Friday, November 20, 2009

William Hannah, Elnora Pioneer

Next year, in 2010, the town that I will always be proud to call home will celebrate its 125th anniversary of being named “Elnora.” Prior to that, as many of those familiar with Elnora’s history are aware, it was once known as “Owl Town.” Many of my ancestors, the Johnsons, Renchs, and especially the Hannahs, played major parts in the formation of our wonderful little piece of God’s Country, and I’d like to share a portion of this heritage with the readers of the Elnora Post.

Perhaps the most well-known of my Elnora ancestors was William Hannah (1846 – 1940), my great grandfather who died four years before I was born. He was a major figure in the town’s history, and was well respected by everyone who knew him. Below is the reprint of an article that originally appeared in the old Elnora Tribune and was reprinted in the Washington Democrat in 1938:

William Hannah Relates Many Happenings of Long Ago in Daviess County
By Frank Quilliam

The following story appeared in a recent issue of the Elnora Tribune. The story dates back almost a century and reads as follows:

There are yet a few nonagenarians living in Daviess County, and William Hannah is one of them. He was born in the broad White River bottom, west of Elnora, in 1846. His parents came to Indiana in an early day and settled in Elmore Township. His father was a native of “sunny” Tennessee, while his mother was born in “the famous bluegrass state,” Kentucky.

For many years he was a venerable merchant of Elnora. He retired from the grocery business about five years ago. His sunset days are being spent with his daughter, Mrs. James (Alice Hannah) Rench of southwestern Elmore Township.

“Back in 1840 and for many years thereafter, Elnora was called Owl Town. This small settlement was situated on the Owl Prairie and contained about a half a dozen log cabins. This vast prairie stretched out in all directions and consisted of several thousand acres of rich marsh land, which was low and swampy. This prairie was said to have derived its name from the Indiana Chief Owl, who frequented the place. The whole country was covered with timber and deer and many other wild animals roamed in the forest.”

“Ace Helphenstine was the first postmaster of the little village and James Stalcup was the first mail carrier. Citizens of Owl Town received mail twice a week. It was carried on the back of a horse. Later when the (Wabash and) Erie Canal was dug, the mail was routed over the canal. This was almost a half century before the E. & I. Railroad was built. The railroad today is known as the Big Four.”

“The coldest weather ever recorded in Indiana was New Year’s Day, 1864. It was 30 degrees below zero. Early settlers often call it the ‘cold Saturday’ as New Year’s Day fell on Saturday that year. The weather, prior to the Arctic blizzard, was warm and the drop in temperature was very sudden.”

Mr. Hannah vividly recalls this severe cold wave and said that on New Year’s night, Andrew Baker froze to death while enroute to a lighted cabin. Neighbors went to search for him the next morning. Following his tracks in the snow, they came upon his lifeless body, frozen to death. Today Andrew Baker’s ashes sleep in the Weaver Cemetery in Elmore Township.

Elnora Editor Note – When we came here in 1893 to give Elnora their first Tribune, “Uncle Bill” Hannah was one of Elnora’s staunch business men and one of our first subscribers and advertisers. Someday, we will write a more detailed story of his life to add to this fine story written by Mr. Quilliam.

Footnote: Mr. Hannah died two years later at the age of 94 years, and the follow-up article was never written.

Friday, November 6, 2009

For Want of a Nail

An old proverb that’s been around since 1640 goes like this: “For want of a nail the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe the horse was lost. For want of a horse the rider was lost. For want of a rider the battle was lost. For want of a battle the kingdom was lost, and all for the want of a horseshoe nail.”

In January, 1968, two years following my graduation from Purdue University, my wife, Carol, completed her own work toward a degree from that venerable institution. Since we were no longer students, university rules dictated that we must vacate the married student housing where we had lived since our marriage on June 1, 1966, and seek residence elsewhere.

So, we moved ourselves, our infant son, Scott, and our meager belongings into our first “real” apartment at a complex known as Lorene Place on the outskirts of Lafayette. Little did we know when we took up residence in that small, one bedroom apartment in January, 1968, that the coming year would become one of the most volatile in the history of our country.

The year, 1968, saw the Memphis assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4. Just two months later, on June 5, Robert Kennedy was also shot to death following a presidential campaign speech in San Francisco. Then, in August, demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago turned violent with over 100 protestors who had been beaten by police being sent to various hospital emergency rooms. The Viet Nam war was also at a high point in 1968, with the TET offensive and the Battle of Khe Sanh.

