Friday, December 19, 2008

Yes, James Emerson, There is a Santa Claus

Christmas has always been a magical time of the year. Long before people started saying, “Happy Holidays,” the standard greeting was “Merry Christmas.” And, unlike today when stores start getting ready for jolly old St. Nick as soon as the last candle in the jack-o-lantern burns out, when I was a kid growing up in Elnora during the 1950s, the Christmas season didn’t officially start until after Thanksgiving. Then, preparations really shifted into high gear. I couldn’t wait for those exciting December weekends when my mother, Elizabeth Johnson, and I would drive down to Washington to see the elaborate decorations and browse through the gaily decorated stores. My father wasn’t a shopper, so he nearly always stayed home.

First, we would make our usual stop at the J.C. Penney store. Following that, we spent more excruciating time at several other ladies’ wear establishments. Then, after lunch, we finally went to the “fun” stores like Sears, Montgomery Ward and the Washington hardware store so I could unashamedly break the 10th Commandment and covet all of the Lionel electric trains on display at those locations. I have loved trains my whole life. Still do. My grandfather, Jim Rench, worked on the railroad during his youth and told me many stories about his experiences as a member of a train crew. His tales coupled with my imagination whetted my appetite for an out-of-reach gigantic electric train layout.

Those excursions to Washington during the Christmas season were as common to us as a trip to Walmart or the corner grocery is today. I don’t really remember us ever buying much, though. Money was tight and we were far from wealthy, so that fancy Lionel train I wanted so badly was just a far-off dream.

While we were shopping in Washington, my father would usually take the opportunity to head out to the woods and massacre a Charlie Brown Christmas Tree. He nearly always came home with a cedar tree with floppy branches that would barely support the tinsel, let alone the lights and ornaments. Maybe cedars were easier to find than pines, but it was almost embarrassing the way the branches sagged under the weight of the decorations, especially the lighted angel at the top of the tree who leaned like she was weary from supporting her wings.

When I was very young, the Christmas tree was always set up in the front window of the living room at my grandparents’ house since I stayed with them while my parents operated their restaurant. My grandparents had several strings of old Christmas lights, the kind that if one bulb burned out the whole string would expire. They did keep a supply of spare bulbs in the piano bench of all places, so that kept the problem to a minimum.

Most of my grandparents’ lights didn’t match the others. Only a couple of strings were the same. However, my favorites were the one string of bubble lights that “boiled and bubbled” in their long, slender, candle-like bulbs after they warmed up. They must have been well-made because I don’t remember any of them ever burning out. Because of their weight, they were always placed on the sturdier lower branches of the cedar tree, just at my optimal viewing height.

Although Washington was “the place to go” during the Christmas season, the stores and shops in Elnora were just as well-decorated for the holidays. The town leaders did an outstanding job of transforming the business district and the park into a winter wonderland. The nativity scene at the park made it all very special and reminded everyone of the true meaning of Christmas. The preparations were culminated by an outdoor program downtown during which all of the kids in attendance received a bag of goodies including Christmas candy, nuts, and the obligatory orange.

One year, as part of the Christmas program, my parents volunteered for me to recite from memory Clement C. Moore’s 1822 poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas (more commonly called ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas), in front of the folks gathered downtown. Somewhere between naming Santa’s eight tiny reindeer and him landing his sleigh on the roof, I stumbled over the line about “dry leaves and wild hurricanes” as I still do today, but somehow I got through the entire poem with most folks in attendance hopefully not noticing my near-fatal gaff.

I like to remember that this wonderful program was held on Christmas Eve, but I’m not sure that it actually was. In any case, I was getting to the age where I was beginning to doubt the existence of Santa Claus, not necessarily the man himself because I had seen him down at Santa Claus Land. However, I couldn’t believe in his ability to travel the world in one night. So, having confided my suspicions to my grandmother who must have passed them on to “someone else,” I took one last look at the Christmas tree with no presents underneath and went to bed.

That Christmas Eve I was extremely restless and could not fall asleep. I tossed and turned and listened for the arrival of Santa in case he did actually exist. Then, just before or just after I drifted off to sleep, I heard a loud noise on the roof. There was some stomping and the sound of sleigh bells. It was true! Santa was real! He was here! I kept extremely quiet and heard more noise coming from the living room. Then it was quiet again. I tried and tried but couldn’t get to sleep. Suddenly my dad appeared at the bedroom door and asked if I wanted to come into the living room although it was already after midnight.

When I entered the darkened room, only the Christmas tree was lit. Then I saw it! A big, beautiful Lionel “O” Gauge train was puffing smoke and steaming around the Christmas tree pulling its coal tender, four freight cars, and a lighted Lionel Lines caboose. It had enough track to make a large oval and a couple of side tracks with the accompanying switches. I watched in awe as the train disappeared into the tunnel, went behind the other presents now piled under the tree, and reappeared with its headlight blazing and its whistle blowing. My parents, grandparents, my Aunt Audrey and Uncle Kewp from McCordsville, and my Uncle Bill and Aunt Kathryn from Indianapolis were all there to share in my excitement.

Although the train had a tag that said “from Santa Claus,” I found out years later that it was actually a present from my Aunt Audrey and Uncle Kewp (who both physically resembled what Santa and Mrs. Claus must have looked like in their younger years) since my parents could have never afforded such a fine gift. My aunt and uncle never had children and decided to give me that special present. It was so expensive in 1950’s dollars that my mother told me that my aunt and uncle didn’t even buy gifts for each other that Christmas so I could have the train. What a wonderful and thoughtful couple!

My dad and I later mounted the track on a plywood table in the basement of our house and I continued to play with it for many years. To this day, I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited about a Christmas present as I was about that train. When my mother died in 1974, the train table was still down in the basement, the track having rusted from the dampness. However, I still have the nearly 60-year-old train and it remains one of my most cherished possessions.

As for the noise on the roof that Christmas Eve so many years ago, it was my dad and my uncles who climbed a ladder to the house-top to duplicate the sound of Santa’s reindeer hoofs and sleigh bells. It was just enough to make me believe for at least one more year. The 1950’s were such a great time to be a kid.

Clement C. Moore said it so perfectly so many years ago, “Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night!” In these uncertain times, I wish it now more than ever.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Night the Harlem Magicians Came to Town

The late, great man in black, Johnny Cash, sang about seeing country legend, Hank Williams, in the song, “The Night Hank Williams Came to Town.” During the 1950’s, Elnora had its own celebrities come to town, but they brought basketballs rather than guitars.

It should come as no surprise to us folks in Hoosierland that basketball is king in Indiana during this time of year. This was even truer back in the early to mid-1950’s when there were well over 700 high school teams competing in the state tournament. Unfortunately for the Elnora Owls whose old “cracker box” gymnasium was no longer adequate to host games above the 7th and 8th grade level, all of their “home” games had to be played on the basketball court of the Owls’ greatest rival, the Odon Bulldogs.

The first high school game I ever saw was played by the great 1951 Elnora Owls’ team which reached the finals of the Wabash Valley Tourney that year. Some of the players on that team were Jim Barley, Junior Courtney, Jack Gaultney, Dale Rader, Gordon Scott, Jack Shaffer, and Frank Tomey. One night my dad asked me if I wanted to “go for a ride” with him and we wound up at the Odon gym watching the Owls in action. I remember very little about the game, but the one thing that impressed me the most was the sheer size of the basketball floor. To a six-year-old, it appeared to be absolutely huge.

Although I now had basketball fever, following that winter day in 1951, I saw very few high school games until Elnora finally built its own new gymnasium which was ready for the 1957-58 school year. The gym, with a large stage at the east end of the basketball court, was part of a new addition constructed on the south end of the existing Elnora school building. Also included in the new expansion were concession areas, locker rooms, athletic office, band room, classrooms, machine shop, and rest rooms.

When the new 1,200 seat basketball palace was ready to host its first action, it was announced that the dedication game would be played by none other than the fabulous Marques Haynes, Goose Tatum, and the rest of the Harlem Magicians basketball team. Haynes had been a member of the world famous Harlem Globetrotters, leaving the team in 1953 due to a contract dispute to form his own squad. The Magicians were a carbon copy of the Globetrotters and played the same brand of high energy, comedic basketball. Marques Haynes was known as the best dribbler in basketball and Goose Tatum was the “clown prince” of the Magicians just as Meadowlark Lemon was known as the “clown prince” of the Globetrotters.

The Elnora gym was packed the night the Harlem Magicians came to town to take on their overmatched rivals, a team similar to the Washington Generals who traveled with the Globetrotters. Although I was only a freshman, I was fortunate enough to sit at the scoring table and help record the game’s statistics. I only wish I had kept my program from that game so that my recollection of the events would be clearer in my aging mind. However, two of the highlights of the evening included one of the Magicians drop-kicking the ball into the basket from the mid-court line and, of course, the famous bucket of “water” (which turned out to be confetti) tossed into an unsuspecting crowd near the end of the game.

I’m sure for most of us in attendance, the evening ended all too soon. A few years later, all was forgiven and Marques Haynes rejoined the Globetrotters. He finally retired from basketball for good in 1992 at the age of 66 after 46 years of playing professional basketball. During the peak of his career, he turned down offers from the Philadelphia Warriors and Minneapolis Lakers of the NBA. Marques Haynes is the only member of the Harlem Globetrotters to be elected to the basketball Hall of Fame.

Now that the Owls finally had their own court again, their basketball fortunes improved to the point where wins finally began to outnumber losses within a couple years of opening the new gym. However, no contest at that venue in my limited memory drew as large a crowd as that first night when the Harlem Magicians came to town.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Darlene, Chic, and the '49 Mercury

It’s amazing how events that happened so many years ago sometimes get trapped back in the RAM (random access memory) located in the deepest recesses of your mind. I haven’t thought much about the ’49 Mercury for years until I read last week’s Elnora Post article about Carlos and Darlene Arney’s 50th wedding anniversary celebration. I, too, would like to offer my congratulations to the devoted couple as I think back to a year-long simple act of kindness that helped make it possible for me to continue my education.

