Sunday, October 2, 2011

Priceless

    It is a 1923 Liberty silver dollar residing in an aged coffee can tucked deep within my closet and holding a life’s accumulation of old coins.  What distinguishes this dollar from all the rest, however, is a band of white medical tape wrapped around one half.  The value of the coin lies not in its silver content nor in some numismatist’s appraisal, but in the simple inscription on that strip of tape.  It reads, “To Scotty from Chuck and Frances and Sandra.”  It was a gift to me on my birth from the neighbors across the street, and for me that makes it priceless - a treasured gift from treasured friends.

Chuck's favorite game.
    I was blessed with a virtual treasure trove of such neighbors growing up.  Chuck and Frances Hearld happened to be the first to enter my life.  Chuck, a quiet man with smiling eyes and a demeanor to match, and his wife Frances, a woman with a harsher edge but who was equally as nice, were the neighbors who spent so many summer evenings sitting on our front lawn talking and laughing with my parents.  Chuck was a big kid at heart, and I looked forward to his visit each Christmas when he dropped by to see what new toys and games we had received.  Of course he wanted to share in the joy of the holiday, but he had a secondary motive.  The Hearld’s only child, Sandra, was quite a bit older than me, and I think Chuck missed playing with childhood toys and games.  The children of the neighborhood became his surrogate family, and through us he was able to satisfy his inner child.  I can remember one game in particular that caught his fancy.  Bas-Ket involved a series of spring-hinged levers spread across a cardboard court which could be used to advance a ping pong ball up and down its length and hopefully into the small elevated net on either end.  Chuck made multiple visits to our house that December to play our new game with us, and it wasn’t long before the Hearld household possessed a copy of its own.

The old bank book.
    Frances Hearld was one of the few women in our neighborhood that I recall holding a job outside the home.  She was a teller at the nearby bank, and it was she who set up my first bank account when Mom finally allowed me to cut open the large piggy bank (literally a chipper looking red plastic pig sitting upright with a small hat and bow tie) that had dutifully collected the family’s spare change (along with a few scattered receipts, ticket stubs from paying for the weekly newspaper and a small, slim back scratcher) for the first several years of my life.  I still have the AFMB bank book with Frances’ entries tallying my meager deposits and the humble interest they earned.  Despite her more stern and outspoken demeanor, I can still recall with great relief how both she and Chuck smilingly took the news in stride when I informed them that I had accidentally pushed my lawnmower through their basement window while mowing their yard.  A simple apology and a promise to promptly replace it was all they needed, and no more was ever said about the mishap.   A special gift to my family each summer was when the Hearlds allowed us to pick the cherries from the tree which grew in their back yard.  With Dad on the ladder and Mom, my sister and me picking from the lower branches, it wasn’t long until we had a basket full of delicious fruit which my mother then turned into the best cobblers I have ever eaten.

    All these years later, I can still picture an evening spent sitting on the front porch with my mother and next door neighbor, Julie Walker, bent bobby pins in hand, pitting a bucket of those cherries.  And it is that memory which brings me to the next jewel in my chest of treasured memories.  The Walkers were the family that lived to our east and their backyard abutted our side yard and driveway.  Julie was my age and had lost her father, Larry, when we were only about four years old.  Her mother, Dorothy, then barely over 40 years old, was left to raise three girls and a son on her own, and although she never remarried, she carried out her parental duties flawlessly over the remainder of her life.  I can still remember Dad and Dot, his affectionate name for her, having many conversations over the fence whenever he would be out working on the car or grilling out on our small, flagstone patio and she was outside working in her yard.  As I’ve noted in prior postings, it was Dorothy who always provided the popcorn when the neighborhood kids would gather on their corner to watch 4th of July fireworks.  Since we were the same age, it was Julie with whom I mostly played in the early years.  Any given day we could be found swinging side by side in my backyard, vainly trying to touch the telephone lines overhead, making mud pies in the sandbox, sipping nectar from the honeysuckle blooms that covered the large bush at the intersection of our yards, or we might be huddled together in the dog house that sheltered Tippy, the Walker’s dog.  On Sundays, we attended Sunday school together, and during the week we were in the same first grade class.  The middle daughter, Becky, was only slightly older than me, and she too became a great friend through the years.  She was the local tomboy and good friends with all the guys, perhaps by necessity since I can recall no other girls her age in the neighborhood.  Becky could hold her own in about any sport  and was proud of the fact that she was one of the best shots whenever we gathered to play basketball.  The oldest sister, Jane, was my sister’s age, and they naturally struck up a close friendship of their own.  Jane even accompanied us on vacation one year, but unfortunately, her fair skin was no match for the harsh Florida sun, and she returned home with a severe burn.  Larry, the son, was quite a bit older than me, and by default assumed the fatherly figure in the family once Mr. Walker had passed.  His passion was cars, and I never passed their house without catching him under the hood of his prized purple Duster, a car he still proudly owns.  