On a much lighter note, on November 17, 1968, one of the most famous football games in history was played. The New York Jets went against the Oakland Raiders in the infamous “Heidi” game which would ultimately change TV broadcast schedules forever. The Jets were leading 32-29 with only 65 seconds left in the game. NBC, in its infinite wisdom, abruptly switched to a new “made for TV” version of the movie, Heidi, at its regularly scheduled time at the “top of the hour,” leaving millions of football fans thinking the Jets would win the game. In fact, the Raiders scored 14 points in the last minute to win 43-32. No fan in American saw the ending live on TV. Following that game, most sporting events on national television have been shown in their entirety to prevent a debacle of that nature ever again.

With all of the events occurring in 1968, the little southern Indiana town of Elnora had its own major story during that year. It wouldn’t come close to making national headlines, but it was (or could have been) extremely important to the town of Elnora, and especially to our family.

Carol, Scott, and I were eating dinner one evening when the telephone rang. My mother, Elizabeth Johnson, was calling from her home in Elnora. She was as excited as I could ever remember and said that she and her brother, William (Bill) Rench, were finalizing plans to “develop Elnora” as she put it. My Uncle Bill and his wife, the former Kathryn Summerville, had both grown up in Elnora and were currently living in Indianapolis.

Mother and Uncle Bill were preparing to announce their formation of the Johnson-Rench Development Corporation. Most of the project would include the 10 acres from the Rench family home place located at the east end of Main Street, extending north to the current Basiloid property in Elnora. My grandparents, James and Alice Hannah Rench, had died more than a decade prior. My parents became sole owners when they purchased the two other one-third shares from Uncle Bill and my mother’s sister, Audrey Rench Wilkin, who lived in McCordsville, just northeast of Indianapolis.

My mother and father had rented out the Rench family house and land for several years. However, since the death of my father, Emerson Johnson, in 1963, the house had fallen into disrepair and was no longer suitable for occupancy. Mother’s meager income would not allow her to make the necessary repairs, so this news was a welcome ray of sunshine on that cold winter day.

The new development was supposed to include single-family homes, an apartment complex, and a shopping center. Pending the start of construction, Uncle Bill also had contacted manufacturers who were considering building facilities in Elnora to provide jobs so that local residents could afford to purchase the new homes and live in the new apartments.

It took a few more months, but the plans were formally announced in May, 1968. The corporation opened an office in downtown Elnora and also built a new, “state of the art” model home on the east side of East Street, just across from my mother’s tiny house. The residential portion of the development was to be named “Beverly Acres” in honor of Uncle Bill’s & Aunt Kathryn’s daughter, Beverly Ann Rench, who died nearly twenty years prior at the young age of fourteen.

Midwest Gas was constructing a new gas pipeline into Elnora from the Plainville gas field. That project was completed in July, 1968 and on September 19 of that year many prominent businessmen formed a Chamber of Commerce. This action made Elnora unique in the fact that it was the smallest town in Indiana to have its own Chamber of Commerce.

Just when it appeared the plans would become a reality, serious obstacles began to arise. Some landowners were reluctant to sell land for the project “to an outsider from the Big City.” And, when it was also determined that Elnora needed its own sewer system to support a development of that scope, the project failed almost as fast as it began. By the following year, the corporation was out of business, my mother had lost her ten acres, my uncle had lost his model home, and everyone was very disheartened. I don’t think my mother ever recovered from the devastating financial and emotional loss of the family homestead. Her health began to decline, and she died a few years later in 1974.

Uncle Bill, having been a bar owner, stockbroker, and successful businessman, persevered through many bouts with cancer for several years following the failure of the corporation. He had been a Greyhound bus driver during the 1940s, so when throat cancer robbed him of his voice in 1970, he refused to give up and became an independent truck driver until his health forced him to retire in the mid-1980s. He and Aunt Kathryn left Indianapolis and returned home to Elnora, living in a house at the southwest edge of town until their deaths in 1987 & 1988.

Elnora finally considered formal plans for a sewer system on March 3, 1973. Following the approval of a loan from the Farmers Home Administration to help finance the project, the system was completed on June 17, 1977, nearly ten years too late for what might have been.

My 500 shares of worthless stock in the Johnson-Rench Development Corporation now occupy a prominent place in the family album. I rarely go to Elnora in person these days, but I visit it in my mind almost daily. The Elnora of my youth is gone and it makes me sad. It reminds me of myself, an old-timer whose best days are now long gone. I will always wonder what would have happened if that nail hadn’t been lost. So should the town.

Friday, September 18, 2009

We Never Know Who Is Watching

My four-year-old granddaughter, Isabella, is the only one of my eight grandchildren who has never seen me walk on my leg braces and crutches. The other day she asked me for the umpteenth time, “Grandpa, why did you get so sick?” I know it bothers her that I am now confined to a wheelchair, the result of having polio when I was just about her age. Although I’ve tried to explain many times that the medicine (vaccine) she has taken will prevent her from contracting the devastating illness, I know she periodically worries that the same thing may happen to her someday.

