(Unexpected) Return of a Native

 

ImageI began this blog over three years ago. For regular readers you may have noted the paucity of posts in 2014. This has been due to many reasons. The principal one being my recovery from a January brain surgery. All went splendidly, but slowed down my research.
A much happier reason for being slow to post is the great change in my life since March. My wonderful and talented wife was named the new Dean of Libraries at our alma mater, Indiana State University. This allowed me to retire from Conner Prairie and start my own historical consulting firm. It also meant a return to the Terre Haute area. Anyone who has made such a major move know that selling your house, buying a new one, and simply packing and moving 19 years of accumulation is not for the faint hearted. We are settling in nicely to our new house which already feels like home and have unpacked all but a few of the 130 boxes which bore our “life” back to Terre Haute.
As you can see from the above photo, my new home office is now the center of the blog and research for the history of West Terre Haute. Being back “home” means I will have steady access to the materials I need. No longer will I have to schedule three-day getaways from work to drive to Vigo County for intense forays into libraries, etc.. Or wait weeks for microfilm to be gathered via inter-library loan.
So, I will soon be back on the trail. One story I am anxious to research is about my great-grandfather being framed for the wreck of an Indianapolis & St. Louis Railroad train at St. Marys. If the county clerk’s office can find the old circuit court files I soon will be able to tell that tale.
There is another story, only tangentially part of the WTH story I have been anxious tell. That is about a lynching. I have received many wonderful comments and suggestions about the blog. But, mainly due to the entries I have written about WTH being a “sundown” town and discussing the scant history of African Americans in Sugar Creek Township, I have gotten some frankly racist screeds. Just this morning as I checked on the site (I can access the various search terms that Google and others have used to send searchers to the site) and read this search term: “hanging a nigger from a West Terre Haute bridge.” Obviously old hatreds die hard. The thing I found most interesting and appalling about it was it associated the lynching directly with West Terre Haute (actually the appalling event took place on the Wabash River Bridge.). Such are the tales. Such are the truths. Stick with me as I try to tell the stories.

 


The Toad Hop Amazon and Other Tales, Part Two

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By the time these articles were published Grover Jones was a well-established and noted figure in Hollywood. In his career he would write over 120 movie scripts, and direct or produce more than 40 others. He drew on bits of his life and growing up in West Terre Haute in many of those scripts. But these short stories published in the 1930s drew almost exclusively his time in West Terre Haute and Toad Hop. As I wrote earlier, Jones’ contemporaries who still lived in the area averred that they knew exactly who or what he was writing about. Though often highly embellished for hid deadpan, satirical humor style, they contain deep kernels of truth about West Terre Haute and some of its citizens, and are steeped in the mining culture he grew up in, particularly among the Welsh of which he was a part. Wales, of course, was a major coal mining region, so it was natural that Welsh immigrants and their sons would gravitate to the dark pits around West Terre Haute.

Many of his stories revolved around women, though as seemingly minor characters, more “off-screen” than in the middle of the action, but they were the force that drove the stories and their outcomes. Though men were seemingly the central characters, they were undone or “made” by the females in their lives. For good or ill, the males who thought themselves very much superior to, or controlling their women, were but puppets on the string.

The Toad Hop Amazon, sub-headed by the phrase She fought like a wildcat, but she knew the way to a man’s heart was one such tale.

The central figure in the story was one Button (because he always wore a McKinley campaign button) Klegg, a tramp printer who stumbled upon West Terre Haute. It may surprise many, but West Terre Haute was once a lively newspaper town with two weekly papers competing for circulation. Klegg took over a struggling paper named the Weekly Times. He soon made the paper a success. Much of that was due to his humorous take on things in town. Miners loved it when he printed that floods would never reach the mine company store, because it was the highest place in town. Even supposedly dour farmers liked his style. He added further readers by doing “society” pieces that gently satirized those who thought themselves the elite.

But his humor got him in big trouble when he took on Mrs. Matt Wannack. He called her the Toad Hop Amazon and was baffled by the fact that a traveling carnival had not snatched her up for its freak show. She was a big woman, so tall Klegg said that “she could stand flat-footed and look over the saloon fence to see if her husband was in there.” And if he was it was a sure thing that the saloonkeeper would be building a new fence the next day.

