All posts by richardlowellparker

Rick Parker is an American artist, cartoonist, and humor writer well known in the comics world as the artist of MTV's Beavis and Butt-Head Comic Book (published by Marvel Entertainment 1994-1996). He is also the writer and artist of the self-published graphic novel, "Deadboy", as well as being the illustrator of the Papercutz Slices parody series of graphic novels, "Diary of a Stinky Dead Kid", "Harry Potty and the Deathly Boring", "breaking down", (a Twilight parody), "Percy Jerkson and the Ovolactovegetarians", "The Hunger Pains", and "The Farting Dead". Rick Parker was one of the four artists of The Pekar Project, which brought new original illustrated stories of autobiographical comics pioneer, Harvey Pekar to the web in 2009-2010. Rick Parker resides in Maine with his family where he draws cartoons, teaches cartooning and writes this blog.

….B-But I Doan Wanna Be a Marine….

“Thus, in short order, having now been stripped of our side arms and various and sundry concealed weapons, we were led, like convicted criminals to the building, where we, as draftees, would be sworn into the military. We were formed into a long line and each of us was handed a single sheet of white paper, and one of those stubby little yellow pencils golfers use. It was a simple questionnaire. There was not much written on it. At the top it said: 

(CHECK ONE)

I WANT TO BE IN THE:

1. ARMY
2. MARINE CORPS
3. DOESN’T MATTER

I thought to myself, “I’m no John Wayne, I’m checking ARMY.” 

After a few minutes, a very fit-looking United States Marine Corps sergeant, dressed in a starched khaki shirt with a chest full of medals, olive colored pants, with a sharp crease in the legs, and very shiny black dress shoes came by to collect everyone’s forms. He wore a Smokey-the-Bear hat pulled down straight and tight to just above his eyebrows on his freshly-shaven head. I handed him my form. 

If you checked “ARMY”, you got army. If you checked “MARINE CORPS”, you got the Marine Corps. If you checked, “DOESN’T MATTER”, you got the Marine Corps. Apparently, there were still not enough recruits for the Marine Corps. The sergeant paced up and down the line, carefully studying the motley assemblage of young men waiting in line. It was 1966, the “hippie era” and many of the others had long hair. I wasn’t one of them, and anyway, I generally wore my hair short. “Mac”, a 47-year old friend of my parents, a veteran, who had been a navigator on a B-24 in World War II and had been shot down over the Pacific, pulled from the ocean with a large cut across his cheek, and who had spent three delirious days in a rubber raft drifting in and out of consciousness from loss of blood before being rescued, had advised me to “get a haircut” before being inducted. I did so. You don’t ignore advice from a guy like that.

The Marine sergeant stopped next to me. I could hear him slowly breathing like a wild animal. I looked straight ahead, avoiding eye contact, trying my best to look invisible, but I could feel his eyes burning the skin on the side of my pimply 19 year-old face. “You’re gonna be a Marine…..” said the sergeant to the side of the my head. I momentarily panicked. I thought my knees might buckle and I thought of how embarrassed I would be, as I lay there on the floor in a semi-conscious state, a large crowd of strangers staring at me and laughing derisively. I wondered if I’d wet my pants again, like I had done when I was nearly choked to death by my friend’s brother five years before. Then, to my great relief, I realized the Marine sergeant was addressing the guy in line in FRONT of me, a tall country-boy, probably from Pooler or Garden City, two little country towns just outside of Savannah. The poor fellow had long reddish-blonde curly hair down to his shoulders. 

“But…. I doan wanna be a marine,” he protested meekly in his slow Southern drawl. The sergeant took one step forward and moved closer to him, raising his manly voice exactly one octave– and repeated: “You’re gonna be a MARINE!” 

The country-boy protested once again, in a slightly louder voice, this time: “But, I doan WANNA be a Marine!!” The sergeant took him by the upper arm and led him away from the rest of us. “But, I doan wanna be a Marine”, he said again as the two of them disappeared somewhere behind me.

I have often thought of that tall, lanky Georgia boy– and wondered what happened to him. I wondered if he made it back home alive after his service. It was 1966, after all, the Vietnam War was ramping up. And I had heard from my older cousin, who was in the navy, that “Ricky, Marines are CRAZY! When they’re not shooting at the enemy, they shoot at each OTHER just to keep each other from getting bored.” I really hope he made it home.Screen shot 2014-08-28 at 12.04.42 PM

On the Road

 

“….I received official notification in the mail that I was to report to Fort Jackson, South Carolina in a few weeks for a physical examination and some testing.
 
My father woke me up that fateful day around 5 a.m., and after a breakfast of eggs, bacon, grits and toast and not much conversation, he drove me uptown and dropped me off at the Greyhound bus station.
 
It was well before dawn on a cool November morning. Winter was coming. You could feel it in the air. We said our goodbyes, and my father drove away.
 
Inside the bus station, several people were curled up in their seats still sleeping. The stale smell of cigarettes hung in the air and no one seemed happy or in very much of a hurry. A line was forming next to one of the buses. I got in it. It was all guys like me–except  most of them were black. No one in the line said much. They all seemed lost in their own private thoughts. I boarded, along with about fifty other young guys, none of whom I knew, and we began the two-hour bus trip up to Columbia, South Carolina.
 
The other white guys on the bus seemed to be from “the other side of the tracks”–a rougher breed than I would have ordinarily cared to associate with. I didn’t talk much. I just stared dazedly out the window of the bus, trying to pretend the whole thing wasn’t really happening. At any moment, I expected to see my Mother’s big silver Cadillac pull up alongside the bus and then force it off the road. Then the driver would have to let me out, I’d get in the car with my mother and we would drive away. The rest of them would have to go on to Fort Jackson without me.
 
As we crossed the bridge from Savannah into South Carolina, I caught a fleeting glimpse of the little fireworks stand where I had once gone to buy firecrackers on the back of a light blue Lambretta motor scooter driven by Jerry, the kid who had once almost strangled me to death, six or seven years earlier. Then we passed the large expanse of salt marsh bordering the river, and I thought back to a time, not that many years before, when as a kid, I had ridden in the back seat of the family car, on this same two-lane road with my parents sitting in the front seat, my Dad driving and my mother making chicken-salad sandwiches, on our way to spend a Sunday at the beach at Hilton Head. 

The guy across the aisle from me was eagerly discussing strategies for getting automatically rejected by the doctors who examined potential recruits. Although I wasn’t exactly the patriotic type, it would never have occurred to me to purposely try and sabotage the physical exam as a means of disqualifying oneself for military service. He was a tall skinny blonde kid, about my age. His face had a number of what can only be described as large pustulating boils on it. I had seen pimples on kids’ faces before, but his were of a whole new magnitude. I was shocked when he proudly bragged to his seat-mate that he had actually done this to himself, by dipping a needle into his own excrement and then using it to puncture the skin on his forehead, cheeks and chin.

We arrived at Fort Jackson to a less-than-ceremonious welcome and were quickly and rudely herded into a drab yellow wooden building and subjected to a cursory physical examination. In a large room, we stood side by side, in just our underwear, while someone, purportedly a medical doctor, and wearing a rubber glove, went down the line placing his fingers in every young crotch, and asking each of us to “cough”.

 
Before administering the written part of the test, however, a man stood in the front of the room and asked what I thought was a rather strange question:
 
“Is anyone here a communist, or an anarchist, or has anyone here ever been a member of any organization or political party that advocates the overthrow of the United States government?”
 
I looked around the room. To my great relief no one raised a hand. The test was quite easy and since it didn’t involve solving any algebraic equations, I passed with flying colors.”