Izzy’s observations just go to prove that little kids see everything, even if some aren’t always as quick to verbalize their emotions as she is. Since I see Izzy almost every day, I’m not at all surprised that she pays attention to nearly everything I do when she’s in our home.

Several weeks ago I received an e-mail “out of the blue” from a former Elnora resident who has kept her thoughts of me silent for over forty years. The subject line on the message was titled, “To a Hero from Elnora” and was sent by Jan Brewer whom I remember as a cute little blond, Janice Burdsall, during my school days.

Jan was in the seventh grade when I was a senior in high school, and I had no idea she was watching my every move. You see, Jan has a condition known as achondroplasia dwarfism which restricted her height. According to Wikipedia, females affected by achondroplasia grow to an average of only four feet, one-half inch. After reading Jan’s e-mails and talking to her later on the phone, she may be short in stature, but she is a giant in spirit.

Jan said she first started observing me when she was a sixth grader in Fern Johnson’s class. I was a junior and after lunch which was served in the basement cafeteria, I had a science or math class on the second floor (top floor) of the old Elnora school building. This necessitated that I ascend several flights of stairs, pulling myself up by the handrail with my right hand while using one crutch and holding the other in my left hand. Wearing my heavy leg braces, it was an excruciatingly slow process.

At the same time, Miss Fern was also leading her sixth grade class back up to their room on the second floor. Most days, they were behind me. Miss Fern would have her students line up single file to walk up the stairs according to height, with the shortest student first. Of course, that was always Jan. I never thought about it before, but we must have been quite a sight, me lumbering slowly up the stairs holding my spare crutch and Jan right behind me climbing the steep staircase as efficiently as her short legs would allow.

Jan also mentioned the Junior Class Play in which I played “Uncle Clyde” who was “confined” to a hospital bed for the entire play. She thought it was great that Mrs. Humbaugh selected a play that fit in perfectly with my disability long before the age of government mandated accessibility. She said she and her older sister, Rosemary, discussed this one simple act of kindness many times while Rose was dying of colon cancer in 2008. As Jan said, “Little did America know that Elnora had been promoting accessibility all along without having to have laws to do it.”

A few weeks following her initial contact and several e-mails later, Jan telephoned me and we had a wonderful conversation, discussing the old days in Elnora. Then she got sentimental and told me what a great influence I had been on her life. She said, “You were with me when I graduated from high school, you were with me all through college, and you were even there when I walked down the aisle.” I was dumbfounded. I never knew she felt that way, probably never having said much more to her than, “Hi,” on the few occasions when we may have met in the hallway in school.

Jan has spent much of her career teaching and working with adults afflicted with cerebral palsy. She said I was the inspiration that gave her the “can do” attitude to accomplish anything she sets her mind to. That’s quite a totally unexpected compliment. I had no idea she was watching all those years ago.

The last time I saw Jan Burdsall was sometime during the mid-1960s following Sunday services at the Elnora Christian Church. She was climbing into the driver’s seat of her car and I noticed the pedal extensions allowing her legs to reach them and the booster seat enabling her to see over the steering wheel. Needing to use special hand controls to drive my own car, I thought to myself how neat it was that she could enjoy that freedom for herself as well. I guess we’re all watching someone.

Hopefully, we’re also conducting our lives in a manner that merits other people watching us.

Friday, July 31, 2009

My Elnora Christian Church Home

I guess I’m at the age when nostalgia for a simpler place and time seems to occupy more and more of my thoughts. During these moments of miscellaneous reflection, my mind invariably wanders back to my youth and my wonderful home town of Elnora. Lately, I’ve been thinking about “growing up” in the Elnora Christian Church and the great memories the experience provided.

As a direct descendant of the Hannah family who helped found the settlement of Owl Prairie which later became the town of Elnora, my great-grandfather, William Hannah, was a charter member of the Elnora Christian Church and one of the four original trustees. Organized on September 28, 1890 (exactly 54 years to the day before I was born), the church had forty charter members.

Although I had been to church several times before, my earliest recollection of attending the Elnora Christian Church proved to be somewhat inauspicious, even though I didn’t realize it at the time. I was about five years old and after the service began and communion was being passed, I thought it was “refreshment time.” So, I took a handful of the bread and reached for the small cup of wine just as my mother, Elizabeth Johnson, stopped me with a stern, “No, James Emerson!” Not understanding the significance of communion, I was devastated, seeing everybody else eating and drinking while I just had to sit and watch. Of course, my mother later explained the significance to me.

When I was about twelve years old, I made the decision to accept Christ and become a full-fledged member of the church. As I remember, there was a week-long revival which culminated in several people confessing their faith and being immersed in Christian baptism. Because of my crutches and full leg braces, it was apparent that I could not be baptized like everyone else. As a result, I was the last person to be immersed that evening.

