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

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Dead Bodies, Surrogate Fathers and Hanging Out in Country Dives

In the fog of memory I have lost the exact time certain events happened. I know the year because it’s etched in stone, but maybe not the month or day. I may find even that in some record, as I did of my Great Grandparents Meredith’s death dates. He died on May 14 and she on June 4 of the same year. Facts may be hazy. He died after several months of ill health at age 81. Exactly what the health problem was remains unknown to me. She simply died three weeks later at 82, no cause given. They married on February 16, 1893 and twenty years later lived in Elverson, Pennsylvania. They celebrated their twentieth anniversary with 18 guests and a turkey dinner.
They both died at 413 West Minor Street in West Chester, their last home of thirty years. They previously lived in Modena where he operated a lumber mill and the general store. (Pictured left, the general store as it looks today.) He had a brother, Benjamin Franklin Meredith II and a sister, Ivagene Meredith Sessions, who lived at the time of his death in Hollywood. He had a son John, a daughter Ellen and a son Benjamin Franklin Meredith III, who was my father’s dad. The man, William Wilson Meredith, was my dad’s namesake. My dad hated him.
I know far less about Hanna Ella Sheeler Meredith, other than she was from Honeybrook, Pennsylvania and was a mean, nasty woman.
I have one old photograph of her (right), but none of him. I don’t know what he looked like and don’t believe I ever met either of them. They had treated my father very badly and unfairly.  

Florence Blanche Townsley (pictured on right with my dad in the buggy and pregnant with Uncle Ben) had been William and Ella’s hired help,  a mere cleaning woman, and a servant, but she married their son and became their daughter-in-law in 1918. They considered her a gold digger and accused her of seducing their son into getting her pregnant. Was this true? The facts are she did get pregnant by Benjamin out of wedlock and she was six years his senior. She was a woman in her mid-twenties and he was a boy of 19 when they wed. My father was the result of it, not the cause, yet the Grandparents held it against him all their lives.

With little resources and four mouths to feed, my dad enlisted in the CCC. This was one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s alphabet soup answers to the Great Depression. The initials stood for the Civilian Conservation Corps and it existed from 1933 to 1942. It was open to single, unemployed men from relief families and provided manual labor jobs.
When my father announced to his Grandparents what he had done, Ella (as she was known) ordered him to rescind his enlistment.
“No one in this family will be associated with that nigger work,” she said.
Dad ignored her. He worked for the CCC in Virginia, building the Skyline Drive. It was a semi-military existence and they lived in camps where they worked. It was hard labor with $25 of the monthly pay of $30 sent back to his family in Modena.

Grandfather William and Grandmother Ella both died in 1950.

Death seemed to float through the air that year. My Great Grandparents Brown both passed in 1950, too.
The Browns lived in “The Boyer House” (pictured right) on Boot Road at a crossroads village called The

            I knew them and liked them. I was young, of course. In fact, Mary Ann Smiley Brown died of a long illness three days before my ninth birthday. She was 71 and had been ill f
or months. Her funeral may have been the first I ever attended. I don’t remember if I was at my Grandmother Florence Blanche Townsley Meredith’s in January 1946.
I remember going to Grandparent Brown’s Boot Road home after the service. There were platters of food in the living room and a large number of people drifting about me. One of my clearest memories of visiting that house during her life was sitting in her kitchen while she cooked. She cooked on a wood stove. There was a metal bucket handy to hold kindling used to ignite the initial fire. The stove was heavy and black in appearance. Her pots, pans and other cooking utensils also appeared to be heavy. (Left: Sara Ann Brown holding me, 1941.)
Millard Charlton Brown died nearly six months later on December 2, 1950, in a home he had built. House building had been his business. The house wasn’t large and it set just off West Chester Pike in a place called Ludwig’s Camp. My grandfather said Charlton died because he couldn’t stand living without his wife of 50 years.

We found his body. My grandfather and I had been riding and he took me to visit his dad. We went in the house and found the old man dead upon the bedroom floor. I say “old man”, but he was only 73. People looked somehow older then. My Great Grandparents Brown looked like old time pioneers to me,
especially her in her long “granny dresses and aprons”, her hair pulled back in a bun. They look like the couple in Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” to me in this photo taken the year they died.