We returned home uneventfully by bus later that afternoon and I spent my remaining days of freedom playing golf by climbing over a fence on the sixth hole of the Bacon Park Golf Course and my nights learning more about how to become a man by studying Playboy Magazine.

 
 
Yet, I was actually surprised, when the letter addressed to me, arrived, just before Christmas. “From the President of The United States: “Greeting! You have been selected by your fellow citizens to be inducted into the armed services of the United States and are hereby ordered to report for induction at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, no later than 8 a.m. on the morning of February, 22, 1966.”
 
To be honest, I felt a little like the Illinois man from one Lincoln story: when he was confronted by a local citizens’ committee with the prospect of being tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail, he announced, “If it weren’t for the honor of the thing, I’d just as soon it happened to someone else.”

On the morning of Tuesday, February 22, I awoke around 4:30 a.m., dressed myself in khaki pants, a bland collarless shirt and threw on an olive green leather jacket, into the inside pocket of which I had placed, as a precaution, a folding knife with a bone handle and a 3-inch, hooked blade. I took it for protection, keeping in mind my previous trip to Fort Jackson.

 
As my father drove out of our neighborhood, and turned right onto Paulsen Street, I experienced a slight feeling of déjà vu as we passed through the pre-dawn streets of Savannah, no doubt, due in part to having made the identical trip only a  month or so before.
 
Arriving at the bus station, this time, though, my anxiety was somewhat relieved to discover an old acquaintance from high school, Carl Youmans, also waiting for the bus. Carl was a rather small, thin young man with dark, wavy, almost greasy hair, flashing blue eyes and freckles. Aside from Carl and I, I think almost all the other young men on our bus were black. Although Carl was somewhat athletic–I remembered he had been on the track team, he struck me as too small somehow, too thin, and much too nice of a guy to be transformed into a government killer. I thought it far more likely that guys like me and Carl were the types who got killed by the enemy, rather than the other way around. But, truthfully, at this point, I was more concerned about just making it through that first day.

Fresh off the bus at the induction station and still dressed in our civilian clothes, the sixty of us were led directly into a small wooden building. It was empty, except for what looked to be a large wooden table about waist-high that occupied the center of the room. Silently, each man with his own thoughts, we filed in through the only door and then circled around the table until everyone was in the room. We turned to face the empty table.

 
I glanced across the room at the odd assortment of young men. They reminded me of the type of people you might see filing out of football game in a strange town. When we were all inside, someone closed the door behind us. An unusual feature of this table was that it had a “lip”, as if someone had nailed 2” X 6” boards all the way around its perimeter, so that it resembled nothing more than a very large shallow box supported upon wooden legs. “All right…” said someone in authority, “…anyone who has any guns, knives, or weapons of any kind, please place them on the table at this time…..”
 
I thought to myself, “…guns…?” What do they think we are—a bunch of common criminals?”
 
Just then I remembered that, in fact, I, myself, had stuck a knife in my inside jacket pocket. While I was pondering this embarrassing realization, there was much shuffling of feet and reaching into pockets all around the room, accompanied by the kinds of sounds that heavy metal objects make when placed upon a wooden table.
 
It seemed as though everyone in the room had been armed with something, as pistols, knives of various kinds, and even a pair of brass knuckles rattled out onto the table.
 
“Your personal property will follow you wherever you are stationed in this man’s army…” said a loud, authoritative, but disembodied voice from somewhere across the room.
 
I remember thinking, “…that’s good, I would kind of like to get my knife back when I leave the service. It was a present from a friend.”
 
Needless to say, I never saw that knife again.
 
 

SC ROAD

Getting Drafted

 

“Most likely, I was daydreaming absentmindedly in homeroom, the morning the teacher made the announcement that “…representatives of various colleges and universities will be meeting with college-bound students in the cafeteria after school today…”, but even if I wasn’t, I probably didn’t think the announcement regarding “college-bound students” pertained to me.

No one had ever discussed college with me–not my teachers– not any of the other students– not even my parents. 

Although purportedly one of the smartest young women in her high school class, my mother had dropped out of college at 17, after only one year, when she was offered a good job at the height of the depression. She would be timekeeper, at the Union Station passenger terminal, the railroad station in Savannah. It was the same job her father had held before he died unexpectedly of an intestinal blockage seven years earlier, leaving my grandmother, with four children the oldest of whom was nineteen. My mother, my grandfather’s favorite and the youngest, was only 10.

My father’s education was cut short at 16, when he was summoned back to Georgia from Asbury College in Kentucky to attend the funeral of his twenty-one year old sister, who had died unexpectedly from viral meningitis, the same illness which had claimed the life of her one-year-old son, only a month earlier. Rather than return to school, my father took a job sweeping up and helping out around a little country railroad station in south central Georgia, in 1921, in an effort to help support his own mother, who had lost her husband, when my father, also the youngest of four children was but 13. He worked for the railroad for the next 52 years.

Without much effort on my part, I managed to graduate from high school , near the middle of my class, just a few months shy of my eighteenth birthday, but only by repeating Algebra 1 and 2 in summer school. In high school, I showed marked talent in art and writing but only applied to two colleges, both of which rejected me. One was Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, and the other was Pratt Institute, in Brooklyn, New York, from which, although I had no way of knowing it at the time, I would receive my master’s degree in fine art ten years later.

So, without any grand plans for college and after a summer spent working for minimum wage on a loading dock counting boxes of shrimp and dead chickens going in and out of Georgia Ice and Cold Storage, and playing basketball in the evenings at the YMCA, when September rolled around, I lackadaisically enrolled at the local junior college and proceeded to flunk out in short order.

It was the fall of 1964, I was just old enough to vote—and my candidate, Barry Goldwater, for whom I earnestly tried to convince my black co-workers to vote, carried only one state in the presidential election–but it was mine

Like the other freshmen, at Armstrong Junior College, I was assigned an advisor. God knows I could use one.

His name was Dr. Semmes, he was head of the math department, and as I would find out later, a retired military officer.
Once again, I found myself up to my neck in Algebra, a subject that was completely alien to my consciousness. Dr. Mueller, my math instructor, was a trim little fellow, who smoked Between the Acts, “little cigars” and wore earth-colored suits, and a jacket with oval-shaped, real-leather patches on the sleeves. I tried to keep up, but he lost me almost as soon as he began speaking and each day I fell further and further behind, although I paid strict attention and took voluminous notes.
At the end of the term I had amassed a 43 average in the class, out of a possible 100. And scored a 46 on the final exam. Painfully aware that there was a war on and I might be sent to help fight it, I gathered up 150 pages of calculations and went to see Dr. Mueller to plead my case for a passing grade.
“Look,” I said, “I’ve got one hundred and fifty pages of calculations here—-I must have learned SOMETHING! Can’t you at least give me a “D” ?
But my argument just didn’t add up—the numbers just weren’t there.
Not one to give up without a fight, at least where my own survival was concerned, I made an appointment to see my advisor, the venerable Dr. Semmes, head of the Math Department.
“There’s a war on—I could get drafted!” I told him.
“It could be the best thing for you!” was his response. I walked slowly away from his office, wondering how getting killed in a war “could be the best thing for me.” In between my failing grade in Algebra and my 50 average in “The History of Civilization” (it seems I was unable to distinguish between Charles VI and Edward VII, or to remember whether it was Charlemagne or William The Conqueror who led the troops at The Battle of Agincourt), I flunked out.
And it would be at least a couple of months before they would let me come back and try again.

Thus it was during my hiatus from college that I discovered Playboy Magazine. It was a most excellent publication in both form and content, and of invaluable service to any young man who was coming of age and wanted a primer on how to be a man.
Merely by studying this one publication, I learned what kind of clothes to wear, what kind of car to drive, what kind of music to listen to, and even what kind of after shave lotion to splash on my face and neck to make me irresistible to women.
Never mind that I had never actually gone out on a date, I considered this magazine as indispensable, as gospel.
As soon as a new issue came out, I went down to Lamas Brothers, across from The Krystal, and purchased each new issue for fifty cents, money I had earned the previous summer.