    Just north of the Walkers and adjacent to our backyard lived the Spillmans.  It was another relationship carried out over the fence which divided our yards.  So often Mom and Nettie would each be hanging laundry on the line at the same time and would invariably be drawn together at the fence to share the day’s gossip.  Nettie was a fun-loving, boisterous woman, and I can still hear her calling out, “Hi, Scotty!”  If she didn’t notice me, I would walk the length of the fence, rattling the woven wire with a stick until I managed to capture her attention.  Her husband Johnny, on the other hand, was a much more quiet man.  I never spoke much to Mr. Spillman, but my strongest memory of him is always seeing him in his work clothes.  I know I must have seen him in other outfits, but I can not picture anything other than his green work uniform with his name embroidered on the shirt.  I also have a vague memory of one day visiting with the Spillmans in their front yard when Johnny brought out a coffee can of assorted nuts and bolts and other assorted hardware for me to explore.  It was like a treasure chest to me, and I sat there under their front tree, next to the coffee grounds they used as mulch, playing with these “toys.”  The Spillman’s were the parents of three boys.  The oldest, Mike, was quite a bit older than me, so he was relegated in my early mind to that group of people known as “grown ups.”  Mark, the middle son, was a quiet young man with a large head of hair and a passion for gardening.  Most evenings Mark could be found puttering about in the back yard mowing, weeding or planting flowers.  I always expected him to pursue a life of gardening, but I do not believe that ever came to fruition.

Me with my Texas Ranger rifle. 
    Tim, the youngest Spillman, was the one with which I had the most contact, first as a friend and later as a coworker.  What stands out most in my memories of Tim, other than his good humor, was the fact that he was a bit of a jinx.  My first experience with this apparent hex came early in my life when I received my new Mattel  “Crackfire” Winchester rifle.” It was a toy gun which made the sound of a gunshot and a subsequent ricochet when cocked and fired.  Tim saw me playing with it in my backyard and asked if he could borrow it for a little while.  I leant him my gun and by that afternoon it was broken and silent.  His parents felt bad and bought me a new one, but this would not be the last time a toy would fall victim to Tim. In fact, I don’t even think it was the only toy gun to break in his hands.  I have a vague recollection of  my Texas Ranger rifle also returning nonfunctional, but I could be wrong.   A few years later I got a new, commercially made slingshot, a step up from the homemade versions I had created from branches out of the old apple tree and strips of an old leaky inner tube.  Tim was again intrigued, so I handed it to him across the fence.  He took the leather sling between his fingers and pulled back on the elastic when “snap,” half of the wooden slingshot broke off.  It was only one pull and had not seemed that excessive, and yet there was the arm of my slingshot swinging from the now limp elastic.  Again Tim felt bad and promised to repair or replace it.  And with the help of his father and a powerful horse glue, he did manage to reattach the arm of the slingshot.  The repair was sound, and the slingshot, which never broke again, is still in my possession some 40 years later.  It wasn’t just my possessions that fell victim to Tim‘s mysterious powers.  One day I was eating lunch when the sound of a small explosion sounded outside our backdoor.  I peeked out the back of the house to see Tim next door inspecting his bicycle.  Earlier that day he had inflated his tires but had evidently over-filled them.  The already compressed air expanded even further in the summer heat, and the rear tire of his bike had burst with a loud bang.  But the final proof of the “Tim jinx” came with my own bicycle.  Living in Indianapolis, home of the famous Indianapolis 500, racing was always a major interest in the month of May.  One year, the kids in the neighborhood decided to stage a bicycle race around the block on which we lived.  I was pretty small and didn’t feel I would be much of a contender, so I did not plan on joining.  Tim liked the look of my flashy three speed Swinger bicycle and asked if he might ride it as the “pace car.”  He wanted to take it on a trial run around the block, so I hopped off and handed it over to him.  Off he rode on my beautiful bike, but when he returned from his one lap around the block, there was my handbrake cable hanging free from the handlebars.  Yes, he broke my bicycle.  This time he even seemed to have a delayed effect because from that day forward, the red, sparkly banana seat started turning black.   I truly feel that none of this was ever due to abusive behavior; Tim just had bad luck.  
The slingshot with the glued arm visible at left.


