When I was six, Elvis lived in West Terre Haute. In a whitewashed house with blue trim and a cinder block garage. On an alley on Fifth Street between National and Riggy, just behind a gas station. I know this because I saw him. Sideburns perfect, wearing khaki, pegged chinos and an unusual colored shirt. I never actually heard him singing, but once when he came out of the house and got into his convertible I heard him, hum,ming to an Everly Brothers’ tune on his car radio. Even as a six year-old with a very limited understanding of the expanse of the world I thought it odd he should be living in my home town. Wasn’t he supposed to be in the Army or something?
As I said this revelation came about because that was about the age when I was allowed to leave the yard on my own (as long as I let Grandma know). What was there to fear? West Terre Haute in 1959 or 1960 was not home to sexual predators, drive-by shootings, or cocaine dealers hissing seductively from the bushes. And besides, most people knew me and would take me home to McIlroy Street should I become lost.
I took full advantage of my new “grown up” freedom. I loved walking and exploring. In the ensuing years my long legs helped me cover literally every street in town. My routes depended on whether there was a purpose to my journey, or merely whimsy.
Purposeful trips most often involved obtaining comic books (Superman, but especially WWII comics. Sgt. Rock was acceptable, but by far the most sought after was Sgt. Nick Fury and His Howlin’ Commandos) and MAD Magazine. I bought my comics at two drug stores, Berry’s on Paris Avenue and Dodge Drugs on National Avenue.
Dodge Drugs was the more upscale of the two. Brighter, bigger, with a long soda fountain bar. If I went there I crossed McIlroy into the alley that ran between Riggy and National . I would take that to Fifth Street (where Elvis lived), then slide through the gas station up to National. I would vary the routine on the return trip. Clutching my brown bag of comics I would walk along National Avenue, past the drive-in with car hops, the liquor store and the little house that always seemed to have strange cooking odors reaching out to you as you walked past. When I got to 3rd Street (also known as Market St.) I would once again head to the alley to home.
Berry’s Drugs was on the north side of town, on Paris Avenue. In addition to comic-buying forays, I sometimes was entrusted with $3.06 to get Grandma’s vitamin prescription (Bectin with C). The Berry store was a much darker venue. The Berrys (perhaps because they had dealt with generations of squirmy, indecisive kids hoisting up 12 cents for a comic) were never quite as welcoming. I remember Mrs. Berry, a dark, fatigued looking woman) emerging reluctantly from behind a curtain (they lived in the back of the store) when an old bell announced my arrival. The route to and from Berrys was unchanging. Up the alley to Church street, then past some nice homes and the high school to Paris Avenue, then reversing the journey.
Probably because of the book and my growing older, my youth and the streets of West Terre Haute increasingly invade my dreams. Nearly every night I walk different streets in various guises, Tim at 6, at 13, at 58. Sometimes Mom is there. Sometimes Grandma. Often it is me and Gramps, walking up McIlroy to Snacks Tavern to pick up a couple of pints of Falstaff or to ray’s to get our hair cuts.