The Bell Ringer
THE CORRAL THEATER 1949
I woke up that cold winter afternoon in front of the Corral. Struggling with some small core of pride, I always said my name to myself as soon as I awoke after a drinking bout. Some days it was easy. Other days it could be a struggle, like today. It took a while — too long — but I finally came up with a name, Crane, forming the sounds slowly with my lips: "Crane Hanson."
John, the guy that managed the theater was a friend of mine from our days on the cross-country and track teams at North High School. He was about the only friend I had left, and he let me sleep in the theater during the winter, after it opened at two in the afternoon.
Now that I was awake, eyes bleary and bloodshot, I struggled with what had awakened me. Maybe the noise of the bottle of rye lying broken on the sidewalk, the small amount left striving for the gutter and an eventual home in the Gulf of Mexico. No, that wouldn't have done it. This happened all too frequently, and it never woke me before.
The bells ringing in my ears? Naw, that was constant anymore and this was more of a hoarse clang, clang, once in a while alternated with a bright ding-a-ling. Squinting, I looked up at a vision. There was a young woman, maybe in her mid-twenties, with a sweet angelic face, pale, curly blond hair imprisoned in an old fashioned bonnet. She looked slim in the dark blue uniform and heavy dark blue overcoat as she once again shook that large bell with its distinctive clang, clang.
She was standing behind a large kettle, next to a sign saying "Give Christmas to the Needy," ringing one, then the other bell, smiling at passersby with cheery holiday greetings as they went about their Christmas shopping. I noticed the cold was making her cheeks a bright pink over her too pale face, her lips losing color in the cold.
I started trying to stand up, leaning against the wall, feeling inside my coat pocket for my backup pint of rye, when I saw John opening the theater.
The girl saw me struggling and asked, "Mister! Are you all right?"
I turned back to look at her, shaking my head at her youthful innocence, my memories bringing a sudden wash of tears to my eyes. With a quick shake of my head, I turned back and entered the movie house. Watching a cowboy movie (that was all they showed, hence the name Corral) as I finished my last pint, I fell into a deep but restless sleep.
The images always came first:
The girl, maybe six, lying in the dirt by the barbed wire gate, body emaciated past gauntness, eyes wide open ... staring at some unknown horror, staring at — nothing anymore.
Inside the gate, a long row of bodies stacked insanely neat, like cords of logs eight to ten feet high, abandoned in place as they awaited burial.
A huge ditch at least 40 feet long, ten to twelve feet deep, filled with cadavers covered with lime to hasten decomposition. A bulldozer parked nearby ready to cover the pit of inhumanity.
I was sick before the jeep stopped, the pictures of a terrible horror burning their way into my psyche, a part of me turning black, in denial that humans could do this to each other.
The Lieutenant I was with later was said to be the first American officer to enter a concentration camp. We were an advance unit of the "Super Six" the Sixth Armored Division. We entered the camp at Ohrdruf, a sub-camp of Buchenwald, on April 11, 1945. The Lieutenant laughed as we passed through the town of Ohrdruf:
"Hanson, do you know that Bach went to school here and received his early musical training?"
He kept chuckling as we drove on to the camp, the location pointed out by an escapee. He stopped smiling when we saw the child.
Because I was married with two kids, I was far down the draft list — but on it! I entered the army about ten months ago and after intense but very short training was sent to Europe. I had been a cop for three years in Wichita, mostly walking a beat in the downtown area.
The next few weeks were a blur, partially because of events. Ike came to visit the camp at Ohrdruf with Omar Bradley and George Patton. Patton threw up at once, and we didn't see much of him. We were trying to take care of the prisoners but there were so many so deathly ill, and we weren't prepared for a hellish situation of this magnitude. Sure there had been some rumors, but the reality was shattering. No one could possibly have imagined this horrible reality.
We heard later that the commandant at Ohrdruf had orders to starve everyone to try to hide the evidence. We did all we could, but ... we just lost so many. It was a time of darkness for all of us.
