Saturday, October 29, 2016


We called her Apple Girl. She must have had a real name, of course, but Apple Girl is the only name by which we ever knew her. She was skinny, had dishwater blonde hair, and was a year or two older than I. In the fall, when the apples on the big tree in our yard would ripen, she would appear every few days at our back door carrying a battered white dishpan.
            “Could we have some of those apples?” she would inquire of whichever Wycliff opened the door in response to her knock. Her wording never varied.
            At first we kids would go and dutifully ask Mother. But after a time we knew what Mother’s answer would be, so we just said yes. The tree bore far more apples than even our big family could use. And besides, Mother would always say, “They’re probably worse off than we are.”
            I don’t know how “bad off” Apple Girl’s family was. I don’t even know how many of them there were. They lived a few doors north of us and across the alley, facing Railroad Street. We never played with them as we occasionally did with Mitchell and Sandy Stapleton, the white kids who lived in the house just north of ours on our street, Central Avenue.
            I also didn’t know how “bad off” we were. I certainly knew we were not rich. Many were the mornings when we scoured the house for a nickel or a penny for bus fare or to be able to buy lunch at school. But we never wanted for food, and I just assumed that everybody in our circle of friends and acquaintances—everybody black, anyway—lived about as we did.
            That meant we each had a set of Sunday clothes—clean, creased trousers, sport coat, white shirt, tie and dress shoes for each of the boys, even the youngest; a nice dress, patent leather shoes and a hat for each of the girls—plus a modest number of other clothes to knock about in. In Texas, that had meant bib overalls, bluejeans, or, as one photograph of me shows, shorts with suspenders, along with a pair of high-top tennis shoes. In Kentucky, the bib overalls disappeared but the rest remained. Because we went to Catholic schools, we didn’t have to worry about what to wear there: Everybody wore uniforms—navy blue skirts and white blouses for the girls; dark trousers (no jeans allowed) and white shirts for the boys. And no tennis shoes.
            Our diet was pretty basic. Lots of ground beef and chicken. Mother and Daddy used to laugh about how they would buy chicken backs on sale at the A&P and then ask each of us at dinner which piece of the chicken we’d like. The joke was that no matter what you answered, you ended up with a chicken back. And with the possible exception of Francois, we were all too young to catch on. Ignorance truly can be bliss.
            I do recall that after we moved to Kentucky, our diets changed somewhat. I had grown up thinking that syrup was Uncle Timme’s incomparable cane syrup, which came in silver-colored gallons cans and which we would decant into a smaller serving container. In Ashland, syrup became Karo corn syrup. Ugh! What a disappointment! In Texas we had had rice at virtually every meal. In Kentucky, it seemed Mother began serving potatoes and pasta (usually macaroni and cheese) more often.
            But the biggest changes, for me, were in what we didn’t have. In Texas, Mother would occasionally fry sweet potato slices—Grandpa grew sweet potatoes—and would make lemon meringue and chocolate pies. Those delights grew scarce after we moved to Kentucky. That probably had less to do with money than with time and Mother’s workload. Joy, the sixth child in the family, was born on January 5, 1955, about four months after we arrived in Ashland. Mother had her hands more than full.
            Daddy told me that when we moved from Dayton to Ashland, his salary nearly doubled, from just under $2,200 a year as a teacher in Orange to $3,975 as an instructor in the prison at Ashland. Even given the difference in the cost of living, that represented a considerable step up in income—a step onto a low rung of the middle class.
            But I recall feeling deeply uneasy in Ashland, as if our financial life as a family was always precarious. In Dayton, it seemed, we had been surrounded by people on whom we could rely for help—black people and white. I recall one day going with Mother to Remke’s grocery store in Dayton. We got to the checkout and she found she didn’t have enough cash. “Charge it,” she said to the clerk, and we walked out with the few items she had purchased. In Ashland, I sensed, there was nobody who knew us, nobody to whom one could say, “Charge it.”
            We had been a pretty devout Catholic family before we moved, but once in Ashland and at Holy Family, our devotional life was ratcheted up several notches. One night Mother heard the rosary being recited on a local radio station, so we began praying the rosary every night as a family. Sometime after dinner, usually when a really good TV program was just starting, Mother would issue her call to prayer: “The Holy Rosary!” We would all gather in the living room and assume the position: on our knees in front of a shrine stationed on the living room mantel. The centerpiece of the shrine was a reproduction of Michaelangelo's “Pieta,” with the Blessed Virgin cradling the broken body of the dead Jesus across her lap. Needless to say, both the Virgin and Jesus were white.