Then I took it home, closed the folding door behind me, went upstairs, and carefully studied the magazine carefully several times each day….

Of course, I still dutifully carried my draft card in my wallet with my “2-S” student deferment, but one sunny day in October, it occurred to me that it might be “prudent” just to drop by the Draft Board, (since I was downtown anyway, picking up the latest issue of Playboy) just to make sure that everything was still “good” and to reassure the good people at the Draft Board that I was indeed planning on returning to college in the Spring.

Entering the building and approaching the window of the Draft Board, I pressed my right thumb hard against the black button in the center of the solid brass bell and rang for assistance.
A nice “grandmotherly-looking” lady with silver hair and glasses which hung from her neck by a diamond necklace, came to the window from somewhere in the back of the office. She smiled at me helpfully.
“What did you say your name was….?”, she asked. “Richard L. Parker!! ”, I responded confidently, pleased at finally being able to answer someone’s question correctly.
“And how long have you been out of school?”, she inquired sweetly. “Oh…just a couple of months—but I’m going back in the Spring!!” I quickly interjected.
“Oh, I see….“ she said, with a look of sympathy and complete understanding on her lovely, if slightly-wrinkled face.
Secure in the knowledge that I had explained my situation quite clearly, and relieved to have circumvented any possible misunderstanding regarding my eligibility status, I stepped back from the window and did an about-face to leave, and she presumably returned to her labors in the back office.
I pushed open the big plate glass door with both hands and stepped out onto the marble steps of the United States Post Office into the bright fall air.playboy.magazine
Yes, indeed. It was a beautiful day.
The sun was filtering down through the oak leaves of the trees in Johnson Square. A mother with two children fed the pigeons, while old men in suits sat reading the newspaper on park benches. Life was good. All was right with the world.
I got drafted a week later.

My Grandfather Was a Toad

david-spencer-goodsonWhen I was a small boy, we often went to Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah, Georgia to rake the fallen leaves off my Grandfather’s grave.There was a big white marble monument with the name GOODSON emblazoned across it in big bold letters.

Gradually, I began to think of that gravestone as my grandfather. Anytime anyone mentioned my grandfather, which was exceedingly rare in my home, for reasons that I will touch on briefly, I pictured that gravestone. He had died long before I was born and when anyone made any reference to him, which wasn’t very often, I didn’t picture a man, I pictured a gravestone.

As I got older I longed to know something about my grandfather. What kind of man he was. What his interests were. Nobody ever talked about it. Not my grandmother, with whom we lived. Certainly not my mother, who had been a young child when he died unexpectedly one night.

My Mother, his daughter, and the youngest of four children was reportedly his favorite. Although she never admitted it, my Mother couldn’t talk about it, since she was a 10 year old girl when he died and she never quite got over it.

One day, when I was about 12, I couldn’t stand it any longer. I was now too old to believe my grandfather was a toad and the mystery surrounding him still haunted me.

I called up my mother at work and demanded that she tell me something about my grandfather.

My paternal grandfather, had died in 1919, twenty-seven years before I was born, and my maternal grandfather had died suddenly ten years later, at age 39 in 1929.

One Sunday afternoon, when my parents were in the cemetery, rakes in hand, drawing pretty parallel lines in the grey sand, to my delight, I discovered a small grey toad was living in a little hollow under the gravestone. Every Sunday we went to the cemetery and every week I looked for that toad. And he was there week after week, in that little burrow under the right rear corner of the white marble monument.

I began to think of that toad as my grandfather.

If all else fails, the mind will answer its own questions.

Later on, when I was a few years older, I realized it was impossible that the toad was my grandfather, and I became even more curious to know something–anything about himm. My mother suggested I call up the place of business where my grandfather had worked (the Union Station Railroad Terminal Building in Savannah, Georgia) and ask to speak to an old man there named Mr. Leopold. He had worked with my grandfather and was nearing retirement.

I got the number and called him up.

He said, “You want me to tell you something about your grandfather ….?” he asked.

Yes, please…. “ I replied meekly in my little boy voice.

“Mr. Leopold continued,“.Okay…your grandfather was the kind of guy who would pass you in the hallway and not say hello!

I slowly hung up the phone without saying goodbye. Then I called my mother back on the telephone and told her what Mr. Leopold had said. I was crying.

She said, “Let ME tell you something….”

“MR. LEOPOLD was the kind of man who would pass you in the hallway and not say hello!!”

S.E.X.

At the beginning of tenth grade, there was a boy named “Ronnie” who sat in front of me in homeroom class. We became acquainted, and after a week of brief, but friendly chats, he invited me to join his fraternity.

Having grown up an only child, and a rather lonely one at that, I was elated at the prospect of being “accepted” by a group of my peers, and finally having some real “friends”. Ronnie gave me the address of his fraternity, and suggested that I drop by the following Saturday afternoon, to “meet some of the brothers.”

A few days later, I took the city bus uptown, got off twenty-five minutes later, found the address and climbed the stairs of a rather run-down, three-story wooden building, badly in need of a paint job. It was in the “Victorian Section” of Savannah.

I knocked on the door and was invited in by none other than my old friend Cecil, who shook my hand, welcomed me to Sigma Epsilon Chi fraternity (S.E.X.) and showed me around the place.

After a perfunctory tour of the facility, I witnessed one or two teenage boys I did not recognize sitting around in worn out “comfy” chairs and reading old Playboy magazines. There were more men’s magazines scattered about a wooden spool table which appeared to have been salvaged from some back alley.

We ascended the stairs to the third floor, where I was shown into a dusty old room with dirty windows. A naked lightbulb hung from the ceiling over an unmade bed. With a knowing look on his face, and the glint of saliva on his lower teeth, Cecil confided to me that this room was set aside by the “brothers” for the private entertainment of female “guests”.

While I may have had one or two impure ideas regarding females up to that point in my life, in reality, I had never so much as even said “Hi” to a girl, and thus, I was completely horrified by the thought of what sort of things– and what sorts of girls– might make use of such a room.

Nevertheless, my need to belong, to feel a part of something bigger than myself, to have “friends” and to be accepted by my peers burned strong within me, and so, I readily accepted his invitation to return one week later to be “interviewed” by the brothers.

The following week provided ample time for daydreaming and fantasizing about what my life would be like once I was a member of the fraternity and instantly one of the “cool”kids. I imagined that girls at the school, who I liked and secretly admired, would suddenly notice me and be interested in me. I started to picture what kind of clothes I would have to wear to school in order to maintain the correct image that was expected of me by the other brothers. I anticipated being invited to wild parties where people would be drinking alcohol and dancing and conversing with each other and luridly with members of the opposite sex. Once I was one of “them,” people would finally have a real reason to like me and to accept me and I would be a person to be admired and respected. Then, as I happily pondered the excitement of my new life, these and other thoughts suddenly made me nervous and it all seemed so very different from the way my life had been that I started to panic at the thought of it all.

Nevertheless, the following Saturday, I awoke early from a troubled sleep, took a shower, brushed my teeth three times, got dressed in my “coolest” clothes, paid fifteen cents and took the bus to the corner of Drayton and 31st Street.

I thought I looked pretty sharp in my Gant shirt, khaki pants, Madras belt, Burlington socks and Weejuns. But, so far, anyway, no one had paid much attention to me, treated me any differently than usual or asked me where I was going. Not the people on the bus stop, not the bus driver, not any of the other passengers on the bus or any of the passing motorists.