To prepare for baptism, I had to remove my braces and then our minister, Bob Brock, and my father, Emerson Johnson, carried me down the steps into the baptistery on a wooden chair. Following my confession of faith, the two of them tipped me back into the water, completely immersing me and the chair. It was a humbling experience which I will never forget.

Reverend Brock and I became great friends. Every Saturday I would go to the church and help him print the bulletins for the Sunday service, using the smelly old 1950’s mimeograph machine. I became very active in the youth group and attended many district meetings riding with Bob in his old VW Beetle. And, it was Bob Brock who encouraged me to go to “Church Camp” each summer at Bedford Christian Camp. Because of my physical problems, I was always apprehensive when meeting new people and going places I hadn’t been before. Bob Brock really helped me conquer those fears.

One Sunday of each year was designated as “Youth Sunday” at the Elnora Christian Church. On that day, the youth of the church pretty much conducted the entire service, including the sermon. It was my great honor to be chosen to give the message on one of those occasions when I was in my teens. Reverend Brock assisted me with the preparation, but when Sunday came, I was on my own. I’m sure I was very nervous, but I got through it and remember that it was one of the few times that my father was seated in the congregation. It was a very special day.

By the late 1950’s, the multi-level white-frame Elnora Christian Church was really beginning to show its age. So, on Sunday, May 7, 1961, ground was broken for the first section of the new building. It was only four days before I graduated from high school, and I was one of eleven church members privileged to participate in the ceremony. I was especially proud, knowing that seventy years prior, my great-grandfather had been part of a similar ceremony.

I started classes at Purdue University later that year, and my “string” of thirteen straight years of never missing Sunday services neglectfully came to an end. When I was home on weekends and on vacation, I attended church, but as the years passed I slowly began to drift away.

My wife, Carol, was raised in the Baptist Church in Salem, Indiana, and we have gone to several churches over the years. Since moving to Indianapolis in 1972, we have been members of three different Christian churches, including our current church home, Indian Creek Christian Church, which is very near our current house on the southeast side of town.

When we began attending “The Creek” on a regular basis about a year ago, we knew it was where we belonged. Like many churches in the area, it is very large with a congregation of nearly 4,000 attending the three Sunday services. Although it dwarfs the church I grew up in, everyone seems to be very friendly and we are so happy that we placed our membership there.

However, as much as I love “The Creek” with its full band, modern Christian music, and extraordinary minister, when I close my eyes and think back to my youth in Elnora, I can still hear Roy Quilliam’s booming voice, slightly off-key, at the back of the congregation singing “The Old Rugged Cross.”

I can still see people such as Owen Rader, Ray Humerickhouse, Wayne Ketchem, Boots Blocksom, Marie Nugent, Reed Rader, Vera Stites, Johnny Mize, Berniece Osmon, Roy Moulden and the other great folks that meant so much to me and to the church. Most of all, I see Bob Brock delivering the Sunday message to the congregation. And I miss them.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Memories of "Dad"

As I write this article, it’s the Monday following the third Sunday of June, 2009. Carol and I are fortunate to have our three children and their families living close enough that we see them on a regular basis. This Fathers’ Day was no exception. We had our traditional family cook-out and, as the “guest of honor,” I received several nice cards and gifts.

My youngest son gave me something different this year, a “fill in the blanks” book titled “A Father’s Legacy: Your Life Story in Your Own Words.” He explained that this was a present for both of us so he and his family would have a keepsake to pass down through the generations. Completing the information in the book appears to be a daunting task, considering it contains nearly 200 pages. However, it’s a job I’m looking forward to because I wish I had one like it from my parents or grandparents.

After everyone departed yesterday, and the pool cover was closed, and the last dish was washed, I began reflecting on my childhood back in Elnora. Being Fathers’ Day, I especially thought about my own Grandfather, Jim Rench, and how much he meant to me. My Grandfather Marion Johnson died in 1930, fourteen years before I was born. He apparently was a fine, religious family man, well known in the area, and quite a successful farmer in his younger days. I’m sorry I never got to meet him.

Although I have special memories of my father, it was my maternal grandparents with whom I spent the most time when I was very young and in the developmental stage of my life. After having polio when I was nearly four years old and being confined to Riley Hospital for over nine months, upon returning home, I stayed with my grandparents, Jim and Alice (Hannah) Rench, every day and night while my parents worked long hours in their restaurant.

My grandmother read stories to me and taught me to read before I was six years old, setting the academic tone and whetting my thirst for knowledge that formed the foundation for the rest of my life. But it was my grandfather who taught me so many things that a boy should know and, during my time with him, he was more of a parent to me than my own father.

