Tom's Corner

Discovering Today
Tom Irons

Chapter 4
Blanchester School days

        After Dad’s death it took Mother less than three weeks to find a buyer for the cows. Inside of another three weeks she announced that she had decided to sell the farm, move to town, and get a job. I was fairly set against it, and dug my heels in. Initially, I gave her a lot of grief over that decision which, even at the time, I knew had been considered long and hard. There was no way she and I alone could do all the work necessary to operate the farm and continue to make a living. I was only eleven and although it was true I had been a big help to Dad, I was not a full-fledged farm hand yet.

        On October the 18th, the farm was appraised at $100 per acre. Four and a half months later, Mother received an offer of that exact amount.

        As moving day approached, I let go of making her wrong and embraced the situation whole-heartedly. Mother changed some of our old furniture from the farm into cash by selling it to the people who would be renting the house from the new owner, Gene Winemiller.

        Mother found a sweet little house on East Baldwin Street that had been built by Bernard Berwanger as a spec house. It was small, tight, and just right for our needs. There were hardwood floors throughout, except for the kitchen and bath, which were linoleum tiled. The three bedrooms and one bath were joined to the living room by a short, narrow hallway. We liked it immediately. We painted the interior and she made curtains and bought new bedroom sets to cover with her hand-made quilts and pillowcases.

        As an 11-year-old used to farm life, I saw Blanchester as a bustling metropolis. Main Street boasted two streetlights. From the intersection of Main and Broadway the business district extended approximately one block in all four directions. It served the surrounding farming community and very little if any industry other than a foundry existed there in 1958.

        I recall one bank, a savings and loan, one weekly newspaper, two grocery stores, two drug stores, two hardware stores, a jeweler, an International Harvester dealership, a Plymouth dealership, two gas stations, two department stores, two funeral homes and a florist. There was also a pool hall, a theatre, a restaurant or two (they came and went with irregular timing), and other lost-to-memory establishments.

        Mother and I moved to Blanchester in May of 1958, about four weeks before my sixth grade year at Edenton was completed. That year all five boys in my class (Tom, Mark, Gary, Ted and myself) decided to carve our initials in the seat of our desks for all posterity and posteriors to see. We didn’t do this in a halfway manner. We made two-inch high letters starting with initials then started on our full names. Gary Kuhnhenn complained a bit about the fact that Tom Irons had only eight letters where he had twelve to whittle into the aged maple. Mark Frechette didn’t complain- he enjoyed the process.

        Trouble came when one of the girls took a stroll down the isle and I was at the pencil sharpener. When she reached my desk “T. W. I. – TOM IRO” was emblazoned across my desk seat for the entire world- here and ever after- to admire. She immediately informed Mrs. Conover, who was incensed. I think it’s fair to say she did not see the art of my endeavor. She, in turn, promptly headed for the door, on her way to inform the principal of my transgression. She was hauled up short as a little prissy voice called out, “They all did it, Mrs. Conover, every one of them boys did it.” My first travesty of law and good order upset Mrs. Conover. Now five such travesties were simply too much to comprehend. All the criminals were immediately arraigned before the principal and we received swats from his big hardwood paddle. One at a time, he stretched us over his desk, in front of the seventh and eighth grades, and gave us a series of smacks that rattled our teeth, stung like a dozen yellow jackets and left week-long tender bruises on our buttocks and upper legs.

        A dilemma presented its ugly self. The five of us newly chastised delinquents debated it for a long while. The fact was, none of us had completed our names. I was the closest to being finished, and was in favor of tying up the loose ends. One of the others asked Mrs. Conover if we could now complete what we’d started (and what we’d already been punished for). She told us in no uncertain terms, “no!” It just didn’t seem fair. The punishment had been dealt out and received, why couldn’t we finish our names? It seemed that ‘fairness’ was not an issue for us to determine. She told us that if we persisted in our misdeeds we’d be punished again: greater and harder. Ultimately we ran out of interest in the project and time ran out for the school year. I finished my sixth grade school year in a daze. School punishments, Dad’s death and the ensuing anger, sadness, and loss- all took their toll on me. This was my first experience with grief and I did not know how to ask for guidance or help in coming to terms with my pain.

        The method that evolved was reading. More than anything else, delving into books helped me to regain some semblance of balance and connectedness with my world. Reading was also a passion for Mother, one she passed on to each of her children. She took particular care when buying our beds to ensure they had reading lights and shelves for books. This was a dream, she told me, that she had harbored for many years. Never one to seek luxuries in her life, she could not pass up this chance to have this one desire fulfilled. I think her reasoning was that if this small indulgence encouraged me to read more, then it was worth the extra money.

        Buying the little house was the first time in Mother’s life that she had money to purchase the things she needed. She proceeded with caution and care, knowing that the money from the sale of the farm would not last long if she allowed herself to squander it frivolously. I learned how to handle my finances from observing and listening to Mother. When I turned fourteen, she set me up with a checking account and lectured me long and hard about never writing a check that was not covered at that time. “I see people wasting money all the time by paying returned check fees and it’s just plain foolish,” She’d say, shaking her head. “And it’s dishonest to write a check if you don’t have the money in your account.”

        On the concept of credit, which was just starting to blossom in the form of credit cards, Mother was adamant that I should never use it unless I already had the money to pay for the purchase. “If you don’t have the money to buy it, you don’t need it!” was her position.

        “But,” I responded with sophomoric logic, “if I have the money to buy it, I don’t need the credit in the first place.”

        “That’s right.” Came her equally logical response (and the end of the conversation).
        Moving day from the farm to town was exciting. Klu and I even got to ride in the moving van Mother hired to take the large items.

        Klu came to us from a neighborhood family and there was never a doubt as to the lack of pedigree in his lineage. He had a general collie-like conformation until you looked at his chopped-off stature. His short bowlegs splayed every which way when he ran belied the fact that he could burst into a quick 35-mph run. We actually clocked him at this speed once between the farms on Taylor Pike as he raced us from one to the other. His brown fur of varying lengths, happy face, and exuberant personality made Klu a great pet for me during those years on the farm. However, he was a farm dog and life in town would prove impossible for him.

        Our first night in the new house, as we sat down to dinner, I saw three boys about my age playing a game of ball in the neighbors’ backyard. They waved me out to join them and it didn’t take me long to bolt my dinner and hit the door on the run. What a deal! I hadn’t thought about having boys right next door to play with.

        It was decided pretty quickly that I’d team up with the big boy, James Edward, because I was the smallest of all. James Edward Bentley (“Call me Jim”) was six-foot or more and towered over my five-foot-two. He wore his blond-brown hair in a butch cut typical of those days and the conservative family values Midwestern states held in esteem. He loved to laugh, and was always trying to show his savvy. After I’d known him for a while, he would point out which girls were “willing.” One evening as we sat out on the front porch watching the western sky darken and stars come out, in confidence most severe, he told me about the boy in his class that confided to him that he was sleeping with his sister. But this all came later. Right now there was a ball game on the docket.

        Bobby, 11, and Gary, 13, (also Jim’s age), were both good-sized boys. Looking at my small stature they did not expect much ability or game savvy from the new little kid on the block. I had spent years of playing with classmates. Even better than that, I had gained a lot of experience playing with bigger, older, farm boys who never gave the younger guys any slack. So the first time I stepped up to the plate, Gary signaled his brother to move in closer. He turned to face me, made a half-hearted wind-up, and threw a slow, easy pitch belt-high, and a bit inside. Taking full measure of the pitch, gripping the monogrammed northern white ash stick for all I was worth, I kept my eyes steady on the ball. I stepped into it with every ounce of my being. The leather ball and the Louisville bat met with a resounding wallop, sweet music to my ears. A tingle of energy ran from my wrists up my arms and settled comfortably in my shoulders, telling me I had swung true.

        Three mouths fell open, three sets of eyes widened, and three heads turned in unison to watch that baseball soar up and over Bobby’s head, across the alley, and over the fence that surrounded an empty lot at the edge of our makeshift outfield.

        By the time I’d sailed around those bases, Bobby still hadn’t made a move to go locate the ball. Jim waited at home plate to congratulate me and heckle and jeer at Bobby and Gary who were arguing over which one of them should play fetch. Jim was as excited as if he was the one that had just hammered that four-bagger. Maybe he felt a twinge of guilt for having assumed that he’d have to carry the little kid on his back. That homer, along with the sound stomping we dealt to Bobby and Gary that long sultry summer evening, sealed a long-running friendship between Jim and I. It simultaneously set in motion the conflict between us and the Glick boys that would run until they moved away January 3rd, 1959.

        A few days after the evening baseball game, Bobby discovered that he could stand just beyond the reach of Klu’s chain and tease the dog while remaining free of danger. I was unaware of this until the day Bobby forgot to remain out of range. During a game of something similar to ‘tag-you’re-it,’ Bobby ran through the half circle of Klu’s domain. Klu remembered. The initial result was a ripped and torn shirt, scratches and bites on Bobby’s body, screaming, growling, and a general melee. My concern was for the dog; Mother’s was about a potential lawsuit. Luckily, Mrs. Glick, along with Gary, had witnessed Bobby’s transgressions. Both voiced the opinion that Bobby got his due. Sadly, due to Mother’s fear of a lawsuit she took Klu to the town’s veterinarian and had him put down. She tried to soften the action by saying that the vet would try to place Klu on a farm. We both knew there was no way Klu would ever bond with a new family. Thus, I had one more reason to dislike Bobby and the Glick family.

        Mother had ordered and received a new car from Knapp’s Auto sales, in Blanchester, in mid-April of 1958. It was a 4-door, six-cylinder, Plymouth Savoy, with an automatic power flye transmission, power brakes, radio, heater, and a two-tone paint job. That was the model with big tail fins. We would take many trips in this car and except for a slight problem with the push-button transmission, it would serve us for many years and many happy miles.

        The first of these trips was the most memorable for me. It was early June, just two short months after she purchased the Savoy. We left Blanchester en route to Boston to visit my brother, Fred, where he was a student at M.I.T. Mother gave me the job of navigator, and it was on this trip that I learned how to read maps and road signs. I’m sure Mother must have given me a basic explanation on how maps are laid out, but I don’t believe she had a lot of experience with maps. I caught on quickly, and became quite proficient at seeing the signs and warning Mother when she was due to make a change of direction or if she took a wrong turn. We made a good team and enjoyed each other’s company.

        I liked eating in restaurants and Mother would let me choose anything within reason. The most outrageous meal came on the first morning, when I ordered a fried trout for breakfast. Imagine our surprise when it was delivered to the table with its head still attached! We were both unsettled by the single glazed eye staring up at us. Having lobbied for this dish I was under the gun to consume it, and I did, (everything that is except that stark, staring head).

        We returned home in 14-days. A week later Nancy called from Texas to say she was in love and wanting Mother’s permission to get married. Mother’s response was, “Don’t do a thing until I get there!” Five weeks later, we saddled up the Savoy again and headed for Waco.

        The summer of 1959 found me between 7th and 8th grades. I knew all the boys who were planning to play knothole ‘B’ baseball and the coach was Lee Carey, my sister Nancy’s classmate. By now I was well-established at second base.

