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.

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