James Harrison Rench was born in Waverly, Indiana on August 14, 1877 and apparently moved to Elnora at a very early age. He married my grandmother, Sarah Etta Alice Hannah, in 1902. They had three children who survived, Audrey, Elizabeth (my mother), and William (Bill). I was an only child, and after my cousin, Beverly Ann Rench, passed away at the age of 14, I was also the only grandchild.

My earliest memory of “Dad” (as I called my grandfather) was when I was three years old and he put me down into a post hole he had just finished digging. He walked away from me for a joke, but when he saw I was terrified, he quickly came back and “rescued” me. Thank God he never did anything like that again.

Dad was a farmer most of his life, but he also spent some time working on the railroad. Perhaps it was his railroad stories that led to my love of trains today. I have been a subscriber of Model Railroader magazine for as long as I can remember. Dad used to sit in his favorite chair after supper each night, and in between spitting Beech-Nut tobacco juice in the coffee can near the pot-bellied stove, he would file his big toenail with a wood rasp, an action necessitated by him dropping a railroad “rail” on his foot years earlier. He would tell me about his life on the railroad when he was a member of a “Section Gang” with Lyman Haverstock as his boss.

While I was still learning to walk with my braces and crutches, Dad would pull me downtown nearly every day in my little red wagon to see my parents at the restaurant, and then he would pull me back to his house. One day, rather than going straight home, he took me to one of the two railroad depots in town, loaded the wagon and me into the cab of a big steam engine waiting there, and we rode from the depot to the cheese factory where the engineer stopped the train, and then Dad pulled me home from there. That short train trip remains one of the fondest memories of my childhood.

Dad also contributed to my still current love of music. He would sit on the front porch and sing gospel songs and country music and encourage me to join him. We weren’t very good, but we sure were loud, especially when we sang train songs such as “Casey Jones” and “The Wabash Cannonball.”

And, it was that same front porch that contributed to the final memory of my grandfather. August 23, 1955 was one of the hottest days of the year. Dad wasn’t feeling well, and he spent most of the day lying on the chaise lounge on the porch. The flies were thick as thieves that afternoon, and they were giving him fits. I went into the house and brought out the fly swatter to keep those pesky critters away from him (I hope PETA doesn’t read this), killing several in the process. As it got later in the day, my parents came home from work, having sold their restaurant years before, and said I could go home and watch our new TV.

About an hour later, my father came over to our house and broke the news to me that Dad had just died. He said, “James Emerson, I think he just waited until you left so you wouldn’t be there.” Now I just have my memories, a few pictures, and very little written information.

I’ve been writing my own autobiography for years. With that plus the newspaper articles I’ve penned for the Post, and now the “Legacy” book, my grandkids will have some written reminders to supplement their “real” memories. It would be nice if everyone reading this article could do the same. Family members live and die, but memories last forever. Elnora is the source of many of mine. I’m just glad we don’t have to swat flies that much these days.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Goodbye "Halo Light," Hello HD

Someone once said that the more things change, the more they remain the same. I don’t think he was talking about technology when he made that statement. In my nearly 65 years that the Lord has allowed me to reside in this wonderful country of ours, I have seen more advancements in science and technology than my parents did in their relatively short lives. My wife never knew my father, Emerson Johnson, since he died about a year before Carol and I met while attending Purdue. However, she has often remarked how my mother, Elizabeth, would be amazed at the thought of personal computers, the internet, cell phones and many of the other innovations that we now take for granted.

Growing up in Elnora as a very young child in the late 1940’s and early 50’s, television was just beginning to come into existence. However, we were not one of the fortunate families to be first on the block with the “boob tube,” so I had to make do by listening to my grandmother’s small white Philco radio. On special occasions, I would go across the street to the Hobson girls’ house and watch some afterschool children’s shows.

Then, one day in 1954, when I was 10 years old my dad said, “Come on James Emerson, let’s go for a ride.” He wouldn’t tell me where we were going, saying it was a “surprise.” We drove from Elnora, went through Odon and then turned north at the Farlen General Store. After we ignored the turnoff leading to the Crane Gate, I was totally lost. We continued on and wound up in the tiny town of Scotland, Indiana. I had never been there and didn’t know what to expect.

I don’t remember the kind of store it was (a hardware store, maybe), but I waited in the car while my dad and mom went inside and a few minutes later came out with a beautiful new Sylvania “Halo Light” television. It was a 21” black and white console TV which is very small by today’s standards, but to me it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. The halo light was a gimmick that was short-lived and was advertised to ease the eyestrain associated with watching television.

While researching some information about our old TV, I found an article on the website which reads in part: “Always looking for a leg up in the technology wars, the television manufacturers were sure to tackle the eyestrain issue themselves. And so it went as the 1950s saw the advent of the Sylvania Halo Light television. This nifty bit of ingenuity consisted of a fluorescent bulb that cast a “halo” of light around the screen, surrounding the picture with ambient light. The Halo Light ads, usually featuring a lovely lass in a golden dress made it clear this new discovery was a must-have. Pictures framed in exciting HALOLIGHT appear larger, sharper and clearer.”

