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

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

"The Incident" and the Shadow of Prison

This is my entire Seventh Grade Class. Can you find Waldo…I mean me? Hint, I am in the photo on the top and this was taken before I wore glasses. I am standing next to my on-again, off-again friend, Gary Kinzey. Iva is in this grouping in the front row, the first girl on the right. Okay, now find the fifth girl from the right in the front row wearing a dress with broad stripes. Go up from her to the thrid row and there I am, my lower face hidden. Gary is next to me toward the left. The boy directly behind me slightly to left left is Doug Way, one of my tormentors from the Charles-Bird-Way Gang.
Ronald Tipton and Stuart Meisel are in the third grouping, as is my one-time heartthrob, Mary Jane Chudleigh.

In Seventh Grade I was either harassed or embarrassed or bored out of my mind.
For instance, in my first week of school I was hustling to go between classes, fearful I would be late. I turned a corner and crashed into a girl. She was older, probably a Ninth Grader. She was carrying several books. I had my head down as usual, looking at my feet not the hall ahead, when I slammed into her. Her books flew every which way and she fell down. She was not happy. I was scrambling about trying to pick up her books when I heard the second bell ring. Sir Gallahad simply dropped her books in her lap and ran for it, hoping I’d never see that girl again.

If life were a Hollywood movie that girl would have become my steady date. The reality is I never did see that girl again, much to my relief.

We had assembly every week. I even had to watch my back there. We had fold up wooden seats. This allowed you to stand up for things like the Pledge of Allegiance or the National Anthem. The assembly always began with something you had to be on your feet for. At the end of these opening exercises everyone would sit on the edge of their seat and it would fold down under the weight, except the guy behind me sat first and stuck his feet up under the space between my seat and the back of the chair. When I sat there was a loud splintering noise and every head turned to stare at me.
I was always the center of attention for the wrong reasons, always the Doofus or clown.

In class I would become bored listening to most of the teachers. I had a young lady teacher named Lila Barnes (pictured right). If I remember correctly, she was fresh out of Teachers’ College. She had red hair and was pretty, but a bit hesitant. She taught History and I can’t remember anything about the class. I can’t tell you if it was World or American History. I use to kill time in class by flipping through the textbook just to look at the pictures.

I even invented a game for this distraction. The pictures in the textbooks had the source written in tiny print beneath the photo. I began marking down the names of these in my notebook, then making a pen stroke after the name when it got a credit. It was a contest to see which photographer got the most recognition.
My desk was against the wall right behind the doorway. I noticed there was a long space between the wall and the jam. I torn a page from my notebook and wrote a little poem.

To the one who finds this
Lodged in this resort,
Look tomorrow and you will find
The secret for winning every sport.

I signed it, “Helpful Edd”, folded the paper several times and stuffed it inside the crack.
The next time I had history, which was probably the next day because I think we had it four times a week, I wrote another poem.

To those who found the paper
Folded in here so neat
Here is the message on how to win.
Just one word…Cheat!

I signed this one, “Crooked Nedd and stuffed it into the crack.
I wonder if they are still in there?

For all my dislike of school, I was absent very few days. I hated being there, but I showed up. I missed a total of twelve days in the three years of Junior High, ten of them in seventh grade. I missed one day in eighth grade and one in ninth.
I missed half of those seventh grade days within the first two marking periods. I know most of those were due to the hiccoughs. When I got the hiccoughs I couldn’t stop. I would have them for hours, sometimes for days. We tried all the famous measures, a bag over the head, drinking water without taking a breath, eating a spoonful of sugar and even standing on my head. Nothing worked; they just had to run their course. Years after I got out of school I discovered eating pretzels would quiet my hiccoughs, but I didn’t know that back them.
The school nurse sent me home from school a few times because my hiccoughs were so persistent that the teachers complained I disturbed the class.
I was not hiccoughing though for three of the five days I missed in the late spring of 1954. I wasn’t sick either. I was playing hooky with my parents’ blessing. My mother decided my father and I should have a chance to bond. Maybe she believed if my dad and I became closer I wouldn’t be so moody all the time. Since starting junior high I was growing more and more meloncholy everyday. She talked my dad into taking me on the road with him. Early in April we set out for Pittsburgh together.
It wasn’t that bad. I don’t think we talked much, but the ride was an adventure to me. I would climb into the sleeper behind the seat and the rocking of the moving truck usually put me to sleep. We stopped in the Howard Johnson’s that were the only eateries along the Pennsylvania Turnpike in those days for all our meals. We sat at the counter. I usually had eggs and bacon for breakfast and hamburgers or those hot dogs in the funny looking buns for every lunch and dinner.

