Banner photo of Larry Eugene Meredith, Patrick Flynn and Ronald Tipton, 2016.

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

-- Larry E.
Time II

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Anxiety is Peering Out the Window of Reality

Reading through these chapters of my life may at times seem as if they concern two different people. In a way I was living as dual personalities, one withdrawn, socially anxious, sexually repressed and often depressed, while at other times I appeared to be a fairly normal boy. My life was as oddly distorted as the photo of me on the left at that time. On one hand I am attending weekly meetings of both Methodist Youth fellowship and Boy Scouts, on the other I am slinking down alleys or along walls avoiding any contact with others. In the real world I am avoiding any chance of being seen naked, trying to slip invisibly through the group showers of gym, not using public restrooms and fearful of such things as skinny-dipping with other boys. Yet, I am often fleeing to a private place such as Devil’s Nest in the Meisel Woods and playing in the nude. I am shy and respectful around females, yet at times trying to sneak peeks up their skirts or looking for pinups in Esquire. 


I was a very conflicted youth and if not for Boy Scouts and MYF happening when they did I am certain I would have gone completely wrong by ninth grade. These influences mediated my problems to some extent.
Now looking at the two worlds my mind dwelt in one may be tempted to consider whether I had a mental problem such as dissociative identity disorder, schizophrenia or bipolar disease. Sorry to disappoint, but nothing quite so dramatic. But I definitely developed Social Anxiety Disorder.

 A person with social anxiety disorder is afraid that he or she will make mistakes, look bad, and be embarrassed or humiliated in front of others. The fear may be made worse by a lack of social skills or experience in social situations. The anxiety can build into a panic attack. As a result of the fear, the person endures certain social situations in extreme distress or may avoid them altogether. In addition, people with social anxiety disorder often suffer "anticipatory" anxiety -- the fear of a situation before it even happens -- for days or weeks before the event. In many cases, the person is aware that the fear is unreasonable, yet is unable to overcome it.

That was definitely my mental state by the time I was enduring junior high. It may seem amazing that I would be able to be a successful patrol leader in Boy Scouts, and later in MYF as well, but they were like islands in a tumultuous sea for me. Somehow the welcoming attitude of the others, especially Jim, Jakie, Dickie and Nip, allowed me to escape from my usual fears temporarily. You can see, though, that anticipatory anxieties did still become manifest at Camp Horseshoe and they did in other situations, too. I couldn't escape my anxiety every morning as I dressed for school.

Boy Scouts played into certain long held fantasies of adventure I harbored since first reading Frank Buck and Jack London stories in grade school. Going all the way back to the Swamp House I had often pretended I was an explorer, big game hunter or trekking the snows of the Arctic. This was my second “disorder”, Escapism.
Escapism has been described as the attempt to destroy or escape “self”. The person doesn’t like who they perceive themselves to be, so they avoid spending time with themselves. This may be someone who becomes totally absorbed with playing video games, for instance, or turns to drugs and alcohol. In my case, I escaped into fantasy: fictional and sexual. Writing was an escape into a world that I completely controled, where I made the rules and I created the characters who did my bidding. Writing is a private and isolated process, you alone in a room with a keyboard of some kind making up worlds.
My other escape involved pirates, and we will get to that in a bit, and of course, the pirate fantasies would give way to much darker passions eventually. MYF and Boy Scouts kept my one foot in the world of light and reality, but my psyche was pulling my other foot hard toward the dark side. Meanwhile, I lived publically what to many observers would appear to be a normal boyhood existence while my private life was anything but.

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There were other summer diversions besides Camp Horseshoe that year. The MYF held a picnic at Lenape Park. This was the last summer my dad took me to the Stock Car races regularly. I’m not certain why. Perhaps it was because we moved again the next year or I just grew tired of going. He took us swimming sometimes and I still feared it.