Since TV cable wasn’t even a gleam in its father’s eye in those days, everyone who watched television had to put up an “aerial” which we now call an antenna. So, my dad and my cousin, Kenny Johnson, mounted a long vertical pipe at the south end of our house tall enough to clear the peak of the roof and using a big ladder, placed the huge aerial on top of it. Using “twin-lead” TV wire, one end was secured to the aerial and the other end went into the living room through the window and was screwed to the back of the TV. Since we didn’t have a motor to rotate the aerial, Kenny stayed outside and turned it by hand to get the best signal for the three stations available at the time until my dad told him to stop. Kenny clamped everything down to keep the wind from turning it and we were all set.

As I remember, channel 4 in Bloomington carried the long-defunct DuMont network, channel 7 in Evansville was ABC, and channel 10 in Terre Haute was CBS. The closest NBC station was in Indianapolis, too far for our rudimentary equipment to “pull in.” That didn’t matter. I was in Heaven, finally having a TV like most of our neighbors, even if we were a few years late. Soon, channel 2 in Terre Haute began broadcasting NBC programming and my father also installed a “rotator” on the “aerial” so we could receive the stations more clearly, including one or two from Louisville on nights when the atmospheric conditions were right.

Now we’ve fast forwarded fifty-five years and are entering the all-digital era. Today, June 12, 2009, all of the old-style “analog” televisions have become obsolete unless hooked up to cable, converter boxes, etc. Now it’s the age of high-definition television, known more simply as HDTV. I’m lucky enough to be a bit ahead of the game, having bought my first high-def Sony about four years ago and added a new 46” Samsung HDTV last year. I just wish my dad could have watched the old Friday Night Fights on one of these bad boys.

Friday, March 6, 2009

From Elnora to Orlando: Thanks, Lloyd

My wife and I recently returned from an exciting and fun trip to Disney World. It was only my second visit to that vacation Mecca, the first occurring in 1979 when our kids were very young. By the end of the day, I was exhausted from walking around the Magic Kingdom on my leg braces and crutches. Little thought had been given to making the rides handicapped accessible in those days, and I usually waited on a bench in the shade while the rest of the family had all of the fun.

My, how things have changed since that first trip thirty years ago! Although my mobility has declined to the point I must now use a power wheelchair, Disney has modified/designed many of their rides to make them accessible to nearly everyone. Even the Disney bus fleet is 100% accessible with wheelchair lifts on every vehicle. We spent three days in the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and Animal Kingdom and I was able to ride right along with Carol, our daughter, Kathy, and her two girls. I felt like a kid again, enjoying the attractions and dodging the hundreds of other wheelchairs, scooters, and mobility vehicles zipping around the park.

Things were much different as I grew up with the residual effects of polio in 1950s Elnora. The Americans with Disabilities Act wouldn’t take effect for another four decades. Although I had the advantage of youth on my side and was actually pretty mobile, there were still many things I couldn’t do and many places I couldn’t go.

My biggest problem was with steps and staircases. From schools to business buildings, long staircases with many steps were the rule rather than the exception. Many multi-level buildings didn’t have elevators, and wheelchair cutouts at street curbs were nearly non-existent except maybe near a hospital. I can still remember my mother or father having to carry me up steps in long, narrow stairwells because of the absence of railings for me to be able to help myself.

Even the hallowed halls of learning at Purdue University were anything but accessible. I was extremely fortunate to be mobile enough when I was young not to have to worry too much about such things. However, had I been in a wheelchair in 1961, life would have turned out very differently for me because college would not have been an option.

Fortunately, though, there are dreamers, planners, and people who want to do the right thing to make the world a better place for everyone even if it is just one step at a time. Elnora had a man like that.

Lloyd Hobson lived directly across the street from us on the northeast end of Elnora. He and his wife, LeeAnna, raised three beautiful daughters, Patty, Pam, and Polly. Pam was a year younger than me, Patty a couple of years older, and Polly was about three years younger than Pam. We were all close enough in age that we played together and were all good friends. Before my parents owned a television, I would often go over to the Hobson’s to watch Captain Video and his Video Rangers and other children’s programming.

From as long as I can remember, Lloyd Hobson had a small machine shop in his back yard which later evolved into Basiloid Products. He would sometimes invite me over to see his new tools, once even letting me test out his new wood lathe, patiently showing me how it worked and guiding me through the process of “turning” a shapeless piece of wood into something useful. Once, following his return from a business trip to Los Angeles, he brought me back a genuine Hohner Harmonica which I cherished for years.