        How I loved those warm summer days playing ball! The sun would beat down until sweat gathered on your forehead, dust would hang lazily in the air after you’d made a long, graceful slide into a bag, and you and the baseman would gag and cough. The air was crowded with smells of newly mown grass, fresh lime, crushed dandelions, and clover. The pungent odor of leather gloves and Neadsfoot oil were most prevalent. Busy, droning honeybees laden with bright yellow pollen would hover around a player’s head seeking another source of sustenance and not infrequently cause an outfielder to emit a war hoop and run wildly in circles while waving his arms in the air.

        Quiet, introspective Phil Connor was one of our two pitchers and we had a good rapport. Better than that, we had a play. As a lefty, Phil had a positional advantage over a second base runner. Being careful not to place his foot on the pitching rubber, he’d start a wind-up, look directly at me, and, if I thought the runner was far enough off the bag, I’d give my glove a little shake. Then we’d both start counting; one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two,……. When I’d counted one-thousand-one, I’d make a fast break for the base. Phil, at his count of one-thousand-three, would turn and fire the baseball at second. My job was to be there in position to catch the ball and ready to tag the runner.

        One day we played Mount Orab, one of the better teams in our league. After Phil had just allowed a single to right field and I had taken the throw into second, I walked the ball back to the mound and made a show of placing the ball in his glove. As I withdrew my hand from his glove I palmed the ball and kept it hidden, slipping it into my own mitt. Then appeared to be giving him encouragement but in actuality I told him to stay off the rubber. Then I turned and trotted back to my position at second. As soon as Phil faced the next batter and the runner on first took his lead, I called to Leslie Osborne, our first baseman. When Les looked over at me I made a big lobbing hook shot over my head. Les snagged my toss and tagged the runner for an out. This was all my planning and execution and luckily it came off perfectly. Later in the game, when another runner got on base, a plaintive voice from the dugout came across the field, “Keep your eye on the second baseman, he’s tricky.”

        We went on to beat Mt. Orab that day- as well as every other team we faced in regular league competition that season. However, we lost out in our first district game.

        During the lazy summer days of 1959 Jim Bentley taught me the joy of playing with Calcium Carbide. Referred to in his short story: Toys for the Man Child, Mickey Spillane describes how to use a Crisco can, carbide, and a wooden kitchen match to make an explosive retort not unlike a 12-gage shotgun. Jim and I substituted a Hershey’s cocoa can for the Crisco can, but otherwise we emulated Mickey right down to the wad of spit used to activate the carbide. The neighbors did not appreciate our endeavors, our sense of experimentation, our need to implement science, or the resultant blasts in the neighborhood peace. With experimentation we quickly learned that about three good rips were all we could manage to create before a town police cruiser would make the turn onto Baldwin Street and head for our end of the block. I expect the neighbors were pleased to have me depart for Texas when I did.

        There was one good result of my learning about Carbide. Poisoned pellets failed to eradicate the gophers that decided to move onto our property. Mother had given me the task of getting rid of them before they destroyed her pretty yard. When I discovered the poison’s uselessness, I decided to try the Carbide. Carefully punching a number of access holes into the tunnel system in the front yard, I placed two or three carbide stones in each one, then I covered all but one of the holes with dirt. The garden hose was already hooked up to the hose bib next to the house. It was a simple matter to uncoil the hose, turn on the valve and give the yard a good soaking. Just as my brother-in-law, Larry, was crossing the street to deliver our mail, I bent down and touched a lit match to the one hole I had not backfilled. Instantaneously, the yard was filled with three-foot high flashes of flame and gophers trying to escape the conflagration.

        While Larry stood in the middle of the street with his mouth agape, I smacked the smoldering gophers on the head with a shovel. After the carnage had ceased, I carefully removed the excess dirt from the tunneling, and the limp, singed gopher carcasses. Only the slightly charred circles of grass remained to tell the tale.

        Mother and Larry were impressed with my results but they both questioned my method. I figured results measured my success, and in the years to come, I never saw another gopher mound in that yard. Maybe gophers have an oral history tradition that tells of the awful massacre of Baldwin Street, in the summer of 1959.

        1959 was the summer I spent much of my time with Terry James. Terry was a few years younger than me, but he had a lot of freedom. We would spend entire days roaming up and down the banks of Second Creek. We fished and hunted frogs with our homemade slingshots. Jim Bentley gave us the idea of cutting willow forks for the frames. He used bicycle inner tube for the bands. Terry or I hit on the idea of using rubber bands. With much trial and error, we produced a weapon of considerable firepower. We’d buy boxes of rubber bands at Dorsey’s Drug store and use four groups of four bands on each side of the pouch. At first we used round pebbles and stones but they all too frequently missed our targets, so we moved on to using marbles and then B B’s. These manufactured spheres would fly true. If we were hunting birds, we used multiple B B’s per shot, just like a shotgun. When we hunted frogs, we used one marble per shot and were able to retrieve them from the mud if we missed our mark.

        In the spring as the temperature starts to rise, so does the sap in the trees. This makes them springy and pliant. It makes them a big, supple toy for daredevil boys. Terry introduced me to the age-old activity of ‘Skin the Cat.’ We would climb to the highest possible point of a young sapling, wrap our legs and arms around the skinny trunk, and rock back and forth. The sapling would move us through the air using its strength and elasticity to increase the arc of each swing. The feelings of freedom and exhilaration were a rush like I’d never experienced before.

        On one such spring day Terry and I were trying to out do each other in our aerial acrobatics, and I had my first near death experience. I’d just moved to the top of a larger sapling after having made some impressive arcs in another. The larger tree was of course, taller so that meant one had to climb higher. Naturally this would afford me the chance to make broader sweeps through the air, too. Climbing toward the top of the tree, I found a perch where I could easily maintain my grip, and started the routine. Somewhere near the third or fourth backward bend my body was nearing the horizontal position, ten feet in the air. There was a sharp lightning bolt crack, my world became blurry and I was instantly disoriented. The next thing I was aware of was Terry staring into my face and asking, “You alright?”

        “Uuuuggghh,” Was all that came out of my mouth. “Gggaaaa….hh…nn” Try as I might, I could not speak, nor could I breathe. The weight of the world was on my chest. I was stretched out on the ground, in the middle of our grove of saplings, and my body was wracked with excruciating pain. Terry began laughing. Then he described my plummet to earth, down through the branches of the trees, my eyes as big as saucers and surprise spread across my face.

        I continued trying to grab just one breath of air from the surrounding vicinity but it came dear and very, very slowly. I tried to sit up but could not muster the strength so I laid there in the leaves and grass. By now Terry had removed the treetop, as I had maintained firm hold of it, from my hands, but he continued to laugh at all my attempts to speak.

        Suddenly he said, “Oh, shit. Look at that!” He was pointing at a six-inch high, one inch in diameter, tree stump. The top came to a point like a spear. On closer inspection it appeared to have been lopped off by an axe a few years earlier and had dried hard as steel. As I lay there, my breathing slowly returning to normal, the implication of his find seeped into my conscious like a lighthouse beacon reveals itself to wayward sailors. Unlike a beacon this little stump almost snuffed out my light and my life. Had I landed just a few inches to the left it would have pierced my ribcage like a javelin thrown by a Roman soldier.

        The fact of my own mortality hit me there on the ground, as it never would again. My life did not flash before my eyes but the fact that I’d have more life to live, did.

        This was the same summer I met Jim Bentley’s cousin, Claude Douglas Bentley, otherwise known as Doug. Jim made the introductions one afternoon when Doug’s family was visiting Jim’s. Doug and I clicked on contact. When he mentioned Jim and me coming out to his place ‘someday,’ I was ready. Jim, on the other hand, had restrictions that I did not. His mother was what I perceived as overly protective. Maybe Mrs. Bentley viewed my mother too liberal when it came to overseeing her boy’s activities.

        Running free, riding my bike anywhere anytime, and setting my own schedule, were business as usual for me. Jim, for all his size and savvy, wasn’t allowed to leave his yard without first checking in with his mother. Seldom were the times she would grant him permission to go anywhere beyond the bounds of his yard. The first time Jim and I rode our bikes out to Doug’s, Jim, without mentioning the fact to me, was making the trip without his mother’s knowledge. It would be the last time he made that trip. Conversely, I would wear out the asphalt between Doug’s house and mine.

        On May 1, 1960, pilot Francis Gary Powers was maneuvering his U-2, single-seat, single-engine, high-altitude, reconnaissance aircraft (better known as a spy plane) 1300 miles inside Russian borders when it disappeared from radar. The US announced a flame-out had occurred, while Russia’s Soviet Premier, Nikita Sergeyevich Krushchev, announced to the world that a "U.S. spy-plane" had been shot down using surface-to-air missiles. The US immediately denied that 1) the plane could be shot down, and 2) that the U.S. had been spying. Four days later, Mr. Krushchev, an outspoken and colorful Soviet leader, produced the plane’s largely intact remains along with the surviving pilot- much to the embarrassment of President Eisenhower, the United States, and the C.I.A. This impelled the downward spiral in relations between the Soviet Union and the United States.

        When I entered my freshman year of high school, Jim Bentley did me another huge favor- he recommended me for a position on the stage crew. This opened up a whole new and exciting world for me. With each new freshman class, three openings became available and any boy with a recommendation was given first preference. Stage crew gave me a unique social status, a credit in drama, and an extracurricular activity. Stage crew and I went together like potatoes and gravy, bread and butter, sweet wine and Christmas Day.

        Henry Florea took me under his wing and taught me everything he possibly could about scenery, rigging, footlights, sound, and curtains. When we had the first major production of my freshman year, the musical Guys and Dolls, Henry chose me to join him in the projection booth and learn how to work the spot lights. The school was still functioning in the Stone Age as far as spots were concerned. We had to lean out the booth windows and physically rotate the lens disks to change gels (colors), taking care to not let the entire front of the spotlight fall off the base. It was physically challenging, hot, and an extremely important job. Poor spotting could ruin a production faster than a three-second kiss.

        When Mrs. Chance, our drama teacher (who was much revered and a BHS institution in her own right), gave Henry a very public acknowledgement of his abilities and efforts on running the spots for Guys and Dolls Henry was very quick to insist on my being included in her praise. This acknowledgement sealed my desire to make the stage crew an all-out focus for the coming four years. I made it known to Henry that whenever he needed an extra hand, for anything having to do with stage crew he should call on me. I learned how to run the movie projectors, slide projectors, curtains, and microphone systems. I learned where all the assorted equipment was stored and who to see for the all important stage crew keys. Time and again I would be excused from classes to “help” set up and operate these audio visual items.

        By my sophomore year, every teacher knew to call me when anything was needed. I showed instructional movies, operated the P.A. for the Home Ec. Class fashion show, worked the curtains, set up and operated the P.A. for special auditorium presentations, and everything else under the sun. I became the “go to” person for the high school.

        Soon after the start of my junior year I was, by default, the stage crew manager. I say, ‘by default’ because the manager, by tradition, had always been a position held by a senior. Three years of always being willing to miss classes at a moment’s notice for anyone, allowed me to preempt the ruling senior stage crew man. Because of my passion for stage crew and his focus on attaining good grades, I simply displaced him. I was entranced with the heady rush of the backstage scene where I felt in charge, in full control, needed, and capable. And best of all, I didn’t have to appear on stage or commit mindless blather to memory.

