These are the shadows of memory from The Kid's first five years such as sitting on his maternal grandmother’s lap while she read stories from a book called, “A Hive of Busy Bees” or Robert Lewis Stevenson’s, “A Child’s Garden of Verses”. She read him other things, most notably the Sunday Comics in both the Philadelphia Papers. Dick Tracy, Blondie, the Berrys, Casper Milquetoast, Little Iodine, Smitty, Maggie and Jiggs, etc. and taught him to read well before he went off to any school. (Henry and The Little King were no help; they never said a word. And fortunately for what grasp of grammar The Kid developed, L’il Abner or The Katzenjammer Kids weren’t his favorites.
There was an enormous record player in the living room. It was a stand-alone piece of furniture. All it played was 78-rpm vinyl. His parents had a fair-sized collection of music and he would sit in front of this contraption and listen to songs as he played. His mother had ballads and crooners, especially Bing Crosby, but his father had mostly Country and Western, the real Americana stuff, Montana Slim, Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff and Red River Dave’s Hillbilly Ballads. Oh, The Kid loved that collection: “The Wreck of the Streamline Train”, “Put Me in Your Pocket”, “The Ballad of Floyd Collins” and “Red-Headed Mama Blues”.
“The Ballad of Floyd Collins” was about a real person. Floyd Collins died trapped in a sandstone cave 125 feet below ground in 1925. It may have been the first media circus, the rescue attempt reported on the radio and in daily papers across the country. People flocked to the site and erected booths and tents. Billy Wilder based “The Big Carnival” on the event (1950 -original title, “Ace in the Hole”). It starred Kirk Douglas. The Kid saw it at the town theater, The Roosevelt, as a child. A new movie is actually in the works about Collins to star Billy Bob Thornton as Floyd. The Old Goat has today the original cast album of Floyd Collins, a musical produced in Philadelphia in 1997. (As you can see, Red River Dave’s “The Ballad of Floyd Collins” had quite an influence on The Kid.
“Gather ‘round me children
And listen while I tell
The fate of Floyd Collins,
A man we all knew well...”)
This child listened quite well.
A more unpleasant event was the death of Nellie. She was his mother’s dog, quite old at the time. She was the housedog, a shaggy friendly and fat pooch. His grandfather kept several hounds in the side yard, chained to their boxes and never allowed indoors. He sometimes crawled into the doghouses, but Nellie often shared his bed. She and he had a closer relationship. She inspired a story many years later, called “Passing” about a young child confronting the issues of death and faith. In the story, the child is a girl and the setting is in the country (actually at another boyhood home of The Kid's in Glenloch). The dog, called Nellie, is nearing its end. Some people find this story emotionally difficult to read, thinking it sad. Personally I feel “Passing” is optimistic and about hope. A sequel story called “Ground Dog Day” which people find humorous is the truly sad story, because it speaks of isolation and disconnection within a family and a child’s learning of the harshness of this world. But The Kid and The Old Goat's stories are always about something beneath the tale on top. Fiction often is closer to the truth than the fact-based reportage of nonfiction. Without the storytellers and poets we'd be trapped in a world of cold-hard reportage passing as reality.
The music and the readings were pleasant and influential, but there is a deeper memory, a dark one that stayed with The Kid a long time and made it impossible for him to sleep without a light on or the shades up, and made him miss the comfort of Nellie even more.
The firehouse siren blew everyday at noon in town. Perhaps it stills does. It was a constant of The Kid's childhood and always flashed his thoughts to World War II. Granted, he remembers little of the war news; World War II ended in 1945 when he turned four, but the sirens and the planes got his attention.
There were all kinds of airplanes that flew over town, big bopper bombers and sleek, fleet fighters. All prop driven, since the jet had not appeared on the scene yet. These flew in V formations, like ducks emigrating north. There was even an occasional flying wing. Now these images are garbled by time because the flotillas of planes continued for a few years after the war ended for he recalls being out and about the neighborhood playing with others when there’d be a roar and all heads would turn up to see and guess what kind of planes these were. This kind of activity didn’t occur until he was at least school age.
The Old Goat also remembers the flag in the front room window, actually more a square pennant. He forgets the exact design. It had a star in the center, I think. It indicated someone in the household was serving in the armed forces. If someone had died in the war, the flag would tell that also. His father suffered neither a wound nor death, although his absence left The Kid with scars. The Kid does remember him coming home on leave once. He was in his sailor suit, his Navy blues. There are pictures of The Kid with him wearing a miniature uniform of his own.
But what he was clearest of were the sirens.
In the house where he lived were two doors side by side in the dining room. The one toward the outer wall went upstairs. The other went down to the basement. (All the stairs in that house were circular to save space. You had to be careful going up and down because to the outside they were wide, but to the inside they were only an inch or two and you could easily slip.) Tacked on the basement side of that door was a big yellow chart. It showed the siren codes. A long continuous blast meant one thing; little short bursts meant something else. You could tell the severity of a fire by the siren pattern. The most effecting for The Kid was the air raid blast.
Air raid warnings weren't uncommon. Some were a test, much like the test of the Emergency Broadcasting System, to see if the system worked, if the Air Wardens were alert and if the citizenry did as they should. A few were accidental. Many were true alerts, an unidentified plane spotted or some suspicious activity indicating a possible attack. You never knew which was which.
If outside, when this siren blurted its message during the day, there was a hustling to scoop him up and carry him to safety. (He was often outside on nice days even at the toddler stage. His grandfather raised chickens and as a former carpenter build a giant playpen in the back yard of chicken wire. [pictured above] They plunked him down within its security to play.) Once inside, the family hid in the kitchen, quaked by fear until the all clear sounded.
But worst, and most vivid, were the night sirens. First the clamor, that loud wail, that banshee shriek announcing coming calamity. The hurry and haste to pull the blackout shades, heavy and pure black, designed to hide the slightest light within, and as a consequence also kept any external light outside. All lights were extinguished, not just their lamps, but all the lights in all the neighborhoods, and all the street lamps as well. A heavy darkness shrouded them and everyone huddled in this pall trembling. What could a youngster be, but imbued with terror at this behavior?
Something akin to Floyd Collins trapped in the dark of his cave.