Most of the times, dad took us to French Creek State Park. There were two lakes there in which you could swim. Hopewell Lake (pictured left & right) was almost like going to the shore. There was a sandy beach and the lake gradually grew deeper the further out you went. I could walk out a good distance before the water level rose over my chest. The water was cold when you first entered, but soon felt very comfortable (right photo shows me in the water not far from a boundary line for swimmers). On a couple of occasions he took us to Six Penny, I think on the hope I would learn to swim because it lacked the shallows of Hopewell.
Six Penny (pictured left) did not get gradually deeper. You climbed in, walked out a few dozen steps and dropped off a ledge into deep water. This lake was spring fed and extremely cold. Even after getting in you didn’t warm up.
They don’t allow swimming in either lake today. They allow public swimming in a swimming pool constructed at the far side of Hopewell.
He also took us to a new place that was not as far north as French Creek. It was along side the Pottstown Pike a couple miles south of Pughtown. They called it Kirkwood. It was a man made lake bounded by concrete sides. There was a diving board down at the deep end over water of a depth of 12 to 15 feet. I don’t know who owned Kirkwood. There was no fee to swim and no lifeguards. There was just a sign, “Swim at your own risk.”
Across the pike were a picnic grove and a small stage. On some summer nights Hillbilly Bands would perform on that stage and I assume you paid a fee to hear them. We caught some of  those shows because dad was a big Country Music fan. These were Hillbilly Bands on the order of the Maddox Brothers and Rose (pictured left), real down home blue grass and mountain music. There was usually one band member who played the fool. Often this was a bass fiddle player such as Lum York (pictured right) who would climb all over his instrument while playing. There was a spittoon on the edge of the stage and occasionally this clown would pick it up, turn it upside down and a long stream of water would pour out until it seemed to be empty. He would set it down, but after a while pick it up, turn it over and more water would cascade to the stage floor. He might do this several times during the act and the spittoon would never empty.

 In Downingtown there was an annual fair in the lot along Park Lane where the circus always set up. The American Legion ran it I believe. It might have had pony rides for the smaller children, but it didn’t have any amusement rides. It consisted of little booths selling varied foods or offering games of chance. The foods included French Fries, Cotton Candy, hot dogs and popcorn. Most of the games of chance were a dime to play. Many were wheels with numbers between spokes and an oilcloth strip on the front of the booth with corresponding digits. The player would place a dime on one of the digits
and the barker would spin the wheel. The only way to win whatever prize offered was if a rubber pointer stopped on his or her number. Prizes could be stuffed animals, cheap trinkets, canes and hats, or boxes of candy. I won a box of candy every year and always on the number 8. 
Skill games were knocking over milk bottles with a baseball, popping balloons with darts, ringing wooden posts with hoops and tossing ping-pong balls at fish bowls. Land in a bowl and you won the goldfish inside, but not the bowl. Those goldfish usually died within a week after your parents bought a bowl and other supplies because you won the blasted thing.

Sometimes I saw Henry at the fair, that strange little man who scared me as a young child. He would wander about gawking at the lights and passersby. Sometimes the booth barkers would give him a trinket, a bamboo cane or a Hawaiian Lei. Some of the meaner kids would tease the poor man; even try to steal his trinket.
Downingtown had its own newspaper. They published The Archive once a week on Thursday. The woman who owned the paper wrote a book about it called, It Happens Every Thursday. Hollywood turned the book into a film, but changed the location to a California town. In one of my Junior High years I got a tour of the Archive, met the editor and saw how they set the type. I even have a piece of the type from that visit. We visited other businesses that same week, such as Pepperidge Farm, where we sampled the fresh baked bread, and the Manufacturing Plant on Washington Avenue.

The Archive ran a weekly contest. They printed a question about some movie. At a certain time the next day people could call a telephone number. The first person to correctly answer the question won two tickets to the Auditorium Theater in Coatesville. Ronald Tipton (pictured left) was a walking movie encyclopedia. He would know the answer to every question. He would begin dialing the number in the morning several minutes early and keep dialing until someone answered. He would always be first and always get the answer right.
Ronald and I traveled to Coatesville every week to see a free film. After a time the paper invoked what I dubbed, “The Tipton Rule”. It was no longer the first caller with the correct answer. Now it varied. It might be the third caller or the fifth caller. I think Ronald still found a way to beat the system. (That tube Ronald is staring into had a travel scene, the Natural bridge of Virginia I believe, not the pinup girl as some might suspect.)
Coatesville was a tough town. (Actually it was a city.) We came out of the movie theater late one night and just missed a Short Line bus to Downingtown. We had to wait a half hour for the next bus. We dawdled about, went into a drug store or café that was open late and perused a rack of magazines for sale. I remember flipping through an Esquire, a popular men’s magazine on the order of Playboy, except it didn’t feature half-naked women back in the 1950s. It did have a pinup section featuring a Vargas Girl (pictured right). These were drawings by the artist Alberto Vargas. That was the page I was looking for.

