Friday, November 19, 2010

Little House on the Corner

I may have been conceived in Jacksonville, Florida and I was definitely born in Louisville, Kentucky where I lived a grand total of five weeks (that’s weeks, not months or years), but I will always call Elnora, Indiana my home town. My parents were born & raised in that little piece of Daviess County Heaven and, by the grace of God, I got my chance to grow up there as well.

However, unlike Laura Ingalls Wilder, my parents’ little house was not somewhere out on the prairie, but on the southwest corner of East & Mable Streets on the far eastside of town. It began life in the mid-1940s and was built by Stanley Stout, who later constructed a home for himself and his wife immediately south of us.

Our tiny house started out not much bigger than Abe Lincoln’s cabin. It was a two room cracker box with each room being thirteen feet square, making the house 13’ by 26’. By the time my parents purchased it in 1946, Mr. Stout had added a kitchen behind the living room and a second bedroom behind the first one. And, thankfully, it also had a full bathroom with walk-in closet making it a “modern home” as houses with all the necessary plumbing facilities were called in those days.

Our total property consisted of three lots. The house occupied the corner lot, our large garden took up the entire lot directly west, and the lot south of our house contained several fruit and shade trees to serve as a buffer between our home & the Stouts. We also had a “coal house” and a “pigeon house” on our property. The pigeon house must have been used by Mr. Stout at one time, but when my parents bought the property, it was used mainly for a storage shed.

Unfortunately, our house lacked two very important items, especially after I was stricken with polio in 1948 shortly before my 4th birthday. There were no “real” steps up to the front door or back door, just some clumsily placed concrete blocks. So, whenever I would stay at my parents’ house rather than at my grandparents’ home a block to the south, my mother or father would have to carry me up the “steps” and into the house. As I grew older, this became very embarrassing and by the time I was about eight years old, my mother (Elizabeth) could no longer easily lift me, so my father (Emerson) and his nephew, Kenny Johnson, finally poured proper concrete steps at the back door so I could manage them by myself. There was a sturdy steel railing for me to use and a landing at the top. Then, about two years later, they also poured a nice patio with steps up to the front door, making our little house finally complete.

Years before adding the finished steps to our house, my parents decided they needed more space, so about 1950, my dad agreed to dig a basement in his “spare time.” With Kenny’s help, they excavated the entire basement by hand and then hauled the dirt out in coal buckets. It was a long, tedious, and fascinating project to watch. I still marvel at how they were able to put a full basement where only a crawl space had been, doing all of the work themselves. They constructed new walls and used a small concrete mixer to pour the floor. At some point, my dad dragged the old concrete piers that had supported the center of the house down to the apple tree at the corner of our yard. When laid on their sides, they became seats for my friends and me to use while playing with our toys in the dirt around the tree. Other times they were a Wild West fort or whatever else our imaginations could conceive.

I guess I knew the house was small, but I never really thought much about it. I had everything I needed in that small space, especially after the basement was added. I could listen to Elvis, Buddy Holly and Connie Francis on my little white 4-tube Philco radio. My Lionel train, my ping-pong table and other games and toys were in the basement. And, I had my friends.

The Hobson girls, Patty, Pam, and Polly, lived across the street to the north. Steve and Lonnie Green resided to the west just past our garden, and Mike, Phil and Donnie Baker were less than a block away as were the Manning brothers, Marvin and Verlin, who were somewhat older. Other kids lived nearby and as I grew older and finally got to go to public school, I made many more friends before heading to Purdue following graduation.

We always found something to do and trouble to get into. We shot our BB guns and bows & arrows at targets and sometimes at each other, practiced throwing knives & hatchets at trees or the side of my grandpa’s old barn, and many times came close to getting seriously injured due to our own stupidity. We even wore chemistry goggles to protect our eyes when our games got out of hand.

My dad died long “before his time” in February, 1963 when I was only 18 years old. In my vivid memory, I can still see him carrying those coal buckets full of dirt out of the basement and sitting on the concrete block steps to smoke a cigarette when he got tired. I can see my mom in her plaid house dress carrying iced tea (or beer) out to “Daddy” and Kenny when the work got too hot. I can see Pam Hobson doing tricks on her back-yard trapeze and I can also see her falling off and getting hurt. I can see the arrow that I shot straight up into the air coming down and barely missing the top of David Taylor’s head, and I can see my crutch slipping on the wet grass and me hitting my own head on one of the concrete piers down by that apple tree prompting an 8:00PM trip to Doc Rohrer’s for stitches to my left eyebrow. A half inch lower and I would have likely lost that eye.