September, 1955, marked the beginning of a new school year. I was entering the seventh grade as an apprehensive ten-year-old who wouldn’t turn eleven until later in the month. My grandfather had just died a few weeks earlier, I had lost my “at home” state-sponsored tutor, and I was heading off to school for the first time. As if these obstacles weren’t enough for someone my age who had never been taught in a real classroom or known the competition of interacting with actual classmates, I had one other major problem: I didn’t have a way to get to school.

We lived on the far northeast side of Elnora, and the school building was located on the far southwest side, more than a mile away. There were five buses that hauled the country kids to school, but the “townies” had to walk or find other means of transportation. Although I could traipse the half mile to the downtown business district on my braces and crutches, I was afraid to tackle the extra distance all the way to school, especially with the thought of winter coming in just a few months. A few of the town kids had their own cars and drove to school, but most didn’t. And, almost all of the kids who lived near us were around my age, not nearly old enough to drive.

There was one exception. Buren and Juanita Williams lived exactly one block south of our house with their two daughters, Wanda Williams and Judith Darlene Miller who nearly everyone called Darlene. Wanda was an eighth-grader, and Darlene was a sophomore with a brand-new driver’s license. Mr. & Mrs. Williams did not have an “extra” vehicle, but Buren made an agreement with my father that if we would furnish a car, Darlene would make sure I got to school. I’m not sure where he got it, but a few days later, my dad came home with a 1949 Mercury four-door sedan which he promptly handed over to the Williams family.

So, every morning, Darlene, Wanda, and Darlene’s senior boyfriend Carlos “Chic” Arney would pick me up at my parents’ house, take me to school, and bring me back home each afternoon. Some days (I don’t think my parents ever knew) we would pick up other kids and the size of my spot in the back seat would become inversely proportional to the number of people in the car. Most of the time spent in that old Mercury was a blur, but I still smile when I remember some adult conversations which my sheltered ears didn’t really understand and I was afraid to ask my parents to explain.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, after that seventh grade year, my rides to school in the Mercury had ended. My parents had always preferred that I ride to school in the safety of a school bus, if possible. One of the five school bus drivers, Kenneth Cornell, lived just a block or so west of our house and he agreed to take me to school on his bus. The only caveat was that since his bus began its route in the opposite direction, I would have to walk to his house in both good weather and bad because the antiquated 1950’s laws wouldn’t allow him to go out of his way to pick me up, regardless of my physical disability or how close he lived to us. So, my dad got rid of the Mercury and I began “secretly” riding Mr. Cornell’s bus in the eighth grade. However, beginning with my freshman year, the school’s administration finally chose to do the right thing and blatantly ignore the unfair law. This allowed the regular bus driver who traversed the road in front of our house every morning to pick me up, forever ending my school transportation problems.

I wasn’t at all surprised to see that Darlene and Carlos have remained together all of these years. It was obvious they were meant for each other then, and now it’s even more obvious they still are. I sincerely thank them again for helping me when I needed it most and wish them another happy fifty years together.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Elnora's Prom Night, 1961

Today is October 31. It’s hard to believe the first “Halloween” movie was released to theaters thirty years ago this week in 1978. Many film fans haven’t been the same since. Although scary movies in one form or another had been around for decades, “Halloween” and its successors, “Friday the 13th” and “Prom Night,” brought on-screen gore to a graphic level generally never before witnessed by previous cinema attendees.

Luckily, Elnora High School’s Prom Night in 1961 was nowhere nearly as horrific as the 1980 film of the same name; however, for Nina Melsheimer and me, it certainly had its scary moments. Nina was a cute, bubbly freshman who was the little sister of my classmate, Melvin Melsheimer. She had also been my date for the junior prom the previous year. Before you think I was robbing the cradle, you have to remember that I was only sixteen years old when I was a senior, making Nina just two years younger than me. She was a majorette and a cheerleader, so when her friend Alice Bechtel confided that Nina wanted to again be my date for the upcoming prom, like the previous year, I thought I had died and gone to Heaven.

Our junior prom in 1960 had been held in the school’s crepe paper decorated gymnasium as was the custom during that era. However, in 1961, the current junior class decided to break with that tradition and have their prom at the famous French Lick Sheraton Hotel as it was known in those days. Of course, the seniors were invited to join the juniors for the school year’s most anticipated social event.

Friday, April 28, 1961 dawned pretty much like any other school day. However, in just a few hours the juniors and seniors would be partying the night away “Under the Magnolias” to commemorate the Civil War Centennial. Those of us attending would caravan the nearly fifty miles to French Lick by car, accompanied by several members of the school’s administration, including Principal, Paul R. Earles.

Morning classes went as usual, but in the afternoon, the upperclassmen were subjected to a grainy black & white movie shown in the study hall depicting the outcomes of terrible vehicle accidents. It was complete with graphic depictions of the carnage that is possible in such crashes, presumably to scare the drivers into exercising the utmost care behind the wheel that night. Some of the girls, including Nina, who would be attending the prom had been excused for all or part of the afternoon to do those girly things necessary to get themselves primped, preened, and prettied up for the evening’s festivities.

The appointed hour for meeting at the High School to begin the trek to French Lick finally came. Since I didn’t have a car or access to one with the necessary hand controls for me to drive, Nina and I rode with my classmate and good friend, David Dove, and his date, Linda Long. Like elephants in a circus parade, our cars were lined up from nose to tail snaking south out of Elnora on Highway 58. Since French Lick is southeast of Elnora, we had to make the left turn toward Odon at the Skeeter Bend stop sign two miles down the road.

As we neared the intersection, we slowed to a crawl, but the car behind us didn’t. Bam! We were hit from behind. It wasn’t a major jolt, but there was a bit of damage to both vehicles and, since this was the pre-seatbelt era, Nina had hit her head on the upper molding around the rear window giving her quite a headache. Although both cars were drivable, Mr. Earles said the two drivers needed to wait with him to file an accident report. Cell phones were nonexistent, so someone ran across the road to Paul Nugent’s house to telephone the police and presumably the parents of the students involved. Mr. Earles stayed with them while the rest of the caravan went on to French Lick.

Rather than waiting with the damaged cars, Nina and I rode with another couple to the prom, tucked into the back half of the now-split convoy. For the five miles from Skeeter Bend to Odon, Nina never said a word. Between Odon and the old Farlen Store, she reached up, touched her hair, and asked, “Why is my hair so short?” She had it trimmed that afternoon. As we drove further down the road, she began asking questions like, “Why am I dressed up?” She also asked “Where are we going?” and the real put-down, “Why am I with you?” She couldn’t remember the accident and kept posing those same strange questions and similar others all the way to our destination.

Because of the accident, we arrived at French Lick at least a half hour later than the group of cars ahead of the accident site. As we entered the hotel, it was nearly time for dinner so we proceeded to the dining hall. Nina was very quiet, and shortly after the main course was served, she looked down at the chicken she had just taken a bite of and asked. “Who’s been eating my chicken?” Mr. Earles and the others had arrived during the meal so, following dessert, I reported Nina’s erratic behavior to him. He thought it would be best to take her to nearby Paoli and have her examined at the local hospital emergency room. I asked to go along, but he suggested I stay at the hotel.

For the next few hours, I was relegated to spending the prom at the glorious and romantic French Lick Sheraton Hotel with the guys who came stag, not exactly what I had planned when the night began. Time passed, and, as I remember, Nina returned about a half hour before our group was scheduled to start the trip back to Elnora. This gave us just enough time to walk through the famous outdoor gardens like so many movie stars and former presidents before us, hold hands on one of the benches, and “enjoy” the overpowering aroma of the mineral waters that made the location famous. It was a perfect night, Nina was the perfect date, but she couldn’t remember a darned thing.

On the quiet ride home, she fell asleep with her head on my shoulder. When we arrived at the Melsheimer farm, we were met at the car by Nina’s parents, Arnold and Beth, who had been informed of the accident. We said our goodbyes, and that was it. Other than the next few days at school before I graduated, I don’t think I ever saw Nina again. That fall, I was heading to Purdue and she had three years of high school remaining.

I often think of Nina and I’ve told this story dozens of times, always finishing it the same way: “That’s a night I’ll never forget and she’ll never remember.” I wonder if she ever did.

Friday, October 17, 2008

My Friend, Steve Ault

After being instructed by a tutor at home for grades one through six, my parents and I agreed that it was finally time for me to go to school with the rest of my classmates. I was very apprehensive. I wasn’t worried about the impending academic challenges of junior high, but I was mortified of the physical ones I knew I was sure to face. Because of my leg braces and crutches, I was especially concerned about being able to negotiate the many imposing staircases in the Elnora schoolhouse.

Prior to the first day of classes, my parents arranged with the school’s administration for me to go into the building and practice those things that other students took for granted. I sat down and rose from my desk in the study hall and did the same with the classroom chairs having the wide, flat right arms that curved around like mini writing tables. I then tackled the dreaded stairs. If I couldn’t climb them, all of this advance preparation would be for naught because beginning in junior high, students gathered their books from their desks in the study hall and headed to various classrooms throughout the multi-level building.

Much to my surprise and with the aid of the sturdy banisters flanking each side of the stairwells, I was able to negotiate the steps and explore the entire building from top to bottom. However, there were two critical issues that I was unable to resolve. Because I gripped each handle of my forearm crutches tightly with my palms, it was virtually impossible for me to carry my books and supplies or my lunch tray by myself. For those tasks, I would need assistance. The principal assured me that someone would always be available to help, so with that promise, I was ready as I ever would be.