We moved on to Buchenwald. It was incomprehensible. Again, there was the stack of bodies. They all seemed to be males; all naked, all face up. The bottom row stacked one way and the next crosswise. This continued to the top, alternating each layer. The stack was close to six feet high, maybe eighty feet long, heading up a slight rise in the ground. There were a number of such stacks. I was originally part of a detail to try to do a rough count, but I just couldn't do it. I was sick and couldn't eat for two days.
What I remember most were the eyes. Dead eyes. Living eyes that looked dead. Eyes appearing huge because of the emaciation of their bodies. It was strange to watch the other soldiers deal with this impossible-to-grasp reality. Some would turn hard; you could see their faces, their expressions, even their personality's change.
Many would slip into denial. It was like going to Joyland as a kid; as soon as we got to the amusement park, our real lives were left behind. Others, too many of us, couldn't deal with it at all. Some requested transfers to other units. Some drank. I was one of the drinkers.
I had always liked a drink now and then; name a cop or soldier that didn't. But now I had to have a drink to eat breakfast. I had to drink to go to sleep. I had to drink to stay asleep. I was haunted. I lost weight; I walked around in a daze. We were cut some slack; it was tough for everyone. Finally, it came to a head. I was found in a drunken stupor while on guard duty.
This couldn't be shoved under the rug; I was headed for a dishonorable. The battalion commander stepped in and stood up for me. Two months earlier we had just set up a new battalion HQ. The Lieutenant and I came in for maps and coffee. I saw movement in the bushes. A young man stood up holding what looked like a shotgun and pointed it at the colonel. I grabbed my carbine and shot from the hip. It was only about twenty feet, and I hit him in the neck.
We walked over and looked at this kid, maybe fourteen at best. At that time, it was hard on me, later it just became an unpleasant memory — one among many. I was put in for an award but was gone before it came through. The colonel got me out with an honorable medical discharge; that way I could go back to the police force. I was back in Wichita within two weeks.
I started again at the force, this time in a patrol car out in the College Hill area. I did better for a year or so. For a few months, I stopped drinking completely. I was going out to the VA Hospital on East Kellogg and talking to a guy, a psychologist I guess. Back then they didn't understand Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and this guy didn't help much. My partner and I talked about our experiences; it was impossible to talk to our wives about some of the things we had experienced. Sometimes the sharing of our stories helped, other times it depressed the hell out of us.
One night while we were working the night shift, we got a call to go to a house near Thirteenth Street and the canal. A man working the graveyard shift at Beech went home early with an upset stomach. His wife was in their bed with another man. He grabbed his gun, killed both of them, shot his three kids and blew his own head off. We got there at the same time the ambulance did. After making sure everything was clear, we went in, helping the ambulance check the kids first.
A little girl, hair in pigtails, cute and the same age as my daughter was still alive. They took her out of there to Wesley Hospital, not too far away. Later we found out she made it but would be permanently paralyzed. The carnage was shocking to both my partner and I. We were veteran police officers and had both been overseas. He had gone through the chain of islands towards Japan as a marine.
We stopped off for a few drinks after the shift. It was really hard to go home to a loving family and pretend nothing bad had happened. What do you say, "Gosh, honey, you should have seen the baby's brains dripping down the wall onto the filthy carpet?" So I went home and looked at the wall for a couple of hours, drinking a few beers and watching the "Baby Brains" slide show on my wall in living color!
Judy tried to work with me. She would talk and I would listen. She asked me to open up, and I'd tell her about the new patrol cars we were getting; tell her about how great the suspension was supposed to be.
The drinking continued; got even worse. My partner put up with it for a while, but I was gone from the force about eighteen months after getting back from Germany.
It was even worse at home with me having nothing to do. I drank at home. When Judy got pissed enough at me, I drank at a bar. Judy gave me ultimatum after ultimatum. One morning I got home from an all-night drinking bout and she and the kids were gone. Judy left a note — they were going to her parents in Garden City. She said she couldn't deal with it anymore and had filed for divorce.