    On the opposite side of our home, lived our true “next door” neighbors, the Pattons.  I first came to know them when their nephew, Timmy, came for a summer visit from Colorado.  Timmy was about my age, and we spent day after day playing with our Matchbox cars and singing songs of  the time. I can clearly remember our rousing version of “Hey There Georgie Girl” by the Seekers, complete with an outstanding percussion performance on garbage can lids and a Frisbee.  Because I came to know them through their nephew, for most of the years of my early life I referred to these dear neighbors as Uncle Bud and Aunt Donna, and I still view them with that same family-like affection.  It was Bud to whom my mother turned when the sewer backed up into our basement while father was in Oklahoma for postal training.  And it was Bud I consulted when, as an adult home owner, I was wanting to replace my patio doors which meant altering a header.  He had the construction knowledge and was the most trusted person I could think to ask. Sadly, like the neighbors already mentioned, Bud has since passed, but Donna remains a close family friend and was there at the nursing home visiting my mother only days before she passed.  She looks and acts just as I remember her in my youth, still maintaining her energetic spirit, bubby personality and her southern way of talking, including the term “youins” when addressing a group.
The neighbors and family gathered in the basement to celebrate my brother's wedding.  Bob and Ginny Garwood are on the left.  Chuck is second from the right as is his wife Frances.

    There were so many others who were just as near and dear.  There were the Sturms who lived two houses down.  Each summer they would come and pick our grapes and Catherine would turn them into delicious jelly.  Although I loved the jelly, what I most looked forward to was the circle of paraffin used to seal the jars.  I would chew that paraffin with its hint of grape as if it were gum.   And I can still recall with horror the morning their daughter Kay, who had spent the night with my sister, went into the bathroom, locked the door and had an insulin reaction.  She collapsed, falling into the tub and hitting the hot water faucet.  I can still hear her incoherent cries as the water scalded her legs, and my parents tried frantically to get into the locked room.  In the end, they were able to unlock the door, get some sugar into her, and she emerged with only some burns on her legs.  The years have claimed her entire family.  Kay, her younger brother, Bill and both parents are now gone.  
The comical newspaper clipping featuring Dad.

    Across from the Sturms were the Garwoods, Bob and Ginny.  Like most of the men of the neighborhood, I did not have much contact with Bob.  I remember him as a large man with a ruddy complexion who was a photographer for the local paper.  Only this year was I was reunited with an old newspaper clipping showing Bob’s picture of my father demonstrating the effects of overzealous celebrating on New Year’s Eve.  I don’t know the circumstances of the actual picture, but it was a comical warning to potential holiday revelers. My most vivid recollection of his wife, Ginny, was that she was passionately in love with the singer Tom Jones.  In those days, the Welsh musician had his own television show featuring a segment each week in which Tom came back on stage, loosened his bow tie and sang some sexy song.  Usually by the chorus the tempo suddenly picked up and Tom would dance and gyrate wildly, throwing the women in the audience into a mad frenzy.  When he would do the same thing on tour, the aroused women would throw their underwear and room keys onto the stage.  Ginny wanted to be one of those women, so my cousin Dewey, a doorman in Las Vegas arranged for Ginny to see a show and to meet Tom in person.  Ginny did not squander the opportunity.  In time, she and her daughter, Mariam, traveled to several shows across the nation, often meeting with Tom, dining with him, drinking champagne together, singing with him after hours in night clubs and keeping up a correspondence that lasted through the years.    I don’t know if she ever threw anything on stage, but she obviously made quite an impression on the man, nonetheless.
Ginny Garwood (left) eating fish with Mom.

    In those days, Ginny was the neighborhood Avon representative.  One morning a large group of us kids decided to have a big game of Cowboys and Indians.  Ginny, being well-supplied with small lipstick samples, decided to use them to apply “war paint” to each of the Indians, striping each of our faces with various shades of red.  Since that day I’ve never been able to look at a lipstick sample for what it was truly intended.  To me it will always be a tube of face paint.  The Garwood’s oldest son, Nick, was my brother’s close friend and partner in crime, even traveling with us on an early vacation to the Ozarks.  I say partner in crime because I can still remember the police stopping by our house one afternoon to inquire about some mischief in which Nick and my brother, Jerry, had engaged.  I don’t remember the details, but it involved BB guns and was nothing serious.  Now in their 60’s, Jerry and Nick’s remain good friends.
Evelyn knitting and singing while selling her brooms.