On my first day at school, I was a 10-year-old seventh grader who knew only a few of my new classmates. All of the others were total strangers to me. One of the boys in my class was Steve Ault, a painfully shy young man to whom I was immediately drawn. Like me, Steve was raised as an only child, living with his parents in a country home several miles southeast of Elnora. His older brother died in infancy prior to Steve’s birth

I don’t remember if he was assigned the duty of carrying my books or if he volunteered, but Steve became my designated pack mule for the next six years. He carried my books, he carried my lunch tray, and above all, he carried my gratitude and appreciation. I got along well with most of my classmates and made many new friends, but none were as close to me as Steve Ault. Sometime during that seventh grade year, I realized I had something that I had never had before; like many other kids, I now had a “best” friend.

During that first year I knew Steve, not everything in our relationship was pie and ice cream. In fact, I was probably so much of a spoiled, bratty kid who had never heard the word “no” that I asked him to do too much for me. One day, during our lunch break, Steve and I got into such an argument that he actually punched me and laid me out flat on my back. A couple of other boys hoisted me up to my feet, and Steve refused to carry my books the rest of the day. By the next morning, all was forgiven on both sides and I don’t ever remember us having cross words again. During our senior year in high school, Steve said I needed to learn how to carry my own books because he wouldn’t always be around to help me. I grumbled a bit, but figured out a solution and later thanked him for making me become more independent.

When I was a sophomore at Elnora High in 1958, Coach Keith Youngen asked me to become one of the student managers of the Owls basketball team. The following year there was an opening and I recommended Steve for the job. Steve was certainly no athlete, but he loved sports nearly as much as I did. One of our first duties as student managers was to clean and shine the many basketballs used during practice. Back then, the baseball World Series was played during the daytime and my beloved Dodgers were facing the Chicago White Sox. I sneaked my small transistor radio into the athletic office so Steve and I could listen to the game while we worked. We made the job last longer than it should have and nearly got into trouble for not getting promptly back to class. It was just a tiny blip on the radar screen of time, but that afternoon shared between two buddies nearly fifty years ago remains one of those indelible memories of my teenage years.

During high school, I enjoyed visiting Steve at his house. We both loved music and rock ‘n roll was in its infancy during the mid to late fifties. He had a 45 rpm record player, something I only dreamed about, having to be content with a small, 4-tube Philco radio. Steve not only had the record player, but he also owned tons of 45’s to play on it. He became one of the first members of the Columbia Record Club and after he joined, the size of his collection skyrocketed.

His parents, Victor and Nova Ault, were nice people whose company I enjoyed very much. Mr. Ault worked at U.S. Gypsum near Shoals. Steve’s mom never worked outside the home until years later after Mr. Ault’s death around 1970. Steve’s dad was tall and quiet like Steve, while Mrs. Ault was a short, somewhat corpulent woman, with a very pleasing yet dominant personality who reminded me of my beloved Aunt Audrey (Rench) Wilkin on a much smaller physical scale.

I don’t know if Steve had always planned to go to Purdue, but when he found out I was heading to West Lafayette following our 1961 graduation, his mind was made up. We wanted to room together, but Steve’s mom would have none of that. She theorized that we would spend too much time together, not study, and our grades would suffer as a result. So, I moved into the newest and nicest men’s dorm at the time, H-3, now known as Wiley Hall. Steve’s mom relegated him across campus to State Street Courts, one of the oldest housing complexes at Purdue, now just a memory having been razed many years ago.

Mrs. Ault’s plan to keep us apart couldn’t have been more of a failure. He’d walk over to my dorm or I’d go to his. We’d hang out together nearly every night, shooting pool at the Student Union, going to movies in downtown Lafayette, or maybe just playing cards or finding a strategic spot to watch the co-eds. When time permitted, we’d go back to our respective dorms and study. Steve was mum about his grades, even to me, but he did not return to Purdue the following year.

Instead, he enrolled at tiny Porter College, a business school located downtown on the Circle in Indianapolis. Steve still didn’t have a car and lived at the nearby YMCA. Shortly after the start of the first semester in 1962, I visited Steve one bright, sunny Friday afternoon. I had to park my old Dodge on Ohio Street immediately adjacent to the “Y.” I plugged money into the meter and went up to find Steve. We visited for a couple of hours, laughing and enjoying ourselves just like old times. Around mid-afternoon, Steve’s ESP kicked in and he asked me where I had parked my car, I told him and he said I’d better move it because that was a tow-away zone after 3:00 pm. I looked at my watch, and it was just past that time. As we arrived on the sidewalk, my car was gone. We looked east on Ohio and saw it hanging from the boom of a wrecker, heading off to who knows where.

After a few phone calls, I found that my car had been impounded in the police lot at Delaware and South Streets. To get it back, I had to pay a fine, a towing fee, and an impound fee. It all added up to much more money than I had with me, so my only recourse was to borrow the rest. Steve lent me as much as he could afford, and I called my Uncle Bill on the east side of Indianapolis to obtain the balance. One of Steve’s friends at the “Y” drove us to my uncle’s house and then to the City-County Building. He and Steve waited patiently while I paid my fines and then they took me to pick up my car. That’s the last time I visited Steve in Indy; however, I did drive down twice more and took him back to Lafayette with me to spend the weekend. It was obvious he wasn’t comfortable going back up to Purdue, so after the second visit, we saw each other only rarely.

It’s amazing how such good friends can drift apart. Soon after Carol and I married in 1966, we started our family, moved a few times, and with the day-to-day business of living, we gradually lost contact with many old friends, including Steve. I wound up in Indianapolis and Steve began his career with the weapons center at Crane. Although we exchanged letters and Christmas cards throughout the years, Steve and I saw each other only three times since the mid-seventies. On November 1, 1974, Steve attended our daughter’s first birthday party. We met again at our 20th class reunion in 1982 (it was a year late). The third time was April 17, 1993. Steve was nearly fifty years old and had finally found the love of his life, Mary. Carol and I attended their wedding that sunny spring day in Bloomington, and I don’t ever think I’ve seen Steve happier. During the reception, we promised each other that we’d visit often, but we never did.

My friend, Steven Earnest Ault died last week. He was born on August 31, 1943 and passed away on October 6, 2008. Steve was barely sixty-five years old. When another good friend and classmate, Bill Porter, emailed the sad news to me, I was devastated to the point of tears. At the funeral home, Mary Ault consoled me over Steve’s death. It should have been the other way around. She said Steve used to talk about me and how we should get together sometime just like I would say the same to Carol. Now it’s too late.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Beverly Ann's Baseball

I am an only child. My parents had been married over nine years when I was born, and my mother was unable to have any other children. Although my Johnson ancestors were as fertile as the Nile Crescent, the Rench/Hannah side was quite the opposite, at least during my mother’s generation. My grandparents, Jim & Alice Rench had three children; Audrey, Elizabeth (my mother) and William. Aunt Audrey and her husband Raymond “Kewp” Wilkin were childless. Uncle Bill and his wife, Kathryn (Summerville), had one daughter, Beverly Ann, born in Elnora in 1934, ten years before I came along, making her my only cousin on my mother’s side of the family.

Uncle Bill, Aunt Kathryn, and Beverly Ann moved from Elnora to Indianapolis around 1940, so I never really knew her and can only remember seeing her but one time. However, I was aware that she had some health problems, but until many years after her death, I never really knew what they were. My parents had intentionally kept the secret from me – Beverly Ann had polio at the age of 18 months. She died on July 17, 1949, just a few weeks prior to her 15th birthday.

Every year about this time, as the baseball season draws to a close, I always think of the cousin I barely knew. Beverly Ann was a huge fan of the Indianapolis Indians minor league baseball team. Shortly before her death, the following article appeared the Indianapolis Times newspaper: Baseball Game Dedicated to Sick Girl, 14Beverly Ann Rench, 14, has been a sick little girl for quite a while. But in spite of her illness she has managed to follow closely the Indianapolis Indians and their fight for the pennant. She hasn’t been able to attend the games in person but she keeps a close check through The Times and the radio. Her daddy and mother, Mr. and Mrs. William Rench, 14 S. Butler Ave., make sure the radio is beside her sickbed when the Tribe is playing. Last night Beverly Ann received one of those big thrills which helps a sick person keep fighting until they get well. Luke Walton, who broadcasts the games for WISH, dedicated the ball game to Beverly Ann. “That’s me, daddy. That’s me,” she cried when she heard her name over the radio. The Indians lost but Beverly Ann was happy. And she keeps on fighting.

It wasn’t long thereafter the Times reported:

Beverly Ann Rench lost a 13-year battle for life yesterday. The 14-year-old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. William Rench died in St. Vincent’s hospital after a final illness which lasted several weeks. She would have celebrated her 15th birthday August 6.

Born in 1934 in Elnora, Ind., Beverly Ann was stricken with a deadly form of polio when she was only 18 months old. Her courageous fight against the disease enabled her to start school but after a year and a half, Beverly Ann was forced to drop out. From that time on, Beverly Ann was never able to return to school. Through the patience and kindness of her parents, however, she was able to continue her schooling at home.

Beverly Ann was an ardent fan of the Indianapolis Indians baseball team and followed the fortunes over the radio and in The Times. Just a few weeks ago, Luke Walton dedicated a home game to her and she was presented with a baseball autographed by the team. It was one of her prized possessions.

Last week, Beverly Ann went to the hospital for the last time. “She just couldn’t fight any more,” her father said.

Besides her parents, Mr. and Mrs. William Rench, Beverly Ann is survived by her grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. James Rench, Elnora, Ind., and Mr. and Mrs. W. T. Summerville, Bicknell. Funeral services will be Tuesday at 11:30 a.m. in Shirley Brothers Irving Hill Chapel. Burial will be in Walnut Hill Cemetery, Odon, Ind.