With much sadness, I sold the little house on the corner in 1974 following the death of my mother. Since then, the owners have upgraded the siding, added a new roof, and closed in the outside entrance to the basement. The fruit trees are gone, the coal shed has been torn down, and the pigeon house has been replaced by a garage. The rusty old TV tower remains standing as does my mother’s clothesline. She had a washer and dryer in the basement, but still loved her clothesline.

Funny the things you don’t forget, like the “rut” Mother made in the hardwood floors when dragging the heavy plaster cast she needed on her leg for months following an auto accident, the old aluminum Christmas tree lit by a slowly spinning color wheel, the silly way the front door opened into in my bedroom rather than into the living room where it belonged, and the tiny kitchen with barely enough room for a table.

Many people, places, and things make indelible impressions on us as we travel through this thing called life. Thanks to the Elnora Post and this blog, I’ve had the chance to share a few of those impressions. As we get older, the most important things we have are our abundant love of family and our many memories. I’ve been blessed with both.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Did "Fast Eddie" Start This Way?

In the Robert Burns poem, “To a Mouse,” he famously states “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” That’s how it was with Carol and me and our plans to attend the grand 125th anniversary celebration of the town of Elnora. Because we were unable to be there in person, I will have to not only be content with reading the articles and viewing the pictures in the Elnora Post, but also with comments and pictures that my Elnora “Facebook Friends” posted on their electronic “walls.” Most of all, I will forever cherish my own indelible personal memories of my beloved little hometown.

When Carrol Vertrees posed the question in a recent Elnora Post article as to whether Elnora had a pool hall, I could have easily answered with a resounding, “Yes!” One of my most vivid recollections concerns that little “den of iniquity” as my mother once labeled it.

My teenage years in Elnora during the late 1950’s included a summer daily routine which almost always consisted of me taking a half mile walk from our home on the easternmost edge of town to the bustling business district where all the action was. Sheldon Eubanks' barber shop and Bob Foster’s pharmacy were both on the west side of Odon Street, just north of Main. I’d go into Sheldon’s place, read a comic book or two, and then head over to Mr. Foster’s to purchase some kind of treat before trekking back home.

I always walked home down the west side of Odon Street before turning on Main because Puckett’s Tavern and Harley Wesner’s pool hall were both on the east side of the street and my mother had specifically told me to avoid walking near those businesses. She was overly protective since I wore leg braces and walked with crutches and was concerned that “some drunk” might stumble out of the tavern and bump into me, knocking me to the ground.

However, one day, for whatever reason, I crossed over to the east side of the street after leaving Foster’s and found myself peering into the open front door of the Elnora pool hall. A man, presumably Harley Wesner, asked me if I wanted to come in and “roll the balls around” since the place was empty and he had no other customers. He said he wouldn’t charge me anything, but because I was so young (probably 13 or 14) he couldn’t let me use a pool cue because that would be against the rules.

I thought it sounded like fun, so I accepted his offer. Upon entering, I saw two or three pool tables with green felt tops, leather braided pockets, and horizontal wires extended high over the tops of each table with abacus-like beads strung on the wires for the purpose of keeping score. Mr. Wesner explained that players would slide the beads along the wires with their pool sticks whenever they “made a shot.” I stayed in the place for probably not more than 15-20 minutes and realized that playing pool without a stick wasn’t that much fun, so I thanked Mr. Wesner and left for home.

That evening, after my parents returned from work, the conversation turned to what I had done for the day. As I outlined my activities, I concluded by telling them about my little visit to the pool hall. Wow! You would have thought I had committed some kind of mortal sin. My dad flew out of the house and went directly downtown to confront Mr. Wesner and explain to him in very specific language that I was never to enter that lowly establishment again. And, I never did.

