Banner photo of Larry Eugene Meredith, Ronald Tipton and Patrick Flynn, 2017.

The good times are memories
In the drinking of elder men...

-- Larry E.
Time II

Monday, August 25, 2014

Cigarettes, Whiskey & Wild, Wild Something, a Series -- SMOKIN'

Don't be frightened. That warning sign doesn't refer to this series I have embarked upon. These essays aren't really aimed at children, but they may actually prove to be cautionary tales for them.

There is something curious about the sign to the left. It is that word "Adults". That word appears on a number of things, Adult Bookstores, Adult Art Theaters, Adult Beverages and many other things that one could question if they are indeed that adult. Quite often they are rather juvenile, except juveniles are forbidden to share them.

Really, in truth, "Adults Only" is a frequently used euphemism for sin. Are things we make laws to protect our children from all that good for anyone? But once we slap that label upon something it becomes an enticement to those same children. If it is that forbidden, I want a taste. I can hardly wait until I am an adult so I can indulge and in many cases the child can't wait and ignores the sign and crosses over into the traps of such behavior. By the teens, those "Adult Only" activities become both a goal and the belief they really do consitute adulthood.

These are my stories of tripping those traps.


Smoking was de riguer in my childhood. People meeting people in social situations were more apt to be offered a smoke than a drink, not that a drink offer didn't follow regularly as well. It seemed almost everyone smoked, certainly all men. I grew up surrounded by smoke, especially if my parents had a get-together of friends. Our living room would disappear in the haze out of which floated voices and the clicking of ice in glasses. No one was concerned if children were in the room beyond an occasional warning that we were too young to smoke.

Yes, we heard it in school and in home and in church and here and about that we children shouldn't smoke. It would stunt our growth we were told. These myths of dire consequences were common threats used to drive us from our youthful desires. (If you mastrabate hair will grow in your palms; or worst, you'll go blind.")  When the child realizes these curses don't work, what then? Once you see a 6 foot 6 15-year-old chain smoking you pretty well discard that concern of stunted growth. (For some reason, when I was a boy, you were allowed to purchase cigarettes upon obtaining the age of 16. Currently it varies from state to state between the age or 18 and 21.)

When I was taken visiting there was scant a home not festooned with ashtrays. It just wasn't a practice easily escaped then. People smoked at work. People smoked in restaurants and bars. There were no separate "Smoking Sections". About the only places I remember smoking being banned was in theaters. You went to a movie and they sometimes even showed a card up on the screen during the previews telling you not to light up during the show. It wasn't a health concern; it was a fire hazard. No one wanted to risk a fire in a crowded theater.

While forbidden to the audience, smoking was pretty prevalent on the screen. Cowboys had a pouch hanging from their breast pocket and would occasionally pause between the shoot outs to roll a smoke. Hard-boiled private dicks and gangsters almost always had a fag between their lips. Even many of the glamorous female leads came out smokin', albeit with the use of a long cigarette holder as if distance made it more pure. In war movies some officer was always telling the troops to "smoke 'em, if you got 'em."

When TV came into popularity it just brought more smoke into the home. Jack Webb [ died age 62 of heart attack] couldn't dum de de dum his way through cases without a constant cig. Rod Serling [died age 50 of a heart attack] couldn't spin his way into the Twilight Zone without one either.

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez, as Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, were constantly pulling out a cigarette during the run of "I Love Lucy".  You could have called it, "I Love Phillip Morris", because Phillip Morris {and later, Chesterfield} Cigarettes were one
of their main sponsors. In fact, cigarette makers were the main sponsors of many of those 1950s TV shows.

As I noted, my home was a haven for smoke much of the time. We lived some of my boyhood years with my material grandparents. My grandfather had a few "adult" things in his life, among which was chewing tobacco and cigars.

He kept a pouch of Red Man Chewing Tobacco in the glove compartment of his car, an item he would offer to his friends when he came across them. I can clearly remember the Indian peering out from that compartment (we weren't using the term Native American in those days).

His real preference was for Phillies Cigars - Blunts. Many times he would call me over, hand
me some money and send me across the school ground to the gas station on the corner of Whiteland Avenue and the Lancaster Pike (Also known as the Lincoln Highway or Route 30).  I would purchase a breast-pocket sized pack and an Icicles Pop for myself (usually lime) and carry the Blunts back to him. He'd peel off the cigar band and stick it on my finger. I did this trip many times between the age of 8 and 12 and no one ever blinked at selling this young lad those big cigars.

