Denver was exciting. For two little boys, we were in the “wild” west. The mountains were far more spectacular than what western movies showed on the screen. Our new father, our stepfather, Emmett, was a mountaineer at heart. Born and raised in—what could only be called hills now that we had discovered the Rockies—rural Kentucky, he would eagerly explore these new surroundings every weekend possible, and he took us with him. In those days, Colorado had not yet become a Mecca of exclusive tourism and hordes of off-road vehicles roaring frantically over the terrain in search of extreme sport. (I have never understood the desire to go recklessly fast, endlessly harming the environment, and considering oneself anything above the rank of a selfish, hazardous pest in the fragile ecosystem of this planet.) Anyway, many of the small mountain settlements remained vestiges of old western towns. Mike and I loved it. Emmett even bought us each a pair of cowboy boots. Here there was plenty of diversion from those moments when we might miss our daddy. And, I guess we had inherited his ability to find sanctuary in fantasy. We were cowboys!
As Pappy told it, Mike was always the Ringo Kid, and I had to condescend to being Luke Plummer. I remember that Pappy had movies. Many movies. He had several large motion picture projectors and he would often show movies at home. One of Mike’s and my favorites was Stagecoach. Mike was a year older than me, and had an inclination to dominate our moments of collective fantasies by claiming the lead roles. I preferred it when we played The Fantastic Four, as there was more than one hero to go around. All these movies were on 16, and 35 mm reels, and I’m sure that it excited Pappy as much to show them, as it did us to see them. Lights, cameras, action! The Ringo Kid would sit on one side, Luke Plummer on the other, and in the middle our beloved director – Buck Star.
We didn’t stay in Denver long. Emmett accepted a job in Grand Prairie, Texas. Texas! For a couple of maturing cowboys, now that had a right good sound to it. Mike and I were eleven and twelve respectively, and had hung up our cap guns for good. We were beginning to notice cowgirls. We took the train from Denver to Dallas. It was July when we arrived. The heat nearly asphyxiated us when we stepped off the train. But, it was Texas, and we were ready to ride.
By this time there were two other siblings in the picture, and another on the way, children of mother and Emmett. We moved into a two bedroom in the Driftwood Apartments. The small apartment was, without question, crowded, but people sometimes have to do what they have to do. Again our lives underwent a change of scenery, events, and associations. There were no more mountains. Grand Prairie was as hot and flat as a pancake on the grill. And only the old pokes wore boots and hats.
We enrolled in Robert E. Lee Jr. High and immediately became Yankees. The uniform of the day there was white t-shirts, blue jeans, white socks, and black loafers. Our slacks and madras shirts from school in Ohio were as flagrant to these students as the drinking fountains and toilets marked “White” or “Black” in the Safeway store were to Mike and I. We were dissimilar to them, and they were certainly alien to us. This was, of course, universal grounds for a fight.
“Your mother this!” “Your Mother that!” Why is it that cowards feel compelled to insult your mother when they are trying to pick a fight? Are they are not man enough to insult your father?
“Your father wears combat boots.”
“Your father puts out.”
I constrain myself, of course, but I’m sure you get the picture. Bullies never pick a fight with someone their own size. After several assaults on mother’s dignity it became apparent that Mike and I must be cowards. We didn’t seem to care. Our mother taught us well that such craven gibberish is no more than a primordial claim to dominance over territory, style, and most especially—cowgirls. A passive man is not necessarily a weak man, however, and even young girls are inherently aware of this. It was time for a showdown.
The schoolyard was quiet. Most students had departed, except for an adequate grouping of cowgirls milling around to witness the demise of these two Yankee boys. We were about to get hit, and we suddenly realized it. Bullies are also fools. They were looking more at the girls than at Mike and I. They obviously did not see the Ringo Kid and Luke Plummer standing there.
It was all over very quickly. Some more insults about our mother, some pushing and shoving, fists flailed about rarely hitting their target, an attempt to kick. I grabbed a foot and he went down and broke his wrist. The dust settled and Mike and I were standing tall. The bullies collected themselves and left, shouting Parthian insults and proclaiming victory. The cowgirls watched quietly, then left quietly. Mike and I were cowboys again. There were no longer any Yankees at Robert E. Lee Jr. High.
The crowded conditions at our apartment home soon wore thin. Mother and Emmett found a house close by and we moved in. But, their relationship was frayed. Mike and I would soon be told that when the school year was over, we would have to return to Ohio and live with our grandmother for a while. That was not especially unusual to us, as we had moved often, and lived with her frequently while Pappy and mother were together. Thoughts of Pappy started to materialize again.
