I had glommed onto Hughie on the very first day of kindergarten, when we were both four. I distinctly remember the exact moment when I first saw him. He was swinging upside-down by the backs of his bare knees from a wooden bar in a contraption called a “Jungle Jim”.
For a face, he wore a big white freckled one– with blue eyes topped off by a great big head of frizzy red hair. Douglas, the aged and frail African-American janitor in our school, called him “Carrot-Top”. Unlike me, Carrot-Top was very sturdy-looking and he impressed me as the kind of kid who clearly knew how to have a good time. Maybe he could even protect a “weakling” like me in a fight. I figured I could use a friend like Hughie. I decided right then and there that I was going to make myself into his friend.
It was a decision I would later come to regret.
By the time I was seven, I had advanced to the second grade, but school, for the most part, made me a little nervous. It wasn’t the teachers. I’d only had two teachers and they were both very nice. In fact, I’d say all my teachers for the first six years of school were nice. I think my discomfort had more to do with the other boys.
I was a skinny little kid and I was very afraid of getting beat up. Kids used to beat other kids up in those days, in some sort of primitive, ritualistic pecking-order kind of thing. Or maybe, it was because they just felt like it–or could do it and get away with it. We always played outside unless it was raining and besides, parents were never around.
Sometimes older boys would make their little brothers fight other kids to see who would win, or purely for the fun of it. Being outside one’s house was risky– and potentially dangerous.
Possibly, even fatal.
My next-door neighbor, Harry, who was four years older, regularly called me a “weakling” and had previously pitted his cousin, Robbie, who was my age, but bigger, against me in a fight.
It ended when I got a bloody nose.
So, in the first couple of yearsof school, I never walked–even though it was only five blocks away. That would have meant passing through neighborhoods where other kids lived. If those boys were anything like Hank and Harry, the two boys who lived on either side of me, anything was possible. So, I took the city bus to school.
I waited on the street corner, along with Miss Dotson, an old friend of my aunt, who, eight years later would be my homeroom teacher in high school.
Miss Dotson may have just been a tiny little dot of lady in a blue hat, and dark blue dress, and a fur coat with little beady-eyed foxes on it, but I knew she would never have let anyone beat me up. I felt safe with Miss Dotson.
In the first grade, my anxiety about school had been somewhat relieved when I discovered that I had been placed in the same classroom with “Hughie”, my old friend from kindergarten.
Hughie lived around the corner, on the next street over, and his house and all the other houses on his side of the street, faced South. On our side of the street the houses faced North. I think this may have been one of the reasons Hughie still lives in Savannah and I now live in Maine. Maine is about as far North as I could go and still be in the United States, if I walked out my front door and kept going.
One Sunday after church, I was playing in the lane that ran behind our houses. I had just discovered a canvas sack full of dead clams someone had thrown out when I discovered Hughie was playing a few houses away. I was glad to see my friend outside of kindergarten. I soon realized I could take a shortcut to his house, by merely walking down the lane and climbing through the opening in the brick fence which gave the garbage men access to the two metal trashcans that were permanently kept there. From that day on, and for the next ten years, until I was about 14, I went over to Hughie’s house every chance I could get. Uninvited. Once I set my sights on someone–or something–I’m relentless.
Hughie’s father was a doctor and was always gone and Hughie’s mother stayed at home to raise the family. The ten of them lived in a big sprawling house with an upstairs—aside from Hughie, there were five older brothers, a younger brother, his younger sister, and their Dachshund, “Crummy”. Someone told me Crummy was 21 years old. I was impressed by this and that she was old enough to vote.
Around the corner, back at my house, with no brothers and sisters, and both parents at work, it was just my grandmother and me most of the time.
But over at Hughie’s, there was always something fun going on. Someone was always going to a movie, or playing kickball in the driveway or going to buy firecrackers across the river in South Carolina or playing with the giant electric train layout up in the attic, or selling something door-to-door, or gathering up discarded Christmas trees and worn-out rubber tires to burn in Daffin Park on New Year’s Eve. There was non-stop excitement and adventure and a feeling of fun in the air. All the brothers over 16 had their own cars– or motor scooters and were coming and going from the place like drunks in a flophouse.