            Do my wife and I look quite so old-time at that same age in the photo to the right?

Around that same period another death occurred. Dave Fidler had a little sister known as Sissy. She was not yet school age. The Fidler’s lived on Lancaster Avenue directly across from the East Ward School (pictured left as it looks today). Dave was in my class and our class was outside for recess. Sissy saw us playing and she wanted to join. Someone had left the fence’s front gate open, so she ran into the street. A vehicle struck and killed her.
For me it was like a recurring nightmare. I had witnesses a similar scene less than three years earlier and the coincidences were remarkable. Dave Fidler was a friend and he had two brothers, all three boys older than the sister. My friends at Glenloch had been three brothers with a younger sister. Sissy ran into traffic because she wanted to play where she saw her brother. The other girl ran into
traffic because she wanted to pick flowers with her brother. It was the same highway, Lancaster Pike also known as the Lincoln Highway or Route 30. Here we were hustled into the school by our teachers; there I was hustled home by my mother.
To add to this tragedy, Dave and I had a classmate named Helen Burkhart (pictured left). It was her father who accidentally struck and killed Sissy.

I mentioned my Grandfather Brown and I were driving when we discovered my Great
Grandfather’s body. Such rides had become common by the summer of 1950. If my Grandmother had been almost a Nanny to me as a child, my Grandfather was a surrogate father. He was the masculine image for me and masculine he was.
Francis Fizz Brown (left), known to everyone as Brownie, was not a handsome man. He was relatively short, he was fat and he was bald. His nature was gruff. He drank, cursed and smoked. He told dirty jokes and he hated Democrats, especially Harry S. Truman. (My father was a staunch and steadfast Democrat to his dying day.) Grandfather Brown also hated Milton Berle, whom my Grandmother watched every week after grandfather bought her a television.
What my Grandfather loved was foxhunting. He took me to all the hunts. He didn’t ride horses anymore, so we followed in the car. A hunt was
like a party. There would be iced tubs of beer and soda on the lawn, finger food on card tables. We would go to some farm early on that day. There would be a great crowd and many horses and even more hounds, straining at leashes or waiting in the backs of pickup trucks. I think my grandfather had sold Old Red and his other hounds by then. I don’t remember them being packed in the car with us.
There would be one fox, usually sitting in a wooden crate under a tree off to the side. The hunters weren’t dressed in any traditional outfits like you see in pictures, no “Pinks”, the bright red jacket associated with the sport.  No Bowler Hats or even black riding helmets. They riders looked more like ranch hands in Jeans, flannel shirts and work boots.
People would mill about talking. The Hunt Master dropped the fox at some point. Before releasing the hounds they allowed the fox a few minutes head start. The dogs charged baying. The horsemen would gallop after. Grandfather and I would jump in his car.
I don’t know how he knew where to go. Perhaps he could hear the baying of the hounds. He  drove this road or that and then pulled over on the shoulder. Sure enough, in a few seconds the actors of this drama would charge across the field, fox, hounds and riders. We watched until they disappeared again and then drove to a new spot. Eventually they cornered the fox. They crated the star while restraining the hounds from doing any harm. The farmer who owned the fox would take it home to await the next hunt. (the photo on the left is of my Cousin Bob Wilson and his daughterin 1974. They are at the Pikeland Lutheran Church Thanksgiving Blessing of the Hounds. They are attired in traditional Pinks and hunting outfits. Foxhunting remained a popular Chester County sport.))

