.  So all I had to do was saw a foot from one end of each sheet of plywood and nail it to the studs.

I cut and nailed one sheet of plywood per day for 24 days, and I spent the remainder of each of those days drinking beer in my lawn chair in my tent, and no one inspected my work or complained about what I did in my time beyond the less than an hour a day I spent doing it.

            One evening of those 24 days, Sergeant Green came to my tent and told me all the company was to form near the bulletin board next morning before work, and that I had to be there.  It was a Monday morning, and I wore red socks Monday mornings because I’d once seen Ronald Philip Daniel Long, a guy in the company who called himself Arpediel for his four initials, wearing red socks.  He said they were his Monday socks.

            “Pull your blousing rubbers down to your boots,” said Sergeant Green as I stood in the formation waiting for the lieutenant acting as our Company Commander to come up from the orderly tent and call us to attention, and he pointed to my socks visible between my trousers and my boots, and I pulled them down and waited a few seconds, and pulled them up again.

            “Shit,” I said after Sergeant Green and I went through that sequence several times.  “I hope I’m not getting the Army Commendation Medal.”

            “We tried to get it for you,” he said.  “But they said they were giving away too many.”

            My trouser bottoms were up when the lieutenant called us to attention and called me to the front of the formation, and I stepped back from my rank and walked to him and saluted as I had learned to do in basic training and at the 3d Armored Division Noncommissioned Officer Academy, and he frowned and gave me a Certificate of Achievement.

I spent my last evening in Vietnam playing poker in my tent.  We used the head of my cot as a table, and I lost and borrowed twenty dollars from Strickland, promising to repay him in Detroit.  Sergeant Green entered the tent and stopped at my cot and looked down at me.

            “You’re spending your last night here playing poker?” he said.

            I shrugged.

            “Well,” he said.  “Best of luck to you.  It’s been a pleasure.”

            I rose and shook the hand he offered.  He left the tent, and I lost that hand of poker also, and Taylor drove me to the airbase.  Reinke and Strickland and some of the others rode along and bade me farewell as we shook hands there.

            “We don’t have time for that,” said a Spec. 4 stepping from a building.

            “Fuck you,” Reinke said, and I followed the Spec. 4 into the building.

            The plane landed at McChord Air Force Base.  We returnees walked from it to an Army bus, which took us to a mess hall at Fort Lewis, Washington.  There, the Army fed us steaks, but I had eaten plenty of steaks in Vietnam.

            What I appreciated was the fresh cold milk from the big stainless steel dispenser.  The milk in our mess hall in Vietnam was in little cardboard carton cartons saying it was “reconstituted,” and I had winced every time I took a sip of it, expecting the aftertaste.  I made at least a dozen trips to the dispenser to refill my brown plastic tumbler.

            Next morning, I collected nearly five hundred dollars in final Army pay, and I changed into civilian clothes and threw my big black Leeds flight bag into a taxi.

            “Do you know of a cheap hotel downtown?” I asked the driver.

            Kerouac published a chapter of Desolation Angels separately from the novel and called it “Seattle Burlesque.”  In the book, the hero tires of watching for forest fires on top of a mountain and deserts the mountain for the excitement of the city below it and goes to a theatre to see some strippers, and I had read a copy of the book Cleve loaned me.  After checking into the hotel, I walked around Seattle’s central business district seeking a burlesque house, but I didn’t find one.

            “Can you find me a prostitute?” I asked another taxi driver.

            He drove me to a street with much light and many black people.

            “Are you sporting, honey?” he asked a tall thin woman.

            She nodded and climbed into the taxi, sitting beside the driver, as I sat in the back seat.

            “Do you want me to wait for you?” he asked me as I paid him in front of a big house.

            “Yes,” I said, and I followed the woman up a walk and onto the porch of the house.

            Before ringing the doorbell, she asked me to pay her in advance, and inside she gave some of the cash to a man sitting with a woman and some children at a dining table.  I followed her into a bedroom where she removed her panties and lifted her skirt and lay on her back across the bed and spread her legs.  I lowered my pants and put my penis in her vagina and leaned my face toward hers.

            “No kissing,” she said turning her face away, and I finished and left the old house.

            The taxi driver hadn’t waited, and I walked toward the lights of the little neighborhood business district, past two other African American women walking toward me.

            “You’d better zip up your pants,” said one of them.  “Your stuff’s going to fall out.”

            Next morning, I bought a map of the United States and found on the map a highway heading east from Seattle, and I saw a sign saying that the street on which I stood was that highway.  I looked at the sun, to see which way on the street was east, and I pointed a thumb in that direction.  A few minutes later a red Chevrolet Impala convertible stopped in front of me.

            “Where you headed?” the driver asked me.

            “Michigan,” I told him.

            “I can take you to Pendleton,” he replied.

            I didn’t know where Pendleton was, but I supposed he wouldn’t have offered to take me there, were it not in the direction of Michigan.  I threw my bag onto the back seat and climbed into the front seat and looked at the car’s odometer.  It said four miles.  .

            “I’m going to the rodeo there,” said the driver as he pulled away from the curb.

            On the freeway, he asked me to open the glove compartment, and in it were a pint of whiskey and some plastic cups.

            “Pour yourself a drink,” he said.

            “No, thanks,” I said.  “I’m okay.”

            “Mind pouring me one?” he said.

            I poured some of the whiskey into one of the small plastic cups and handed it to him.  He emptied the cup in one gulp and threw it onto the floor in front of him and took the bottle from me and took a swig and put the bottle between his legs.  He accelerated to 110 miles per hour, and he kept our speed at about that for most of the remaining more than 200 miles to Pendleton, Oregon.

            I also easily caught a ride in Pendleton.  Crossing Idaho I saw every kind of scenery I’d ever seen in the United States.  And I saw a sign beside the road that resembled a no-passing sign but gave another instruction.

            “Sage brush is free,” it offered.  “Stuff some in your car.”

            And no policeman bothered me until I reached Wyoming.

            As I stood thumbing, a little after midnight on the main street of a small town a few miles south of Cheyenne, a police car stopped in front of me.  A wide policeman with grey hair in a Smokey the Bear hat climbed out of the car.  He looked down at my big bag.

            “You probably won’t get a ride tonight,” he said.  “There’s a hotel down the street.”

            “I’d rather keep trying,” I said, “if it’s alright with you.”

            “I know what the problem is,” he said as he looked again at my bag and back at me.

            He looked down the street toward the hotel, but he pointed a thumb behind him and turned his head in the direction in which his thumb pointed, before looking again at me.

            “There’s a Laundromat over there,” he said.  “I usually lock it up at about this time, but you can pull a couple of benches together and get some sleep, if you want to.  I’ll come and check on you in a few hours.”

            “Thanks,” I said supposing his suggestion was because he didn’t know I had more than $400 in twenty dollar-bills in my bag, and he climbed back into the patrol car and drove away.

            No car passed me in the next half hour, and I picked up my bag and walked across the street, and pulled a couple of wooden benches together and tried to sleep.  At about 4:00 a.m. I heard the door opening.  I opened my eyes.

            “Oh,” said the policeman leaning through the door.  “Okay.  Just checking on you.”

            I arose and returned to the street and caught a ride to Minneapolis.  In Minneapolis I caught a ride to Chicago, where I spent some of my separation pay to check into the Mark Twain Hotel, at the beginning of Rush Street.  I showered and walked up Rush Street and up steps from the street to the entrance to a strip joint.

            “Got any ID?” asked a man at the door, and I showed him my tank driver’s license from Fort Knox.

            “This isn’t good enough,” he said returning it to me and looking away.

            I felt I was beginning to weep.  I had heard in Vietnam that topless bars had become a fad in the United States, and Strickland had written a letter to San Francisco’s topless dancer Carol Doda and made thermofax copies of the photograph she’d signed and sent to him, and given one to each of his tent mates.  But I couldn’t find a Seattle burlesque, and I was now old enough to drink legally in the United States, but this guy was refusing to let me do it in Chicago.

But I remembered my DD214, my Armed Forces of the United States Report of Transfer or Discharge, which I had folded and put in my Moroccan leather wallet I’d bought at the PX at Fort Knox where I bought Peggy’s Kools, and I took it out of the wallet and unfolded it and handed it to the doorman, and he looked at it and handed it back to me and opened the door.

            I drank a scotch on the rocks at the bar and watched a woman dancing behind a cloth that was translucent enough to show her shape but not transparent enough to show whether she was in clothing.  I returned to the shoddy old hotel and tried to catch up with the sleep I’d missed hitchhiking.  The telephone on the stand beside the bed awakened me.

            “It’s checkout time,” I heard when I picked it up.

            “I’m staying another night,” I responded.

            “You have to pay in advance,” the caller replied.

            “I’ll be down in a few minutes,” I replied.

            “I’ll send someone up,” he told me and hung up.

            I sat on the bed and waited until I heard a knock on the door and opened it and found a black man standing outside.

            “How much is it?” I asked him.

            “25 dollars,” he told me, and I had no fives.

            “Do you have change?” I asked as I showed him a twenty and a ten.

            “I’ll bring it to you,” he said as he took them.

            I slept until I awoke with no help.

            I asked the white desk clerk where the black man was, and I told him he’d promised to bring me my change but hadn’t, but he told me he didn’t know whom I meant.  I stepped out to the street and walked with no particular destination until I saw the Marshall Fields department store and decided to buy a winter coat and told a salesman that I’d been in Vietnam for a year and didn’t know the current fashions.  He recommended a camel-colored car coat with toggle buttons and a hood, but I bought a black and gray herringbone one with a faux fur lining and collar, and that night I drank in a few bars with no dancers.

            Next morning I saw a sign on Michigan Avenue saying it was U.S. 12.  I stuck out a thumb, and a few hours later a patrol car stopped in front of me near Three Rivers, Michigan.  The Deputy Sheriff in it rolled down a window.

            “Got any ID?” he asked me, and I handed him my DD 214.

            He looked at it much longer than had the Rush Street doorman.

            “You did alright for yourself,” he said handing it back to me.

            My next ride was to the western limit of Coldwater.  The driver turned off Chicago Street to go to a neighborhood on the channel behind the Willows Tavern.  I went into the tavern and sat at the bar and ordered the first bottle of beer I legally drank in Coldwater.

            A pay telephone was on the wall at the end of the bar where I sat.  I used it to call Atkinson because I wished to buy a car before I went to my mother’s house.  I had decided to use some of my savings to buy an Austin Healy Sprite like Jay’s in Fort Wayne.  Sandy had tried to accept Jays offer to sell his.  But her father told her to buy American.

            While I was talking to Atkinson Gale Richardson and Linda Tupalek came into the tavern and sat in a banquette.  Gale had owned my Austin of England before my mother bought it from the used car lot, and Linda was a daughter of my sixth grade teacher whose husband owned Coldwater’s Lincoln and Mercury dealership, but both had ignored me in high school.  They greeted me as though they hadn’t, and I took my beer to the banquette and awaited Atkinson with them, but the conversation was sparse.  Atkinson stood while I gulped the last of my beer and bade them farewell.  He said nothing to them.

            And he seemed to me to be reluctant to let me spend the night at his home.  His mother had died, and his father had married a woman who had a son and lived on a farm a few miles from town, and Atkinson was attending Olivet College and commuting the forty miles.  He seemed to me to be proud both of his new little brother and of his father’s hiding whiskey all over the house because his new wife preferred that he not drink.

            His father had given him the Plymouth Belvedere he’d bought when he gave him the old DeSoto, and Atkinson also seemed to me reluctant to let me borrow it to go to Battle Creek to buy the Sprite from the dealership where I’d bought the crank for the Austin, but he did.  I drove him to Olivet and drove myself back to Coldwater for cash from my savings account and drove myself on to Battle Creek.  But the dealership had closed.

            So I found a Volkswagen dealership and bought from the showroom floor a red beetle with whitewall tires but no radio.  The sticker price, plus the sales tax and registration fees, was $1884.32.  And that’s what I paid.

            “Where did you get the cash?” asked the salesman as I counted 95 twenty-dollar bills from the stack I’d withdrawn from my savings account.

            “I saved it in Vietnam,” I told him.

            “Do you have insurance?” he asked.

            He drove me to an insurance agency while others prepared the car for delivery.

            “Can I leave that car here for a few hours?” I asked him of Atkinson’s Plymouth.

            I drove to my mother’s house and showed everyone there my new car.  I drank a few bottles of my mother’s beer and drove to Olivet to pick up Atkinson.  I drove him to Battle Creek and left him at his car and returned to Coldwater to find David.

            I named the car Jenny Rebecca and called it Jenny, for a song on a Barbra Streisand album I’d bought in Vietnam, which had an unplayable track because Reinke had let a cigarette burn on its cover while the record was in it.

            “Jenny Rebecca,” said the song, “four days old.  What a lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky girl you are.”

            The next day, I went to Alice Harris’s home and drove her to a Howard Johnson’s in Battle Creek, and bought us lunch of fried clams.  As we ate she told me she had received an invitation to Connie’s wedding.  She invited me to go with her.

            “It says ‘Miss Alice Harris and friend,’” she said.  “Do you want to be my friend?”

            I accepted and drove her home and went to the basement of Branch’s department store, Coldwater’s only store with an elevator, to buy Connie a wedding gift.  I had no notion what to buy, and so I asked the old lady working there for advice, and she recommended a CorningWare casserole dish across an aisle from the grab bag.   The grab bag was a box of packages with writing on the wrapping telling the price and the general category of merchandise in them.  I remembered Peggy and me spending our two bits allowance on them several times after riding the elevator for fun.  But I bought the casserole dish.

            The wedding was at the new Lutheran church on the corner between the high school and the school where I’d learned to read.  The church was of brick and had little windows of different colors. I thought they were of Plexiglas and cheap. 

            “Are you friends of the bride or the groom?” an usher asked Alice and me before leading us to a pew on the right side of the aisle.

            As Connie walked down the aisle beside her father, she looked at me and dropped her head, in tears.

“Congratulations, Donovan,” I said to Connie’s father as I shook hands with him in the reception line.

            He didn’t reply, but I turned from him to Connie and received a kiss from her, like the one I’d received from her as she sat on her bicycle in her front yard on Washington Street.

            “Goodbye, Bill,” she said.

            With no reply I turned to her husband and offered him a hand.

            “Congratulations,” I said to him.  “You’re getting a great girl.”

            “Who are you?” he asked.

            “Never mind,” I replied releasing his hand and turning away.

I drove Alice to the reception in the basement of the Southern Michigan National Bank, but I left her outside after handing her the casserole dish the old lady at Branch’s had wrapped, and asking her to take it inside.         

That evening, I found Alice at home and drove her to the parking lot in front of another new church in Coldwater, one on a hill on U.S. 12 west of town near the cemeteries.

We kissed, and I fondled her breasts, but she declined to do more.

And I couldn’t guess why.

 

 

 

Chapter 17

1967

 

            The day after Connie’s wedding I drove to Detroit.  My Aunt Bertha let me use her upstairs bedroom, but two days after I arrived I rented a room across the John Lodge Expressway from Wayne State’s main campus, and I put my footlocker in Jenny and took it to the room.  It was on the second floor of a house, and the house’s only second-floor bathroom opened to the hallway outside the room, but in it were a double bed and a small kitchen area.

And I quickly found a part time job at the Good Housekeeping Shop downtown, helping the mail clerk for a few hours after my classes and helping file clerks for a few hours after that, and relieving the elevator operator for his breaks.

            It was an Otis elevator, and the name of its primary operator was Otis, and he operated it far more skillfully than did I.  I nearly never could stop it less than three inches from floor level.  So I nearly always had to tell the customers to watch their step.

The mail clerk’s name was Sammy, and he had but one eye and was African American, as was Otis.  Except one, all the file clerks were also African American, but their supervisor wasn’t.  And neither were any of the store’s managers.

            The night of my first pay check I drove to Chrysler Square and found a bar.  I sat near an African American at the bar and enjoined him in a conversation and asked him whether he knew any prostitutes.  He said he could find one, and I drove him around a few blocks until he did, and we took her to my room.  The guy who found her waited in the hallway.

            “Do you know what a hum job is?” I asked her in the bed.

            “No,” she said.  “What’s a hum job?”

            “You put my balls in your mouth and hum,” I told her.

She did and made me ejaculate by means of phallacio.

“Get dressed,” I said then.  “Let’s go.”

“I thought you wanted to fuck,” she told me as she dressed.

I had, but I thought her overweight, and her teeth were rotten.

She asked to use the restroom, and while she was in it the man in the hallway asked me to lend him the cash for him to take a turn, but I refused.  The next day I moved from the room to the apartment below it with a living room and a bathroom opening only to my apartment and the one behind it.  I once met the other tenant in it, and I heard him talking to himself through his door while I was in it, but it was more private than the upstairs room.

            I had a half hour break from work each evening, between helping Sammy and helping the file clerks, and I spent it at the bar next door to the store.  One evening, I found all the file clerks there sitting together at a big round table, and I joined them and drank a bottle of beer and talked with them.  I never again saw any of them outside the store, but the next Friday Sammy invited me to a party at the home of some friends of his, where people from all over their neighborhood ate what people call soul food, a lot of chicken and shrimp, and drank a lot.

All evening Sammy hit on an extremely large woman there.  She rejected him, but Monday at work he showed me a new coat of his like mine but without the faux fur, and he gave me the telephone number of a girl.  He said he’d told her about me.

            “She won’t go out with me,” he said.  “But she might go out with you.”

            I drove to Strickland’s parents’ home in a suburb and paid him his twenty dollars I’d lost at poker, and he told me the Viet Cong had attacked Cam Ranh Bay the month after I left, and that evening he and a friend of his went out drinking with me.

            I showed them my apartment and played some of a Barbra Streisand tape for them.  After that, I drank some beer with them in a bar I thought was too fancy, and I drove them back to Strickland’s parents’ house.  I told Strickland I knew a girl that might have a friend, and I suggested that we might double, and he accepted.  From work, while Sammy was delivering some mail, I called the telephone number he had given me.

            The girl invited me to her home and told me a friend of hers would be there to meet Strickland.  She was a somewhat short and pudgy Hispanic girl, and the friend was tall and not so pudgy and had short red hair, and I sat on the sofa with the Hispanic girl while Strickland and the other girl went into the kitchen.  The Hispanic girl rejected my kisses, but Strickland told me as I drove him home that the other girl had let him touch every part of her body, except her vagina.

            I never saw any of them again and tried to build friendships at the bar near Chrysler Square.  One night the woman who owned the bar asked me to give another woman in the bar a ride home.  I drove her to an apartment complex and sat kissing and talking with her in Jenny, and I asked her to invite me in, but she declined.  The next time I was in the bar its owner said little to me, but I talked with an old man there, who said he was a veteran.  He suggested we go to Canada, and I drove us across the bridge to Windsor, to a bar he recommended.

But we didn’t stay long.  The bar was cold, and I shivered all the time we took to drink one bottle of beer each, and I drove him back to Chrysler Square.  I gave him my address, and a few days later I received a note from him, asking me to pick up his things at the Chrysler Square bar and take them to him at the V. A. hospital.  The bar owner reluctantly gave me a cardboard box of things, and I took it to the hospital and talked with the old man for a few minutes, and he told me that he had pneumonia and that he’d been there for it before.

            I never saw him again, and I never went to that bar again, but I tried to make friends at work.  I stopped the elevator between floors, while the only other person in it was a short pudgy blond girl who had another office job at the store, and I asked her to go out with me after work.  She said she would, but she refused to talk to me when I went to her office to pick her up, and the other women working in the office stared at me until I hulked out of the office.

            I had decided to major in English and minor in French, but I had no a typewriter and hand wrote my English assignments, as I had in Woody’s classes.  The instructor reprimanded the entire class for what he called unprofessional papers.  He cited not typing them as an example.

And I couldn’t concentrate on the lectures in the lecture hall.  I wondered why I was there and began skipping classes and decided I lacked the discipline to continue.   I told the Personnel Director of the Good Housekeeping Shops that I was quitting the store and that my reason was that Sammy had a superiority complex.

            “A one-eyed nigger mail clerk has a superior complex?” he replied.

            I decided to go to Mexico as had Kerouac.  I left a note in my landlady’s mailbox and loaded all my belongings into Jenny and hit the road.  But I stopped in Coldwater to say goodbye to my mother and found at her house a note from Connie over the signature “Connie and Karl.”

            “Thank you for the casserole dish,” it said.  “We have already used it several times.”

             I resumed the road, and my first stop was to see my sister Nancy in Montgomery, Alabama.  Her home was part of a car of the train that took her husband’s carnival ride company from spot to spot.  But I found no one on the train and turned west onto U.S. 80.

            I picked up the first hitchhiker I saw, a redheaded kid who said that he’d graduated from junior college that spring and that his father was an Army lieutenant colonel and that he expected induction soon and was traveling for the fun of it in the meantime, and he said he might like to go with me to Mexico.  I told him I needed to stop in the next town for Jenny’s 1500 mile maintenance.  He said he’d pay for that if he could ride along as far as I went.

            “I didn’t think it would be that much,” he said after he paid the bill.

            I had smuggled three joints of marijuana from Vietnam, in a container of Ammon’s medicated powder I’d used to fend off what we called jungle rot there, and we smoked it as I drove.  A highway overpass seemed to me to resemble an octopus’ head with the highway’s lanes its tentacles waving around it.  In Abilene we stopped to see Cleve.

            He’d told me his mother’s address, and I easily remembered it, 518 Palm Street.  I remembered that our company, with the palm trees we’d planted along the boardwalk between our two rows of squad tents, was the 518th PSC.  Cleve stepped out onto the front porch of the little wooden house as the hitchhiker and I climbed out of Jenny in its front yard.