Undeterred, I proceeded to the address of the fraternity house and climbed the stairs, just as I had exactly one week earlier and rang the bell. But now, something felt different.

This time, the door was answered by someone I did not know. He was not particularly “brotherly” and I was rudely instructed to take a seat in a room with all the other prospective members who sat around rather nervously eyeing each other and me sheepishly. I was informed that I was to come into another room when my name was called.

One by one, the other candidates for admission into coolness were summoned by name and timidly arose from their seats and disappeared behind a door into another room. The process was repeated about every seven to ten minutes.

Finally it was my turn. The door opened and the stranger I had met before stood in it and said, “Parker….?”

sexI was ushered into a large room and directed to take a seat on a tall wooden stool which had been strategically placed in the center of the room for the apparent amusement of twenty or twenty-five of the “brothers” who were seated in chairs and on several couches which were arranged around the perimeter of the room so that each person had a good view of the proceedings. The room was dark, and I could not see the faces of any of my future “brothers”, but there was one light overhead, the kind with a green metal shade, the type of light that might hang over a pool table in a seedy part of town–and it shone down directly– and solely, on me.

For the first time in my life, I did not enjoy being the center of attention.

I sat rather awkwardly and uncomfortably upon the stool as someone from behind me shot me in the back with the first question. I immediately realized I was about to be subjected to a rude form of interrogation, designed to humiliate me or make me look stupid, but I was willing to play along with it, for a chance to belong, but my desire to be one of them and my chances were quickly slipping away with each passing second.

“Okay….what’s your name…and where do you go to school….?”

I remember thinking this was a stupid question. I went to the same school as most of them. And besides, if they didn’t know who I was, why had they invited me inside the sanctity of their fraternity house and, for another thing, why hadn’t my old friend Cecil told them I was coming. I felt tricked and a little betrayed.

My natural inclination was to be funny, and for a moment, I considered making something up, saying something like “Seymour Butts….” going for the cheap laugh, but it didn’t seem like the kind of situation where anything I said would be getting any laughs. So I just told them my name and told them I went to Savannah High School.

Then someone directly behind me asked another question. This question was asked in a somewhat louder voice than the question before, and I could feel the tension building in the dark room, as out of the corner of my eye I could see some of the brothers begin to squirming in their seats in anticipation of the fun that was to come.

What grade are you in?” At least, unlike in Mrs. Wade’s math class, they were asking questions to which I knew the answers.

“TENTH!”, I shot out, momentarily emboldened, and seeking to regain the high ground.

Then, from directly behind me, another brother wanted to ask me something. I swiveled around in my seat. I was getting good at that.

His voice sounded vaguely familiar, and almost friendly. As I was wondering if he might be Robert Schuman, a boy whom I liked and had known since first grade, he inquired of me,

“If we asked you to go downtown to the women’s section of a department store and buy some women’s underwear, would you do it….?”

I thought about the question for perhaps ten or twelve seconds… pondering it seriously… suspecting that it might be a trick question, while at the same time understanding on some level that this might be the pivotal question they would ask me, and the very question which I must answer correctly– and the one question upon which any chance I would ever have of being one of the “cool” people, might hang.

I remembered that once, when I was somewhere, someone, maybe it was a teacher, had told me:

“Honestly is the best policy.” 

So I decided to be honest. I thought they would respect that. I thought they would want to accept into their midst someone who was forthright and honest, someone who would know right from wrong and try to do the right thing in any given situation. So after what must have seemed like a long time to some, so long in fact that one or two may have even forgotten what the question was….

I simply said, , “NO….I wouldn’t.

Someone across the dark room shot out indignantly, as if he hadn’t heard me,

“No, you wouldn’t WHAT??”

“No I wouldn’t buy you any women’s underwear….”

Then it was all over.

Another anonymous face, someone who hadn’t spoken before, but seemed to be in authority said, “”All right, that’s all….you can go now.”

Someone opened the door for me and as I walked through it told me to wait outside in the other room for a minute. I felt a tremendous sense of relief as I sat back down in the reception room to await my fate. One or two others, who were still waiting to be interviewed looked up at me as I sat back down, and, I felt a little sorry for them– and even sorrier for myself.

I knew that I had failed– and would never be one of the cool people.

While I was coming to that realization the door suddenly opened and one of the brothers handed me a folded up piece of paper and said,

“Don’t open this up, until after you have left here.”

Always able to follow simple instructions, I stood up and let myself out. I descended the stairs and stood on the sidewalk in front of the old white Victorian building which badly needed a paint job. I unfolded the paper and read it. They had reached a decision.

“NO!!!” was all it said.

I decided to walk home instead of taking the bus. It was a few miles. For a moment, I felt a little like crying, but my feelings of rejection were gradually replaced by a steely determination never to speak to anyone at that school ever again for the rest of the time I was there.

And so I went home. And went into my room and closed my door.

Then I lay down on my bed and tried to accept that I would never be one of the cool people.

The Boy Sprouts

 

wallet098After school, when I was 13, and in the eighth grade, I would frequently go over to the home of one of my classmates, a studious boy named Jerry Coleman. I had known Jerry since we were both in grade school together, but we never interacted much as I was usually over at Hughie’s house. I may have gravitated to Jerry, out of some sense of rejection because Hughie seemed more interested in hanging out with Richard, the boy who lived next door to him. But I never completely gave up on Hughie until he got a car on his sixteenth birthday and he and Richard got in it and drove away together to one of the local drive-in hamburger restaurants that were popular at the time. I was still riding my bicycle at 16, but it wouldn’t have been cool to follow them on my bicycle.

 

One day after school, Jerry asked me to come over to his house and help him study Morse Code. He explained that he was trying to learn it so that he could rise up the ranks in the Boy Scouts.

 

I thought that it would be nice to perhaps try to cultivate a new friendship in light of my “third wheel” status with Hughie and Richard. Plus my father had been employed for many years as a telegraph operator for the Seaboard Railroad and he had learned Morse Code from his own father who had been a telegraph operator in a little shack by the tracks in Nicholls, Georgia after Rheumatoid Arthritis made it impossible for him to continue his vocation travelling around Georgia by train as a “drummer”, or seller of wholesale groceries.

 

The way I looked at it, not only would I be cementing a new friendship, by helping Jerry, but I would be carrying on a family tradition.

 

We met several times and after Jerry had mastered the Morse Code, and I had learned A, B, C, E, S, and O, we turned our attention to tying knots. Thanks to Jerry, I can still tie a “square knot” and a “half hitch”, and a “hangman’s noose” three of the simpler types of knots, but nevertheless knots that might prove useful in life, especially if you want to tie a knot that stays tied. The first time I tried to tie the “square knot”, Jerry smiled consolingly and told me that I had tied a “Granny,” an inferior type of knot that wouldn’t hold. Since I lived with my grandmother, an invalid in a wheelchair, and we were very close, I wished that the scouts had come up with a different name for it. I felt a little sorry for myself for the minor failure and even sorrier for my Grandmother.

 

After a week or two of hanging out with Jerry, he asked me if I would like to join Troop 108 of the Boy Scouts of America. They met every Monday evening at 6 p.m. in a little shack on the grounds of The Whitfield Methodist Church in our neighborhood.

 

I’ll admit, I was somewhat intrigued by the invitation and gratified by the realization that someone actually wanted to spend time with me and I found the prospect of making more new friends rather appealing, especially after my frustrating and rather disappointing experiences with Hughie in my early life. But, in my own defense, I had given it a good ten years to work out. In retrospect, it was nothing personal, it was just that I needed him more than he needed me.

