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

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Obsessions with Mr. Updike, Gerde's Folk City and Near Death by Toothpicks

 In December of 1962 I outlined a novel. I hadn’t written a completed full novel before. Four years earlier, when I was a heady seventeen year old still struggling through eleventh grade, the date early 1958, I attempted an ambitious apocalyptic novel I called, Breadth of the Earth, but I never finished it. It may have been too complex for me, but more likely I just got bored waiting for the blasted thing to end. I have 200 pages of it tucked away in one of my file cabinets.
You see I was use to short stuff. The Play, Ya-Ha-Whoey, was my long work, but a play is mostly dialogue. You boil it's 120 pages down and you got a long story or a short novelette.  I did write three novellas that I collected as Smoke Dream Road, but their length varied from that of a long short story to a slim novelette. Now at long last, in December 1962,  I wrote Ronald Tipton that I had a novel idea and outline I thought I could finish.
Every evening I typed away and by the end of January I had completed the book. I originally titled it Ronald Candle after the main character, but later changed it to Come Monday. It was based somewhat on the same  incident between Richard Wilson and Bob[last name withheld by choice] that I used for  my short story “Moon Was Cloudy” a few years earlier. I greatly expanded it, I mean expanded it a lot until you would not recognize the two came from one.
I patterned the main character Ronald Candle loosely on myself. He lived in the small town of Wilmillar and he felt left out of things because he didn’t have a car, especially when a tough kid named King Victor began going after his girlfriend, Sandy. Now Sandy was of course beautiful and also of course she wasn't really Ronald's girlfriend, other than in his wishes. Still he was incensed when she went off with King Victor, who not only did have a car, but had a super cool hot rod. Ronald swore he'd get revenge somehow.
Ronald's two closest friends are very different types in temperament. The one I based on Richard Wilson was named "Jerry Westfield". Jerry  had a swagger and a tough guy attitude. The other friend was Casey Scott, an idealistic version of myself. Casey was the kid I wished to be. Casey also possessed some of the characteristics of Ray Ayres, self-assurance, courage, good looks and the virtues of an Eagle Scout. Like I said, he was the kid I had wished I was. Casey also has the coolest and fastest street rod in Decket County. Jerry is good friends with Casey, but harbors some jealousy about Casey's racing superiority. The book followed these characters over a two-week period in late February until it ended with disaster on the first Monday in March.
You may have noticed some mention of “Wilmillar” previously. First of all, it was part of the official pedigree registration of my little Chihuahua, Cindy. Her American Kennel Association name was Cynthia Wilmilar (left).
As far as the litter use, I made a decision in my teens to create this mythical place called “Decket County” and much of the actions of my stories happen in the small town of “Wilmillar, Pennsylvania”.
I wrestled with this fiction often in my life. It isn’t hard to figure out that “Decket County” is just a pseudonym for Chester County, “Wilmilar” for Downingtown and “Formton” for Philadelphia. I’ve had friends, especially Ronald Tipton, who have urged me to use the actual place names and there were times I considered doing just that. However, there are good reasons why I choose to not use the real McCoys.
The original reason was privacy and a touch of vanity. A lot of my stories had strong autobiographical details and I didn’t want to become a pariah in my old home town; I didn’t what earn Thomas Wolfe's reception in Asheville and not show my face in Downingtown for fear of a lynch party. That was the my vanity part to think I'd ever reach a level of Thomas Wolfe notoriety. Actually, I expected to surpass Mr. Wolfe by eventually winning the Nobel Prize, which hasn't happened yet.
A second reason was something of vanity as well. I expected to create my own little world just as William Faulkner did with his Yoknapatawpha County. I'll tell you though, Decket County is a heck of a lot easier to say and spell. (I also had my alter ego, a la Hemingway's Nick Adams. Mine Frank March.)
But the more important reason, which took me a while to realize, was it allowed me to change things without some nitpicker complaining that such and such a street or building didn’t exist in Philadelphia or wasn’t located where I placed tin Downingtown.  If I had certain government officials or the police behaving in a certain manner for the sake of my plot, I did not want some critic screaming they didn’t do it that way in Chester County. I wanted the freedom to use things as I needed them, not as reality might dictate. It is a pet peeve about these readers searching if you got every nook and cranny exactly the proper color with the exact stains as some existing nook and cranny. Can't people just enjoy a good yarn anymore?

I was feeling very confident at the beginning of 1963. For Pete’s sake, why wouldn’t I? We were living in a nice home and living what many would call the good life. We weren’t doing much good for others, but man we had it good. We ate out at “good” restaurants a couple time a month, took some “good” day trips here and there. We took in some “good” top-notch shows whenever we wished. Work was going very well. We had started the Speedaumat conversion, which would take months. There were over 40,000 plates to be converted and I was the main converter. I wasn’t happy with the lost evening from the overtime it was giving me, but my paychecks looked good. I had no idea 1963 was going to be a turning point for the country as well as me personally.

