The size of Stuart’s yard made life easier for us outcasts. We could do almost anything there that we could do on the playground of East Ward School, but with the advantage of escaping those who ridiculed and picked on us. We could bat a ball just as far as well as throw it to each other. We could play golf, but more about that fiasco in a latter chapter. Sometimes we played a modified game of baseball in his yard where you only needed four or five or six players.
We sometimes had that many. Jerry Miller, who lived right next door, was often with us. Bill Brookover was a long time friend of Stuart’s and he came, as did Gary Kinzey occasionally, as did Dave Fidler, and a girl called Sam. (Nope, no Boy Named Sue; but we did have A girl called Sam. Pictured right: “SAM, Shirley Ann McComsky, one of the boys.) Ronald was a semi-regular visitor when was not working. There were others now and again, Stuart’s cousins, miscellaneous acquaintances.The beauty was only those we invited could come.
Boys will make up games if they get bored or they get forced inside a cramped kitchen due to rainy weather. We played a rather silly game in Stuart’s kitchen every once in a while. I‘ll call it, “The Drinking Game”. I’m not sure anyone else called it anything. It had nothing to do with alcohol. We are talking water here.
I no longer recall whose brainstorm this was. I know it wasn’t mine. I have a vague feeling it was Jerry Miller (pictured left) who conceived it, but whomever, it worked this way.
Stuart filled a large pitcher with water and set it upon the kitchen table along with some glasses, which he also filled with water. We would sit around the table, each with our glass. “The We” almost always included Stuart, Jerry and I, but others drifted in and out of this activity over time. On the table was a spinner from some board game. It was a cardboard circle. In its center a rivet held an arrow that could be spun. Around the arrow were pie pieces in different colors. Each pie wedge had a number. It was used in some board game to determine how many spaces you moved a marker. We used it to determine how many glasses of water to drink.
Each took a turn in order. You flicked the arrow around with a finger and if it stopped on 1, you had to drink one glass of water. If it landed on 2, then two glasses and so forth. I think the spinner went up to 6. I don’t know what the object of the game was or what determined the winner. I think it was more a test of your bladder, to see how many glasses you could drink without going to the bathroom. It was a form of Russian Urination Roulette. The winner was probably the one who held out longest and didn’t wet his pants. (They labeled the photo on the right WC-Spinner, how appropriate.)
I had a distinct, if odd, advantage in this. I was good at holding it in. I did not like anyone seeing or hearing me go and definitely had a “shy bladder”; therefore, I disliked public restrooms. I wouldn’t use them if at all possible. I trained myself to hold it in so I never had to use them. I avoided the restrooms at school as if they were plaque ridden. I really developed an amazing capacity for this, as we’ll see later. I was not going to be the first to head for Stuart’s bathroom no matter if I spun all sixes. My bladder would have to explode first. I just applied my super holding power to win this game. It wasn’t that I was adverse to using private bathrooms in a friend’s home, as long as I went in there alone; it was I wanted to win the game. I really am a very competitive person inside.
Now for the sake of a public service, let me explain that there really is such a thing as “Shy Bladder Syndrone” (sometimes referred to as “Bashful Bladder”). It even has a scientific moniker, paruresis or parcopresis, depending upon the particular bodily function under observation. Being under observation or even imagining such a possibility is the problem. It is not unusual for nearly everyone to have occasional bouts of Shy Bladder, but these are brief instances perhaps when someone else is standing a bit too close or it’s too open an area. However, Paruresis and/or parcopresis are phobias and like I described about my fear of height, these can be very paralyzing and inconvenient. Parcopresis can lead to constipation or being impacted. Heaven knows what Paruresis might cause, but there are suffers in extreme cases who can only urinate through catheterization. Others can only go if at home alone. I was close to that home alone one as a teenager, almost only able to go if alone in my own bathroom.
This, plus climbing to any great height, was what scared me most about maybe having to go into the Armed Services. I feared having to climb up those giant log ladders I had seen recruits doing in a movie, of course. My Shy Bladder fear kicked in after I saw pictures of an Army bathroom where all these toilets were simply lined up out in the open.