I sold the house and sent most of the money to Judy for the kids. I signed the divorce papers when they came. I sold my car and moved into a tiny trailer on South Broadway, between the road and the railroad tracks alongside the river. I was able to keep that for about a year and then slept wherever. Sometimes I slept in an abandoned house and in good weather along the river, especially in the summer. Somehow I lost a year. Later, after I sobered up, I tried to reconstruct my life. That year was just gone forever. At most I would get a flash of something ... digging through the empties behind a bar; I didn't know then how I'd survived, and I never figured it out.
One thing that helped was that I was a quiet drunk; I never caused any problems. I would drink until the images would fade, then sleep until they came back. I was now drinking the cheapest rye I could find. I would do anything for a pint: shovel snow, mow grass, fix a car that wouldn't start, clean out manure in the barns.
I had worked out a small network of bartenders that put up with me. I'd sleep behind the bar; maybe do some cleaning up, and then I might get a pint when he opened up the next morning. I lived for my next drink. I must have eaten at times but couldn't remember very much.
About the only friend I had left was John at the movie house. They didn't do much business in the afternoons, so he would let me sleep it off for a couple of hours. Sometimes he would give me a box of popcorn ... sometimes a soda; I could dump my rye into to make the booze go farther. He kept trying to get me to talk to someone, to get help. But I knew nothing and no one could help me. In that part of my soul where optimism used to reign with a fierce vigor ... only dead ashes remained.
I felt a hand on my shoulder, gently shaking me. It was John; the theater was starting to fill up for Gene Autry's latest, "The Blazing Sun". As we walked up the aisle, he slipped a fiver in my hand. Gripping his hand in embarrassment, I went to the restroom and then outside.
The girl was gone, replaced by an older man in what I recognized as a Salvation Army Officers uniform. I started to stumble by, but he touched my elbow.
"Excuse me, sir. Annie, the girl that was here earlier, asked me to watch for you. I'm ready to shut down here; really, I was waiting for you. We are having dinner for anyone hungry at our church around the corner on Topeka. Come with me."
He looked kindly, standing there patiently waiting for the fog in my head to clear enough to understand what he wanted. Feeling apathetic and suddenly hungry, I let him lead me along. Walking over to the church he gave me his name, clearly not expecting anything from me in return.
"I'm Major William Fortson but everyone calls me Bill."
The church — the sign in front said, "Salvation Army Citadel Corps" — had a meeting hall in the back, next to a small parking lot off the alley. It was warm, almost stuffy inside. There were a half dozen tables and maybe ten or twelve guys sitting around eating. Bill sat down with me and waved his hand at the girl I'd seen earlier.
She walked over to the table and Bill introduced her, "This is Annie, Annie Blaine."
She put her hand out, the chill gone now and her hand warm and dry. I was suddenly aware of the ripe smell coming off my body, off my clothes.
I mumbled, "I'm Crane," as I let go of her hand and sat down, embarrassed.
Bill sent her over to get a plate for me: fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce and a cup of surprisingly good, very strong coffee.
She set the plate down with a big smile. "I have to leave now. My mom has been feeling poorly. I'll be in front of the Corral for the rest of this week. Say hi if you are around, Crane."
I cleaned the plate and Bill walked over and refilled it for me and got more coffee. I was to remember this later as the best meal of my life!
I kept waiting for Bill to "sell" me something, I wasn't sure what. I'd learned that you don't get something for nothing and was waiting for the catch. Bill just chatted, pointing out a couple of the guys and telling their stories, the ones that were okay with that. He talked about some of what they were doing for Christmas: collecting toys for children, trying to find homes for the ones that needed it, feeding people. As he talked, his eyes glowed, and I kept waiting.
Finally, it came out. "You know, Crane, we have a real mess with the toys. We have the basement half filled, and they need to be sorted out. We could sure use some help!"
That was it, the big pitch? He didn't actually even ask me for help, just that they could use some! Feeling uneasy, I stood up and thanked him for the food. He asked if I needed a place to stay, but I begged off and left.
I went to a bar on Douglas, across from the train station. The bartender was also the owner, and I used to stop by for a drink once in awhile when I was a beat cop. We weren't exactly friends but we got along okay. He was always nice to me. I didn't want to abuse this, so I only came here once a month or so.