Religious devotion even became part of our play as children. Occasionally we would play “mass,” with Francois or me as the celebrant (hey, it had to be a guy) and the rest of the kids reciting the Latin liturgy. Mother had a green cape that she used to put around our necks to catch hair when she gave us haircuts. Our celebrant would don the garment, letting it hang down his back instead of the front. Because we were both altar servers, Francois and I got used to the mannerisms of each of the parish priests as they would say mass, and we imitated our favorites. I particularly liked the way Father Haney used to whirl around to face the congregation when the old liturgy called for it, and I used to try to make my green “chasuble” billow in just the way his real one did.  
Our family entertainment consisted most memorably of Sunday drives. In those days of cheap gasoline we would all pile into the Chevy and Daddy would drive. Sometimes we would cross the Ohio River and go westward alongside it, to a spot not far from Ironton where there was a shrine to Our Lady of Fatima. Sometimes we would go as far east as Gallipolis, Ohio, and watch the water spill endlessly over the dam there. Other times we would drive to the airport in Huntington, West Virginia, to watch planes—Piedmont and Allegheny were the two airlines that served Huntington then—take off and land.
            Occasionally we would go to Dawson Park, a gathering place for blacks in Ashland. There was a swimming pool at the park and my one experience of it provided me with my lifelong fear of deep water. The first time we went there I raced out of the dressing room and leapt into the center of the pool. Instantly I was in over my head, suspended between the floor of the pool and the surface of the water and unable to propel myself. I kept trying to breathe, but all I could manage to inhale was water. I was drowning. I finally managed to grab the leg of someone sitting at the edge of the pool and pull myself over. Suddenly Daddy was leaning over the side, pulling me out, laying me across his knee, raising and lowering my arms to clear my lungs of water and fill them with air. I have been terrified of deep water ever since that day, and never learned to swim.
            Very occasionally our family would go to the movies at the Trail Drive-in Theatre on U.S. Highway 60 just outside of Ashland. The downtown indoor theatres—the Capitol and the Paramount—were off limits to blacks except one day a year. But the drive-in was always available and the whole family could get in for one price. Almost always we saw movies with religious themes—“The Song of Bernadette,” “A Man Called Peter,” “The Robe.” The one non-religious film I can remember our seeing was “Imitation of Life.” I’m not sure I understood what it was about, but it had a black character in a key role and that made it important.
            But for the most part we stayed around home. Like a growing number of Americans at that time, we had acquired a television set—our first one was a castoff from Grandma and Grandpa—and become avid watchers. Truth is, our appetite for TV far exceeded the available supply of programming, since the only dependably viewable station at that time in Ashland was WSAZ, Channel 3 (“with studios in Huntington and Charleston, West Virginia,” the announcer would always intone). Unfortunately, WSAZ didn’t carry the show that we kids most desired to see, “The Mickey Mouse Club.” We were forced to watch a grainy transmission of it on another channel, whose call letters I can’t remember. On WSAZ we watched the local after-school show for kids, hosted by a character called “Aunt Drusilla” (inevitably, we pronounced it Dru-silly). On weekends there was the Saturday Night Jamboree (“…brought to you by the Ashland Oil & Refining Co…And here he is, your old country cousin, Dean Sturm!”) and the national broadcast of “Your Hit Parade,” sponsored by Lucky Strike cigarettes (“L.S.M.F.T.—Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco”). We kids liked to stage our own performances of the show at home. Karen was always Dorothy Collins; Chris was Snookie Lanson; I ended up as Russell Arms (I always thought the announcer was saying Russ O. Larms). I don’t recall who played Gisele MacKenzie.
            Saturday morning was a feast for kids with, among other programs, “Andy’s Gang,” which included a serial featuring two turbaned Indian characters named Gunga and Rama; “Fury” (“the story of a horse, and the boy who loved him”); “Howdy Doody,” (my first crush was on Princess Summerfallwinterspring), and “Circus Boy,” whose title character was played by Mickey Dolenz, who turned up in the 1960s as a member of the singing group The Monkees.
For kids, Sunday was a TV desert. There was “The Gospel Harmony Boys” (“Someone to care, someone to share, all your troubles, like no other can do”) and a program whose purpose I simply couldn’t understand, “Meet the Press.” I don’t recall where in the TV lineup “Flatt and Scruggs” came, but we watched it often enough that bluegrass became one of my favorite kinds of music. I can still today sing the commercial jingle for Martha White flour (with “Hot Rize”).
But my favorite TV viewing was major league baseball. The games were broadcast on Saturday afternoons and announced by the former Brooklyn Dodgers’ great Pee Wee Reese and the old St. Louis Cardinals’ pitcher Dizzy Dean. I loved listening to “Old Diz,” with his fractured syntax and his malapropisms—“he slud into third base”—and his exuberance—“He was goin’ for the downs on that one, Pee Wee. He really had a ripple!”