 

The following Monday evening at around six, in the fading light of an early Fall evening, my Mother dropped me off in front of the church and I tentatively walked over to a small white building off to one side. The door was open and there was a light on inside and I could see six or seven boys congregating near the entrance. I could tell by their movements and the way they darted in and out of the door that there was something fun and possibly very exciting going on in that little shack. And I wanted more than anything to be a part of it.

 

As I walked in, I passed a young man of undetermined age, perhaps as old as nineteen or twenty. He was talking to another older boy. They were both dressed in their scout uniforms, which were covered with medals and ribbons and one had a sash across his chest that had dozens of colorful merit badges on it—which had no doubt been awarded to him for his superior knowledge, skills and abilities in a variety of areas. I soon found out their names– George Linsky and Aurthur Saile and that they were scout leaders.

 

My friend, Jerry Coleman was already there, looking sharp in his uniform. And all the other boys were in theirs, except for me, that is. There was an American Flag on a shiny wooden pole on one side at the front of the room, and on the other was the Troop flag of Troop 108 of the Boy Scouts of America. Hanging from the top of the Troop Flag were a variety of ribbons which had been awarded for various events and activities the troop had been involved in going back many years. I felt honored to be in the presence of such accomplished and skilled individuals and the ghosts of countless others that were not present but who had obviously come before. It was obvious to me that this was an organization with a proud and glorious history–you could feel it in the room.

And I was determined to be a part of it. 

George called the scout meeting to order and everyone stood up and raised their right hand and gave the three-fingered scout salute. Then George led us in the Scout Oath, which was a regular feature at the beginning of each meeting. “On my honor, I will do my best, 
To do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; 
To help other people at all times;
To keep myself physically strong, 
mentally awake, and morally straight.”

 

I wasn’t sure what “doing my duty to God was” or what “morally straight” was, but deep down inside, I worried that I may have already violated that oath on numerous occasions. But I really hoped that whatever it was wouldn’t prevent me from becoming a Boy Scout.

 

That same week, my mother took me downtown to the basement in Penny’s department store where they sold the Boy Scout uniforms and equipment. With the help of a salesman, in no time at all I had my uniform, consisting of shirt, pants, web belt with brass buckle, red and yellow neckerchief and Official Boy Scout hat. For good measure, my mother bought me a wallet with a zipper on it in which to keep my membership card and any money I might acquire. Like any decent wallet worth its salt, there was a place for folding money and even a small pouch for coins. The whole thing could be zipped up for greater security. It was my first wallet, and as I would soon find out, a fine one.

 

But no zipper and no amount of money could ever secure me.

 

By November of that year, I had learned oaths and mottos and rules. I had learned how to build a fire, cook on it, wash pots and pans in dirt if no water was available, dig a latrine, splint a broken bone, what different animal tracks look like, where to apply a tourniquet to stop the bleeding and even how to suck out the poison from a snake bite.  

Preparations were now well underway for our first camping trip. It was to take place on The Isle of Wight, near Midway Georgia in mid-December. I also learned that it gets very cold in Georgia in the Wintertime.

On the appointed day, at around five-thirty in the morning my father dropped me off in front the church to join the other scouts who were going on the camping trip. I had a Boy Scout Haversack which my father had bought from a friend named Hatcher. It was slightly used and still had his name on the leather label, “Fletcher Hatcher”. There was no way to change that as it seemed to be burned into the label with a branding iron. I hoped no one would notice the name on the pack and think It had stolen it–or worse yet, think my name was really Fletcher Hatcher.

The rest of my gear was comprised of an old army surplus pup tent I had purchased for a dollar, about five years earlier from King’s Pawn Shop on Broughton Street, and its accompanying poles and pegs and rope. I packed my sleeping bag, which had been repaired by my grandmother after it had caught on fire a few years earlier, and my mess kit, canteen, a change of underwear and socks, a small hatchet, a pocket knife, some strike-anywhere matches and a couple of cans of vienna sausage and box of Premium Saltines. The hatchet and the canteen, I wore on an old pistol belt from the army surplus store. 

At around six a.m., we loaded up everything into a rag-tag convoy of old cars and set off down Highway 17 passing the same familiar sights I had seen dozens of times before on the many trips I made with my father to visit his mother in Jacksonville, Florida. There were my old friends the Powder Magazine, The Horn of Plenty, Gill’s Grill, Charlie’s Rendezvous Lounge, The Bamboo Ranch, Mammy’s Kitchen, Howard Johnson’s, and eventually The Dixie Jungle, where I had ridden my bike to buy firecrackers only a few weeks before. In a little while we turned left off the highway at the old church in Midway, with its graves of long dead farmers and their wives and children.  We followed the car in front of us, which followed the signs to the Isle of Wight.

After crossing a wooden plank bridge with no railings on it, in short order we arrived at the scoutmaster’s property on the river where we would set up our camp. Mr. Fillmore, our scoutmaster, was a red-haired man with very white skin and a permanent look on his face that seemed to say, “Yes, I can sort of see what you mean….” Mr. Fillmore was more of a figurehead, really, and rarely spoke to us directly. The Monday Meetings were mainly run by the Assistant Scoutmasters, George and Arthur.

Not having a tent-mate, I set up my tent, all by myself, by some tall pine trees, about halfway between the road where the cars let us out and the bluff of the river.  I remembered that my uncle always insisted I was a “sleepwalker” and had tied me to an army cot and to trees a few years earlier when I went camping. Although I knew he was wrong, I still didn’t want to get too close to the river. Rivers and the edges of cliffs are best approached in the daylight, and even then, with caution.

 

Everything went reasonably well that day. We set up camp in the crisp December morning, dug a latrine in the woods, gathered firewood, chopped it up, cleared an area for a fire, made a fire, cooked on it, ate canned goods and hot dogs, drank Coca-Cola, and ate potato sticks, made a map of the campsite, looked at the river, went on a hike, visited each other’s tents, and as darkness fell, we lit the big bonfire we had made earlier and sat around it, each kid telling some scary story in the firelight and each kid falling asleep as he listened, and picking up the story in his dreams, while others drifted warily back to their tents in turn.

Soon it was time to retire for the evening. Leaving the comfort of the fire, I immediately noticed that the temperature had dropped considerably in the last couple of hours. I hurried to my tent, crawled inside my repaired sleeping bag and buttoned it up as best I could in the dark. I remember thinking, next time, I’ll bring a flashlight. On a moonless night in the Georgia woods it gets dark at night and cold as well.

Very Cold.

Particularly if you don’t have a ground cloth, or something waterproof to put between your sleeping bag and the frozen bare earth.  This is especially important if you have lost about half the feathers in your sleeping bag. But my grandmother did remove the burned insulation and sew the bag back up, God Bless her Soul. 

I was beginning to understand what the scout motto “BE PREPARED” meant.