The years my parents and I had homes of our own I escaped the smoke during much of the week. My mother didn't indulge and my dad was a long distance truck driver gone pretty much Monday through Friday.

However, my dad was a pipe smoker, so on the weekends or other brief times he got home the house would reek with his pipe. This habit did make it easier to buy Father's Day or Birthday presents for him. I would buy big, round 14-ounce tins of Half and Half, his preferred brand or on occasion, a new pipe.

In metal shop I forged a number of pipe holders for him that looked like shoes.

Many years later I was confronted by a mystery. I could clearly remember as a young child being given the two pennies wrapped behind the cellophane of cigarette packs. Cigarettes at the time cost 23 cents a pack and I suppose the machines only took quarters, so they put the two cents of change on the side of the product.

That was fine, pennies actually had value to a lad then. You could get a couple pieces of candy at
Zittle's for two cents. But where had the cigarettes come from? My grandfather smoked cigars and my dad smoked a pipe. His pipe was like an extension of his face. He was never without it. Neither my mother nor my grandmother smoked anything. Yet, I knew I had received those two pennies out of cigarette packs as a boy and I could see plainly in my mind those packs setting upon the dining room buffet, Chesterfields and Lucky Strikes.

Ah, Chesterfield, the smokes of the stars, or so it seemed. Their ads feathered movie stars and sports heroes, all with the ubiquitous white stick protruding from the side of their mouths. Even my baseball idol, Stan Musiel, appeared alongside Ted Williams praising the mildness of Chesterfields.

Lucky Strikes went for the sexy angle in their ads, sultry,
sophisticating, alluring enticements.

Nonetheless, where those cigarettes came from eluded my memory until my parents died in 2012. I brought home all the photo albums I could find in their
home and in one I found an old photograph of my father and I in the backyard. He is holding my hand, but there in his other hand I see it, a cigarette. Back before he took up the pipe he was a cigarette smoker and that was when I was very young indeed.

Now we have established that the 'forties and 'fifties were under a constant cloud of tobacco smog, we can ask the question was I puffing away behind the barn on my hobby horse?

I wasn't. My wife took up the practice before she was fourteen, but I had no desire toward the things as a kid. In my teens some of my friends were sneaking smokes out of their mother's purses or father's bureau. One time I was walking with two and they offered me a cigarette. I took it and immediately ate it and said, "delicious." I lied. It was not delicious at all. It was down right disgusting, but I was kind of a crazy guy then.

Despite what you might expect, it didn't make me sick or anything.

That was about as close as I got to cigarettes in my minor years. I was in my twenties, an actual adult, when I took up this adult pursuit. It was a matter of self-defense.

In the mid-1960s my wife and I had come together with a number of creative types, writers, musicians, poets, artists and actors. We began gathering together quiet often outside our day jobs. Our usual meeting place, besides hanging about nights in Rittenhouse Square, was at Jim Tweedy's basement in his home in South Philly. (Jim and I pictured left in 1967.) The room quickly filled with smoke and I discovered if I joined the others I wasn't bothered by the cloud so much.

I was never one to stop short on things. Once I spent an evening puffing along with the others I
went whole hog; in for a inch - in for a mile. In no time I was smoking cigarettes, cigars and various pipes. I was soon unsatisfied with being a part of the crowd as far as brands were concern. I had to be different, so I began smoking Sherman Cigarettes, a brand that I could not get locally at the time. I had to order them from New York. They were distinct in several ways. They were slimmer than your average cancer stick and longer. They were among the first, if not the first, to offer 100mm cigarettes, I think beating out Benson & Hedges introduction of the extra-long cigarettes in 1967. Sherman also offered different colored paper. I generally smoked the brown cigarettes.

With as much fervor as I threw myself into that smoky world, it didn't last long, perhaps two or three years. One day I was at work and it suddenly occurred to me that I had smoked no cigarette yet that day. I thought I should take a break and light up. (In those days we were still able to smoke at our work area. People had ashtrays on their desks.)  I sat down and took out a smoke and it dawned on me how silly this was. What was in this if I had to remind and force myself to do it? I really didn't get anything from the act and it was costing me money. It was costing me a lot because the Shermans were more expensive than the more well-known popular brands all my friends smoked.

So I stopped. Just like that I stopped cold turkey. I had no after-effects, no regrets, no jagged nerves or cravings. This kind of thing has proven common with me. For instance, more recently I had to give up coffee because of a medication I take. I was a longtime, heavy coffee drinker, but I stopped it cold turkey as well and suffered no ill-effect, no headaches, no quivers and no overwhelming craving to bash in a coffee machine for a few drops.  I guess I'm not the addictive type, at least not for things ingested in one form or another. This was one of the Adult Behaviors that didn't get its hook into me, and I never felt less adult because I gave up smoking. Cigarettes just didn't satisfy, despite what the ads claimed.

