February 15, 2011
I presume that I was conceived somewhere in the little town of Auburn, a little unincorporated burg on a hill along Ohio 129, the road from Hamilton and Millville to Brookville, Ind. That’s where my parents lived, and I don’t think they were much for traveling at the time.
Auburn is what it says on the signs, but my family also called it Gandertown, though I don’t recall there being an abundance of geese. Or even a goose. A few geezers, perhaps, like Cedric Waltz, who owned the general store and gave me my first puff of a cigarette, he and everyone in the store thinking it hilarious to make a little guy choke.
That’s the kind of town it was, the kind of people I came from.
I should add, however, that even though I was 5-ish, I took the drag willingly, perhaps eagerly. That’s the kind of people I am. There’s not much I haven’t been willing to try at least once in my half-century here. I declined to sky-dive, true, but I have twice gone up in an open cockpit stunt plane.
Here’s how it started:
The Lomans lived on Cochran Road. There were seven Loman children, four girls and three boys.
The Joneses lived on Auburn Lane, just a few hundred yards away. There were also seven Jones children, also four girls and three boys. And in both families, the four girls were all older than their brothers.
Barbara May was the youngest of the Loman daughters. Forrest Richard Jones Jr. was the oldest of his brothers. She was 14 and he was 18 when they were married, the Rev. Paul Pennington, the groom’s brother-in-law, presiding.
Their first home as a married teen couple was a converted chicken coop behind Grandma Stokely’s house. She also lived in Auburn, in one of the first houses when you approach from Hamilton on Ohio 129. Grandma Stokely was Grandma Loman’s mother. There was no Grandpa Stokely because Stokely was the name of her second husband Sam Stokely. I wish I had some stories about Sam Stokely because they would be good ones. I understand that he was the town drunk and quite the character. But I digress.
I don’t know if I was conceived in the chicken coop or not, because they were 16 and 20 when I was born, so that was a couple of years on. Now that I think about it, I really hope I was. Maybe when Mom reads this, she’ll text me the answer: “Was I conceived in a chicken coop?” (These essays are not about fact-finding, but about memories. I’ll add a footnote if I learn anything.)
I do have a vague memory of the chicken coop, though, but it wasn’t from living there. I was very young, maybe even a baby, and we were visiting someone, maybe one of Mom’s sisters. I remember someone was ironing. I remember irises.
If I wasn’t conceived in the chicken coop, then it was probably in the first house I do remember living in, also in Auburn, a four-room frame box set up on cinder blocks next door to Grandma and Grandpa Jones on Auburn Lane, a little gravel road that cut across a corner of Cochran Road and 129. The egress onto 129 was really steep and I only remember one or two cars making the attempt in the time we lived there and later, so the only access was from Cochran Road, making Auburn Lane, for all practical purposes, a dead end. And since there was only four houses on Auburn Lane, there was very little traffic. Still, my parents and grandparents made me deathly afraid to go out into the lane. I suspect there was some ass busting involved.
The house had electricity, but no plumbing. It was possible to crawl under it, but I only did that once. Growing up in the country, bugs were no big deal, nothing to be afraid of, but you still don’t want to be swarmed by millions if not dozens of Granddaddy Longlegs.
There was a two-seater outhouse in back, and we got water from the well pump next door at Grandma and Grandpa Jones’ house. There were people living in that well. They might have been gnomes or elves or something, but I just called them the well people. They spoke to me and shared the wisdom they’d gained from living life both underground and underwater. So in gratitude, I would take them with me in the back of the station wagon when we’d go to town so they could see what the rest of the world was like. They had a very strange language with a lot of Ls in it. I was fluent.
I was very young -- we moved before I started school -- so I don’t remember specifically any of the stories or the wisdom they passed along, but I sure could use some advice now that I’m living in a watery cave.
I remember a sandbox where I played with my cousins, which I had plenty of. They were my first friends. On Mom’s side I was closest in age to cousin Dale, with cousin Greg on the other. There were so many of us though, that family gatherings were total chaos. The sandbox was near a cherry tree. That tree seemed huge to me, and I remember climbing it in spite of the danger. The cherries from the tree were tart and bright red. Grandma made excellent pies with them.
Auburn had two gas stations. One was a Sohio, and that’s where Dad worked when he cut off the tip of his thumb slicing baloney. That was pre-memory for me, but legend says they never found the thumb. The other was Waltz’ General Store, which had gas pumps, but now that I think about it, I can’t say that they worked as I don’t remember anyone actually buying gasoline there.
The house itself was tiny, maybe 20 by 20 feet, but memory is not a reliable device to measure that kind of scale. Divided into four more or less equal rooms, the house had three doors to the outside. The room without a door was the kids’ room. It was also the first house for Cindi and Russell, and Randall Wayne, the brother born between me and Cindi and who died in infancy. I don’t remember him at all, though I do have vague memories of CIndi as a baby, and I can remember when Russell was born. In that room, I almost lynched myself playing cowboy, tying a noose to the bunk bed. Mom rushed in as I dangled and saved my life. I can still remember the panic and the relief of my first brush with mortality.