            “I’m fucking a girl,” he said after some less significant chat in the yard.

            He didn’t invite us into the house, and we chatted with him for less than ten minutes, before driving on to a filling station to fill Jenny’s tank and empty our bladders.

            “You guys from Abilene?” asked an old man who stepped out of the restroom in a black cowboy hat and black Army shoes, as I waited for the hitchhiker to take his turn.

            “Nope,” I said.  “But it’s the prettiest town I ever seen.”

            “They wrote a song about that,” he said grinning at me.

            In El Paso were signs advertising car insurance for tourists driving into Mexico, and we stopped at an agency and asked for a price, but we walked across the bridge to Juarez.  We drank beer in a few bars with dancing girls, and in a bodega with swinging doors and a concrete floor and a mariachi band, and we bought Marlboros cheap in a tobacco shop and a fifth of tequila cheap in a liquor store.  And we bought a bag of grass on the street.

            The hitchhiker stuffed the bag in his jockey shorts, and we staggered back across the bridge, passing the bottle between us.  A policeman stopped us at a customs booth and charged us 25 cents to reseal the bottle with a government stamp.  In El Paso we discovered that the grass for which we’d paid five dollars wasn’t marijuana but lawn clippings.

            We decided we didn’t have enough cash to go further into Mexico.

            “I have some friends in L.A.,” I said as we climbed back into Jenny.

            “OK,” said the hitchhiker, “but can we stop in Yuma at the prison?”

            So we stopped at the Yuma Territorial prison and looked at the cells open to the air but for the bars, and that night we stopped at a Quonset hut beside the road, because a sign in front of it advertised beer.  Inside were a bar and a pool table and some drunk men and a woman with complexion darker than the men’s.  The hitchhiker said the woman was probably a prostitute.

We drank a few bottles of beer and returned to the highway, but soon we stopped for a souvenir, a piece of a cactus.  I drove Jenny over a curb and into the desert to push one of the cactuses down to knock from it a knob we couldn’t reach.  I was in a Navy foul weather jacket from a batch the 518th PSC’s Assistant Supply Sergeant had scrounged.  It acquired a collection of needles as we failed to push over the cactus.  So I tried using Jenny but mainly spun her tires in the sand.  I scraped her bottom on the curb returning to the road.  I drove her on to L.A.

            Jim Van Why had moved with his father to an apartment house his father had bought on Figueroa Terrace overlooking central L.A.  It didn’t have a bedroom for guests, but they welcomed us to sleep wherever we wished in their living room, and Jim guided us to a bar in Little Tokyo the night we arrived.  And the hitchhiker talked with others there and found us jobs.

            “That guy says they need shelf pickers at a hardware warehouse,” he told me showing me the address of California Hardware Company on a scrap of paper, and the next morning its personnel director asked us to start work the day after that, but the hitchhiker didn’t.

            “I’m sorry,” he said to me that evening.  “I gotta keep going.”

            But I did and two weeks later rented an efficiency apartment.  The warehouse was an old brick building on 1st Street, and the job was pushing a cart through it, collecting items for orders.  The apartment was in a two story recent renovation on Westmoreland Avenue, with new furniture and carpeting and a kitchen separate from the living room, and a Murphy bed.  I kept the bed in the wall and slept on the sofa.  It was larger than my cot in Vietnam.

            The evening I moved into the apartment, I drove to a bar a block from it and shot pool with the barmaid, whose name was Pat.  The only other customer in the bar sat at the other end of the bar from where I sat and didn’t join our conversation.  Pat easily beat me at pool but asked me to sleep with her that night.

            “I don’t want to sleep alone,” she said before I accepted her invitation.

            Her apartment was a block past mine and also had a Murphy bed.  She pulled it down and undressed to her brassiere and panties and I to my boxer shorts.  In the bed I put a leg across her.

“Get your leg off me,” she said to me.  “I just wanted the company.”

            But that evening she and I went to Curly’s Mineshaft, a bar homosexuals frequented on Santa Monica Boulevard, and there I met Sara.  Sara, a tall thin woman with short black hair, was in jeans and chains and had been Pat’s girlfriend.  Pat moved to the other end of the bar after the introduction.

            I talked with Sara a few minutes and immediately liked her.  And, while she was in the ladies’ room, I talked with a man sitting on the stool on the other side of me from Sara’s.  He talked about designing dresses for movies.

            “Is he in dresses?” I asked Sara when she returned.

            “Yeah,” she said laughing.  “Sometimes, I guess.”

            The next evening, Pat asked me to drive her to the Pony Bar, a smaller bar female homosexuals frequented on Hollywood Boulevard.  As Pat and I shot pool, a recording of Frankie Valli singing “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” sounded from the juke box, and all the women in the bar sang along.  They shouted the verse “I love you, baby.”

            “But she has my kitten,” said Pat.

            She told me that she and Sara had shared a little house and that her kitten was still at the house and that Sara wouldn’t give the kitten back to her, and she asked me to drive her to the house next day while Sara was at her job drawing animations for Hanna-Barbera, to take it back.

            “She never locks the door,” said Pat.

            The house was a white stucco bungalow with a clay tile roof.  Pat waited in Jenny while I walked up the sidewalk and onto the porch and into the house.  The little calico kitten was in the living room and purred as I picked it up and carried it to the car.

            “I thought you were a good guy,” said Sara to me at the Mineshaft.

            “Wait,” I said as she turned away from me, and she turned back.

            “You’re the only friend I have,” I said looking into her eyes, and she looked into my eyes and sat on the barstool nearest to her.

            “Alright,” she said.  “But you’re going to have to buy me a beer.”

            I sat on the barstool beside her, and we drank and talked and bought a six pack of Hamm’s to take with us, when Curly closed the bar that night.

            “Have you been to Lookout Point?” asked Sara as she shifted into gear the three-speed manual transmission of her midnight blue Mustang, and I shook my head.  “My dad gave me this car when I wrecked the Honda 305 Dream he gave me.  That’s what happened to my face.”

            She drove to a gravel parking area on top of Beverly Hills, and we looked at the lights of Los Angeles below us, as we drank the Hamm’s and talked some more.  The next day she and Pat reunited, and they took me to the Farmers’ Market to eat turkey legs, and the next night they took me to dinner in a restaurant.  It had red flocked wallpaper like that at the Tibbits.

            “Have you ever had lobster tail?” Sara asked me.

            “No,” I said, and they ordered it for all of us and paid the bill.

            “We’re pretending it’s your birthday,” said Pat.

            The next day they took me to a little shop they had opened to sell their friends’ art on consignment.  They told me they’d had to close it for lack of customers, but much of the consignment inventory remained on its walls, and Pat showed me a yellow and orange plaster Aztec sun.  It had eyes and a smile in its center.

            “Isn’t it beautiful?” she asked me, and I nodded.

            But I spent a little time with Jim Van Why.  Neither did he have many friends, and we went to a topless bar in Hollywood, where a dancer sat at the table with us and asked us to buy her a drink.  We refused.

            “We do it for you,” she said as she rose and stalked away.  “You should appreciate it.”

            Jim also pointed out prostitutes hooking in front of cheap Hollywood motels and took me to an apartment to buy marijuana.

            “Are you in any way connected with any law enforcement agency,” the guy selling the stuff asked us, one at a time.

            We also went to a taxi dance ballroom near my job, and each of us paid a dollar for ten tickets, to dance with some women there.

            “This is a dangerous neighborhood,” said a policeman in a patrol car we passed, as I drove us away from the dancehall.

            Jim was attending a junior college, and we went to a party to which some of his classmates had invited him, and I hit on a Chinese girl there.  I told her I’d just returned from Vietnam and asked her for her telephone number.  She just shook her head.

            And we went to a party to which one of my coworkers invited me.

            “You can bring a friend and whatever you drink,” said the coworker.

            Van Why and I bought a gallon of Red Mountain Sparkling Burgundy and took it to the address the coworker had given me.  It was an American Legion hall, and the party was for youths and didn’t permit alcohol, and the coworker and friends of his were drinking in the parking lot and trying to crash the party.  And the coworker was in Army greens.

            “Are you in the Army?” I asked him.

            “Nah,” he said.  “Who’s that?”

            “You said I could bring a friend,” I said.

            “Oh,” he said.  “It’s alright.”

            Van Why and I left with no farewell.

            But Van Why invited me to Thanksgiving dinner with his father and relatives of theirs at the relatives’ home in a suburb on the San Andreas Fault.  Jim had invited a Japanese girl he was courting, but she had declined his invitation, and so the lot fell to me.  After dinner we sat in the living room watching a documentary about the fault on TV.

            And Van Why was my roommate for a while.  His father’s parents came to visit, and Jim slept in my Murphy bed while they slept in his room in his father’s apartment, but when I next paid my rent my landlord reminded me that my lease permitted but one occupant in the apartment.  And Van Why moved out when I told him what the landlord had said.

            I cruised Hollywood Boulevard hoping for a girlfriend, not a prostitute but one of the runaways who inhabited the cheap motels but weren’t prostitutes, and I picked one up and took her to my apartment.  I offered her some of the marijuana Van Why and I had bought, but she declined and said she was hungry, and I made a baloney sandwich for her.  I showed her the story I’d written in Vietnam and waited for her to read it as she ate.

            “It’s alright,” she said.  “But a lot of people are like this.”

            I put the story back where I kept it and sat beside her and put one of my arms on the back of the sofa behind her.

            “I guess I wouldn’t mind smoking a joint now,” she said.

            “Nah,” I said rising from the sofa.  “That’s alright.”
            “Are you sure?” she said rising from it with me.

            I drove her back to the motel and a few nights later tried another possibility.  The Ivy League clothing I’d left with my mother weren’t in her house when I returned from Vietnam, and in L.A. I had bought some shirts with button down collars, but I bought white jeans instead of dress slacks.  And I didn’t tuck in the shirts.

            “You should tuck in your shirt,” said Pat.  “It’ll show your butt better.”

            And she and Sara took me to a bar where most of the customers were male homosexuals, and I went there without Pat or Sara, to try the other possibility.  I sat near the end of the bar where it turned toward the wall, and a man around the bend opened a conversation with me, and the conversation led to my leaving the bar with him.  But at the curb in front of the bar was a yellow and white Nash Metropolitan like Connie’s.

            “Is that your car?” I asked him.

            “No,” he said.  “But I can probably borrow it.  Do you want me to?”

            “Nah,” I said.  “That’s alright.”

            I drove us to his apartment in Jenny.  As I undressed I hid the watch I’d bought at the Cam Ranh Bay PX beneath a pillow on the floor.  As we climbed into the man’s bed, he told me that he might be too big for me, but that he’d be careful.  A boxer stood beside the bed as I let the man put his penis into my mouth.  But I decided I didn’t want it there.

            “I guess I’m not gay,” I said leaving the bed, and I dressed and left the apartment.

            “Maybe I’m just not the right one for you,” said the man as I opened the door.

            Starting Jenny I remembered where my watch was and returned to the apartment.

            “You didn’t have to hide it from me,” said the man as I lifted the pillow.

            I said nothing in response to that and returned to the door with the watch.

“We’ll be alright without him,” he said to the boxer as I closed the door.

The next time I saw Sara I told her I’d tried that and decided I didn’t like it.

“Yeah, I know,” she quietly said shrugging.  “The bartender told me.”

She and Pat split up again, and Pat was back in her apartment near mine, but I drank beer with Sara at her house.  She showed me a picture of herself and told me it was her high school graduation picture.  She said it was from before she smashed her face.

“Wasn’t I pretty?” she asked me.

We got very drunk, and I told her I was God, feeling that I was.

“You shouldn’t say that,” she said.

Another night she asked me to go with her to see Pat at her apartment.  On the way into the building I picked a rose from a bush beside the front steps.  I sat on the floor in front of Pat’s door as Sara knocked on it.

“Go away,” said Pat from the other side of it.

“Billy’s with me,” said Sara.

“I don’t care,” said Pat.  “I’ll call the police.”

“She can’t call the police,” said Sara to me.  “She doesn’t have a phone.”

But, a few minutes later, two policemen came up the stairs to the hallway.

“What are you doing?” asked one of them.

“Knocking,” I said around the rose stem.

“Well,” said the policeman, “you’ll have to leave.  We had a complaint.”

“Come on, Billy,” said Sara.

I rose and followed her down the hall and down the stairs and out the door.

“By the way,” said one of the policemen as we descended the steps, “how old are you?”

“I’m old enough to drink,” I said, “If that’s what you mean.”

“Oh, no,” said Sara.  “Don’t pay any attention to him.  He just came back from Vietnam.”

“I’m 21, anyway,” I said reaching for my wallet to show him.

“Alright, war hero,” said the policeman, “you’re going to jail.”

“The charge is Plain Drunk,” said the policeman fingerprinting me at L.A. Central Lockup.  “You can bail yourself out in four hours if you have the cash.  That’s how long the law says it takes to get sober.”

The drunk tank was a big square room with a rubber floor with orange paint on it that had cracked and chipped, and its walls were of concrete blocks about halfway to the ceiling and of plate glass the remainder of the way, and a toilet and many men were in it.  I sat on the floor with my back against the concrete blocks and watched as an African American with arms that reached nearly to his knees alternated between walking about the room and washing his face in the toilet.  I acquired a headache as I had in Frankfurt once, when I drank on the Kaiserstrasse until the bars closed after the trolleys stopped running, and walked the streets until they started again.

“Harman,” said a policeman opening the door.  “Do you want to bail yourself out?”

He led me down a hallway to a window where an officer looked at a sheet of paper.

“Coldwater, Michigan,” he said looking up from it to me.  “I’m from Coldwater.”

I looked at his face and his name tag and recognized neither the face nor the name.

“The bail is $25.00,” he said.  “But, since you’re from Coldwater, I’ll tell you something I don’t tell everybody.  If you go back to Coldwater and don’t make your court appearance, the judge will probably accept the $25.00 as your fine, and you’ll never hear about it again.”

“Thanks,” I said and paid the $25.00 from the cash he returned to me, and I drove to California Hardware Company, and quit my job.

I was already tired of it and thought I might lose it soon anyway.  The locations of the things I had to find had no order, with screwdrivers beside fishing reels and sink faucets near shotgun shells, and I never found as many items per hour as my employment agreement said I must.  And my 90 day probationary period had ended more than a week earlier.

But I used Peggy as an excuse for quitting.  I had received a letter from her saying she was sick, and I told the personnel director who had hired me that I was quitting because of that, but he said nothing about that.  He said only that I could pick up my final check the next day.

The day was rainy, and on my way back to the apartment I saw a young woman hitchhiking, and I picked her up.  She was tall and thin like Sara, and she had wild black hair and green eyes like Sandy’s, and she was in a white fur jacket that made me think of a drowning rat.  She said she’d had enough of L.A. and was going back to Chicago.

“I’ll give you a ride all the way,” I said, “if you can wait until tomorrow.  I have to wait until then to pick up my last paycheck.  You can stay at my place tonight.”

“I don’t want to do that,” she said.

She said she was leaving a relationship that hadn’t gone well, but she pulled from her bag a book of poems, saying the guy had written it.  I told her I was a writer, and she asked me what I wrote, and I told her short stories.  And then I slammed on Jenny’s brakes.

Traffic had stopped in front of us, and Jenny slid on the wet pavement to within a foot of the back of a car in front of us, before she stopped.  I said nothing, and the girl said nothing, and I dropped her at a truck stop after the traffic moved again.  As I drove away, I looked back at her, standing in the rain, in her wet fur coat, with a thumb out.

After sleeping a few hours, I found Sara at her house and told her I was going home to bring my mother back, and I gave her a check and asked her to find an apartment for my mother and me and to use the check as a deposit.

Next morning, I picked up my paycheck and headed east again, and I didn’t sleep again until I reached Coldwater.  In the Rocky Mountains, I tried to sleep beside a highway, but thinking of bears and other wild animals kept me awake.  A truck frightened me, tailgating me in the dark down a hill on a narrow road in Missouri, but I didn’t feel sleepy the rest of the way to Coldwater.  I made the trip from Los Angeles to Coldwater in about 47 hours and reached Coldwater at about midnight and still not sleepy went looking for David.  I found him at the apartment of a friend of his playing cards with others.

            “What are you playing?” I asked.

            “Shit on your neighbor,” said David.  “Wanna play?”

            “I don’t know how,” I told him.

            “I’ll teach you,” he said pushing out an empty chair.

            I sat down and listened to his instructions but made no sense of them and soon was standing on the table.

            “Fuck your grandmother,” I shouted.

            Eddy, David’s brother, was out of prison again and also at the apartment, and he and I and one of the others there smoked some of the marijuana Van Why and I had bought, in the bathroom for fear of less worldly others there.  That joint and a couple of bottles of beer were enough to make me sleepy, and I drove to my mother’s house and found my sister Nancy asleep in her bed, and I climbed into it with her.  I suggested that we have coitus.

            “I’m your sister,” she said as I lay on her.

            “That doesn’t make any difference,” I said.

But I rolled aside and fell asleep and wondered why I hadn’t slept past 6:15, when I awoke at 6:15 p.m., thinking it was a.m.

            David had bought a nearly new blue Ford Fairlane with bucket front seats and a 289 cubic inch V8 engine and a manual four-speed transmission.  And he introduced me to a blonde girl I thought was pretty and told me that he’d taken her out but that she had bad body odor.  I traded cars with him for a night, and took the girl to Fort Wayne to see Peggy, but Peggy wasn’t at home.

            I drove her home with no other stop and returned David’s car to him at his parent’s house next afternoon.  I found him playing Monopoly on the living room floor with his sister Nancy and a friend of hers whose name was also Nancy.  She was somewhat pudgy, and her hair was long and auburn, but her green eyes reminded me of Sandy.

            So, although she was the age Sandy was when I met her when I was seventeen years old, I joined the game and looked at her and listened to her and thought about what she said and how she laughed as we played.


 

 

 

 

Chapter 18

1967 - 1968

 

She was younger than either David’s sister Nancy or mine, but I took her to bed that night, at David’s house.  His parents were visiting relatives, in Hopkinsville, Kentucky.  I took her into their bed.

            “Let me get one of Nancy’s thingies,” she said as we kissed.

She left the room and returned in a short sheer blue nightgown, and she let me remove her brassiere and fondle her breasts, but she didn’t let me remove her panties.  The next day David’s sister Nancy stopped being her friend, but she joined the crowd that had become mine and hung out with me and David at the apartment where I had tried to play shit on your neighbor, and I moved into the apartment.  Bubb Pete, the friend of David’s who was renting that two bedroom apartment, let me sleep in the bedroom he wasn’t using.

Nancy, whose full name was Nancy Lee Patterson, spent much time with me in that bedroom, and she introduced me to her father, in his bedroom.  Her home was big but messy inside, and her father’s bed had shelves in its head, and many paperback books on the shelves.  And he was in the bed reading one when Nancy introduced me to him.

            “I’m the father of the house,” he said to me, “and what I say goes.”

            Nancy snickered as we left the house, and she and I spent New Year’s Eve with Atkinson and Larry Neitzert and Tom Anderson, whose father owned the dairy in Coldwater.  My mother went with us, to drink pitchers of beer at the Lamplighter Lounge, a bar that had opened while I was in Vietnam.  But Nancy waited in Jenny.

            The bar’s banquettes had pews from Coldwater’s big old brick First Baptist Church the city had demolished while I was in Vietnam, but we sat at a table with chairs on new carpeting Coldwater had required for liquor licenses it didn’t permit before I went to Vietnam, and Neitzert accidentally knocked over a pitcher that wasn’t quite empty.  I picked it up and threw what remained in it at him, and he threw what remained in another at me, and we ordered three more pitchers.  We drank most of the beer from those pitchers but threw the rest at each other.

            Terry Highland, one of the bar’s owners, was tending bar and ordered all of us to leave.  We went to Lefty’s, the bar that had been the Alibi when my father checked card tables there after he retired, and Tom walked up to the service section in the middle of the bar and ordered five bottles of Budweiser.  Beer was in his hair and dripping from his nose.

            “No,” said the bartender, looking at Tom and shaking his head.

So we bought a case of Budweiser and took it to my mother’s house, where I drove Jenny into the front yard, to let the others park in the driveway.  I honked Jenny’s horn at the tree in the front yard and then hit it.  I went into the house without looking at the damage.

            After Atkinson and Neitzert and Anderson left, I tried to drive Nancy home but couldn’t because I had wrapped Jenny’s front bumper around her left front tire, and couldn’t turn left.  My sister Nancy was in Tennessee at her husband’s parents’ house, and so Nancy Patterson and I slept in her bed, and she called her father in the morning.  He came and drove her home, and I walked to Bubb’s apartment, where I found Rick Speigle.

            Rick was one of the crowd that frequented the apartment, and he laughed about climbing onto a chair in Bubb’s kitchen and looking into a heat vent, to try to see what Nancy and I were doing in the bedroom.  He and I walked back to my mother’s house, and he helped me straighten Jenny’s front bumper enough so that I could drive her, and we used a piece of rope to tie her hood handle to the bumper.  Hitting the tree had also pushed her hood latch out of line.

            I had told my mother of my plan to take her to L.A., and she had said she might wish to go, but I decided against it.  I had nearly no remaining cash, and I had no notion of how I could pay to repair Jenny, much less to relocate myself and my mother 2500 miles.  I wrote to Sara, telling her the plan would have to wait, and asking her for a refund.

            She returned the check without a note, and I requested employment at Midwest Foundry, across the railroad tracks in front of my mother’s house, and its Personnel Director hired me immediately, and I started that night.