Would we be able to see him? Would our grandmother allow that? What new movies does he have now? What does he look like now. Is he remarried, and do we have a stepmother? We were transforming into young manhood now, and received these thoughts with cautious enthusiasm. We had, after all, not heard from Pappy for several years. What would we call him?
We wouldn’t know until later that Pappy had gone to California at about the same time that Mike and I were returning to Ohio. Our grandmother came to Grand Prairie on the train, and we returned on the train. Only in one’s wildest imagination can one envision two trains passing in the night; Buck Star with a pencil thin mustache and a cigarette strategically positioned, looking at the lonely locomotive rolling east, as Ringo and Luke sleepily watched that “iron horse” travel west. Engineers salute each other with melancholy whistles as they traverse a narrow gauge between poet and hobo. The rhythm of a night train induces a diluted state of consciousness in which dreams can become horses.
Pappy was following Buck Star to Hollywood. He was going to be in the movies. Mike and I were returning home, and if we were lucky, Pappy would have some great new films to show us. And, this time I would take his hand and mine would no longer be small.
Grandma apparently did not know that Pappy had gone to California. She made it quite clear that any association with him was off limits. Anyway, she thought that he had gone to Florida, or somewhere. Truth is often abundant with irony; the type of real life paradox that any screen writer or film producer worth his silver salts labors to recreate. Grandma was closer to the truth that she ever realized.
Pappy was not in Columbus. Mike and I would search some, but we couldn’t remember most names, addresses, or locations from our time before. We remembered Mum Mum, however. That is what we called our grandmother on Pappy’s side. Her name was actually Nona, but we only remembered Mum Mum. We knew that she was Sir Uck-Uck’s mother, but we could not remember where she lived. I know that grandma and Mum-Mum communicated with each other at one time, but since the great crevice had opened between Pappy and mother, all bridges had been burned. Any link to Pappy was, after all, out of the question. And, Mum-Mum had moved to Florida.
During the days of Pappy and Mother, wine and roses, waxing and waning love, we lived in several towns in Ohio—Findley, Springfield, Dayton, and Xenia. Mike and I were unable to manage an exploration of these towns in search of Pappy; we were, after all, still just teenagers. We knew for certain that Pappy had relatives in Xenia; his father owned and operated a small bakery restaurant, and “Gramma Xenie,” as we called Mum Mum’s mother, operated a novelty shop there. I recall little of our lives in many of these smaller hamlets, yet I do remember Xenia. We lived in an upstairs apartment in a large three-story house. I remember that I particularly liked the small room with the bay window. Pappy and mother had many books there, and the sun would stream through most of the day. I have always loved books, I find their presence quite intoxicating, and I will admit that I have somewhat of an olfactory fetish with books. To this day I find it difficult to open a book without smelling it. This creates some unusual contortions when in bookstores or libraries, as this fixation is difficult to explain. In the course of recurrent thumbing through the pages I try every imaginable motion to catch a sniff and not be noticed. When caught red handed I can only smile and feign an itch on the nose. Pappy would tell us stories in this room. Even if they were ghost stories at night I remained comfortable and unafraid there, and easily fell asleep on the bay window seat surrounded by books.
The bathroom however was down a flight of stairs, and that was another story. Not only did Pappy make marvelous puppets, he also made masks. I recall that he once made papier maché masks of a dragon and a unicorn for Mike and me. They would fit completely over our head. The dragon was coated with a substance that glowed in the dark. The Unicorn was covered with a fur like substance and it glowed in the dark as well. These were exciting and delighted us immensely. This clever raconteur and puppeteer made another mask that did not delight us however. For a while there hung on the mezzanine wall the mask of a skull, and it glowed, and sneered, and grinned, and to this day I am quite sure that it laughed at us if ever we tried to brave the stairs to the bathroom without adequate guard. We would insist that Pappy carry us to potty, which must have grown quickly tiring, as it was soon replaced with a large and happy drawing of the Cross-eyed Carpenter, a character much more endearing to Mike and I.
In addition to the heroic episodes of Sir Uck-Uck, he told a series of tales about the headless horseman. These humorous stories told of the headless horseman wandering endlessly looking for his head, and his head wandering endlessly looking for his horseman. Mike and I have never forgotten these extraordinary stories, puppets, masks, and imagination of which Pappy was so gifted, or I might say all talented. As little boys, these enchanted us. Now, we couldn’t find Pappy, and deep in my heart I was sure that he couldn’t find us. I began to doubt that we would ever find each other again. His face was becoming but a vague mask within my mind.