    One of the more colorful families comprising the neighborhood lived at the far end of the street.  Harry and Evelyn Davis were a blind couple with a pair of sighted children.  To supplement their income, Harry and Evelyn sold brooms on the corner a few blocks away.  Singly or together, they would head off in the morning pushing their broom cart down the middle of the street.  I always made sure to call out a greeting, but that was the extent of any conversing I ever had with them.  Evelyn, who I recall looking and dressing like a Russian babushka, would always be singing as she returned home late in the afternoon.  While this couple always seemed friendly and harmless, their son, Gilbert, gained a reputation as the neighborhood bad boy and bully.  I don’t think Gilbert acted out of meanness, I just think he was more mischievous than anything.  One day he may be throwing firecrackers at you, but the next day he might unwrap a roll of pennies and throw them down the street to watch kids run after them.  Being one to never turn down money in any form or denomination, I was one of the kids he could always count on to chase his pennies like a dog pursuing a tossed ball.  That is how I came to be in possession of the only steel penny I’ve ever owned.   Today that 1943 zinc-coated, steel penny sits in that same coffee can as the Hearld’s silver dollar.  
My prized steel penny.  Thanks, Gilbert!

    One of my best friends growing up was Bob Phillips.  Bob was a year older than me, but we spent a lot of time together in the summer.  I would ride my bike up and down the street in front of his house, or circling in his driveway while whistling “Oh, Susannah” until someone inside heard me and alerted Bob to my presence.  I don’t know why I chose this method over knocking on his door, but that is just how it evolved and was unique only to Bob.  For anyone else, I would ring the bell or knock.   I picture Bob in one of two ways.  In my mind’s eye, he is either shooting baskets or he is riding his green Schwin 5-speed bicycle.  Bob loved “popping” wheelies and would often ride most of the way down the street tilted back on his rear wheel.  One summer he got a bike with an extended fork welded onto the front, turning his simple bicycle into a chopper style.  I was very envious, but after trying to ride, or more importantly steer this modified bike, I learned it was more about looks than practicality.  I quickly abandoned my hopes of a chopper of my own.  Bob also had a penchant for spitting, and in the early mornings as we stood waiting on the school bus, he would position himself over a manhole cover and challenge himself to spit down one of the small openings.  He way have been a good athlete, and even was a starting forward on the high school basketball team, but Bob was the clumsiest friend I ever took to the lake.  I was much smaller and could weave my way through low hanging branches and shrubs with ease, but Bob fell victim to every loose stick or upraised root he passed.  He spent about as much time on his rump as he did on his feet, but it was all great fun.  I came to know his parents, Herb and Joanne,  through visiting with him, but I never developed the closeness with them that I did with my more immediate neighbors.  I do recall, however, that we always enjoyed shooting baskets with his dad in the evenings.    
My sisters and me sitting on the step with a neighbor, possibly Jeff Smoot.

    The list of names could go on and on.  There were the Flicks where I accidentally learned to ride my tricycle on two wheels - a style that would mark the remainder of my trike days.   Or the Kirshner house on the corner where their son, Rick, along with Bob Phillips and myself would wire firecrackers and hook them to a switch from a rocket kit, cover them in Vaseline and set them in the birdbath to blow up toy model ships or scare the feathers off of some poor, unsuspecting bird.  The Hensons lived in the corner house formerly occupied by an odd, little hearing impaired boy we called “Little Ricky,” and that is where I learned to shoot a pellet gun at targets in the garage.  The Galligans, the Wilsons, the Walsmiths, the Bryants and the Smoots were some of the other families with kids with whom I played.    And there were the mystery neighbors, as well.  Mr. Cinco, whom I rarely saw, worked on his large model airplanes on the other side of a cedar privacy fence that lined our backyard.  I could only hear their engines, but I could never get a good view of one of those planes.  There was also the gentleman behind us that I knew only as the “Bachelor.”  But whether they were well known to me, or just passing acquaintances, each was a special part of my childhood.  While my family may have been of modest income, I carry with me a wealth of memories that money could never buy.  And although the parents have since passed, and the children have married and moved away with their new families to neighborhoods of their own, I shall forever keep those memories safely secured within my heart, just as I keep that silver dollar stowed safely away in an old coffee can.

(A discussion of the neighborhood itself will follow in my next posting.  Those of you who grew up with me on Indy's east-side, please feel free to add your own comments and memories.)

5 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. simply lovely! You have no idea how much I needed this smile you gave me this morning reading your post! Thank you Scott!
    Today is going to be a splendid day afterall.

    Lovely memories!