Now Mrs. Wannack was also a dyed-in-the-wool labor agitator who loathed mine owners. As women were not allowed in the labor union hall she used her smallish husband to be her mouthpiece, preaching strike to the members. Klegg, who had lived through many a mine strike did not want that and it led him to publish his less than praising article about her. That in turn led to Mrs. Wannack visiting Legg in his office, which led to an epic fight featuring Mrs. Wannack “Casaba-melon” fists versus Klegg’s foot work.

It did not take long for news of this fistic bout to reach the mine in which Matt worked. He left the pit and sped to Klegg’s office. Not wanting further trouble Klegg tried to forestall another attack upon his person by the Wannack clan. To his surprise, Matt did not want to punch Klegg. Instead, he wanted to know “how’d it feel when you popped her?” Matt was ecstatic when another man did what he could not do.

That began a friendship between Button and Matt, initially based on mutual antipathy to the Toad Hop Amazon. They transacted many conversations while fishing together at a used up mine pit. One day they began discussing plum pudding, Klegg’s favorite food. When Matt told him the amazon made the world’s finest plum pudding, the two had their first real disagreement. Klegg, who considered himself one of the world’s great connoisseurs of plum pudding, a “knockin’ pick” he called it, was not buying that story. He told Matt that good plum pudding needed to age and the only place he had tasted good plum pudding was in Western Pennsylvania where a few Welsh miner’s wives knew how to make it right.

The two friends never had a chance to settle the argument among themselves. A few days later Matt, who like some miners had “the insane habit of opening a keg of powder with his pick” paid for his error. They “gathered him up with a whisk broom and a tray.”

Most of the town attended Matt’s funeral, but Button was not among the mourners. The Amazon had decreed he was persona non grata. With Matt gone, and many now sympathized with his widow, there were renewed talks of a strike. The town merchants feared its results. Then Button got an idea. To get miners’ minds off striking, he decided to make a folk hero of the gentle, well-liked Matt. His scheme involved making Matt into a home spun philosopher, and compared his wisdom to Dreiser, Dresser or Debs. Matt was offered as West Terre Haute’s answer to this famous Terre Haute trio. Button began publishing Matt’s alleged “sayings.” Things like:

“Next to a rainy day funeral there’s nothin’ sadder’n seeing a good fiddler playin’ in a cheap restaurant.”

“Man talks about possible disappointments; Women make them possible by talking.”

Matt’s purported aphorisms became the rage. Button had to print extra copies of his paper to meet demands. Soon, all talk of a strike withered on the miner’s lips. Incensed by this the Amazon sought out Button Klegg. She chanced to find him in his office talking with a city slicker. The man represented a newspaper syndicate who was there to offer Button $3,000.00 to publish the wisdom of the dead sage of West Terre Haute.

Now the last thing that Button wanted was for the Amazon to get wind of this. He knew that she knew he had made it all up. He saw the money winging away across Sugar Creek toward Toad Hop. The Amazon took note and so sweetly asked both to dinner that Button nearly gagged. Over dinner, which was good enough Button thought, he and the Amazon parried and thrust. At stake in this duel was a lot of money. As dinner ended Button decided he would announce that thewrote the aphorisms and the money was due him, not their hulking hostess.

Then the Amazon brought in the dessert. Plum pudding. Now would be the resolution. As he bit into it his taste buds agreed it was the best “knockin’ pick” he ever ate. As he became lost in savoring the pudding he heard he heard the city slicker pull out the contract and said the Amazon should sign the agreement which gave her the money in return for Button giving the remaining Matt material to the syndicate. Button. Mouth still filled with plum pudding, managed to say “Right.”

Jones ends the tale by saying that: “They were married in late summer and went on a honeymoon to Niagara Falls. When they returned Button changed the name of his paper to The Labor Clarion.”

Again in the humor are some home truths. There was classic labor-management strife. Most miners hated the mine owners with a deep seething passion. They did the hard, backbreaking labor, while the owners, they felt, literally reaped the rewards of their sweat. Strikes for better conditions or wages were a tool, but an often onerous one. A long strike could cripple the economy of a town like West Terre Haute. Shopkeepers lived in dread of a strike. They could lead to near starvation for miner families. Even some of the more ardent miners were loath to go on strike.