Photos near the top of this essay: On left from the 1920s is a family friend in the straw hat named Bill Hall sitting next to my mother as a young girl. On the right are friends of my parents who all got together Saturday nights in my teen years. The man smoking is Elmer Wilson, now deceased.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Necessities of a Country Boy

May be hard to believe, but once upon a time - a long, long time ago - I was a teenager. In the time I turned sixteen I was also a country boy. I lived along a highway south of Pottstown and just a shade north of the Village of Bucktown, population 100.

There wasn't much around back then. A few houses scattered far more than a stone throw apart dotted the hills across the road. There was a large house on our side, belonging to an auctioneer and hidden by brush and trees, and nothing else but fields and woods.

The Village down the hill aways was just a crossroad on the map, a gas station on one corner, a couple stores and a slaughter house. There was a field of exotic cattle from around the world, the collected pets of the slaughter house owner. They would build the new high school up on the hill top over looking the village, the school I would graduate from, but it wasn't up until I was a senior.

Behind my home was a large field, big enough for a baseball diamond, and a woods that run up the hill behind. All that was on my parents property. Between the field and the woods was a stream and a small marsh, where my friend Rich and I once began trapping Muskrat, certain we could go into a Muskrat pelt trade. This venture didn't last long.

During those years I had what every other boy about had…and needed. Simple things for the most part and not many, the most basic being three items.

First there was a boy's most handy friend, his pocket knife.

This wasn't just a teen thing. I can't even remember when I got my first pocket knife or penknife as we called it, but I was pretty young when I did. The first one I remember was given me by my grandparents after they returned from a vacation trip. It had a white handle with "Atlantic City, NJ" across the center and I believe some little tiny illustration, of what I forget. It didn't have all the gizmos in my current pocket knife (pictured right), but it did glow in the dark. It had two blades, a large and small, and I think a plastic whistle that folded out on one end and a magnifier glass on the other.

What we would have done to whittle away our time (little play on words there) if not having a handy pocket knife to play mumbly peg at recess?

I got the second necessity after we moved from Downingtown and I became a true country boy again. This was my "gun".  It was actually a rifle, which I was always taught I better not call a gun if I went into the Army. I was warned any recruit who made that mistake in terminology would pay the price. He would find himself standing on a cafeteria table holding his weapon in one hand and a certain private part of his anatomy in the other declaring, "This is my rifle and this is my gun. One is for killing; the other's for fun."

Now I didn't have a rifle, pistol or gun of any stripe as a lad in Downingtown, except for some Roy Rogers' cap pistols. I did long, as did Ralphie in "The Christmas Story", for an air rifle, Red Ryder or Daisy, just like those advertised in the comic books of the day.

I bet you don't find such items advertised in todays comic books.

Of course, the rifle I had as a country boy of 15 wasn't some bee bee rifle. It was a 16-shot repeating bolt action .22. Don't leave home without one.

I was actually a pretty good shot with that rifle. I did sometimes get to shoot my dad's double-barreled .12 gauge shotgun or one of his two pistols, a revolver and one with a clip up the grip.

The most important item by far was a car. There wasn't much convenient you could get to without an auto. It was five miles to the "big town" that being Pottstown, which had a movie theater and on the far end, a ballroom. Things like miniature golf or bowling were further afield. You drove up to Reading for the golf, maybe stopping in Pottsgrove at the Tropical Treat coming or going. You could go bowling in Reading, too, or in Exton or Phoenixville. There was a roller rink in Exton as well, which sometimes had sock hops. Even the local teen hangout, Rock's Restaurant, was a couple or so miles up the Pottstown Pike. You'd need a car if you were to take a girl on a date to any of these places. You'd need a car even to pick up a girl for they were scattered hither and yon across the countryside.

The car in the top photo with the three guys leaning over the engine was Richard's. He paid $40 for it and we were his crew trying to make the thing run. It was a 1949 Plymouth. I'm the guy on the left with glasses. Jim Witlach is the kid on the right and the boy in the middle was the real mechanic among us, Tommy Frame.

I had been more fortunate than Rich. I had a car already when I turned sixteen and I didn't even have to
piece it together to get it to run. It was a Royal Blue 1954 Ford Coupe. (I was more fortunate in the rifle department, too. I had a 16-shot, while he had a single shot .22. Every time he pulled the trigger he had to pause to shove another bullet in the slot.)