Fortunately for me I never had to give an observed urine sample for drug testing. If I had both the observer and I would have grown old waiting.
Getting back to kids inventing new games if they become bored with the old. One of the guys who took part in this drinking game (he has since passed away) hinted the whole thing was getting monotonous. It needed higher steaks, he told us, required a more daring twist. He thought we should turn it into a striping game. Of course he suggested this just as a matter of elimination (no pun intended), there was no sexual connotation to our play, at least none I am aware of.
Neither Stuart nor I liked to take off our shirts in front of others, let alone our pants. I felt I was too skinny and he felt he was too fat. We didn’t like our bodies and we didn’t like anyone seeing them. Maybe the guy who made the suggestion felt he was statuesque and wanted to display his physique or he was not self-conscious or was plain confidant he would win and not be stripped naked. (He would be wrong about that.)
Despite Stuart and my hesitation he kept nagging until we agreed to do it. It is more accurate to say he clucked us into it, the old “Are you chicken” approach. It is incredible how the chicken routine convinces boys to do stupid things.
We only played it once. This was the one time Mrs. Meisel left us alone in the house to go out elsewhere. All other times she was wandering about and might pop into the kitchen without warning.
I’m not sure what the specific rules were. If we based it on running to the bathroom I am sure I never lost a stitch, but I believe the number on the spinner determined it. If you landed on 1 you had to take one article off and drink one glass of water and so forth. That certainly put Stuart and I in danger.
Man, what if I landed on a six? It was summertime and hot. Was I even wearing six articles of clothing?
Let’s see, T-shirt, no undershirt, pants, briefs, shoes and socks (did shoes and socks count as two each or just one? Did my hat count? I threw my watch into the count.) Maybe there was some other element, an escape clause, where you didn’t have to remove anything at certain times. Perhaps you removed only if you landed on a certain number. There was no zero, no free zone. Then there was added a particularly scary dare for the loser. Whoever ended up totally naked was to run briefly out onto Stuart’s side porch…IN BROAD DAYLIGHT!
To the left is Stuart standing behind the infamous side porch off the kitchen. It was a flat slab. The further door came from the dining room, the next from the kitchen from which the loser was to dash and the last was off a shed that was used as a pantry; nowhere to hide.
The boy who suggested the game lost, much to my relief, and I am sure Stuart’s, and anybody else that was playing that day. Gamely he even prepared to take the final dare, but when he opened the door he slammed it shut and ducked back into the kitchen.
“Mrs. So-and-so is coming down Lancaster,” he said. I forget the woman’s name that he yelled; it was a neighbor of theirs, not mine.
We quickly put back on whatever we had removed and we never played that stripping game again. I don’t even think we ever mentioned it again. I wasn’t the loser that day, but maybe I should have taken that game as a foreboding of what lay ahead and been prepared for another dare later that summer.
There was something that happened during the summer between sixth and seventh grades that changed my life choice of what I wanted to be. No more "Bring 'Em Back Alive" explorer or bug guy. It began as a negative, but resulted in a positive.
During my grade school years I collected a number of toy figures. Many I had bought as a package deal offered on the back of a comic book. Others I had purchased over time from the five & dime store. Most were soldiers, but some were Cowboys and Indians. (The term “Native Americans” had not yet come into use. It would sound very strange to say we played “Cowboys and Native Americans”.) The majority of the Cowboys and Indians were made of hard plastic. The soldiers were a greenish rubbery plastic.
I also had some odd figures. These were older toys made of cast iron and a Cowboy that was a hard metal. They once must have been my father’s. That Hard-bodied Cowboy was usually my hero figure, my alter ego. (We didn’t call anything “Action Figures” during my boyhood.) All these figures were generic, too, not created to promote some TV show or movie.)
There were several Army trucks, jeeps and tanks I purchased one by one over time at Newberrys. The figures cost a nickel. The vehicles were ten and fifteen cents.