            The job was inspecting wheel cylinder castings.  The castings rattled down a shaking sheet-metal chute and fell into a round sheet-metal trough around which about a dozen people stood doing what I was doing.  Behind us were sets of three big steel buckets, and our job was to pick up each casting and look at it, and throw it into one of the buckets.  Determining which bucked depended on whether the casting was of one kind or another or had a flaw.

            Within a half hour my mind was so far from the foundry that I had no notion where I was tossing the castings.  When the supervisor, who was the father of the boys at whom I’d slung apples from the tree behind our house on Washington Street, asked for a volunteer to shovel sand into a furnace, I leaped at the opportunity, to alleviate the monotony.  He remembered me and told me he’d expected me to do more with myself than that.

            But the effect of my 11:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. shift on my partying worried me more than the prestige of the job, and I was still blowing black soot from my nose when I returned to work after my weekend off, and neither the apartment nor my mother’s house had a shower.  After five nights on that job, hardly long enough to pay for the safety boots it required, I quit it.  I told the Personnel Director I’d decided to go to college.

            “Best of luck to you,” she said without an argument, and I began the admission process for Olivet College by driving Jenny to Olivet, with Nancy and Rick and Charlene, Rick’s new girlfriend, along for the ride.

            On the way, a dog walked from a farmyard onto U.S. 27, and I hit it.  We were climbing a hill, and I drove to its top before stopping, but then I turned around and drove back.  By the time we returned, the farmer was standing in the road, looking down at the dead dog.

“There’s nothing you can do,” he said to me as I stood beside him also looking down at the dog.  “But thanks for coming back.  And look at your car.”

He pointed at the rope tying Jenny’s hood.

“That was already like that,” I told him.

Saying nothing more to us, he picked up the dog and carried it back into the yard, as I drove us back up the hill.  In Olivet, Nancy and Charlene and Rick waited in chairs outside the Admission Counselor’s office, as I sat in one in front of his desk.  I found little to say to him.   

“You don’t seem very happy about this,” he said.

My unhappiness, besides from having killed the dog, was from having no cash and not knowing how soon I’d receive Veterans Administration education benefits, but my mother had a surprise for me, my savings bonds.  I hadn’t stopped my bonds in Germany but had forgotten about them, and she had collected them in a drawer of the buffet we’d taken from the house on Washington Street, and she reminded me of them when I returned from Olivet.  They were several hundred dollars, 25 dollars for each of my months in the Army after I began the allotment in Germany, enough for a few weeks of partying.  And my friends paid for fuel for Jenny in exchange for my providing them taxi service.  But soon Bubb’s landlord evicted him.

The old lady who lived in the apartment on the other side of first floor of the house complained about our noise.  We tried to forestall the eviction by buying a cake for her on her birthday, which we knew because the landlord had told it to Bubb, telling him how old she was to excuse the eviction.  She thanked us for it and shared it with us, when Bubb and Rick and Charlene and Nancy and I took it to her, but that didn’t change the landlord’s mind.

Bubb said that wasn’t a problem for him, but the rest of us thought it was a problem for us, until Rick solved it while we discussed it drinking beer in the apartment.

“Let’s get Billy a place,” he said.  “We can chip in on the rent until he gets his V.A. money.  And we can party there.”

We found a trailer in a trailer park.  The owner was the mother of Sandy Stockwell, whom my friends in high school had said was African American while he said he was Puerto Rican, and now I learned that his mother was Puerto Rican.  She told us we’d have to obtain approval from the owner of the trailer park.

“He doesn’t want a bunch of noisy kids there,” she said.

“I’ll be in school at Olivet,” I told the trailer park owner as Rick and I sat in the living room of his trailer in the park.  “I’ll be spending too much time studying to make much noise.”

“I’ll give it a try for a couple of weeks,” he replied to that.

The night before I moved into the trailer, Nancy told her father she would spend the night with David’s sister, but she spent it with me in Bubb’s apartment.  Except for her panties, she let me remove all of her clothing, and I tried to push her panties down far enough for me to put my penis in her vagina when I thought she was asleep.  But I couldn’t fully insert it.

She had also refused to let me put my penis in her mouth as she sat urinating in the bathroom of the apartment.  But in the trailer she asked me to finish what I’d tried to do while I thought she was sleeping.  We were sitting on the sofa with no one else there.

“I was going to wait for your birthday,” she said.  “But I hurt from last night.”

So we went into the bedroom, and I undressed and lay on the bed and asked her to undress standing on the bed, so I could watch.  I remember that her pubic hair was thick and as auburn as the hair on her head.  And I remember that she bled little.

We spent a lot of time in bed that week.  She said in the bedroom, and in the living room with the others, that she’d read that having sex burned as many calories as running thirty miles.  She said she’d be skinny were that true.

Rick knew people who were on welfare, and he brought us a brick of welfare cheese and a little Cornish game hen he baked and divided among the four of us, him and me and Nancy and Charlene.  He enjoyed cooking and was far fatter than either Nancy or Charlene, but none of us asked Charlene why she was with him, although he implied the question.  He called himself Needle Dick the Bug Fucker.

Bubb never partied with us there, but David and Eddy and Rick’s brother Greg and others did, and we made enough noise for the trailer park owner to come knocking on the door.

“I need to have you out of here by Saturday,” he said.  “Too many complaints.”

Beneath the cushions of the sofa were compartments for bedding.  We used them to store empty beer bottles, and Rick and I used a blanket to carry them to the dumpster a few yards from the park owner’s trailer, and we hoisted the bundle on top of one side of the dumpster and opened the other side.  I slid the bottles into it by pulling the blanket from beneath them.

“You’ll be out of here by five o’clock,” said the park owner leaning from his door.

But that wasn’t much of a problem, thanks to Eddy’s girlfriend, Anne.  She was renting a trailer in another trailer park, and she invited me to move into the second bedroom in that trailer, and the crowed followed me there.  And she had no problem with the partying.

“She has pimples all over her back,” Eddy told me.

Nancy didn’t drink much, but she did one evening in Anne’s trailer, enough to drop a cigarette she was smoking onto one of her knees and burn a big hole in her pantyhose.  She gave me money to buy cigarettes for her while she was as school, and I picked her up at school most afternoons and once went inside and saw the kids and the lockers, and felt I was the child molester I was.  I feared that someone might see me from the office.

In a few weeks, Anne’s landlord evicted her, but neither was that much of a problem for us, thanks to another member of our crowd, Don Calioinan.  He was living alone in a house his mother owned, and he invited me to move into one of its bedroom, and he welcomed anyone who wished to party there.  The house was in Allen, about twelve miles from Coldwater, but that wasn’t a problem for me with my friends paying for fuel for Jenny.

The night of my 22nd birthday, not-quite-seventeen-year-old Nancy spent another night with me, beneath the white chenille bedspread on the comfortable bed in my room in Don’s mother’s house.  In the morning, I drove her to the home of the parents of her mother, who had died before Nancy reached adolescence.  And there I learned that Nancy hadn’t told her father she wouldn’t be at home that night.

“You’re a 21-year-old man,” said an uncle of Nancy’s who was sitting with her grandparents in their living room, “and she’s a 16-year-old girl.”

But her grandparents said nothing, and Nancy said nothing, and I said nothing.  Soon she was pregnant, and I asked her to marry me, and she asked her father.  He promised his consent, and we set the date for June, after the end of Nancy’s eleventh grade of high school.

I bought an engagement ring at Culy’s.  I bought it on an installment agreement, but I didn’t have to leave it there until I paid for it as I had my class ring, because my mother cosigned the agreement.  Its diamond was much larger than hers, and the ring was of white gold, which was in fashion then.

I drove Nancy to Waterworks Park and formally proposed to her there beneath a willow tree between the road past the tennis courts and the dam Peggy and I had walked at the State Home picnics.  She formally accepted and began planning the wedding with help from her father’s second wife.  I drove us to her home in Chicago to order the wedding gown.

“She was fat when my dad married her,” said Nancy.  “But she used his money to get skinny and learn how to use makeup.  Then she divorced him.”

Her second husband was a construction contractor, and she lived with him in a large flat with new carpeting, and she asked us to remove our shoes when we entered it.  Nancy selected what she called an empire waist and said it was in fashion and would also hide her pregnancy.  Also, but not to hide her pregnancy, she decided to change the date to April.

Her algebra teacher was the one who had told me my once failing to do a problem on the chalkboard wasn’t because of my eyes but because I hadn’t done my homework.  And, when she learned that Nancy was pregnant and was marrying me, she told Nancy that I’d never been any good.  And Nancy responded to that by quitting school.

But she gave Sandy, her father’s new fiancée, the pregnancy reason.

“She asked me why I hadn’t told her and my father,” Nancy told me.

  Sandy obtained approval from Nancy’s father, but the next problem in the marriage process was a lesion from my herpes from Vietnam, and I took that problem to Nancy’s obstetrician.

“Do you have an appointment?” asked the receptionist.

“I didn’t make an appointment to get this,” I told her.

“It’s that 22-year-old man who knocked up that 16-year-old girl,” I heard her tell the doctor who looked at my problem and told me that it probably would recur throughout my life and that he could do nothing for me and that I should abstain from sexual activity while the herpes was active, but that it wasn’t contagious when no lesion was present.

I told Nancy about all of that, and she listened as passively as she watched my drunken behavior, and our next step in the marriage process was to talk with the preacher.

She selected Father Mann, the minister of Coldwater’s St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, because that had been her mother’s church.  He spoke with us and told us that sometimes young women needed surgery to open their vaginas before coitus.  Nancy and I looked at each other and laughed as we left the church.

My next step without Nancy in the process was to recruit a best man.

“No,” said Atkinson in his stepmother’s farmyard, after stepping out of the house and meeting me between it and Jenny, and David told me he couldn’t afford to rent a tuxedo.

So next I asked Richard Lyon, whose father owned the drugstore in Coldwater’s only shopping center, and he accepted that request and my request to use his car for the wedding.  Nancy’s father had a 1932 Rolls Royce, and Nancy asked him to let us use it for the wedding, but he said its block had a crack in it.  And Bob McNall, through whom I knew Richard, refused my request to use his relatively new white Pontiac convertible.

I thought Jenny wasn’t appropriate for the task, and Richard told me his 1958 blue Chevrolet with tools he used for his hobby souping up cars was inappropriate, but I thought Jenny’s size and the rope holding her hood down was less appropriate.

My next step in the marriage process without Nancy was to find a job, and that was as circumlocutious as my search for a best man and a ceremonial car, beginning with hitchhiking to New York because I had neither fondness for Coldwater nor faith in finding a job there.

Although I didn’t ask him, Don Calioinan loaned me twenty dollars for the trip, and I hitchhiked out with my big black Leeds flight bag.  I thought that I could stay with Vaughn during my search and that he might otherwise help me in it.  He had written to me telling me he was renting a loft in the East Village.

My last ride before crossing the Hudson ended at a toll booth on the New Jersey Turnpike.  Because I thought the police might not permit me to hitchhike on it, I thumbed on the exit side of the toll booths, but a highway patrolman stopped.  He was in a uniform with a Smokey the Bear hat, but the car had no police markings on its outside, and it sounded like something Richard Lyon may have wished to build.  He looked at my driver’s license and told me to get into the front seat of the car.  After a few high speed turns he dropped me beneath a bridge.

“New York’s that way,” he said pointing to the narrow road ahead of the car.

I stood there more than an hour before a girl picked me up in a little Ford Fairlane like David’s but brown and not as sporty.  She said she was on her way to school but that she didn’t feel like going to school that day.  So she drove me to Vaughn’s loft on East Sixth Street and waited while I rang his doorbell.

 I waited a few minutes on the steps of the old warehouse and walked back to her car and asked her to take me to the New York Public Library, where I thought I’d wait a few hours and return to Vaughn’s loft and try again, but the library wasn’t open.  Before I knew that, the girl asked me whether I was sure I’d be alright there, and I told her I was and watched her drive away.  So I walked to Port Authority Bus Terminal and sat in a chair in one of the rows of fiberglass chairs and leaned back with my feet on my bag and tried to sleep.

“Are you waiting for a bus,” asked a policeman.

“Yes,” I said.

“Let me see your ticket,” replied the policeman.

I told him I didn’t have one, and he told me I couldn’t sleep there, and I walked to the Lincoln Tunnel and hitchhiked to Fort Wayne.  Peggy let me spend a few nights in the house she was then renting with Bob.  I searched her newspaper for jobs and applied for a few.

“I’ll get a haircut if I get the job,” I said to a woman interviewing me for a job selling men’s clothing in a department store, as I sat in front of her desk in one of my Hong Cong suits, and I thought she would hire me before I said that, but then she frowned.

So I hitchhiked back to Coldwater, where my mother told me she’d seen an advertisement for a job at Tempo, a big discount store in the shopping center where Richard Lyon’s father’s drugstore was.  She said Wally Heft, who had been the manager of the Gambles store where my father had bought my bicycle and my electric train and Peggy’s phonograph and ice skates and many other things for us on credit, was the Tempo manager since the Gambles store closed.  And I learned in my interview that my father had always paid his debts.

The job was Hardlines Management Trainee and paid me 325 dollars per month to help the Hardlines Manager manage about a third of the store.  About half of the store was softlines while about a sixth of it was appliances.  Hardlines were any product not an appliance or made of cloth.  Mainly I ordered things to replace what the store sold.  But sometimes I helped customers.

I was happy to have a job in which I could wear my Hong Cong suits, and I enjoyed learning to mix paint and match sparkplug numbers with automobile model and engine types by looking them up on a chart, and I enjoyed doing that for customers.

One afternoon Dale Otis, my junior high school locker mate, came into the store.

“It looks like you’re doing alright,” he said.  “My wife and I just bought a house.”

And my next step in the marriage process was to find a home for my new family.

Behind the shopping center, across State Street from the State Home, was a little apartment complex.  It was at the end of Morse Street, the street on which Nancy’s family lived, and its owner called it Pinecrest.  It resembled a motel, but its owner furnished its dozen one-bedroom apartments, and he didn’t charge much rent.  The owner interviewed us at his dining table facing his front door.  And he showed us an apartment vacant beside his.

“They call me Bull Moose,” he said.

I hadn’t told the V.A. I’d decided against Olivet.  So I received a check for all the time since I would have begun classes.  It was enough to rent the apartment and pay off the engagement ring but not enough to buy the wedding rings also.

“How’s my credit now?” I asked the sales lady at Culy’s, and she let me buy the rings by installment payments, with no cosigner.

The apartment’s bedroom had two twin beds, but Nancy and I used but one of them and began using it before our wedding, and that was the first of our problems with Bull Moose, who knocked on our door one afternoon, while we were doing that.

“I know you’re getting married soon,” he said after I pulled on a sweater and a pair of jeans and opened the door, “but she’s sixteen years old, and I’m not sure she should spend so much time here before the wedding.”

So my bachelor party wasn’t in the apartment but in Don Calioinan’s house.  Atkinson didn’t attend, but my other former classmates who had thrown beer at the Lamplighter did, and so did Rick and Greg and Hummer Lindsay.  Hummer had been a Navy SEAL in Vietnam, and he and Greg had become my main drinking buddies, and Greg recruited a girl for the party.

The girl, Suzy Tubert, was younger than Nancy but already had a reputation for being an easy conquest.  At the party, I asked her to do a strip tease for us, and when she refused I took her into the kitchen and asked her to lend me her brassiere, and I put it on over my shirt and removed it to music in the living room.  And I took her upstairs to bed and licked her vagina a little.

“You’re driving me crazy,” she said.

I stopped and did coitus and dressed and went downstairs and told Hummer it was his turn.  He went upstairs, and he came downstairs smiling, but Suzy wasn’t smiling when she came downstairs a few minutes later.  A few minutes after that she left with some of the others.

“You’re a son of a bitch,” she said as she passed me on her way out, but I drove to her house looking for her later that night.

“I don’t know where she is,” said her father at the door.  “You’re responsible for her.  You took her out, you fucking punk.”

The next day Greg told me I should check myself for gonorrhea, because other guys had been with both Suzy and someone who had it that night, but I didn’t because I supposed they must have been with Suzy after she left my party.

“She’s going to be fat,” Peggy told me as she and I drank a couple of bottles of beer at a table at Lefty’s the day I introduced Nancy to her.

For the wedding I dressed in a tuxedo I rented from Al Reyburn and the shoes I had bought in Tokyo.  Nancy told me that giving the minister a small amount of cash was customary and that ten dollars would be enough and that the best man should give it to him.  But Richard declined, and I knocked on the door of Father Mann’s office, to do it myself.  As I held a ten-dollar bill out to him he looked at me but didn’t otherwise move.  I laid the bill on his desk and turned and left his office.

He had told us during the rehearsal that the Episcopal Church forbade kissing at the altar but that we could kiss in the foyer on the way out of the church.  I hurried Nancy down the aisle to the foyer just outside the door to the sanctuary and there gave her a big wet kiss.  Rice stung my face as we stepped outside.

The photographer Nancy hired took no pictures of the outside of Richard’s car but took a picture of us in the back seat with his camera lens protruding through window so close to us that the picture also showed nearly nothing of the inside of the car.  Richard honked his horn very little as he drove us to the reception.  He did it only when I asked him to do it.

Because Nancy was a Job’s Daughter she selected the basement of the Masonic Temple as the site of the reception, and a rock band of which Nancy’s brother Richard was a member played on a low platform at the front of the hall.  Rick Speigle mixed a bowl of punch with rum and vodka in it but kept it in the kitchen because the Masons forbade alcoholic beverages there.  My Aunt Bertha was there, and I gestured to Richard to lower the volume of the band, as she and I talked in front of the bandstand.  He stopped their playing altogether.

Nancy asked me not to push the cake into her face, but I did and caught a finger in her garter as I threw it behind me, and it fell to the floor at my heels.  At her father’s house after the reception she told me that one of her cousins had bet her twenty dollars that our marriage wouldn’t last six months.  And a few weeks later she told me the Masons had complained to her about Rick’s punch.

“They want us to pay an extra twenty dollars,” she said.

I paid it, and I kept paying for beer, mostly with Greg and Hummer.  Sometimes Hummer and I barhopped without Greg, because Greg wasn’t yet old enough to drink, legally.  And one night Rick and Charlene and Nancy and I drank all the way to Detroit in Jenny.

A tire went flat, and Rick reminded us of the riots then there, but we saw no rioting.  As I changed the tire, I saw that it was bald and that so were Jenny’s other tires, and I decided to trade her for an Austin Healy Sprite.  I found a foreign car dealership in Ann Arbor, but I traded her for a two-year-old Triumph Spitfire, because the dealership had no Sprites.  I considered buying a 1952 MG TD and took it for a drive but thought that its clutch slipped.  I didn’t believe the salesman’s argument that it should because it was hydraulic.

The price of the Spitfire was a few hundred dollars more than the salesman would give me for Jenny, and I borrowed the difference from the Branch County Savings Bank, where my Father had financed his cars.  The Loan Officer remembered my father, and he told me he always paid his bills, as had Wally.  I took the car home and let Nancy take me for a ride in it.

We saw Cheryl Hurd’s car across Chicago Street from Harry’s.  Cheryl was a member of our crowd, and she and Greg stepped from her Mustang fastback, as Nancy stopped the Sprite behind it.  Cheryl said she’d take Nancy home so I could take Greg for a ride.

As Nancy, now conspicuously pregnant, stepped from the Sprite into the street, a Volkswagen with two other girls in it sped past, nearly hitting her.

“Assholes!” shouted Greg, and he jumped into the Spitfire, over its passenger door.  “Come on, Bill!  Let’s go!”

I jumped over the other door into the driver’s seat and sped after the girls in the Volkswagen, with Greg sitting on the back of the passenger seat and holding the top of the windshield frame, screaming at the girls.

“You fucking maniacs!” he shouted.  “Are you trying to kill a pregnant woman?”

But, after a few minutes of that, he decided on another approach.

“We need to report them to the police,” he said.

I parked in the alley behind City Hall, and we entered the police station through the back door, and I told them what the girls had done.

“We have a record of you for breaking into Sweeny Buick and Pontiac,” said a policeman after asking me my name and pulling a file from a cabinet.

“I didn’t do that,” I said.  “And I was a juvenile.”

“We still have a record of it,” the policeman said.

But I recommended Greg for a job selling appliances at the store where I worked.  He was often late for work, and I slept in one morning after we partied, and Wally came to our apartment.  Nancy answered the knock on the door.

“He says you’d better get to work,” she told me as I lay in bed trying to wake up.

“Do you want this job, or don’t you?” he asked me in his office a few minutes later.

And I kept the job long enough for Willard to find me working at it that summer.

He and my sister Nancy came to Coldwater for the county fair.  Nancy’s husband had become Ride Superintendent, and she told Willard I was working at Tempo, and he came there to see me.  Greg and I took a break and had coffee with him at the little diner at the Marshall and State Streets corner of the shopping center.  I showed him the Spitfire as we walked past it in the parking lot.

“Can you work the six-cat for me tonight?” Willard asked me.  “I have to do something.”

Greg stayed with Willard as I proudly paid for the coffee and returned to my job.

“Come on, Bill,” said Danny Parker as he played the six-cat, “let me win.”

I did let him win, and I let many other people win, throwing nearly all the stock on my side of the joint while the guy working the other side stared at me.  But my net for that night was about fifty dollars, and I bought a teddy bear from Bob for my impending child, a blue one because I felt he was a boy.  Nancy smiled at both the bear and the bucks.

