Friday, May 1, 2015

More Trouble . . . Mostly

School began again and I took the most valuable course I was to have in high school; typing. I used to say that it was the only thing I had learned in high school that had any value but that isn’t entirely fair. There were some good teachers who tried hard to turn me around, but I was as difficult, or worse, than ever.

I was sitting in speech class when Kennedy was shot. We listened over the intercom. The next day I was watching TV with mom when Ruby shot Oswald. We both cheered. Kennedy’s death was the first in a series of murders that impacted my generation. Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, Malcolm X, Anwar Sadat, Indira Ghandi and John Lennon all fell, and each death hurt. Ghandi’s murder hit me harder than it might have some other folks because I had enormous respect for her father, Mahatma, and considered him one of the century’s great men. Still do.

Speech was enjoyable for me because I was good at it. Speaking in front of groups has never intimidated me; I’ve spent most of my life doing it in one situation or another. I can’t explain why—but it has always seemed natural. I truly can’t recall a time when I didn’t feel comfortable except perhaps when I officiated at my second funeral. The deceased, in addition to being a terrific guy, had two sons who were pastors, and there were also two or three District Superintendents present. But almost as soon as I began speaking the nervousness vanished and all was well.

Rather than try and tell things in chronological order I’m going to jump around a bit and take things (mostly) by subject. It will be less confusing to the reader and will help me get past worrying if the dates are exactly right.

To begin, I’ll go back to school—and I will begin by offering an apology.

In my history class (Junior or Senior year) my teacher was Mr. Otto. He had lost one of his arms at the elbow yet he drove an red Porsche 356 and he was a good teacher. I cut school a lot and he got on me for it. I told someone (I can’t remember who anymore) that I thought he was an asshole and it got back to him. He called me out in class by saying that people who called others names should have the courage to say it to their face. I replied that I was happy to do that and called him an asshole in front of the class.

He sent me to the office, and after taking some heat from a couple of Geneva guys in class for kicking me out for doing what he said I should do he came down, too.

Before he took me back to class he sat with me and sincerely pled with me to change how I was acting. He said he had seen my tests—he even quoted my scores (Math 99th percentile, Science 96th percentile, History 88th or 89th percentile and English 84th or 85th percentile)  He told me he knew I was a bright kid and that I had potential, etc. What’s more he wanted me to know he cared how I did.

My response was to tell him I wasn’t as smart as he thought because otherwise I’d listen to him. I told him he was wasting his time. I’m apologizing because he looked more hurt than angry. He did care and I blew him off.

I’m sorry I did that to him. He didn’t deserve it. But I was still angry at everyone.

I had an English teacher, Mr. Blomberg, who rekindled my interest in poetry. He had us all write poems. I still have one paper I turned in with his comments. He only gave me a B, but he explained why in a way that was encouraging.

Of course even in his class my temper got the best of me. The kid behind me had taken the spring out of his ballpoint and was flicking my ear with it. I told him to stop. He didn’t. I stood up and punched him hard enough that the desk tipped over with him still in it.

Our Western Civilization class was taught by a short, fat red-headed man, Mr. Gustafson. We weren’t buddies. Class was held in the auditorium. One day when the bell rang I was standing talking with a couple of other guys. Mr. Gustafson said that he wanted the idiots (meaning us) in their seats. The other two sat. I tugged on the seat in front of me—it was fastened to the floor. He asked what I was doing and I told him that if he wanted the idiots to sit he was going to need a chair.

I could cite more incidents, but you get the idea.

Sports remained important to me. I tried and failed to make the sophomore basketball team, partly, I believe because it was coached by the JV baseball coach I had accused of losing my physical papers before. I compensated by playing in the YMCA and church leagues.

Even my unpopularity with the coach couldn’t keep me off the baseball team. I was too good for that to happen—but I didn’t always play.

In my junior year I didn’t even try out for basketball. We had a good varsity and I hadn’t the talent and knew it. Again, baseball was different. My making the team was never in question, although I played behind a Geneva guy who was nowhere near as good as I. We were about equal as catchers but I could outhit him by a mile. Nevertheless I played more than enough to earn a letter.