I’d like to share a few additional thoughts. Beverly Ann died just four months after I was released from my own nine-month stay at Riley Hospital. Hers was the first funeral I ever attended. I don’t remember a thing about the actual funeral service, but I do remember the ride from Indianapolis to Odon. Like the June day I went to Riley Hospital only thirteen months before, Tuesday, July 19, 1949 was a sweltering, hot day. In fact, on the way to the cemetery, my parents stopped in Freedom and my mother went up to a house on highway 67 and asked if I could please have a drink of water. During the graveside service, I was told years later that my grandfather mumbled words to the effect that, “We just got one back and now we’ve lost the other one for good,” referring to his two grandchildren, both of whom had contracted the dreaded polio.

As for the baseball, Aunt Kathryn gave it to me following Uncle Bill’s death in February, 1988 after they had retired back to Elnora. She said he would want me to have it. Almost exactly one year later in February, 1989, Aunt Kathryn also died. The nearly sixty-year-old baseball is still encased in its clear plastic globe, both now somewhat yellowed with age. Two of the men whose fading signatures are on the ball have since been elected to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, New York. Beverly Ann would be proud.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Day the Dogs Barked

Unexplained events happen all of the time. Some say they are merely coincidental, while others attribute them to a higher power. I’ll leave this one up to you.

My grandfather, Jim Rench, died unexpectedly on a hot August day in 1955, nine days past his 78th birthday. Soon thereafter, my grandmother, Alice Rench, began to experience health problems of her own, so a few months later she reluctantly moved from her home to live with my parents and me in our tiny, two-bedroom house.

Like nearly everyone in Elnora, she used Dr. James R. Rohrer as her family doctor. I guess today he would be referred to as her ‘primary care physician.’ However, she occasionally saw a specialist in Indianapolis. In early May, 1957, after school in Elnora had been dismissed for the summer, my mother drove my grandmother and me to Indianapolis for an appointment with my grandmother’s ‘other’ doctor. They had decided in advance that it would also be a mini-vacation for the two of us. My grandmother and I planned on staying for two weeks. Her son, Bill Rench, lived in Indianapolis and her oldest daughter, Audrey Rench Wilkin, resided in McCordsville, a northeastern suburb of Indianapolis.

My mom left my grandmother and me at Uncle Bill’s house and returned home to Elnora. After my grandmother saw her doctor a few days later, Uncle Bill and Aunt Kathryn drove us to McCordsville to spend the rest of our vacation with Aunt Audrey and Uncle ‘Kewp’ who owned a restaurant and service station located on State Road 67, also known as Pendleton Pike. Their house was a few hundred yards north of their business on the opposite side of that very busy highway. Each afternoon, I would routinely walk from Aunt Audrey’s home to the little general store on the highway which also housed the Post Office to check the mail and purchase a snack before heading back.

On May 9, 1957, I made my usual late-afternoon trek to the Post Office. Since there was no mail that day, when I returned to the house I sat down in a chair in the front yard to enjoy my goodies rather than going inside. My aunt and uncle raised dachshund puppies and kept the young ones and their mothers on the screened-in porch at the rear of the house. I had been seated just a few minutes when the dogs started barking loudly and my grandmother and aunt (who was on her afternoon break from the restaurant) both ran out to the front porch. My aunt yelled, “James Emerson, are you all right? Where is the crash?” When I asked her what she was talking about, she said she and my grandmother both heard a violent crash on the highway, and that was also when the dogs started barking. Aunt Audrey went so far as to walk over to the edge of Highway 67 and look up and down the road to satisfy herself that there was no wreck before she and my grandmother went back into the house. It was just after 4:00 p.m.

Later that evening, my father called to tell us that my mother had been critically injured in an accident with a drunk driver on her way home from work at the General Electric plant in Linton. The two women with her had both been killed. She was in the back seat, a factor which may have saved her life. She normally arrived home from work about 4:20 p.m. each afternoon.

The next day, the following article appeared in the local Washington, IN newspaper:

Two Elnora Mothers Killed in Truck-Car Crash Thursday

“Two Elnora mothers were killed instantly late yesterday afternoon when the car in which they were riding smashed head-on into a truck one and one-fourth miles north of Newberry in southern Greene County on highway 57. Another Elnora woman, a passenger in the car, and the truck driver were injured.

Mrs. Odyne McCullough, 44 years old, driver of the car, and Mrs. Esther Shaffer, 45 years old, were killed when the 1956 Chevrolet in which they were riding collided with a 1951 GMC one-ton truck just north of Newberry at 4:10 p.m. yesterday. Mrs. Elizabeth Johnson, 45, also of Elnora, a third passenger in the car, was injured in the collision and taken to the Freeman-Greene County Hospital at Linton. Also injured in the collision was the driver of the truck, Eugene H. Powell, age 50, R.R. 1, Poseyville. He was listed in fair condition at the hospital.

State Trooper J. O. Smith said the two vehicles collided during a light rain when the truck veered across the center line into the path of the car.

The three women were en route home from work at the General Electric Company Plant at Linton when the accident occurred. The Chevrolet was going south on the highway and the truck was going north. The truck veered across the center line and the car struck the bed of the truck in front of the rear wheels. The impact of the collision was so great that rescuers had to pry open the doors of the car to get the women out. Both vehicles were considered to be a total loss after the fatal accident.

Mrs. Johnson was rushed to the hospital by ambulance suffering from a fractured right leg and a fractured left elbow. She also had severe lacerations and was suffering from shock.”

Because my mother spent the next several weeks in the hospital and was unable to take care of me when she first came home while she was still recovering from her injuries, I stayed in McCordsville with my grandmother. She became progressively more ill and passed away on July 24, never to see her hometown of Elnora or her daughter, Elizabeth, again. My mother was still walking with her leg in a plaster cast during my grandmother’s funeral.

I later found out that my mother nearly died that first night in the hospital, her heartbeat declining to only six beats per minute. She remarked that she must have been saved because her son still needed his mother and the other two women’s children were already grown. In any case, I’m thankful that she survived. However, she carried adverse physical problems related to that tragic accident for the next seventeen years until her death in 1974.

Was it really just a remarkable coincidence that the dogs barked and my aunt and grandmother ran outside at the same time my mother and her two friends were involved in that terrible accident? Or did they really somehow hear the crash over a hundred miles away? Only God knows for sure.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Roots Revisited

In a famous novel published a few years before I was born, Thomas Wolfe wrote You Can’t Go Home Again. I wonder how often writers who get nostalgic for an earlier time and place have referred to that book and to those immortal words. I don’t get back to Elnora as often as I’d like, but when I get the urge it’s almost like I’m being drawn to that tiny Daviess County town of my youth like a paper clip to a powerful magnet.

Such was the case a few days ago. I have been wanting to go back home for months but at the last minute always found something else that required my attention just a bit more than my need to travel the hundred miles from my home on the southeast side of Indianapolis to my parents’ former home on the northeast side of Elnora. However, on August 26, the magnet pulled so hard that Carol and I headed south on those Indiana roads that have become so familiar to me over my lifetime that I could almost drive them blindfolded.

Because we have a dog that we left at home in his kennel, we were on a fairly tight schedule. I had several things I wanted to accomplish on this little excursion and tried without much success to prioritize their importance. First, I have an ancestral family photograph that is at least a hundred years old. I had an educated guess as to the identity of the subjects, but I wasn’t 100% sure. So I needed help with that. Then, I have recently reconnected with Bill Porter, a classmate and good friend from Elnora’s Class of 1961. He and his bride Judy Campbell Porter have been friends of Carol and me since our dating days. Unfortunately, we hadn’t seen them for many years, so we were eager to visit with them and not only share memories, but catch up on our current lives.

When we arrived at Elnora, we headed to Fairview Cemetery (must be an old folks thing) to pay respects to my parents and the many other Johnson, Hannah, and Rench relatives resting there. Since I had recently written about a family friend, Harve Vories, I also wanted to find his headstone to determine his date of death. When we found the marker, I was shocked on two counts. Harve died in 1967, the same year our first son, Scott, was born. So the stool he made for Scott took on an even more special meaning knowing Harve was 90 years old at the time he made it just months before his death. The tombstone also marked the death of Harve’s wife, Dell, in 1943 at the age of 64 years. Although Dell died one year before I was born, I felt so badly that I had completely forgotten about her when I wrote the “Harve” article. Now I do remember that he mentioned Dell often during those many times I visited with him during my childhood. He missed her very much and I can’t believe I had blocked her from my mind.

As we drove past my grandparents’ former property at the east end of Main Street, I stopped and took a picture of the only thing that remains from my youth, the concrete steps leading up to the front yard. The house was replaced many years ago. After mentally wiping away a symbolic tear, we drove one block north where I took four more pictures from various angles of my parents’ tiny two-bedroom house. It’s pretty much as I remember it, complete with the same rusty TV tower that was attached to the house when I sold it following my mother’s death in 1974. The siding has been upgraded, however, giving the house a fresher look than it had when we owned it.

Following a quick trip through the downtown area where most of the buildings of my youth are either empty or gone, we headed out to Bill and Judy Porter’s beautiful home. Judy had prepared a delicious lunch and we all had a great visit, but as Bill so accurately put it, “It’s hard to catch up on forty years in just two hours.” He was right and I hope we get to see them again real soon.

Following a quick trip to meet Ron Critchlow at the Elnora Post, we headed for the country south of town to visit with my only remaining living relative in Elnora, Marietta McKee. Marietta and I are direct descendants of the Hannah pioneers who founded the town in the early 1800’s, when it was Owl Prairie long before being renamed Elnora. Marietta’s grandfather and my great-grandfather were brothers, making the two of us very distant cousins. Marietta is in remarkably good health and proud of her 92 years on this earth.

