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

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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.

 

 

 

A GARDEN HOSE

When I was a little kid six or seven years old, I had a friend who lived around the corner and being an only child whose parents both worked–and like any kid– in constant search of fun and adventure, I frequently ventured over to my friend’s house every chance I could get. He had four or five older brothers and there was ALWAYS something fun happening over there.
 
One day, when I went over there to play, his mother and two of his brothers confronted me in an accusatory manner.
 
“Why did you cut up our garden hose?”
 
It was an odd question. “What–? What are you talking about”,” I responded.
 
His mother said, “But, Ricky, we SAW you do it!”
 
What WAS somewhat troubling is, (although I didn’t share this thought with them at the time) was that I DID have a vague image in my mind of a transparent green garden hose, all coiled up, with air bubbles circulating in an oddly- fascinating way through it. Even now, after all these years, I can easily picture that hose quite clearly in my mind. It was the same hose that we used to stream water across the red tile front porch of their house– to make it slick and slippery. Then we would slide across the porch on the water only to be saved from grievous injury by the ornate iron railings. The question haunts me still. Why would I purposely destroy something which was crucial to such fun? It didn’t make sense!
 
Yet there they were—staring silently at me with their accusing freckled faces, expecting an explanation, waiting for my admission of guilt or some kind of confession. Seconds passed like hours.
 
Thinking back on it, I do recall that when the water was turned on, little air bubbles circulated quickly, ‘round and ‘round in the coiled-up hose, for five or ten seconds before the water came out.
 
But I can’t believe I would have actually showed up at their house with a butcher knife in hand, and then, finding no one home, proceeded to bend down with the knife and cut up their garden hose into little green wet pieces!
 
Yet, I have to admit, there was something really fascinating about those air bubbles and the way they went round and round, faster and faster. Something cosmic almost, something which might unlock answers about the universe. Things a kid like me wanted to understand!
 
Thinking back on it now, through the decades of passing time, it occurs to me, if I HAD done such a thing, why didn’t they call my parents to report the offense? Surely that would have been a logical way to address the problem.
 
Yet, to my knowledge, no call was ever made.
 
True, I did have total free access to the drawer in our kitchen in which the knives and other cooking utensils were kept– and there was nothing stopping me from opening it and going out the back door, through our backyard, across the lane, through the neighbor’s gate, up their driveway, down the street for a hundred feet to the lawn and then getting down on my hands and knees and slowly forcing the dull blade of the knife through the soft green transparent rubber into those beautifully-moving bubbles that were trying to escape.
 
As I think of this, I can still almost feel the resistance at first, as I pressed down– and then, the sudden giving ‘way of the rubber, as the blade cut through to the other side– and cut into the blades of grass underneath.
 
If they were watching me do this, why didn’t they come running out of their house yelling , “What are you DOING?” Why remain inside looking at me through a window and say nothing until the next time I came over to their house– and then confront me– like I was some kind of juvenile delinquent?
 
And where was the hose I supposedly cut up now….? Where was the evidence?
 
Yet, why would they deliberately make up such a preposterous story?
 
Did I really cut up their hose– or was my friend’s mother lying? She had once told me my mother called and asked me to go home. I knew when I heard this that in the unlikely event that my mother had called (she never called me there) she would have expressed her wishes concerning my whereabouts directly to me and not a third party.
 
In every life, many such mysteries remain, unanswered, haunting our minds like unwelcome guests, slowly dimmed by the passage of time and amplifiedScreen shot 2014-08-20 at 2.45.55 PM by the power of imagination.
 
And, about which, we may never know the truth.