They could lead to financial ruin for miners and eventually pile up more debt for them at the company store. Those familiar with the old Tennessee Ernie Ford song “16 Tons” are familiar with the lament of owing ones soul to the company store. West Terre Haute had a company store at Market Street (3rd St.) and Paris Avenue. Such store often had higher prices for goods, but they offered credit to miners. Often it was the only way miners could get what they needed as they did not have the cash to pay for lower prices at competing businesses.

The Amazon is reminiscent of Mother Jones, the firebrand labor leader who fought her entire life for workers’ right.

You can read the entire story online, and other of Jones’ work by following this link and searching for “Grover Jones.” http://www.unz.org

For my blogs about miners, strikes and labor strife see:

http://wthhistory.wordpress.com/2011/08/08/siren-call/
http://wthhistory.wordpress.com/2013/11/26/union-war-part-one/
http://wthhistory.wordpress.com/2013/12/05/union-war-part-two/
http://wthhistory.wordpress.com/2013/03/29/to-get-bread-line-up/

Coming soon I will look at some more of Jones’ work


Wide-Awake Town

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As 1906 dawned West Terre Haute stepped to the threshold.  Town boosters believed it was about to cross through the door to becoming a large important town.  They had some reasons for feeling so.  In the last decade the town had grown almost six-fold as it took advantage of the mineral wealth that surrounded it.  New coal mines had opened, clay plants grew, small businesses blossomed.  Workers flooded into town to take jobs offered by the business boom.  Another key was the opening of the new Wabash River bridge.  The modern structure  replaced a creaky 19th- century bridge and made secure the connection with Terre Haute.

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One of the ways West Terre Haute announced its present, and its hoped-for future, was the publication of its first city directory in 1906.  True, it had been part of Terre Haute city directories since at least the 1890s, but this effort was devoted entirely to West Terre Haute.   It was an important step.  Not only could it be used by the town’s citizens and area businesses, it was a handy piece to send out to advertise the growing town and attract prospective industries and businesses.

The directory opened with a rather good history of the town which chronicled its growth from struggling village dependent entirely on farming, to the discovery and exploitation of coal mines, and highlighted the town’s growth.  In the two pages shown below it announced the advantages it offered to prospective newcomers.  It hoped to show it was a “Wide-Awake Town,” bustling, energetic, open to its future.

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The Directory featured a few photos, two of them focusing on Paris Avenue then West Terre Haute’s main street.  The new buildings it featured and the streetcar line showed that the town was growing, connected, and ready to take off.

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But the key to the West Terre Haute Directory was the list of its citizens.  Spread out over the pages one can get a sense of the town as it was.   It gave the name, address and occupation of each business or householder.  By far the largest number of listed jobs was that of miner.  Perusing the directory made it clear that West Terre Haute was a miner’s town.  And from their addresses you can see the formation of the “working class” areas of the town.  The miners, clay workers and other labors were concentrated south of National Avenue, in the newer areas west of Market Street (There was still a row of shoddy shotgun house on Market Streets when I was growing up.  They tore them down to build the new Post Office in the late 1960s), or scattered along streets on either side of National. 

The town’s “elite” tended to be within a few blocks of Paris Avenue.  The McIlroy family, merchants and leaders loved just south of the Avenue.  Burton Cassaday, druggist, postmaster and perhaps the town’s biggest booster lived on Paris Avenue between Sumner and McIlroy (now one of the most rundown areas). J.S. Hunt, the leading doctor lived in the same neighborhood.

Glancing through the 108 year-old directory I see many names that were familiar to me growing up, and which still live on in the town.  Of course, I looked for my ancestors there.  Great-Great Grandfather David Arthur (see blog entry for August 7, 2013) and his children lived in a stretch of houses on Miller Avenue.  My Hants (also Hantz) family lived in three houses along National Avenue (my grandmother was born at 101 National).  The matriarch was Susannah Hants, widow of Andrew Hants, a courier born in Pennsylvania.  Living with her were three of her sons.  John was a shoemaker, and Ellsworth and Emerson were “at home.”  Emeron is the one most well-known to me because of my grandmother’s enduring love for him.  Emerson was profoundly handicapped.  In one census he was listed simply as “idiotic”.  He was a kind soul, with little speech.  He was sometimes affectionately called “shickie-whoppie,” because that is one of “words” he said most clearly.