Her son, Paul McKee, and his wife, Nadine, were at Marietta’s and we all had a wonderful visit. I showed Marietta the picture I had with me and she confirmed my thoughts that the people in the picture were my great-grandfather William Hannah and his wife Amanda. Also in the picture were my grandparents, Jim and Alice Hannah Rench, their infant firstborn daughter, Audrey, and my grandmother’s brother Curtis Hannah and his wife Myrtle. I knew that my Aunt Audrey was born in January, 1906, so I was able to positively identify the picture as having been taken sometime during that year.

All too soon it was time to head back north to the place I now call home, knowing my real home will forever remain secluded in those vivid memories of so many years ago.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Home Schooling

As I have previously mentioned, I contracted polio in June, 1948 just three months shy of my 4th birthday. After coming home from Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis following a stay of nine months and two days, out of necessity I became a unique little kid in many ways. As an only child, my parents and grandparents doted on me constantly. I don’t know if it was because they felt responsible for or guilty because of my illness, but they didn’t let me out of their sight for a long time.

As a result, I had very few friends my own age for the next few years. My family sheltered me to such an extent that the neighbor kids didn’t know how to act when they were around me, and for many years I felt like the gorilla in the room that nobody wanted to talk about. I was much more comfortable around adults than other children.

My wonderful grandmother, Alice Rench, read to me constantly after I came home from the hospital. She even taught me to read before I started the first grade. By the time I was six years old, I was reading books like Treasure Island and The Five Little Peppers. In fact, for my seventh birthday, I received a complete, 20-volume set of the World Book Encyclopedia which I read cover to cover over the next few years, including the annual supplements. We didn’t have a television in those days, so while other kids were out playing, I would usually be sitting at home reading.

As Bill Edwards so eloquently phrased it in last week’s Elnora Post, Elnora High School (which housed all twelve grades) was a majestic 3-story building (including the basement) with grand staircases at each end of the long hallways. Since I had to learn to walk all over again with the aid of leg braces and crutches, I was unable to negotiate those (or any other) steps and needed to be home-schooled through the first six grades.

My first tutor was a dedicated lady named Mrs. Rodocker who was provided and paid for by the state of Indiana. In those days, school started just after Labor Day. My 6th birthday was on September 28, 1950 and I still didn’t have a teacher until early October when I was finally able to start first grade, a full month behind my classmates. Since I was my teacher’s only student, she accelerated my studies and I finished all of the first grade material the first semester and actually began and completed the second grade after Christmas that school year.

When the next Labor Day rolled around, I was still only six when I started third grade. My original classmates were beginning second grade, so I had a new bunch of names to learn even though they were at school and I was being taught at home. Realizing that I was now younger than all of my new classmates, my parents wisely told Mrs. Rodocker to put on the brakes and make the third grade last all year so I wouldn’t get even further ahead. I should also mention that my teacher was only at my grandparents’ house one hour each day. After she taught me, she went to her next assignment elsewhere in the county, and I would complete my homework and have the rest of the day to play or to read. I had made some friends by now, but they would still be in school until later in the day, so I’d play by myself, read, or hang out with my grandfather in his barn or slaughter house and watch him butcher hogs.

Then, just before starting the sixth grade in September, 1954, the unthinkable happened. Mrs. Rodocker and her family moved to Illinois and I was once again without a teacher. I got lucky, however, because local resident Neva Eubanks agreed to teach me for one year only. Mrs. Eubanks had spent some time teaching in the public school system, but she had planned to stay home that year. She and her husband, Sheldon (who owned Elnora’s barber shop), had two daughters, Jana and Cheryl, who were both near my age, so she was able to teach me and be back home before her girls arrived from school.

By this time, I was starting to get stronger and was also getting around much better. I very much enjoyed my year with Mrs. Eubanks, but after I completed the sixth grade, my parents agreed that the time was right for me to leave the safety of my grandparent’s “classroom” where my tutors had laid the foundation for the rest of my life.

This decision became even more binding with the sudden death of my grandfather in August, 1955. Less than one month later and just a few weeks shy of my 11th birthday, I headed out into that great unknown to begin the seventh grade at the gigantic (to me) Elnora school building, totally unaware of the many challenges ahead.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Me and Harve

Because my parents seemed to almost work around the clock, my maternal grandparents, Jim and Alice Rench, pretty much raised me until shortly before his death in August, 1955, about a month before my 11th birthday. My other grandfather, Marion Johnson, had passed away in 1930, fourteen years before I was born.

Harve Vories and his sister, Bertha Machan, lived just across the street from my grandparents. I always liked Harve and often pestered ‘Berthie’ and him long before my grandfather’s death.

Harve was a crusty old man. When I knew him, he was retired but always seemed to keep busy. In his younger days during the early 1900’s, he operated a ‘dray’ in Elnora. It was a light wagon drawn by one horse, and was used to deliver freight and other goods all around the town and surrounding area. Harve’s dray was pulled by his magnificent black horse named Prince and when people talked about Harve, they almost always mentioned Prince.

After my grandfather died, Harve pretty much adopted me as his grandson. Other than his sister, I don’t think Harve had a family, so he and I became really close. In my young eyes, he could do about anything. He had a workshop in his garage (he didn’t drive, but Berthie did) where he made wooden outdoor furniture including lawn chairs, benches, and porch swings. When I started school, long before my grandfather’s passing, Harve crafted a sturdy wooden desk for me complete with a center drawer in which I could store pencils and other supplies. He was also adept at carving hickory nuts and walnuts into little Easter baskets. I still have one that he made for me so many years ago.

We spent many days on his yard bench swapping stories and hand feeding the squirrels that ventured near. Some of his tales were a bit too ‘adult’ for my young ears, but rather mild by today’s standards. He always had a supply of Canada peppermints which he would share with me near the end of each visit. He kept the white ones in a big brown paper sack and the pink ones in a smaller bag. He’d hand me a few white ones and when I’d eaten them, he followed up with a pink one. At that point, I knew it was time to head home.

Harve was a pipe smoker and taught me how to make corncob pipes. He puffed Old Hillside tobacco which came in a little white cloth bag closed by a yellow drawstring. One day, after I’d made another corncob pipe, I finally convinced him to let me load it up with Old Hillside. He handed me a big kitchen match so I could light it myself, and after a few hearty draws, I felt like I’d swallowed a tub of dirty dishwater and the result wasn’t pretty. I don’t think I’d been that sick since my grandfather slipped me a wad of his Beech-Nut chewing tobacco years before.

I was amazed at what a great rifle shot Harve was. There were four mailboxes clustered on a wooden stand directly across the street from his house. He could take an old-style kitchen matchstick, put it into a crevice in the wooden post, sit in his yard chair across the street, and light it with one shot from my .22 rifle without knocking the match from the post. In those pre-PETA days, I also remember him shooting a big, black crow out of the top of an old, dead oak tree in my grandfather’s barn yard. The shot was also made from Harve’s front yard, a good hundred yards from the bird’s perch.

Grocers certainly didn’t make much money with Harve Vories as a customer. He ate the same thing every day of the year: Post Toasties and milk for breakfast, Dinty-Moore Beef Stew for lunch, and two slices of bread crumbled into a bowl of milk for supper. He was even more frugal when it came to haircuts. After the winter thaw, he’d head down to Sheldon Eubanks’ Barber Shop for his annual haircut, or should I say his annual shave. He would have his head completely shaven clean so by the time cold weather rolled around again, between his hat and the fringe of hair around his bald head, he’d keep warm until the next spring.

I didn’t see much of Harve after I went off to college in 1961. I’d visit him occasionally during summer breaks and even less often after graduation. Harve never forgot me, though. When our first son was born in 1967, Harve made him a little stool to sit on, saying it was the first project he’d done in his workshop in many years. After Scott outgrew the stool, it remained a fixture in our house, used primarily as a stepstool for Carol to reach to the tops of high shelves.

I learned of Harve’s death after it was too late to attend his funeral. To some, he was probably just a strange old man who sat on his bench with a squirrel on his shoulder. To me, he was like another grandfather.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Comic Books & Ice Cream

Elnora was a very busy place when I was a child growing up during the 1950’s and early 1960’s. In just the downtown area alone, stores and other businesses lined the streets. It makes me very sad to see that most of them are gone now. In many cases, even the buildings are no longer standing.

However, other than my parents’ restaurant, the theater where I spent hundreds of memorable hours, and the hardware store where I worked for two summers, the Elnora establishments I remember most were Sheldon Eubanks’ Barber Shop and Robert Foster’s Drug Store, known as Foster’s Pharmacy. Both have been closed for many years. Sheldon departed this life some time ago, and I was saddened to learn of the recent passing of his daughter, Cheryl Eubanks Arney, who was my age and Bob Foster who also died within the past year.

After I contracted polio, it became more difficult for my parents to operate the restaurant which took so much of their time. My grandparents were my primary ‘babysitters,’ but about 1952 or 1953 my folks sold the restaurant and began working ‘regular’ jobs out of town which allowed them to spend more time with me. When I was very young, my grandfather would pull me downtown in my little red wagon nearly every day during good weather.

My grandfather’s health quickly failed during the summer of 1955 and he passed away shortly thereafter. My grandmother lived another two years. At the time of her passing, I was nearly 13 and convinced my parents I no longer needed someone to take care of me every day. I had grown stronger and was able to walk about anywhere I needed to go.

So, during the summers while my parents were working, I remembered those little excursions with my grandfather, and I would walk downtown nearly every day from our home on the east side of Elnora. It was about a half mile to town and the same distance coming back, quite a trek for a young boy who walked with leg braces and forearm crutches. My allowance was about 50¢ a week, enough for a daily candy bar or ice cream cone at Foster’s soda fountain. When I wanted to save up enough for a milk shake or some other special treat, I’d forgo my usual purchase. On those days I’d sit in the barber shop and rest while reading Sheldon’s comic books before heading home. Since I didn’t drive a car until just before entering Purdue, I continued my summer walks downtown well into my high school years, nearly always stopping at the drug store and the barber shop.