Whenever we stopped my dad would go to the restroom. He always asked me if I had to go. I always shook my head no. I didn’t want to use public restrooms. I think I urinated three times the whole trip and then only when I was absolutely certain I was in the restroom alone. If someone was in there, I left and held it to the next stop where I could hopefully have privacy. Even when I got that privacy, I used a stall, not a urinal. We were two nights and the most of three days on the road. See why I said Teddy and Stuart weren’t going to beat me at the Drinking Game?
I remember going through the Blue Mountain and Kittatinny Mountain Tunnels. I also remember sleeping in a bunkhouse overnight near the mill where dad picked up a load of steel. I believe this was actually located in Butler, Pennsylvania, a town about 35 to 40 miles north of Pittsburgh. He was most likely hauling out of AK Steel.

He told me to hide in the sleeper and not to come out when we reached that mill. They forbade children inside. He had to pull his truck through a part of the plant where they loaded it. I did as he told me. There were large forklifts and bustling men surrounding the truck while I peeked through a part in the curtain. A crane swept overhead and dropped the heavy steel beams on the trailer. What if the crane operator misjudged and dropped one of those on the cab?
That evening we were driving on a mountain road above Pittsburgh. I could see the lights of the city down in a valley and the three rivers converging in the twilight of the distance. The two-lane road was very twisting. Suddenly some fool in a car came around a blind turn passing another truck. My dad swerved over as far as he could and the car tried to squeeze back to the proper lane. The driver didn’t quite make it and sideswiped dad’s trailer. Dad’s truck was fine, but the guy’s car was badly smashed in on one side. We had to wait around for over an hour while dad talked to the police and they examined the scene trying to determine who was at fault.

The trip was not bad. My dad didn’t harp on me about much, except he did start nagging me about not going to the restrooms. We didn’t come home all bonded and at peace with each other for evermore. Things went back to normal. I returned to school and dad returned to telling me to stand up straight or whatever.

The Sunday after the trip was “The Incident”. I honestly don’t know why I did it. It was early in the morning and mom and dad were still asleep. In fact, it looked as if the whole street was still in bed, but I was soon to learn that was not the case.
I got out of bed, but didn’t go into the bathroom as usual. I took off my pajamas and then in just my undershorts, I went downstairs. I pulled off my underpants in the kitchen and went naked out on the porch and down into the back yard. There was no sign of any life. They closed the farm machinery store because it was Sunday. I stood over near their long garage and urinated. Then I went back inside, up to my room and dressed. As far as I knew no one could possibly seen what I did.
Later in the week a teacher called my name and told me to report to the Principal’s Office. I am not sure it was on that very Monday or a couple days later. I went to the office and was ushered into Mr. Evans’ office. He was sitting behind his desk looking grim, but he often looked that way. There was a police officer standing by the desk. I knew the officer because he was a friendly guy who regularly said hello to we kids when he saw us walking back and forth to school. He didn’t look any too friendly at the moment.

I thought it had something to do with the trip I took with my dad. They found out I had played hooky perhaps. Maybe it was a follow-up to the accident. But then the police officer said someone had seen me in my backyard stark naked. They had also witnessed me urinate. Was this true?
I was stunned. I was scared. I was only 12 years old. I nodded my head.
The police officer then explained to me what I did was wrong. It was a very bad thing. He told me I might go to the reform school in Camp Hill as a result. I had heard tell of Camp Hill and what I had heard was not good. It was not a place one wanted to go.