I am not sure where I saw my first Esquire, perhaps in the barbershop, but somehow I was familiar enough with the magazine to know about the pinup. The Vargas Girl was quite famous for a time. His pinup drawing became a familiar sight on the side of warplanes during World War II. We look at the Vargas Girls today and the drawings just seem nostalgic, but in the late ‘40s or early ‘50s they were scandalous enough to draw the attention of the U. S. Government. The Postal Service tried to put Esquire Magazine out of business by revoking their second-class mailing permit. The case went to court and Esquire prevailed in keeping its mailing privileges and the Vargas Girls. Esquire and Vargas got into a dispute, however, and he left the magazine and eventually was doing his Vargas Girls for Playboy.
Meanwhile, Esquire was having its pinups being done by George Petty and the Petty Girls replaced the Vargas Girls. There was a certain similarity between the two artists work. Both became quite famous.
George Petty also established himself as a star of calendar girl art and as the face of Ridgid Tools. The advertising art Petty produced for Ridgid was more suggestive than his pinups in Esquire. Besides the usual pretty Petty Girl scantily clad, he placed them in provocative poses with the tools being promoted and played off the name Ridgit Tool.
I wasn’t at all familiar with Petty in 1955, but had heard of the Vargas Girls. I may have seen some of Petty’s calendars or Ridgid Tool ads hanging in the garages and shops I was sometimes taken by my dad, but who drew them didn’t register in my mind.

We finally went out and waited on a corner for a bus. The Lancaster Pike, which was also the main street in both Coatesville and Downingtown, was fairly empty at that hour. Traffic was light on the highway. We saw the bus coming about a block away as a lone car passed us. Some one in the car yelled at us. Ronald yelled something back and the car skidded to a stop by the curve. There were six guys in the car and they were getting out just as the bus pulled up to the stop. I hopped onto the bus. Ronald delayed a little, and then jumped aboard as well. We paid the fare and headed to the back seat. One of the guys from the car tried to enter, but the bus driver shut the door in his face and pulled away from the curve.
Ronald and I relaxed, as the bus pulled away, even nervously laughing a little. One of us happened to glance out the rear window after several blocks and saw the car was following. Were they going to follow all the way to Downingtown? We were nervous and kept peeking back. No more laughter. Somewhere outside of Coatesville the car passed the bus and disappeared up Route 30. We guessed they had been trying to scare us, but they were gone now and we relaxed again. But after another mile or so we saw that car alongside the road waiting for the bus, the guys leaning on it smoking. The bus passed and they fell in behind.
In Downingtown the bus pulled over at a stop and the car went by, but it stopped at the next intersection. We were coming into the center of town and the car was now leading the bus. At the center square we pulled the cord as the car had passed the cross streets. We ran off the bus and up Brandywine Avenue. We ran, ducking behind bushes, parked cars and trees every time we saw car lights. We did this all the way to Ronald’s house on Boot Road.

I wrote a story in 1967 about this called, “One Night in ‘55”. In must have happened in 1956, however. My dad was waiting at Ronald’s house to pick me up. He would have no reason to do this if we were still living in Downingtown, I would have simply walked home. He also had a friend with him from near Bucktown named Ray Miller (pictured right). I would later babysit for Mr. Miller. Ray Miller was a big man, taller and broader than my dad. When I told them the story of why we were late, Ray wanted to find these guys and teach them a lesson. He mentioned tire irons and baseball bats. Dad drove around town a bit telling me to point out the car if I saw it. Much to my relief I never saw that car again.
In the summer of 1955 my parents and I were still living at 417 Washington Avenue. They went out regularly on Saturday night. I’m not sure where they went each week, but it might have been the Eagle Lodge in Coatesville. My father and his brothers were members. The Eagle had dances. I turned 14 in June so they felt I didn’t need a babysitter nor did I have to go stay at my grandparents if I didn’t want to. They left me home alone.
That’s when the Pirates came.
Not ordinary Pirates or those Pirates led by Captain Hook who gave Peter Pan fits. These were female Pirates and quite beautiful. Picture those Vargas Girls in swashbuckler boots, pantaloons and puffy shirts. These Lady Pirates discover me washed ashore on their island and considered me an enemy to be hunted down and captured.
This was my imagination filling in my lonely nights. That little imaginary girl I once pretended to meet in Devil’s Nest had grown up, wore a sword and became dangerous. It was an act I would perform in my head over and over during the coming year; me a lone survivor of a shipwreck fleeing a crew of angry women pirates dressed like Vargas Girls that I somehow never quite escaped.