Columbus was not new territory for us. Mike and I knew our way around, and had some friends that still lived in the neighborhood. We shared the same upstairs bedroom in grandma’s house that we had many times before. We knew the schoolyard well, as it was but a block away, and had been common ground for many a sandlot World Series or Super Bowl. There was little transition in our return to Ohio.
We were back in school, and growing up. There were also girls in school and they were growing up. Kathy and Karen entered the picture. Our attentions were quickly captivated by schoolwork, sandlot sports, and girls. Grandmother sent us to church every Sunday as well. That wasn’t new. Whenever we spent any time with grandma she insisted that we go to church. However, I soon discovered that the small stone church where we attended Sunday school had all of a sudden admitted girls. Of course they had been there all along, just invisible to immature eyes. Here was Carol and especially Nadine. My mind began to throb excitedly with young manhood. Thoughts of Pappy evanesced behind valentines, sock hops, and awkward kisses.
Much of father’s talentwas just now emerging within me. Pappy could sing. Our mother even confirmed this fact once when I was tenaciously prodding her for some information about Pappy. In an extraordinarily rare moment, and in a rather upbeat mode, she told me,
“Your father could sing.”
Then, with a short arpeggio, she forgot everything.
As I understand it now, Pappy was quite an amateur lounge singer in various Columbus nightclubs. Names like Betty Saint, and Jim Owens the trombone player have surfaced but I know little else about that. Except that I could also sing.
I joined the church youth fellowship choir. Nadine sang in that choir. From school I was recruited to sing in some all-state choir presentations. Karen was also selected. I sang, “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy”, while Luke Plummer looked the other way. The cowboy music was yet to come. My Aunt Mabel bought me a record player, and grandma decided that Mike and I should take music lessons.
Grandma rented trumpets for Mike and me. Now, Mike can’t carry a tune in a bucket, but I can. Shortly after starting trumpet lessons I was playing the Marine’s Hymn, in the kitchen, in the bathroom, on the front porch, and in the backyard. One morning as I left for school I remember seeing both trumpets in their cases, setting together in the front room. Upon returning home that afternoon, I was informed that someone had broken into the house and stolen them
“However, Mark, if you would like I will get you a guitar,” my grandmother told me.
It was several years later before I figured that one out. But I liked the guitar, and have since become a rather accomplished, though lazy, picker. This did eventually become a source of contention with some members of the family. It appeared that I had the potential to become an entertainer. There was certainly no tolerance for that, and it was best discouraged.
Nadine and I became friends. She liked my guitar, as did I. Her parents liked it also. They didn’t know Pappy; consequently, they were not threatened by the possibility that I could end up like him. Nadine and I would sing Michael Rowed the Boat Ashore, If I had a Hammer, Lemmon Tree, or Puff the Magic Dragon. Sometimes I would forget the words when I watched her singing. One evening in the basement den we were left alone. We sang, moved closer, chatted, moved closer, and then we kissed. I will never forget that kiss, and I would venture to say that neither shall Nadine. We would never kiss again. Perhaps the passion frightened us. Perhaps because we were friends through the church we decided not to rush in where Angles fear to tread. Perhaps her father saw us. Perhaps I just didn’t know what to do then, other than fantasize, about girls. And, the world is large for young men.
Mike and I rediscovered the ravine! Pappy had often taken us there to play. This long channel ran for several miles from Indianola Park to the Olentangy River, and it was quite steep and considered very dangerous by some. Grandmother certainly considered it a perilous play area and it was off limits to us. Tell someone to imagine a purple giraffe, and then tell them to completely erase it from mind. They will see purple giraffes everywhere. Tell two boys that their favorite play area is off limits, and they will be there every day chasing purple giraffes. Tom and Huck would surely be envious of this urban wilderness full of adventure. We would swing on grapevines, sleigh ride, explore caves, build dams and bridges and tree houses, climb trees and cliffs, secure secret hiding places, pass under High Street in the drainage tunnel, and avoid flash floods, all with great zeal on our way to the river. There we would play hockey on the ice, with our street shoes as skates, rocks for pucks, and sticks for sticks, or we would build rafts and brave the twists of the Olentangy. And every now and then we would relapse into episodes of the Ringo Kid and Luke Plummer.
Mike had a new wrist rocket. It was powerful and we were sure it could down a grizzly, if we ever encountered one. I had a new Daisy BB gun. It was a lever action, looked like a 30-30 off the set of Stagecoach, and was not very powerful. One day, at the point where the ravine meets the river, the Ringo Kid and Luke Plummer had a showdown. Ringo fetched a 44-caliber rock off the ground, loaded his wrist rocket, drew back, and told Luke Plummer to run for cover. Luke was no fool. He high-tailed down the hill to the fork of a young buckeye tree. The gunfight began.