        On February 21, 1963 someone broke into the high school. They opened up a vending machine for the money, turned off the switch that controlled the water supply, opened electrical switches that controlled the fire alarm, and then set fire to the stage curtains. Initial estimates exceeded $5,000. It was determined that I could be excused from my classes in order to replace all the securing plates, cables, and hardware above the stage. As far as I could see, both the school and I won in this joint venture. I was in my element, legitimately out of class and working, and the school was saving money on the work I did. After a week of missing every class, Mr. Binkley, the principal, finally told me I had done enough and to go back to class.

        It was 1960 and we were fourteen. Being too young to own a driver’s license, I was happy pedaling myself out to the Bentley farm where I enjoyed horses, hunting, fishing and my adoptee status. Evening quiet was still settling over the woods as Doug and I stretched out before a modest ground fire. Owls hooted, mice scurried, and birds were still arguing over their final roosting sites. The sun had long since slipped below the horizon. The evening meal we’d cooked over the glowing embers of our campfire pleasantly filled our young-boy bellies.

        This was a spur of the moment camp-out for us (just as most of them tended to be). It started with a call from me to see what Doug had on his dance card for the day. While we were talking over options, he mentioned that we could do a bit of fishing and sleep in the woods that night. It sounded just like how I’d prefer to spend a Saturday night in August. Doug didn’t even have very many chores he would have to accomplish before he’d be free to wet a line.

        It was decided that I’d bring along my bow and arrows and my .22 caliber rifle in case we wanted to do a bit of target practice. Besides, it’s always good to be prepared for anything, right? It was a bit of a trick to control the bicycle, bow, arrows and .22, but I finally found a way to stretch the long items across the handlebars, and out of town I peddled.

        What is so captivating about sitting around a campfire, poking at the coals, gazing deep into the flames, smelling the same smells that our ancestors of thousands of years ago smelled? For me, it has always been a nurturing, soul-mending experience. Fire gave people light, heat, and the ability to cook food and scare animals away from one’s hearth. It also opens a door to the dreams of the heart, the phantoms of the mind, and the truths of the soul. A good fire will bring forth truth faster than any Gestalt workshop, create a bond between two people stronger than any piece of paper, and cause inner questioning that digs deeper than any psychiatrist’s couch. A ground fire acts on me as a magnet acts on iron filings.

        Doug and I burrowed down into the dry leaves of the woods and leaned back against our respective logs for about three hours discussing anything and everything. We found little to disagree on, much to align with, and a lot to laugh about. The fire had died down and we agreed it was time to hit the hay. Once we were sure the fire was safe from spreading if a night wind should spring up, we crawled into the tent and dropped quickly into peaceful sleep.

        The screech, long and loud, was otherworldly and unnatural, and it could not possibly have come from any creature I knew. We were ripped up from our boy-dreams back to a disoriented consciousness. Neither of us had moved in waking, neither of us knew what had made the hideous noise just outside of our tent; I wasn’t actually sure I’d heard what I thought I’d heard. When Doug whispered, “Did you hear that?” I knew there was definitely something out there.

        “Yeah. What was it?” I whispered back. He didn’t know. So we lay there in the dark, holding our breaths in check and wondering what was going on. Then it gave voice again. It sounded like all the banshees of Hell, all the cougars of the West, and all the fox-wolves and coyote-lynx of the entire world were rolled into one hideous creature. That creature, (if volume was the determining factor), stood somewhere very near our little canvas tent.

        When the beast noise subsided, I heard Doug say quietly, “You take the front, I’ll take the back.” I offered up a quiet affirmative. Earlier in the day I’d proven more competent with the 45-pound hunting bow so I grabbed it and the quill of arrows from the foot of the tent. That made Doug’s decision easy to pick up the .22 rifle as he started to wiggle under the back wall of our little A-frame abode. In a few short moments, we were in our positions: Doug at one end of the tent and I at the other. Both armed and ready to do whatever had to be done.

        As soon as the scream started I realized it was coming from just a few feet away, and directly in front of me. Without wasting time on needless thought and with my heart taking some serious real estate away from my larynx, I whipped back the bowstring and let fly an arrow into the dark toward the noise. The scream was rising in volume and tone when the arrow found a place to imbed itself. Few sounds mimic an arrow when it finds a mark. The smack and tuning fork hum, followed by the immediate secession of the scream, told me I’d shot true. As I hastily notched another arrow onto the string, there came a voice from the dark, “Hey guys, hey, don’t shoot. Its me, Dad!”

        And indeed it was Claude, Doug’s dad. When he got home that evening after work, Una, Doug’s mother, told him we were sleeping in the woods. Claude thought he’d have some fun and scare us. So he sneaked across the fields, around the pond, and through the undergrowth where he stood next to an old elm tree to unleash the hideous scream he figured would set us running for the house. Luckily, he knew the sound a razor tipped hunting arrow makes when it hits the center of an elm tree. He looked even more abashed when told that he’d been lucky. If it had been Doug who had come out the tent door with the .22 there would have been, in Doug’s words, “An entire clip load of lead coming your way.”

        Never again did Claude try to pull a trick on his boys.

        In the early fall of 1960, my freshman year, a student named Steve Fisher was killed in an automobile accident. The word was that he had tried to jump out of the window as the car left the road. It rolled over him and he was killed instantly. Steve was a farm boy from out near Taylor Pike. I hadn’t really known him well, but I felt a kinship with him. At the time of his death, he was working part-time at Dorsey’s Drug store after school and weekends. This was a coveted position since there weren’t many jobs for high school students to be found in Blanchester. The store was owned and operated by a father and son team and they were well liked by the community.

        A week or so after the funeral, Frances mentioned the vacancy and suggested that I approach Jim Dorsey about filling the vacancy. The thought of taking Steve’s position was out of the question; it smacked of disloyalty. Frances, however, was more down to earth and realistic.

        “He’s dead and won’t be working there anymore. Jim told me they are looking to hire someone for the job. That someone might as well be you.”

        The more I thought about it, the more reasonable it sounded. About two weeks later Frances asked, “Have you been down to Dorsey’s about that job yet?”

       “They won’t wait forever, you know. Jim told me the other day that if you were going to come in, you needed to do it soon.”

        So I went. Maybe it was easier knowing that Frances had spoken with Jim about it. I remember the pleasure that flooded over me the afternoon, a few days after the interview, when a note was delivered from principal Binkley’s office informing me that my presence was requested at Dorsey’s Drugs immediately after school.

        I got the job. Suddenly I had a new look on life. Everything was brighter; I was more important. There was a swagger in my step even as I rushed through the day, anticipating the arrival of 4 p.m. and what I hoped would be a favorable meeting.

        The pay was ten dollars a week minus fifty-cents withholdings: all this wealth for the status of being a stock boy, janitor, window washer, and all ‘round go-fer. With my first paycheck, I paid Shorty Creamer a visit. Shorty was the town’s only jeweler and I decided I wanted to own a ring: something special, something unique, something adult. There weren’t too many to choose from other than a wedding rings, (which I didn’t want). After I had looked over all the options in Shorty’s jewelry cases and found nothing to my liking, he asked me to wait just a minute. Quickly he hopped off the tall stool he was sitting on and disappeared into the back room. Returning a couple of minutes later, he hopped nimbly back onto the stool. In his tiny hands he held a little box. Turning it to me and opening the lid he said, “I think you will like this.” Inside the box sat an etched gold band that held a large red ruby. It was beautiful. The price was a bit steep in my estimation, but I was a working man with more paychecks on the way. That considered, I contracted with Shorty to put the ring on layaway; $5-down and $5-a week until paid-in-full.

        When I’d paid half the money, Shorty offered to let me have the ring to wear but I declined, believing as my Mother did, that you just didn’t take possession of something until it was paid for in full. It took me eight weeks to pay for the ring, and I still wear it when my fingers are not too swollen with arthritis. Never have I seen one like it, and many people have remarked on its beauty over the years.

        The first couple of weeks at the new job went fairly smoothly. I’d come into work and stock the shelves, then go ask Jim what was next. I thought of this as a game; how quickly and how well can I do a task and get back to ask for the next one? I even ignored his encouragement to figure out on my own what to do: my little game was more interesting.

        After having worked at the store for about six weeks, I overheard Frances and Mother one Sunday. Frances was telling Mother that she happened to be in Dorsey’s and asked Jim how I was working out. In Jim’s words, “He does a good job doing what he’s told but doesn’t seem to have any initiative to discover work on his own.” Boy was I burned and embarrassed. I’d show him! In fact, I never again asked his thoughts on what I should be doing while at work. I’ve carried that lesson about initiative to every job I’ve ever had since that day, and it has stood me in good stead with all my employers.

        The complaint to Frances was the last complaint about my performance I was ever made privy to at Dorsey’s, however there was the time when I had initiated some radical change in the storeroom that resulted in a rather dynamic and dangerous explosion.

        Dorsey’s Drugs was a father-son partnership. Stanley Dorsey, the father factor, was a short, heavyset man of indeterminate years. I judged him to be sixty-something because of his white hair. He sported a big flowing white mustache, tinged with yellow, across his round elfin face. Sometimes when he had not trimmed it for a while, it would cover much of his mouth. Deep-set, twinkling dark eyes made me think of Santa Claus when he’d peer up and over the swinging bar doors that separated the pharmacy from the retail area. Luckily for me, he was a good and kind man, one who could take a wallop and admit his own culpability in the process.

        It happened like this: One Saturday in late fall, I found myself with no specific task at hand but a full afternoon of work time ahead of me. So, screwing up my resolve, I informed Jim that if he needed me I’d be in the storeroom,… “Just straightening and cleaning things a bit. I’ve been meaning to for quite a while and today looks quiet enough.”

        Once I started, the job took on some larger-than-life proportions. The room was probably 20 by 40 feet. Two weak 40-watt bulbs mounted on the 14 foot ceiling managed to cast more shadows than light, and years of being ignored had left an unspeakable amount of dirt and grime. Rolling up my shirtsleeves, collecting broom, dustpan, dust rags and a trash can, I started making headway on the monumental task. Toward the end of the afternoon, I worked my way up to the large metal storage rack that held all the liquid chemicals that we bought in bulk form and repackaged for retail sale: benzene, hydrogen sulphide, carbon tetrachloride, methyl-ethyl-keytone, and many more lost to memory. At first I simply removed the items and cleaned the shelves. Quickly I realized there was no organization- no sense of where you could find a particular chemical. The logical next step was to rearrange all the cans and bottles alphabetically. When I finished, it was all quite neat, clean, and oh-so-orderly. Warm feelings of pride and accomplishment coursed through my veins.

        The following Monday as I walked through the store’s front door I sensed something was amiss; the air was cool and held a strange odor. When I approached the pharmacy area, I saw the door leading into the storeroom was propped open. Behind that door where the deep sink stood, there was the shambles of chaos. The deep sink was my charge to keep spotless along with all the clear glass vials and containers. I spent a bit of each workday cleaning, straightening, and making neat this important area. Today, smoke-grimed walls, many missing glass vials, and small chards of glass glinted from every horizontal surface. Above all, the smell of char permeated the ambient air.

        Jim stood at the counter in his long, white lab coat counting out pills for a prescription. Behind Jim I could see Stanley, hunched over his desk in the little alcove we referred to as “the office.” A bottle of Jack Daniel’s stood as a sentinel at his right elbow. My eyes met Jim’s but before I could ask he whispered, “Don’t ask. Dad had a bit of an accident. I left it for you to clean up, if you will.”