 

(to be continued)

 

 

 

 

The End of an Error

Thursday, December 31, 1959 was the very last day of the first full decade of my young life and I intended to usher in the 1960’s with a blast.
Many blasts in fact.
So it was, that when my Aunt made it known that she and my Uncle would be heading into Sarasota soon to attend a party that evening and my older cousin would be out on a date with a girl, I was only slightly relieved when I realized that my younger cousin who was my age and I were not being left completely alone. We at least had the protection of the family dog, Muffin, a golden cocker spaniel with a sweet disposition, and a full complement of sharp, white pointy teeth. Teeth that would come in very handy in the event she had to defend us from the escaped convict that we learned from listening to the radio was on the loose, that very evening– and was thought to be hiding in our area!
After my aunt, uncle and older cousin drove away and left us alone with Muffin, Rusty and I went around the house turning on all the lights and locking all the doors. Surely no escaped convict in his right mind would venture anywhere near a small beach house in the middle of nowhere with two 12 year-old boys and a cocker spaniel in it. Especially if it was all lit up.
Everyone knows criminals usually stay close to the shadows, and out of the sight of people to avoid detection.
Petting Muffin and telling her about the escaped convict didn’t make either of us feel much better. So we decided to take matters into our own hands.
From the small black suitcase with the green satin lining, I extracted one cherry bomb and using my uncle’s cigarette lighter, I lit it– while my cousin tossed the now-fizzling explosive out the side door and into a slightly wooded area about forty feet from the house.
Three seconds later, there was a very loud and satisfying explosion.
The exploding cherry bomb lit up the trees and bushes in the area. Surely that was more than enough to discourage any escaped convict from venturing any closer.
Just to make sure he got the message we lit a TNT and threw that outside– and in a few seconds there was aneven louder more thunderous explosion.
Any latent fear I may have had after the cherry bomb went off had now completely vanished.
Rusty and I were like two soldiers on the beach at Iwo Jima. Gripping another TNT in one hand and the cigarette lighter between my teeth, I peered out the window into the darkness. There was a flickering light. I looked at Rusty. He looked at me.
“The convict must be over there by that palm tree cooking something on a fire. I’ll bet he has a can of beans or some wieners or marshmallows on a stick and is roasting them.”
We briefly considered sending Muffin out there, but by now Muffin was nowhere to be found.
This was serious.
We’d have to deal with this situation ourselves.
We hurled another lit cherry bomb in his direction and there was another explosion. Now something was different, though. No longer was there just the reflection of a flickering campfire on some trees, but now the whole area was ablaze and sparks were rising against the night sky, threatening to set the trees on fire.
Rusty and I ran outside.
The woods were on fire. I didn’t know what to do. Rusty began stomping on the grass and beating at the flames wildly with his coat. We heard the distant sounds of a fire engine going up and down the road. They must be looking for us. Rusty told me to run down to the end of the road so they would know where to turn. I was always a very fast runner. I did as I was told.
Rusty stayed behind and beat at the flames with his coat. Just as I got to the end of the road the firemen saw me and turned in and with siren blaring and red lights flashing proceeded up the road to the house at a high rate of speed. I followed on foot, out of breath and not running as fast this time.
By the time I got there, the fire was pretty much out and while one fireman was dousing what was left of it with a hose another fireman was talking to Rusty, whose face was all sooty and and whose new coat looked partially burned.
I almost didn’t recognize my cousin Rusty in the flashing red and white lights from the fire truck.
I knew we were going to be in a lot of trouble and I was glad that my aunt and uncle weren’t home just then. I wondered if Rusty’s father was the type of guy to punish his son with a belt or the type that just spanked you on the butt with his bare hand. I wondered if he would just hit Rusty or if he would also hit me. I wondered if we were now too old to receive a spanking.
As I was mulling over the possibilities, the fireman turned to me and looked directly into my eyes.
“You boys did the right thing”, the fireman said, “You boys are heroes!” ….I straightened up slightly and tried my best to look like a hero…..
I looked at Rusty.
He was kind of heroic-looking, standing there all sooty.
Suddenly I was sorry that my aunt and uncle weren’t home. I wanted the fireman to tell them what he had told us. But they were somewhere else at a party, having a good time, mingling with real estate ladies, bankers and lawyers oblivious to their own heroic children.
As the firemen drove away and went back down the dirt road, for a moment, Rusty and I just stood there in the darkness looking at each other. Neither of us said a word.
Then we walked slowly back to the house and went inside and fell asleep–Screen shot 2014-08-22 at 5.37.39 PM and dreamed the kind of dreams that only heroes can.

UNLIKELY HEROES

In late December of 1959, I carefully packed the small black pigskin suitcase with the green satin lining, which my father had loaned me for my trip, with all the cherry bombs, TNTs, dozens of packs of Anchor Brand flashlight crackers and bottle rockets– which I had purchased a month earlier at The Dixie Jungle– and quietly slipped aboard an overnight train from Savannah, Georgia to Sarasota, Florida, alone, to spend New Year’s with my cousin and his family. Not my parents, not the conductor, none of the other passengers, not even the porter, suspected what was in that little black pigskin suitcase.

The next day, my aunt and my cousin Rusty were waiting for me when the train pulled into the station.
I put my other suitcase, the one with my clothes in it, in the trunk of their car and kept the small black one by my side.
As my loving but naïve and unsuspecting aunt pulled out into traffic and gunned the engine toward home, Rusty and I, along with the black suitcase, occupied the backseat. He popped the question.
“Didja bring any firecrackers with you?”
This was the moment I had been waiting for. I had rehearsed the whole scenario in my mind over and over on the long train trip and now it was unfolding in real time. For just an instant I felt important, in control and powerful. I savored the moment.
Rather than respond verbally, I reached down and picked up the small black suitcase from the floor behind the front seat and placed it gingerly on my lap, while deftly placing both thumbs on the dual nickel-plated buttons that released the two nickel-plated clasps holding the suitcase closed.
My cousin edged a bit closer, a look of great anticipation on his 12 year-old face.
Simultaneously, so as to effect maximum impact upon my cousin, and in an effort to impress him, I released the two snaps on the black suitcase and they sprung open with considerable pent-up energy and rattled– or rather vibrated for a split-second against the shiny metal latch mechanism in a most satisfying way.
Then I carefully… and slowly lifted the lid of the suitcase revealing its neatly packed, cellophane-wrapped, colorfully-labeled, dangerous and highly-explosive contents.
I looked up at my cousin’s face.
His eyebrows were raised, and his eyes, ever-widening as his jaw dropped open. A drop of saliva dropped off the tip of his tongue and was quickly absorbed into an amber stripe on his Bermuda shorts.
My aunt drove on, happily-oblivious, as usual, to the dramatic events unfolding around her.
In about a half hour, she turned off the highway onto another road and not long after that, slowed down and turned right at a mailbox and followed a white-sand road that wound back through lush green and orange vegetation ending abruptly at a one story, low-slung ranch style beach house overlooking the Gulf of Mexico.
We had arrived.
My uncle was the manager of a nearby resort in Sarasota and had recently rented this hideaway in Siesta Key for himself and his family.
In a few days, amid palmetto trees, a grove of orange trees, an abandoned house and mere steps from the sand at Pont of Rocks Circle, and all alone, with no adult supervision, we would become unlikely heroes,Screen shot 2014-08-22 at 5.05.11 PM and there, amid the smoke, the fire and the loud explosions we would end the 1950’s.

 

The Circle (and Other Stories of an Evaporated Childhood)

After returning home from a month in summer camp in North Carolina, when I was still only twelve, I fell in with a small group of younger kids from down the street. We would all randomly congregate at a small circular park at the end of the block, known as “The Circle”.

On The Circle’s west side was a small, mysterious, but otherwise unremarkable brick building, which I later found out was a “pumping station”—whether for water or sewage, I never knew, although there was plenty of each in my home town.

I found out about 40 years later when they were digging up the street that there were some very large pipes which ran under the street to this building, although I doubt any of us knew it at the time. From time to time, one could hear mysterious whooshing sounds coming from inside the windowless building, too, as if the unoccupied windowless brick building was constructed to obscure some ancient magical waterfall.

There were plenty of big bushes, too, some with little orange berries that were good for throwing at other kids, three or four magnolia trees, at various locations in the park, suitable for climbing, and one open area large enough to get up a game of “half rubber”, a bastardization of baseball involving a solid rubber ball cut in half and a sawed-off old broom handle for a bat. One nice thing about half rubber was that you only needed three players—a pitcher, a batter and a catcher—although an outfielder would have been nice.

There was also an open area on the South side of The Circle which was large enough for tackle football, where there was a small patch of bare earth where the grass had been worn away, mute testimony to the spot where most of the main action had taken place.