The school offered an opportunity to juniors to go on a trip to New York and Washington each year. How she came up with the money I’ll never know, but mom was able to pay for the trip. I was excited. We went by train to New York and visited the World’s Fair as well as many of the wonderful places in the city and then took another train to Washington D.C. to see the capitol, Arlington, Mt. Vernon and more. Later in life I lived near enough to visit New York many times and never tired of its charms. It is a unique and wonderful city.

The chaperones were careful that no one smuggled booze into the hotels. They checked every bag. After gathering money from all interested parties I went to a liquor store, bought a bunch of booze and had the clerk gift wrap them as presents. They made it past the chaperones as souvenirs and we had a ball.

The trip took a bit more than a week, and it meant that one other fellow from the team and I missed two games. One of those games was not completed, but suspended.

The coach, Stan Hilgendorf was angry that we went on the trip, but he said nothing else.

When time game to resume the suspended game Hilgendorf told me I would be pinch-hitting and to get ready. In the last inning he had me go to the on-deck circle, but before I could get to the plate he called me back and let the other catcher bat. He struck out on three pitches. Game over.

Several on the team were shocked and told me so. But the worst came later.

At the end of the year Hilgendorf held a team barbeque at his home and gave out awards. I was excited. I was going to get my first letter. I couldn’t wait.

After we had eaten Hilgendorf called those who had qualified for a letter up one by one and presented them with their letter and a handshake. Two player’s names with enough qualifying innings weren’t called. Mine and the other fellow who had went on the trip. It was humiliating and it hurt like hell.

When I asked him where my letter was he told me that next year, if I didn’t go on a trip, he’d give me the letter.

During school in my senior year he monitored my grades and reminded me to stay eligible. In the interview he gave to the local paper he mentioned how fortunate he was to have some good players returning. I was mentioned by name as the starting catcher.

I didn’t show for the first practice. The next day he hunted me down and asked why. I told him I wasn’t going to play. He looked shocked, tried to convince me, but I told him no. As far as I was concerned he could kiss my fanny.

And so my sports career ended, not with a bang, but a whimper.

I’ll pick up the story in the next post. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Slide Continues

Basketball season ended and I had had the good fortune to score 17 points in a game against Walworth—team high for the year. Of course things balanced out; I scored just three against Sharon. As the Tralfamadorians in Vonnegut’s Slaughter House Five might have said, “So it goes.”

I was still going to church, principally because I liked Rev. Allinder and enjoyed the church group activities now that I knew more kids.

Then, for the first time in my life I found out I was poor. I had been poor for much of my life as a kid, but kids don’t know about what poor is unless someone rubs their nose in it. If a kid can play and has food, it’s all good. The Ogle farm, with no central heat, outhouse and all was a cool place to live. The camp, with no insulation for winter and an oil burner to heat the entire house was no problem. We could play under the house, watch the river and shoot birds with the BB gun. All good. Didn’t even think about being poor.

Even after dad’s death, because mom starved herself to spoil us I had no idea. She bought us new bikes, bought too much at Christmas and seldom said no to anything. We weren’t suffering at all—Mom was. Some days she even went without eating. We didn’t know and didn’t care. We were like hogs at the trough.

Eventually it all caught up to mom and she had to face reality. She was broke and in debt and corners had to be cut. She had spoiled us rotten trying to compensate for not having dad, but the party was over. And she was mother of three rotten brats.

Here is how I found out I was poor.

The church group was taking a road trip to Chicago. We were to see the sights and eat at a Chinese restaurant. That would be a new experience and I looked forward to it. The church was to foot the bill for the trip except for the meals. Mom gave me all she had to give; a dollar.

The day was great and I had a terrific time, but when we arrived at the restaurant the only thing on the menu less than a dollar was a hamburger. I ordered the hamburger with my water. What showed up on my plate was a ball of ground beef with huge pieces of onion sticking out of it. There was no bun, and there were no condiments. I gagged it down but it was horrible.