I wasn't feeling too good and my hands were shaking some. Gene gave me a shot of decent bourbon, and I nursed it for an hour in the back at a small table. There was a mirror on the wall — with a border of bears, lakes and trees, and I looked at myself for the first time in months. It wasn't pretty. Besides my eyes being bloodshot, they were jaundiced. My face was pinched; I was starting to look like one of my images: I had names for them: "little girl in the dirt," "the pit," "the woodpile;" too many pictures, too many names, too much misery.
Gene came back and I asked him what I could do. He started to shake his head; he wasn't dumb. Even so, I stood up and asked again what needed to be done. He could see the small thread of pride I was holding on to — knowing that if this thread broke then I would break too.
"If you could take all the empties out in the alley, also the trash, and restock the fridges from the basement, that would help me a lot."
I jumped into the work, sweating all too easily but getting the job done. Afterward I went in to talk to Gene as he was locking up.
Looking up at me from the cash register he said, "You can sleep on the cot in the back as usual. You can go ahead and pour yourself another shot, and I'll give you a pint in the morning."
I poured the shot, taking a sip once in a while, enjoying the richness of fine bourbon after the usual rotgut I drank. I watched him as he finished the count, trying to build up a little courage. "Gene," I tentatively started, "do you have any old clothes here?"
With a startled look on his face he said, "Yeah, let me look. I usually keep a set of overalls and a flannel shirt around for when I come in on Sundays once in a while to fix things up. I might even have some underwear."
Thinking for a minute, he continued, "You know about the restroom off my office. You can use the shower there if you want. I'm pretty sure I have an old straight razor lying around that I haven't used for years. You'll have to strop it a bit for sure though!"
He got the stuff for me and locked up as he left. I took the rest of my shot to the table in the back room and sit down. I looked at my hands, watching them shake as I thought about the straight razor, feeling a little nauseous imagining what I could do to my face. I finished the last of my shot, holding the glass up to let the last drop drip down into my mouth, not knowing when I would taste that rich flavor again. I knew I could go pour another shot and Gene would never know, but he trusted me, and that meant a lot. My pride was all I had left to live for.
I took the razor into the bathroom, stropping it, looking at the mirror trying to gather courage. I bit my tongue as a distraction, with the pain came an influx of adrenalin. Lathering up my face I shaved for the first time since ... for a long time. I hacked the beard off, stropped the razor some more soaped up again and cleaned off the stubble, ignoring a few minor cuts. I was shocked at what I saw. Was I insane? I looked as skeletal as those nightmarish bodies of my dreams.
I took my shower, water as hot as I could stand. I wasn't sure but I had the feeling of things on my body drowning and washing down the drain. When the water turned cold, I dressed in Gene's clothes, actually a pretty good fit. I threw the old clothes away. Like myself, I didn't think they could be redeemed. I'd make it up to Gene somehow for his thoughfulness. I turned out the light and lay on the cot.
I guess my mind went into neutral as it coasted from thought to thought, no pattern, no continuity. I tried to picture my kid's faces and was sad that I couldn't. The image of Annie, looking like a Madonna with her bonnet on, her face pale with the cold but cheeks flushed bright with the life of youth. Annie's image juxtaposed with the image of the "little girl in the dirt," then Annie's image fading.
I thought of the Salvation Army guy, Bill, deciding he was a kind man, nothing more, nothing less. I knew I needed help; maybe it was already too late. I remembered Bill saying he was understaffed for processing the Christmas toys ... wondered what it would be like to help someone else; to see the face of a child, having nothing, expecting nothing, receiving a dream. Could I pay the price I knew instinctively that I would have to pay? Could I do that to see a smile on a girl's face when she got the unexpected doll? What would it be like to see the lighting up of a small boy's eyes as he received a toy?
Did I have it in me?
I fell into a troubled sleep. Waking up, I thought of the bottles on the other side of the door, an ache growing in me. The need was growing stronger, my body shaking, feeling cold.