I used the automotive shop at the store to tune up the Spitfire and took it out on I-69 to see how fast it would go.  At 94 miles per hour, the speed suddenly dropped to about 85, and the car would not go faster again.  I took it back to the shop.

“Look at your vacuum gauge,” said the guy who did automotive work for Tempo’s customers, and he pushed back into the distributer a thing protruding from a side it, but it pushed itself out again.  “Maybe it’s the timing.”

The car kept running well enough at ordinary speeds for Bull Moose to complain about gravel chipping the paint on his Ford Ranchero when I skidded to stops in my parking space beside his.  And, while he was complaining about that, he complained about the noise my friends and I made drinking beer in my apartment.  But Cheryl Hurd helped solve that problem by renting a farmhouse where we could party.

It was on the north side of Kinderhook, on U.S. 27 about nine miles south of Coldwater, but the Spitfire ran well enough to take me there.

 

 

 

Chapter 19

1968

 

But one afternoon, as I drove into Cheryl’s driveway, a German shepherd jumped onto the Spitfire’s hood.  The girl whose dog it was threw a rock at it and missed the it but hit my windshield.  The hole was about two inches in diameter and made driving the car unlawful.

So I bought a black 1964 Chevrolet Malibu convertible and said it would be better for my growing family.  The bank loaned me the cash for that but refused to let me transfer my Spitfire debt to a piece of land Suzy Tubert’s father offered to trade me for it after he forgave me for not taking better care of Suzy at my bachelor party.  Most of the land was part of a steep hill, but I imagined building a house into the hill, although I had no notion of how I could pay for it.

So I rented a house instead.  A woman who worked in softlines at the store owned the house and offered to let me rent it for less than I was paying Bull Moose.  And that completely solved my problem with his complaints.

But, before we moved, a guy at a party at Cheryl’s house asked me for a ride to town, and I gave him a ride to Suzy’s house and saw an old Harley Davidson in its front yard, and the guy said it was his.

“Can I take it for a ride?” I asked its owner.

“Can you handle a suicide shift?” he asked.

I had no problem with the shift lever, but I killed the engine in front of the Alamo drive-in and had to kick it more than a dozen times to start it again, and a police car stopped behind me while I was kicking it.

“Are you alright?” asked one of the policemen in it after stepping out of the car.

“Yeah,” I said.  “It’s just hard to start because it’s old.  It’ll start in a minute.”

The bike started as the policemen rode away, and I rode it around the Alamo and turned back toward town, intending to take it back to its owner.  But, when I reached the corner of Jay and Pearl Streets, I decided to ride it down Riverside Drive to Polk Street where Suzy’s house was instead of taking the most direct route down Pearl Street.  But I decided too late to make the turn and rode the bike into a yard instead of down either Pearl Street or Jay Street.

That corner of the yard was a grass embankment with a slope of about 30 degrees and acted as a ramp sending me and the bike into the air.  When the bike landed a pile of brush was in front of it, and the brush slowed the bike more quickly than it slowed me, and I flew over the bike’s handlebars.  My head, with no helmet on it, bounced off the bike’s front fender.

When I awoke, I lifted the bike back onto its wheels and pushed it to the nearest edge of the yard, but I was afraid to ride it down the embankment.

“Need some help?” asked one of several guys who climbed out of a car that stopped at the curb, and I remembered that my watch band had snagged on the front brake lever as I flew over the handlebars, and I removed it and my wedding ring.

“Hold onto these, will you?” I asked handing them to one of the guys, and I rode down the embankment and didn’t stop again until I was at Suzy’s house, where I returned the bike and told its owner what I’d done to it.

“Don’t worry about it,” he replied.  “You can’t hurt that old thing.”

I drove to the apartment, where I’d left Nancy alone, before going to Cheryl’s house.

“Where’s your watch,” she asked me, “and your wedding ring?”

I left her there again and drove to the police station to ask the police whether anyone had brought the watch and the ring to them.  No one had, but I continued partying at Cheryl’s house several nights each week, and a few days later a free for all melee broke out there.  Some guys from Angola arrived in a pickup truck to join our party without an invitation, and they refused our invitation for them to leave, and people started hitting each other.

I didn’t hit anyone, but I sat on the trunk of the Malibu watching the action until a fist hit my face, and the hitter was a friend of Cheryl’s.

“Wait a minute, Vern,” I said.  “I’m on your side.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Vern returning to the fight.

Still I didn’t hit anyone, but I wandered through it instead of returning to my seat, and I found Greg and one of the interlopers struggling against each other in a tangle of television lead-in wire in the front yard.

And I saw Weasel Gallop chasing one of them across the yard.  Weasel was a relatively small member of our crowd, but the interloper tried to escape him by climbing into the truck and locking its doors, and Weasel grabbed the door handle with both of his hands and kicked behind the door with one his feet and popped it open.  Then he jumped into the truck, and he wrapped one arm around the interloper’s neck and pounded his face with his other fist while the interloper begged for mercy, until the other interlopers gave up the fight.  Then all the interlopers climbed into the truck and rode away.  And we returned to drinking.

Nancy was with me that night, and after the fight she said she was tired and asked that we go home, but I wasn’t tired and gave her the keys to the Malibu and stayed until only Cheryl and I remained in the house.

“How are you going to get home?” asked Cheryl.

“Hitchhike, I guess,” I told her.

“Okay,” she said.  “Can you take Greg with you?”

“I thought he left,” I told her.

“He’s outside somewhere,” she answered to that.

I went outside and found him sitting beneath a tree weeping.  He looked up as I approached and stood up wiping his eyes.  He said nothing.

“What’s wrong with you?” I asked.

“Nothing,” he said.

“Want to hitchhike home?” I asked.

We walked out to the road, and a car came swerving up the road from the south and stopped, and its driver asked us which way Fort Wayne was.

“Where are you going?” asked the driver as Greg and I pointed south.

“Coldwater,” I told him pointing north.  “You need to turn around.”

“How far is that?” the driver asked me.

“Nine miles,” I told him shrugging.

Get in,” he said.

Greg and I climbed into the back seat because another passenger was in the front seat.

“Want a beer?” asked the driver.

“Sure,” said Greg.

“Got any ID?” asked the other man.

Greg handed him his driver’s license.

“Speigle,” he said peering at it.  “They’ve got some pretty good stuff in their catalogs.  I don’t care how old you are.  You’re alright.”

As Greg and I sat drinking the cans of beer the guy gave us lights flashed behind us.

“Shit,” said the driver.  “Cops.”

“Son of a bitch,” said Greg looking back as a Deputy Sheriff stepped from the patrol car.  “It’s Rex Thatcher.”

Rex had graduated from high school a year or two before I did.

“You again, Greg?” he said when the driver rolled down his window.  “Don’t you ever learn?”

“Fuck you, Rex,” said Greg who had dropped out of high school.

Rex arrested all four of us.  He charged the drive with driving while intoxicated and the guy with him with furnishing alcoholic beverages to a minor.  He charged me with contributing to the delinquency of a minor and Greg with illegal possession of alcoholic beverages.

“I’ll get Ben Dajos,” said Greg as we sat in the drunk tank waiting for his mother and Nancy to bail us out.  “Rex can’t get away with this.”

Dajos, an attorney, had helped him defeat another of Rex’s charges.

Soon after that was the birth of Pat, whom I named Patterson Cleveland Harman, for Nancy’s family and Cleve Powell.  His birth was more than two months early, and he was a tiny wrinkly red thing when the doctor brought him to me in the hallway outside the delivery room, and I could think of nothing to say.  The doctor said he’d have to stay in the hospital awhile.

“Will he be alright?” I asked him.

“Yes,” he replied.  “I think so.”

I went to the Penney store and opened a charge account to buy Nancy a bathrobe and a pair of slippers I thought gaudy.  They were gold with fluffy tufts on their toes, and Nancy never wore them, but she didn’t need to.  The hospital released her that afternoon.

The house we rented had no refrigerator or living room or bedroom furniture in it when we rented it.  But our landlady brought us an old refrigerator, and Nancy’s Uncle Tom gave us a bed from his farm, and also a kitten.  He lived alone on the farm, and the farmhouse was full of old furniture, and we selected a bed with coil springs.

“You’ve got cats everywhere,” said Nancy in the farmyard.

“You want one?” asked Tom.

Nancy turned and looked at me and smiled when I nodded.

She selected a little calico kitten that resembled Pat’s kitten in Los Angeles.  I named him Ackley for Holden Caulfield’s roommate Ackley with acne in Catcher in the Rye.  I thought I remembered Holden calling him Ackley kid and called the kitten Ackley cat.

And I immediately liked him.  I was happy that he immediately used as a litter box the half beer case into which I strewed some gravel from our driveway.  And I liked the habit he formed of sleeping on the front right tire of the Malibu and that he made me think of beelines by being off the tire and in the house a second after I started the car.  And Rick Speigle traded me a sofa and matching chair for the Spitfire, on the agreement that he would make my car payments, if I made his furniture payments.  And we received a bassinette for Pat in a baby shower.

Pat was in an incubator nearly three weeks, and Nancy said she wished she could have taken Pat home and asked me every day to take her to see him, and at home she sat on Rick’s sofa and lactated onto her new bathrobe.  But, when we took Pat home, when the doctor released him from the incubator, she said breast feeding him would make her breasts sag, and so my first spending priority after buying beer for myself became buying baby formula for Pat.  And my poor fiscal management had made my low trainee salary inadequate for us before the birth of Pat.

For a couple of weeks, Nancy and I ate nothing but a batch of macaroni salad she made, but still I partied.  Hummer married Peggy, a girl he met when he and I and Greg crashed a party, and he and Peggy rented an apartment in Sturgis.  I left Nancy and Pat with Peggy while Hummer and I bar hopped all over the county.

And Rick married Charlene, and Reverend Hamlin conducted the ceremony, and Nancy and I were their maid of honor and best man.  Rick brought the Spitfire back to me because he couldn’t make the payments, but neither could he make the payments for the furniture, and so he left that with us.  And Hummer and I, after drinking all through a night, took the Spitfire and a case of beer for a ride.

He suggested that we beg fuel from farmers, and a 1938 Ford was in the farmyard of an old lady from whom we begged gasoline, and only the length of the grass in which it sat suggested that it might not be operable.  Hummer asked the old lady about it, and she said that her husband had died not long after buying it new, and that no one had driven it since.  A man she said was her son, who seemed to me to be older than Hummer or I, stood nearby saying nothing.

“Have you thought about selling it?” Hummer asked the old woman.

“I’ve had offers for it,” she said.  “But I haven’t decided if I want to.”

From there I drove us to Ypsilanti.  Woody was teaching at a junior college there, and we found his office, but not him.  The office was in a building like a mobile home, and a man in one of the cubicles in it told us Woody would be there in a few minutes, but we left after a few minutes of standing outside the cubicle the man said was Woody’s.

Greg and Sheila, a girl who also worked at Tempo, were going out together.  He blackened one of her eyes, and she came to work next day in sunglasses, but she didn’t stop going out with him.  And he borrowed her mother’s car and broke his nose on its steering wheel wrecking it.

After the wreck, between Quincy and Allen, Greg walked to Coldwater and told police hitchhikers had stolen the car and broken his nose.  The next day police came to the store and arrested him for falsely reporting a felony.  So Wally fired him.

While Greg was on bail for both that and our hitchhiking, he and Hummer and I decided to take a trip to New York in my Malibu, but Greg bought a 1963 Buick Special convertible and put a scrape in a side of it driving from a rode and hitting a tree.

“I have to stay here and fix my car,” he said.  “I have to be responsible for something.”

Hummer and I decided not go without him.  But we spent that weekend partying without him at a house some people not in our crowd had rented at Marble Lake near where Turner had built his Turn-a-Crafts.  Hummer had heard of continuous partying there that required no invitation.

A friend of my sister Nancy’s lived on a farm with sheep between the lake and Quincy, and I had cut the fleece lining from a World War II leather bomber jacket Mrs. Hamlin had given me, to use it as a vest.  Hummer, while we were returning to the lake after replenishing our beer supply a few minutes before Michigan’s bars closed, decided to make a vest of his own from one of the sheep on the farm.  We chased sheep all over the pasture but didn’t catch one.

We bought the beer at the K&M, a bar in Quincy to which my father had sometimes taken my family, and its bar back then was Roger Berry.  Bruce Berry was the leader of the crowd renting the house where we were partying, and Gary Berry was the mechanic at Tempo, and Roger was their brother.  And Roger had married Sherry Beers, with whom I had skated at Connie’s thirteenth birthday party, making her Sherry Berry.

Hummer and I ordered a six pack of beer from the bartender, and Roger turned and looked at me and took a barrel house swing at me across the bar, but I leaned back quickly enough to evade it.

“Roger!” said the bartender.  “What’s wrong with you?”

Neither Roger nor I said anything.

“Just let him take his beer and leave,” said the bartender.

Hummer and I also bought a loaf of bread and some bologna at a little store in Quincy, but we gave most of the bread to a German shepherd who had dug a ditch around the stake to which a chain tethered it in the yard of the party house, as Laddie had at the end of his chain at the corner of our garage at the lake.  The dog ate the bread voraciously but didn’t stop barking at us and trying to attack us.  We spoke little with the other partiers.

Nancy and I laid away a console stereo system at the store, planning to pay for it in small installments and take it home when we’d paid the whole price, and we looked at mobile homes.  The stereo console was in the Mediterranean style then popular, and we found a mobile home with furniture in that style, and tried to figure out how to buy it.  But I decided our life in Coldwater was futile and took Nancy and Pat and Ackley to Texas.

Cleve was still in Abilene and had married, and Nancy and I filled the trunk of the Malibu with clothing and put Pat in his bassinette in its back seat, and also Ackley.  I had a Texaco credit card, because Greg was then doing the job Peggy’s husband Jack had done at the Texaco station across Marshall Street from the shopping center where Tempo was, and he had recommended that I request one.  We left Coldwater after midnight while I was drunk, but I drove about halfway to Abilene before I felt I needed to sleep and stopped, on an Interstate shoulder.

“Problem?” asked a highway patrolman who stopped a few minutes later.

“I just couldn’t drive anymore,” I told him.

He looked into the back seat and smiled.

“I’m sorry,” he told us.  “But I can’t let you sleep on the Interstate.”

I drove on to Abilene, and I drove more than another hour looking for Cleve’s house, before I saw that Abilene’s North First Street was parallel to its South First Street and not at the north end of it.  Cleve said he was allergic to cats but didn’t have a problem with Ackley.  And Shirley, his new wife, also welcomed us.

They had a spare bedroom, and Cleve was working checkout in a store like Tempo but larger and recommended me for a job there stacking soap, carrying cases of laundry soap and shampoo and other kinds of soap from a store room to the selling floor and stacking them after cutting part of the cardboard from them to give customers access to the soap.  My co-workers had retired from the Air Force, and the one who trained me cautioned me not to lose the box cutter he gave me, showing his leadership.  But neither was Cleve’s job management.

Abilene was in a dry county, but Cleve took me to a private club to which joining was as easy as had been joining the Professional Club in Hong Cong, and members of the club in Abilene kept their own bottles behind the bar and bought setups.  Setups were glasses of ice and mixer into which the bartender poured alcohol from the members’ bottles.  And Cleve also took me to what he and others in Abilene called Niggertown.

In Vietnam he had told me about Polly Foxworth, who owned a diner where people he knew could buy beer from him, and drink it openly at the counter.  Cleve introduced me to him, and we drank beer at his counter, and in the home of an African American woman who sold and served alcoholic beverages there.  She had a coin pool table and a juke box in her living room.

And Cleve took me to a liquor store a few yards past the county line.  There we bought a gallon of cheap wine and took it to his house and spent most of the night drinking it at his kitchen table.  We decided there and then that I should try L.A. again.

I awakened Nancy, to tell her and kiss her goodbye, and I packed my big Leeds bag again.  Cleve drove me and it to a highway heading west and dropped us there.  A skunk stood in the ditch beside the rode as I thumbed.

Van Why still lived in the apartment on Figueroa Terrace, and he welcomed me again to sleep on his sofa while I sought a job, and I walked to California Hardware Company.

“Not for rehire,” said the Personnel Director, reading from a file he pulled from a gray metal cabinet.

“I’m married now and have a kid,” I told him.

“You work fast,” he said without a smile, as others in the room stared at me, and the Union Steward came into the room and recognized me, and told me he thought the union might owe me a refund of dues.

“I wasn’t here long enough to join the union,” I said.

“Suit yourself,” he said as I rose and left the office.

“Bill, I wish you’d find yourself,” Jim’s father said to me that evening after supper, and I thought the thought was trite, and I didn’t reply.

Thinking of Cleve and Kerouac, I requested a job as a switchman for the Southern Pacific Railroad, and a man interviewed me and seemed to me to like my attitude but told me I’d have to wait until union members weren’t available.

Curly had closed the Mineshaft and opened a smaller more modern bar in the San Fernando Valley.  I asked Van Why to take me there, and the bar maid gave me Sara’s telephone number, and she let me use the bar’s telephone to call her.  A woman who was neither Sara nor Pat answered and told me Sara was upstairs and that she’d go and get her.

“She doesn’t want to talk to you,” said the woman when she returned to the telephone.  “She said to tell you Pat’s at the V.A.”

“Would you tell her I’m not looking for Pat?” I said.

“She doesn’t want to talk to you,” she said again.

I drank some more beer and decided to try again the argument that I had few friends, but the barmaid told me she’d made an exception to policy by letting me use the telephone, and she didn’t let me use it again.

The next morning, I started thumbing back to Abilene, and my first ride was most of the way.  I drove, while another hitchhiker and the man who picked us up slept, until I found turning corners difficult as I drove through a little town in West Texas.  I awakened the car owner, and he told me to stop at the next filling station, where a mechanic said the car was low on power steering fluid.

“I’m low on beer, too,” I said to the car owner.

“You want me to get you some?” he asked.

“I couldn’t drive anymore,” I said driving on.

When I dropped myself at a filling station where I needed to turn south toward Abilene I was so hungry I put the tiny amount of change that was all the cash I had into a machine with peanuts with candy covering on them.  I ate the few that came out of the machine slowly with great appreciation and licked their dust from my palm that had held them.  At Cleve’s house Nancy and I loaded the Malibu again.

I had written to Wally to tell him I was sorry but needed to do something other than what I was doing at the store, and to and ask him to send to me at Cleve’s house my final paycheck and the cash from the stereo system layaway, and the checks had arrived.  So Nancy and I and Pat and Ackley returned to the road with that cash and my final pay from the store in Abilene.  In Texarkana we stopped at a Walmart to buy a souvenir of Texas and Arkansas.  We found a plastic rotten banana and bought it.  Pat shrieked every time he saw it.

“I have a friend here,” I said to Nancy when I saw a sign for Clifton, Tennessee.  “Maybe he can find me a job.”

The friend was my replacement in Vietnam, and I stopped at a store in the tiny town and found but one listing for his last name in the telephone book there, but his mother answered and said he was out hunting with his father.

So we drove on to Iron City, the Tennessee town tinier than Clifton where my sister Nancy lived with Doyle and his family in a house with no plumbing and an outdoor toilet with a seat that had broken, and Doyle’s mother rocked Pat by clumping back and forth in a wooden straight chair.  I asked Doyle if the casket factory where he worked when he wasn’t on the road might hire me, and I drove him and some friends of his to the factory to fill out application forms, and from there we went to a bar on a road a few miles from the tiny town.  Doyle bought my beer, but I didn’t know where we would sleep, and I drove on again.

We spent that night in a motel, in Bowling Green, Kentucky.  In a grocery store, we bought bread and lunch meat, and formula for Pat and soda for Nancy and beer for me.  And we took it to our motel room.

“I could reenlist,” I said as I lay beside Nancy on the bed, and I began to sob.  “I’d be a goddamned lifer.  I’d be a loser.”

But we stopped at Fort Knox, and I parked for a few minutes at an edge of a training field, where basic trainees were learning to use bayonets.

“What’s the spirit of the bayonet?” shouted the sergeant.

“To kill!” shouted the trainees in response to the sergeant.

I felt some nostalgia, and we spent the next night at the house Peggy and Bob were then renting in Fort Wayne, where I called on an Army recruiter who told me that I could reenlist as a Spec. 4 and that the Army wouldn’t require me to repeat basic training.  I asked him whether I could go back to Germany, and he said that it wasn’t a reenlistment option but that he probably could arrange it, and he said the Army would pay for Nancy’s and Pat’s travel.  I asked him to try to send me to Berlin.

In Coldwater, we found Rick Speigle, and he told us that he and Charlene had just moved and that he still had a key to their previous apartment.  We slept in it that night, but the landlord awakened us in the morning, opening the door to show the apartment.  Nancy and I gathered our belongings and left as the landlord and the prospective tenant stared at us.

We spent the next night at my mother’s house, but the next afternoon Nancy and my mother disagreed about how to set the table for supper, while I was washing the Malibu.

“You mother doesn’t like me,” said Nancy when I came into the house.

“She’s not so muckin’ fuch,” said my mother.

“She’s my wife,” I replied to my mother.

“Bill!” wailed my mother in tears.

But I turned away.

We spent that night at Nancy’s father’s house, and the next day I drove to Indianapolis with the papers the recruiter had given me and began the process of reenlistment, and I received a speeding ticket on the way.  A former member of the 516th PSC, into whose face I’d thrown a cigarette across my counter in Vietnam because I thought he was a jerk, was working at the recruiting main station and took me to a bar with friends of his for lunch.  And a doctor told me the screw and pin in my ankle might make me ineligible for reenlistment.