We had taken more than one car. I rode with the Allinders and two other kids. It was night, the two others went to sleep and I was nodding. Then I heard Rev. Allinder whisper to his wife,   JoAnn, “Can you believe,” he whispered, “we take the kids to Chicago for something new and different and one of them orders a hamburger for crying out loud? A hamburger!” She agreed it was silly, they both shook their heads and the conversation ended there, but it was like a knife in my heart.

I thought Rev. Allinder was a cool guy. I wanted to shout, “But that’s all the money I had!” But of course I didn’t. I just sat in silence hurting. That is how I found out I was poor.

Now the pastor hadn’t meant for me to hear it and he certainly didn’t know I had been hurt. He really was a good guy. But another authority figure had let me down.

That summer the church voted to hire me to mow the lawn because they knew we were hurting and figured I could use the extra money. They were right, I could.  Rev. Allinder said they would pay me $5/week—a doggone good wage. I accepted.

On the next Saturday I mowed the church lawn. On Sunday everyone told me what a good job I had done, but no one paid me.

The next Saturday and Sunday were the same. So were the next. I didn’t mow the lawn the following week. Someone else, maybe even Rev. Allinder, had to mow it late that evening.

On Sunday he asked to speak with me and began to explain that what I had done was wrong; the church was counting on me and that I had made a deal, etc. For the first time I really unloaded on an adult. Angrily and loudly I told him that “people who live in glass houses, etc.,” that they had told me they would pay me $5/week and they hadn’t paid me a dime. He said that they had intended to pay me at the end of the month. I said that wasn’t what I was told and they had lied. He said he would get a check for what they owed me and I told him I wouldn’t mow anymore. What the church had intended as a good thing had turned into a mess—all because of poor communication and my anger. From that time on I seldom, if ever attended church.

By now I had alienated the school, my relatives and the church. I was on a roll.

Then baseball season came. A blessing. I was the starting catcher and hit OK (.367).  On non-baseball days I might hunt crawdads to sell to Robinson’s bait shop, swim or play basketball on the court outside the school. Linda West had moved away and so I began taking interest in other girls. That summer was OK.

The trouble is, summers end. When it did I was bussed to nearby Lake Geneva, a resort town, to attend Badger High. I quickly found out that kids from Genoa City were considered outsiders unless they were terrific in a sport.

I heard one day while walking in the hall that a couple of Geneva kids had pushed around a kid from Genoa in the boy’s room. I found one of them and made him understand it was a bad idea.

At lunch time there was one junior who would walk around the cafeteria taking milk from freshman’s trays and drinking it. I took my milk to where he was sitting laughing about it and poured a carton on his head. We would have had a fight on the spot but cooler heads grabbed us both. That probably saved my tail because he was considerably bigger and stronger than I. But I didn't care.

Football was a game I had never played so I didn’t try out. Instead I would go to the games and the dances (we called them “sock hops”) and learned to dance. I tried out for freshman basketball, got cut, took the manager’s job and then was later moved onto the team. It was a great team. We won all our games by at least ten points. As an end of the bench guy I played just enough to average an amazing 1.3 points per game.

How did classwork go? It sucked. I was still stuck in classes I had taken in Cincinnati except for physiology. Because of my math ability they put me into algebra rather than arithmetic, but I had already begun algebra basics in Cincinnati and found it boring. My grades were marginal and my attendance poor. Plus I was a smart ass. I wasn’t really accepted by the Geneva kids, but a few of them thought me entertaining and smart and I kind of hung around the fringes of cool kids.

Then came baseball. After a couple of games on the freshman team I was moved up to the junior varsity. Only one problem: I hadn’t taken the required physical. By then I had begun to understand how little money we had and so didn’t tell mom I needed one. I got booted from the team. I tried lying that I had taken the physical and the school had lost the paper work. That didn’t do anything except make the JV coach angry.

I couldn’t wait for school to end, but finally it did.