It was not long after my twelfth birthday. I was sitting on the floor of my bedroom with my toy men spread out before me when my father came up the steps and peered in through my open door. He stepped into my room.
“You’re too old to be playing with dolls,” he said.
I looked at him. “I’m not playing,” I said. “I’m writing.”
He gave me one of those; “yeah, right” looks and stomped away. I immediately got up and took a pencil and some paper from my desk. I sat down and wrote a story using my toy figures as the characters. The metal Cowboy was the leader of a small group of specialists, which included one of the plastic Cowboys who had a floppy hat and a one-armed Indian. (See, the crime-fighting team in which each person has a unique talent or skill is not new nor has it gone away as a plot device, think the TV show “Scorpion”.)
I wrote in pencil on three pages of an 8 x 10 lined notebook - both sides. It had a cast of a dozen, all introduced to each other on the third page. I rewrote it almost immediately after the first draft, this time extending it into what I called a novel. Well, I did divide it into chapters. I didn't have any proper paper, so I scoured about in my mom's secretary desk and found a box of onionskin writing paper. I used a pencil for this, too, and both sides. You can imagine how easy that thing was to read, especially with my handwriting.
The story revolved around a mad scientist who had created a monster (never heard that one before). The scientist lived on an island surrounded by quicksand. I had a large figure with a missing leg, and this became a mysterious hermit who lived on the island. He was a composite of Ben Gumm and Long John Silver. A narrator named Tom Reiser told most of the tale in the form of a diary. Reiser was dying from an encounter with the monster. My story was a combination of Doc Savage, Treasure Island and Frankenstein.
It was pretty bad.
I called the story, ”It!”
This was the first, but wouldn’t be the last, title I beat Stephen King to. (I later rewrote this story as a novella called, Dream. It doesn’t bear much resemblance to the original except there is still an island surround by quicksand.)
After finishing my story I said, “I am going to be a writer.”
I meant it. I have written something almost every single day since I wrote “It!”
And this decision was one my teachers were never able to knock out of me.
I have also questioned whether writing is a gift or a curse.
We boys spent a lot of time in the woods behind Stuart’s house, even constructing a lean-to as a sort of clubhouse (pictured left). There were many times we would go back to that large depression at its center, what Stuart called “Devil’s Nest”, and play war. I did not know that all the property, the woods and the lakes, belonged to the Meisels.
Their property [The Meisels], which stretched north to beyond where Pennsylvania Avenue now is located, totaled about 12 acres. Part of that land was sold to the borough in the early 1960s, so Pennsylvania Avenue could be extended eastward, to Uwchlan Avenue. As kids, Stuart Meisel and his best friends, Larry Meredith and Ron Tipton, were “desperately unhappy” because the sale of that tract of land destroyed the “Devil’s Nest,” located in the woods behind the house, where they played as youngsters.
-- Downingtown Area Histrical Society Hist-o-gram January 9, 2014
Beginning in the 1930s, the parcels west of UPI No. 11–4–23 (the first parcel that was purchased from Meisel) were privately owned and used as a quarry. When this use ended, the exposed cavities were filled in with industrial waste by-products and municipal waste… [Might this been the source of Devil’s Nest?]
In 1999, the Borough had Golder Associates conduct site specific analysis for contaminates in the Property's surface soil, subsurface soil, and groundwater. Golder issued a report that identified a layer of “historic fill,” composed of iron slag, metal, paper and wood products, and plastics, as thick as 2 to 12 feet that covers nearly the entire property to the west of the existing ponds. The fill area encompasses a volume of greater than 250,000 cubic yards and contains benzo(a)pyrene, arsenic, iron, lead, mercury, and vanadium. Golder prepared a cleanup plan which proposed the continued recreational use of the eastern portion of the Property and commercial uses for the contaminated area. The report found that the risks to both park users and groundkeepers due to direct contact with contaminants in the surface soil were within limits established by DEP… In 2008, in conjunction with the proposed plan, Advanced GeoServices performed a review of the original risk assessment. In its report, Advanced GeoServices found that exposure to the collective concentrations of arsenic, iron, and mercury on the Property posed an unacceptable risk to park users.