        I immediately started the clean-up process. It was obvious something had exploded. I pictured a big fiery ball erupting, but I could see no evidence as to what the cause could have been.

        Slowly, over the ensuing evening, the story came out. Stanley (Mr. Dorsey to me) would later assure me that it wasn’t “really” my fault. A customer had requested four ounces of Carbon Tetrachloride, so he had gone to the dark corner of the dimly-lit storeroom to retrieve the gallon can. Apparently carbon tetrachloride had been stored in one particular spot on that metal storage rack for an untold number of years, right up until the preceding Saturday when I neatened things up. Stanley had simply reached to the spot where carbon tetrachloride always had been kept, picked up the gallon can sitting there, returned to the pharmacy area and the deep sink, took a six-ounce glass measure down from the rack, opened the can and started to decant the liquid.

        Seldom was Stanley seen without a lit cigarette protruding from his lips- it was this habit that had given his mustache that nicotine yellow tinge. If the liquid he was pouring had actually been carbon tetrachloride, his smoking would not have been a factor. However, since he had not bothered to read the label on the gallon can, he didn’t know that he was pouring carbon disulfide. Carbon disulfide is a colorless to-faintly-yellow-liquid with a strong, disagreeable odor. It is used in the manufacture of viscose rayon, cellophane, carbon tetrachloride, and flotation agents. And most important: carbon disulfide is highly flammable.

        Stanley said he knew something was wrong as soon as he smelled the disulfide, but that was just about the time everything blew. It was a major blow, too. The fireball scorched the walls and ceiling, shattered the majority of the glassware above the sink, and singed the hair on both of Stanley’s arms. His large, shaggy eyebrows were almost destroyed, and the famous mustache was history. How he escaped being seriously hurt no one ever knew.

        I was deeply humbled and quite shaken, knowing that I was part of the cause of this tragedy. Stanley did beseech me to, “Never rearrange anything without warning me again,” but other than that comment, there was no hint of blame. Luckily, I had told Jim that I was going to, “Clean and neaten the storeroom” before this all took place.

        On Jim’s behalf, he admitted to failing to mention it to his Dad. Jim assured me, “Its not your fault, you were just doing your job and Dad should know to check a label before pouring any chemical. Practically speaking, however, if I were you, I wouldn’t mention it to him.”

        Still I felt bad about the incident.

        A couple of years later on a sunny Saturday afternoon, Peter, Paul, and Mary were singing their hit, Blowin’ in the Wind on the store radio. Frost-tinted maple leaves were dancing down Main Street in big loops, and tendrils of mare-tail clouds wisped their way across the blue September sky. Saturday shoppers strolled from store to store stopping momentarily to peruse the window showcases. It was a day that callled to the heart of those who love nature, the smell of wood smoke, and squirrel hunting. It was a day for a boy to be out and away from walls and roofs, a day for adventure. As I emerged from the storeroom into the pharmacy area laden with shelf stock, Jim spoke to me in sotto voce, “Tom, step into the corner, put down your load, and be quiet.” Detecting the urgency and secrecy in his voice, I smoothly slid toward the corner. From this spot I had almost no view of the store. Consequently, no one in the store could see me. In an ever-so-soft voice, as he continued to count out pills for a prescription, he murmured, “There’s a man at the register. I want you to follow him and get a good description of him and his car. See where he goes and what he does, then report it all back to me. Don’t” he stressed, “don’t let him know what you’re up to. Understand?”

        I nodded an affirmative. I opened the storeroom door and stole a quick glance at the tall stranger standing at the register. As I crossed the storeroom, my racing thoughts formed a plan of action. I knew I could hit the alley behind Dorsey’s and it would lead to Broadway. A quick dash south, and I’d be at the corner of Broadway and Main Street. There I could observe the sidewalk in front of Dorsey’s Drugs by looking through the adjacent corner windows of the First National Bank (where my mother worked). If the mystery man walked west toward me, I would have plenty of time to move out of his path before he reached the corner and I came into his line of sight. On the other hand, if he moved east I’d be behind him. He came west toward the corner and I started north. When he reached the corner, he immediately turned south, crossed the street with the light, and continued for approximately thirty feet. Drawing up at the car parked there, he reached into his pocket for keys and unlocked the passenger door. He opened it, reached in, and tossed the paper bag containing his purchase from Dorsey’s into the back seat.

        By this time I had deposited myself back in the alley where I had a decent, if somewhat distant, view of the proceedings. My mysterious subject-in-question turned and disappeared into Walker’s Drug store and soda fountain. Walker’s was the only competitor of Dorsey’s in Blanchester, and I was amazed when I discovered early on that the two stores, both vying for dominance in the prescription market, actually helped each other when one store ran low on a particular drug. I was a frequent presence at Walker’s soda fountain after school and before my four P.M. starting time at Dorsey’s. After all, that’s where the pretty young girls would be whiling away a few minutes over a soda or ice cream sundae.

        After waiting for what I deemed an appropriate length of time (two cycles of the traffic light), I wandered casually across the street. I was trying my best to appear like a typical teenage boy- not a special investigator. I passed the large plate glass window near the door of Walker’s, chanced a quick glance, and saw the stranger- back at the drug counter, deep in conversation with the pharmacist.

        After passing the front door, I slowed my stride and gave the subject’s car a good visual going-over. I committed all pertinent data to memory: make, model, year, color, and condition. When I got to the license plate I was surprised to see it was from a northern state. I then continued south only long enough to get a sense of the timing of passing cars. Once the rhythm was clear I crossed the street to the west. I didn’t want to bring any attention to myself, and jay-walking could be a serious offense if the local police officer happened to see you commit it. However, to this junior sleuth, these were extenuating circumstances and I trusted that Jim would back me up if it became an issue. Once safely across the street, I sequestered myself on the recessed steps of the hardware store. Here, I again used the technique of watching through adjacent windows for my quarry. Slouching comfortably against the window frame, I took my ever-present note pad from my pocket and jotted down the vital statistics on the subject vehicle in question.

        I didn’t have long to wait for more action. The stranger suddenly appeared on the front steps of Walker’s. He hesitated long enough to sweep his eyes both up and down Broadway, then stepped with alacrity down the remaining steps. He had a small paper bag in his left hand and car keys in his right. Aha! I made a mental note to myself: suspect is right-handed. This time he moved to the driver’s side of the car, opened the door, and tossed the paper bag into the back seat. He closed the door, started the car, and sedately drove away.

        As soon as the car had turned west on Main I dashed to the corner and peered around at the receding tail fins. It looked like he was heading for the town limits at maximum legal speed. Spinning on my heels, I made another dash across the street- one the local police could have labeled ‘crossing against the light.’ Luckily, it wasn’t observed by anyone of consequence and I zipped into Walker’s Drugs unmolested. Once inside the store, I hurried to the drug counter where I spoke with the pharmacist and questioned him on the tall stranger and his purchase.

        “Paregoric,” was his answer. Even I knew what Paregoric was by then; made from opium and usually taken for the relief of diarrhea and intestinal pain, it was a pain killer that could be rubbed on the gums of infants to reduce the discomfort of teething. Because it had an opium base it was a controlled drug. It could be dispensed over the counter without a doctor’s order, but only in one-ounce quantities, and only once per forty-eight hour period. The buyer was required to show identification and sign a drug register.

        From Walker’s, I rushed back across Main Street to Dorsey’s. Jim gave me his undivided attention as I related all the information I had garnered on the stranger from Michigan and his strange activities. When I had completed my field report, Jim held out his hand for the notes that contained my description of the suspect’s car and license plate data. Jim’s response to all this was a rather surprised and sincere, “Well done, thanks.” Then he reached for the old black wall-phone with the ever-twisted cord, and dialed a number from memory.

        To the tune of Johnny Cash belting out Ring of Fire, I retrieved the armload of stock that was still on the floor where I’d quietly dumped it only fifteen short minutes ago, and resumed the day’s work. It was about two hours later Jim called me to the pharmacy area and said, “They got him.”

        “Got him? Got who for what?”
       “Your mystery man. I phoned the police and they stopped him just down Route 28. When they checked his car they found a trunk load of Paregoric.”

        “What,” I wondered out loud, “was he going to do with that?”
        “By the time he got to Florida he would have had enough to boil down for the drug content. He’d have made a lot of money.”

        So how did you know he was doing that?” I marveled.
        “I didn’t. I just suspected it and your sleuth-work made me certain. Now you can add detective to your resumé.”

        Cool, I thought, totally cool.

        It was November 1961 and hunting season was rapidly approaching, but this year I wasn’t thinking about Ohio’s rabbits, squirrels, Bobwhite quail, or ring-necked pheasants. Nuh uh! This year we were going to West Virginia and get ourselves some venison. (The ‘we’ being Doug and myself, naturally.) There would be four joining us, but we didn’t really count the grownups.

        The crisp smell of wood smoke tinted the air as Doug and I helped load the old Dodge van. I took special care in packing the sleeping bag my brother-in-law, Larry, had loaned me. I wanted to know exactly where it was if I needed it on the ride down to the West Virginia mountain cabin. All of the guns were carefully stowed while Doug’s dad, Claude, rechecked the food. “Tommy, you ever eat salt pork bacon?” he asked while closing the rear doors. I told him no. He went on to tell me how good it tasted after a cold hard day of deer hunting.

        I said I’d rather be eating venison after a day of deer hunting, and Doug agreed with me. We both knew that we’d be coming back to camp successful hunters.

        A short while later, the van was pronounced ready and the four grown men claimed all the good seats. Doug and I, the youngest members of the group, were relegated to the rear area that was already full of supplies. The winter weather and road conditions made for a long drive, and by the time Claude had navigated the overloaded van into the hills of West Virginia, darkness had fallen. Snow flurries that had dogged our progress across Ohio had now developed into a strong snowstorm. Doug and I, tired of sitting in cramped positions on top of the gear, finally gave up our fight with exhaustion and started circling around like dogs seeking a comfortable bed. Just as we settled our heads onto semi-soft lumps of canned goods padded with rubber boots, the van lurched and Claude let out a yell. He had, for a number of miles, been fighting what he thought was a squirrelly front end, maybe a tie-rod going out, or ball joints finally giving up the ghost. But when our last bit of squirming about caused the van’s front end to lift completely off the roadbed, Claude finally realized that the van was rear-end heavy, and our moving about was causing problems.

        “You boys schooch as far for’ard as you can!” he ordered. I wasn’t sure if it was anger, fear, or both that shaded his voice with a high frantic pitch, but I didn’t wait to find out. Both Doug and I ‘schooched’ ourselves up against the back of the rear seat and hunkered down. Then in a voice more controlled, a little more normal, Claude said, “Stay there and don’t be moving about anymore or you’ll put us in the ditch, sure.”

        We stayed put, cramped and uncomfortable as we were, for another fifty miles or so. It took some time and helping hands for us to climb out of the van when we reached the cabin. One of the older men told us to “Get used to it, it’s what old age feels like all the time.” We didn’t care, we were in West By-God-Virginia and we were deer hunting with the men.