Each year, the Daviess County Fair Board gave away a Schwinn bicycle to a lucky boy and girl. Ironically, I won the boy’s bike one summer and since I couldn’t ride it like other kids my age, Lloyd built a stationary stand for it so that I could use it as an exercise bike without fear of toppling over.

However, even with all of these little “random acts of kindness,” the thing I remember most about Lloyd Hobson is the playground equipment he constructed for his girls. He built a huge industrial strength swing set, complete with trapeze. The “slippery-slide” was big enough to be used in a city park. And then there was the tree house.

Built in a big, old mulberry tree in their back yard, the tree house was big enough to hold half the kids in Elnora. As I watched him construct it, I just knew I wouldn’t be able to get up into it and I was very sad at the thought of all the kids up there while I was still down on the ground. However, it’s like Lloyd read my mind, because he asked me if he modified the ladder if I thought I could get up into it.

Because my leg braces locked at the knee and I had to walk “stiff-legged,” Lloyd knew that a regular ladder would be too narrow and the rungs too far apart for me to swing my legs into place. So he built the ladder much wider than normal with rungs close together just for me. When the time came to test it out, I slowly climbed that ladder and made it up into the tree house with very little problem. I think my mom nearly had a heart attack when she saw me.

Unfortunately, I didn’t go up into the tree house as much as I would have liked because although the ladder itself worked perfectly, I had a hard time getting back onto it for the trip down to earth once I was up there. However, in this case, it truly was the thought that counted.

As my family and I waited in the long lines at Disney World a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t help but think how far the nation has come in making life a little easier for those of us unlucky enough to face serious physical challenges. I also pictured that old tree house and how Lloyd Hobson and his extraordinary vision did his best to help me be “one of the gang.”

Patty Whitaker, Pam Sellers, and Polly Hobson Duros have every right to be proud.

Friday, January 30, 2009

The Day the Music Died

Nearly all of us shelter a few events and their related dates that remain locked into the deepest recesses of our minds for as long as we live, available for recall at a moment’s notice. Some of them are personal such as our wedding date and our children’s birthdates.

Then, there are also those national occurrences which are nearly impossible to forget. We remember the time and exact place where we were when those actions took place or when we first heard of them. Unfortunately, many are disastrous tragedies which have left indelible imprints which we shudder to recall.

For those a bit older than I, December 7, 1941, surely ranks near the top of that list. That Sunday morning, nearly three years before my appearance into this world, “the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan” at the military installation at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. It was truly a “day which will live in infamy.”

More than two decades later, November 22, 1963, on a warm sunny day in Dallas, John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald. I was a sophomore at Purdue and had two classes that Friday afternoon. Since there were no parking places specifically designated for disabled drivers in those days, I always left the dorm early and drove my old 1956 Dodge to campus to look for a convenient spot. As I was sitting in my car outside Stanley Coulter Annex, a news break came on the radio saying the President had been shot. I listened as long as I could, and when I finally forced myself to go into the building, a sign had already been placed on the classroom door saying all classes had been cancelled for the rest of the day.

None of us will ever forget where we were the morning of September 11, 2001, when those two planes toppled the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Another plane hit the Pentagon and a fourth crashed into a lonely field in southern Pennsylvania, killing all on board but perhaps preventing even further loss of life. Employed at Citizens Gas in Indianapolis, I watched in awe as the tragedy unfolded. People packed the auditorium to stare transfixed at the big-screen projection TV broadcasting the horrors. All of our lives changed that day forever.

Some exact dates are easier to pluck from your mind than others. Those harder ones just need a little more coaxing to emerge. It was very easy for me to remember the above examples. This last one took a bit more effort, but once it hit me, a flood of memories took over.

My wife and I own a Goldendoodle “puppy” that is just over a year old. On January 6, we took Jasper for his second annual round of shots at the vet’s office. One of them requires a booster a month later. When Carol wrote this next visit onto the calendar, I looked at the date and knew it had some significance. We have to take him back on Tuesday, February 3, 2009.

In the days following, I stared at that calendar two or three times before it finally hit me – on Tuesday, February 3, 1959, exactly fifty years prior to Jasper’s scheduled follow-up, rock and roll legends Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. Richardson (the Big Bopper) were tragically killed in a plane crash along with their pilot on a frigid winter night in northern Iowa.

They had been participating in a tour called the “Winter Dance Party” with Dion & the Belmonts and several other famous rockers of the era. The heater on their tour bus had failed and the three doomed stars decided to take a small single-engine plane to their next stop in Minnesota. Although Buddy Holly chartered the plane, two other singers had chances at the remaining seats with Richardson and Valens as the unlucky “winners.”

The Big Bopper wasn’t one originally scheduled to fly with Holly, but he had developed the flu during the tour and asked Waylon Jennings, a future country music star, to give up his seat on the plane; Jennings agreed. When Buddy Holly learned that his pal, Waylon, wasn't going with them, he said, "Well, I hope your old bus freezes up." Jennings responded, "Well, I hope your old plane crashes." It’s been said that this exchange of words, though made in jest, haunted Jennings for the rest of his life.