-- Excerpts from Borough of Downingtown v. Friends of Kardon Park LLC Transcript, August 3, 2012
There was another instance that was to have some impact on my life as I aged into adolescent. Was my suddenly out of character behavior caused by the pollutants?
Larry Meredith was another high school friend with whom I maintained some contact after high school. Years before, Larry and I used to play war in the Woods. He often took off his clothes, pretending that he had been captured by the “enemy” and tortured. I thought it was strange that he would run around with no clothes. What struck me more, however, was that he was white as snow – Almost like a ghostly apparition floating between the trees in the woods. Imagine a white figure, in the distance, moving lightly through the woods in the Blair Witch Project film.
-- From My Story by Stuart Rayfield Meisel
The description Stuart gives in his autobiography fits right in with future fantasies I would have during junior high, but Stuart had no knowledge of these, nobody did. At the time of the events he is describing, I didn’t either. These fantasies would began as I became a more and more a troubled young teenager. As junior high went on I became lost in my loneliness, fears and imagination. If something hadn’t changed at the end ofninth grade I would have been doomed. What happened wasn’t going to save me entirely, but it would temporarily.
Stuart also has forgotten this was not a sudden whim on my part. I was dared by another boy (the same one who came up with the stripping game) to take off my clothes one day. Why I took such a dare, I don’t know. As I stated earlier, I didn’t like anyone to see my bare body, even just my chest, let alone expose my all to other eyes. Running about starker’s was totally against my nature up to that period. You can find photos in the family album of my young friends playing bare-chested in the summer sun, but not I. I never took my shirt off when playing outside. I seldom wore shorts either. After kindergarten, or perhaps first grade, I decided shorts were for little boys. “Big boys” wore long pants and I would only wear such. I also always wore a hat, usually a baseball cap. Maybe all this cover up explained why I was so ghostly white.
For some reason I not only took the dare, but according to Stuart’s narrative, did so on more than one occasion. Maybe given the constant rejection I was receiving by this point in my boyhood I was afraid not to and that my friends too would reject me if I didn’t. For whatever reason I consented. In doing so I discovered I enjoyed the sensation of being naked and free to run about outside. I was indeed lost in the weeds. I still knew nothing about sex. I didn’t yet experience any sexual feelings in running about bare, although I would say I did feel a form of sensual pleasure in this.
Despite doing this over who knows how long that summer, it did not destroy my initial shyness about my body. I did not continue to practice nudity around any friends and I went right back to wanting to hide my body for any prying eyes. I was going to hate group showers and many other common practices of gym and boy scouts.
I didn’t consider it particular wrong that I was streaking, but eventually a related matter would bring me trouble. Remember what I said about the two strong causes of people’s falling into sin given throughout the Bible. One was love of money, which I wasn’t tempted by and was quite honest. The other was sexual immorality and sexual immorality can even destroy honesty in an honest man as we shall find out somewhere in the coming sections I call, “Sex and the System”.
EXCERTS FROM "IT" or "DREAM"
"It" was the title of the first piece I wrote when I decided to be a writer. It was immediately
EXCEPTS FROM PART ONE -- VERKLARUNG
The woman driving did not cut the engine. She leaned upon the wheel, which she gripped with both hands, staring across the brown marsh weeds and black cat-o'nine tails at a distant housetop rising from the muck and mire like a clean white cloud.
"You best go," she said, never turning her gaze from the distant roof to look at the boy. "An' Roscoe, 'member your uncle had a bad time of it. Bad time. He's dependin' 'pon you. Do him well. "Member, he coulda 'forded the bes' nurses, but asked fer you, Lord knows why. He ain't set eyes 'pon you fer God knows how long. You bes' go."
"Okay, mom." he put a hand on the door handle.
She touched his knee. "I'm certain he'll reward you good come summer's end."
"You bes' go." She lifted her hand, but never once lifted her eyes from the rooftop.