        The following dawn lit the valley slowly. The mountain to our east made for a late sunrise, and, it was Sunday. We would do no hunting today. Instead, Claude had announced on the drive last night, we would hike around and scout out places to take up a stand. ‘No hunting’ meant no carrying of guns either. Someone asked what would you do if you ran into a bear? And the old fellow answered, “Well, all I can say is that bear would have a slick road down that mountain!”

        Doug and I were two wide-eyed boys during these five days of walking the mountains carrying our guns, and smelling the winter smells of rotting leaves and wood smoke on the crisp air. They were days of shared male camaraderie as well as kitchen and housekeeping duties. We lived in a little one-room, tin-and-frame cabin that Claude built. There we lay in the top bunk and watched the adult males play poker for matchsticks, laughed at their off-color jokes, and even understood some of their double entendres.

        When Claude, in giving a demonstration of how he singed customer’s hair to seal the frayed ends in his barbershop, managed to flash burn every chest hair off himself, we joined with the laughter of the others as he flailed wildly at his flaming chest and danced about the tiny cabin. Then we groaned and complained about the acrid stench left by the humorous event.

        Later we marveled as Claude related how one hunting season, back when he was a young man, he had come to the cabin alone and fallen sick with the flu. With no medicine at hand, in desperation he had mixed kerosene and white lightning. After drinking the mixture he passed out in his bunk bed and slept for a long time. When he awoke, the fever had passed and the sickness gone- leaving him weak but cured. I still have my doubts, and yet Claude still walks this world. It would take me 46 years before I found someone who agreed that that mixture could affect a cure without killing a man. Today, one may Google “kerosene-colds-whooping cough-medicine” and find numerous websites telling of how kerosene was used as a ‘cure’ for many ailments years ago. I believe these stories, many autobiographical, support Claude and his tale.

        The last day of hunting came around and Doug and I were yet to see a deer. Disappointment had not made us grim, just hungrier for success. Needless to say we’d come to appreciate the salt pork bacon but still we subscribed to the desire to fill our tin plates with venison.

        As Doug and I moved stealthily up a hillside together, a bee zipped between us just as a shot rang out from up above. Then something kicked up a tuff of topsoil as another gun sounded. Doug was the first to give voice and make a move. I heard him yell, “Hit the ground!” as I was flinging myself toward the tiniest of depressions in the hillside. There were no big pits, trenches, or holes to take cover in, so we made do with what there was. More shots rang across the valley; more dirt sprayed up around us. Either a deer was between us and other hunters or we’d been mistaken for deer ourselves. We yelled, we cursed, we threatened, and when the shooting recommenced we looked at each other, nodded, and rolling onto our stomachs, started shooting back.

        As the echoes of our shots repeated themselves down the valley and out of hearing we continued to lie in our imaginary trenches, listening for anything that might signal the end of the sudden firefight. When no further shots were volleyed our way, we reloaded, slowly picked ourselves up, dusted the dirt and debris from our clothes, and continued cautiously up the hill. As we moved upwards we spread out and kept low with our guns at the ready. On reaching the top of the ridge where we figured the shooter or shooters had been standing we found a few footprints but no body, blood, or clues. We would never know whom it was that shot at us, nor would we know why.

        Doug and I were not destined to bag a deer that year, but one in our party did, so we got to stuff ourselves on fresh venison after all. All agreed, it tasted much better than salt pork. Claude managed, against all odds, to bag a grouse and the group had a good laugh over it, too. In Claude’s words, “I was headed back to camp toward dusk and I had just thought to myself this is a good place to see a grouse. And, boy Howdy, if one didn’t flush that very second! An’ if I didn’t forget that I had my .30-06 ‘stead of my ol’ 20-gauge, I don’t know what. But that bird up an’ flushed an’ I swung on him and pulled the trigger quick as a snap. Blam! An’ there was this big cloud of feathers everywhere. All I could find was one breast, a leg an’ a thigh.” By the time he’d related this he had started to run out of enthusiasm. Wearing a crestfallen look on his face, he held up, what Walt loudly described as, “a puny piece of poultry.” Never one to consider a cup half empty, Claude then pronounced triumphantly, and much to the hilarity of our group, “Warn’t much work to dressin’ it. All I had to do was find the pieces.”

        On a summer Saturday in June of 1963, Doug and I hooked up for an evening of adventure. While discussing options for our primary destination, we drove Doug’s car out to Bernard’s Dairy Point on the north end of town. This was where we frequently slurped down milk shakes and eyed the clientele (as only teenage boys can) for young, friendly girls. This evening, the first thing that caught our eye was Ben Hannah’s long black hearse. We were used to seeing the hearse around town, but it was a first to see it parked at the Dairy Point with a tow truck jockeying itself up to the rear bumper. Figuring this was something too good to miss, we bailed out of our car and wandered over for a closer look-see. Our inspection revealed that the right rear tire was clear of the gravel surface by four or five critical inches. Little Joanie Hannah stood next to the beached whale wringing her hands. Her usually round face was pinched and lined, her small lips pulled thin as a pair of playing cards. It was quite clear she was doing her best not to cry.

        After saying hello and asking what the trouble was, Doug and I dropped down on our bellies to look under the car. We clearly saw the cause of Joanie’s dilemma. She had attempted to drive over a large tree stump. The oil pan of the car slid up onto the top of the stump and the rear drive-wheel went airborne, canceling its ability to push the car forward or backward.

        We watched as the tow truck lifted the rear of the car. It moved backward no more than two feet (which shifted the car forward those same two feet) then lowered the car to the gravel drive. The driver then unhooked the lift and, along with a dozen or more onlookers, watched as Joanie made a hasty exit- taking her embarrassment with her.

        Doug and I had a good laugh and spent a bit of time berating the driving abilities of girls as we made a couple of milkshakes disappear. It was somewhere near the bottom of a chocolate shake that an idea began to take form. When I finally had enough of the concept in place, I laid out my idea to Doug. After due consideration, he said, “Sure.”

        “Come on,” I said, and bailed out of the car once more.
        When we asked to speak with the owner, George, he came out the side door and took up station against the door jam, where he propped his tall lean frame. “Evening boys. How can I help you?”

        I could see his eyes appraising us. I didn’t feel he found us lacking. George was a kind man who enjoyed the kids that frequented his establishment. There was always an ad for the Dairy Point in all the school flyers that were created to raise money for clubs, teams, or classes. Everyone knew George was count-on-able and that he was an easy touch. In other words, he believed in supporting those who supported him.

        “Any plans for removing that stump?” I questioned while Doug stood behind but near enough to me to be counted in the conversation.

        “No, haven’t found anyone I could afford. Why, you boys interested?”
        “Yes, if the price’s right. What’s it worth to you?” I came back in a studied manner, trying to be casual and not show too much excitement at the prospect.

        “Are you proposing that you two can do the job? I can’t afford to have the drive torn up more than a short while or I’ll lose another car. And the stump has to be taken out below grade, nothing left sticking up through the gravel.”

        “Sure, we can do it, can’t we Doug?” I fully expected Doug to step forward at this point and give his hearty assurance as to our speed and determination, but all he offered was, “Yeah, don’t see why not.”

        George studied us in a different light (entrepreneurs seeing an opportunity for personal gain?) for a moment, then offered up, “How does $35 sound?”

        I didn’t hesitate and came right back with, “How about $20 for each of us and a free milk shake?” I looked him in the eye and waited to see if my bluff would hold water. $35 was five dollars more than I had figured the job was worth before negotiations had commenced. Even a “No” to my counter offer would yield us an extra five.

        “When can you do it?” George finally asked.
        “Tomorrow?” I asked Doug while seeking his eyes for confirmation. “You free tomorrow morning, before the heat hits?”

        “Yeah, I guess so.” (Was that a marked lack of enthusiasm I detected?)
        Turning back to George, I said we would be there at first light, tools and all. Sticking out my hand to shake the deal done, I had a big grin on my face and excitement in my heart. Here we’d stumbled over a perfect situation to drum up a little spending money. I figured we could be in and out in just a couple of hours by working together, and it wouldn’t even conflict with my job at the drug store because tomorrow was a Sunday.

        The promise of work and the need to be on site early the next morning put an abrupt end to our evening. I wanted to have a good rest and be ready for the morrow. As it turned out, that was a very wise course of action.

        The sun was just starting to edge up over the trees and fields to the East as I swung Mother’s big-finned Savoy into the Dairy Point parking lot. No Doug yet, but that was not unexpected. I knew he’d be a little later than me. By seventeen, I had received years of Mother’s thoughts on responsibility and the virtue of being on time or earlier.

        I began by unloading the tools: shovels, pick, axe, sledgehammer, metal wedges and a garden rake. I knew what would be needed because I’d gone through this drill in our front yard each time Mother pointed out another locus stump that she wanted removed. I knew locus was one of the hardest of hardwoods, and if I could remove those locus stumps to Mother’s satisfaction this walnut stump should be a cinch for Doug and me. In fact, I looked forward to having this job done before George even got to work; didn’t we have a full three hours to accomplish it? And didn’t I know how hard Doug could work? You bet ya! I could already taste that free shake. Mmmmmm…..mmmm.

        6:30 rolled around and no sight of Doug, but that wasn’t a problem. I had used the time to excavate one side of the stump and laid bare one massive root shoot. When I picked up the axe and took the first test swing into the wood that a tiny bit of misgiving began to seep into the corners of my mind like tendrils of fog over a low-lying October pond. The axe didn’t even pretend to penetrate the walnut; in fact, it barely made any impression at all. The morning’s work just got longer.

        7:00 a.m. and still no Doug. Luckily I was working in the shade of the building, but the morning sun had started to heat up the air and promised to keep on heating it. My shirt was off now and my back was glistening with honest sweat. The air nearby was infrequently disturbed with my darkening thoughts of Doug and his fondness of sleeping in.

        On it went throughout the morning. George came by around 9 AM and asked the whereabouts of “my helper.” All I could say was I really didn’t know, but if he didn’t show I’d be happy to accept his wages for him.

        Around 10:00 the backdoor opened and the sound of the Beach Boys singing Surfin’ U.S.A. reached my ears. I looked up and saw George in the doorframe. “Ready for your free shake?” he intoned softly. Wisely, I declined. The reason behind my reticence was that I didn’t feel like I deserved it. Secretly, I was harboring a fear that I’d never get the job completed. That walnut was every bit as tough as locus-- and three times larger than anything I’d tackled so far. To make things even more challenging, the ground was packed hard with gravel and very difficult to dig.

        At 12 noon the sun was beating down unmercifully on my head and shoulders. I’d had to don my shirt to protect my skin from blistering, and the sweat stuck the cloth to my back and restricted my movement. By now, my little attacks on the stump were finally starting to show progress. I’d haggled small pieces off from all sides and managed to remove some dirt from all around the base. I’d come to believe I’d be able to complete the job, but it would not happen quickly.

        Somewhere between noon and 1PM I realized I needed to eat, rest, and take a breather from the sun. I was gathering up my tools and dumping them in the trunk of the car when George came out to the tune of Bob Dylan’s nasal rendition of Blowin’ in the Wind. Seeing him standing there, I knew what was going through his mind. I quickly walked over and said, “I’m going home for a bite to eat and a rest. I’ll return after it starts to cool off.” He nodded, but was strangely silent. He stood there leaning against the side of the building, arms crossed on his chest, as I drove away to the unanswered question; “…how many years can a mountain exist?”