The room catty-corner from the kids’ room was the kitchen. There was a sink with a non-functioning faucet, as I recall, and a gas stove. The food was down-home and overcooked. They tried to get me to eat liver by telling me it was steak. They underestimated my genius even then. I got my ass busted for telling them, “I ain’t gonna eat this slop!”a catch phrase I undoubtedly picked up from one of the three channels on the black-and-white TV, probably a cartoon.
The other two rooms were both Mom and Dad’s room and the living room in my memories, though I couldn’t say when the change occurred or if there was only one change. There was a squarish hole cut high in the wall between the kids’ room and one of the living rooms. When they had the bunk beds along that wall and the TV in the right place, I could sit up and watch “Combat” and “Bonanza.” I think I got my ass busted for that, too.
Looking back, it seems I got my ass busted a lot, but as I said, memory tends to distort scale, so maybe it wasn’t as much as I thought. But there were certainly enough of them that the threat of an ass busting was always imminent. That is, they didn’t make threats, they made promises.
So maybe that’s why I preferred spending time next door at Grandma and Grandpa Jones’ house. Their house was right next door to ours, the only two houses on that side of the lane. There was a footpath that ran between the houses, which Dad and Grandpa later laid down a sidewalk. I learned to ride a bike on that sidewalk, and it was just uneven enough to cause many stubbed toes.
Because I was the oldest Jones grandchild, they coddled me. Grandma Jones would occasionally bust some ass -- my cousins more than me, but I felt her sting a few times. She usually whipped us with a switch from maple tree, and sometimes she made us go get one ourselves. Like little dumb-asses, we would. On the other hand, I don’t think I ever received a cross word from Grandpa Jones. Indeed, as a baby (I’m sure) and as a toddler, I always enjoyed the seat of honor, Grandpa’s lap.
I learned to read on that lap. At least partly so. I don’t think that Grandpa was a big book reader, but he did read the newspaper and magazines like Popular Mechanics, Field & Stream, and detective stories. I have pre-school memories of him helping me sound out words from the the Hamilton Journal, as I believe it was named back then. It had a picture of the old fort in the masthead, which I thought was really cool, but it was long gone before I started working there nearly 30 years later. I probably didn’t understand a word of it, but I do remember making my way through entire paragraphs. Now I write the paragraphs, and I sometimes imagine a little kid out in the world (or Butler County, anyway) sounding out the words to my stories, picking up the first skills to make him aspire to be a writer, too.
I picked up a few other things from Grandpa, too. Mostly dairy-related. He drank a lot of milk and he’d always put ice in it. I don’t drink a lot of milk, but when I do, I put ice in it, too, otherwise it doesn’t taste cold enough. I have stunned people by sprinkling pepper on my cottage cheese, but I learned to like it like that because that’s how Grandpa ate it. I can’t say he’s totally responsible for my liking ice cream (because face it, who doesn’t), but there was always some in his freezer, always vanilla but sometimes also chocolate or Neapolitan.
Grandma was different. I would spend weekends with them all the way up into my early teens. She taught me how to play gin rummy, usually while watching “Hee Haw.”But I knew I was getting special treatment because to everybody else, she was a bitch on wheels. She was the crankiest person you could ever meet and was always giving somebody, but hardly ever me, a hard time about something. I’ve had cousins in recent years tell me how much they hated her. They said she hated kids. That was hard for me to hear, but I understand. I knew how she was. She would be working in the kitchen, going off on Grandpa about something, but he would just sit in his chair, rolling cigarettes, apparently oblivious to it all. You’d almost think he was rolling up good reefer instead of tobacco, but that was way off the radar back then and there. After he died, when I’d go visit Grandma, she’d get all teary talking about him, telling me how well they got along and how they never had a fight in the 60 years they were married. I’d just shake my head at her because she never gave the man a minute’s peace as near as anyone could tell.
Every Thursday, my aunts would come over to Grandma’s house to do laundry. They’d heat water over an open fire in a big galvanized tub, and transfer the hot water by the bucket to a washing machine tub with a wringer. There were clotheslines all over the place and the cousins would all play together while the women worked, generally keeping our distance lest the switches come out. We spent a lot of that time playing in the creek (pronounced “crick”).
Almost exactly between the two houses was a path that led down the hill to the creek. It was just a trickle, not deep enough to drown a toddler, but there was one place wide enough to skip a small rock a couple of times. One of my cousins skipped a rock across my head once and drew blood. We’d pick up rocks to look for crawdaddies, build dams and play war, chucking reedy plants like spears.
So if it’s true what they say, that the first five years are the most formative of a person’s life, this was the stuff I am made of. Juvenile parents and outdoor johns. Crawdaddies and Granddaddy Longlegs. Forts on the newspaper and invisible gnomes in the well.
We lived on Auburn Lane until sometime in 1965 when we moved to Richmond, Ind., where I went to first grade (no kindergarten) at Starr Elementary School, and turned 7 years old that fall.