I had stumbled across his short stories and become a big John Updike fan. Let me explain something here and now. I don't know if I am particularly compulsive, but I can tell you I am rather darn obsessive. It may be a character flaw or a mental disorder, but frankly, it served me well in life. You don't tackle the task of cutting 40,000 metal Graphotype plates without some degree of obsessiveness. It is also a good trait to have as a writer. I mention this because when I say I took an interest in something I don't mean I just took an interest. It became my life for a time.
I got hooked on Updike upon reading The Same Door. So it was right on into Pigeon Feathers, his other collection of short fiction thens the short novel, The Poorhouse Fair and then  a novel that especially impressed me, Rabbit, Run. John Updike (pictured right) had grown up in the same general area as I had. I could identify with the places and people he wrote about. He quickly became another writer influencing my own work.
And being as obsessive as I am, I decided to visit his boyhood home. Why not, it wasn't that far away?

He had been a lad in Shillington, Pennsylvania. I lived a bit south of Pottstown and he had lived a bit south of Reading, about 20 to 25 miles from each other, a little more than a half hour drive. He was 9 years my senior, but that meant he wasn’t greatly removed by area or age from my own experiences. We drove up Route 100 pass my parent’s and turned left onto Route 724 toward Birdsboro. We just kept going and Route 724 became Philadelphia Avenue when you got to Shillington, which was the street he had lived on. Somewhat coincidently, I live today just off a road named Philadelphia Pike.

We parked along the roadside, Lois and I. It was more country at the time then it may be today. I walked up to the white house and took a couple pictures (pictured left, then right, then left again). We went down the road a little from his house and saw the property that was once the Alms House, the inspiration for his novel, The Poorhouse Fair.

Life on the home front was going on pretty much where it had left off. We were hardly into the new year when my car was back in Roy Miller’s garage, this time for new brakes and state inspection. As usual, my parents delivered the car back to us after the work was done. It cost me $49.57.
The car wasn’t the only thing continuing to be sickly. Lois was not feeling real great either. Whatever she had was hanging on and there seemed to be some problem in figuring out what she had.
The number one hit on “Billboard” was “Go Away Little Girl”, by Edie Gorme’s husband, Steve Lawrence, but on February 25 a single was released that began to cause a stir. It was entitled, “Please, Please Me” by some British group called The Beatles. It was their first United States single.
I had seen a photo of the group and honestly, I thought they were funny looking with those bang-style haircuts and Mod Suits. I wasn’t overly impressed with their music either. It didn’t strike me as being very innovative and I figured  they were destined to be another flash in the pan; so much for my judgement of musical talent.

Lois thought the drummer was cute.

Meanwhile her illness persisted. She spoke on the phone with my grandmother about it on both the 5 and 6 of February. On February 11 I didn’t go into work because I had to take Lois to the doctor and the Red Arrow Line was on strike, a not uncommon event. In fact, this 1963 strike was the one that broke the camel's back. Red Arrow Lines became history and SEPTA (South Eastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority)  was born.  And by the way, my car was back in for service on the 16th. My grandmother came home with us on the 17th and stayed overnight. On the 18th she taught Lois how to cook a pot roast. I believe that was the recipe we still employ today. It makes a very good pot roast, although now we make it in a crock pot and not a large roasting pan. Then on February 25 I was again home to take Lois to the doctor.
These doctor visits kept going throughout the Spring, only the location changed. On March 29 she was at doctors in Philadelphia and once more on April 15. We had no diagnosis yet, but Lois suspected she was pregnant. On May 6 I took off from work to take her to the doctor. She is really fretting she might be pregnant. She was definitely gaining weight. On May 25 my mom bought Lois a shift dress to wear to her Cousin Evie's wedding because none of her other dresses would fit. Then on June 3 my mom and grandmother came to our home and took Lois to a new doctor in Malvern, a Dr. Clifford Lewis. He said she was pregnant and the due date was December 1.

On May 27 1, a fairly obscure folk singer, who had been performing mainly at Gerte's Folk City in Greenwich Village, released his second album, “The Freewheeling  Bob Dylan”. His first had been  plain “Bob Dylan” and did not have great success. The lead song in he second album was called, “Blowin’ in the Wind”

Yes, there were a lot of things beginning to blow in the wind.

