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 CafĂ© 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.