But, about two weeks later, the Army approved my request, and I took the oath of enlistment in Indianapolis, and hitchhiked back to Fort Dix.  I left Nancy and Pat and Ackley and the Malibu in Coldwater with Nancy’s father and her stepmother.  And at Fort Dix I received new uniforms and took the Army Classification Battery again.

 I also befriended two guys who also had prior service and were on their way to Germany.  One of them, Cornelius Verboom, bet me twenty dollars that his GT score, the Army’s equivalent of an IQ, would be higher than mine.  And his was higher by one point.

But I didn’t pay him, partly because we spent most of our first pay on a weekend in New York City, where we slept in Vaughn’s East Village loft.  The loft was huge, the top two stories of the old three-story brick warehouse on East Sixth Street, and it had a white baby grand piano in it hanging by cables from the ceiling as did its also white dining table and wicker chairs.  We slept on wide brick platforms along the bare brick walls.

Vaughn gave me a key to the loft and told us to help ourselves to a bag a of marijuana while he was at his job as Assistant Stage Manager for the New York City Opera at the Lincoln Center.  We smoked some of it and walked around the village and tried to join some kids in a game of stickball.  A guy about our age told us to leave his brother alone and took a swing at me.

He missed, but we left the game and walked on, looking for a bar.  We found the one where the bartender had refused to serve Benny and David and me, and the same bartender was tending bar, and he refused again.  We bought some beer and cigars in a store and took them back to Vaughn’s loft and filled with Vaughn’s marijuana the tin tubes of the cigars.

Near the gate to Wrightstown, the little city bordering the fort, we found a sandbag bunker and used it as a place to smoke and drink, in our spare time before the Army sent us to the 21st Replacement Battalion in Frankfurt, for determination of our assignments in Germany.

When a Spec.4 collected our records from us he told me I’d be on KP the next morning.  But, that evening, we climbed over the fence behind the barracks and took a trolley to the Kaiserstrasse with me the tour guide.  As we watched a woman remove her clothing on a stage, I tried to steal as a souvenir the red cloth covering our table by sliding it from beneath the candle and the ashtray and our drinks and stuffing it into the front of my trousers, but a waitress came to the table and took the cloth from me.

We climbed back over the fence at about 4:00 a.m., and the Charge of Quarters runner awakened me for KP at 5:00 a.m., but Verboom knew a clerk in the replacement battalion.  He had arranged that my job be the easiest and cleanest, sitting at a table at the entrance to the mess hall to count people when they came in to eat, but I fell asleep at the table before counting anyone.  So the Mess Sergeant called me a fuckup, and he assigned me to washing pots and pans, and  several times I fell asleep at that and nearly dropped my head into the water before I awoke.

My friends were helicopter mechanics and went from the replacement battalion to a maintenance battalion, but my assignment was to the personnel management office serving the Army’s Seventh Corps Support Command, not in Berlin but a short taxi ride from Boeblingen.

“I know you have prior service,” the Personnel Management Officer said to me my first day on the job.  “But you’re still a Spec. 4 and have no more authority than any other Spec. 4.”

“Yes, sir,” I said to the captain.

My job was processing assignments for people returning to the United States, and my home while the Army processed moving Nancy and Pat to Boeblingen was a barracks room with a dozen other men, most of whom were inductees.

When I went to the support command’s Personnel Actions office to initiate the process of moving Nancy and Pat to Germany, the clerk with whom I spoke told me that the waiting list for dependent housing was long and that I’d have to rent an apartment on the German economy and buy a car before I officially could request the move, and saving the cash for all that was slow because I was having too much fun in the guest houses with a PFC I befriended in the barracks.

His name was Nolte, and he had enlisted in the Army, and he was younger than I and respected me for my knowledge of Germany and the German language, and he accepted any suggestion I offered for enjoying our time off, including a weekend hitchhiking trip.

            But I also drank enough at a Christmas party the captain held for his staff in his family’s government quarters to tell him I hoped what he’d said to me regarding my subordinate position wouldn’t keep him from recommending me for promotion when I proved myself in his office.

And I proved myself quickly, dividing my responsibility equally between myself and the other member of my team, a PFC who proved himself both able and acquiescent.  When he finished his part of the processing he put the paper into a box on my desk.  And I finished the job.

And for lunch I ate at my desk hotdogs from a shop in the basement of the office building.  In the rest of the hour, I made copies of the paper, and distributed them.  Our process was fast and effective.


 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 20

1968 - 1970

 

And, after a few months, after Nancy sent me for my 23rd birthday a wedding ring to replace the one I’d given away, I bought a rusty brown 1957 Volkswagen with a pool 4-ball for a gear shift lever and a faulty clutch, and I took it to a shop in Boeblingen for the clutch repair and arranged to rent an apartment in Doeffingen a Spec. 5 in my office was vacating because he was going home.  When I returned to the Personnel Actions office to make my official request to move Nancy and Pat to Germany, the clerk again tried to make excuses not to process my request, but I knew something about First Sergeants.  And I complained to mine.

            Nearly in tears I told him my problem, in front of the company clerk and others in the orderly room who stared back and forth between me and the First Sergeant, but the First Sergeant said he’d make a call and told me to go back to the Personnel Actions office.  I did, and the clerk was quite polite to me, and a few days later he told me he had approval of my request.  He told me that Nancy and Pat could join me in March.

I sent Nancy instructions orders and other instructions he gave me , and the last week of March she arrived at Rhine-Main Airbase, with Pat in her arms.  She was in a new green winter coat with a hood with white fur lining she said her father had bought her, although she also told me she suspected that he had kicked Ackley to death because he didn’t like him and had kicked him before he disappeared, and Pat had grown so big and fat that he didn’t seem to me to be Pat.  I left him on Nancy’s lap during the speech for dependents arriving at the air base.

            She said nothing about the old car as I drove her and Pat to our new home.  It was in the roof of a new house on a hill above Doeffingen, a tiny town between Boeblingen and the Black Forest, and I was proud of it.  The back of the house was further down the hill than was the front of the house, and so the entrances to the house and to the landlord’s home were at street level while another tenant’s apartment was below it but at the level of the ground at the back of the house, and so our apartment was on the third floor but one flight of stairs above the entrance.  Inside our door was a hallway, and I had closed the doors from it to the living room and kitchen and bathroom and bedroom, to surprise Nancy with each room and the view.

            “Well, this is it,” I told her as we entered the hallway, intending to imply that the little hallway was all of the apartment.

But she said nothing then, or while I opened the doors to the living room at one end of the roof and to the bedroom at the other end of the roof and to the kitchen and the bathroom and the closet between, or when I opened the big living room window to show her the hills and meadows and trees and the village below.

            But the Army had loaned us furniture that included two twin beds.  I hadn’t assembled them, but Nancy wrapped Ben in a blanket and laid him on one of the mattresses, and she and I made love on the other.  That needed no words.

Next I drove her to an apartment in Boeblingen one of my coworkers had rented, because his wife and the wife of another of my coworkers had also arrived that day, and he had invited us there.  Both he and the other coworker were inductees, and neither they nor their wives had much to say to Nancy or me, and they didn’t offer us a drink.  But they told us that Eisenhower had died and that Monday would be the official day of mourning for that.  I had taken a three-day pass beginning that Friday.  Now I had a four-day pass.

            That evening Nancy and Pat and I ate wiener schnitzel at the Gasthof See, because I thought it was the nicest restaurant in Boeblingen, and the waitress brought a highchair for Pat.  Saturday I took them to the Army commissary, for Nancy to buy groceries, all she wanted.  And Sunday I drove them to Heidelberg to see the castle.

Nancy climbed the many stairs to the castle with Pat in her arms, because again I didn’t offering to take him from her, but she seemed to me to be happy about everything.  Monday we stayed at home, and Tuesday Nancy told me when I returned home from work that she’d walked down the hill to Doeffingen, again carrying Pat.  She told me an old woman smiled at her.

She had acquired a crib for Pat, and the Army shipped it and our old bed and some other things to us, but we didn’t sleep in the old bed because she hadn’t asked the Army to ship the mattress.  As we had at Pinecrest, we happily slept in one of the twin beds, and we had more money than we had ever had.  So I began paying our debts.

We owed the hospital for Pat’s birth, and I owed the Department of Veterans Affairs reimbursement for its check I didn’t use for education, and the bank wrote to me telling me it had repossessed the Spitfire and the Malibu and that they were nearly worthless, because I had burned a hole in one of the Spitfire’s pistons when I drove it 93 miles per hour on I-69, and because the Malibu’s cylinder block had cracked because I’d put no antifreeze in it, and because of the hole in the Spitfire’s windshield and a crack in the Malibu’s.

But I received a promotion back to Spec. 5 that helped with that, because I had routinely proven myself to the captain as I’d suggested I would at his Christmas party, and once I had done that quite dramatically.  A master sergeant whose date of eligibility to return to the United States passed without my receiving an assignment for him complained up his chain of command.  And the complaint came back down the chain of command to me.

“Specialist Harman,” said the captain coming to my desk with the colonel who was the Seventh Corps Support Command Adjutant General by his side, “got anything on Master Sergeant Shirley Qualls.”

“Qualls, Qualls, Qualls,” I said aloud to myself as I tried to remember what I had done concerning him, and the captain flustered me further by frowning and glaring at me as I did that, but suddenly I remembered.

“Yes,” I said.  “I called USAREUR on him this morning, and they said they have his assignment instructions but that they couldn’t give them to me because they were down in the machine room.  They said they could give them to me tomorrow.”

“How reliable is that,” asked the Captain as the frown disappeared from his face.

“It always has been,” I said.

He nodded at me, and turned to the colonel wordlessly, letting my answer be his.

And next, when his administrative assistant went on leave, he asked me to fill in for him.  My assistant and I had worked well enough together for him to perform excellently without me, and the Captain soon learned that I was more literate than had been his administrative assistant, and a few weeks later I was a Spec. 5 again.  And the captain handed me the promotion orders.

“I told you I’d take care of you,” he said.

And drinking only at home helped me pay the debts.  I invited Nolte to our apartment for some of Nancy’s spaghetti, but he ate it with hardly a word to either of us, and I never saw him again.  Once I took Nancy to the NCO club, and my team mate was there with a German girl, and I introduced Nancy to them.    And I invited them to our apartment for spaghetti.  But he declined the invitation.

But I was happy staying at home with no one other than Nancy and Pat for company, and I thought she was happy also until I returned from work and found her standing in the middle of the living room, waiting for me and weeping.

“I’m lonely,” she said.

“You have me,” I said.

“Yes,” she said, “but you have your friends at work, and I don’t have anyone else.”

“I’ll find us some friend,” I said after a moment of disappointment in seeing hers.

By then I had received another assignment.  Seventh Corps had formed a detachment to do nothing but receive new arrivals from the United States and determine their assignments within the Support Command.  And the captain who was my boss became the detachment’s Commander, and he selected me as a Team Chief in it with the temporary rank of sergeant, to give me authority over the replacements I was to process.

The reorganization included the creation of a Personnel and Administration Battalion that included the Replacement Detachment, and one of the replacements was a Spec. 5 we assigned to assist the battalion’s Personnel Staff NCO, and I had spoken with him and learned that his wife would be joining him there.  His name was Roy Maples, and I invited him to our apartment for some of Nancy’s spaghetti, and he told us his wife’s name was Denise.  But, before Denise arrived, I introduced Roy to guesthouses without Nancy.

And Roy also befriended Paul Pimentel, a Spec. 4 in an intelligence unit of the P&A Battalion, and he had no wife.    He and Roy established romantic relationships with two English au pairs in Tubingen, and I drank with Roy and Paul there, and Nancy liked Paul.  She called him Pete Mattel, and she also befriended his au pair, and we took him to the Stuttgart zoo.

He teased a chimpanzee with a package of Winston cigarettes, and the chimpanzee reached between bars of his cage and took the package from Paul and ate the cigarettes, spitting out the packaging.  And once Pete Mattel and I went to Tubingen without Roy and snuck into a Tubingen University women’s dormitory and took an elevator to the sixth floor and went onto a balcony at the end of a hallway and climbed onto the railing beside it.

The railing was about a foot wide, and on one side of it was the space between it and the ground, but a girl was in the room on the other side of it.  As I waited and watched on my hands and knees on the railing, Paul reentered the hallway and knocked on the door to the room, and the girl opened it.  She didn’t invite him into the room, but she talked with him for a few minutes at the door, as I wondered why I was risking my life to watch that.  But I didn’t leave the railing until she closed the door.  Then Paul and I went to a bar.

One of our two favorites was Tante Emile’s, a guest house on the river at the bottom of some stairs from the street, with a stone floor and old wooden tables and Aunt Emily overseeing her stammtiche.  I once went there alone and opened a conversation from my table with one of her regulars at her stem table.  I moved from my table to the stammtiche but received frowns and no more conversation.

The other of our two favorite Tubingen bars was a small private club with a long bar and wooden benches along the wall opposite it.  We discovered it by seeing the small sign over its door in an alley and pushing the button beside the door.  The bartender unlocked the door and welcomed us.

No one else was in the bar, and he talked with us and played phonograph records, mostly of jazz and folk music.  My first two times there, he played a Leonard Cohen album, and my second time there I asked him to sell it to me.  He initially refused, but I persisted until he sold it to me, after scratching it several times with the needle while removing it from the turntable.

I didn’t take Nancy to Tubingen before Denise arrived, but I took her to a guesthouse in Doeffingen, and there we drank with a young man who said he was married.  We invited him and his wife to our apartment for spaghetti, and they reciprocated by inviting us to their apartment in Doeffingen for cold cuts, and we bought them cigarettes.  American cigarettes were popular among Germans, and some United States soldiers sold them for profit, but I gave them to them and also gave some to our landlord, whose name was Mull, German for garbage.

But Nancy told me the guy from Doeffingen came to our apartment with no invitation while I was out with Roy and Paul and hit on her, and she also told me Herr Mull hit on her while she was in his home, paying our rent.  I said nothing to either of them about that, but I took our rent to Herr Mull the next month and stopped associating with the Doeffingen guy, until one night I was drunk at home with Pete Mattel.  I wanted to extend the party.

“I think I’ll go see what that guy’s up to,” I said after telling Pete about him

“You don’t want to do that,” Paul responded.  “I know what you want to do.”

But I left him with Nancy and Pat and drove down the hill and into the town and rang the guy’s doorbell.  He leaned from his third floor window and looked down at me and leaned back through his window and closed it.  I pushed the doorbell button again, as Pete Mattel arrived, in his little car.

“Come on,” he said.  “I know what you’re doing.”

“I’m not trying to pick a fight,” I said.  “I just thought maybe he needed a beer.”

“Yeah, right,” said Paul.  “Come on.  Let’s go.” 

But I paid off all the debts, and Nancy and I decided to try to have a sister for Pat, and so she soon was pregnant again.  And we also sold our brown 1957 Volkswagen and bought a red 1963 Volkswagen from one of my coworkers who was returning to the United States.  And, with Pete Mattel and his au pair in the back seat, I drove it to see the Zugspitze.

On the au pair’s suggestion, we stopped in Ulm to see the cathedral, but we didn’t go inside it.  Snow fell so heavily between Ulm and Garmisch that my windshield wipers jammed several times.  Each time they jammed, I rolled down the window on my side and reached out to unjam them, letting the snow blow onto Pete Mattel and his au pair in the back seat.

In Garmisch we stopped for lunch and drinks at a ski lodge, and Nancy slipped in the snow on the steps from the lodge’s front terrace and fell solidly on her butt, and my new wedding ring slipped from my finger into the snow when I helped her up.  I discovered it wasn’t on my finger when I put my hand on the steering wheel while starting the car, and all of us went back to the steps and looked for it, but none of us found it.  The au pair had been frowning at me since Ulm, and now I felt she had reason to frown, but I tried to drive on to the Zugspitze.

We couldn’t see it from Garmisch, and I tried to drive into Austria because an Austrian road went nearer to it than Garmisch was, and because I wished to be able to say I’d been to Austria.  The au pair told me she didn’t have her passport with her, but I told her we might as well try because we had come so far and were so close, but the border patrol turned us back.  So I was in Austria only long enough to drive around the customs booth.

 But, after Denise arrived, Nancy and I spent less time with Paul and no time with his au pair.  Nancy and Denise became friends, and Roy and I took them with us when we went to guesthouses, in Tubingen and anywhere else.  At Tante Emile’s, Roy showed me how to make a bottle of beer foam over, by hitting its top with the bottom of another bottle, and Tante Emile asked us to leave, after we did that several times.  But my work became less fun for me.

Nancy and Pat had traveled to Germany on one passport.  The picture in it was of her and Pat with Pat sitting in her lap.  And she had an extra copy of it I put beneath some acetate covering a blotter pad on my desk.  One of my coworkers drew a mustache on the image of Pat.  I took the picture home.

I didn’t know who drew the mustache, but one of my coworkers had been and acting sergeant for his job in the Support Command personnel actions office, before the captain also selected him for assignment to the replacement detachment but appointed me Team Chief.  He didn’t take the other guy’s acting sergeant’s stripes away, and he was an inductee and older than I and made clear his resentment, at my being his boss.  He did it materially in response to the only order I ever gave him.

The two teams worked swing shifts to be sure a team was working whenever a busload of replacements arrived.  Each team worked from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. one day and from 3:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. the next evening with the overlapping half hour for communication between the teams.  The problem arose when a busload of replacements arrived at about 10:30 p.m.

“It’s late,” said the other acting sergeant, as the replacements disembarked from the bus in front of the building.  “We can let the other shift brief them in the morning.”

“It’s not that late,” I said.  “We have plenty of time to do it.”

“Why?” he asked.  “What’s the big hurry?”

“Just do it,” I told him and went upstairs to the briefing room.

The next morning the staff sergeant to whom both I and the other team chief answered told me the captain wanted to see me.  The staff sergeant followed me to the orderly room, and the detachment’s First Sergeant escorted us into the captain’s office, and I stood before his desk and saluted.  I thought of the situation in Frankfurt when I hadn’t come to attention quickly enough in the parade practice.

“From your performance across post, I thought you were the right pick for this job,” said the captain.  “But I’ve had some complaints about you, and people have told me they smell alcohol on your breath when you come to work.  I’m going to make Hynes your Team Chief and give the other team to your assistant.  So I’ll need to take your acting sergeant stripes.”

“I drink a beer with supper before I come to work on the night shift,” I replied nearly in tears, “and how’s losing the stripes going to look on my record?”

“Okay,” said the Captain.  “You can keep the stripes, but Hynes will be your boss.”

Hynes had been a Spec. 4 in the Personnel Management Office when the captain told me I didn’t outrank other Spec 4s’, and the captain had also arranged his promotion to Spec. 5 and had made him the acting sergeant chief of the other Replacement Detachment team, but the change the captain described as I stood before his desk didn’t last long.

“You can handle this,” Hynes said to me the second night he was my Team Chief.  “I’ve got something I need to do tonight.  Is that alright?”

He was correct.  I could handle it, and I was happy not having to deal with him, and from then on he did that every night our team worked the evening shift.  And, partly because I had no problem with handling it and partly because I knew the captain particularly favored Hynes and partly because I didn’t wish to be a snitch, I told no one above us in the chain of command what he was doing.

Instead, I increased my effort to prove myself, by taking a correspondence course in personnel management supervision from the Army’s Institute for Administration.  And a copy of my score on each test went to the captain because he was the Detachment Commander, and he responded to the first one he received by calling me and my team to the orderly room and commending me, as Hynes stood by frowning.  The captain didn’t do that again, but he recommended me for promotion to staff sergeant after he received a few more, and soon after that no sergeant stripes were on Hynes’ sleeves when I arrived at work.

“You’re Team Chief again,” the captain told me.  “That was a mistake.  I apologize.”

“I’m not through with you yet,” Hynes said to me the next time no one else was within hearing distance of us, but the captain moved him to the other team, and so I was through with him.

“You and Sergeant Myers aren’t like other lifers,” said my new assistant I suspected snitched on Hynes, referring to the me and the staff sergeant in charge of both teams.

My performance before the promotion board placed me sixth on the Support Command list for promotion to staff sergeant.  But that was a mistake, and I knew it because my correspondence course had taught me the scoring system, and my points for taking the correspondence course should have raised me to first on the list.  I went to Roy’s boss, the P&A Battalion’s Personnel Staff NCO, and asked him to recalculate my score.  He was an old drunk and looked at my recommendation file and said the mistake was mine.  But a staff sergeant in the office looked at it and told him I wasn’t.  He recalculated my score and republished the list.  Then I was first by a wide margin.

I also took some other tests, at the Army Education Center on the Kaserne, to try to receive credit for a year of college for more promotion points.  I didn’t receive my scores on those tests in time for them to affect the list.  But I didn’t need them for the promotion.

The captain handed me my promotion orders and my first set of staff sergeant stripes in our First Sergeant’s office.  I worked in fatigues, and the Army was transitioning then from big yellow stripes on sleeves of combat uniforms to little black pins on their collars, and during my lunch break that day I went to the PX and bought some of each and put a pin on my fatigue cap.  But from the PX I went to the post tailor shop and had the tailor sew a set of the big yellow stripes onto my field jacket.  And, when I returned to work, the First Sergeant looked closely at those stripes.  But he didn’t tell me they didn’t belong there.

“I just wanted to see if you used the ones the captain gave you,” he said.  “They were SFC stripes.  I trimmed off the bottom rocker.”

“Yes, Top,” I said using the familiar address for First Sergeants.  “I saw that.”

“Notice anything different?” I asked Nancy when I arrived home from work.

“No,” she said looking first into my face and next at my uniform.  “What?”