EXERPT FROM "ONE DAY IN '55"
FROM THE COLLECTION, TALES OF A DECKET COUNTY CHILD (1970)


There was barely any one else on the street. One person stood before the theater, a young girl of about eleven, but in a moment a large black car pulled up and she was gone.
The boys stood in silence before the parking lot behind the bus stop for about five minutes. They seemed entranced as they stood, their eyes staring across the street. They were thinking about the bus they just missed. They were snapped from their pouting by the marquee and box-office of the theater going dark. The second feature was starting.
The tall boy, whose name was Roger, blinked and turned to his companion.
“Hey, Frank.”
“Yeah?”
“No sense just standin’ here. Let’s go down there to that café. I’m thirsty as anything.”
Frank looked down at the small cafe beyond a dark firehouse. “Okay.”
They walked slowly down the empty street. Their footfalls echoed. The street was quiet, even traffic had disappeared and only the two boys and the dead light of the lampposts were left.
It didn’t take long to reach the café. They glanced inside through a blue tinged glass window. It was a greasy looking hallway of a restaurant. Some booths crushed against the long wall to the left with a counter fronting refrigerators, stoves and a grill to the right. Behind the counter was a brawny man in a soiled white apron and t-shirt. He was huge. Course black hair crisscrossed his arms over dark thick flesh. His face was wrinkled, not like an old man, but like a mean one. He needed a shave and had a stubby cigar stuck between his lips. He was leaning upon his elbows and nodding his head in agreement to the man talking at the counter.
The talking man was thin and middle age. His hair needed trimming and he had a good growth of beard. His clothes were shabby, out of date and too large. Between sips of dark coffee he probed his ear with a toothpick.

They could not see the people sitting in the booths except for an elbow here and a kneecap there. The whole place was dirty and unwelcoming, but the boys came this far and neither wished the other to see his reluctance. They entered nervously, walked back a ways where they found no empty booth and ended astraddle counter stools.



EXERPT FROM "HENRY"

FROM CURRENTS OF THE WHISKERY AND OTHER CREEKS (2003) 


Henry was the only name that Derek ever heard him called. It wasn’t much of a name for a man, but Henry wasn’t much of a man. Henry didn’t live in Wilmillar, but in some vague place that people called “out there”.  Derek had no idea what they meant by “out there’, but thought they meant someplace bad.  Nobody ever said it was bad and they never said Henry was bad. They said Henry wasn’t quite “all there”.  He was out there, but not all there. Derek wasn’t certain what that meant either.  He tried asking the question, but the people he asked said it wasn’t a nice thing to say, but the people he asked kept on saying it.
Henry came to Wilmillar every summer; least people said he did. Derek had been downtown with his grandparents the first time he saw Henry.  His grandfather was carrying groceries to the car, with Derek following close behind clutching a bottle of Upper Ten, a soft drink he called ‘wootie’. His grandfather plopped the bags in the car trunk and pointed down the street directing Derek’s attention.
Derek looked. He saw a slight man with protruding buckteeth and strange eyes walking toward them. The eyes seemed to move independently, each glancing off in the opposite direction. People stepped aside and stared after the small man, for he did look odd wearing a brown tweed suit much too large for his small frame and much too warm for the season. On his head was a brown leather cap, pulled down over his forehead almost to his prancing eyes. The cap had earflaps.
“He’s come for the fair,” said Derek’s grandfather. “Every summer he comes to see the fair.”
The Wilmillar Fair was an annual event sponsored by the American Legion to raise funds for their charities. It was run by the local members and consisted of many flimsy clapboard booths selling treats or offering games of chance. Derek’s father had brought him to the fair the year before. His father had spent the evening at a booth called the Jackpot Wheel, trying to win money and joking with other men and drinking cans of beer. He allowed Derek to wander the grounds and even gave him some money to bet.  Derek had gone to one booth and on his second dime won a large box of chocolates. He had enjoyed himself and looked forward to this year’s fair. He hadn’t noticed if Henry was there last year.
 “What’s wrong with him? He walks funny.”
“He’s not all there, s’all.  He won’t hurt you none.”
“Why does he come to the fair?” Derek moved a little closer to his grandfather’s side.
The little man turned his head almost completely around, this way and that, looking closely at every person he passed on the street. When he passed Derek and his grandfather, Henry bent down and looked closely at Derek, who cringed behind his grandfather.

When Henry had moved on, he asked again, “Why does he come to the fair?”
“Don’t know. Reckon he likes the music, or the lights. How the hell would I know?”

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