“Solomon Park”, as it was known on the maps, was situated on a side street, so there wasn’t much car traffic, which made it an ideal place to play or to circumnavigate on a bicycle.

In those days every kid over the age of five or six had a bicycle, and as far as I knew, was free to roam the neighborhood with no adult supervision, as most kid’s fathers were at work and their mothers were home taking care of smaller children or tending to household responsibilities.

I never once saw an adult in that park.

Anyway, it became a thing that August to see which of us “big kids” could ride his bicycle around the park the most times. It took about two and a half minutes to circle the park on a bike. There were three or four kids aside from myself who showed up there, day after day, at the end of that summer.

Hour upon hot hour, we would ride around and around, each kid keeping track of the number of revolutions he had made.

There were no girls in our group. Boys like us didn’t play with girls. I considered it traitorous.

It was an unusually hot summer that year and a couple of the younger boys had taken to throwing cups of water on us each time we came around. Most kids in those days rode American bicycles with big rubber tires, but I had a red “Rudge”, an English bike with thin tires and two hand brakes.

I had gotten it for Christmas when I was six and been riding it for half of my life at this point.

On days I was not in school, I was allowed to sleep late, and in the summertime, my parents were both at work by the time I woke up. At this time of the morning, the only other person at home was my grandmother, an “invalid”, who by this time of the morning, would have pulled herself up out of bed, using a makeshift “trapeze” of two by fours, sawed-off broom handles and doubled-up clothesline rope my Dad had rigged up for her, and plunked herself down in her wheelchair for another day.

She was like a mother to me and spent her day looking out the window at the birds and squirrels or reading her bible, or making phonecalls for the Calvary Baptist Church or writing letters to her son in Washington, D.C. She talked to “Tweety” and “Pete”, her two parakeets.

My mother told me that parrots and parakeets could “talk”, so I was sure they understood her every word, and one day would answer back, but they never did.

My grandmother, whose name was the same as my own mother’s, had a small black and white television set on a rolling tubular aluminum stand in one corner of the room and she spent her time watching quiz shows like The Price Is Right (with Bill Cullen), where contestants tried to guess the price of common household items without going over the price, or “Kids Say The Darndest Things” with Art Linkletter. She crocheted booties, bonnets and bedspreads for her 8 grandchildren and any others who asked.

It was great for me to have her there all the time, but she was in no condition to ever stop me from going wherever I wanted–and besides, I never asked anyone’s permission, because for the most part, being of an impulsive nature, I never knew where I was going until I was on my bike headed there. My Grandmother never knew where I was or what I was doing when I was out of the house, which was a good deal of the time. And if she had tried to stop me, I would have not listened to her.

Monday, August 31, 1959 dawned hot and the Blue Jays were restless in the magnolia tree outside my bedroom window.

It was my 13th birthday. I got an early start, and was the first one at The Circle that day. I began riding around and around, keeping count of how many revolutions I had made. By the time, I was up to about thirty, I was joined by one or to other kids and then later on, another, and we rode around and around, as the hot morning turned into the hot afternoon.

We rode silently and with determination into the late Georgia Summer.

By two or three o’clock I was up to about 150 revolutions and someone’s little brother who had joined us for a while, but dropped out, was now filling up a waxpaper Dixie cup with little green hearts on it from a neighbor’s garden hose and running over to throw water in the face of any big kid he could.

I was a teenager now, a couple of years older than the other kids and I was determined not to let anyone younger “beat me”. So I kept going, skipping lunch and not bothering to stop to go to the bathroom.

The afternoon came and went, and the sun dropped down warm and orange behind some tall pine trees in the backyard of a nearby house. Most kids had now dropped out or joined the water brigade.

I kept going.

My parents got home from work after 6, but by that time, I was still going strong. I could have kept going until after dark, but 256 times around the park was a record and that was good enough for me. The other kids had all gone home anyway.

There was no one left to impress except myself. There never was.

The next day I showed up again at the park. There were a few kids there already. They asked me how many times I went around. I told them. Someone figured out that I had ridden over 40 miles. I knew at that moment I was ready for an even greater challenge.

I would ride my bicycle to the “Dixie Jungle” in next county, to buy fireworks. It was 17 miles away. I would save my strength and my money for a month or so, and then just get up early one morning and go.

I rode home.

I was a boy with a plan.

That fall, on a sunny day in November, when the air in Georgia is crisp and cool, but not cold, with twelve dollars in my pocket and both of my parents at work and my grandmother in her wheelchair in her bedroom, I got dressed, grabbed an army surplus canvas bag to carry the fireworks in, slung it over the handlebars and slipped unseen and unnoticed, except perhaps by a stray cat out the front door of our house.

I mounted my red bicycle and carefully pedaled west on 51st Street, passing the houses of kids I knew– and kids I didn’t.

I crossed Harmon Street glancing over briefly at Solomon Park, scene of my recent triumph. I crossed Paulsen Street, where my mother always turned right to go to work.

I kept going, passing houses on whose porches I had trick-or-treated or sold Oatmeal Cookies.

I came to Habersham Street. I crossed it and rode on.

Now and then a car would pass or someone would be walking on the sidewalk. I ignored them. They returned the favor. I was invisible now with secrets to confess.

I came to Abercorn Street, a busy street leading downtown with a median in the middle of it. Years later my parents would be involved in a serious automoible accident there following an aborted attempt to flee a hurricane.

But I easily crossed Abercorn and headed West.

It was late Fall, the trees were bare and I could see the water tower at the end of the street at the Neal Blun Lumber Company. I had been down this street many times in past years as it was the shortest route from our house to Highway 17, the main highway to Florida. The main difference, was every other time I had gone this way, I had been in a car with my father driving, and we were on our way to Jacksonville to visit his mother.

This time, however, I was on my bike and all alone.

I came to the end of 51st Street and crossed the railroad tracks. Soon I was peddling past motels and gas stations on the outskirts of town. The sky was blue and I kept thinking about what kind of fireworks I was going to buy when I got to The Dixie Jungle.

I had been there before once or twice with my father. It was basically a gas station and souvenir shop selling soft drinks, chips, candy, and cigarettes, in addition to firecrackers, cherry bombs, TNT’s, Torpedoes, Cracker Balls, Skyrockets, 2-inch salutes and buzz bombs. They also had a really crummy “zoo” out back with a few monkeys, a ratty-looking bobcat, a skunk, a possum, a few bored-looking raccoons, a pony, a few chickens and a goat or two.

For 50 cents, the proprietor would take you on a brief walking tour of his sad collection of chicken-wire cages. The star of the show was “Maude The Singing Jackass,” who was advertised on hand-painted signs for miles in either direction. Maude was tied to the stump of a nearby tree and apparently didn’t feel much like singing the day my Dad took me there.

After another fifteen or twenty minutes I was really out on the highway. It was a two lane paved black asphalt road with one lane in either direction. I stayed over to the right and kept the front tire of my bike a few inches in from the edge. I was going about 15 mph and there was plenty of room for cars to pass. It was the trucks I was worried about.

I kept glancing back over my shoulder about every ten seconds and if there was a truck coming up behind me I would get off the road completely and ride slowly along the grassy median trying to avoid broken bottles or cans and then get back up on the road and continue on. There wasn’t that much traffic in those days, but, nevertheless, I had to do this many times. I passed Mammy’s Kitchen, a Bar-B-Q restaurant off to the side of the road. There was a big colorful painted roadsign of “Mammy” complete with a white bandana on her head and red and white apron. Mammy looked a lot like Aunt Jemima. I pedaled on.