Summer was glorious. I would head to what we called “The German Camp” to swim during the day and play Pony League ball at night. I hit .538, and found out later that a couple of scouts had come to see me. No one told me until after they had come and gone—I suppose it was to keep pressure off me. In the three games they saw I ten hits in twelve at bats including two home runs, two doubles and a triple. I couldn’t have played better. Sadly but rightly they decided I was too small to be a pro catcher and too slow to play anywhere else. When mom told me I was crushed but I actually handled it pretty well. I wasn’t angry—just sad.

Genoa City had a good men’s fast pitch softball league, and that year the worst team, figuring they had nothing to lose, asked me to catch for them. I was just 15 and the next youngest players were 18. I couldn’t wait. For the most part the men treated me fairly. A couple of them did knock me head over heels in plays at the plate, but when they saw I held on to the ball I was pretty much accepted.

There were three exceptionally good pitchers in the league: Johnny Hogan, Joe Schmidt and Scotty Halderman. Scotty once pitched a no-hitter while so drunk he could barely stand. I once watched Johnny and Joe each pitch seven innings of perfect ball against each other. In the eighth inning Joe’s shortstop made an error and Johnny hit a home run. Joe was furious. He had a temper, as I found out the first time I hit against him and tripled. The next at bat he knocked me down not once or twice, but three times before getting me to pop out weakly. I hit .341 for the year—an extremely high average for fast pitch. The next year I was invited to play on all but three teams—but I’ll cover that later.

The rest of the summer was spent at Jeff’s house playing APBA baseball, making out with girls at the show and fumbling around in dark corners of the park trying to learn what girls were made of.

I was treating mom terribly. She had no control over me at all. I was too big to spank and she was off at work and couldn’t supervise me. I know now that I was breaking her heart and am ashamed of that. Later, thank God, I was able to make some amends, but that was a long way into the future.

The truly good part was that Jeff’s parents semi-adopted me. They let me stay there nearly every weekend. I had never had any steak but round steak until they took me to dinner with them. Joe, Jeff’s dad was the local postmaster and operated the pop stand at the park. He probably gave away as much pop as he sold, and although he never talked about it, donated all the profits to maintaining the park. He liked everyone, and when the rest of the town pretty much hated me—and with some good reason—he would tell people to give me a break, that I was an OK kid.

Jeff’s mom, Catherine, was perhaps the best true Christian I ever knew. I don’t mean she was preachy or pushy. I mean that she was ever ready to help. She could turn on the deep freeze when Joe had one too many and go completely silent for a day or two. When that happened everyone tiptoed until “the Catherine look” was past.

The rest of the household consisted of Jeff’s younger sister, Kathy, who was probably three or four at the time, and his grandfather. Kathy and I are now great friends, but at that time Jeff and I were always angry with her because we would want to watch the Cubs or Bears and she would say, “But I want to watch (fill in the blank) and it is my faaaaaavorite program.”  

The other resident was Jeff’s grandfather, James. He was sharp and was probably the oldest guy in town. It annoyed him to be asked his age, so whenever anyone did he would say, “How old do you think I am?” Whatever the response was he would say, “You’re right.” Genoa City was full of people ready to argue about his age because they “Had heard it from his own mouth”—but it was from their mouth not his. I could tell many stories about him—especially about his selective deafness (!), but this is one of my favorites.

One night he sat up with Jeff, Joe and I to watch Gentlemen Prefer Blondes starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell. After watching a while he turned to Joe and said, “You know, Joe, those two have tits like Holstein milkers.” We almost laughed ourselves sick.

I’ll exit on that note and pick up the story in the next post.

What are You Mad About?

Note: There are few pictures from this time in my life. I am trying to locate some from friends. If I can do that I will try to return and insert them where practical.

It is necessary for me to speak about my anger before going on with this story. It explains, but does not excuse, my behavior. I want to be clear about that, because much of what I cover in succeeding posts will not—and should not—be easily dismissed. I was simply selfish and wrong and I cannot be proud of that. 