        A few years later when I was home on leave from the navy, George confided to me that he didn’t expect to see me return that evening, or ever. So, imagine his surprise when, around 4 that afternoon he discovered me back outside his place- digging, chopping, and splitting on that stump. I finished up in about an hour. Partly, the speed was due to my renewal of energy and strength. Partly, it was due to the old learning curve, and lastly it was due to the fact that as one weakens a structure, the remainder is more vulnerable to a concerted attack.

        When the tools were safely stowed for the last time, I walked up to the back door and knocked. George came out to the tune of Dylan’s, A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall and asked, “Done?”

        “Yes.” Came my pride-filled answer. And I sure was proud. The ground where the stump had resided was level, raked, and neat. No sign of the car-catching stump would ever be seen again. George was visibly impressed. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a large bundle of bills. Selecting two Andrew Jackson’s, he asked with a smile in his tone, “What flavor?”

        “Chocolate, please. And may I have it extra thick?”
        “Yes sir.” As he said this, he held out his hand. “I’d say you earned your money today.” To which, I could only nod and smile.

        On my drive home I forgave Doug for copping out on the job. Forty dollars was a lot of money for a day’s work for a teenager in 1963. More than the money was the deep-down warm feeling that came with the knowledge that I was able to see opportunity and stay the course-- no matter the challenge, no matter the difficulty, no matter what. I basked in the knowledge that I’d stood good to my word.

        As I eased the Savoy up in front of our house, I was whistling along with the Four Seasons. Indeed I would Walk Like a Man, but it would require a few days to work out the kinks in my back, legs, and arms to do so.

        A couple of days later Doug would explain that his mother had needed his help around the house, and that he’d had no choice but to do her bidding. It was the kind of explanation that made perfect sense to me.

        By 1963 Mother had been employed at the bank for five years and had come into her own. Liked by most of her coworkers and known by many of the town people, she took pleasure in holding her ‘Head Bookkeeper’ position. She loved practical jokes and was always on the lookout for one to play on the unsuspecting. Her coworkers were a prime target for her antics: rubber pencils, rubber chocolate candy pieces, and rubber cashews all found their way down to the bank’s bookkeeping department.

        April the first was a grand target for her. The subtler the prank, the better- although the time she convinced all the bookkeepers to call in sick or with a reasonable excuse for not coming to work, was one of her better efforts. By the time her phone call reached Mr. Burkett that rainy spring day, he was in her words, “Almost beside himself.” She delivered this first-hand report in a voice filled with glee.

        Later that evening she reported how relieved he had been when Mother and her entourage of accomplices strolled through the bank door at the stroke of 8 o’clock, right at their regular starting time. “He said it never occurred to him that we were having him on,” she cackled with childish delight. “Then he said I had to be the one to have thought it all up.” I had to smile as I watched her lean back in her chair and laugh out loud, a mannerism I had seen many times over the years.

        Mother waited two years before pulling her next April Fools’ stunt because she believed in never doing something if people expected her to. She probably would have waited even longer but the weather cooperated. In fact, it may have even spawned the idea in her devious mind as she approached the bank. An icy wind whipped her raincoat wildly about her legs and she had to bow her head against the freezing rain and sleet that cut through to the bone as she navigated the two cruel blocks from where she parked the car.

        Luckily, one of the men had been posted at the entrance to help Mother and the other ladies slip through the side door before the wind ripped it out of their grasps. As she stood dripping and shaking out her coat and head scarf, she announced to everyone (in a very crestfallen voice, I’m sure), “I’m sorry, but it was just too much for me to make it up that slippery sidewalk and carry a fresh rhubarb pie, too. Maybe I can get it at lunch.”

        Rarely did she not show up at work with a baked goodie for all to share at least once a week; just the Friday before this she had made a coconut cream pie (which was a favorite of V.P. Dick Johnson- but then he said that about everything she brought in).

        Margaret Taylor was twenty years younger- spry and willing. “Oh, Mary Eva, I’ll go get it for you. Is your car unlocked? Where did you leave it?”

        “Yes, I never lock it. The pie’s on the back seat. Now don’t let it get wet!” Full of assurances, Margaret went tearing out into the storm. I would assume there were visions of rhubarb dancing in her lovely, gullible head. It was quite a while later before she returned. I’m not sure just exactly when it hit her that she’d been duped by the pro, but it was certainly long after she had searched every inside inch of that car, even looking on the floor and under the seats. “Oh, Mary Eva, how could you do that with such a straight face?” She wailed. “I just love rhubarb pie!”

        Much of the summer excitement revolved around plans for Blanchester’s new football team. Apparently, the last time we had a team was 28-years before or in 1928 (I was never clear on this point of town history), but everyone agreed the reason football was dropped from the school’s activities was the death (or bad injury) of a player. When my sister Alice heard that I planned to try out for the team she intoned mournfully, “Oh, and he had such pretty teeth.”

        Jim Dorsey was a prime mover behind the push for a team. He encouraged me to try out, and even provided me with one-a-day multiple vitamins—this was in response to my small stature, I’m sure. He also made allowances for my missing work a few Saturdays. I did my best to make up lost hours, but there were days when after having played or practiced football until two o’clock or so, I’d drag a fairly worn and tattered body around the store until closing time, without really accomplishing much actual work. I appreciated the slack granted me on those days, and I think the Dorsey’s appreciated my determination to try and make up the time. By now, I was a full-fledged cash register operator along with my regular stock boy responsibilities.

        On the first day of school, a call went out to all boys interested in being a part of the team. The coaches made a lot of noise about ‘making the cut,’ but from the approximately 200 boys enrolled at high school, there just weren’t enough people to field a team like coach, Ben Hubbard, envisioned. Two of our biggest and supposedly toughest guys, Steve Carey and Tom Barr, refused to quit smoking and Hubbard wouldn’t let them play unless they did. At the time I was pretty angry with the smokers, accusing them of having no school spirit and being cowards. I reasoned if I, with my little 5’5” and 150 pound frame could get out on the field and take the best other teams could give, then those two hulks should to.

        To start we had to do a lot of running and calisthenics to get us moving into shape. Then, came lessons in the essentials of football. That’s about as far as we got that first year.

        There were four basic squads: receiving, kicking, offense, and defense. My spot on all four was assured in the early days of training. During the first day of blocking practice, the coach singled me out to be the one he demonstrated on. Indicating that I should assume the three-point position of a linesman, he bent down across from me. He was explaining the necessity of bringing our forearm up hard and quick when stepping into the man across from us, then stepping back to the starting position on the line. This is what you must do to defend a pass-play to ensure a linesman is not called for being beyond the line of scrimmage.

        All this time, I was down in the three-point stance trying to absorb the directions. Suddenly, a blinding flash of white light seared across my eyes, the world seemed to revolve weirdly, and then darkness closed down around me like a spoon plunged into a cup of black coffee.

        I came-to quickly and found coach Garrison’s two faces peering at me from just inches away. There was far too much concern on his usually placid countenance. I immediately became aware of something warm and moist running down each of my cheeks. “You ok?” came coach G’s voice through layers of cotton batting.

        Realization, along with intense pain, came flooding into my brain, but they were overshadowed by embarrassment. I immediately struggled to my feet and resumed the three-point posture. As soon as my head hung down, gravity took over and the blood from my nose started dripping onto my left hand.

        Above the roaring in my ears, I heard coach Hubbard’s aside to Coach Garrison: “Forgot they don’t have their helmets yet. Guess that was a pretty hard shot.” Then he moved off to direct the team in practicing what he had just showed them but with the warning, “Be careful and don’t make contact with your partner’s nose.”

        Admittedly dazed, I wasn’t quite sure what to do. I looked around for a partner, but coach G took my elbow and steered me toward the locker room saying, “Come on, you best get the bleeding stopped or you’ll ruin too many uniforms.”

        It was a hard shot and it broke my nose, but because I got back up and showed that I was willing to keep on playing, coach Hubbard was impressed. In fact, he was so impressed I played every minute of every game Blanchester had that season. I was the only man on the squad able to make that claim. Many of the games were routs; we did eek out one win, and some games had individual plays that made my day. When we played Goshen, I was paired against a defensive tackle who stood 6’2” and tipped the scale around 195 pounds, but by that point I had discovered the secret of using my short stature as an advantage. When the ball was snapped, I’d bury my cleats in the ground, extend my body and stay as low as I could. I took measure of that tackle, then went back to the huddle and told our quarterback to run the ball off my right side. That allowed Eddie Gilbert to run eighty yards through the middle of the line— the one and only touchdown Goshen would allow on their home field that season.

        After the game, while we were changing clothes in the locker room, coach Hubbard called me over and said someone wanted to meet me. I had no idea who it could be, and being sick at the loss of a very close game I really didn’t want to meet anyone. It turned out to be Goshen’s principal, Mr. Gormley. He had known all my siblings when they attended elementary school and wanted to say hello, ask after them, and congratulate me on a game well played.

        We ended our season with a record of 11:1 That was eleven losses, one win. As the season progressed, it had became harder and harder to take the — yet we never failed to do so. Nor did we ever feel that there wasn’t a chance for us to win.

        After the season ground to a halt, coach Hubbard corralled me in the gym one day and asked if I was planning on playing football in college. I laughed at him. I knew I was far too small for the college scene and I told him so. “No, you’d do ok in one of the smaller ones, say Wilmington, like that,” he reassured me. It made me feel good that he would even mention this, but I knew the truth of the matter, and was not going to be enrolled in what I considered to be his ‘lunatic’ fantasy.

        There were 100 kids in my High School senior class in November of 1963- young folk anticipating the step into adulthood the following spring. For the most part we were happy, full of high expectations of ourselves and of life. We were looking forward to the future

        Then came Friday, November 22, 1963. People my age across the country remember that day much like those born before the attack on Pearl Harbor recall December 7th, 1941. This was our defining moment, our day of grievous infamy. At 12:30 p.m., Texas local time, U.S. President John F. Kennedy was critically shot while riding in a motorcade through Dealey Plaza in Dallas, an event that shocked the world and changed our nation forever. Though his young wife, Jackie, said the shooting was perpetrated by, “…some silly little Communist,” we sensed something larger. It was the end of an era.

        My classmates and I were informed of the shooting an hour before the afternoon dismissal bell announced our freedom and I would start my slow trek to Dorsey’s. Mr. Binkley, our principal, came over the public address system and made the announcement that our president had been shot and school was dismissed until further notice.

        I remember how shocked Jim Dorsey appeared as I entered the store. He was standing up near the front windows watching the street, profound concern splashed across his face. I joined him at the window and we just stood there together in silence, keeping our thoughts to ourselves.

        Finally, turning to me he said, “If you want to stock the shelves and head on home you may. I’ll probably close early.” Not wanting to miss anything of importance I declined, saying, “I’d just as soon stay. There’s some straightening needs to be done on the baby food isle.”

        I was waiting in front of the store at 8:30 a.m. the next morning when Jim arrived to open it up. He told me that I didn’t need to stay, as he didn’t expect to remain open long. “It’s actually Dad’s day to be here, but I told him I had a couple of chores to do and I’d cover for him.”