            And when I wasn’t watching baseball, I usually was playing it, more often than not with Wilson Barrow, whose large family lived directly behind ours in a house that faced Railroad Street. Wilson, who was at least two years older than I, was a talented natural athlete who was an attractive nuisance to me. I recognized his talent and so I wanted to compete with him—at baseball, marbles, whatever. But I hated that he always beat me, no matter what game we played. I would no sooner get a few new marbles than Wilson would relieve me of them, adding them to the hundreds he already had in a big glass jar that he used to hoist onto his right shoulder. The thought of saving myself anguish by not playing with Wilson never occurred to me. I wanted to be able to throw a baseball as hard and accurately as he could. I wanted to shoot marbles as well as he did. But I never could, and the frustration of always losing to him often brought me to tears. And that’s when Wilson would pile on with the derisive taunt, “Baaaby. Big baby!” Oh, how it hurt!
            Our neighborhood was an odd one. On our block of Central Avenue, all the houses north of us were occupied by white people, including my classmate John Thompson and his big family. All the houses south of us, with one notable exception, were occupied by black people: “Mr. Bill” and “Miss Chris” Kinney next door (Mr. Bill, who had been injured in the Navy in World War II, always drove a late-model Buick with curb feelers, so he could avoid scraping his whitewall tires against the curb); the Barrows (they were related somehow to Wilson’s family and their daughter Sharon was, I believed, the second-most beautiful girl in the world at that time); the Washingtons (their daughter Jackie was the most beautiful girl in the world) and so on down to the Honakers, Chester and Pauline, who had no children at the time but later adopted a son, David. The last house at the south end of the block was occupied by an elderly white man, Carl P. Tackett, and his wife. Mr. Tackett ran a small grocery store out of his house, selling bread, milk and assorted other basic items, including candies. We children were avid customers at Tackett’s Grocery—as avid as our extremely limited funds would allow.
            If memory serves me correctly, Railroad Street behind us followed the same racial pattern. Everything north of the Barrows’ house was white; everything south of it was black. Apple Girl’s family lived on Railroad Street—so named because Chesapeake & Ohio railroad tracks ran directly parallel to the street right through the neighborhood. Karen and I—“Motorcycle Girl” and “Motorcycle Boy,” we styled ourselves—liked to ride Francois’ bike up and down Railroad Street because it was relatively smooth asphalt, while Central Avenue, our own street, was made of bricks. I would pedal the bike and Karen would ride on the handlebars and neither of us wore a helmet or any kind of protective gear. I recall we took more than one spill, and I wonder now how we managed to get through those years without at least one skull fracture between us.
One event stands out above all others from those Central Avenue days. It happened on a Saturday. For reasons I can’t remember, I alone went with Mother and Daddy as they went shopping in downtown Ashland. Francois was left in charge of the other kids at home. Our last stop on that trip was at Ashland Dry Goods, a department store on Greenup Avenue, close to the river. Mother and Daddy went inside and left me outside in the car. That wasn’t unusual in those days.
When they finally emerged and got into the car, they both were smiling broadly and Mother was carrying a brown paper bag. Something was up but I didn’t know what. Mother began singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” and both she and Daddy looked back at me from the front seat. Finally, I could take it no more. I grabbed the bag that Mother had placed on the floor of the back seat and opened it. Inside were two baseball mitts, one of pretty good quality and the other a flat, pancakey kind of thing. One, I realized, would be mine and one would be for Chris. I picked the good one and immediately began pounding a pocket into it. At that moment, I think, I was about as happy as a kid could possibly be. It wasn’t until I became a parent myself that I appreciated what Mother and Daddy must have been feeling at that moment. It can’t be described; it can only be felt.
I felt such happiness one other time during our Ashland years. It was the summer of 1958, the year after the Milwaukee Braves had defeated the New York Yankees in the World Series. Daddy drove the whole family to Cincinnati, 125 miles down the Ohio River, to attend a major league baseball game in person at Crosley Field, then the home of the Cincinnati Redlegs.
I have never forgotten that day. I don’t think Francois wanted to be there—he didn’t care much for baseball, or any sport for that matter. I don’t know what the other kids were thinking. Mother, Daddy said, was worried about the expense of the trip. But I was in heaven.
It was a gorgeous, sunny day. We sat high up in the left field stands—about as far from home plate as one could have gotten. But as far as I was concerned, we were in the thick of the action. I couldn’t believe that I was in the same stadium, breathing the same air, as the baseball heroes I had seen only on TV to that point in my life—the great Hank Aaron and Wes Covington for the Braves, Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson for the Redlegs. Life. Was. Good.