Following my graduation from Elnora High, I began my freshman year at Purdue in the fall of 1961. Much to my surprise, as I was touring the Student Union Building for the first time, I saw a “sunken” room with a staircase leading down to probably two dozen very modern pool and billiard tables with students playing at nearly every one of them. I was shocked to see the game being played in such a brightly-lit atmosphere by clean-cut young people who probably weren’t scared their parents would learn of their “immoral” activities. Heck, I even played there a few times myself during my college days.

It was also during 1961 that “The Hustler” premiered starring Paul Newman as Fast Eddie Felson and Jackie Gleason as Minnesota Fats. Fast Eddie was a drunken pool shark who finally beat Fats near the end of the movie. I saw the film at the New Moon Art Theater in Lafayette which played movies geared toward “adult” audiences. Some of the dimly-lit pool halls depicted in the film reminded me very much of Harley Wesner’s place in Elnora.

Many years later, a friend of mine at work told a group of us how Paul Newman randomly stopped at his wife’s two widowed aunts’ house in another state to ask for directions. Somehow, I doubt if he was searching for the Elnora pool hall, but THAT would have made a great story.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Two Broken Boys

I was an only child, born after my parents had been married for over nine years. Because I had polio three months prior to my fourth birthday and spent nearly a year recuperating at Riley Hospital in Indianapolis, many aspects of my early childhood development were delayed, including the making of close friendships with the neighborhood children in the “East End” of Elnora where we lived. As I grew a bit older and it became easier for me to walk, I played with the kids who lived nearby, but when it was time to go in for the evening, I was alone except for my parents or grandparents depending upon where I was sleeping that night.

Since I didn’t have a brother or sister, I wanted a pet badly, one that I could call my own. My dad had a beagle named “Rowdy” that he kept tethered to a chain out near the old “pigeon house,” but I was strictly warned that Rowdy was a hunting dog. According to my father, Emerson Johnson, if I played with Rowdy, it would ruin him as a hunter. I never understood why, but I didn’t dare go against my dad’s instructions. So, Rowdy ate outside, slept in his doghouse outside, and was never allowed in the house.

My grandparents had an old gray female cat that they simply called “Mother” and she was always getting pregnant (or should I say “having babies” since “pregnant” was a no-no word in our house in the fifties). I never knew what happened to “Mother’s” babies because they always seemed to disappear shortly after they were born. Maybe the “whey ditch” behind my grandparents’ house knew the secret of the missing kittens, but it wasn’t telling.

Then the unthinkable happened; one day a couple of friends and I were in the smoke house on my grandparents’ property and there was “Mother” in the process of giving birth. About the same time, my grandmother appeared and you’d think that we did something horribly wrong. She made us leave immediately rather than stay and watch.

I was so naïve, I wasn’t real sure what was happening, but my friends gave me the details. A few days later when “Mother” was nursing her babies, I saw that one of them was calico-colored, and I begged my parents for the kitten. To my surprise, they let me have it and “Calico” and I soon became pretty good friends, or at least as much as you can be friends with an independent cat.

My parents even let Calico sleep on my bed. Then, after a year or so, my dad came in one morning before he left for work and told me Calico had been hit by a car and killed. I was naturally upset, knowing my first and only pet had been taken while Rowdy was still enjoying the good life on his chain outside.

To make up for the loss of Calico, I was given another kitten which we named “Boots.” He was a black cat with four white feet and a white splotch on his face, but we soon found out that he was even more independent than Calico. He apparently ingested some rat poison that a neighbor had placed around her home, and began to die a horrible, painful death. His wailing and suffering became so terrible that my dad had to “take care of the situation.”

So, once again, I was alone with no pet of my own. Then, one Sunday afternoon as I was lying on my stomach on the floor watching TV, my Aunt Audrey & Uncle Kewp from McCordsville came in through the back door. Engrossed in my program, I barely paid attention to them until I felt something quivering by my side. I looked down and saw a small black dog lying beside me. He was extremely nervous, and my aunt told me that he was nine months old, was a full-blooded Dachshund, and had been abused by his former owners.

My aunt and uncle sold registered dachshunds as a “hobby” and they had sold him to a family who couldn’t take good care of him and treated him poorly. My aunt reclaimed him and decided to give him to me. The dog already had a name, but they said I could rename him if I wanted, so I called him Willie. He and I were two broken boys who soon knew we needed each other.