Roscoe got out and stood waiting by the mailbox, his head just topping it. He was short for his age and thin. He had large soft eyes of brown, shallow cheeks, thin grim lips and small delicate ears over which his ill-clipped hair fell in an uneven fringe of pale brown. Not solidly built, he looked less sturdy than the cat o'nine tales in the swamp. In his hand was a small suitcase with frayed edges.
His mother rolled down the window on his side and for the first time since stopping looked from the house top to the boy.
"Write me," she said, "there ain't no phone."
"I will," he said and waved.
She waved back as she rolled up the window. He watched her turn the car around and drive back into the brown dust. The car was swallowed quickly and gone.
Roscoe awoke for the first of many similar summer mornings to come. He prepared breakfast and afternoons took a swim in the ocean. Time passed quickly during the early weeks and Roscoe was happy. Breakfasts soon merged with lunches, lunches with dinners. He barely noticed. The island mesmerized him that first month. A strange, but pleasant place it was, surrounded by dreary swampland, vaporous and malignant, except for the ocean on one side. Of the ocean he could see no end. It was a stretch of deep green water, cresting white waves and changing moods. It had its own life, but it was a life he could not understand. It lured him, but it frightened.
His uncle talked about the sea like a child talks of his father. "I am a son of the sea and was before you were born," he would say to Roscoe. "I am a spirit of the sea, the sea is my spirit."
He told marvelous stories of the sea and the foreign lands he had traveled. Roscoe loved these tales. During those first early nights he looked forward to the stories.
It was summer when daylight was long, but the nights seemed longer. He couldn't sleep. He lay awake hearing the gales of labored breathing; the thunderclap coughs. What if his uncle died? What would he do? There was no telephone. How close was the nearest village? Which direction was it? There was a mailman, who he never saw. When did he deliver, in the middle of the night?
His uncle received no mail, but Roscoe's letters from home were always picked up. He never answered them. Should he write now and ask to come home? No, his mother would not like that; besides there was the reward.
There was the reward.
The reward, he had seldom thought of the reward, now it claimed his thoughts each night. Every cough or sniffle added a dollar. It grew by the minute. He began planning how to spend it. Would it be enough to buy a car? It wouldn't be long until he would be sixteen. He would like a car. He would like a new car, not a second-hand one like the guys who zoomed around him on his bicycle drove. A new car, a fast car, a red car like the girl's liked, man, if he could have a red car then he'd really be somebody.
Several deer crossed onto the island. Roscoe pretended interest in the creatures. He stood and walked toward them. He sensed a story. [Roscoe was sitting on the porch with his uncle -- LEM Note.] There were no more stories that interested him, except the story of his reward. As he came nearer he saw one young buck, fawn spots still lightly visible across its rump beneath the adult fur, peer restlessly off into the marsh. Following its gaze, Roscoe saw a small patch of purple moss growing on a tree trunk. The buck was fascinated with that growth. It left the bridge and bounded up Riviere de Charon.
It splashed merrily for a distance, coming almost to its reward. But the mud slipped knots about its legs. It lurched forward, but was stuck where it last had leaped. It flung its head from side to side, causing it to sink further faster, then it stopped perfectly still and stared across the marsh weeds at Roscoe, the young, brown face frozen in fright, the moist eyes catching his eyes.
"Uncle Adon," he yelled, "come quick."
His uncle came to the bridge. "What is it, Ross?"
Roscoe pointed. "There."
Adon looked at the deer and then at the boy. "Ross, go get my rifle."
Roscoe watched himself watching in the deer's eyes. It would be like shooting himself. "No, we've got to save it."
"We can't, Ross, we can't. It strayed too far from the path. It can't be saved."
"What's in the package?" asked his mother.
"That? Didn't he give you money?"
Roscoe tore the wrapping off and displayed a small painting in a frame, a woman in a flowing cloak standing surrounded by seraphim and light.
"What is it?" asked his mother. She took it. She read the tiny gold plate on the frame. "Dante's Beatrice by Giotto." She handed it back. "Never heard of him or her." She turned the car around and headed home. "That all he give ya?"