Next door was Susannah’s son. William.  He was my great-grandfather, the adored father of my Grandma, Hilda Hants Chrisman.  Oddly, he is listed as living alone.  At first it struck me as odd that my great grandmother Lulu was not listed.  But then I recalled that this was around the time that my great-grandparents were having marital issues, primarily caused by William’s drinking and the earlier death of their infant son.  Was this one of the times Lulu escaped to David Arthur’s house on Miller, taking Grandma and her sisters with her?  Quite likely.  If you know what to look for, even long dead pages can tell their story.

One more name caught my eye: James Leasure.  James lived on Edwards Street with his carpenter father and his mother.  The directory listed him as a farmer.  In the future he would become a blacksmith and auto repairman.  He would also become the one of the protagonists in one of the most infamous days in the town’s history (see “Love Usurped, March 7, 2013 blog).

But he, like West Terre Haute could not know their futures in 1906.

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New Year, Old Problems

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I recently spent six days in the hospital having brain surgery (one of the reasons the blog entries might be slow in coming).  But while there three things brought the blog and some of the reasons I write it starkly to my mind.

The first was in the few minutes before my surgery began.  While talking with one of the operating room nurses, we chatted, as you will, about with each other.  Where are you from? What do you do?

When I mentioned my West Terre Haute book project, he said, “Oh, I have heard of West Terre Haute.  My brother-in-law lives in the area and he has mentioned it.  Says it is really awful place.  He told me two jokes I probably should not repeat. But he asked me how you knew the tooth brush was invented in West Terre Haute?  Because if had been invented anywhere else, it would be called a teeth brush.  And, do you know why Jesus wasn’t born in West Terre Haute?  They could not find three wise men or a virgin there.”

Those are jokes told about many places.  I have heard Hoosiers say much the same about Kentucky.  I am certain they are often said about many, many places, but it is indicative of what many feel about West Terre Haute.  That is the place it occupies in much of the world familiar with it.

That very night as I could not sleep, despite morphine injections (I never sleep while in the hospital) I was able to have many conversation with an excellent, very caring nurse in the ICU.  Again, we chatted.  When we found that both of us had graduated from ISU she began to reminisce.  At the mention of West T. she said she was warned never to go there.  That it was a squalid little place.

The very next morning my wife posted a link on Facebook she knew would interest me.  It was about the struggle to keep open the West Terre Haute branch of the Vigo County Public Library.  Money is tight, some more cutbacks may have to be made.  The library in West T. might just have to shut down.

That truly grieves me.  First of all because it was “my library” growing up.  From that tiny building I checked out my first books (The first three I remember borrowing were The Little Island, Henry Huggin’s Paper Route by Beverly Cleary, and Richard Tregaskis’ Guadalcanal Diary.  Yes I was a precoseous and eclectic reader from an early age.)

But what is most crushing is the void, no the weeping chasm, that would be left should it close.  I have spent time at the branch while researching my book.  I have seen how important it is to the people of West Terre Haute.  I saw patrons coming in to research the illnesses of family members, find government documents, or just keep up with the world. I have seen them come into the library for many reasons.  I remember most a teenage girl..  She was thin, limp-haired, looking like so many different nourishments have been not fully sated.  Like many she was wearing knock-off versions of Uggs, Abercrombie and Fitch, or Dooney & Burke.  Those who dash to the computers and Wi-Fi they cannot afford at home, clutching the mouse like as if it  were a lifeline or IV drip, reaching out into a world that might seem only in aspiration.

Now, I can do a little bit about the lives of that girl’s parents or grandparents.  I can remember them with the book.  At least try to make some understand why her town went from promise to near ruin.  But we all must take a hand in keeping a library in that girl’s life, ensuring that in other fallen down towns both the young and old can continue to walk into the door of a library that opens up the world to them.


The Toad Hop Amazon, and Other Tales

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I have written several entries about Grover Jones.  Son of a miner, the precocious Jones left West Terre Haute to attend the birthing of Hollywood.  He went on to become one of the glitter city’s most successful screenwriters, raconteurs and storytellers.  He was also a sought after magazine writer, his short stories appearing alongside such heavyweights as Damon Runyon and Kathleen Norris in magazines like Colliers and The Saturday Evening Post.

