….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.