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

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Been-Ship: First Transition

At the time of life when friendships are often solidified, at least for our youth, my growing relationships were sidetracked. When I was four years old my mother enrolled me in Kindergarten. Two aspects of this had potential effects on my social development, as it were, only one did.

The first was my age. Why my mother sent me off to Kindergarten at four I don't know. At the end of that year, she attempted to enroll me in East Ward Elementary, but I was only five and the school would not take me. If they had I would have been in a different class, one a year ahead of my peers and how this would have affected the later friendships I was to have is not hard to know; most probably wouldn't have happened.

But since the grade school refused me as too young, my mother sent me back to Kindergarten for a
second year. (I believe the photo atop this was taken that first time around. I am the tallest boy and knelling on the far left. The boy knelling on the far right is Tim Mahan, who was one of my earliest playmates. I think this was my first year because Tim shows up in the East Ward Kindergarten photo on the right, so that must have been during my second year in Mrs. Helms.) The thing was mom didn't enroll me in the Kindergarten at the grade school, but in a private one on the West Side of town no less. Most of the kids I should have been bonding with were in the East Ward Elementary Kindergarten and thus I was separated from them.

I did enter East Ward the next year as a First Grader. Several of my toddler friends were in that class with me, Tim Mahan, Denny Myers, Iva Darlington, Judy Baldwin, Billy Smith; however, over Christmas break my parents moved out of town and my whole world changed and my budding friendships were snipped off mid-bloom.

These became the Lonely Years of isolation. We no longer lived in town with neighbors and the school right across the street. We now dwelt along side and half in a swamp. It was total country. The swamp ran up along the front yard to the house and then the East side, continuing into a woods were it still remained marshy. Behind the house was a hill with a corn field. Whose I do not know for there was no farm in sight, although there had to be one down the highway to the West somewhere. The field on that side of the house was a meadow and sometimes there were cows in it.

I no longer simply trod out the front door, crossed the avenue and entered the school ground. Now I walked down our long lane and caught the West Whiteland school bus. After classes I was dropped off to walk up that long lane between the meadow and the marsh alone. There were no contemporaries living near us then and I apparently only made one friend in that elementary school, a boy named Bobby Cuelers. We visited each other very rarely outside of school, maybe only once for that is all I remember. The rest of my week days I spent with my imagination, wandering the desolation around us or catching tadpoles and snakes in the bog. My dad was a long-distance trucker and not home much and my mother didn't know how to drive, so her and I were pretty stuck.

There was up the Lincoln Highway to the East a complex known as The Church Farm School. It was
an Episcopal boarding school for boys, many probably my age, but it was completely off-limits for we heathen children and we were forbidden territory for them. However, bordering the Church Farm School was a manufacturer, AutoCar (later White Motors) where they made trucks. Between the long factory building and the bunkhouses on the forbidden territory of the boarding school was a row of small Cape Cods.

These were Company Houses, homes build for the workers of a company and clumps of such were not an unusual sight when I was growing up, especially up in coal company, but even down in the greener climes of Chester County. These particular ones were erected atop the cutout where the factory drive had been built in some past time. Each looked down at the plant from their perch at the edge of a steep gravel embankment.

In the first summer, for we had moved in during the Christmas school break of the last December in 1947, leaving behind the tinsel and lights brightening the Downingtown windows for the deep empty darkness of swamp dwelling (how would Santa ever find me here), there appeared like ghosts one day three boys my age. Well, they weren't all exactly my age. I believe one was a year older and one a year younger and one the same. They had come from out of those company homes up the pike.

It was perhaps a half mile between our dilapidated homestead (left) and those tidy Cape Cods and they had walked down the edge of Route 30, something my mom would have quaked if I had done. Granted in 1948 the great Lancaster Pike was not as congested as it is today in that stretch between Exton and Paoli, but it was heavy enough with speeding traffic. One of my earliest images along that throughway haunted my nightmares for years after. I was coming home from school and looking out the left side of the bus and we passed a dog that was struck by some vehicle. It lay across the white line, struggling to stand, but its rear had been crushed and it could not get up, and that was all I saw as my transport sped on to home. It was enough. I would approach highways with caution there after.

But there were these three boys who had dared the dangerous journey because someone told them a boy lived down in the wasteland. We, of course, became quick friends, for who else was there. We all had our loneliness. My father was seldom around, but he did come home on weekends. Their father did not come home. He had been killed in the war. He had worked at AutoCar before enlisting and the company allowed his widow to remain living in that little house.

These three did not go to my school, but that was not the only reason I had never encountered them in the previous five and a half months. They attended the Milton Industrial School for Orphaned Boys, which was quite distant from their mom, house and me. They were now home on summer vacation and we were to have a brief and close companionship for a few months.

Amazingly, my mother did let me travel up that stretch of road to their place that summer. I know I hugged the weeds at the far edge of the shoulder as the passing semis' hot winds tousled my hair. We played cowboys a lot. Every boy did in those far away days. We all had our cap pistols, our ten-gallon hats and sometimes even imitation cowboy boots. There was on top of that ridge between two houses a secret place. I do not know the purpose or use, but it was a hole in the hill with concrete walls and a ladder down the side to the floor. We used it as a hideaway or a fort or whatever construct suited our pretense of the moment.

Once in running along the embankment top my foot slid off the side and I tumbled down the gravel to the driveway below. I sat up with a stinging in my left hand and when I peeked down my palm was red with blood. As if somehow this was what they meant by "caught red-handed", I stuck my bloody paw deep into my pants' pocket to hide it, but one of the boys had seen and fetched his ma. She tugged my hand out, dragged me into the house, rinsed it off and dabbled it with Mercurochrome, which stung of course. In those days moms were always splashing on some cure-all that burnt upon contact. Mercurochrome, Iodine and hydrogen peroxide were found in every mothers medicine cabinet. Hydrogen peroxide at least had some entertainment value since it fizzed when applied.

She used Mercurochrome, which some today probably never heard of as it was finally yanked by the FDA. As the name implies this everyday and common antiseptic contained mercury, a heavy, toxic metal that mothers were slavering across the open wounds of their children once upon a time.

I carried a thick long scar along the lifeline of my left palm thereafter, still vaguely visible even now. It is a reminder of a doomed friendship at a time I desperately needed one. At the end of that summer our shouts and laughs would go to silence and the three boys would disappear like the morning mists across that swamp, drift out of my life for good, but the end was tragic and certainly left its stain upon me even more than the unfortunate dog.

They came on their final day before returning to school to bid me farewell. With them came their little sister, probably about four or five years old. Strange isn't it, because I can conjure up an image of her, her face somewhat smudged by memory, but the white dress she wore clear and shiny. They left me at the bottom of the lane and headed home and part way up the oldest boy stopped. Across the road was a bank of wild flowers and he decided to pluck a bouquet for his mother.

He had been holding his sister's hand, but now he passed her off to the next brother in line and went for the flowers. Oh, she wanted flowers, too and so she bit her bother's hand and broke loose of his grip. She dashed onto the highway, was struck immediately by a car and killed.

They went away and I know not what happened to any of the boys or their mother. Sadly, I can't even remember their names, just the events, just the ending. After that day began a year and a half of isolation and nights of bad dreams.

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