Luke fired several rounds and they rapidly lost velocity as they reached the Ringo Kid. Ringo returned fire, and the rocks roared past and hit trees with such force that it confirmed that we had no need to fear grizzlies. Luke hit Ringo in the leg and the BB bounced off ineffectually. More rocks flew past Luke snapping limbs off trees, and Ringo jumped behind a pile of leaves for cover. It became very quiet. Luke couldn’t see the Ringo Kid anywhere. Was he circling around to catch Luke unaware? Plummer wouldn’t give him the chance. He was breathing hard as he aimed blindly into the leaf pile. His hand was unsteady, but he fired. Mike jumped up crying. He had been hit in the eye!
Oh my God! My Father, help us! My heart plummeted as I ran to him. We immediately returned home to grandmas, where she took Mike into the bathroom to have a look. I was shaking in fear, and I am certain that Mike was as well. I watched as grandma opened his eye to examine the damage, and I saw a small slit open in the white of his eye, and the BB fell out. I will never forget that sight, as I expect that anyone can understand. Mike was taken to the hospital where they examined his eye, did whatever doctors do in a situation like this, patched it, kept him there for a couple of days, and told grandma and I that he may well have impaired vision in that eye, or possibly no vision! I know Mike was terrified. I was overcome with fear also, and guilt. We didn’t tell grandma that I had pulled the trigger. We concocted a story of some punks shooting from a car window. I prayed, intensely, sincerely, and often. I wanted our father there to help. Fathers know what to do, don’t they? I wanted our mother there to help. Mothers know what to do don’t they? I wanted God there to help. God knew what to do didn’t He? I cried hard and long.
When they took the patch off Mike’s eye, he could see! In fact, he was never to loose any vision. He remains 20-20 this day, and is only affected by age. Thank you God, my Father. You knew what to do.
The ravine had declared its power, as grandma had tried to forewarn us. It was indeed a risky playground, though worthy of the finest make-believe adventures that Buck Star, Mike, or I could summon. But, I saw a serious flaw in fantasy.
I was always confused by the reproachful feelings from mother’s kin in regard to Pappy. It was never suggested that he had ever physically hurt her or us, or that he was particularly angry, or had a drinking problem. As time proved, those were not at issue, so what did they find so unpleasant about this man? I was to later find several letters from Gramma Xenie and Mum Mum, which referred to times of indolence.
“…Wish we could have some good word from Donn – I wish he would get a job of some kind, around here. He could blame his not going to Tucson on me – Sorry, I am not well, and worry so about him, so he is staying close, for a while…Everyone likes Bonnie, the boys mother, so much. If Donn could just settle at something I could quit worrying…”
“… Mom says that she likes Donn so well – she says he is not lazy. He thinks things through – he won’t work at just any job. Mom told how glad she was when Ralph had him a job at Gandley’s – but when he went to see about it they turned him down, and none of us know why – Jessie said maybe he talked himself out of the job. She said – you know Donn will talk… but he is not lazy. Mom said it would be hard not to like Donn”
“…We are rather worried about Donn – He has a bad cough and only weighs 125 lbs. Can’t pass a physical for a job – Does what odd jobs he can get. Bonnie is painting portraits for Emerson (Burkhart) – He finishes them, and gives her half – He generally gets around $100…”
“…Bob’s & Bill’s are all coming Sunday – Jessie is fixing a birthday cake… Asked Don and family, but Donn didn’t want to meet Bob, because he wants to give Donn advice. Donn says he is doing what he wants to do, doesn’t want advice…”
Our grandma was one of twelve siblings of the Fuller family, all of which were professionally successful. There were several doctors, a couple of lawyers, a butcher, baker and an Indian Chief, and the women either married well-to-do, or secured an honorable career for themselves. Grandma worked all her life and retired as a secretary for the state of Ohio. They were children of immigrant parents that had obtained and managed a successful farm in the US, the land of opportunity. And, it was not achieved by idle hands. Work was bread. Eight days a week allows little time for creativity, or art, or music, or fantasy, or compassion.
“…Thus, the murderous, suicidal, terror overtook Star – he fell from public dominance – he was still in demand – but refused to act, or work…”
Entertainers were gypsies, and Pappy fit the shoes. He could sing, he could write, he could draw and paint, he could tell enchanting stories, he could create puppets and masks, and he could imagine. I would venture to say that he could not, however, imagine loading sixteen tons and getting deeper in debt, although he could sing it. This dichotomy between inspiration and sweat would drive a wedge between mother and Pappy from which they would not recover.
