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 CafĂ© 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.