For inspiration, Jones’ stories mainly drew upon the two worlds he knew best:  West Terre Haute and its mines and people and Hollywood.  His humor was broad and satirical, but as with all good humor there was a core of brutal truth.  At times it seemed almost written slapstick, appropriate for a screenwriter who worked on the slapstick movies of the Twenties and Thirties.

He seldom had to look far for his characters. He drew them from the folks he grew up around in West Terre Haute, and those he observed sharply in Hollywood.  To those in the know it was not hard to point to the real persons upon whom Jones drew his portraits.  A Terre Haute Saturday Spectator article from the 1930s mentioned that the people of West Terre Haute knew exactly who he was writing about in his farcical tone.

What do his articles tell us about West Terre Haute?  In the next two blogs I will look at three stories and try to divine the truths behind the humor.  I will start with “Soft Coal.”  It is the story of West Terre Haute miner Dowdy Swisher and and Birdie Stipp, daughter of the company store manager.  Now Dowdy,  had “a chest thicker than nine dollars of lettuce and weakness for pie without top crust.”  And Birdie was a pie-maker supreme (as will be seen a future story, food was often ajn important pivot point in Jones’ stories).  Entranced by Dowdy’s magnificent singing voice, Birdie set her cap and china doll eyes for him.  They were married, went to Terre Haute for their honeymoon and began their married life. 

Dowdy was thrilled with his pretty, pie-making wife, but soon began to wonder what he had to offer her besides his voice and paycheck.  Dowdy was the taciturn type, not much given to talking and with no real education or interests outside of baseball, while Birdie was an inquisitive sort who read the Chicago papers and liked to discuss things.  Enter Papini, a much-travelled miner/mule skinner who drifted into West Terre Haute looking for work when the Peabody mine he worked went on strike.  Papini bore a resemblance to Dowdy, who invited Papini to board with him and Birdie and found him work at the mine.

Papini was a talker and it seemed he had been everywhere.  He made Birdie laugh with his tales, while Dowdy sat quietly.  Others in town began to talk behind Dowdy’s unaware back.  It all came to a head one day in the mine.  An explosion caused a cave-in.  Everyone got out of one of the shafts except Papini.  Dowdy was set to go in after him when his friend Eddie unfortunately blurted out the news about Birdie and Papini.  Let him die in there was the consensus among the other miners.  There was nothing to be done, Papini could not be rescued.  But miners like Dowdy would never let another miner die if they could help it.  He dove into the shaft and pulled Papini out.  He then began pummeling Papini for trying to steal his wife.  They fought for two hours.  When Papini got out of the hospital he returned to Dowdy’s to pay his board and left.  It was said that Dowdy missed him afterwards.

In Soft Coal, published in the April 22, 1933 issue of Collier’s, Jones gave a tongue in cheek, but vivid description of West Terre Haute:

“My home town is on the banks of the Wabash. When I lived there it had thirty-six hundred inhabitants, five churches, and thirty-one saloons.  Enough bartenders to make three baseball teams and four left over to lend to the preachers—which they  did.

There was one main street.  It started in Ganzit’s pasture in the carefree manner of a young goat and ended at Stimky’s pop factory with practically no enthusiasm at all. Past Stimky’s there was no place to go, unless you cared to count the Red Horse fishing camp and the place where we went for pawpaws.

Coal mines encircled the town. Their tipples stood out against a perpetually murky sky like teeth on a gigantic saw. Only the farmers in our township ever saw any sunshine; most of us were undershot from blowing soot off our noses.Even the motorman and the conductor on the street car that bounced alongfrom our town to the county seat looked as though they were bumming theirway.

The men-folks worked in the mines. They were down the shaft at seven, home at four and in the saloons by five. Beer and pinochle were the evening pleasures. When a saloonkeeper started a saloon he bought a deck of cards.When he went out of business he usually had the same deck. In the process aging it gradually attained the height and shape of a Japanese lantern. By eleven o’clock every night you could squeeze out a pint of beer with very little effort. The fronts and backs looked exactly alike.

 

Those four paragraphs encapsulate so much of what I have learned about West Terre Haute history, both its physical and societal aspects.  There was a pasture (who owner’s name I cannot find in my notes just now) that served as sort of a community grazing filed and temporary home to Gypsy camps.  At the east end of Paris Avenue was a soda bottling plant owned by Burton Cassaday.  Paris Avenue was the main street in West Terre Haute where most of the businesses were located.  It was to be THE main street until National Avenue rose to share that designation beginning in the 1930s.