A sudden flash from somewhere deep brought a picture of Judy with Cindy and Jimmy, their features sharp and clear. That was the day we went out to Lake Afton, the year before I was drafted. The picture was a favorite of mine with Judy and the kids in their new swimsuits. I had lost the picture somewhere in Germany, probably after Ohrdruf, after the drinking had started.
I was suddenly desperate to see my kids again. I wanted to see Judy, but I knew it was over with her, even if I could survive the sickness in my soul. I had heard she had found a new man, a nice one. I wanted her to have a chance at happiness.
Crying, I lay there, lost, alone, a shell of the man I was before Ohrdruf.
My early years were spent north of Wichita and south of Valley Center, and close to the Little Arkansas and Meridian, the area known as Pleasant Valley. Of course the Big Ditch hadn't been built then so it was much easier to get around than it is now.
My dad was a carpenter, a good one. He added a couple of rooms to a farmhouse and as part of the payment the farmer deeded to dad about an acre of brushy land caught in a fold of the winding, often flooded, twisty river. My dad threw up a house with the help of a couple of relatives. It seemed big at the time but looking back it had to have been less than a eight hundred square feet.
There was one small bedroom downstairs, maybe eight by ten feet. In the front was a living room running across the front of the house. Going to the back of the house was a small dining room the same size as the bedroom. Across the back was a kitchen the same size as the living room. Going up from the dining room was a steep stairway leading to the second floor.
The pump was outside for a few years and then was moved indoors, under the stairwell. Luxury! It was never fun in the mid-winter months to build a fire under the pipe going into the house! The water tasted like the sweet water of Canaan the Sunday School guy was going on about all the time. Years later I visited the people living in the house at the time. I couldn't drink the water! It was terribly brackish. It was then that I began to understand that perception was reality, and that our memories were compromised by the way we wish things had been rather than the way they were.
The upstairs room was the area over the kitchen, the same size and shape. That's where we kids slept, six of us in four bunk beds. This caused no end of problems over the years.
My mom and dad separated when I was about five. They had always had a strange relationship: always either in strong love or strong hate, divided by the strong stubborn streak common to both. Finally, after a long shouting, shoe-throwing episode that I saw through the front screen door, the hate won out and the marriage was over. This was a couple of years before the depression started and mom was left with six kids to raise by herself.
One incident that happened was typical of dad. We were living in the house before it was completely finished and the stairs weren't built yet. There was a ladder with wooden rungs. I must have been about five. I was always climbing trees and such and was going down the ladder headfirst. I slipped and cut my chin pretty bad and was knocked out. I still have the scar.
When mom came home from work one of the kids told her that I was in the hospital. Mom was frantic. Well, it turns out that my dad's car was low on gas, so he had the neighbor take me to the emergency room. He was over at the neighbor's house having a beer with the neighbor's wife. That's just how he was.
One story that mom still tells me (even today, with an evil smile on her face) was the night dad came home from honky tonkin'. He had this thing about smoking: he had to have something sweet first. So he told mom to make him a pie. She tried to tell him the flour was bad, but he just started yelling. So she made the pie.
Afterward he sat around smoking, in a better mood, telling mom, "That was the best damn pie you ever made!"
We didn't find out until years later that the reason mom wouldn't let us eat any of that pie is 'cause the flour was full of weevils!
After they separated, dad picked me up more often than the other kids. I was quiet, shy, well behaved and too cute, with my pale blond hair and quiet manner. He would take me on dates with him. All the dates were basically one thing or another. Sometimes we would go for a drive, maybe stop for lunch, or maybe go down by the river and lay around fishing for carp or catfish. We never kept them; just threw them all back in the river. Dad was a natural lady's man. He was handsome, with black curly hair and had a nice easy way with women. Any time I was with him, there was always a woman, laughing and smiling.
The other thing was to go to a bar. Back then no one said anything about kids being in the taverns. Dad would lift me up on the bar and give me a soda. Some woman would come over and fawn over me, smother me with her big tits (later I figured out that I was small, not that the girls' breasts were particularly large) and then dance with dad. It was at this time that I developed a lifetime love for what used to be country music and now is somewhat euphemistically called classic country music.