        I told him thanks but, “I have a couple of things to do, too. I’ll leave when you do if that’s okay.” The center of town was a quiet place, with only a few cars passing by the large plate glass windows and even fewer people were on the sidewalks. Thus, I was surprised around 10:00 when Doug, accompanied by Brent Schnell and Louie Volk, came steaming through the door in search of me. They didn’t hesitate in telling me their plan and invited me to join them. The idea was to catch the evening train down at the Blanchester depot and ride it all the way to Washington, D.C. It would take all night. We’d arrive the following morning, find our way to the nation’s capitol where President Kennedy would be laying in state, pay our respects, and jump the next train back to Blanchester. As I stood there, doubts and questions flowed freely through my mind. Jim Dorsey, who had been listening from a discrete distance, stepped forward and encouraged me to definitely, “Go, by all means, go.” His endorsement of the scheme made it possible for me to consider the idea at all. After having the plan repeated numerous times, the necessary items listed twice (money, jacket, snack), and the projected cost of the adventure mentally subtracted from my financial holdings, I was sold on the idea. “Sure, count me in.”

        It was nearing 11:00 when Jim announced he was locking up. I dashed home to enroll Mother in the idea. Hurrying home from the store I rehearsed my speech, trying to tie down all the important issues in this great opportunity. To my immense surprise, Mother was in total support. She voiced a few concerns, but on the whole she was certain it would be good for me to have this experience.

        The next morning found four southern Ohio schoolboys disembarking from a train in the nation’s capitol. We were a bit dazed and sleepy, yet wide-eyed at the prospect of actually being in “Washing-damn-ton, D.C.” After asking directions to the capitol building, we discovered there were no taxis available outside the train station. There was nothing to do but start the trek on foot.

        After walking only a few blocks from the train station we could see the capitol dome. We homed in on it like a compass needle seeks magnetic north. Drawing nearer, we saw 100 or so people forming a ragged line down the sidewalk along one side of the road leading directly to the capitol steps. When we reached the front of this informal queue, we asked if this was the line awaiting access to the rotunda and were answered in the affirmative.

        The people had the appearance of lost children. Many wore dazed expressions: tears sliding down red cheeks, eyes filled with pain or fear. Some expressed anger, others asked over and over the question no one could answer: “Why?”

        Silently, we boys took our position at the end of the line. Soon a second line began to form on the adjacent sidewalk. Over the next few hours, the two lines would grow until they were too long for us to see the ends. Two abreast for what would eventually be a mile or more, people would continue to join the mournful queues. Silently they took their places, waiting with the patience of Job for their turns to enter the dome and gaze upon the flag-draped casket of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 35th president of the United States of America.

        We had been in line for perhaps three hours when word, like a prairie wildfire running before a high wind, blew over and through us. Lee Harvey Oswald had been shot and killed. The four of us were stunned by the news. People around us first cheered then became silent. Those among us who saw this event as a loss raised voices in anger and dismay. How could we-the-people, who loved, respected, and revered President Kennedy, be denied the ability to seek retribution from his heinous murderer? How would we ever be able to know and understand his cowardly action? These questions flowed around and through the crowd like bees around a hive in summer.

        Twice we sent runners for coffee and once we took turns making toilet runs before the police assigned to crowd control allowed us to pass beyond the barricades and climb the steps to the capitol building. The entire time we stood in line among the citizens of Washington D.C., there was never an incident, a breach of law, or a problem needing the action of the policemen. I think everyone in that line felt it would have been a red mark on the president’s memory to act inappropriately that day. I was impressed. Literally thousands and thousands of people to stood in a seemingly never-ending line, progressing only at a snails’ pace for a three-minute viewing of a closed casket. Today would be an improbable situation at best.

        The four of us were within the first 100 people to enter the rotunda. Immediately we were forced to divide up and step either to the right or the left, then continue along the outer wall. I remember trying to take in the entire scene; the height of the dome, the people, the TV cameras, and the Klieg lights. In the exact center of the circular room, directly under the dome, stood a bier with its base draped with a black cloth. Atop this stand lay a closed casket with the American flag spread over it. Flower arrangements were on the floor at the head and foot of the coffin. As we reached the center of the arched path, the tendency was to slow and to try and stop for a moment, but the gentle force of those behind kept the flow moving. At the time, I was aware of it all happening too fast. Looking to the faces of those around me, I could see nothing but pain and grief: a loss so great it was truly incomprehensible.

        Once past the casket, the lines of mourners were quickly funneled outside. The four of us joined up and discussed what we had just seen, experienced, and felt. Then we asked ourselves if it would be worth rejoining the line for another pass through the rotunda. The decision was unanimous- until we saw the length to which the line had grown. We decided to return to the train station.

        Little did we realize that we had participated in more than just a presidential funeral; we were in our nation’s capitol at what would prove to be a turning point for all Americans. With JFK’s untimely death came the loss of innocence, tolerance, and silent acceptance of wrongs initiated by our founding fathers. Racial inequality, women’s rights to make choices about their bodies, and the looming issue of U.S. intervention in Vietnam, would soon lead to pubic expressions of distrust. The reports of marches, demonstrations and sit-ins on University campuses and in the big cities across the nation would soon dominate the evening news. The government’s policies and actions to squash this civil disobedience would all become major issues in the following years.

        While we killed time until the next train departed for Ohio, I wandered into the novelty gift shop in the station. I hit upon the idea of buying a souvenir for my girl of the moment. Her name escapes me after all these years, but I do remember how smitten I was by her angelic beauty. We had been an item for only a week or two. Had I known then we would only be an item for another week, I’d certainly not have spent money on the little stuffed animal. Handing over my only bill, a ten spot, to the saleslady, I had a few quiet misgivings over being so free with my limited cash and still so far from home, but visions of a very appreciative recipient crowded out those diminutive warning voices. When the lady handed me the change and the stuffed toy, I noticed that she did not meet my eyes. When I looked at the $5 bill I immediately knew why. I gazed at what to me, was obviously a counterfeit Abe Lincoln and considered my options. I could call the police, but knew there were none available (they were all up around the capitol building). I could keep it and try to pass it along (but I very well might fail and get myself into trouble for my effort.) What I actually did was to turn to the clerk and say, “Excuse me, ma’am, could I have five ones for this?” I spoke loudly as I held up the questionable currency.

        Snatching the funny money from my outstretched hand and bestowing me with a glare that would have wilted me in any other situation, she quickly shoved five one-dollar bills into my awaiting hand. I stood there in front of the counter and carefully scanned each one before blessing her with a magnificent smile and saying, ever so sweetly, “Thank you, Ma’am.” Later I would actually be sorry for not keeping that fake $5 bill. In retrospect, it would have made a terrific souvenir for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

        When the train pulled into the little depot in downtown Blanchester, Mother was waiting for me. She couldn’t wait to tell me how she had been watching TV while talking to Alice on the phone. She had just told Alice that she was hoping to get a glimpse of me since all the stations were carrying live shots of the people passing through the rotunda. And, as Alice was explaining that it would be improbable that Mother would actually see us due to the great number of people, Mother did, in fact, see me. She explained how the camera zoomed in for a close up of my face as I moved slowly around the casket. I was surprised at how thrilled she was that I had made this spur-of-the-moment journey.

        Americans, and many people around the world, were stunned. In the days that followed, Lyndon Johnson would work at maintaining political balance. He reassured the fearful, showed strength and understanding, but even with his years of senatorial experience he would enjoin America in the devastating ‘military action’ that would become know as ‘Lyndon’s War.’

        The Kennedy days were likened to Camelot by the press. Sadly, with the ending of that era, the US became a country divided by war and escalating racial tensions.

        Class plays, musicals, proms, girlfriends, dates, cruising with Doug and friends, and work filled my senior year. I have no idea how I found time to read so much. Since I had learned, around the age of seven, I always had a book that I was reading. Between the Blanchester library, the school library, and Mother’s collection, I managed to cover a very eclectic selection of literary works. My love of reading certainly came from my Mother and all my siblings. To this day we still exchange the titles and authors of books that we’ve discovered and enjoyed.

        Without my passion for reading I would have had no education at all, for I worked quite diligently at skipping classes. By the time I was a senior, I had free reign, blessed by Mr. Binkley, our high school principal. Had I received pay for my efforts as stage crew manager, audio visual coordinator, etc, I would have had a princely savings account. As it was, when I graduated I possessed a true deficit of knowledge and no real concept of how to approach studying.

        With the combined encouragement of Mother, Fred, and the Dorsey’s, I determined that I would attend Ohio State University, in Columbus, Ohio. College was not my first choice of action, and maybe if I had been left to my own devices I would have simply joined the navy right out of high school as Doug did. I certainly wanted to accompany him

        As our graduation was looming on the horizon, I started completing the steps necessary for acceptance by the institutions of higher learning. When it came time to take the SAT (college placement test), along with the other college bound students in my class, I offered to drive Carol Berwanger to the test site.

        Carol was a tall, attractive, sweet person. Shoulder-length brown hair surrounded her soft-featured face like a cameo. In eighth grade she had started dating a boy a year or two older, and I had consciously classified her as ‘not available.’ As the years progressed, her boyfriend left for college. When she did not appear to be dating anyone else, I finally stepped into the void.

        By the time Carol started working at Dorsey’s as a clerk at the start of our senior year, we had been spending time together. A few Saturday nights after we closed the store and had said good night to Jim or Stanley, we would drive up to Wilmington for a Coke at the drive-in east of town. Long, heart-felt talks usually dominated these periods of time together. Carol was a true friend, and had it not been for her Catholic religion, I might have considered her as possible marriage material. Even though I liked her as deeply as I did, I had formed the idea that it was not wise to marry someone who was dedicated to a religion other than one which I could subscribe to. This may have been due to having heard Mother talk about how Fred had dated a Catholic girl in high school, and how Dad had voiced extreme displeasure.

        Before the day of the test arrived, classmates Susie Hunter (not an avid driver) and Joanie Hannah (still living in the shadow of the walnut stump episode as far as her father was concerned) asked if I would be willing to give them rides to Xenia. I wasn’t thrilled with the prospect of having to share Carol, but I didn’t want to appear less than a friend, either. I reluctantly agreed to play chauffeur for them.

        The morning of the test arrived and I collected my passengers, being sure to pick up Carol first, so that she would have the seat next to me. Thick gray clouds blocked the morning sun and the pavement had a slippery, wet sheen. We left the town limits behind and mist hung heavy in the air where there was standing water. Xenia, the site of the test, was about 35 miles away. We would have to travel through rolling hills on narrow state roads. Once we left Wilmington behind, we were on roads unfamiliar to me. That’s when the fog began to thicken. The infrequent patches became more numerous, larger, and more dense.

        I would have pulled off and waited for the sun to lift the blanket of non-visibility, but it had been drilled into us that being late meant not taking the test. Joanie Hannah was all for stopping; Susie and Carol both voted ‘No.’ Instead of stopping as I would have wished, I slowed our pace, stayed as far to the right of center as I safely could, and tried to will my eyes the ability to penetrate the fog. Knowing what it would mean to my reputation (and my sense of self-esteem) if I were to have an accident with those three young girls in the car, I pressed cautiously onward. At the same time I had to deal with the fear of not getting them to the test in time to claim their seats but I knew missing the test was the lesser of the two evils. I said I’d deliver them to the test, and I felt my reputation was on the line.

        About a mile from the high school where the test would be given, the car suddenly broke through the last pocket of fog and we emerged into blinding sunlight. We sped up and and someone remarked that we just might actually make it.