I leaned my head closer to her, and she looked at my cap I hadn’t removed when I entered the house as I ordinarily did, because of the Army regulation against headgear indoors when one isn’t carrying a weapon, and she looked up at my cap, but she shook her head.

And I had a similar problem with a replacement, after another replacement passing me on the stairs told another replacement to look at me and the stripes on my field jacket, as I limped up the stairs from the discomfort having smashed my ankle sometimes caused me.

“Look at that young soldier,” said the replacement on the stairs to another with him.

“Yes, PFC,” replied a replacement to an order I gave him while not in my field jacket.

“It’s been a long time since I was a PFC,” I said leaning my head and hat toward him.

He stared at my hat a few seconds but said nothing as he turned away to follow the order.

And neither did I get much respect from the wife of the only African American member of my team.  He was a Spec. 4 who had flown his wife there at his own expense and had no apartment, and I invited him and his wife to sleep in our living room until they found an apartment, and Nancy told me his wife told her I shouldn’t drink beer.  She said she said it could cost me my soul.

And I felt she might be right when we moved into government quarters because Nixon’s taking the United States off the gold standard increased our rent by lowering the value of the dollar against the Deutschmark.  We moved into temporary family quarters to wait for an opening in more permanent ones, and I used replacements to move us because the government wouldn’t pay to move us twice for one change of posts, and the temporary quarters were on the fourth floor of the building.  And I felt I owed the replacements for that and gave them alcoholic drinks.

The Spec. 5 who was the detachment’s assistant supply sergeant was on the detail to drive the truck, and he complained to the captain about my giving the replacements the drinks, although he accepted one and didn’t complain to me.  But Sergeant Myers told me about the complaint and told me not to worry about it and said he’d have done the same thing and didn’t know what was wrong with the Spec. 5.  And Sergeant Myers had recently received a promotion from staff sergeant to sergeant first class.

But I seemed to myself to receive little respect from a replacement from Coldwater.  While screening his record to determine his assignment I saw that his home of record was Coldwater.  And I drove home to tell Nancy.

“I know him,” she said.  “He was in my Dick’s band.  He played at our wedding.”

So I drove back to work and took him home, and he had a long talk with Nancy and drank the bottle of beer I offered him as I drank one, but he said little to me.

The captain gave me what I thought was respect.  He told me he had received a directive to appoint someone CBR NCO, to advise the detachment on matters concerning defense against chemical and biological and radiological warfare, and he said the person would have to go to Vilseck for two weeks of training.  But, after I volunteered, I doubted the respect.

“You sure?” he asked me, making me reconsider, remembering the Army tradition of not volunteering, and recognizing that others might not welcome the additional duty, but I also remembered that decisiveness was one of the fourteen traits of military leadership.

“Yes, sir,” I said but stopped in Nuremburg on the way to Vilseck to see the wall around what had been all of Nuremburg in the middle ages but had at its base a row of rooms with plate glass windows where prostitutes worked or displayed themselves to the public.

I wished to indulge but didn’t, driving on and earning my credentials  and writing the detachment’s CBR SOP, its standing operating procedure for defense against those kinds of weapons, and once lecturing the detachment on it, but doing little else additional.   

But I received some respect, from a lieutenant colonel, literally.  He was then the Support Command Adjutant General, and he had been the 503d Administration Company Company Commander who had ordered me to clean latrines in Frankfurt, and he inspected the Replacement Detachment.  I stood at attention at my desk when the captain brought him into the office.

He looked at me, and he looked at the stripes on the sleeve of my field jacket on his side of me and smiled, before turning and talking to Sergeant Myers and leaving the office.  He said nothing to me then, but he said much to me the next time I saw him, at a picnic for the members of the detachment and our families.  He told me that he was glad to see I was doing well and that his brother George was out of the Army but doing well in Connecticut.

By then, the captain who had formed the detachment had returned to the United States, and the captain who succeeded him sat at a table eating cake with Colonel Gates, after our conversation.  With some of my new wealth, I had bought a 35 millimeter single lens reflex camera at the PX, and I took a photograph of them.  I waited for them to lift their forks.

“I had to get a picture of a captain and a colonel eating cake,” I said.

They put down their forks and turned away from me without smiling.

Also at the picnic, I played softball and knocked a ball into the outfield, and I passed a runner between second and third base and ran on home.  The captain and others asked me what I thought I was doing and informed me that passing runners was against the rules.  I had learned nearly nothing about baseball or softball since the second grade.  And I saw that Colonel Gates was frowning.  My respect was on a rollercoaster.

Nancy gave birth to our second child, not a daughter but a son I named Benjamin Clifford, for the title character in Look Homeward Angel and for my father.  Nancy laughed, as I ran red lights on our way to the Army hospital in Bad Cannstatt, trying to think I was in an emergency and needed to hurry.  The birth was on time and quite quick.

During Nancy’s and Ben’s three days in the hospital, I took a leave but took Pat to work to introduce him to our First Sergeant, an African American who had married a German woman.  As Pat sat beside me, on one of the vinyl cushions that were the seat of the sofa in the First Sergeant’s office, he urinated.  I left the puddle without mentioning it to the First Sergeant.

Our first guests in the first floor apartment to which we moved from the fourth floor apartment occupied the apartment above ours.  They were a Spec. 5 and his wife, and I suggested that she and Nancy entertain us with a fashion show, and they dressed in each other’s fanciest clothing and paraded before us in our living room.  My plan was a strip show.

“Kind of like burlesque,” I said but received no response.

Embarrassments were piling up.  I and Nancy and Denise and Roy saw the movie Patton at the theatre on the kaserne.  And Colonel Gates was sitting in front of us.

“That’s the AG,” I said to Roy.  “He’s an old armor captain.  He was my first permanent party CO.  He’s a mustang, direct commission, from sergeant.”

Colonel Gates glanced back at me, but he frowned and said nothing and turned back to the movie, and I felt I had to move on.  The Army had initiated a policy of paying people thousands of dollars to reenlist, and 21 months had passed since my reenlistment in Indianapolis, long enough to reenlist again.  I reenlisted for four years because that was the shortest term that would give me the maximum bonus.  And I asked the P&A Battalion’s recruiting sergeant to get me a NATO assignment.  He said he couldn’t officially but that he would anyway.

A few days later, he told me that the Personnel Officer for an Army NATO unit would like to talk with me in Mons, Belgium.  On the autobahn on my way there, I blew up the engine of our Volkswagen, and a passing driver stopped and told me he’d send a wrecker from the next exit.  A mechanic at the garage where the wrecker took me and the car said that the engine needed replacing and that the cost would be about 250 dollars’ worth of marks.

He replaced the engine while I ate schnitzel and peas and carrots at a guesthouse.  I knew that Germans generally took offense at anyone’s not eating all the food they served him or her.  But, because the waitress brought me far more than I could eat, I left much on the plate.

Nicht gut?” she asked me.

Sehr gut,” I replied patting my belly.

But she frowned as I left.

I wrote a check for the engine, on my account at the American Express branch on the kaserne, and traveled on.  At the Belgian border I asked an old woman for directions to Mons, but she was Flemish and spoke neither English nor German, and I relied the rest of the way on a map.  But finding my way through Liege took me less than an hour.

In Mons, I spent the night before my interview at the home of the Staff Sergeant I would replace, and I headed back to Boeblingen immediately after the interview.

I asked that Colonel Gates give me the oath of enlistment, but the captain told me he had another obligation, and so the captain did it.  I took the initial two thousand dollars of my six thousand dollar reenlistment bonus home in twenty dollar bills and threw them into the air in our living room.  Nancy looked at the window that was open.

None of the twenties flew out, but I gave the First Sergeant a thousand dollars, for a 1966 Pontiac Catalina convertible.  He said he’d have someone paint it any color I wished that it be.  I selected British racing green.

Before we left for Belgium Roy received his promotion to staff sergeant.

“What do you think of that?” my First Sergeant asked me.  “I know he’s a friend of yours, but do you think he’ll make a good staff sergeant?”

“He’ll make as good a staff sergeant as Jones does a sergeant first class,” I said of the SFC who had miscalculated my promotion points.

I’d seen him staggering from tree to tree on the ice, between his car and his office mornings, and the First Sergeant didn’t reply.  I sold our Volkswagen, for much less than I’d paid for it, to my African American team member whose wife had said I might be damned.  Nancy and I loaded the Catalina, and I missed a turn in Liege and spent more than an hour returning to our route, and in Mons the Sergeant First Class I thought would supervise me told me he wouldn’t supervise me because he’d decided to offer the job to another staff sergeant.

“But I found a position for you in the Netherlands,” he said.  “Is that alright?”
 

 

 

Chapter 21

1970 - 1971

 

            I didn’t much care whether my station was in Belgium or in the Netherlands, having requested the NATO assignment partly for career advancement but mainly to add another country to my experience, and I didn’t think I had a choice.  So Nancy and Pat and Ben and I headed back in the direction from which we’d come.   But we turned north at Liege.

The job was in Brunssum at the headquarters of the United States Army Support Element of Allied Forces Central Europe.  Captain Hornbuckle, Commander of the Support Element’s Headquarters Detachment, welcomed me and recommended that we check into a guesthouse in town.  He said that the Army would pay our expenses there until we found a home and that no government family housing was in the area.

 The name of the owner of the guesthouse was Andre, and he operated it with his wife and checked us into a large room on the second floor, and he told me that he operated the guesthouse informally.  He showed us a large second floor room with a television where other U.S. military personnel and their families staying there gathered.  And he showed us a receipt book behind the bar downstairs and said we could pour our own drinks and write our own tab.

Next morning, I reported for work and learned that I would be the Support Element’s Personnel Sergeant, and that the Personnel Officer was Chief Warrant Officer Helen R. Gilmore.  And I had work problems immediately, because a Spec. 4 subordinate to me was reading the Stars and Stripes newspaper, and I told him he should be doing his job.  He ignored me then, and the cycle repeated the next morning, and the next I gave him a direct order to get to work.

He complied.  But next morning, when a Spec. 5. Came into the office to talk to him, I learned that he had told others in the company what he thought about me.  And the Spec. 5, who was our detachment’s Assistant Supply Sergeant, had been the candy stripe corporal with whom I’d had the altercation at the beginning of my Armor training.

            “Is your name Archer?” I asked him with a smile.

            He looked at me and paused for a few second before nodding and returning to his conversation with the Spec. 4.

            “We were squad leaders together in AIT,” I said.

            He finished his conversation and left the office with no reply to that, and a few days later Miss Gilmore told me that a sergeant first class was arriving from the United States and that he would be Personnel Sergeant, and that I would maintain the Support Element’s personnel records.

            And next I had a problem with an Air Force staff sergeant staying with his family at Andre’s.  I received my college level examination scores and learned that I had passed all of them by a large margin and had earned a year of college credit.  And, while I was at work, Nancy told people at the guest house of that.

            “College boy!” said Andre the next time I saw him.  “Congratulations!”

            But the response from the Air Force staff sergeant wasn’t congratulatory.

            “He says anybody can be an E-6 in the Army,” Nancy told me in our room.

            E-6 was my pay grade, the pay grade for Army staff sergeants, but E-5 was the pay grade for Air Force staff sergeants.

            “He said he’s been in the Air Force eight years and earns his pay,” she said.

            But I also received my scores on my annual proficiency test and learned that I had scored so far above the average that I would receive superior performance pay in addition to my E-6 pay, and I saw Archer on the street in front of the building where I worked and spoke with him as we stood beside the Catalina, for which I had bought four new wide oval tires.

            “White letter Goodyears,” he said and told me that he had a Dutch girlfriend, and he and his girlfriend became my and Nancy’s first friends in the Netherlands.

            And Bill Howe, the Spec. 5 who drove for the colonel who commanded the Support Element, befriended me.  And he and his wife introduced us to Spec. 5 Gene Waldron and his wife.  And Henny, Archer’s girlfriend, invited us to her parents’ home.

            And we rented a two-story row house in Elsloo, at the end of the row, with a garage.  Its owner also owned a guesthouse and had two daughters who babysat for us.  And we met his parents in their home.

My commute to Brunssum was further than from Doeffingen to Boeblingen, but a few weeks after my arrival the Support Element’s headquarters moved to a big building that had housed the machinery operating a mine in Schinnen, and that cut my commute nearly in half.  For the move, Miss Gilmore asked me to plan the arrangement of our desks in our new office, and she accepted the plan I drew for her and asked me to drive to Schinnen and arrange the desks.  But, while I was arranging the desks, I thought about the workflow subcourse in my personnel management supervisors correspondence course.

            “What’s this?” asked Miss Gilmore when she saw the result of my changing my mind.

            “I took a course in work flow efficiency,” I said.  “And I think this would work better.”

            “Put it the way you planned it,” she said scowling and leaving the office, and I did.

            Jim Tyson was the sergeant first class who took the job I had expected to be mine.  My main job was maintaining personnel records, but Sergeant Tyson also passed to me tasks that no one in the office routinely did, and he also became a friend of mine.  He drank so much Jim Beam bourbon that his wife said their garage might not be big enough for his empty bottles.  And I performed my responsibilities well enough to receive praise from an inspector.  But I received none from the colonel.

            “The inspector said we have the best maintained 201 files and Form 20’s he’s ever seen,” Miss Gilmore told me after the inspection.  “But the colonel said they damn well should be.”

            I understood that he meant that my rank was too high for my job, but one day Sergeant Tyson told me I needed to go to the colonel’s office, and he and Miss Gilmore went with me.  My performance in Germany had won me the Army Commendation Medal, and the colonel pinned it onto my jacket as others stood and watched, and took pictures.  But Miss Gilmore ended my superior performance pay by giving me a mediocre efficiency report.

            I had expected the pay to continue, because of what I was learning from my extraordinary responsibilities Sergeant Tyson assigned me, and because of Miss Gilmore’s management style.

            “Look it up, Sergeant Harman,” she replied any time I asked her for instructions.

But efficiency reports weighed as heavily in performance scores as did test scores.

But I kept trying to prove myself.  I registered for two University of Maryland extension courses at the Army Education Center in Brunssum and received an A for the one in personnel management.  I performed poorly on the examinations, but I impressed the major teaching the course with a paper I wrote on the book The Organization Man, although I read only the first and last paragraphs of each of its chapters.

            “You’re driving me to Webster,” the major told me.

            But I dropped the other course, an introduction to philosophy, after the first meeting.

            “I’m going to teach you how to think,” the instructor told my class that first evening.

            And Nancy was also trying to prove herself.  She had brought to Germany a Berlitz book for learning German but didn’t read it, but she responded to my passing the College Level Examination Program tests by taking the General Educational Development high school equivalency tests, also at the Brunssum Army Education center.  And she passed with a score above the ninetieth percentile in each of the areas.

And living in Elsloo was educational.  Nancy bought produce and baked goods and beer from trucks that traveled the streets.  We received from the bakery truck free cookies once, because I took a picture of the baker handing a loaf of bread to Nancy at our front door, and I bought for the baker a large print of the picture.  Nancy referred to him as “Hoy the baker” because that’s what he said each time she opened the door to receive his deliveries.  She gave him the picture, and he gave her the cookies, the next night.

And we went to our landlord’s guesthouse on New Year’s Eve.  He kept a bicycle in the guesthouse, because he had been a professional bicyclist, until an injury ended his career.  But he and his family said nearly nothing to us as we drank at his bar that night until police arrived and spoke to him because we had left Pat and Ben outside in the Catalina.

            “They said it’s too cold for your kids in your car,” he told us quietly.

            So we left then, without waiting for a midnight promising little cheer, and that winter I also had Nancy go outside and start the Catalina for me to drive to work in warmth.  But she plainly enjoyed that we spent a lot of time with Bill Howe and his wife and kids, who had a Volkswagen microbus and took us to Keukenhof, to see the fields of tulips and the windmills.  And, on Memorial Day, they took us to the Ardennes American Cemetery.

            Maureen, Bill’s wife, asked to go also to a big flea market also near Liege.  So, after we looked at some graves at Ardennes, we went to the flea market and walked past people selling things other people had used.  One man was trying to sell shoe strings, but he wasn’t putting much effort into it, averting his eyes from anyone who looked at him.

            Lying on his back on a pile of rocks beside his stand was a man with gray whiskers and his mouth and eyes open, and people walking past were averting their eyes from him, but Maureen didn’t.  She stopped walking and turned and stared at him and stepped closer and bent over and looked more closely.  Then she straightened up and turned back to us. 

“Yup,” she said.  “He’s dead.”

            I also befriended some bachelors who lived in the barracks in Brunssum and owned motorcycles.  They had bought new 650 c.c. BSA Firebirds and Lightnings from a shop in Brunssum, but I bought a 1955 BMW R-50, a 500 c.c. touring bike.  But I didn’t have it long.

            Riding it on a farm road near Elsloo, I flipped it onto its headlight trying to turn more quickly than the heavy bike could, and I sold it back to the shop and bought a new BSA Victor Special.  It was a one-cylinder 441 c.c. scrambler, and the man who owned the shop said that I’d be able to lift its front wheel from the road, by cranking the throttle.  But I couldn’t.

But Nancy and I saw the movie Woodstock in a theatre in Heerlen with Archer and Henny, and I saw that the promoter of the concert rode a Victor Special in the film.  And mine cruised smoothly on highways, and so I decided to take a thirty-day leave to travel Europe, with Nancy behind me on it.  We saw a performance of the play Hair with Bill and Maureen.

            I took Henny’s father for a ride on the Victor Special and ran a stop sign at about a hundred kilometers per hour because I was drunk and didn’t see the sign.  But I didn’t kill him, and he and his wife offered to take care of Pat and Ben, while Nancy and I were on our trip.  Henny suggested that.

            “What are you going to do with your kids?” Miss Gilmore asked me.

            “Archer’s girlfriend’s parents are going to watch them for us,” I said.

            She frowned, and I felt as I had in our landlord’s guesthouse New Year’s Eve, but that didn’t stop our trip.  Our first stop was in Luxemburg, where we had lunch only to be able to say we’d been to all three BeNeLux countries, and our next stop was in Boeblingen to see Roy and Denise.  They, after we left Germany, had moved into government quarters.

Denise told us that they had put up a replacement and his wife, as we’d put up the people who told Nancy I might go to hell for drinking beer, but they said the wife had masturbated the husband on their sofa while they were in the room.  Denise wept when Nancy asked Roy what had become of his au pair, but we drank all night and took pictures of each other showing our belly buttons, on the sidewalk in front of the building.  The next stop in our plan was Rorschach.

            At the Swiss border, I asked the woman who checked our passports whether she spoke German, and she laughed at me.  The Alps were cold, and I stopped in a rest area to try to stop shivering, and a German family invited us into their camper trailer and gave us paper cups of hot soup.  But we had lunch in warm sunshine at a table behind a restaurant beside a road with a view nearly straight down into a green valley with snowy mountains beyond.  In Rorschach, we slept in a small hotel with no parking, but the desk clerk told me I could park the bike in an alley.  The next stop in our plan was Milan.

The tunnel through the Alps into Italy was white on its Swiss end and black on its Italian end, and in Milan drivers honked before traffic lights changed and used all the space they could, forcing us to ride the lines between the lanes.

            We stopped at a curb of the Piazza Duomo to see the cathedral, and a man approached us with many pigeons perching on him, and he transferred the pigeons to Nancy.  He took pictures of us with the pigeons on her and led us to a desk in in a subway tunnel where he told us we could have prints of the photographs in an hour.  But I declined to pay the price.

            Henny had told us that women couldn’t enter churches in Italy in pants.  So, because we couldn’t carry much luggage on the motorcycle, Nancy packed a miniskirt. As we approached the cathedral, women in the piazza stared at her, and they didn’t smile.

            The attendant at the parking garage beside our hotel in Milan told me I couldn’t park a motorcycle in it, but the desk clerk in the hotel telephoned the manager of the garage, and he let me park in a corner where no car would fit.

            In the Piazzi di Roma in Venice I parked the motorcycle in a place for bicycles, and we cashed some travelers’ checks at an American Express branch on the piazza and rode a power boat to the hotel we had selected from Europe on Five Dollars a Day, and Nancy in corduroy jeans entered a church where we saw huge paintings of Tintoretto’s, and we walked about the Piazza San Marco and crossed the Bridge of Sighs, with no one staring at her.

            We ordered chicken at table on the Grand Canal, and the waiter brought each of us one chicken wing on a big white plate, and that evening a gondolier offered to take us for a ride.

            “No, thanks,” I replied five times, once to his initial offer and once to his telling me he wouldn’t charge us much and once to each of the three progressively lower prices he named.

“What?” he exclaimed.  “Do you want it for free?”

            When we returned to the Piazza di Roma to travel on to Pisa, the motorcycle wasn’t where I had parked it, or anywhere else I could see.  We went to three police stations, two where police told us they were at the wrong level of government to accept our report, and one where a policeman told us his job was to take reports from people who spoke English.  We sat at his desk and told him where we had parked the motorcycle and when and why.

            “What kind of car was it?” he asked me after we had talked with him for what seemed to me about an hour, and I told him again that it was a motorcycle and why we parked it with the bicycles, and he told us to go to a tobacco shop and buy stamps to pay for the report.

            We returned to our hotel and checked in again, and I gave the hotel’s desk clerk the can of gasoline I was carrying because the scrambler’s tank was small, and he smiled as he accepted it.  Next morning we returned to the police station, and the policeman who had taken the report told us that he hadn’t found the motorcycle, and said its engine probably soon would be powering a boat.  We decided to continue our trip by train.

            “Look,” said Nancy grinning as she stood at the window of our hotel room in Pisa.