I knew at some level I was being used, but I didn't care. It was fun and I learned a lot about people and their natures that helped me later as a cop. When I came home smelling like a French whore from all the intermingled perfumes mom would get pissed at me. I never understood that.
I suppose dad sent some money once in a while, but I never saw it happen. We struggled through. It seems like the only meat we ever ate was chicken or rabbit. Before dad left, he raised rabbits. Later during the depression, as soon as the first hard frost, the men in the area, mostly farmers, would grab their shotguns and pile into the back of a big truck, one of those fenced in with wooden stakes.
They would park beside one of their large fields, planted with winter wheat at that time of year and line up a ways apart and march across the fields, banging away as the Jacks popped up. These guys were good; this wasn't hunting for sport! The kids would come along pick up the rabbits, one or two at a time depending on the size of the kid and the size of the Jack. We would grab them by their long ears and carry 'em or drag them back to the truck and put in them in small galvanized horse troughs.
We tried to carry the dead rabbits if we could, but you could see a lot of streaks of blood across the brown soil, or sometime the powdering of snow. We would get home covered in blood and mud. Some days there was more blood some days more mud but there were always plenty of both.
As soon as we got home mom would put the washtub in the middle of the kitchen floor. One at a time, oldest to youngest, we would cycle through the water in the tub, heated one kettle at a time on the kitchen stove. Being in the middle I didn't fare too bad but times were that Paul, the youngest looked worse getting out than when he went in! Except for rabbit hunting, baths were given on Saturday nights, whether we needed one or not.
Of course we had to make do with an outhouse. Once a year the boys pitched in and dug a hole about eight feet deep. Then we would get some help and drag the outhouse to its new spot. One of my jobs was to fix the shingles whenever necessary and every three or four years to rip the old ones off and re-shingle.
Summers were always chaotic. Every summer the river would flood at least once. We would all pack up and go into town to grandma's place near Linwood Park. We would stay until the water went down then go home and shovel out the mud. The water level was usually about four or five feet up the side of the living room wall, and the mud afterward was maybe six to eight inches deep. The smell was terrible, a smell of corruption. Some summers it would flood two or three times. It wasn't much fun for mom!
One time comes to my mind that was hilarious in retrospect. My dad had given me a single shot .22. It was very short, maybe three feet long. It broke open like a shotgun and took one shell at a time. It was chambered for long rifle but dad told me it was so old (the bluing had worn off completely) that he would only let me shoot .22 shorts. I mostly used it to plink at carps in the hot Augusts as the water dropped to maybe six inches in the river. The fishes' backs would stick a couple of inches above the water. It wasn't really sport, but I had fun.
The biggest problem after the floods was rats. It was always a hassle getting rid of them. One night dad was gone somewhere, and we were all asleep upstairs when we heard that sharp pop that a .22 makes. Then in intervals of maybe ten or fifteen seconds another pop. We ran downstairs and mom was standing on a chair, almost hysterically breaking open my rifle and jamming in another shell. There were three dead rats on the floor!
About a year after the separation, dad moved to Texas and started calling mom and sweet-talking her. Finally, he wired some money for gas, and we packed up the car and the five of us kids (one of the twin girls died) and drove down to Houston. At least he told her it was in Houston.
Where we wound up was in the middle of a swamp in what would many years later become Lake Houston, northeast of the city. The directions were pretty clear. Go down this asphalt highway (I don't remember the route number) until you pass this bar called "Cabin in the Pines" (I would spend a lot of time there). Then all of us kids started looking for a small grocery store that was to play a big part in our lives later. After the grocery, we were to make the next left, about a mile father on.
About a half-mile down a dirt road, we were to watch for a homemade bridge over the ditch on our right. When mom saw the bridge, she was afraid to drive over it but didn't see any choice. It was homemade: just some logs with two-by-eights nailed to them.
