When I was living in Downingtown I tried desperately to get a nickname, attempting to get people to call me “Spider”. I kept trying, but everyone kept ignoring me. The closest I got was Mantis or Daddy Longlegs, which I didn’t like. Kids used those as derogatory references to my gangly arms and legs. No cognomen ever stuck, which in Downingtown was probably a good thing since most sobriquets I heard were derisive. Nobody wants to get stuck with the epithet Quasimodo. Some may consider the one I finally earned just as bad. “Frank” became my nickname, short for Frankenstein.
“They’re both monsters, aren’t they?”
No, actually neither is a monster. Quasimodo was a deformed human being. The hunchback really represents the near standard of a human, flawed but with kindly and protective tendencies, especially in comparison to the handsome, but shallow Captain Phoebus, who is more the real monster.
Frankenstein was the scientist who created the monster. I was the slightly hunched-backed boy who created horror stories. I don’t know how much my classmates knew about my writing in Tenth Grade. We did write those short stories in English and I got teacher recognition for mine. Besides “Rescue” there was another, “Purgatory Story”. But these weren’t Horror stories per se.
“Rescue” concerned a young man stranded on the side of a cliff. “Purgatory Story” was about a group of teenagers who became lost in a cave. Both stories had twist endings, which weren’t happy ones, but they weren’t horror. They were more adventure-suspense tales.
Still I was sort of a 1950s style “Goth”. I was known for what I read and talked about. When called upon to do a book review I always selected what I thought were Horror books. I mean, who knew “Buried Alive” by Arnold Bennett (pictured left) wouldn’t read like something by Poe? It was difficult enough plowing through Bennett’s 1908 writing style to then discover nothing that horrific ever happens. This was the opening of the novel, Chapter one: The Puce-Dressing Gown.
The peculiar angle of the earth's axis to the plane of the ecliptic-- that angle which is chiefly responsible for our geography and therefore for our history--had caused the phenomenon known in London as summer. The whizzing globe happened to have turned its most civilized face away from the sun, thus producing night in Selwood Terrace, South Kensington.
If that doesn’t pull you right into the novel, what does? And puce, really? What guy talks about puce? When I was 15 I didn’t know what puce was. Closest thing I thought of was puke, which pretty much summed up my opinion of “Buried Alive”.
I was a voracious reader who read during lunch and study halls. What I read was generally in the horror or science fiction genres, books or collections of stories by Richard Matheson, Ramsey Campbell, Frederic Brown and Ray Bradbury, and of course, Edgar Allan Poe.
One weekend while visiting with Stuart Meisel he said, “I want to show you something.”
He went upstairs and came back with a paperback book. He handed it to me. The book was a bit worn with a creased cover and tattered edges. The title was The Lurking Fear and Other Stories.
“This is the scariest stuff I ever read,” he said.
The book was by someone I had never heard of before, H. P. Lovecraft. He insisted I borrowed the book to read.
During the next week I lay down on our living room floor one bright afternoon. No one was home. The sun was shining through the front windows and I lay in these blocks of light it made around me and read. I became so engrossed in the stories that when a passing shadow broke the light I screamed. I couldn’t even read the book at night.
I added Lovecraft to what I carried about school in my hip pocket.
To tell the truth, up until I started writing my autobiography I believed I didn’t get my nickname, “Frank”, until Twelfth Grade after I did a showcase reading of my short stories at school. I was looking for a picture in my 1957 copy of The Torch, the school yearbook, when I read the inscriptions on the back page. These were autographs I got from some of my classmates at the end of Tenth Grade. All but one was addressed to Frank, Frankie or Frank-in-stine (sic). One inscription also reminded me of something else.
Jeanette Richards (pictured left) was one of the most desired girls in my class. I doubt she would have ever gone on a date with me since she had her pick of every guy in school, but she did become a friend and part of what I might call my gang. In fact, most of those who signed that page would be in that clique. Homer, Wyatt, Jon and Phil were among the signers.