We would drive away and stop at a country bar.
The bar was a dive. It was a plain white building with a gravel parking lot in the middle of
nowhere. The windows were small, rippled glass with neon beer signs taking up most of the panes. Inside it was dark, lit by more blue and red neon ads for booze. There was a small horseshoe bar taking up about two-thirds of the space. To the one side of the bar were a couple pinball machines and shuffleboard.
The shuffleboard was a bowling game. Pins snapped down from the top at the far end. You slid a silver metal object about the side and shape of a hockey puck down the surface to knock over the pins. The pins didn’t actually fall over. They folded up against the top of the machine. There were little metal prongs sticking up from the board surface beneath the pins. The object would slide over these and springs retracted however many pins above each prong.
Pap-Pap, as I called him, bought me a “Wootie”. That was my name for Upper Ten, a lemon-lime soda similar to 7-Up or Sprite. It was popular in the ‘fifties. He’d give me a handful of nickels and I would play the bowling game while he sat on a barstool and drank whiskey.
I never saw my Grandfather drunk in those days. He must have held his liquor well, for he did consume a good bit. (Maybe that is where I got my own ability to drink without effect.) I never saw him weave either walking or driving. He remained coherent and his mood was consistent, always gruff. All that would change in a few years, but in the foxhunting days there was no problem with his drinking.
My Grandfather carried three essential items with him. There was a pint of whiskey stashed
under the driver’s seat and a packet of Redman chewing tobacco in the glove compartment. There were always three or four Phillies Blunts, cigars, in his breast pocket. When he met a friend along the road he would stop and offer them a snort and a chew. My Grandfather had a lot of friends.
He never shared his cigars.
Many times when he ran short of smokes, he would send me across the East Ward playground to the gas station on the corner of Lancaster and Whiteland. The station sold tobacco products, candy bars, soda and ice cream pops. I would buy him a six-pack box of cigars and hegave me enough to get myself a Creamsicle or Fudgsicle (five cents each). I was 9, 10, 11 years old those years and no one questioned my buying cigars.

When I got back home, Pap-Pap would unwrap a Blunt and light up. He would slip the cigar band on one of my fingers like a reward, which is how I took it. There were lots of strange
little rewards I treasured. Many came from booze, such as little Scotty dogs magnets from Black & White Scotch or various red rooster doodads from Seagram’s 7.
I didn’t really remember who smoked cigarettes in the family. As far as I know my grandmother and mom never smoked. My grandfather was always puffing a cigar and my father constantly had a pipe between his teeth. Maybe my dad smoked cigarettes for a while and then switched to the pipe. I do know there were cigarettes in the house, Lucky Strike I believe. Someone was buying cigarettes from a machine that is certain. The cost of a pack was twenty-three cents. You had to put a quarter in the machine and the pack came out with two pennies on the side beneath the cellophane wrapper. I was generally given that two cents, I just couldn’t remember by whom.
That mystery was solved after dad died when I saw this photo of dad and me and noticed he
had a cigarette in his right hand.
I loved my Grandfather then. I called him Pap-Pap and my Grandmother Mam-Mam. Denny Myers heard me call them by these terms. He and his friends met me on the playground at school and he loudly told the others what I called my grandparents. He said I talked like a little baby. Everybody laughed, but I called them that with affection until the days they died.
My friend Ronald says Denny considered me a “suck-up” in school because the teachers liked me. This is true. I was a perpetual Teacher’s Pet, much against my wishes. I didn’t deliberately garner the position. I knew what kids thought of the teacher’s favorites and I had enough trouble with the other kids. But I was not a disobedient child in school. I didn’t act out. I was quiet. For several years I did my work, including homework. It wasn’t that I was an outstanding student that caused the teachers to favor me. It was because I never gave them any trouble.

But I know I was a Teacher’s Pet often enough.


slugmama said...

According to the PA death certificates I pulled up both William and Hanna Ella Meredith died of "coronary sclerosis", what they call atherosclerosis today. Contributing factor of chronic hypertension for both and H. Ella's report lists chronic myocarditis as well.

If you need any other info just let me know.

My Husband's father worked in the CCC as well, in the Pacific NW and also somewhere in Georgia before WWII. Next time I take a drive on the Skyline Drive I'll say a little thanks to your dad for his hard work. 8-)

Jon said...

I'm enjoying your childhood memories, and they always manage to ignite my own family memories. For some reason, things were always much more fascinating back then than they are today. It's such a shame that the two little girls were killed by vehicles. My great-grandfather was hit by a car and killed when he was crossing a street - that was in the 1930's.
I never knew there were fox hunts here in the U.S.A. - that's interesting. I always think of them as being solely British.,