After crossing the bridge, we drove down the path; not a road, only an open area between the trees. The path twisted around a lot, finding the high spots between the putrid smelling bogs. We came to a clearing and saw a dry area of about ten acres with a house up close to the swamp. Mom parked, leaving us in the car and took a look at the house. She walked in and came out not ten seconds later. She sat down on the stoop and started bawling. Even at six years old I knew the difference between crying and bawling.
We piled out of the car and ran up to mom, hugging her and all of us bawling. She told me many years later that if she had had the money for gas, she would have turned back for Kansas right then.
We got up and started exploring, as kids will. Even if mom was crying it was an adventure for us. We went in the house. It wasn't a house. It wasn't even a cabin. It was a shack. It was two small rooms with one of them a tiny bedroom up front. Neither dad nor grandpa was there. The bedroom was for grandpa. It had a single bed with a coffee can under it. No closet, no dresser. A bed and a coffee can, nothing more!
In the other room, there was a small table with a couple of chairs, a ratty sofa and an even rattier chair. That's it! The list of what there wasn't is much longer that what there was.
There was no: kitchen, dining room, bathroom, dressers, cabinets, beds (other than grandpa's) and not any furniture except the table, sofa and chair. We pulled everything out of the car and mom tried to organize it into different stacks in the corners.
When dad got home, there was a lot of shouting for a long time, then the sweet talking started again as dad promised a couple of beds. He took mom out to the Cabin in the Pines that night, but it didn't do much good. It never really got any better.
At my age you lived for the moment, the future was just a word, like "In the future you'll get married, then you'll see!" There was an old barn that I spent hours playing in, mostly alone. That's what I was, a loner.
I wasn't bothered by not having an outhouse — you walked out the door and took a piss! Some morning my brothers, one older and one younger, would come out at the same time so we would line up and have a pissing contest. I always won and for some obscure reason this made me inordinately proud. Spending twenty minutes priming the pump was no biggie, I wasn't going anywhere.
I loved running around the swamp, climbing around in the deadfalls, investigating every new feature. I learned about dead animals and maggots. I watched the flies, and figured out that's where the maggots came from. Who says that little boys don't know about sex? My favorite sport was building fires over the mounds of fire ants. I'd pour a little kerosene on the mound and light it. It never did any good; an hour later it was like the disaster had never happened.
It seemed like there was a new adventure every day. One that always stuck in my mind was the rabid dog. He had been around the neighborhood for a few days, mostly out by the road. We had to walk all the way down to the paved road to meet the school bus. One day the bus let me out, for some reason, none of the other kids were with me. I knew the dog was around so I didn't want to go that way.
I knew I could cut across the swamp. I had an instinctive sense of direction, and I wouldn't have any trouble finding my way, as I took the twisty misdirection's to stay on mostly dry ground. I was sure the snakes were there; they didn't normally bother me. I was aware of the bad ones: the cottonmouths and the diamondbacks.
However, that day my six-year-old imagination was working overtime, and I just sat there. A couple of hours later my mom showed up with a big stick to chase the dog away, and we walked home. The next day my dad and older brother took the shotgun and took care of the dog.
One week or so the snakes were really bad. Dad would sometimes get a ride to the little bridge over the creek and having nothing else to do I'd usually be there waiting for him. One evening as we walked back I was holding his hand, and he held his sheet-rock hatchet in his other and leaned over and chopped off the heads of the snakes, mostly rattlers. The last one was right as we entered the clearing. A little later our dog was playing with the snake, as puppies will, with the not quite dead diamond-back, and it bit him in the neck. He was dead in minutes.
Later we were sitting around the front yard, just at sunset. My little brother Paul, two at the time, was sleeping on the front step. My mom was walking across the yard and froze, pointing at her baby. Dad walked over to the edge of the swamp and grabbed a stick, maybe six feet long. He casually walked over, stuck the end of the small branch under the snake and flipped him off! Then he walked over and stomped it with his boot. He sat down and made another cigarette, like nothin' had happened.