These days, I get a haircut about once a month. However, when I was a kid, my parents sent me to the barber shop every two weeks like clockwork. One Saturday, as I was awaiting my turn for a trim, I realized that I had read every comic book in Sheldon’s magazine rack and informed him as such. Without hesitation, he handed me a dollar and told me to go over to Foster’s and buy ten comic books. I was in heaven! Comic books were 10¢ each at that time and I don’t think I’d ever bought more than two at once. After I made my selection and piled 10 comic books onto the drug store counter, Mr. Foster asked how I came into all that money. When I told him, he said, “Well, in that case, you’d better go pick out two more.”

Sheldon Eubanks and Bob Foster were two fine men. I’ll never forget them.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Lasting Memories of a Cowboy Hero

I may be over 60, but I’m not ashamed to admit I got misty-eyed when I learned of Roy Rogers’ death. Roy died ten years ago this week on July 6, 1998. Like all boys who grew up during the 1950’s, I loved playing ‘Cowboys and Indians.’ Roy Rogers was my hero, and although I never got to meet him, when I was 8 or 9 years old, he called me on the telephone.

Long before that memorable phone call, I joined the Roy Rogers Riders’ Club and owned, among other things, a prized leather two-gun holster set just like his. It had been on display in the toy section of the Elnora Clothing Store just before Christmas. On Christmas morning, it was mine.

Sometime later, the exact year being a blur in my crowded memory bank, came the best news ever. Rogers was coming to Washington, the county seat of Daviess County, to host a meeting of “The Club.” My father knew how excited I was and agreed to take me.

The long-awaited day finally came, and so did the snow. We lived only 16 miles away, but my dad said it was just too dangerous to go, both from a driving standpoint and also because I hadn’t yet fully mastered walking on ice and snow due to residual effects of polio. The show was going to be broadcast on WFML, but we had no FM radio. I was devastated.

Then, about a half-hour before Roy was to go on stage, our telephone rang. My dad handed me the receiver, and you can guess the rest. Roy and I talked probably no more than three minutes, but they were the best three minutes of my young life.

A few days later, I received an autographed picture of Roy along with some other treasures in the mail. Unfortunately, my picture and the other things disappeared over the years, but the memory of that telephone call will last forever. Happy trails, partner. I still miss you.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Slingshots & Cherry Bombs

When I was a kid growing up in Elnora, nearly all fireworks were illegal in Indiana, at least the ones that were fun. Sparklers were about the only things you could buy locally, or those little snakes that you lit on the ground and burned themselves out with a curly ash. Nowadays, you can pay a fee, sign a paper, and buy about whatever you want at your local fireworks store.

Years ago, however, if you wanted the good stuff like Black Cat Firecrackers, M-80s, Roman Candles, or the ultimate in loud noises, Cherry Bombs, you had to get them from Tennessee or some other faraway state. My dad had a friend who was an interstate truck driver, so we had an ample supply of the explosive devices nearly every year.

Following high school, I went off to Purdue. I worked each summer while in college. My dad died during my sophomore year and after his passing, many things in my life changed. One of the very minor and unimportant changes was that I no longer had the desire or the supply of fireworks to make noise on July 4th.

During the summer of 1965, I lived with an aunt and uncle in Indianapolis and worked at the City–County Building, going home to Elnora only on weekends. The previous year, I had purchased a shiny, black 1961 Ford convertible with some of the earnings from my part-time job at college and a little help from my mother.

July 4, 1965 was on Sunday. Because of that, businesses celebrated the official holiday on Monday and I had an extra day at home. On Sunday night, a bunch of us guys gathered downtown and some of them brought firecrackers of various sizes. Included, of course, were the dreaded Cherry Bombs. We parked our cars on the north side of Main Street next to Back’s Market, across from the roller skating rink. There was a vacant lot west of the skating rink and that’s where the guys with the noisemakers gathered. The rest of us stayed near our cars and just watched.

Following a few minor firecracker blasts, things got much louder when the big boomers started exploding. Somebody pulled out a slingshot and began firing lit Cherry Bombs high into the air. A retired Elnora Town Marshal lived on the corner one block south, just across the street from the telephone office. As the slingshot artist grew braver and launched one in the direction of his house, a voice boomed out of the dark July night, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you boys! I’ve got a gun!”

That pronouncement certainly meant the fun was over, and nearly everybody ran for their cars. Since I had just been watching and not participating, I walked over to my convertible which had the top down and settled into the driver’s seat. It was still relatively early and instead of proceeding east on Main Street to go home, I turned south on Odon Street and headed down toward the highway. That could have been a fatal decision.

As I neared the hardware store, the ex-Marshal was walking north toward my car shouting, “James Emerson Johnson, stop right there!” My car was equipped with hand controls which enabled me to drive, and I jammed hard on the brake with all of the strength my right hand could muster. Within seconds, I was staring into the barrel of a shiny revolver and could see the bullets in the cylinder. He asked why I was tormenting him like that. I explained that I was just hanging out and didn’t even have any fireworks. After yelling some more, he finally sent me on my way. I breathed a sigh of relief and wisely headed back to the safety of the big city the next day, counting my lucky stars. Since that night in 1965, I never heard another Cherry Bomb, except the one John Mellencamp sang about 22 years later.

Footnote: Mellencamp’s hit song, Cherry Bomb, was included in his 1987 album, The Lonesome Jubilee. The album cover pictures Mellencamp sitting at the bar with local resident Elwood “Woody” Baker in the Midway Café on Highway 57 in Elnora. Like many Elnora businesses, the Midway is just another memory and is now a vacant lot. Woody Baker was a neighbor of ours in the 1950’s and is still living at the age of 94.

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Daviess County Fair

I must confess I haven’t been to the Daviess County Fair in years. However, the fair was the highlight of my summer when I was growing up. Although it now begins in late June, in my younger days, the fair was held near the end of July and always ran through some of the hottest days of the year. Even so, I always looked forward to attending. I loved the crowds, the exhibits, the Midway, and the overall sights and sounds. For many years during the 1950’s, the fair parade included rodeo riders. The local fair organizers ‘pulled some strings’ and made it possible for me to ride a horse in the parade accompanied in the saddle by a real live cowboy. I did that for about three years in a row. Pictures of those happy rides are in my family photo album.

Many stars of the Grand Ole Opry appeared at the fair. I still have an autographed program signed by country comedians, Homer and Jethro. I also saw Little Jimmy Dickens, Roy Acuff, and Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs among others. I don’t remember the year, but one of my most exciting nights at the fair was watching Joie Chitwood’s Auto Thrill Show. The grandstand was packed and the action was exciting and non-stop.

During the 1950’s, my parents and I went to the fair nearly every night. They worked in one of the ‘restaurant’ tents, selling fish sandwiches, lemonade, and homemade ice cream. Food was provided as payment to the people who volunteered, so they made sure I never went hungry on those nights. Fair food was more than ‘fair.’ It was fabulous and always seemed to taste better than anywhere else. I don’t think I’ve ever had a fish sandwich as good as those I remember at the fair.

When I was a kid, fair week was the one time of the year that my allowance was substantially increased. With proper budgeting (and a few extra coins slipped to me by my grandmother), I would have money for a Ferris Wheel ride, some cotton candy, and maybe even enough left over to toss a baseball at the ‘impossible to topple’ milk bottles or the weighted cats on a shelf. When I was about thirteen years old, my dad allowed me to shoot the .22 rifles in hopes of winning a nice, big stuffed animal. After missing several shots, I soon figured out that the rifle’s sights were ‘off,’ so I compensated by altering my aim and won a couple of nice prizes before being told to move on.

Later, during summer breaks from Purdue, I sold admission tickets to the fair a few times. One year, many superstars of wrestling were part of the entertainment. They included Cowboy Bob Ellis and Haystack Calhoun. The gate at which I sold tickets was wide enough for a vehicle to drive through, and on wrestling night, in came a car with the biggest star of all, Dick the Bruiser, in the passenger seat. He passed within three feet of me and spoke. It made my night.

One memorable night at the fair occurred when I was probably about ten years old. I was walking down the Midway and stopped at a stand where you tossed nickels, hoping to land one onto a plate or into a glass. If you succeeded, the item was yours. I had eight nickels, but was hesitant to try my luck. While I was deciding, I unconsciously stood one of the nickels on its edge on the counter. The man operating the stand saw what I had done said, “Hey kid, I’ll give you a penny for every nickel you can stand on edge.” Thinking this was easy money and not realizing my nickels were at risk, I proudly stood up all eight of them. The man immediately raked my nickels into his hand and laid eight pennies on the counter. Although I pleaded for their return, he wouldn’t budge. I walked over to the tent where my dad was working and told him the story. He asked for the pennies and told me to stay there with my mom. A few minutes later, he came back, handed me eight nickels and said, “I hope you learned your lesson.” I don’t know how he got them back, but after reading The Godfather many years later, I like to think it was because my dad made the guy an offer he couldn’t refuse.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Sixty Years Later

Has it really been sixty years? Wow, as they say, time flies when you’re having fun. However, June, 1948 was not much fun for six families in Elnora. It was the time of a near polio epidemic in our small town and changed my life forever.

The following quotes are from a clipping my parents saved from one of the Washington, Indiana newspapers:

“Washington, Ind., June 23 (Spl.) A second case of poliomyelitis from the town of Elnora, in northern Daviess County, was in an Indianapolis hospital today. Wayne Edmondson, 16 year old son of Mr. and Mrs. Hollis Edmondson, was taken to Robert Long Hospital yesterday. His physician in Elnora, J. R. Rohrer, said the polio symptoms were all positive, including an arm paralysis. However, the hospital had not confirmed the case as of this afternoon.