It is also necessary that in some cases I will not use names of others who were involved in some of the incidents. There are two good reasons for this: 1) my goal is not to harm anyone or embarrass them; and, 2) I don’t want to take the chance that my memory might be in error and could hurt someone unnecessarily. There are, however, times when names must be used to frame this narrative properly and there I will use them. Sometimes this may result in hurt feelings—but I can’t help that and apologize in advance.

So what (or who) was I angry at, and why? The “why” is easily answered and should be obvious: I was angry because I had lost my dad who just happened to be my hero. I felt cheated and lost and alone and I didn’t think it was fair.

It wasn’t fair, but as anyone who has lived more than a few years learns, life isn’t fair. Furthermore it isn’t meant to be fair and it will never be fair. Life (yours and mine) is simply what it is. Deal with it. 

I wasn’t dealing with it very well.

Below is the list of the sources of my anger--and I am going to be brutally honest here.
God. I had believed in him and in my own immature way I expected him to answer my prayers for dad’s life—Even offering my own in exchange. Instead (I thought) he had let dad suffer and die for no reason. This anger later led into hate. I still believed in God but I didn’t like him. If I can muster up the courage (hard for someone who is now a pastor to do) I’ll print a poem I wrote expressing my anger. It is not pretty.
2.  Mom. I loved her but somehow in my own twisted grief I resented that she was there and dad was not. It was obvious that she was trying to be him for us—but of course that was impossible.
3.  Dad. He had asked me to be the man of the family and I hadn’t a clue how to do that. I had neither the maturity, nor did I have the authority. What’s more I didn’t even know what a man was—let alone how to be one. I felt he had abandoned me.
4.  Myself. For failing my father and family by not living up to dad’s expectations. (Now it will be obvious to anyone reading this now that dad didn’t mean it the way I took it, and in a way it was his blessing, but I didn’t understand and it became a curse.)
5.  My sisters. They had, in my mind, become my charges, but they resented my trying to help or direct them. Of course it never entered my mind that they were as angry and confused as I was.
6.  Authority figures: God was an authority figure and he had let me down—more than that I thought he had done it on purpose. Thus, I didn’t like authority figures and I didn’t trust them.
7.  My mother’s family. She had moved us from Cincinnati with the hope that they she would receive help from them. She didn’t get it. They were involved in their own families, she had been away for years, and they seldom even visited, let alone helped.

To be fair to mom’s family I think it is fair to say that in the beginning, when mom was struggling with the house and work and us kids that her family—particularly her brothers Roy and Bill really let her down—But in the long run it was my behavior that kept them away.

They had no way of understanding my anger, or that I had been raised in a city so different from Genoa City that I had no clue about the things they took for granted. For example: I had never mowed a lawn or had a garden. The Ogle place and the apartment in Circleville were the only places we lived that had a lawn. We lived in the Ogle place in the fall through early spring so there was no lawn to mow. In Circleville the lawn was mowed by the owner. Then there was the camp. The lawn there consisted of stamped down weeds. Dad borrowed a mower to mow it the first time, and after that we kids trampled the rest.

To them, a nicely mowed and trimmed lawn was important. I frankly didn’t give a damn—and to the extent I knew it bothered them I was all the happier. I didn’t care to please them. I wanted to piss them off. It was the same with shoveling snow, washing the car or anything else. Whatever the norm I wanted to show my disdain for it. And I did. In return they felt the same way about me. I don’t blame them. The problem was that mom suffered    for it.

So she was alone; in her work; in her personal life and in caring for the house. The brightest spots in her life were Gert Oldenburg (another social outcast—a single mom), Gladys Bill, whose husband died a couple of years after we moved there, and Bill’s wife Dorothy.

Mom loved Dorothy like a sister/daughter and Dorothy was always kind to her. Mom might get upset with Bill (and often did) but she loved Dorothy. What is more, Dorothy loved her back. It never happened of course, but if someone had said something bad about Dorothy in front of mom, she would have beaten them like a piƱata until they burst.