I had by 1963 accumulated a good-sized record library. It was full of the Rock idols of the ‘fifties, Elvis, Fats Domino, Everly Brothers, Little Richard, what had you, certainly a wide selection of the hits and hit makers of the period, along with some more obscure people like Nervous Norvis. One of my favorites was Ricky Nelson (I know, Blandsville) and I had quite a few Johnny Mathis, who was not a Rock singer. I had a little of everything frankly. I had Sinatra, Streisand, Connie Francis and naturally a great number of Country, especially Johnny Cash. I had a fair sampling of Classical and some Jazz: Lois' Brubeck albums, Stan Kenton, Maynard ferguson, Ahmal Jamal and even Coward's Group and I was very heavy with Broadway original Cast Scores, but it was in the late 1950s I really started leaning toward the Folk Scene. I had every album the Kingston Trio had made up to that point, and I was immediately attracted to Dylan’s songs.
Some people cringed at his singing style, but I didn’t care. I liked songs that had strong lyrics with meaning as much as I liked a melody, and Dylan supplied that. I had already begun following the Greenwich Village folk scene and collecting  Peter, Paul & Mary, Phil Ochs.,Tom Paxton, Eric Anderson, Judy Collins and Richie Havens. Most of these were still pretty obscure. Now Dylan became an obsession. (Right is Tom Paxton and Pete Seeger.)

As stated, being obsessive was good for a writer; not so much for a social life. I was an abysmal small talker and an absolute failure at schmoozing. If felt convertible with someone and we shared interests, I could chat for hours, but with new acquaintances or subjects I had little interest in, I would tune out. I was not Mr Life-of-theParty.
Socially we were visiting with Dave Claypoole over in New Jersey, but he was more my buddy than a friend to Lois. He and I were on the same wave length and so we would be happily chewing the fat, but Lois would be more or less an observer.
Then on March 14, my mom and grandma came by and they took Lois to a Jewelry Demonstration in West Chester and I rode along. Hosting it was Dottie, my old friend and babysitter from both Glen Loch and Downingtown. Her father had been a friend of my dad and they lived up the road from our house in the swamp. They moved to Downingtown not long after we moved back to Washington Avenue and had an apartment by the “Blob” diner.
She was now married and lived on Neild's Street in West Chester. My great grandfather had once owned several homes on that street. After the jewelry party, she invited us to visit and for a  couple years after that we visited. We had regular get-togethers with Dottie and Jack.  I don't know if it was ever just we two couples. These affairs were generally little dinner parties with other friends of Dottie and Jack joining in. Ones I remember were Susan Frank, a woman I had known in high school and thought was very pretty. She had very bushy black hair and sharp eyes. Of anyone else who attended, she and I could talk with each other, a fact Lois noticed right off. There was another couple we occasionally get together with at their home, Florence and Gene Bare (pictured left).  Gene was one of those guys who thought himself witty, but wasn't. He would tell somewhat offensive jokes he found hilarious and laugh so hard at them he never noticed no one else even chuckling. Florence was something of a Chatty Cathy from the "y'know" school.

Dottie was always a bit strange to be around, even in her teens. She had strange eyes. She was a bit flighty. That part of her nature was one reason my mom stopped using her to babysit me. The other reason was my grandmom considered her “boy crazy”.  Now she was married with children.
Dottie insisted upon her dinner parties, but she was a terrible cook. To paraphrase Ebenezer Scrooge, "There was more the grave about them than of gravy." Oh Heaven help you if you dipped into her gravy. Recipes were all a mystery to her. At our first get together she served a chocolate cake for dessert. Like many cooks she fastened the layers in place with toothpicks. When we began to eat she warned us to watch out for the toothpicks. I don’t know about the others, but I pulled fourteen toothpicks from my piece alone.
When she and Jack visited us she insisted on helping Lois in the kitchen. One time Lois had made some fudge, which was cooling on the counter above the open silverware drawer. Dottie took a pan of macaroni off the stove and set it down atop the still very soft fudge. The fudge then melted and dripped out of its pan to fill the silverware drawer wrapping nicely around the forks and knives and spoons. Startled by this mishap, Dottie used a dishtowel to remove the hot pan of macaroni, ignoring the fact that a burner still burned on the stove. A moment later we had a burning dishtowel to contend with. After that she somehow, which only the Lord knows, managed to get mashed potatoes up a wall clear to the ceiling. (Photo on left is Lois and me, New Year’s Eve at The Bares, 1963.)

Although I think we enjoyed our visits with the Dottie and Jack they only lasted a short time. The years since have not been kind to Dottie and her family. One of the children is dead and another is on drugs. Jack went to jail for sexual abuse of a minor and has since died. Dottie herself was committed to Embreeville (pictured right), a former Pennsylvania State Psychiatric Hospital. I believe she is still alive and hopefully healthy, but I am not certain of it.

1 comment:

Ron said...

Well, you know me. I still prefer true stories than made up ones. I find fiction boring. And the roman a clef style of writing I find just annoying. I don't have time to figure out who is who or "where" the where really is, John Updyke or not. Now your "Dot" story was interesting. In my life I gave always found true life stranger than fiction anyway. The only fairy tales I liked were the ones I read when I was a kid. Then I grew up.
Now biographies I like and all your biographical material I find fascinating.