            She was looking at the leaning tower, where I took a picture of her leaning with both hands against it as though she were keeping it from falling, before we climbed to the top.  There she sat beneath one of the bells while leafing through a guide book she had bought, but she jumped from beneath the bell as Ackley had from the tire of our Malibu in Coldwater, when the bell rang.  From Pisa we rode a train to Rome.

            Our hotel in Rome was a half block from the Spanish Steps.  We walked to the Forum and the Coliseum and the Vatican.  Nancy, having seen in her guide book a picture of the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius on Capitoline Hill, said before we went there that she wanted a picture of herself astride the horse behind the emperor.  The statue was too high, and the horse was too wide, but I took a picture of her at St. Peter’s Square.  She stood grinning beside a column wider than she was tall.

            She also read about the catacombs in her guidebook, and we took a taxi to them rather than walk all those miles, and a priest guided us through them.  The priest seemed to me to be extraordinarily gracious, and I thought I should make a donation, but I couldn’t think how.  And neither I nor Nancy asked.

            When I saw the ruins of the Roman Forum, I thought of the dirty tunnel through the alps, and I thought of the gondolier when a man in the Coliseum hung a bunch of slides in front of my face while my camera hung around my neck.  But the Coliseum was more colossal than I had imaged it, and we spent more leisurely time in it than at any other famous site we saw in Rome, and I took a picture of Nancy there.  I stood at one end of it as Nancy sat on a stone about halfway around it from me, and the picture I took showed her as but a speck, hardly recognizable.

            From the Coliseum, we walked up a cobblestone road to the Church of St. Peter in Chains, where we saw Michelangelo’s statue of Moses.  A sign inside forbade flash attachments, but I took a picture of the statue in the dark church by putting fifty lira into a coin mechanism, turning flood lights on to light the statue for a few seconds.  When I did that, about a dozen other people rushed to take pictures, and I had to squeeze myself among them to take mine.

            That picture was the 36th on a roll of film for 36 pictures, and I sat on the steps in front of the church to change rolls, and discovered that the film hadn’t been winding.  So I reseated its perforations on the camera’s ratchet and spent another fifty lira to light the statue of Moses and walked Nancy again to the sites where I had thought I’d taken pictures on that roll.  In about two hours we walked nearly as much as we had in two days.

            “My feet hurt,” said Nancy after about an hour and a half, nearly weeping.

“We’re almost finished,” I said walking ahead of her and not slowing down.

            After the Venetian chicken wings, we heeded the advice in Europe on Five Dollars a Day to eat in trattorias, and we ate prezzo fizzo.  In one, I ordered desert thinking it was in the price the restaurant fixed, and I refused to pay for it partly because it was only a pear with some cheese.  The waiter insisted, though not as loudly as I resisted, but I didn’t accede.

            “Come on,” I said to Nancy as I turned toward the door.  “Let’s go.”

            “Are you going to leave your newspaper?” she asked at the door.

            I had never read a newspaper before reading the Stars and Stripes in the Netherlands, but I was reading the Herald Tribune in restaurants on that trip, and Nancy pointed to the one on the table in that restaurant.  I looked at the table and walked past the waiter without looking at him and picked up the paper.  I left, without paying for pear and cheese, with Nancy behind me.

            Our next stop was Sitges.  Henny had told us that it was the Spanish Riviera and that a lot of Dutch people went there because it wasn’t as expensive as the French Riviera.  We stared at Monaco as we passed it on a train.

            A Canadian who reminded me of Gene Cecie owned our little hotel a block from the beach.  We had swimsuits with us, and I spent a few hours with Nancy on the beach, hoping some of the women would be in topless swimsuits.  None were, but a woman walking on the boardwalk was in a one-piece swimsuit that was mostly transparent, and I walked past her and back twice to see whether a nipple or some pubic hair was beneath a transparent part.

            I wanted to see a bullfight, and the Canadian arranged a bus tour for us, to the ring in Barcelona.  I enjoyed the pageantry and color, the trumpets and the banderilleros leaping into the air with their darts, and I enjoyed seeing a matador fly into the air because a bull threw him with his horns.  But I didn’t enjoy seeing the picadors bleeding the bulls with their spears.

            At the end of one fight, when the matador stuck the sword into the bull’s hump, the bull regained enough strength to toss the matador.  But the matador stood up and pulled the sword out and stuck it in again, and the bull’s only reward for his spirit was that a team of mules dragged his carcass around the ring a few times, instead of dragging it out immediately.  Nancy, reading the program, told me it said the meat goes to charity.  But that didn’t seem to me to be charitable.  It seemed to me to be cannibalistic.

            That evening I took Nancy to a bar I thought might have women dancing naked for entertainment.  It was in a cellar and had tables surrounding a small dance floor with a spotlight shining down on it.  We ordered drinks and waited.

            No dancers appeared, but I thought the reason none appeared might be that no other customers were in the bar, except a man sitting alone at a table on the other side of the dance floor from us.

            “Where are you from?” asked the man.

            He asked us to join him at his table and said he was from California, and he said that John Wayne was gay, and called him the Duke.  He was traveling in a Volkswagen microbus and sleeping in it instead of in hotels.  I had a drink in it with him the next night without Nancy.

            “I’d like to roll you into that bed,” he said.

            I didn’t reply, but I accepted his offer to give Nancy and me a ride to Madrid, and we left Sitges in his microbus the next morning.

            “This is where they film the spaghetti westerns,” he said as he drove us through brown hills he said were the Sierra Madres.

            In Madrid he stopped in front of a few hotels Nancy and I decided against.

            “I’m not going to drive you around all night,” he said.

            So we checked into the one in front of which he said it.

            “Room cinco,” said the man who checked us in, pronouncing it “thinko.”

            We had included Madrid in our itinerary because I wished to see the Prado.  The Louvre was also on our itinerary, and we had found the Sistine Chapel and spent hours in the Vatican museum, but most of our time in the Vatican was while trying to find our way out.  Nancy said I should ask for directions, as she had when I missed our turn in Liege, on our way to Mons.  But we had no trouble finding our way out of the Prado, because we didn’t go into it, because it wasn’t open.  Our only time there was a few minutes of looking at it from a bench in front of it.

            Trains to Pamplona were full.  We stood between cars until we found enough space in a compartment to jam ourselves into it.  In the compartment I drank a bottle of Chianti I had bought from a cart on the platform in Madrid.  Everywhere we went, Nancy was more congenial than I, and the young passengers in the compartment spoke with her but stared at me.  The Chianti made my teeth purple.

In Pamplona, we found many young people in red bandannas sleeping in the town square, and one who was awake told us all the hotels were full.  We looked at the barricades along the street where the bulls ran, but we had arrived about an hour after they ran that morning, and we decided not to sleep in the park.  In front of the station, as we awaited a train to Paris, a young woman was sitting on the concrete in a loose T-shirt.  I tried to see down the front of it, but a young man standing beside her looked at me, and frowned.  So I looked away.

            In Paris we checked into a fifth floor room in a hotel with no elevator.  It was on the Left Bank, near the bridge to Notre Dame de Paris, and we walked to the cathedral and the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower and the Arc of Triumph and Montmartre.  We went into the cathedral but not into the Basilica of the Sacred Heart.

            I hadn’t lost myself in the Louvre my first time in it but did this time.  I saw the Mona Lisa my first time there but not this time because too many other people were standing in front of her trying to see her.  Again I didn’t find the elevator to the highest observation deck of the Eiffel Tower.  I took Nancy into a cheap Pigalle strip joint but not into the Moulin Rouge.  I hadn’t known of Pigalle my first time in Paris.

            We found an inexpensive restaurant near the Champs Elysees but didn’t leave a tip.  Because tipping wasn’t customary in Germany, I thought it wasn’t customary anywhere in Europe, and when we returned the next day the waiters ignored us.  We sat at the table a few minutes, until I guessed my error, and then we left.

            No one cleaned our room during our stay in Paris, although I complained the second day and complained the third day as loudly as I had refused to pay for dessert in Rome, as the desk clerk stared at me silently as guests waiting for his help stared at me.

            Also in Paris, after seeing things we knew were there, we saw the movie Easy Rider.

            When we picked up Pat and Ben at Henny’s parents’ apartment, Ben stared at us while Pat continued doing what he was doing, and neither of them ran into our arms.  I gave Henny’s father several bottles of liquor, but we gave her mother nothing for taking care of our children, although I supposed she did most of the work.  Dutch police investigated whether we had illegally exported the Victor Special.

            A few weeks later Roy and Denise came to visit us and slept on our living room floor.  Roy drove us to Amsterdam, where we learned that Amsterdam had windows along a canal where prostitutes sold themselves, as they did at the wall in Nuremburg.  We saw condoms floating in the canal, and we didn’t bother with any more tourism there, although Denise mentioned Rembrandt’s paintings in the Rijksmuseum.

            But I earned a little respect from Miss Gilmore.  I was CBR NCO for my detachment in Schinnen as I had been for my detachment in Boeblingen.  During our trip the Detachment Commander received notice of an impending inspection and discovered we didn’t have an SOP.  On our return he asked me to write one, as I had for the replacement detachment, and Miss Gilmore read it.

            “That’s what an SOP is supposed to be,” she said.

And she asked me, instead of Sergeant Tyson, to go with her to a conference to learn new personnel procedures.  It was in Worms, and I drove us there in the Catalina, and we checked into rooms in a guesthouse.  We ate supper together at the guesthouse the night of our arrival.

            “Have you thought about applying for attaché duty?” she asked me.

            “What’s attaché duty?” I asked her.

            “You’d work in embassies anywhere,” she said.  “You like to travel.”

            The next day we attended the conference together, but she told me that she wouldn’t stay for the second day, and that she’d take a train back to Boeblingen in the morning.  I didn’t eat supper with her that night, but instead drove to Frankfurt as soon as I had changed into civilian clothing, immediately after the meetings.  I parked near the Kaiserstrasse and drank beer in some strip joints and flagged down a woman I saw driving alone in a 1963 Chevrolet.  As I suspected, she was a prostitute, and she drove me to a building where she took me upstairs to a room.  I paid her extra cash to remove all her clothing.

            “You’re beautiful,” I said.

            “I like girls,” she replied.

            Back on the street, I flagged down another woman, driving alone in a Mercedes.  She took me to a room she called her office, and I paid her extra cash to remove all her clothing as I had the other, but she got onto the bed with her shoes on.  So I asked her to remove her shoes.

            “You’re crazy,” she said but removed them, and she put a condom on my penis and performed fellatio before straddling me as had the other woman, and I felt too drunk to drive and spent a few hours in a room in a small hotel on the Kaiserstrasse before returning to Worms, and struggling to remain awake during the second day of the conference.

            In Schinnen Miss Gilmore didn’t ask me why I hadn’t driven her to the train station, and I looked up the procedure for requesting attaché duty and submitted the initial paperwork, and Nancy took the necessary photograph with a side of our garage as its background.

            At about that time I befriended Spec. 6 Eschelmann.  He was a legal clerk new to the company, and he came to my office and asked me about procedures for bringing to the Netherlands his wife, whom he had married while on leave before flying there.  But, when she arrived, with her two children from a previous marriage, he said he preferred that she not be his wife and refused any responsibility for her or her children, and Bill and Maureen let them stay in their home while we administrators administrated the problem.

            “I know he’s a good’n,” Eschelmann’s wife told me, when I told her I wouldn’t have expected that of him, and I wondered why he didn’t share her Texas accent while both of them were from Dallas, and I found her attractive but thought her speech and blue eye shadow might be some of why he decided against her.

A few weeks after she returned to Texas he brought a bachelor Spec. 5 and his girlfriend to our house.  Vigil, the Spec. 5, had some marijuana, and he and his girlfriend and Eschelmann and Nancy and I smoked it, as we listened to music through a component stereo system I had bought in Germany.  And we did that several evenings.

            But one evening they came by for a different reason.  Vigil had a grievance against Colonel Sparano, the Commanding Officer of the Support Element, and Eschelmann told him I could write.  The grievance was an array of generalities about the colonel’s character, and I had no way to know whether any of it was accurate, but I helped him write his complaint.

            “Did you write that letter?” Miss Gilmore asked me outside our office.

            “I helped them with the writing style,” I told her to be concisely honest.

            In Germany, I had used some of my reenlistment bonus to buy some new clothes, in the Carnaby Street mod style then popular.  I dressed in some of them for a party at the club for AFCENT personnel in Brunnsum.  And Eschelmann stared at me.

            “Those are nice clothes for a guy like you,” he said.

            I also went out drinking one night with him and a Spec. 5 whose wife had recently returned to the United States to prepare for his return and discharge from the Army.  We tried to pick up women, but Eschelmann reminded me that I had a wife, and they took me home.  They didn’t reply to my asking why we were going home so early

No one ever again mentioned the letter to me, but I gave the colonel more reason to suspect my character, at the home of Bill and Maureen.

 


 

 

 

 

Chapter 22

1971 - 1972

 

As Nancy and I played poker with Bill and Maurine at their house after their children went to bed, Bill suggested that we stop playing for his poker chips and play strip poker, and I talked them into changing the rules to accelerate the stripping.  We did that several nights, and one night the doorbell rang, late in the game.  Bill peeked from behind the curtain of his living room window.

            “Shit,” he said.  “It’s the colonel.”
            I don’t remember why, but we couldn’t get to our clothes without passing the front door, which had a window in it.

            “You answer it,” said Bill handing me some of his oldest son’s clothing.  “I’m too big to get into these.  I’ll go upstairs and get some clothes.  Don’t let him in.”

            I pulled on the trousers and the shirt but couldn’t button the trousers, and I went to the door and opened it widely enough to talk to the Colonel, as he stood outside on that extremely cold late November night.

            “Harman,” said the Colonel shivering.  “Where’s Bill?  I need his keys to my car.”

            “He’s upstairs,” I said.  “Just a minute.  I’ll get him.”

            “Bill,” I shouted as I closed the door with the colonel standing outside in the cold.

            I didn’t think of that when a CIA operative came to investigate me for attaché duty.  But my expectations of approval for it were so low that I left the office when he entered it.  Miss Gilmore had told me he’d be there that morning.

            “How do you do,” I said hardly audibly as I walked past him on my way out.

            And I didn’t know the difference between the CIA and any other intelligence.

            “Is that CID guy gone?” I asked Miss Gilmore when I returned to the office.

            “He wasn’t CID,” she said looking at me with wide eyes.  “He was CIA.”

            CID was the Army’s acronym for its Criminal Investigation Division.

            I didn’t ask Miss Gilmore the difference, and I didn’t look it up and left Europe without knowing, although my assignment instructions arrived later than had Master Sergeant Quall’s in Boeblingen.  My assignment to Europe was to be three years, and the date I was eligible to return to the United States was 18 November, but I didn’t receive my assignment instructions until the second week of December.  And they might have been later if Miss Gilmore hadn’t done for me what I had done for Sergeant Qualls.

            “He’s done a good job for me,” I heard her say during her telephone inquiry to our higher headquarters.  “I hate to see him get screwed.”

            When I had my assignment instructions, Bill and Maureen hosted a going away party for Nancy and me and didn’t tell us they were going to do it, but Bill asked me to bring the speakers from my stereo system to his house that night.  I did, thinking he wanted to do something extraordinary in connection with our strip poker, and I tried to hurry us into whatever it might be.  But he told me to wait a little while.

            Eschelmann and Vigil and his girlfriend and Gene Waldron and his wife and Sergeant Tyson and his wife and Archer and Henny arrived but not Miss Gilmore.  Sergeant Tyson suggested shooting craps, and many of us did after the others taught me how, until Tyson’s wife pulled him out of the game and took him home.  He went quietly but not apparently happily.   

            “Sorry I couldn’t make it to your party,” said Miss Gilmore Monday morning.

            To buy new a car, for delivery in the United States, I requested an exception to the Army’s policy of paying my reenlistment bonus in installments.  The process for receiving the exception required a letter from my commanding officer saying I was an outstanding soldier.  I wrote the letter and asked the lieutenant then commanding the detachment to sign it.

            “Of course,” he said reading it and smiling.  “No problem.”

            I ordered a new American Motors Gremlin for delivery in Detroit, and Sergeant Tyson told me that AMC cars were junk, and that I was crazy requesting attaché duty.

            “You might go to some third world country and get killed,” he said.

             Bill Howe suggested that we move out of our house and stay at his house our last few weeks in the Netherlands.  He said I could say I was staying at Andre’s and collect expense money from the Army as I had at the beginning of my assignment to AFCENT.  I reminded him that I’d have to submit receipts.

            “Andre’ll give you a receipt,” he said, “if you give him a little money.”

            “Kind of noisy staying at Andre’s isn’t it?” Miss Gilmore asked me.

            I didn’t know why she asked that until I went there to ask Andre for a receipt.  His wife had divorced him, and he had changed the guest house into a discothèque, and I found him sitting at an end of the bar amid all the noise.  I had to shout to tell him why I was there.

            “How much do you want for it?” I asked him when he handed me the receipt, and the price he named was about what I had paid him per night when we’d stayed there, and so I paid it readily and thanked him and shook his hand.

            I was in one of my Carnaby Street outfits when we landed at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, and my Aunt Bertha picked us up and drove us to the AMC dealership where I was to pick up the Gremlin, and she drove our luggage to her little house in Lincoln Park.

            “I didn’t think you’d turn out alright,” she said looking at Nancy and Pat and Ben, Pat holding one of my hands as Nancy held Ben in her arms, although he’d learned to walk in the Netherlands.

            “I’m Sergeant Harman,” I said offering a hand to a salesman at the dealership.

He accepted the handshake, but he frowned and called me Bill, and he told me the car wasn’t there.  He said he had a better one that I could have for the same price but that it was red and not the British racing green I’d ordered.  I accepted the car, partly because we needed transportation but partly because it had a V-8 engine, instead of the straight six I had ordered.

            We slept that night in the little loft bedroom in my Aunt Bertha’s house and drove to Coldwater after she gave us breakfast.  I had a thirty day leave between my AFCENT assignment and my assignment to Texas to be Personnel Staff NCO for an Armor Battalion at Fort Hood.  And Christmas was in those thirty days, and Nancy’s first priority for using the leave time was to buy Christmas gifts, but mine was to find Greg and Hummer.

            So, after a few minutes of talk with Nancy’s father and stepmother, we left our luggage at their house and went to the house Hummer and Peggy were renting in Sturgis.

            “Let’s go find Greg,” I said to Hummer.

            “I don’t think so,” said Hummer.

            And he refused to explain to me why.

            So the two of us went to the bar on Sturgis’ main street and sat at its bar and drank beer until Hummer suggested we do something else.

            “Wanna pick up the nut?” he asked.

            “Who’s the nut,” I asked him.

            “She’ll pack your pooper,” he said.

            He directed me to an old white clapboard house and told me to park at the curb and wait.

“Her parents don’t know you,” he said.

            He walked up the walk to the house and stepped onto the porch and rang the doorbell.  He talked a few minutes with a man who answered the door before a girl came to the door.  Then he brought the girl to the car and climbed in and pulled her onto his lap.

“This is Billy,” said Hummer.  “He’s a friend.”

            “I don’t know him,” she replied to that.

            “That’s alright,” said Hummer.  “He’s smart.”

            “Drive out of town,” he said to me.

            As I did that, Hummer told the girl to get into the back, and take off her clothes.  I had folded down the back seat for the luggage, and she climbed between the front seats and removed her clothing and lay on her back with her feet on the front headrests, as Hummer leaned between the seats and licked her vagina.  I looked back to see what he was licking.

            When I looked ahead again, a deer was standing in the road in front of the Gremlin, looking at us.  I hit the deer, before I could hit the brake pedal, and I stopped on the shoulder of the road as steam spewed from the Gremlin’s radiator.  A car coming toward Sturgis stopped in front of it.

            “Need some help?” its driver asked after climbing out of it and walking back to us.

            “No,” I said thinking of what I wished to do with the girl.  “We’ll be alright.  Thanks.”

            “Are you sure?” he asked but returned to his car and drove on, when I nodded.

            But Hummer told the girl to dress and took her up the embankment beside the road, in the direction in which I thought the deer may have dragged herself, and a few minutes later a sheriff’s car arrived.  I was outside the Gremlin intending to flag the next passing car, and the deputy driving the sheriff’s car stopped it where I stood, and rolled down the window on his side of it.  But the other deputy in the car spoke first.

            “Are you Bill Harman?” he asked.

            “Dennis!” I said.  “How you doin’?”

            “Where’s the girl?” he asked me.

            “What girl?” I responded to that.

            “The sixteen year old girl who was naked in the back seat,” replied the driving deputy.

            The other deputy was Dennis Gruner, with whom I had graduated from high school, and he had been less popular than I.  In the Netherlands, I had bought from a sergeant in my company a set of book in matching bindings, a collection of what their publisher said were the world’s greatest books.  I guessed that he had bought them from a door-to-door salesman and had no use for them, and neither did I despite my notion of myself as literary, but I read part of one of them.

            “I just read the Constitution,” I told the driving deputy.  “So I know I don’t have to answer that.”

            Neither he nor Gruner said anything more to me.  He slowly drove on toward Sturgis shining the spotlight on the car up the embankment.  A few minutes later a wrecker arrived, and its driver hooked the Gremlin to it, and dropped me at Hummer’s house.

            “Where’s Hummer?” asked Peggy.

            “I thought he was here,” I replied.

            I opened a can of beer, and he arrived before I finished drinking it, and drove me and Nancy and Pat and Ben to Nancy’s father’s house.  The garage charged me 450 dollars, one dollar less than the number of miles on the Gremlin’s odometer, to repair the car enough for me to drive it on to Texas.  I took a picture of the odometer and drove back to Hummer’s house.