Mines were the driving force behind the West Terre Haute economy.  There were at least ten large mines and other smaller ones operating just on the outskirts of town.  The miners put in long, hard days and more than a few repaired to the ubiquitous saloons as soon as possible to wash away the dust and seeming futility of some of their lives.  There was a grime on the streets and buildings that colored the town darkly.

Another passage speaks to the lives of quiet desperation of women: The married women were all dried up like left-over apples.  They gave birth to children just to break up the monotony of setting dinner buckets and washing pit clothes.”

Or: “A boy seldom finished the common school.  At twelve, he was a trapper boy in the mines.  If he was born big he buddied up with his father and worked three rooms off the main entry.”  My grandfather did not complete the 8th grade.  Neither, likely, did any of his brothers,  By 12 or 13 they worked with their dad in the mines.  Partial school records at the St. Mary’s village school that gramps and his brothers usually only went to school during the dead of winter for six weeks of school.  Their sisters attended class the full year.

Now a coal company store aint much to look at… Trading at the store was obligatory.  If you squawked you were out of a job.”  West Terre haute had a company store.  It often sold items at above what the miners would have paid across the river in Terre Haute.  But it was convenient and miners could get credit.  Miners were sometimes paid in scrip for the country store instead of cash or checks.  As Tennessee Ernie sang, “I owe my soul to the company store.”

This has been a darker look inside what really was a funny, knowing story.  But it shows what you can learn when you dig deeper into a story.  Next time, I will look at The Toad Hop Amazon.


Queer

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I have written several posts about those populations (Blacks and Jews) that seldom comfortably walked the streets of West Terre Haute.  But I am sure there was a nearly invisible population (hidden, fearful, lonely) that did.  In my youth they were called “queers” and subject to such inhuman (as if they were less than human) contempt that it makes me pale.  Queer was the word in 1960s West T.  and queer was no way to be there and then.

My first inkling of this was when a neighbor would visit, call him Tommy.  Tommy lived over the hill from Grandpa and grandma’s house on McIlroy.  His father was one of the last of the river fisherman who eked out a living on their catch in West Terre Haute.  He was a roug- hewn man as I remember.  Quite different from Tommy.

Tommy would occasionally stop by our house as we sat in the yard.  My grandparents were always nice to him.  He had gone to school with several of my uncles and he would ask about them.  He was a pleasant man.  Other than that I did not take much notice of him as I was usually reading or listening to a baseball game on the radio.

It was not until I was a teenager that I began to notice in shift in atmosphere when Tommy dropped by.  I sensed my grandparents stiffen a bit when he would sit down next to me.  One of my uncles would get up and leave after the most perfunctory hellos to Tommy, claiming to remember a chore that called him.  On those times I remembered my mother had once told me not to go anywhere with Tommy.  That was a bit of a surprise to me, more for the fact Tommy was twenty years older than me and I had no desire to hang out with him.

It all became (mainly) clear to me after two incidents.  When I was about 17 and mom was in the hospital recovering from surgery.  Also there was Tommy, his illness unexplained.  Hearing Mom was there (she had always been nice to him) he came to visit her.  He was wearing a red silk smoking jacket over his pajamas.  He had that towering slick pompadour favored by country singers of that period like Sonny James or Conway Twitty. An unlit cigarette in a tortoise shell holder (yes, you could smoke in hospitals then) dangled precariously between his fingers.  Beneath that oiled jungle of black hair he had a pale, very pockmarked face.  I always thought he had the look of a junkie from a tough black and white TV detective show, like Naked City.

As we chatted, he leaned down and put his hand on my thigh.  I thought little of it, but did see the look on Mom’s face.  She told Tommy she was tired and needed to talk to me before I went home.  He said goodbye and went on his way.  Oddly, a few minutes later Terre Haute experienced a rare earthquake that shook Union Hospital.

A few weeks after coming home Mom and I were talking.  Very reluctantly she brought up Tommy.  “Do you know about Tommy’s problem?’  I at first thought she was talking about a drinking problem, as that was the problem I was most familiar with in our family.  Then it hit me.  “You mean he is a queer?’ (I used queer even though I had read Everything You Need to Know About Sex, but Were Afraid to Ask).  “Yes, when he touched your leg I wanted to scream at him.”  We did not talk much more about it, but she said people like Tommy were sick, but they could not help it.  “Just don’t let him touch you, Okay?  He is a nice man, just sick so don’t blame him too much.”