I went to work. I got a paper route, the Dispatch. I would deliver the evening paper every afternoon after school, Saturday afternoons, and early Sunday mornings. Once a month I would collect, which consisted of making the rounds each evening for about a week. I filled two canvas newspaper bags draped one over each shoulder, and suspended along each hip. I would roll the papers at the sub-station and fill the sacks, then walk my route as I delivered them. I was expected to at least porch the paper, and for some, place it behind the screen door. Unless you are approximately my age, you probably do not remember that degree of distribution.
Sundays were the more difficult days. The Sunday Dispatch was much larger than the other days of the week. It could not be rolled; rather it had to be banded. Mike would help me on Sunday mornings. We would leave grandmas at daybreak with a wagon and proceed to the sub-station. There we would have to put the “shoves”, or advertisements, into each paper, rubber band it and stack it on the wagon. By the time we had completed that, the stack of Dispatches sat as high as Mike or I were tall. One would pull the wagon while the other would stabilize the stack. Then we would walk the route and porch each paper. This, all before church.
I liked the paper route. I had forty some houses to which to deliver and from which to collect, and I got to know most of the people. There was the old man who collected coins, the couple with a most amazing garden, the man with a couple of immaculate Studebakers, the saxophone player, several older widows who would bake sumptuous surprises for me, the young man and woman with the yappy little dog that I loathed. There were some that I would never see; they left their payments in an envelope in some predetermined location for me to pick up.
One of these invisible customers lived in a mobile home that sat quite a ways from the street, and backed up to the woods that led to the river. Here I was required to place the paper behind the screen door, and the collection envelope was left at the same location, taped to the bottom of the door. This place had an air of mystery to it. I had never met the occupant, until one day, which I remember most clearly. Just as I was placing the Saturday Dispatch behind the screen, the door opened. There stood a pretty, middle-aged woman – wearing a very informative black negligee. Gulp! I dropped the paper, and as I picked it up I followed her legs upward. There I stood, my young heart throbbing well into my libido, my glasses steaming up and concealing the moist delights that she had placed before me.
“Are you thirsty? Would you like to come in for a minute?” she asked.
Gulp, again! Yep, I was thirsty now, that was for sure.
“Uh, oh, well, no mam…” I stammered in befuddled, parched reply. “I’ve got a lotta papers to, uh, I’ve gotta work. Thanks though.”
I handed her the newspaper and hobbled away to the next house, where the little yappy dog ran at me barking, and spooked me. That was the only time I was ever thankful for the presence of that cur.
Shortly after I returned home that evening I received a telephone call, from that very stirring subscriber. She was upset that I had missed delivery of her paper that afternoon, and requested that I bring one over immediately. Perhaps it is not newsworthy that a lad in his early teens would balk ignorantly at her brazen actions, and would get his dander up because he knew for a fact that she had received her paper.
“No, mam, I am sure that you got your paper! I cannot come over now,” I declared.
When I arrived at my sub-station the next morning I was told that I had a “miss”—as it is referred to when one’s daily is not delivered – on my route yesterday. Yes, I didn’t understand then, but I did miss something, and although this incident won’t be found anywhere in the archives of the Dispatch, it is ingrained forever in my back pages.
I porched that paper, collected payments from the envelopes taped to the door, and never saw her again. Still, I was a working guy and had some disposable cash. I could buy Nadine a little something from time to time, if she would accept it. I’ll get Karen some flowers. I wondered if Kathy would like to go to a movie? I had encountered a perplexity within my callow reality. And, grandmas who send you to church are not the ones with which to discuss subtle issues of this nature. I wished for Pappy’s fatherly advice.
Pappy had gone to California and remarried, to a woman named Clare – I think it was. Most of my information of this time is limited to hearsay and a few old letters that I was to find later. He actually did get work in the motion picture industry, which lasted nearly ten years, as I understand. I am unsure in what capacity, technical support of some kind, though not as an actor I am certain. There was not enough room in Hollywood for both he and Buck Star. He worked on sets with some greats like John Houston, and Orson Wells. Went to Spain on a shoot. Fraternized with many well-known characters in the industry. But, fate eventually wrote him out of this script, and detoured his great dream. I don’t know why. Maybe it had something to do with his failed marriage to Clare. Perhaps it was his stammer. He left California for Florida.
Emmett and our mother had gotten divorced in Texas—then had remarried. They had purchased a nice home. It was time for Mike and I to return to Grand Prairie.