Last week, 4-year-old James Emerson Johnson, Elnora, was admitted to Riley Hospital with severe paralysis and the hospital confirmed the case was polio. Four other cases were reported in Elnora. These cases were described by the doctor as the abortive type, where symptoms are present, but there is no paralysis. Citizens of Elnora were reported today to be considering closing public meetings. The Daviess County Board of Health said no other cases had been reported in the county as yet.”

I’ll never forget the day I went to Riley Hospital for Children. It was just three months before my 4th birthday, and most people don’t usually remember much from such an early age. However, that June day in 1948 is imprinted in my memory forever.

My symptoms began with a headache the previous morning while I was playing in my grandparents’ front yard. My body temperature became elevated to the point that my grandmother called my mother home from the restaurant. Dr. Rohrer said he suspected polio immediately, and by the next day, he was certain.

I was taken to Riley Hospital by ambulance. Dr. Rohrer rode with me, and my parents followed in their car. Sherman Anderson, who later owned the Anderson-Poindexter funeral home in Sandborn, told me at my mother’s funeral in 1974 that he was the young ambulance driver who took me to Riley that unforgettable day. It was a hot, steamy ride and the ambulance was not air-conditioned. I had a high fever and cried nearly the entire trip.

Upon arrival at the hospital, I was immediately placed into the isolation ward and my parents could only look at me through the glass windows. For two weeks, my brain nearly fried while my temperature hovered near 105°. When I developed respiratory problems, I was placed into a 7 foot long, 750 pound iron lung to help me breathe. Luckily, I only had to be in one of the monstrous devices for a few days. After much care, treatment, and therapy by the wonderful doctors and nurses at Riley Hospital, nine months and two days later in March, 1949, I walked out of the hospital. Both legs were paralyzed and I was left with a weakened left shoulder, but with the aid of leg braces and crutches I was on my feet and ready to face the world. Other polio victims weren’t as lucky.

Most people today have never seen an iron lung. Two years ago my wife and I were at the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis and as we rounded the corner leading to a new exhibit, I froze in my tracks. I was face-to-face with a big, imposing, ancient iron lung. Memories flooded back and I got cold chills, started shaking and breathing heavily, with tears coming to my eyes. It reminded me of a time I never want to remember but can’t forget.

Just a few weeks ago in May, 2008, 61-year-old Dianne Odell of Tennessee died during a power outage when the electricity that operated her iron lung failed as did the back-up generator. She had been in the device for 58 years, and was thought to be the oldest living polio survivor still confined to one. Only about 30 iron lungs are still in use in the United States today.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Rubber Balls, Dirt Clods, and BBs

Most schools have now been dismissed for the summer or soon will be. I still have fond memories of my years at Elnora High School. I was one of the lucky ones who looked forward to school each day. Unfortunately, some students made life very rough on the teachers and seemed to have a penchant for getting themselves and some of the rest of us into trouble. In today’s zero tolerance academic environments, kids would probably be expelled or even worse for some of the things that happened when I was in school.

A favorite spot for rowdy behavior was the Study Hall. It was a big room, and each student from grades 7 through 12 had a desk with a flip-top lid in which to store books and other learning materials. The desks all faced the front where there was a stage with a large, theater style curtain. At the rear of the Study Hall was the door that led into the school library. The north side of the room exited into the main hallway, and the south wall contained a row of windows where it was easy to stare outside while lost in a daydream.

However, those daydreams (or even my study time) would sometimes be shattered by the sound of a bouncing ball tossed by someone craving a little excitement. The school’s personnel staff was small, and one teacher would often monitor the Study Hall and Library at the same time. So, when the teacher wasn’t looking, the offending student would bounce a small, rubber ball to another student who would then bounce or toss it to someone else and the round robin would continue until the ball would be flying hither and yon. For a little variation, they would sometimes bounce the ball off the walls instead of the floor. This would continue until the students grew tired of antagonizing the teacher or until she caught one or more of the rowdies and hustled them off to the office for appropriate disciplinary measures.

Since Elnora is a rural community, when I was in school all of the boys were required to take Agriculture classes from 7th through 9th grades. Some chose to continue them through high school. As part of the agriculture curriculum, Mr. Robertson would occasionally take his students on field trips to local farms to see first-hand how things were run. Following one such excursion when I got knocked on my backside as the water hose I was drinking from came in contact with an electric fence, some of the boys came back with a supply of dirt clods for the afternoon’s festivities.

It was springtime and Mrs. Pate was conducting play practice behind the curtain on the stage. One brave soul heaved the first clod which hit the heavy curtain and shattered onto the floor at the edge of the stage. Others followed. For the next several minutes, Mrs. Pate was in a dither, torn between continuing play practice and nabbing the perpetrators. Mrs. Pate was a great teacher, but she wouldn’t hold with monkey business of any sort, especially something like dirt clods being thrown at her stage. I wasn’t one of the kids involved, and the punishment wasn’t pleasant for those who were.

Lastly, there was the day when the Study Hall came alive with the sound of rolling BBs, the same kind used in Daisy air rifles. BBs are much smaller and more difficult to see than rubber balls or dirt clods. And, they really do make a tremendous racket when a bunch of the tiny metal objects are rolling together across a hardwood floor. With all of the noise, it didn’t take long for Mr. Earles to come out of his office and tell all of the boys to come with him for a BB search. He looked at me and said, “Jim, just stay in your seat. I don’t need to search you.” Not wanting to be treated differently than the others, I told Mr. Earles I would be glad to participate since I had nothing to hide. During the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, most boys wore their jeans with the pants cuffs rolled up. This made a perfect place to hide small objects. While I was awaiting my turn in line, someone must have secretly loaded up my cuffs with BBs, because when Mr. Earles bent down and unrolled them, at least a half tube of BBs rolled out onto the floor. Everyone in the office, including Mr. Earles, howled with laughter. Needless to say, I didn’t see the humor.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Movies and the March of Dimes

I have always had a tremendous affection for the movies. When there is a movie category in Final Jeopardy, I invariably bet all of my imaginary money. At one time, for whatever reason, I could name all of the Academy Award winning pictures in order and can still recall about 90% of them.

My love affair with the movies began during the 1950’s when the Elnora Theater was owned by the Ricketts family. Mr. and Mrs. Ricketts had very pretty twin daughters, Georgette and Jeanette, who were older than me and graduated from Elmore Township High School in 1958. However, my memories of the Ricketts family revolve not around them so much as their movie house. Unlike today’s modern Cineplex, the Elnora Theater was tiny by anyone’s standards. When you went to a movie during the 1940’s and 1950’s, the theater would almost always show a cartoon, a newsreel highlighting the prior week’s events, and a double feature. Yes, you would get to see two movies for the price of one. And, rather than new movies coming out on Friday and running for two weeks or more like they do now, the feature films changed from Saturday night to Sunday afternoon and maybe again on Wednesday. So, there was always a new movie or two or three each week to capture the imagination.

My parents, Elizabeth and Emerson Johnson, owned a restaurant in Elnora that was open seven days a week. It was called simply, Elizabeth’s Restaurant, and was located almost directly across the street from the theater on Odon Street just south of the town square. So, to give my grandparents a break from babysitting while my parents worked, I would routinely spend my Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons alone in the dark in my usual seat on the right side of the aisle about halfway to the front of the theater. Although television became popular during the very early 1950’s, we didn’t own one until 1954. From the time I was six years old in 1950 until about 1956 when the theater showed its last film, I think I saw most of the movies that came to our small town.

Some of the films were especially memorable, although for different reasons. The Wizard of Oz was originally released in 1939, but it was being shown in Elnora probably around 1951. When the movie became dark and scary as the Wicked Witch of the West was screaming, “I’ll get you my pretty!” I knew she must have been after me, and I also started screaming. Mr. or Mrs. Ricketts ran over to my parents’ restaurant and my father came and rescued me from that traumatic experience. Another memorable movie, The Greatest Show on Earth, about the Ringling Brothers Circus, was released in 1952 and won the Oscar for best picture. When it finally came to Elnora, the theater was packed, and it was the only time I remember my father attending a movie with me rather than just ‘dropping me off.’ The theater was so crowded that he sat on the aisle floor next to my seat, something that wouldn’t be permitted by the Fire Marshal today. From Here to Eternity was shown at the theater a year or two later, but my dad wouldn’t let me go to that one, labeling it as too ‘adult’ for a young boy.

However, the most memorable day I spent at the Elnora Theater turned out to be one of life’s most embarrassing moments, especially to a young boy who had experienced a severe case of polio and survived. Once a year, a nation-wide fund raising campaign for the March of Dimes was conducted by individuals and businesses alike to aid those who had contracted Infantile Paralysis, more commonly known as polio, and to provide research for developing a vaccine to prevent it. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had proposed the idea for the March of Dimes many years prior in 1938 because he knew the devastating effects of the disease, having contracted it himself as an adult before becoming president.

The annual March of Dimes fund drive was held each January. Following the first movie of the Sunday double feature at the Elnora Theater, the house lights would brighten and the employees would start at the front of the auditorium, passing canisters with slots in the top for patrons to drop their dimes into. As the containers were distributed, you could hear the much needed dimes dropping into the metal cans. After the cans finished their journey to the rear of the theater, the house lights would stay on for a while, allowing folks a chance to visit the concession stand or the rest room. A few minutes later, the second feature would start. The routine was always the same. So I would have money to contribute, my mother would always give me a quarter for the movie ticket, a dime for popcorn, and another dime for the canister.

One Sunday afternoon, as usual, the house lights came up at intermission, and I sat patiently waiting to drop my dime into the slot. Nobody came, so in my young mind, I assumed the fund drive was over and I had a free dime to spend. Having already eaten my popcorn, I grabbed my crutches, hopped up, went to the concession stand, and bought a candy bar. Just as I returned to my seat, I glanced toward the front of the theater and much to my horror, the March of Dimes canisters were being passed up the aisle. I was mortified! How could I not give? My mother had made it clear that I had been a prime recipient of medical aid made possible from donations in other cans just like these. When the canister was handed to me, all I could do was just pass it on. What had I done? How could I have let those people down? I felt everybody’s eyes in the theater staring at me, knowing that I didn’t contribute. I don’t think I ever told my mom what happened, but for the next two weeks of the fund drive, I didn’t buy any popcorn and put both of my dimes into the canister.