Then there were the strange days. My grandpa used the coffee can under his bed to spit his 'bacca juice in. At nights, it was his piss can. Well, you can imagine it got horrendously smelly. One day my mom threw it away, disgusted. However, she forgot to put a new one there. Mom and dad were gone somewhere and grandpa came home and went to his room. He never read or anything, we had no radio, jeez we didn't even have electricity! We never could figure out what he did in that room other than spit, piss and sleep.
Well, he went into his room and came out screaming at us kids. We scattered like chickens do when it's time to peck out their dinner! He would chase one, then another throwing bricks at us and swearing in German. The old coot was crazier that a bedbug! I don't remember him ever talking to any of the kids.
My dad also had a temper. The end of the bus line was at the little grocery story. I'm mentioned my dad needed something sweet before he smoked. We got off the bus and gave Jimmy and I — Jimmy was four years older than me — nickel apiece to buy a candy bar. He was looking for something like a Milky Way, but Jimmy got those long red licorice sticks and I got some red candy kisses. Dad grabbed Jimmy's candy and threw it in the field. He yelled at Jimmy all the way home. Me? I tucked those candy kisses in my back pocket and dragged behind, out of the line of fire. Later, Jimmy saw me eating one sitting on a log than ran out into the swamp. He took my candy away from me and pushed me off the log into the foul water.
Things were different there. To build a swimming pool, someone would take a bulldozed and gouge out a big hole in the ground. A couple months of rain, and the low water table, filled it up right quick. I'll never forget one time I was in water 'bout to my waist when my older sister yelled. I looked at her and saw she was pointing her finger behind me. I turned and saw the white maw of a Cottonmouth coming at me, the water making a vee behind it. I think that was when I learned to swim.
Once we went to a barbeque at the guys place my dad and uncle worked for. They had two huge steers cooking over big pits. Beer was scattered around in washtubs — those large galvanized like they used to have. Jimmy and I were sitting in a dark spot under a pine tree. We would take turns crawling on our stomachs, Indian style, and snagging a beer. Ten years old and Jimmy had his own church key (beer opener for those of you too young to know what the "good old days" mean).
My favorite memory was when my uncle had me learn a song to sing to his new bride on her birthday. He was one of the reasons dad moved down there. They were always close. He was a sheet rock guy.
Anyway he had me learn a song and then on Dottie's birthday my dad took me to the Cabin in the Pines. He got me a Seven-up, set me on the counter and my uncle asked everyone to quiet down and gather 'round. I was embarrassed at first, but then I got into it. I sang, "Black Jack David" by T. Tex Tyler. Well, all the girls did the "smother me in their tits" thing again, starting with dad's current girl friend.
My uncle gave me a worn out shiny smooth fifty-cent piece (that I kept for years in my pocket, always remembering how much fun I'd had that night). The bartender gave me some peanuts and the girls kept coming up kissing me and running their hands through my wispy blond, almost white hair. I got home and I thought mom was going to throw me into the swamp when she saw the lipstick on my face. I think dad had the girls do it just to piss her off.
One day when dad was off at some carpentry job, my mom piled us into the car with whatever clean clothes we had, and she took off for Kansas. While it had been an adventure for us, it was a living hell for mom. What she had done was to work out a deal with the old man that owned the grocery. See, the problem was, that whenever she needed to get some food dad gave her whatever amount of money he thought she needed. When she got home, he would take the change back from her ... that was his beer money.
Well, every time she went to the store the grocer would throw a few coins of the change into a cigar box for her. When there was enough money for gas for the trip, we took off. Later, in talking to her, she said she never even left a note! One souvenir she had from Texas was a set of false teeth at age thirty-one.
We settled back home with no problem. All she had done when we left was empty the icebox (you know, one of those things you put blocks of ice in to keep food cold) and leave the door open so it wouldn't mildew. There were no locks on the house doors. She got back on at Beech with no problem but the salary wasn't much. It was a hell of a life for her, but she never complained. The only time I saw her cry after Texas was when I was twelve, and she tried to slap me for sassin' off.
I grabbed her hand and said, "Mom, you can't do that anymore!"
She sat down and really started bawling. That was the first time I realized that I didn't understand women.