Mr. Brown of Biology had sponsored the trip to Audubon and the Meadowbrook Bird Sanctuary. Nothing bonds a group like traveling twenty miles in a cramped van and spending a day traipsing through woodland together seeking out Hairy Woodpeckers and White-Breasted Nuthatches. The group began accepting me as an equal part of the class on that expedition.
Beating the bushes for Black-Capped Chickadees didn’t get me my nickname. Toting around those genre books and talking about writing my own horror stories accomplished that.
When school ended in June of ’57, I got a job picking strawberries at Ridge Farm. The field was located along Route 23 about a mile walk from my home. I had ambled down the Bucktown Hill early one morning and inquired at the barn if they were hiring help. I started the same day.
There were no Daddy Longlegs in the strawberry bushes. There weren’t any insects so I guess the farmer sprayed his fields. It was grueling work. There was no shade whatsoever. You went up and down the field towing a little cart of baskets. You duck-walked the rows all day plucking the ripe berries. When you filled all the baskets on your cart you pulled it to the back room of the barn.
The farmer’s wife oversaw this operation. She would tally your baskets each time you came in. You got fifteen cents per full basket. (I forget the size of the baskets, they weren’t real big, perhaps a quart.) After counting your yield, she inspected the front and back of your hands for any stains. If you got juice on your skin it meant you damaged some of the product. If she found any such incriminating evidence, she deducted five cents a basket for that load. If it happened enough time, she fired you. I got into the habit of not clipping my fingernails short on this job. The best way to pick was to grasp the stem above the berry and clip it off with your thumb and index nails. This procedure slowed your production, but was the only way to avoid staining your hands.
What can I say, it’s a living. I hear people saying Americans won’t do this kind of labor anymore. I’m not sure I believe that. Why not, it’s honest labor? I'd do it, except at my age I would probably expire from heat struck halfway down a row.
My mother gave me a surprise sixteenth birthday party in late June. Like the last one in Fifth Grade, she invited some kids I wouldn’t have and missed inviting some who I would. I don’t remember a great deal about this party. I recall we played a morbid game in the dark. Mother passed about various items and told us these were parts of a dissected man. We had to guess what the part was. The person who got the most right won a prize. There was macaroni for veins or some such thing. Grapes represented eyes. I dread to think what body parts would be represented in this day and age.
The only gift I still remember was from Ronald Tipton. He gave me a record album of Gospel songs by Mahalia Jackson. He said, “I know you like her.” I don’t know where he got that idea. I liked Gospel music okay, but not her style of singing. But still, it shows he paid attention to my interests and put some thought in what he gave. I do still have that album, although I transferred the tracks to iTunes.
Ronald was brought to the party by his date. Her name was Patty Daller. She left the party with another boy, Charlie Crouse, leaving Ronald without a ride home. I don’t know why this other boy was even invited. He was from Downingtown and I didn’t even know him. Maybe he crashed the party.
There were a number of other parties over the next year I enjoyed more than my own birthday bash. Richard Wilson and Joan Boder threw most of these. They were just get-togethers at each other’s homes. It was dancing and food. The attendees were friends of Richard’s usually, almost everybody younger than I because Richard was two grades behind me. Girls wanted to dance with me at these parties because they considered me a good dancer. We all knew each other as friends. I wasn’t dating anyone attending.
Although we seldom played games, there was one we did. It was at a party at Richard’s. There was a cookout in the late afternoon, and as the sky grew dark everyone drifted onto and around the porch. The adults kind of hung on the edge in groups, drinking beer, smoking and talking. As the evening wore on their talking grew louder and was interspersed with loud guffaws. We teenagers meanwhile began dancing in the center to music Richard played on his record player. Eventually the night turned a little chill and the adults moved inside the house.
We kids, probably warmed by our jumping about to the rock beats, took over the porch completely. Eventually less and less of us were dancing. Instead we were sitting down where we could or stood leaning on the railing. Suddenly the music stopped and Richard picked up the record player and stepped down on to the ground.
“Hey, you wanna play a game,” he said.