In February, 1959, I was a 14-year-old sophomore at Elnora High School. Both of my parents arose early each morning and always awakened me just before they left for work so I wouldn’t miss school. This gave me plenty of time to bathe, dress, eat breakfast, and listen to some music before boarding the school bus. That morning, as I switched on the kitchen radio, Buddy Holly was singing “Not Fade Away,” one of his many classics. As the song ended, the DJ mentioned the song was by the “late Buddy Holly.” Since it was about time for the bus, I grabbed my new Zenith transistor radio and took it with me.

By the time we arrived at school, I had confirmed the news none of us wanted to hear. Three of the most popular young American singers were dead. Although he was only twenty-two years of age, Buddy Holly was the most well-known and became the inspiration for many to follow, including the Beatles. It’s impossible to imagine how bright his star would have become if not for that fatal crash. He has been called “the single most creative force in the early history of rock and roll.”

Ritchie Valens was the first Mexican-American singer to make an impact with fans outside of his heritage, having scored hits with, “Donna,” and “La Bamba.” J. P. Richardson was a prolific songwriter as well as having that great baritone voice. My father loved “Chantilly Lace” and often when he’d come into the house, he’d greet my mom with a big, “Hello, Baby, you know what I like.” That always made her smile and me a bit uncomfortable.

Some have pointed to that fateful day as the beginning of the loss of the innocence of youth. Others, including Don McLean in his 1971 song, “American Pie,” have simply called February 3, 1959, “The Day the Music Died.” However, to those of us who remember, their songs and legacies will live on forever.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Snakes on a Bus

About two years ago, a movie titled Snakes on a Plane starring the great actor, Samuel L. Jackson, appeared in movie theaters. It was an apparent hit with the younger crowd (to me, that’s anyone under 50), but although it’s been on HBO or Showtime several occasions since, I haven’t bothered to watch it. Maybe I will someday after the paint dries.

Although I haven’t seen the movie, I can’t imagine it being nearly as thrilling or exciting as a similar incident which co-starred a good-sized member of the reptile family when I was a student at Elnora High.

It all started with the morning bus ride to school on a sunny and cold, but not frigid, winter day. I was one of the first students on the bus each morning, and as we picked up the other kids, all wore the requisite outer garments appropriate to the season. However, as a classmate of mine (who shall remain nameless in the interest of continuing confidentiality) climbed the steps to the bus, I noticed that he was clad in a long-sleeved shirt, but was carrying his coat folded up and clutched tightly in front of him, not unlike a Wall Street banker trying to conceal a briefcase full of embezzled cash.

Some of us asked if he was cold, but he dodged the question with the efficiency of a point guard evading a defender just before hitting the game winning jump shot. As we arrived at school and headed to the Study Hall to grab our books and supplies from our desks, I completely forgot the bus scenario and prepared myself for the business of getting ready to start the school day.

Mrs. Humbaugh, the school’s English teacher, was at her normal early morning location, seated at a small table at the south end of the Study Hall. She had a supply of tickets piled on her table and a small money box in which to collect the quarters from the students who wanted to purchase lunch in the school cafeteria.

We had 15 minutes to get our stuff together, buy the last minute lunch tickets, and get ourselves to class. Most of the other kids in grades 7 – 12 were similarly occupied, except for a small group of students clustered around a desk a couple rows to my left and a bit more toward the front of the large room. About the time I looked in their direction, the desk lid was raised, and with the accuracy of an Australian boomerang, a large snake whirled overhead from the group of students straight toward Mrs. Humbaugh. With a shriek that would have made Alfred Hitchcock proud, Mrs. Humbaugh leaped from her seat, knocking over her small table, with coins and cash flying in all directions. From my vantage point, it appeared as if the snake grazed or, at the very least, just missed Mrs. Humbaugh in its spinning flight across the auditorium.

As things quieted down, a magnanimous young man (who just happened to be the same student with the suspicious folded coat on that early morning bus ride) went over and offered his assistance to rid the Study Hall of the offending reptile. The last we saw, the student and the snake were both headed down the hallway and out the door, where the legless creature was presumably allowed to slither to the freedom of its natural habitat.

Days later, another blood-curdling scream emanated from the 2nd floor English room. It seems that when Mrs. Humbaugh reached into her coat pocket near the end of the school day, somehow a tiny garter snake had taken up residence in the same location as her car keys. To my knowledge, nobody was ever punished for either incident.
As Harrison Ford so aptly complained in Raiders of the Lost Ark, “Snakes! Why does it have to be snakes?” I’m sure Mrs. Humbaugh felt the same way.