A few months later I found out that one member of my family did not take such a “liberal” view (for that era) of queers.

That Spring my uncle Danny (only about 7 years my senior) came home on Army furlough from Germany.  Another uncle, Jack, happened to be making a rare visit to West Terre Haute at that time.  I must say, I have always loathed my uncle Jack.  He was a striver, who always seemed to be a little bit of ashamed of the house om McIlroy and my grandparents poverty.  There was just something about him.

He and Danny had gone out for a few drinks together, catching up on each other’s lives.  I was still awake when they came home but pretended to be asleep.  At first I enjoyed their brotherly camaraderie as they spoke of growing up.  Now. My uncle Danny was a consummate jokester, renowned for his seemingly inexhaustible supply of jokes.  And he had picked up many to add top his trove in Germany.  He could do dialects (sadly, he was especially adept at “nigger” jokes featuring the mythical Rastus).  He must have done a queer joke, as it got Jaack to talking about queers.  The ones he had booted out of his division (he retired as a Brevet Major) and the ones he encountered in Terre Haute.

Evidently, one of the primary places gays sought companionship was the bus terminal on Wabash Avenue.  One night, while Jack was waiting to get a cab for West Terre Haute, a gay man approached him in the restroom.  Offended that such an untermensch would mistake him for the same type, he “beat the holy shit out of him.”  After hearing that story, things became a little clearer to me.

As some of you may know, I was born without the reverence gene.  I am a committed atheist.  But there is one minister I came to respect.  He pastored a church in West Terre Haute.  In the mid-seventies a story about him began to circulate about him.  Whispers said he had, one Saturday night, married a lesbian couple (another version was that they were gay men) in the church.  I did not hear of this until after he surprisingly left the church.

One of the things I wish to do with this blog and the following book is look at ALL aspects of Life in West Terre Haute.  Anyone have any thoughts or stories to share with me on this topic?

 


West T., not Mayfield; Me, not the Beaver

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It always seemed to be a sunny Saturday morning in Mayfield.  It was never clear what state was home to Mayfield.  Perhaps because Mayfield was a state of mind.

The Cleavers lived at 211 Pine Street in Mayfield, on a curving, tree-lined street in a spacious attractive house.  There was Ward and June, two sometimes stern, but ever loving parents, and their two sons Wally and Beaver (nee Theodore).  Wally was the quintessential all American boy.  Beaver was basically a fuck-up. .

As you may have guessed Leave it to Beaver was my favorite show as a kid.  I watched it whenever it was on.  The show was an idealized version of the American mythos before the Beatles and Vietnam.  I seldom saw myself in Beaver’s world but I enjoyed visiting it for half an hour.

The Beav’s life in Mayfield was much different from mine in West Terre Haute.

For instance, there never seemed to be any tumble down houses barely defying gravity in Mayfield.  Oh, there was the scary old lady living in a spooky looking old house on occasion, but no bad neighborhoods ever appeared.  I had but to look around me to see houses that were barely live-able.

Except for the occasional tramp who came to the door (to whom Beaver would give Ward’s clothes) or the junk yard man and his kids (who were dazzled by Beaver’s home) you never really saw poor people in Mayfield.  Maybe they were there, but never shown.  I doubt it.  Everyone that the Cleavers knew lived in a nice house, where dad made a proper upper middle class living and mom stayed home to clean, bake and nurture.  My mom worked, and worked hard.

It has become cliché to laugh at the ridiculous scenes of June Cleaver wearing pearls as she dusted, but that was Mayfield.  Women did that sort of thing there.  Not in West T.  My mom cleaned in an old housedress or still wearing her nurse’s uniform.  The closest analogy I remember is June’s cleaning lady’s daughter helping out and doing ironing and my mom was hiring my cousin to help with laundry and ironing.