I came to the bend in the road where my father had told me he had once run off the road into a ditch in 1927, when he first came to Savannah. I passed the Wise Owl Potato Chip Sign. It was cut out to the shape of a big owl and stuck up from the center of a large bush. It advised passing motorists to “Get Wise.” It seemed much larger to me now than on the many times I had seen it when my father and I were going to see my grandma in Florida. I got a good look at it. I liked that owl. I fancied that it approved of what I was doing.

At any rate, it was too late to turn back now.

When I got to the abandoned gas station with Donald Duck and Goofy painted on the inside glass window I stopped to rest. This landmark, too, I had seen it many times in the past. This time I noticed that the paintings of Goofy and Donald seemed “off” somehow. I suppose that being an artist, myself, I couldn’t help having a more critical eye than most. I sat by the side of the road and thought about Donald and Goofy and watched the passing cars and trucks for a few minutes. I imagined that Donald and Goofy approved of what I was doing.

Then I got back on my bike for the final leg of the journey.

It wasn’t long before I passed another landmark, The Bamboo Farm, and then I came into a large open area where the road passed through a marshy area. Off in the distance I could see the low open concrete bridge that crossed the Ogeechee River and separated Chatham country from Bryan County and which separated me from fireworks.

I pedaled a bit harder.

Once over the bridge and the black water, I came to a series of road signs advertising The Dixie Jungle and Fireworks.

I was almost there.

In a couple of minutes I pulled up and leaned my bike against the side of the building. It was a quiet at the jungle that day. I swung open a screen door and stepped inside. It was dark and cool and the only light seemed to be from a naked lightbulb hanging from the wooden ceiling near the center of the store. There was a man in the back of the place who noticed me when I came in, but didn’t pay me much mind, so I casually drifted over to the section where they had the fireworks for sale. I was the only customer there at the time. They certainly had a great selection. I tried not to wet myself. It would be difficult to choose between the bewildering assortment of colorful packages all wrapped in cellophane with such labels as Black Cat, Alligator, Zebra, Yankee Boy, Dixie Boy, Anchor, Camel and Cock brand, but I eventually settled on a large package containing 80 packs of Anchor Brand Firecrackers for four dollars.

I brought this up to the man in the back of the store and for good measure and because I still had a few dollars left purchased some bottle rockets and a dozen cherry bombs. Expecting to be arrested at any moment, I handed over the money and he handed me a paper bag full of power and self-respect.

I walked directly out the front door, did not pass go or collect two hundred dollars.

I placed the goodies in the canvas bag, slung it over the handlebars and started for home. I don’t remember much about the trip back, except that I arrived back home, by 1 o’clock in the afternoon.

No one had missed me.

My parents never knew what I had done and I wasn’t about to tell anyone. I went back inside and put the fireworks in a small black suitcase in my bedroom closet, where they stayed until I went to visit my cousin in Florida for New Year’s.

Wasn’t anchor he going to be impressed?

The Wall

opera

By the time I was around 12 years old, I was pretty much known in school as the kid who could draw.

Other guys were always asking me to draw stuff for them–like sports cars or jet planes–or monsters or aliens. I liked the attention it gave me and I savored it for every one of the ten seconds or so that it lasted.

But aside from Hughie, I still didn’t have any friends. And half the time, I wasn’t even sure about him. I don’t blame him, really. After all, he didn’t really need me to pal around with, he had five brothers. And then, as if the deck wasn’t stacked against me enough already, along came “Richard”. He was a kid our age who moved in right next door to Hughie. If Hughie felt like doing something with someone outside of his own family, all he had to do was walk outside and go next door to Richard’s house. His new friend even had my name!

Hank and Harry, the two juvenile delinquents who lived on either side of me, were around 16 years old by then, and way too old for me to be palling around with. I also knew there was zero chance that Hughie would ever call me up and ask me to do anything, especially now that he had Richard. So most of the time, even though it made me feel like a loser, I still went over to Hughie’s, every time I wanted someone to hang out with.

But so did Richard. He was usually already there when I arrived. I started to get the feeling that Hughie couldn’t have cared less one way or the other whether I was over there or not. And I’m sure I was right.

One day, when I was in a pre-emptive mood regarding Richard, I called Hughie up on the telephone and asked him if he wanted to go to the movies. His answer was vague—and left me intellectually and emotionally stymied. He merely said, “I don’t know”. “I don’t know……” It was a simple enough answer, but somehow, I just couldn’t handle it. What could I say? I didn’t know how to respond to him.

So I hung up. 

So most of the time, I just stayed home after school and drew pictures in my room. Mostly on the cardboard “shirt-backs” that came with my father’s freshly-laundered and folded shirts.

Horror movies and science fiction movies were all the rage in those days and both scared and fascinated me.

I had also become somewhat obsessed with a magazine called “Famous Monsters of Filmland”, by Forest J Ackerman. It was mostly reprints of movie stills with pictures of Frankenstein, The Werewolf, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Robbie The Robot from “Forbidden Planet” and others. 

My father worked as a telegrapher for the railroad, and voluminous information concerning the identity of various passenger trains, as well as the arrival, departure and contents of thousands of freight cars would be printed out constantly onto big rolls of yellow paper. When the rolls began to run out the color of the paper would change to pink. That way, the operators knew to change the roll, so all of the information which was being transmitted would be printed by the Teletype machines and the machines would not be tapping away on an empty roll. My father had grown up in a family that had seen hard times come and go and he was not raised to be wasteful. So instead of throwing away perfectly good rolls of pink paper that he had removed from the machines, he’d bring them home to me to draw on. He even showed me how to use a ruler to tear off pieces of paper from the rolls, so that each sheet would have a nice straight edge. Consequently, there was never any shortage of art supplies around the Parker household.

By the time I was 12, all the walls in my room were completely covered with my drawings of monsters on pink paper. It was my first art exhibit. 

One day there was a knock at the door.

Nina, the “maid”, a wonderful woman, whom I loved very much, and who worked for us, and took care of my grandmother, answered the door. Thirty seconds later, she appeared at the door of my bedroom with a somewhat strange look on her face. “Ricky, there are some boys here and they want to see you.” This was the best news I had ever heard up to this point in my life. Finally, not just one boy had come over to play with me, but a whole army of boys were at the door. They marched right in.
I was ecstatic.
My heart was racing. At long last, I would have my own friends. My excitement was somewhat diminished when I realized that they hadn’t exactly come to see me, what they had really come to see was my room and all the drawings on the wall. For a few happy minutes, seven or eight boys from my class were crowded into my bedroom and admiring my drawings of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein and the Mummy, and Lon Chaney as the Wolfman. Then, as the last set of eyes turned from looking at an eyeball dangling from a skull or a stitched up cranium, and turned instead toward the door, I knew it was all over. I realized that not only was I not the subject of their interest, but even my exhibit was only a brief stop along the way to their real destination.
They were headed to Daffin Park to the Kiddie Fair. Someone mentioned, almost as an afterthought, that I was “welcome to join them” and so I excitedly tagged along trying hard to keep up with the leaders up near the front of the pack. I had been to the fair before. It was a small amusement park with rides and cotton candy. Lots of fun, but not nearly as big as the one on the outskirts of town, The Coastal Empire Fair, which was held every October and even had dead babies in jars. No sooner had we arrived at the small fair than our leader, spotted several attractive teenage girls and made a lewd hand gesture in their direction and addressed them in a most shocking and direct way in what I thought was a highly inappropriate manner. I immediately got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.
Who were these people?
What had I gotten myself into?
I wasn’t ready for this.
As the other boys drifted toward the girls or blended into the big crowd of people at the fair I slowly dropped out, turned around and walked home all by myself, only too happy to return to the comfortable solitude of my lonely room.
And there I stayed– happy, safe and quite secure in my own little world.