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.