        I don’t know how the girls did on their test, but I do remember feeling exhausted as I opened the first booklet. I would have given a lot right then to have a cup of coffee or anything that might have calmed my mind and given me focus.

        A few days after the test, as I was sipping a vanilla phosphate at the counter in Walker’s, Ben Hannah slid onto a seat next to me. Ben was a funeral director, one of the town’s leading citizens, and highly thought of by everyone. He was also Joanie’s father. “I understand your trip up to Xenia was a bit foggy.” He tendered. “Cup of coffee, please, Maggie.” He directed to the lady behind the counter.

        “Yes, it slowed us down a little.”
        “More than a little is what I heard. I just want to thank you for driving Joan. And, here, I want you to take this for the gas.” I looked down and he was holding a $5 bill out to me.

        Try as I might he would not let me refuse the proffered money. I told him I hadn’t used a dollar’s worth of gas, yet he still insisted. “ I appreciate your doing this. I would never let Joan make that drive and I couldn’t drive her that day. You did me a big favor. Thanks.”

        “Thank you,” I said finally accepting the money. Then turning to Maggie I announced, “The coffee’s on me.”

        Ben laughed, said thanks again, and stuck out his hand. We shook like two friends, and I felt very proud at being treated like as an equal.

        Graduation came and went. Our class took a senior trip, and suddenly my last summer of freedom was upon me. I could feel adulthood with all its dark responsibilities drawing down. Doug and I talked it over and decided we needed (and deserved) a vacation of our own. He was slated to leave for the navy in the fall. The Vietnam ‘military action’ was bursting its’ seams in southeast Asia. There was little assurance Doug and I would have much opportunity to spend time together again for a long while.

        So against Mother’s mildly voiced better judgment, Doug and I took off in his family car- a little Dodge Lancer. We headed south into Kentucky through the Cumberland Gap that Daniel Boone had made famous. We aimed our sights on Kingsport, Tennessee, where an aunt and uncle of Doug’s resided. Having left Blanchester with very little money between us, we needed a way to stretch out our vacation days without spending. In discussing our financial plight Doug had finally offered, “We can visit my cousins in Kingsport. They’d welcome us and Allan is near our age, maybe a year or so younger. He’d know where we could have some fun around town.”

        “Are the other cousins girls?” I asked hopefully.
        “Yeah, one’s about 11 and Barbara’s around 15 or 16. You’d like her.” So it was settled. We pointed the little car toward Tennessee.

        We received a warm welcome from the relatives, and basked in the sensation we caused by being acknowledged as the young fearless adventurers we pictured ourselves to be. Barbara was Doug’s first cousin, and with excitement, I figured that I owned the dating rights to this longhaired southern belle. Regretfully, and much to my frustration, she wasn’t, by all outwardly signs, interested in this northern cracker. Try as I might, I would never capture her fancy. The-eleven year old, on the other hand, was overwhelmed with my wit, my abilities, and my good looks. Once again, I was struck by the unfairness of life.

        The first evening of our stay in Kingsport, while we were sitting around the dinner table, Doug’s Aunt Kitty asked, “Either of you boys experienced in painting?” Naively, I allowed that I had painted the interior of Mother’s house the previous year. Upon hearing this, she became quite interested and immediately asked if I would consider doing some painting for her. “Allan’s room needs some attention and there’s no way I’d let him do it.”

        Not exactly thrilled with the idea, but certainly not wanting to appear to be a thankless houseguest, I answered, “Sure, Doug and I could paint it in a day. Couldn’t we, Doug?” I saw no earthly reason for him to skip out of the chore.

        “Me? She was talking to you.”
        “Yeah, but I can teach you how and it will go faster.” I countered.
        Thrilled at the prospect of getting the room painted by a master, she stood up from the table and ushered me into Allan’s bedroom. “Now you just tell me everything you two boys will need and I’ll have it ready first thing tomorrow morning,” she promised. The enthusiasm was dripping from her words like sap from a severed wild plum limb.

        She was good to her word, too. By 0800 the next morning, all the supplies and paint cans were in the room. “I’m sorry but there’s just no place to put the furniture, so I’ve covered all of it with plastic sheets. That’s okay isn’t it? You can work around it, can’t you?” She asked. I assured her that we could, but mentioned that it might be wise to remove the bedding from the bed. “Oh, it ought to be fine right there. Don’t you think?” I didn’t, but I also did not want to make unnecessary waves. Turning to Doug, I instructed him to open and stir the paint, while I started removing the electrical outlet faceplates and taping wood trim.

        The project moved forward quite well for a couple of hours, right up until Doug decided to use the bed as a place to stand instead of the ladder. I hadn’t noticed the nearly full gallon of paint he placed atop the bookcase headboard. Since the plastic sheeting covered it, he figured that there would be no problem. There would not have been any issue with that decision as long as he had not stepped onto the bed. But he did. When the fateful step was taken, the sheeting pulled the gallon can of paint off the headboard and onto the sheeting that protected the beautiful handmade bedding.

        “Uh-oh. Damn, Tom.” He hissed at me.
        “What?” I asked from my corner behind the dresser.
        “Uh, we got a little problem here. Can you give me a hand?” I detected apology and remorse in his voice, things seldom heard from the Doug I knew. Raising my head and looking toward where his eyes were fixed I immediately saw the problem.

        “Don’t move,” I ordered. “Let’s think about this a second.” We had a gallon of paint separated from a beautiful, homemade, hand-sewn quilt by only 2 millimeters of cheap plastic. I wasn’t absolutely sure the plastic was hole or rip free either. Naturally, as life would have it, Doug’s Aunt choose that moment to sail gaily into the room.

        “Are you Michelangelos ready for some cof…..Oh, my goodness!” Her warm smile disappeared faster than a magician’s rabbit.

        “It’s okay, don’t worry, we can manage this. I think.” I tried to assure her, but I wasn’t all that convinced of it myself.

        It took us a while to figure out which steps we required to safely extricate Doug from the bed and recapture the paint. Luckily, the plastic had held and the quilt was undamaged.

        “Uh, maybe I’ll take a break for a minute.” Doug mumbled as he headed for the door. His minute break extended for the remainder of the day while I put the finishing touches on the paint job.

        Later, when the subject of his misstep came up in kidding he would growl, “I told you I wasn’t any good at painting.”

        August 2, 1964: The military reported that the USS Maddox DD-731 was attacked by three North Vietnamese gun boats in the Gulf of Tonkin. Two days later, a second attack was reported. The first incident happened under questionable circumstances at best. The second was an outright fabrication. President Johnson used the two ‘incidents’ to gain complete freedom of action in the Vietnam Theatre of operations. Upon taking the oath of office following President Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson, acting in direct opposition of JFK’s promised intent to withdraw our military, began an escalation of the ‘Police Action’ in Southeast Asia— sending ever more troops, equipment, and armament. Now fortified with a Congressional resolution, he committed more and more men, weapons and lives to the cause that would become known as Johnson’s War. It was good for the economy.

        There were people who questioned the validity of what became known as ‘the Gulf of Tonkin Incident,’ but their small voices were soon squelched by the combined clamor of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the NSA, and Pentagon officials. It would be forty years before the release of classified documents under the Freedom of Information Act would bring to light the manipulation of facts, the omissions of pertinent data, and what is now understood to be a cover-up designed to escalate the Vietnam conflict. As my departure for Ohio State approached, the nightly newscasts were filled with on-the-scene TV coverage of the ground fighting. It wasn’t pretty, but it was real,— it was exciting, and it was profitable for the networks.

        There have been few students as utterly unprepared for college as I was, as I stood on the sidewalk outside of Park Hall dormitory and watched Mother’s car slip down the tree-lined street and out of sight. Luckily, I was unaware of the challenges and humiliation I would face in the coming six months. Precognition, at that moment, might have been too devastating for me to handle.

        I would find that I shone in the subjects that carried little weight: orientation, phys-ed, beer drinking, and partying. It was the sciences and math that I just couldn’t absorb. Four years of stage crew and missing untold numbers of classes and homework assignments had taken their toll. I paid the price. It would take me quite a few years to reach the understanding that moderation in all things— all endeavors, all of life— is a wise path to walk.

        1965: The first American combat troops would arrive in Vietnam. They would have little knowledge of the conditions of and type of warfare they were being committed to engage in. Many Americans decried this ‘escalation,’ but it was Chicago native, singer/song writer, Tom Paxton, who wrote the song, “Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation” who understood the truth of the situation. The chorus said it all:

                “Lyndon Johnson told the nation,
                Have no fear of escalation.
                I am trying everyone to please.
                Though it isn't really war,
                We're sending fifty thousand more,
                To help save Vietnam from Viet Namese.”

        Before the second quarter report card arrived in the mail I knew what it would say. It was only logical that I needed to tread another path. Now the issue of college was settled and I could join the navy, which I did. I went home and asked Mother what she thought about the idea. She encouraged me to get out of Blanchester. She didn’t believe it held any promise for me, and if joining the navy was what I wanted then I should go ahead. “At least they’ll feed and clothe you.” Was her response.

        “And they’ll give me training. I’m going to be a Corpsman like Doug,” I assured her naively (and erroneously, as it turned out). “I’ll get to travel, too. You know I like to travel. The navy will pay for it all.”

        As we sat talking about my approaching enlistment, the sustained campaign of aerial bombardment against North Vietnam under the code names Rolling Thunder, Steel Tiger and Tiger Hound had been underway for one month. A much-debated and controversial issue, this bombardment would continue for eight years until all US troops were withdrawn from Vietnam in 1973.

        Two weeks later, Mother drove me down town to Walker’s Drug store where the recruiter had arraigned to meet us. He would drive me to Cincinnati for the swearing-in ceremony.

        Excitement filled me as I settled into the passenger seat of the navy blue Ford sedan and buckled the seat belt. As we cleared the town limits the radio was playing Eve Of Destruction, by Barry McGuire, and the recruiter was regaling me with sea stories of exotic places like Subic Bay, Singapore, and Adelaide. “With any luck you’ll even get to see Vietnam. Most of the smaller ships pull into Da Nang and Saigon. I hear the girls are real friendly, if you know what I mean.” He intoned this lasciviously, grinning from ear to ear.

        “You haven’t been there?” I asked tentatively.
        “Naw. Spent all my sea time on the East coast. You get sent there you’ll like Mayport, down in Florida. Beaches full for girls in the summer. Hot damn, it’s fun.”

        Changing stride he asked, “Know the difference between a sea story and a fairy tale?” Allowing that I didn’t, and being certain he was going to enlighten me, I wasn’t disappointed. “Well a fairy tale starts out, ‘Once upon a time’ and a sea story starts out ‘Now this ain’t no shit’.” With this wisdom imparted he returned his eyes to the road and laughed loudly at the oft told and well-worn navy witticism.

        We made the rest of the trip engaged in our own thoughts. I had little real knowledge of what awaited me, but I felt ready for adventure and pleased to have a plan for my future. The disgrace of failing to meet academic minimums still stung when I thought about it. I had not yet stored that experience away in a deep corner of my mind. That would happen quickly enough when I was actually in the navy, I was sure of it.

        “Now the only thing a gambler needs, is a suitcase and a trunk…,” the Animals were harmonizing on the radio as the recruiter pulled into the parking garage in downtown, Cincinnati.

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