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  3. Julie walker pfeifferOctober 3, 2011 at 7:44 PM

    Scott it was great as usual!! I do have a couple things to add- I think the little boy on the front step with u ia mike Wilson. And Gilbert did have the reputation of the bully! But one day he came to get whoever wanted to see... And me and Diane and bob and I went with him. He couldn't wait to show us that he was cutting down an overgrown front landscaping bush. In the bush he had found his dead cat tinky with one missing leg we were all taken aback! Gilbert was confused--- but then he noticed it was ti kys choak chain collar that had got caught on the bush. He could not get loose and he died a slow horrible death. This freaked out all of us. But what freaked us out the most was Gilbert reliably it was the chan. He put on her neck that was the cause of her demise. Then Gilbert showed his true colors...... He cried hard he cried lOud he appoligised to her and gave her a nice barrel . I never looked at Gilbert as a bully again

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  4. My sister, Dianna, posted the following. I'm putting it in two parts because it was so large and would not publish as a single piece-

    What an idyllic time it was to grow up in the 50s on 15th Street! It was pretty much my own world. In my perspective, we were all equal. Seemed everyone I knew had pretty much the same thing and the same house. My world had everything I needed for me. I had a school I could walk to, a church close by, a pharmacy and a movie theater that was affordable to kids. Oh, and when I was old enough, there was the Little Brown Jug, a drive-in restaurant for a very special lunch (with root beer, of course).

    It seemed I knew everyone on our block and many in the entire neighborhood. There was pretty much a kid in every house and a friend for everyone. We all had bikes, roller skates with a key, and moms who sent us outside to play until dinner. For us, we had a whistle which was blown to let us know it was time to come home. In summer we would head outside again to play kick the can or hide-and-seek or catch fireflies in mason jars. In my teen years, I would sit on the front steps of someone’s house with Sandy Hearld, Jean Booi, and Denise Flick and chat away about something for hours. Barefoot was pretty much the foot attire and I can never figure out how mom allowed us in the house with such dirty feet!

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  5. Here is part 2 of my sister's memories-

    Sandy Hearld was my across the street neighbor and I spent many a night in sleeping over, since she was one of the rare only children. Her father, Chuck, was my favorite grown up on the block. He had a great giggle and some cool guitars, which he would play. He and his wife, Francis, would dance in the living room to the Lawrence Welk Show on Saturday evenings. I remember watching them from our living room.

    Jean Booi was and still is my friend. She is the only person whose wedding I have participated in twice! Her first husband, Joe, died at the age of 40. Joe was someone I went out with a couple of times in junior high and then he and Jean became the couple thereafter. Jean’s second marriage was in Prescott, Arizona. It was such a privilege to be able to be there on that occasion, too. Funny, Jean now lives in Arizona and her son lives in Texas, not far from where I live. I attended his wedding in Texas.

    Jean’s dad, Chuck, was also one of my favorites. He’d always call us his “little pea pickers”, like Tennessee Ernie Ford would say on his show. He seemed perpetually happy while his wife suffered with depression for much of her life. I wasn’t sophisticated enough to know what was going on. Jean married young, and I think that might have been a contributing factor. She was always my smart friend. I remember once she called me “incorrigible”. I quickly protested I was not, even though I didn’t know what it meant. I went home and looked up the word.

    Denise Flick came into our neighborhood a bit later, toward the teen years. She was a couple of years older than I, so she seemed so mature. I remember her fixing me up my first blind date (which was also the last date with this individual) to go to Riverside Amusement Park. She married right out of high school, and I believe she is still married to the same man today. I really lost touch with her once she married and moved away.

    Jerry, as a boy, had a slew of friends on the block. There was a constant ballgame going on in our backyard. He would be out with Mike Strong, Nick Garwood, Norb Cassidy and Cliff Dahlin. He and Nick, in particular, were great adventurers. They were always going down to the creek or to the fields over on 12th street, before houses were built. I would go there, too, on occasion (but not with them, perhaps Jerry). In winter it was fun to try to follow rabbit tracks and it summer you could pick wild blackberries. Of course, blackberries always accompanied chiggars and they were terrible! Mom always kept a bottle of clear nail polish to apply to them.

    My favorite neighborhood memory as a child, however, was Memorial Day. On that day, everyone turned on their radios for a simulcast of the 500 race. The grills were fired up and the pools were inflated and water added. It was the official start of neighborhood swim season! It was also typically the first sunburn of the year, since sunscreens were not invented yet (ok, there was zinc oxide for the nose!) Never did I ever hear so many radios on at the same time until many decades later when I lived in the Caribbean and heard radios broadcasting soccer. It was such a shared love of an event.

    I am happy I grew up when I did in the neighborhood where my father and my sister still live. It looks different but the memories are still there. I am still amazed that six of us lived in that little house with one bathroom, but then everyone then had the same thing. We also shared meals each day, shared chores, and shared experiences. My childhood is rich in memory.

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