“She was a mess when I got her home,” he said as we drank beer there while Peggy was at work.  “She had mud all over her from walking through those cornfields.”

            The Christmas gift Nancy bought for her Uncle Tom was a little plastic box with little wrenches in it.  When he opened it he took one of wrenches out of the box and scowled and put it back into the box and closed it and set it on the table beside him.  He neither thanked Nancy nor said anything else to her as the rest of us opened our gifts.

            We slept in a room upstairs between the stairs and the room where Barb, Nancy’s sister, slept.  One morning, as I sat on our bed waiting for Nancy to ready Pat and Ben for the day, Barb came into the room in a long T-shirt and nothing else.  She stopped about two feet in front of me and turned facing me as she talked with Nancy for a few minutes.

            We had bought a set of matching luggage in the Netherlands, and before I reported for duty in Texas we stopped to see Cleve and Shirley at their home in Austin, where Cleve had become State Editor of the Austin Statesman.

            “That’s nice luggage for a guy like you,” said Cleve.

            He showed me a long article on the front page of his newspaper.  It was about George Herbert Walker Bush, who then was then running for the United States Senate, and Cleve’s byline was below the headline.  I quickly scanned the article and handed the paper back to Cleve.

            “What a bunch of crap,” I said.

            “Yeah,” said Cleve.  “I know.”

            Next morning I drove to San Antonio.  Accepting advice from one of my Army personnel management sub-courses, I had written to the Commanding Officer of the armor battalion at Fort Hood, telling him I was looking forward to working for him.  But I had no desire for duty for an armor battalion, and I had learned that attaché duty often required language training and that a Defense Language School was at Fort Bliss, Texas.  Both Fort Hood and Fort Bliss were in the Fifth United States Army area, and the Fifth Army’s headquarters were at Fort Sam Houston, in San Antonio.  So I drove there to request an assignment to Fort Bliss instead of to Fort Hood.

            A staff sergeant looked at my 201 file and Form 20 and took them to a major, and I spoke with the staff sergeant and the major and some other people in the major’s office, and they told me the language school at Fort Bliss only taught Vietnamese but that they could assign me to Fort Sam.

            The assignment would be to the Fifth United States Army Command Personnel Management Inspection Team, which inspected Army personnel management operations throughout the Fifth Army area, which extended from New Mexico to Michigan.

            “Yes,” I said.  “That sounds interesting.”

            “Don’t you want to ask your wife first?” asked the major.

            “She knows it’s my career,” I replied.

            We moved into half of a brick one-story government housing duplex.  I was the lowest ranking member of the team, the others being a major and a lieutenant and a warrant officer and a master sergeant and two sergeants first class, but each of us had his own category of operations to inspect.  And we inspected them with little supervision.

My first inspection trip was to Fort Hood.  And, as soon as I saw the rows of beige World War II wooden barracks, I was glad I hadn’t taken the assignment there.  But it had a golf course, and we arrived on a Sunday afternoon, and I played my first round of golf with the lieutenant.

He played nearly as poorly as I, further reducing any anxiety I may have had from being the lowest ranking member of the team, and I referred to him as Lefty Leftenant when talking with the sergeants.

            The first unit we inspected was the battalion whose Personnel Staff NCO I might have been.  Mostly we inspected larger operations, but we selected that battalion as a sample of the 1st Armored Division’s many armor battalions, and the major assigned that sampling to me.  A Spec. 5 in the office looked at my nametag.

            “I saw your letter,” he told me.  “I thought you wanted to work here.”

            But I proved my worthiness for the assignment I’d accepted when we inspected the personnel operations of the division’s headquarters.  I finished my part of the job before the others did and watched one of the SFC’s finish his part of the job.  He was inspecting 201 files while the SFC in charge of maintaining them also watched.

            “That one’s fine,” said my teammate tossing one of the brown folders onto a pile of others he had inspected.

            “I bet I can find a major deficiency in it in less than five minutes,” I said.

            “Go ahead,” said my team mate to this brazen rookie with no track record.

            I removed the folder from the pile and opened it and began flipping the pieces of paper metal clasps held inside it.  I stopped flipping when I saw the form designating the beneficiary for the soldier’s Servicemen’s Group Life Insurance.  He hadn’t signed it.

            “There you go,” I said pointing to the blank signature block.

            My teammate and the other SFC looked at the form and at each other and at me.  Both of them grinned, giving me no indication that they resented my having pointed out to them that they hadn’t done their jobs, but I didn’t record the deficiency.  I closed the folder and threw it back onto the pile and left the office with my team.

            And I also quit smoking on that trip.  One day I ran out of cigarettes, about an hour before our time for lunch, with none of my teammates working near me.  I was smoking about three packs of king-size non-filter Pall Malls a day, but I thought I shouldn’t beg cigarettes from the people I was inspecting, and so I decided to wait and buy some at lunch.  We ate at the post’s main PX snack bar, and I walked up to the counter with cash in hand ready to buy the cigarettes first, and smoke while I waited for my lunch.  But I didn’t buy any.

            “If I quit smoking,” I asked Nancy when I returned from the trip, “will you?”

            She looked at me and said she would.

            “I already did,” I told her grinning, and she stopped smoking for a few days.

            “I just couldn’t do it,” she told me.

            Before our next inspection trip I bought a new red Honda 350 c.c. scrambler.  Ben Shafstahl, one of the SFC’s on the team told me he’d buy one if I did, but after I bought mine he said he couldn’t borrow the cash.  The day I bought mine I rode it to the mobile home he shared with his girlfriend off post and showed it to him, and the next day I bought two helmets and took Nancy for a ride in woods on the post and had her take pictures of me and the bike, in the air at the top of a hill I climbed.

            The team’s next trip was to Fort Sill, at an edge of Lawton, Oklahoma.  We checked into a motel near the post, but one of the SFC’s said we could get a lower rate at the Hotel Lawtonian in the center of the town, and some of us recommended to the major that we move.  At the Lawtonian I shared a room with a staff sergeant who had made me the second lowest member of the team by joining it after we inspected Fort Hood.

            The trip to Fort Sill spanned a weekend, and on Saturday the team visited a Cherokee reservation on a big round hill near the fort, and a buzzard flew beside our car as we drove the road that spiraled around the hill to its top.  In the reservation’s gift shop, I bought a black felt hat with a flat brim and a band of turquoise beads around its crown, what some people called an Indian Joe hat.  And later in the day Ben used one of the two Army cars we used for our trips to take me to a bar in Ardmore.

He told me his reason for wishing to go the bar was that an old girlfriend of his had worked there.   I liked the bar, partly because its concrete floor was at the level of the concrete walk outside and had no threshold separating the two, making possible walking in and out without picking up one’s feet.  The woman Ben said was the old girlfriend of his was tending bar, but I didn’t think their conversation indicated that, and we left after two bottles of beer.

            That evening, I decided to go see the bars of Lawton, and I asked my roommate whether he’d like to do that.  He said he wouldn’t, and so I asked him for the key to the Army car he drove on the trip, and he refused.  So I argued with him until he gave it to me.

            Near the fort, I found a short narrow street with many bars, and I sat beside a woman at the bar of a small one with a jukebox.  I talked with her a few minutes, and I saw that her upper lip had wrinkles of age, but I kissed her and asked her to leave with me.  She declined, and I finished my beer and returned to the hotel, and Monday a young man in civilian clothing found me where I was inspecting and told me he was military intelligence and was investigating my request for attaché duty.

            I thought he resembled the Spec. 5 who had left the 518th PSC at Fort Dix and returned with no punishment and didn’t go with the company to Vietnam, and I thought his investigating me at Fort Sill confirmed the suspicion that he had been investigating marijuana smokers at Fort Dix, but I didn’t tell him that.

            “You look like someone I was stationed with at Fort Dix,” I told him.

            “I look like a lot of people,” he said and continued with his questions.

            When I reenlisted in Indianapolis, I lied about my arrests in Los Angeles and Coldwater, saying on my Statement of Personal History that I had no criminal record.  In Boeblingen, between my proving myself to the captain and his selecting me to work for him for the Replacement Detachment, I told him that I’d lied and asked him how I could correct it.  He asked a warrant officer in the office to look into it, and the warrant officer researched the question and told me that I should complete another Statement of Personal History and that he would write a 1049 for the captain’s signature.

He said that the1049 would accord with the regulation requiring that the Army discharge me for the lie but that he would point out my excellent service and recommend an exception.  He wrote the 1049, and the captain signed it, but a few weeks later he gave it to me.  He said he didn’t know what to do with it next.

“Why don’t you just hang on to this,” he said, “in case you have a problem.”

And now, at Fort Sill, I had a problem.  The MI guy asked me two questions, why the address on the Michigan driver’s license I received on return from Vietnam wasn’t on my Statement of Personal History, and why my arrest in Branch County wasn’t on it.  I told him that the address on my driver’s license was my mother’s and that I didn’t have a permanent address then, and I told him what the captain and the warrant officer and I had done in Boeblingen, and I told him the warrant officer’s advice.

“Did you hang on to it?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied to that.

“Where is it?” he asked.

“In my quarters at Fort Sam,” I said.

He named a time the day after I would return from the inspection, and he told me to take it then to the Provost Marshall’s office at Fort Sam, and he said he’d meet me there then and take a look at it.  A few weeks after that appointment I received a telephone call while I was taking my turn sitting alone in the CPMI team’s office to answer the telephones while the others were at lunch.  I, following standard procedure, identified myself when I picked up the receiver.

“Are you ready to go?” asked the person calling, not identifying himself.

“Where are we going?” I asked expecting him to inform me of an inspection trip.

“Afghanistan,” he said, “if you want the assignment.  It isn’t on your list.”

The procedure for requesting attaché duty required the requestor to list six countries to which he wished to go, and the caller said he was sorry no assignments were available in any of the six countries I listed, and I had never heard of Afghanistan.

But Miss Gilmore had correctly diagnosed my vagrancy.

“Sure!” I said after about a second of thought.  “When?”

He said he’d send assignment instructions to my personnel office and other instructions to me at my office.  He said that my assignment would be to the Army’s Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence and that I’d train for five weeks at the Defense Intelligence School before going on station.  He welcomed me on board, and I thanked him, and waited.

While I waited, I befriended the other staff sergeant on the team, and we went to the Flying Carpet.  It was a bar near the center of San Antonio, and he had become a regular customer there, and a barmaid there but not working sat with us in a banquette.  He left before I did, and she left with me, when the bar closed.

“Him?” asked the barmaid who was working, nodding at me while the two of them spoke several yards from me.

She said she wished to change her clothes and asked me to drive her home.  Her home was her parents’ home, and she changed clothes in her bedroom as I watched, and I felt that she wanted us to use the bed there.  But, thinking her parents must have been in the house, I didn’t.

She told me she knew a grassy place on a hill on the campus of the junior college she said she attended.  I drove her there, and we lay in the grass and kissed, but she said the grass might stain her clothes.  So I took her to a motel.

            Because I had to be at work in a few hours, I decided to telephone the front desk to ask for a wakeup call, but I was too drunk to find the telephone and walked to the motel’s office.  The desk clerk asked me why I hadn’t telephoned, and I told him I hadn’t seen a telephone in the room, and he said it was on the bed stand.  I saw it when I returned to the room, and I found the girl’s vagina dry but penetrable, and I ejaculated quickly and withdrew.

            “Oh, don’t leave so soon,” she said.

            I told her to wait a few minutes, and she rose and went to the bathroom, and I passed out thinking her butt was narrower and more muscular than a girl’s should be.  When the telephone awakened me I left her sleeping and drove home to change clothes to go to work.  Nancy didn’t ask me where I’d been.

At my office I learned that the Fifth Army Commanding General had ordered an inspection in ranks of all the headquarters personnel.  I stood rigidly at attention fearing the inspecting officer might ask me something and smell the alcohol I’d been drinking.  He stopped in front of me and stared at me a few seconds but asked me nothing and moved on.

Back at the office I said I though not working the rest of the day would be appropriate, to give us a three-day weekend before our next trip to compensate for the weekends we spent away from home on inspection trips, and I showed the motel key to the other staff sergeant.

            “You son of a bitch,” he said.

            The lieutenant telephoned the major and received permission to let us go home, and I rode the Honda to the motel and awakened the girl and took her in Nancy’s helmet back to the bar, but I didn’t go inside.  I rode home and told Nancy what I’d done, and I reminded her that I’d told her before we married that she shouldn’t expect me to change, but my reason for telling her was the reason I’d shown the motel key to the staff sergeant.  I was proud of what I’d done

Nancy said nothing in reply, and the next Friday night I returned to the Flying Carpet and found the girl there, and I asked her to have a drink with me in a banquette.  She declined, but I stayed until the bar closed, drinking alone in one.  Too drunk to drive I tried to drive home. 

            I was driving the Gremlin because I had sold the Honda that week, because I had telephoned the person who had sent me my instructions and asked him how I could ship it, and he had told me he wouldn’t permit a motorcycle on station.  As I drove onto Fort Sam, I saw lights flashing behind me and stopped at a side of the road, and San Antonio police asked me to step from the car and asked me how much I’d had to drink and began giving me sobriety tests.  But military police interrupted the process.

            The military police and the San Antonio police left me standing beside the Gremlin and talked beside the military police patrol car.  I decided to involve myself in the conversation and began to walk toward them.  A military policeman gestured that I stay where I was.

            “Please don’t take me to the stockade,” I said to him as the San Antonio police rode away.  “I applied for attaché duty, and we’re leaving tomorrow.”

            “I don’t want to have to inventory all that stuff anyway,” he said looking at the luggage I had loaded into the Gremlin, and he drove the luggage and me to my quarters and parked the Gremlin in the carport behind them.

            “Thanks,” I said.  “You saved my life.”

            “Don’t drive anymore tonight,” he said.

            “I won’t,” I told him, and he handed me my keys and rode away in the military police car that had followed us.

I walked into the house and went to bed.  In the morning we left for Coldwater, where Nancy and Pat and Ben would stay during my training, and two days later I was driving through Canada again.  I was on my way to the District of Columbia by way of Vaughn’s loft.

            He was still Assistant Stage Manager for the New York City Opera, and I parked the Gremlin and walked through the main entrance to the Lincoln Center and asked a woman behind a desk how to find the Metropolitan Opera.  She asked me why I wished to know, and I told her I was looking for Vaughn, and she picked up a telephone.  Vaughn came to the desk and led me back stage where he was working on blocking for a performance.

He continued to work,

standing at a tall desk while I stood beside it, watching a bald man tacking canvas to the stage, by pulling tacks from his mouth with a claw on the same side of the hammer he used to drive them, and doing it all in one motion per tack.

            “Need some sleep?” Vaughn asked me.  “I’ll give you the keys to my loft?”

            “No,” I said, although I’d slept but a few hours on my way there, in a motel in upstate New York.  “That’s all right.”

            “Are you sure?” he asked me and returned to work after I nodded.

            But a few minutes later I told him maybe I did.  I parked on the street in front of his loft and slept in the smell of his cats until he came home from work.  He told me he was soon to marry and asked me to drive him to his fiancée’s home in Brooklyn.  A pile of garbage was on the hood of the Gremlin when we stepped out to the street.  Vaughn shook his head and used one of his hands to brush it onto the street.

            Trying to keep up with current fashions, I had bought a pair of bellbottom trousers with narrow red and white and blue stripes, and a brother of Vaughn’s fiancée’s asked me whether I was in them because I was to be a diplomat.  But I didn’t buy such clothing with the allowance the government paid me to buy the civilian clothing in which I would work in Afghanistan.  I bought two business suits and a blue polyester blazer and a pair of beige polyester slacks.

            But the beige trousers had bellbottoms, and I was in them and the blazer when I reported for duty in the Pentagon at the Office of the Chief of Staff for Intelligence of the Department of the Army, and the others in that office were in similar clothing when I arrived.

One of them was a helicopter mechanic who would be a classmate of mine in the Attaché Staff Operations Course, and the clerk who told us when and where to go for that gave us a list of apartment complexes and suggested that we share an apartment, and we did.

The helicopter mechanic didn’t have a car and rode with me to select an apartment, and we selected one with two bedrooms in Alexandria, Virginia.

He would also ride with me to our classes at the Anacostia Naval Annex in Maryland.

 

 

 

Chapter 23

1972 - 1973

 

Before our classes began, a CIA operative interviewed me, in an office in the Pentagon.

            “Do you have any friends or relatives in Afghanistan?” he asked me.

            “A cousin,” I said having heard that from my mother.

            “What’s he doing there?” he asked.

            “She’s the ambassador’s secretary,” I answered.

            “I guess she’s alright,” he said.  “Do you drink?”

            “Yes,” I answered

            “How much?” he asked.

            “About a six pack or two a week,” I told him.

            “Well,” he said.  “As long as you don’t drink more than a six pack or two a day, you’re alright.”

            I spent many evenings of those three weeks exploring Washington’s bars and one night took the helicopter mechanic with me.  In Georgetown, I saw on the glass of a door of a bar a silhouette that resembled a hand with two fingers above it, like a peace sign.  I parked, and we went in, and I ordered a scotch on the rocks at the bar.

            “You chuck motherfucker,” said a man sitting beside me.

He pulled a big jackknife out of a pocket and opened it.

“I’m going to cut your motherfucking throat,” he said.

It was an aboriginal rights bar, and the silhouette was of a head with two feathers above it, and I was in my Indian Joe hat.

            “Just let him drink his drink,” said the bartender.

            I did, and we left, and I gave the hat to the helicopter mechanic, and I continued my exploring, but not again with him.

            When our classes began, I set our schedule early enough to arrive in the classroom in time for me to do whatever studying I needed to do before class, because I was too busy drinking beer to study at night.  And I also made the first pot of coffee for the class each day in that time until I repeated the grounds recycling I’d done when I was a busboy at the Arlington.  Then one of my classmates told me someone else could make the coffee.

            My classmates were Army and Navy and Air Force enlisted men and the wife of an Air Force sergeant and the wife of a Navy petty officer.  Our instructors were two Army warrant officers, and one day they took us to lunch at a bar where I ate a Reuben sandwich not enjoying the cabbage as I had in Tokyo, as we watched women on a stage in the middle of the room dance with no clothing other than G-strings and pasties.  One of the warrant officers, seeming to me to think I’d never been in a place like that, asked me what I thought of the dancers.

I tried not to disillusion him, but a few nights later I went out drinking with another of my classmates, an Army sergeant first class.   I was in a trench coat I’d bought with some of my clothing allowance because I thought it was appropriate for intelligence work, but my classmate drinking with me that rainy evening was in no coat other than a sport jacket, and so on our way out of the bar he stole an umbrella from a coat hook.  And another night I was in my trench coat in a strip joint on 14th Street.

            “Are you a policeman?” a woman asked me as I sat at the bar watching the dancers.

            “No,” I said.  “But I work for the Defense Intelligence Agency.  Does that count?”

            “Close enough,” she said but grinned and didn’t move away.

            And one weekend I drove to Baltimore and found the strip joints along Baltimore Street.

            “Want a fuck and a suck in a booth?” a woman asked me at the bar in one.

            “No, thanks,” I said although I did.  “I just came to see the girls dance.”

            I talked with Nancy weekly from a telephone booth near the apartment, and she told me during my third call that she had gone out with the guy she’d left to go with me, and that he had kissed her.

            “Bunches of times,” she said.

            I remembered that I’d told her to expect such behavior from me, but also that she hadn’t told me to expect it from her, and I expressed my displeasure.  And she told Cheryl Hurd, and Cheryl’s boyfriend drove her and Pat and Ben to Alexandria with Cheryl and Greg and Rick, and Rick told me that he’d been there before and asked for me at the Pentagon.  But he said the guy at the desk at the entrance said he didn’t know who I was.

            The whole crowd stayed in the apartment through the weekend, and we visited the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial and the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian Aerospace Museum and Mount Vernon, and Nancy and Pat and Ben stayed until we left for Afghanistan, and the helicopter mechanic didn’t complain to me, but neither did he speak to them.  And, after the others left, the New York City Opera came to D.C. to perform at the Kennedy Center.  And Vaughn gave Nancy and me tickets to the performance.

            “What should I wear?” I asked him.

            “A dark suit would be fine,” he said.

            But I rented a tuxedo because both of my suits had stripes, and Nancy was in a green taffeta gown she’d bought while in high school, for a Job’s Daughters event.

            “You rented a tuxedo,” Vaughn said.

            My training included a visit to CIA headquarters, to see some devices it used to collect intelligence, including a wingtip shoe with a radio in its heel.  And the clerk in the Pentagon told me I would spend three weeks in the Cumberland Gap, learning how to select and process foreign military personnel for training in the United States, because that would be part of my job in Kabul.  He said that would be instead of the three weeks of training for processing film the others would receive, but I received neither and spent my last three weeks in D.C. working in his office a few hours a day, and otherwise doing whatever I wished to do.

            “Which way do you want to go?” asked a travel officer at Pomponio Plaza in Arlington, the headquarters of the Defense Intelligence Agency, near the end of that wait.  “Afghanistan’s about halfway around the world.  So it doesn’t make much difference.”

            “East,” I said, and Pat vomited at Heathrow Airport, where Pan Am 2 dropped us for about an hour for breakfast.

            “Must be a heated pool,” said Nancy as we stood in steamy India heat, looking at the reflecting pool in the courtyard of the United States Embassy in New Delhi.

            We were there for the night between the Pan Am flight and an Afghan Air flight to Kabul.  We had instructions to go to the Embassy and ask where to spend that