Hughie’s mother, “Glen”, presided over the tumultuous scene from her exalted position on the couch in front of the television, a container of cottage cheese constantly in hand. The big red door to the garage and the outside world, opened and shut about four hundred times each day. Two white-uniformed African-American “maids”, “Hattie” and “Noanee” took care of the laundry, household chores and seemed to regard all children, my harmless little self included , with an eye of suspicion. Probably with good reason.
When we were both about five or six, Hughie and I discovered to our temporary delight, that if you pushed a little silver button on the dashboard of the big black car in the garage, it would lurch forward over and over until it banged into the brick wall at the end of the garage. That was the first time I drove a car.
And his little sister was really cute. Hughie and his younger brother and sister and I used to play this game where we would close all the doors to the various bedrooms and set up card tables and drape blankets over them. They called it “Dark in the Hall”. There was something fascinating and vaguely exciting about that game that I didn’t fully understand, but I suspected, even then, it had something to do with his little sister. I quickly developed an impure interest in her. When I found out that she was adopted, I even tried to buy her from her mother, who along with one or two of her older brothers , laughed derisively at me. I was indignant that they didn’t take my offer seriously.
As I grew older, I continued to go over to Hughie’s on a regular basis. Sadly, I could count the number of times he was ever over at my house on one hand.
I remember one winter evening when he spent the night with us. Everyone wore pajamas to bed in those days. Hughie didn’t bring a pair, so my mother loaned him a pair of new ones which belonged to me. Apparently, what happened was that he climbed down out of the top bunk in the middle of the night to go down the hall to the bathroom. My father had just installed a new floor furnace in the hallway just outside the bathroom and when Hughie stepped on the hot grating with his bare feet, the contents of his bladder were released into his pajamas, ran down his legs and down deep into the core of the heating mechanism resulting in a most pungent smell that held us all prisoner for weeks after Hughie had long escaped back to the comfort of his own home.
On another occasion, I got a new sleeping bag for my birthday and in the early Fall, I invited Hughie to camp out with me in the back yard of my house. I had a small army surplus pup tent that accommodated two. Being a kid who was afraid of the dark, I secured a few candles which my mother kept in a drawer in the kitchen in case a hurricane caused the electricity to go out. Hurricanes were a regular feature of life in coastal Georgia in late Autumn. So, by the light of a candle, we propped ourselves up on one elbow and took turns telling each other ghost stories, like “The Monkey’s Paw”, and “Ray Renaldo”, until we both gradually dozed off.
Dawn was breaking when I suddenly awoke to the strange smell of smoldering goose down.
I sat quickly up. Our tent was filled with smoke. My sleeping bag looked like it had been blasted by a double-barreled shotgun full of incendiary buckshot. There was one large area of smoldering insulation about a foot across and thirty-five smaller spots burning slowly like cigarettes. We both quickly clambered out of the tent and as I backed out of my smoldering sleeping bag, I looked up just in time to see Hughie grab his blanket and head down the lane toward home without so much as a goodbye. I had a vague sense of abandonement. I remember thinking at the time that true “friends” don’t act like that. I suppose there was really nothing he could have done at that point but ask me if I was “okay”, or shoot the hose on me, but still, being abandoned at Dawn in a smoldering sleeping bag hurt more than the little spots of smoldering stuffing.
To his credit, though, Hughie did redeem himself a year or two later when my mother hired the two of us to assist in the preparation for a party she was giving at our house for some of my parents’ friends. Our first job was get the little Hibatchi on the back porch and fill it with charcoal, then get the fire going so she could cook some little pieces of meat on it to serve to her guests, some of whom had already arrived and were seated n the living room smoking and drinking as all adults seemed to do in those days.
While my mother was attending to the guests in the front of the house, Hughie and I brought the little Hibatchi into the kitchen and placed it on top of the electric range. I took out a box of matches from a drawer. Getting the charcoal briquettes to stay lit was proving to be a problem. I struck match after match and held them to the briquettes, but they wouldn’t stay lit. I supposed that was one of the reasons we were being paid to work the party. Getting a Hibatchi going wasn’t an easy task.