The Ford had been my grandfather's, but he died in the early part of the year I turned sixteen and the car came to me. It was only three years old and in very good shape. I took care of that.

The day I passed my driver's test, I got home and proudly drove it into the garage beneath our house and directly into the support beam you see in the photo. That put a nice dent in the driver's side front fender.

Of course my friend Richard talked me into making some modifications to give it that "cool" look. Some were simple enough. We tossed aside the hubcaps and painted the wheels red, like every other teenage guy's car at the time. We put some pin striping here and there. WE jacked the buggy up and installed lowering blocks in the rear. This brought the backend down nearer the ground so every time I went over a raised end of a drive the rear would scrap. It also resulted in a broken spring.

To give it that smooth appearance we removed the chrome on the truck along with the lock, plugged the hole and sanded down and painted over. A cable was run from the locking mechanism along the left side on the inner frame to a lever by the driver's seat. I pressed the lever down to unlock the trunk. However, something didn't function correctly and the truck didn't pop.

Now what do I do? How do I open the trunk? Aha, I know - a crowbar! Yeah, that's right. I got a crowbar and stuck one end down the crack between truck and fender and pried upward. The trunk
didn't budge, but the bar made a nice, deep U-shaped dent on top of the fender. Well, that didn't work. Maybe if I tried the other side. "Oh no, you didn't," you are thinking. But oh yes, I did. Now at least I had matching rear fenders again, both sporting their U-shaped dents. Not long after this fiasco it was pointed out to me the back of the rear seat could be pulled down and you could crawl into the truck and flick the lock open with a screwdriver.

Oh well, a few dents didn't stop the engine. I could still pursue the popular pastime of drag racing at the traffic lights on the main street of Pottstown. I didn't have the most powerful car, but I had hair-trigger reflexes and usually got a good jump when the green light flashed. For the short stretches between lights I ofter held my own each time as we repeated the stop-starts the length of town.

Drag racing being the thing, Richard and I often drove to Perkasie or Lancaster for the more official races. Perkasie had an actual track, but Lancaster events were held on the runway of the airport. Spectators could drive their cars right up near the edge if early enough, which we tried to be. We would sit up on the roof of the Ford to watch the races. Richard would get excited and bounce up and down and this left me with a hard to explain large dent in the roof.

I did suffer some variation of a blown engine racing a guy between Pottstown and Reading on Route 422 one Saturday night. Not exactly sure what went wrong because the car didn't stop running, in fact, it got what I thought was a neat sound, almost like I was running with glass packs, but it did slow the car down. There was no real compression going on. My dad and I ended up in a garage in Gap where they rebuilt the engine and fixed a hole in a cylinder, and I was embarrassed by my dad making me draw a life-sized chalk drawing of a naked woman on the garage door.

Don't know how long after that it was, but one day on a nice stretch of back country road I pulled to a stop and then decided to push it through its paces. I floored the pedal and slapped my way through the gears (stick shift, you know) and spread parts of my transmission all over the road surface.

Incredibly I drove that Ford through the rest of my teens up until the month I got married at age 20. I admit I had some concern when the very first time I picked up the girl, who would become my wife, in that car. It wasn't all the dents or the fact that by that time the hood lay cockeyed. I feared her dad would send me packing when he saw me crawl out the driver side window because the door wouldn't
latch and I had it tied shut with neckties.

Of course, he didn't and we went on our date and we later got married. Just before we did I traded in my '54 Ford for a 1961 Studebaker Lark.

It was green.

But we were off on our honeymoon, so who cared about the car?

Thursday, August 14, 2014

There's Probably Poison in the Glass

The game of life is hard to play
I'm gonna lose it anyway
The losing card I'll someday lay
So this is all I have to say
That suicide is painless
     --Johnny Mandel - Michael B. Altman

Robin Williams seemed always on, always manic and everyone laughed. And he couldn't sit still long. The TV Talk Show host or another guest would say something and Robin would be in flight again. The slightest word could send him bobbing down some abstract path of off-beat observations and myriad accents. But sometimes, when perhaps it seemed no one was watching, he would sit a moment quite and go to what I call his normal face.

I thought for many years catching a glimpse of that normal face that this was a sad man.There were not laugh lines in that face, just a mouth that fell into a deep frown and eyes that my wife calls sad. I saw his eyes more than sad; eyes distant and fearful. 

This look was always brief, a mere flicker of a shadow between bouts of kinetic mania and a flood tide of words.