He was waving a large flashlight about and he used it to lead us out to the garage. The cars were outside and when our little parade marched inside we saw he had set a group of chairs in a circle. He placed the record player down on a workbench next to a wall outlet and plugged it in. It was very dark in the garage. The only illumination came from the flashlight Richard held. He proceeded to explain the game. As he did he shown the light in our faces and then the circle of chairs, and then he handed the torch to his brother. Tommy didn’t participate in the game; he manned the record player. It was musical chairs with a twist. The boys sat down on the chairs and the girls circled around them while the music played. During this time the flashlight was snapped off and it was pitch black inside the building. When Tommy suddenly stopped the music the girls had to jump on a boy’s lap.
I did not enjoy the game. As soon as the first girl jumped on my lap I got an erection that would not go away. I could not make out any faces in that dark, but I sure could feel each girl’s bottom pressing across my thighs. Some of them would sit still until the music restarted. Some of them twitched or bounced around impatiently. I could feel the heat of them as well as the weight.
I spent the whole game trying to avoid having the girl feel my condition when she jumped on my lap. Most of the time I failed in my attempts, especially if she was one of the bouncers. Some girls kind of leaped on to me and some sort of climbed up, grabbing me where ever they could to aid their mount. I wanted to help them, but was fearful of touching them. I didn’t know exactly what my hands might grab in the dark.
Frankly, I didn’t know what to do with my hands. I was inclined to fold them over my lap, but what if a girl felt my hands beneath her bottom when she jumped aboard? What would she think I was up to? I gritted my teeth and kept my hands pinned close to my chest. Fighting to keep hands off even though in my opinion most of the girls were landing right in the worst possible spot. I felt embarrassed for the girl as well as myself believing each and every one was discovering my condition. All I heard around me were giggles, laughs and occasional shouts. Everyone else appeared to be having a good time. I was too naïve to understand what I wished to avoid was the real object of the game.
I had turned sixteen. The day after my birthday I was at Motor Vehicles applying for my Learner’s Permit. Even though I would be taking driver’s Education at school next semester, it was required in Eleventh Grade, I wasn’t going to wait around another six months to get my license. I got a lot of practice in during the spring on the back roads in all kinds of vehicles. I was an experienced driver, although no one knew how I became so. I took my driver’s test during the first week of July.
And I failed.
I had no difficulty with the written exam, which was the part I was most concerned with. You were given about a dozen random questions that were taken from anywhere in the Driver’s Manual. It seemed like a lot of material to have to memorize, but the questions were fairly basic. I aced that part.
I was sent outside behind the building and then ushered to a test car. I got in the car for the road test next to this big State Trooper. He was very intimidating. He spoke in that clipped military style. “You will start your car and drive to that stop sign. Once there, you will turn right.”
I remembered to check my seat position and adjust my mirrors. Cars did not have seat belts yet. I drove toward the stop sign and I put my arm out the window to indicate I was stopping. I stopped. I pointed over the roof that I was going to turn right. Some cars had a new devise called turn signals, but even if you did have such a devise, you were required to use hand signals in the test.
I breezed through the parallel parking and the weaving through cones.
“Go halfway up this hill, stop and turn off the engine,” he ordered.
Ah, yes, what some people thought was the hardest part of the test. People were afraid they would stall the car trying to start up again from a dead stop on a hill. It was a matter of not popping the clutch between releasing the brake and giving the car enough gas to overcome gravity and inertia. Yes, we took the test on a stick shift. Automatic transmissions were also a rarity in those years. There was very little on these cars either automatic or power driven. We were probably lucky we had some kind of windshield wipers. In fact, the intermittent wiper system didn’t even go on to automobiles until the 1969 Mercury installed the first.
I restarted the car and pulled up the hill without a hitch, a pause, a jerk or a gear grind. I had conquered the hard part.
This was the last step in the test. All I had to do was execute a three-point turn and I was done. I turned forward into the first point. I backed up and my rear bumper just barely scraped the embankment behind the shoulder.
“Is that it?” I asked weakly.
“That’s it,” he said, noting on the clipboard that I had failed.