Just then I remembered my dad kept a glass gallon jug of mineral spirits out in the garage, and in no time flat I was back in the kitchen with the solution to our problem. While Hughie carefully poured a little of the mineral spirits from the glass jug onto the charcoal, I lit a match. It worked! Suddenly the charcoal burst into flame, but so did the jug of mineral spirits. Hughie, who had proven before that he was no fan of hot things immediately let go of the glass jug and it smashed to bits on the kitchen floor.
The floor was on fire and flames were climbing up the kitchen cabinets under the sink. While I stood there trying to think of what to do, Hughie took off his coat and using two hands beat out the flames with his coat. We were lucky the jug only had a little bit of mineral spirits in it. In less than 30 seconds, the flames were extinguished and the only real damage was the broken glass and some black marks on the floor and cabinet. We got a dustpan and a broom and swept up the broken glass and put it in a paper bag, but a brownish mark on the white linoleum floor would remain for years, a lasting reminder of Huey’s heroic actions that evening. Meanwhile in the living room, the party raged on.
But, mostly what Hughie and I did together was go to movies, hundreds of movies–often in the company of one or two of his older brothers. His mother would sometimes drop us off at the Avon Theatre around ten o’clock in the morning and pick us up again at around four of five in the afternoon. I generally had enough money to buy a box of popcorn on which I somehow managed to make it through the day in the darkened theatre. Once when I really got hungry I went around the half-empty theatre and picked up popcorn off the floor and put in my box. I must have been six or seven at the time.
When we got older, we were allowed to leave the theatre on our own and walk down Abercorn Street to his father’s office, which was several blocks away. On the way there we would stop and play on the graves in the Colonial Cemetery. Many of the early settlers of Savannah were buried there inside small brick houses that were fun to climb on. We picked up “grenades” from the magnolia trees and broke the stems off them, counted to three and then threw them at each other and passing cars full of “Germans”. Across from the cemetery was an apartment building around four stories tall. The front door was never locked. It was fun to go in there and climb up to the second or third floor and ring the doorbell and run. By the time the person, almost always an elderly woman, came to the door, we were usually down on the next floor and headed back out the door as they yelled at us. That was our idea of fun. We must have done that about ten or twelve times over a span of a couple of years, probably to the same apartment. I passed by there about thirty years later and tried the door. It was locked.
Once when I was nine or ten, I was over at Hughie’s. We climbed the steep stairs to the attic. Johnnie and Jerry, two of Hughie’s older brothers lived up there for a few years, before their older brothers eventually moved away, and relinquished their rooms on the ground floor. In contrast to the rest of the house, the upstairs was a dark, raw, unfinished space with a window at one end and one or two light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. For walls, unpainted Masonite® was nailed to the studs. You could barely standup straight unless you were a kid. Hughie’s mother didn’t venture up there. It smelled like a pair of old sneakers. Damp sneakers. It was the domain of the “big boys” and was sparsely furnished with a pair of mattresses on the floor, with no sheets, a beat-up table, an elaborate electric train layout at one end, that had seen better days, a Nazi helmet his Dad had brought home from the war, an assortment of men’s magazines with the covers ripped off them, various well-thumbed comic books and a couple of glass milk bottles for the brothers to pee in. It was my favorite part of the house.
One afternoon, Hughie and I were up there, and for no particular reason that I can recall, suddenly one of the brothers, Jerry–a few years older than me and who outweighed me by 50 pounds (everyone outweighed me by 50 pounds) put his hands around my neck , lifted me off the floor and held me against the wall. I wanted to tell him that it wasn’t “funny”—that he was actually hurting me. Time seemed to stop. I could see his freckled face quite clearly, his blue eyes evidenced no particular anger. But his grip was tight and I could neither breathe nor make a sound. The room became even darker, so that the stars came out– and I felt myself sliding slowly down the wall as I blacked out, his stubby white fingers and their freckled knuckles with the little red hairs sticking out of them still gripping my throat. How long I lay there on the floor I know not, but I awoke to the sound of laughter. His big brother was laughing loudly . Hughie was laughing less loudly. They were both actually laughing at me. “You wet your pants!!” said Hughie’s older brother.
This seemed incongruous, especially coming from a guy who peed in a milk bottle.