Perhaps then there is some irony in Robin's choice of inspiration, Jonathan Winters.
Jonathan Winters was a favorite of mine in my youth as well. He had a quick wit and fertile imagination that took flights of fancy at the drop of a hat, much as Robin did. But maybe that wasn't the only thing that drew Robin to Jonathan, for Jonathan Winters suffered from Bipolar Disease and now they tell us Robin suffered from Clinical Depression.

Bipolar and Depression are mental disorders I know something about. It's not that I suffered from either, but let's just say I have had a close relationship to them for several decades.

People without these problems are often stymied by those who do. We all experience bouts of depression over the course of our life. The difference for most of us is we get over it and the cause is justifiable most of the time. We lose a job, we lose a friend, we have deaths, illnesses and sometimes disaster. I've been through that whole list, sometimes more than once. The thing is that I, and most of us, get past the depression. We get up, dust ourselves off and get on with life. We put our potholes behind us and don't dwell upon them and we find the positive things of life to focus on.

And when a Robin Williams hangs himself we are often mystified, sometimes even angry. He had everything, money, fame and admiration. He wasn't washed up; he had four movies in release and one in post-production planning. He would have been welcomed hardily on any talk show on TV and if he had decided to go out on a stand-up concert would have probably filled any theater. "So what," we say, "if he had his TV show cancelled after one year. Yeah, he'd had heart surgery, but he survived it, didn't he?"  Now we are told he had the beginning  stages of Parkinson's Disease.

So some may say he was a coward who couldn't deal with that. 

Well, perhaps if it were I, you could say that. I am one who tends to find joy in living, even when there may not be much joyful at the moment around me. But you see, as stated, I don't suffer from Clinical Depression. 

A person who has Bipolar and/or Clinical Depression (and remember it is something they have, not who they are) is trapped in a strange prison. The windows of their prison filter out the good and most of what they see is negative. And if there really is a negative that happens to them, they never forget it and they dredge it up and chew upon it like a cow with its cud. They don't absorb compliments, but will hear a criticism, sometimes when there is no criticism intended. 

I can best explain it this way. You know the old question when presented with a vessel filled to the halfway point: Is the glass half full or half empty? We might expect the depressed will say, "Half empty." Chances are they won't even take note of that question.

They will say, "The glass will leave a ring on the table."
And you may tell them, "No, it won't. It's on a coaster".
But this will not comfort them. "I think the glass has a crack. It's going to break and stain the rug."
"No," you say, picking up the glass and tapping the bottom, "it is solid."
And they will say, "Don't drink that. It is probably contaminated."

People suffering from this kind of depression are not going to see they have admiration or money or fame or a career or friends or anything else when the Black Dog stands before them. I speak from long experience.  Whatever door of escape you open to them, they will find a reason to close it. Or perhaps for someone who does what Robin did, they only saw one open door and it was unfortunately the one they chose to enter.

What can be done? One thing is to be more open about these mental disorders and understand what you sometimes see is not who the person really is. We must remove the stigma of having such a disease. There are medications that help control it, though as of yet there is no cure. We can treat the person with respect and love. We can hold them when they need it. We can understand them even when they aren't likable. And we can keep our eyes open and watch them. Perhaps if we are diligent we can keep them with us.

Lets speak of one more thing. The word selfishness is being debated right and left in the media. Is suicide selfish? Yes, it is, but with those who suffer from Bipolar and/or Clinical Depression it is not done with self-awareness, not the way we would count self-awareness in ourselves. It is the disease that is selfish. I think most professionals who deal with these diseases, at least those I have been in contact with, will tell you that those who suffer these diseases are selfish; perhaps self-centered is a better word, but it is all about them. You may not like anyone saying that, but it is true because that is what the disease does, it makes you need to be the center of attention. You don't believe me? Then tell someone with these diseases your pain and see how quickly the conversation turns to their "worse" pain.

You have to recognize that selfish goes with these diseases or you won't survive dealing with those who have them. 

It is a cruel disease, for it not only imprisons the victim in misery, it often drives away those who love the victim because they can no longer stand both the negativity and the self-centeredness. Many marriages crash on the dark shoals of depression. To sail your ship of relationship you need to see the real person beneath the shroud of the disorder and you yourself must be selfless.  I'm not saying it is easy; I am saying it is worthwhile being their support system.

I really don't know what support Robin had, but no one should feel guilty about the outcome. Depression is a dark and dangerous swamp that no one chooses to enter, it just takes you, and it is very difficult to escape and sometimes it simply sucks you down to the damp and deathly depths.