And Ward.  Ward had a fancy office job that required him to write reports to the home office.  He had a nice office with a secretary.  He wore a suit.  Hell, he even wore a suit at dinner.  You knew he was dressing down when he doffed the suit coat and tie and pulled on the cardigan.  No one I knew wore a suit to work.  They wore work shirts and jeans or work khakis. My grandfather wore overalls, a coarse workshirt and a good workingman’s tweed cap (I have one I wear in his honor sometimes) to his job at Terre Haute Concrete Supply Company. Some might wear a tie if they were a salesman or something like that, but a suit?  The men in my family only wore suits, and then uncomfortably, at wedding or funerals.

Wally and the Beav had Metzger’s Field, with its basketball goals, baseball diamond, and wide open fields for football games with their buddies.  In my day there were no public parks, per se, in West Terre Haute.  There were asphalt playgrounds at the schools we could use, but nothing like the recreational amenities in the Cleavers hometown.

Wally and Beaver had a plethora of friends.  Granted most of them were screw-ups.  Wally’s two best friends were Eddie Haskell and Lumpy (excuse me, Clarence) Rutherford.  Lump’s dad went on to be Rob Petrie’s boss, aka Alan Brady’s brother-in-law.  I kind of liked goofy old Lumpy (in his autobiography, of which I am the proud owner of a signed copy, he claimed to have slept with over 1,000 women.  Who would have guessed?) Eddie, of course, was Eddie.  Coward, trouble maker, unctuous in front of adults.  As an adult my best friend was named Brian.  I sometimes affectionately called him my Eddie Haskell, only because he had a way of gently leading me into minor trouble.

For the Beav, it was initially Larry Mondello (who bore an unpleasant resemblance to my cousin Jerry).  But Larry, the always hungry, none too bright goofball moved away.  He was replaced by Richard, Whitey and Gilbert.  I could see Richard as my buddy, Gilbert, too, but Whitey was a burgeoning smartass and I think we would have clashed.  Probably too much alike.

I had kids I played with in West T., but none I would truly call friends.  That was my doing.  I have always been a loner who preferred books and inhabiting my own mind to hanging out on the corner with others.

As for Beaver’s home life.  Beautiful house (though I always wondered why he and Wally shared a room) filled with nice things.  None of the houses I lived in ever had more than four or five rooms, unless you count the outhouses when we lived in the country.  Wally and Beav had Ward and June as parents.  In 1950s television they were often seen as the ideal, model parents.  I suppose they were in a way.  But I did not want them as mine.  June had a certain, knees glued together air about her, a distance. A brittleness (am I the only one who thinks that?).  Ward seemed a more real human being to me, but his first thought was usually that his boys had screwed up, instead of initially given them the benefit of the doubt.  While I carried on a nearly 20 year cold war with my stepfather, I never yearned for Ward as my dad.  And why would I want June as a mother when I was blessed my Mom.  She was simply the best.

So what brought on this little essay?  It was popular at one time (perhaps, it still is in some quarters) to point to the idealized families of the fifties and sixties (think Father Knows Best or the Donna Reed Show) and the conformity they preached as the catalyst for the social and political upheaval of the sixties.  Perhaps they were a little spark in the larger flame.  They likely were, but it took more than that, I think.

Another view is that those of us who were poorer than the Cleavers or Andersons were overwhelmingly envious and that helped spark discontent.  Certainly a viable thesis. 

Was I envious?  I am sure I was at times.  Psychologists would likely say I certainly had the right to be.  And that it would drive me to want better things in my life.  But there were only two things in Beaver Cleaver’s world I truly envied.  One was the opening of the 4th or 5th season where Wally and the Beav were walking home on a sunny Saturday morning tossing a baseball between them.  Upon seeing those I think I wished I had a big brother to show me things and play ball with.  The other was Ward’s den.  I always wanted a den with built in bookcases holding all that I have read.  I have not quite achieved that perfect den, but I still have time. But even as a 7 or 8 year old I knew it was just a television show.  It was a show I loved, but it was entertainment.  Some might say that merely by writing this essay it shows the series did drive me, did affect me greatly.  Could be, but I don’t think so.

Looking back, did I want to be Beaver?  Hell no.  Would I have traded West Terre Haute for Mayfield?  Again Hell no.  I would have been even more out of place there.

Finally….

Do you know what the smuttiest phrase ever uttered on sixties television was?

Wait for it…

Wait for it…

It was asked by June Cleaver.  “Ward, don’t you think you were a little hard on the beaver last night.”

That June was suck a smut mouth.


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