It took a long time for Willie to lose his nervousness, but when he did, Willie was certainly “my” dog. He and I played together, took walks together, and slept together. Although he had those short little legs, he was quite an athlete and could catch just about any ball I’d throw to him.

When I went to college, Willie was always there waiting for me when I returned and it was like I had never left. We were buddies all over again. I took a class at the “Purdue extension” in Indianapolis during the summer of 1962 and stayed with my other aunt and uncle, Bill & Kathryn. They also had a dachshund, so one week Willie accompanied me so the two dogs could play while I was in class.

At the week’s end, Willie and I headed home in my old ’56 Dodge with him in his favorite spot on the back seat. As we left Spencer on State Road 67 and neared the town of Freedom, Willie began to whine. I assured him we’d be home soon and tried to calm him, but Willie wasn’t homesick, he had a more personal problem that became all too apparent just north of Freedom. I detected a foul odor and when I positioned the rear-view mirror to see into the back seat, I realized that Willie had done what all dogs do, but you hope they do it outside.

I pulled the car over at the first opportunity, into a little roadside rest area that had a picnic table and a trash barrel nearby. I held my nose, put Willie’s leash on him, and tied him to the picnic table. Luckily, I had an old blanket in the car which I used to clean out the back seat the best I could and threw the entire soiled mess into the barrel. I made Willie ride the rest of the way home with me on the floor of the front passenger area. It was a warm day, so I was able to keep all four car windows down the rest of the way to Elnora.

I had a “Fingerhut” catalogue at home, and since the internet was at least thirty years in the future, I placed a mail order for a set of green and white nylon seat covers to hide the disgusting spot on the back seat. The odor was gone, but the stain wouldn’t come totally clean, no matter how much I scrubbed. Where’s the OxyClean when you need it? Needless to say, that was Willie’s last trip to Indianapolis.

Beginning with that unforgettable day in 1962, and every time I drive that stretch of Highway 67, I would always laughingly point out the spot that will forever be known to me, my wife, and our kids as the place where “Willie pooped.”

My father died of lung cancer in February, 1963. I came home for the funeral, but had to return to classes at Purdue as soon as I could. Luckily, in addition to her Elnora friends, my mother also had Willie there with her for comfort when she was alone.

Near the end of the spring semester in 1963, I came home for the weekend to see my mom and Willie, and also to get some laundry done. Before I left to return to Lafayette, I decided to wash my car. I pulled it into the yard on the south side of the house, a friend and I got out the hose, and we started washing the old Dodge. When we finished the job and put everything away, I loaded my suitcase into the trunk, kissed my mother goodbye, and told my friend I’d drop him off at his house on the way out of town.

In my haste, I had forgotten all about Willie. It was a sunny and warm spring day, so he had curled up under the front of my car to take a nap. When we got into the car to leave and I turned the ignition, before I ever put the car into reverse to back out of the yard, Willie was startled by the sound of the engine, jumped up, hit his head on something under the car, and ran to the yard just south of our house.

Our neighbor, Stanley Stout, was outside when Willie ran over there, and just as quickly as Willie ran, he immediately dropped to the ground. Stanley examined him and tried to do what he could to revive him, but it was too late. Willie was dead of an apparent heart attack. There wasn’t a mark on him. Willie was only five years old.

My mother and I were both devastated, she to the point of almost being inconsolable. She had lost my father a few months earlier and now Willie was gone, too. It was all I could do to make myself go back to Purdue, but I knew I had to. Stanley said he’d take care of burying Willie. A few weeks later, Aunt Audrey presented Mother with a little female dachshund puppy which my mom named “Greta.” She kept Greta for eleven years until my mother’s death in 1974. They were as inseparable as Willie and I had been.

I’ve had many dogs since Willie, and I’ll admit that I’ve loved at least two of them as much as I loved Willie, but like your first kiss, you just don’t forget your first dog, especially if it meant as much to you as Willie did to me. We may have been broken early in life, but with each other’s help, we persevered.

Friday, February 12, 2010

That Night At Mud Pike

They say confession is good for the soul. I hope so, because I’d like to try and purge mine of a demon that’s been hounding me for over forty years.

