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.