It was about that same time, in 1958, that we moved from the house on Central Avenue to a new house at 2017 Hilton Avenue, farther north and closer to downtown. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Mother and Daddy had bought the new house, which stood across the street from a steep hill covered with trees and rocks and brush. We kids and our friends spent many happy hours climbing and exploring on that hill, and hiding out beneath “Big Rock,” a stone outcropping created eons earlier while the Appalachian Mountain range was in formation.
Our next-door neighbors on Hilton were, on one side, a fellow named Tom Jordan and, on the other, an elderly couple named Anderson. Mr. Jordan, who was probably in his mid-fifties, was a sour character, perpetually grumpy and not fond of children. I seem to recall that he was a widower, and he seemed not to have many friends. Not only did he seem unhappy with his life, but he seemed determined to squelch others’ happiness. I recall a day when I and someone else were tossing a rubber ball on the sidewalk in front of our house and the ball hit his car. He called the police. They came and calmed him down, but not before I had been thoroughly traumatized by the thought of being hauled off to jail. Already then I knew that the police were no laughing matter.
Mr. and Mrs. Anderson were an interesting pair. They both were old, probably in their late 60s. Mr. Anderson was tall and light-skinned and was always dressed in a suit and tie. He suffered from what I now know must have been Alzheimer’s disease. Everybody in the neighborhood knew that he could not be allowed to leave his yard. One of our humorous family stories is about a day when Mr. Anderson made a break for it. He was walking down the sidewalk in front of our house when my sister Ida, a skinny little girl of no more than six or seven, spotted him. She ran out to the sidewalk to head him off. Waving her arms and steadily retreating as the old man advanced, Ida shouted repeatedly, “Go back, Mr. Anderson! Go back!”
She couldn’t turn him around, but her shouts alerted the grownups, who came and took Mr. Anderson in hand and led him back home.
Mrs. Anderson was short, very dark-skinned, and very angry. What I remember most about her was her dog, Ponto. The dog looked to be a cocker spaniel or something similar, and his disposition was like that of his mistress—angry and mean. Grownups in the neighborhood used to say that Mrs. Anderson fed the dog raw meat to make it vicious. I don’t know whether either part of that proposition is true—that she fed the dog raw meat or that eating raw meat makes a dog vicious. I just know that I tried to steer clear of Mrs. Anderson and Ponto.
Just beyond the Andersons’ house was that of the Foleys—L.J. and Josephine and their five children: Johnny, Jerry, Jimmy, Dawn, and Denise. Johnny was a year or two older than I, Jerry was a year or two younger, and Jimmy was about a year younger than Jerry. Dawn and Denise were roughly the same ages as my sisters Ida and Joy.
Johnny and Jerry instantly became my best playmates. Neither of them was the athlete that Wilson Barrow was, so baseball, which we played perpetually in the alley behind our houses, was more enjoyable and less stressful to me. Jerry had a stupendously foul mouth for a boy of his age. Jimmy was kind of a cypher to me. Dawn was dark-haired. Denise probably was prettier, but both were too young for me to care about. Johnny had a bad stutter and the hots for Karen, who refused to have anything to do with him.
Somewhere farther up the street from the Foleys lived a white kid named Lon Castle. I knew little about him except that he seemed pretty rich—he always had the latest toys, including things like a motorized go-kart—and he seemed not to have any friends. He would come down the alley to where the Foley kids and Chris and I played our endless baseball games and he seemed to want our friendship. But he seemed to want us to join him in playing with his toys, while we wanted only to play baseball. So no spark of friendship ever got struck.
Early in 1960, Mother and Daddy undertook to enlarge our house. They bought another house, an old Army barracks, had it moved to our lot and attached it to the existing structure. Even as they were involved in that project, Daddy got word that he was to be promoted and transferred to a new assignment, the Federal Correctional Institution in Englewood, Colorado, just outside Denver.
As soon as we children were told about the impending move, I became excited. Just the name of the new state—Colorado—stirred me. One of those blue-backed biographies that I had read had been about Zebulon Pike, the explorer after whom Pike’s Peak was named. There would be mountains with snow on them all year round. There probably would be cowboys and cattle drives and all kinds of exciting adventures to be had. Colorado, here we come!

I was not without some regret at the prospect of leaving Ashland. We would be leaving behind friends—the Foleys, and my classmates at Holy Family. But I didn’t at that time fully appreciate what those Ashland years had been and done for us as a family and me as an individual. They had launched us in a completely different direction from the one we were going in in Dayton. We were headed upward.

No comments:

Post a Comment