A lot of fine people attended the Mud Pike EUB Church from its birth in 1876 to its 1966 merger with the Elnora Methodist Church. I think of Mud Pike often, not just because it’s the church my father, Emerson Johnson, and his family attended while he was growing up, but also because so many other Elnora townsfolk knew that venerable old building as their spiritual home.

My first article in the Post was about my part in the “Great Watermelon Caper.” As bad as I felt about the smashed watermelons in the streets of Elnora, an incident at Mud Pike a few summers later has haunted me ever since.

It was a hot Saturday night, probably during 1965. I was home from Purdue, hanging around with the gang at Dick Davis’ filling station located on Highway 57, across from the Midway Café. Suddenly, a car roared into the station’s parking area and the driver, visibly shaken (or putting on a good act), said he and his girlfriend had been “parked” out at Mud Pike when the church bell started ringing for no apparent reason. Scared, they raced into town to tell their story.

I was informed that only a few weeks prior, Mud Pike had ceased having Sunday services and the members had begun attending church “in town.” So, some thought it would be fun to go ghost hunting, but others were apprehensive of checking out the phantom bell ringer. Then, one brave young man said something to the effect that, “I ain’t afraid! Someone drive me out there and I’ll be the first to go in.”

That gave us an idea. Two friends and I decided to go out to Mud Pike first and “get set up” to scare the pants off of the brave young volunteer in question. We shared our plan with a third friend who said he’d drive the boy out later after we’d had a chance to get there.

I rode in my buddy’s new, black, SS396 Chevelle, and another friend drove his T-Bird. We parked out of sight behind the church, tried the back door, and to our surprise, it was unlocked. The three of us went inside, and the church looked like it was ready for Sunday services the next day. The pews were still there and so was the piano.

I even asked if they were sure that the church had been vacated, and my two friends assured me it had been. So, we put our plan into action. I got down behind the piano, and my buddy covered himself with a white blanket that he had in the car. Friend #2 was going to shine a big 3-cell flashlight under the blanket in hopes of creating a ghostly aura as the unsuspecting young man approached the church.

We waited a few minutes, and then we couldn’t believe our eyes. Rather than one or two cars, there was a huge caravan of perhaps 15 – 20 vehicles snaking their way toward us. As the cars parked on the grass in the front of the building, the brave young man stepped out of the car in which he was riding and approached the door of the church.

Then, my buddy who was covered with the blanket raised his outstretched arms, and our other friend switched on the flashlight. At the same time, I started banging on the piano and the “brave one” outside was absolutely scared to death. When everyone realized it was a joke, they all came into the church, laughing and enjoying the moment.

About that time, the church bell began ringing. We were stunned! Some of the guys headed to the belfry and found what we now call a “homeless man” who had taken up residence in the church. He had rung the bell to have some fun of his own, so we laughed all over again, the original mystery having been solved.

Then things all went horribly wrong! In his exuberance, somebody turned over a pew, then another, and another. Someone else threw a chair at one of the big windows, and I can’t remember if the window shattered or not. My two friends and I yelled to try and get them to stop, but they wouldn’t.

About that same time, we saw the unmistakable red lights and heard the siren of a police car as it was screaming toward the church. We all scattered to our cars, me hobbling along as fast as my leg braces and crutches would allow. Because we were the first to park behind the church, we were also the last ones out.

We sped out of the lot and down the dusty, gravel road with the red lights close behind. No matter where we went, the chase wore on. We continued over near Odon and still he came. Because of the dust the Chevelle was kicking up behind, we finally lost sight of the police car in the rear view mirror. My friend then drove to Bloomfield to the “spray it yourself” car wash and after several quarters, we felt the car was clean enough to go home.

By this time, it was nearly midnight and as we arrived back to Elnora so I could pick up my 1956 Dodge and get to my house, there were only two cars parked at the gas station, mine and a state police cruiser.

As I was exiting the passenger’s side of the SS396, the policeman approached my friend and commented on his clean car. They held a brief conversation, but because the officer had apparently not gotten close enough to read the Chevelle’s license plate number, he reluctantly sent us on our way.

I never found out how much damage was done that night at Mud Pike. I’ve prayed to God countless times since, requesting His forgiveness for any part I had in that mess. Now I ask the good citizens of Elnora, past & present, to do the same. I am truly sorry.