"He called it his greatest treasure," said Roscoe. He felt tears and turned his head.
"Can you imagine," she said, "all summer you stay. Him an' his art. Throws all his money away on that junk. By the time he dies he'll have nothin' to leave nobody."
At home, in his own room, Roscoe carefully removed the frame and laid it on his bed. His face reflected in the empty glass. He took a pocketknife from his pants and slashed the painting to shreds.
EXCERPTS FROM PART TWO -- TOD
Down the stretch thundered the flashing hooves. The track was soaked from recent rain, mud splashed as high as the withers. It splashed Roscoe cheering along the rail. Who cares? That was his horse under the wire, winning, winning by a nose, by a nostril, but winning, a long shot posted seventy-two to one. The tout was playin' straight for once. The bet-the-farm-and-your-first-born-child tip was solid straight and he had bet his rear, emptied every penny in his bank account and let it ride on a seventy-two to one shot, and he had to be crazy, but he won. After years of torn up tickets he had a small fortune in his grasp. Oh man, what was $2,100 times 72? Somewhere near $150,000, right? Somewhere in that lovely neighborhood anyway. There'd be no crying in his beer tonight, and to hell with the bookstore cause he bought the whole damn farm.
Roscoe woke to a clap of thunder. He laid a hand on his chest. He lay still with his heart willy-nilly beneath his hand. He opened his eyes and listened to the noises, his beating heart, the audible rain, the occasional thunderclap. Lightening briefly brightened his room.
"What's the time," he said aloud.
He found the clock; the dial glowed 5:47. He was wide and wildly awake; he might as well get up.
Seated at his kitchen table with a cup of coffee calmness returned to his chest. What a dream. He wondered what caused it. Winning a big horse race was a common enough dream for him, but it never ended badly. Only in real life did it ever end badly, like when he lost too much and dropped out of college cause he bet his tuition. That was long ago. He was a kid. Since then his gambling was confined to the numbers and football pools. It was all he could afford on a book clerk's salary.
He sipped the coffee and absently fingered an open letter left lying on the table. His eyes skimmed the page. "...inform you...your uncle, Adon Yates. death...certain aspects of his will...contact us as soon as possible..."
He had all day, which was plenty of time to tote a pile of goodies from house to truck. He cut the engine, climbed from the cab and headed down the path to the bridge. Swollen Riviere de Charon rushed beneath the bridge and splashed its banks. Sticks boiled in the foam. Old leaves and broken reeds swirled and tumbled in the rapids, slipping between and over rocks. The creek wet his shoes as he gingerly crossed. He could feel the weakness in the old lashings and hear the creaking of the boards.
The island was calm as ever. The rain added shine to the lush grass, already a deep green despite the newness of the season. Buds readied themselves on the orchard trees. The stalks of future flowers poked through the garden soil. Young animals scampered away as he appeared. The house stood sturdy and brilliant, a beacon in the storm, shimmering with life even on this gray day.
He took a breath and went up the walk onto the porch. He took out the key and unlocked the front door, putting the key back in his jacket pocket. He paused again, then shoved the door wide and stepped inside.
He leaned forward, the cold rain blowing against his face, walking fast as possible into the strong wind. The TV banged his knees. There was a sharp edge that kept catching his kneecap. It was snagging in his trousers. He would jerk it loose, swing it out from him, but it would bang back into the kneecap. It was digging a tiny hole into his flesh, which stung in the cold. At the bridge the silver chest unsnapped and half the utensils splashed into the creek. Water lapped his shoe tops. His feet hurt and felt detached. The TV dug deeper into his knee and he jerked it back with force. It swung away banging loose a section of the rotted railing. His numbed feet skidded on the wood, his balance shifted. He flung away the silver chest and grabbed the remaining railing just when all was swept away. The TV screen smashed on some rocks. Roscoe grabbed for the shore, but the water was too swift and it washed him backward into the marsh.
Not quite the end, but I'm not going to tell you what happened.