Camp Hill was founded in 1941, the year I was born. It was a State Correctional Institution for young offenders, and at that time was mainly for those below the age of 16. In 1975 it was ruled that Camp Hill was inappropriate for juvenile offenders and in 1977 it changed to an all-adult facility for men.

I was then send back to class, like I could concentrate on any lessons after that. I arrived home that afternoon expecting the worse. My mom would probably be crying, but at least dad would be on the road. Dad would be home again soon enough and I expected he really would whip me with his belt this time.
I got home and there was nothing out of the ordinary. My mom cooked dinner as usual. She was fine. I went to bed, but couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t sleep well for the next month. Dad came home for the weekend and it was the same as any other weekend. Every day I went to school waiting for the cops to arrest me and tote me off to Camp Hill. It didn’t happen. I started to believe that it wouldn’t happen.
I was now nervous about who knew. It felt as if all eyes looked my way whenever I entered a room. What were they thinking? How many people saw me do it? Who told whom about it? How many of the other kids knew I did this disgusting thing? How could I face my friends? Had Iva seen me? Had Patty Robinson seen me? Patty lived on the side that might have allowed the best view.
The cops never came for me and nothing happened. My parents never mentioned having any knowledge of The Incident. No one said a thing about it to me, neither a grownup nor a kid. I found out ten years later a man named Stan Fredericks was the one who reported it to the police. He lived in the other half of our semi-detached house. I learned this fact from Ronald Tipton in a letter dated December 13, 1963, a decade after it happened. He wrote that Mr. Fredericks had told his dad about it and Ron’s dad told Ronald he should stay away from me. I wonder if Mr. Tipton thought I was Gay? How ironic if so.
In the letter where I learned this, Ronald claimed, “Stan Fredericks related to him [His father] he often saw you playing with yourself in the nude in your back yard…” This was not at all true. I did this one time and I was not engaging in “playing with myself”, because at this point in my life I had still not learned about masturbation or sex for that matter.
Mr. Fredericks worked at Guindy’s with Ronald Tipton’s father. Ronald says Fredericks told  his father I came out of my back door naked and crossed the back porch. He said I walked the length of my yard to the back and then to the front again masturbating the whole time. I knew knowing about masturbating at that time. I didn’t know about masturbation, and wouldn’t, until I was 15, which was when I was in Senior High School and not living in Downingtown. I had not walked to the back of the yard, either. I had walked from the back porch steps to the side of the farm equipment building. He couldn’t have seen me walk to the back of the yard where we had a dog run and house for Topper (pictured right), because I never did that.  He obviously saw me cross from the porch to the edge of the farm machinery garage and urinate there since that is what I did and all I did, which is what the police officer said was reported, but nothing more. Not that it matters, since it happened over 60 years ago and I was but a twelve years old (I turned thirteen the next summer.).

After a month or so I kind of put it out of my head. I was grateful then that my parents didn’t punish me and that the authorities didn’t send me to reform school. Looking back at this from the distance of age, knowing what was raging inside me those years and what was ahead, they didn’t do me any favor by totaling ignoring it. I was obviously a troubled boy who needed some help that I wasn’t going to get. Of course being sent to Camp Hill probably wouldn’t have helped me; it most likely would have destroyed me.
This is the view of the back of 417 Washington Avenue. The Fredericks home was on the left with the white walled-in back porch. I had exited the kitchen door, went down the porch steps and turned left going straight across the yard to the side of the farm equipment garage, then returned the same way. Fredericks must have seen me from the upstairs window, the only viewpoint he could have had on the back of his home. Needless to say, I didn’t run out into our backyard naked anymore and I kept my bathroom functions in the bathroom after that.

It wasn’t the end of all things nude, however. It wasn’t the end of uneducated sexual urges leading to criminal acts. It wasn’t the end of the turmoil, low self-image and doubt inside me. It just added to my angst.

1 comment:

Jon said...

It's an extremely annoying fact that neighbors see EVERYTHING - especially when you least expect it.

When I was a teen I occasionally sneaked out of the house at night. One of our neighbors was always the first one to tell my father in the morning. I suppose your horrible childhood incident had a "happy" ending - since it could have been worse.

The main reason I moved to the TN wilderness was to get away from prying eyes.