Thanks to Dr. Jonas Salk, polio vaccine finally became a reality in 1955, seven years too late for me, but in time to prevent millions of other children from having to hear the diagnosis my parents heard on that fateful June day in 1948 when I became afflicted. Polio has been all but eradicated in the United States and most parts of the world, and the March of Dimes has changed its focus primarily to children born with birth defects. I still give.

Friday, May 16, 2008

A Memorable Ride

As I read Larry Melsheimer’s article in the April 25 issue of the Elnora Post about his experiences as a young man growing up in Elnora, many fond memories of the Melsheimer family came to mind. Although I don’t remember much about his two older siblings, Larry and his younger brother, Melvin (who nearly everyone called ‘Melsh’) were both very personable and handsome young men who were well liked by everyone who knew them. Larry graduated from Elnora High in 1958, and Melvin was a classmate of mine in the Class of 1961. Their sister, Nina, was my date for both the Junior and Senior Proms. However, before high school and those two Proms, I experienced what could be considered a “random act of kindness” from the Melsheimer brothers long before the phrase was ever coined.

When I got to the part of Larry’s article about his family’s team of horses, Twilight and Stardust, I immediately thought of the day when Larry and Melvin rode their two horses from their farm south of Elnora to my grandparents’ (Jim & Alice Rench) home at the easternmost end of Main Street. I don’t remember my exact age, but I must have been no older than about 12. My grandparents’ house (having been torn down and replaced by another family many years ago), sat on a small hill that had some concrete steps (still there as of my last trip to Elnora) leading up to the front yard.

I was playing in the yard when Larry and Melvin rode up and asked me if I’d like to hop into the saddle and go for a ride with them. I was, of course, thrilled to accept. Because of my long-leg braces, the only way I could mount the horse without having to be lifted onto it was to get upon the front porch, have them hold one of the horses parallel to the edge of the porch and swing my leg over the saddle.

Details of the actual ride remain a little fuzzy in the cobwebs of my mind, but that it actually happened is forever imprinted in my memory. Whether they specifically set out to give me a ride or just saw me in the yard and thought it would be a good idea isn’t important. The fact that Larry and Melvin rode two miles or so from their house and did something nice for a “kid who didn’t get out much” is a gesture I’ll never forget.

Friday, May 9, 2008

The Great Watermelon Caper

It was the summer of 1962, and I had just completed my freshman year at Purdue University in West Lafayette. I was still a somewhat immature 17 years of age, having graduated from Elmore Township High School in Elnora in May, 1961, when I was only 16. For the second consecutive summer, I was working as a clerk and bookkeeper at the Elnora Hardware Store for the magnificent sum of 50¢ per hour, forty hours per week.

As summer wore on, it would soon be time for me to return to Purdue. There wasn’t much to do on a hot, late summer night in Elnora, so as we usually did, a bunch of us guys hung around the gas station on Highway 57 across from the Midway Café trying to plan the evening’s entertainment. It was the start of ‘watermelon season’ and somebody suggested that we drive down around Plainville and confiscate some juicy melons from an unsuspecting farmer’s field. I had polio at a very early age, and because of my limited mobility, it would have been impossible for me to go out into the field to pick up and carry the contraband. Though none of us had been drinking, for the reason previously stated I was nominated to be the designated driver.

We headed down some gravel roads, the locations of which have long since been erased from my memory. When we arrived at the chosen spot, three of my buddies who shall remain nameless, hopped out of the car and started procuring as many melons as they could pile into my green and white 1956 Dodge Coronet. About the time we decided we had enough, the farmer who owned the property came out of his house and fired (presumably) a shotgun into the air and yelled a few choice words to let us know we weren’t welcome. I sped down the road with the car’s headlights off, gravel flying from behind the rear wheels.

When we got a safe distance away from the scene of the crime, I turned on my headlights and headed to the Elnora City Park where we feasted on red, ripe watermelons until we were stuffed. We still had some watermelons in the car, but for some stupid reason we decided to go get more so everyone would have plenty to ‘take home’ and enjoy later. I lived on the easternmost side of town and remembered there was an old gentleman who lived near our house who also had a very fine watermelon patch. So, in a second moment of weakness, we raided his garden and made off with another half dozen or more.

Feeling really guilty by now, I decided it was time for me to take everyone back to their cars so I could head home for the night, crawl under the covers, and pray for forgiveness. When we got over to the area of ‘downtown’ where the street that went past the Lumber Yard turned south at the Laundromat, one of the guys in the back seat who was needing more excitement, decided to toss a watermelon out of the window. It landed with a sickening ‘splat’ onto the street and then someone on the other side car threw out another one. I told them to stop, but nobody did, including my front seat passenger, and the melons kept hitting the pavement. I tried to get out of town as fast as possible to keep the watermelon carnage to a minimum, but before I could, my ‘buddies’ tossed out every melon in the car, saving the last one for the front yard of my boss and owner of the hardware store, Ray Humerickhouse.

The next morning on my way to work, I almost got sick when I saw all of the smashed watermelons littering the street and intersections in the downtown area. I parked my car and went into the store; my boss did not say a word. About 9:00 AM, a state trooper came in and talked to Mr. Humerickhouse at the front of the store. I was in the office near the back, but I could see them both very clearly. I just knew the officer was going to come back and slap the cuffs on me, but he finally turned around and left. Later that morning, Verlin Taylor (a friend who was not with me the previous night) came into the store and said everyone in town knew it was me who drove the car during the watermelon caper. My “Goody Two Shoes” image was gone forever.

Nothing more was said that summer. I can’t help but think that if my father hadn’t been in the hospital with terminal cancer and I wasn’t on leg braces and using crutches, things might have turned out much differently for me.

Epilogue: Two years later, I went into the hardware store to buy a bicycle horn as a birthday present for a young friend of our family who lived near our home. While I was paying for it, Mr. Humerickhouse said, “Well, if I hear a bicycle horn and find a watermelon in my yard the next morning, I’ll know for sure who tossed it out the next time.” I smiled, said nothing and left, flushed from embarrassment and never to reenter the store again. Years later, after I had graduated from college and moved away from Elnora, my wife, young sons, and I were visiting my mother for the weekend. I decided to have my oil changed at Daffron’s Garage diagonally across from the Methodist Church. While he was working on my car, Lester Daffron said, “Jim, you almost got yourself in a bunch of trouble over that watermelon incident a few years back.” When I asked him how they knew it was me, he said that when the watermelon was tossed into my boss’s front yard, it had a bank deposit ticket stuck to it that had my name on it. I had been to the bank that morning and, as was my custom, tossed the deposit slip into the glove box. It must have somehow fallen out of the glove box and onto the floor where it later got stuck to the infamous watermelon. Later (probably the next day or two), I remember I was looking for the slip to record my deposit and was never able to find it. Les Daffron had solved the mystery. I’ve often thought of that late summer night in 1962 and regretted that it ever happened. After 46 years, I hope the statute of limitations has run out.

Jim Johnson: A Polio Survivor

Over the past several years, I’ve been writing an autobiography that really didn’t start out that way. I had polio as a child. I contracted the dreaded disease in June, 1948, about three months prior to my fourth birthday. During the 1990’s, I started to write a small article for the Polio Survivors’ Newsletter about my experiences related to my living with the after effects of polio. However, before I finished the article, the Polio Survivors’ Newsletter was discontinued. So, what started out as a 2-3 page condensed article is now up to about 25 pages and chronicles some of the highlights and lowlights) of my life. Because I have tried to make it as accurate as possible, it is by no means a ‘fluff’ piece of journalism. I’ve tried to balance the good and the not so good. By the time I finish, I’ll probably have enough material for a small book, but I have no plans to publish it.

Although my writing refers to many of the problems I have faced as a polio survivor, it also details many of the things I have been able to accomplish in my life, the most important of which is raising a happy family and achieving some measure of success in my business life. I was an only child who was born to parents who were over thirty years of age at the time of my birth. Nearly all of my relatives on both sides of my family were also much older than comparative relatives of kids my age. My father died shortly after I turned 18 and my mother passed away when I was 29. Both sets of grandparents died before I was a teenager. In fact, I never knew my Grandfather Johnson who died long before I was born. Sadly, I don’t know as much about my family history as I would like although I have done a bit of research. I wish I had learned more, but you really don’t think of those things when you are young and your parents are there to tell you; at least I didn’t.

So, my autobiography has evolved into something that I can leave to my kids and grandkids so they will know a little something about their heritage. Owen Rader’s ‘History of Elnora 1885 – 1985’ has been invaluable in adding a bit of knowledge about my family history. I am a direct descendent of Andrew Hannah who came to Elnora in 1816 (long before it was Elnora) and the Hannahs are prominently featured in Owen’s book. I’ve also found out a little bit regarding the Johnson side of the family but, unfortunately, I don’t know as much about them as I should.

Since I left Elnora, I graduated from Purdue in January, 1966. I began my career as an accountant for the now-defunct National Homes Corporation in Lafayette, Indiana. In 1972, my family and I moved to Indianapolis where I started my thirty-five year employment with Citizens Gas & Coke Utility, retiring in 2007 as manager/CEO of the Citizens Gas Credit Union. My wife Carol and I have been married for nearly forty-two years and we have two sons, a daughter, and eight grandchildren. We all live in the Indianapolis area.

I look forward to writing some short recollections of my life growing up in Elnora. These were some of the happiest times of my life, and I think of them often. I love reading Carroll Vertrees’ articles in the Odon Journal and while I certainly don’t put myself in his league, I do enjoy writing.