The thing that kept me going was sports—particularly baseball. But before we return to baseball let’s go back to grade school for a while.

The school had a basketball team and a new coach, the Reverend William Alinder. He was young, had a sweet and beautiful wife, and most importantly, he was a very good basketball player. I admired him greatly.

I made the team as the 6th man—a disappointment—but probably the best player, Jack Trimble, broke his ankle or leg or wrist or something in or immediately after the first game. I had played in that game and scored six points in the 4th quarter, a good showing. I assumed his starting role with the next game and kept it all season.

In those days grade school basketball was not that big a deal. There were no tournaments, no intensive coaching and no big awards. We played in a league with other small grade schools and had a good time.

Before each game the cheerleaders would do the well known cheer, “Joe, Joe, he’s our man, if he can’t do it nobody can.” Best of all for me, my girlfriend Linda West was a cheerleader and always made certain she did the “Wray, Wray . . .” portion of the cheer. I liked that a lot!

I want to veer from the course of this post to make a very important point. When I was a child and before dad died, I have already said that there wasn’t a single morning that we woke up at home that mom wasn’t there. And that was the case for the greatest percentage of all kids in that era.

That all changed when dad died, and the family began to unravel. It wasn’t mom’s fault—she had to work. But when we got up she was gone, and often when we got home from school she wasn’t home yet.

The reason I raise this issue is single parent families were rare when I was a boy. Most families had a mother at home and a father who worked. There was stability that we seldom see today. 

I doubt that in my 8th grade class there were more than one or two children with only one parent.

A report I read (I believe it was from 2010) said that there we approximately 15 MILLION children being raised without a father and 5 MILLION without a mother. That indicates that unless a family member has taken in both parent and child, if the mother is with the child they are likely living on the streets, and if the mother is working they are living in poverty. They don’t know what it is like to wake knowing a parent will be there, or, they are awakened, bundled up and taken to a babysitter while the parent goes off to work.

From what I know from experience the family dynamics are a mess under those conditions. How can we expect children to grow without severe problems in such situations? The answer, it seems to me is simple. We can’t.

This alone indicates that the old American dream of rising from nothing (pulling one up by one’s bootstraps) simply isn’t possible for millions of kids. Without the parenting and mentoring they are lost. And that is why I detest people who spout that people are poor because they don’t make the effort. If you are poor you can work your fanny off all of your life and unless you get a lucky break you will live and die poor. We need to stop shaming the poor and start helping them. My congregation hears that a lot.

Some people come to understand that the hard way. The job they have worked at for 25 years gets moved or shut down and they lose their salary, their pension and insurance. Not long after that goes the house, the neighborhood and the friends. They are lost—and, by the way—an illness or injury can put them in the same trick bag.

I began this post by saying life isn’t fair. It isn’t. Don’t ever forget it.

The poem is below. Please know that I no longer hold these positions—but I did at the time.

Our father in heaven who knows all,
I sit in my chair and await your call.
My eyes on your throne dear lord. 
I calmly and patiently look toward
The time when I first gaze on you countenance
And you shall ask for my repentance.
I await that regal, heavenly face
That rules over all time and space
Mere mortals like myself occupy;
Living to live, living to die.
I know lord that when my time comes to die
I can look you in your omnipotent eye
And speak to you in just this way:
"Your most gracious holiness look on me. 
I've lived with pain as you have seen.
You've taken many ere my call came;
Though knowing you would it hurt the same.
I come to ask O lord for just one boon;
That is that you should send me to hell soon.
For I do not wish to dwell in heaven
With you O lord who has been given
The power o'er my life and death.
The suffering you willed with my father's last breath
And the pain my grandmother felt
While beside her bed her family knelt
Before she passed from my life to yours;
That agony of theirs has closed all doors
To your garden of peace O lord.
I prefer to dwell with wretches and whores
And those who've sinned and will ever pay.
There I'll rest until that day
When you will answer to your own mind
Knowing you have harmed your own kind;
And bow your head to those you have hurt--
And free all O lord--when your lesson has been learnt."

That is anger .