Category Archives: Memory

Specific memories from my past.

The Alley

In the downtown streets of my childhood, most of the blocks were divided into quarters by two alleys. Our block was no different. If people had a garage, cars pulled in from the alley.

In our case, we actually had a three car garage, but since we didn’t have a car, my parents rented out two of the garages and the third was storage for my father’s stuff (tools, wood, wheelbarrow, whatever). We also had two wide gates that met in the middle and would swing into our back yard; these gates had had to be closed each night, no matter what (that’s another story: the walk from the gates to our back door). Any trash that couldn’t be burned (that’s right, we burned all paper products back then) or added to the “compost” pile, was put out into the alley for trash pick up. Alleys were handy that way.

The best use of the alley in our neighborhood was kickball, softball (which I hated), tag, kick the can or hide and seek. It was a narrow playing field for kickball, but it worked well enough. Of course, there were dangers.

Opposite our garages were the ball-eater couple with their immaculate yard. Naturally, they had a fairly high chain link fence and gates but of course, not high enough to block a sailing kickball. When the ball did land in this yard, we would gather for a lengthy discussion and round of “one potato, two potato,” to determine who would scale the fence for the ball. Any kid discovered in the yard would receive 40 lashes or so we feared. Usually the adults would inevitably come out and simply confiscate the ball. I always wondered what they did with all those balls.

But the real danger, unbeknownst to me at the time, was the alley floor itself. On the other side of our property at the back was the machine shop. It was a small white concrete block building with a double wide door on the alley side, usually open, particularly on warm days. Along their back wall were a number of metal barrels which they filled with metal shavings and scraps. (The mother in me of today just cringes to think of it.) Our section of alley was littered with sharp shiny metal fragments among which we merrily played, and often in bare feet. Naturally, there were dramatic moments of blood and accidents, but it was never enough to keep us away. It was simply part of our world.

The Shack

My mother called it the shack. It stood at the corner of the alley facing 10th street next to the green duplex. If that house would have been in Appalachia, it would have seemed more appropriate, or if it was on a farm somewhere, you could have called it the “old house” grandpa built. Instead, it was one of our neighbors. No one knew what really held it together.

I was forbidden to go inside the shack under any circumstances. My parents considered the family suspicious, dirty, and probably dangerous.

In the summertime, the shack was downright entertaining. All kinds of people would pull up to the house from hot rods to trucks to motorcycles. It was a loud house. People were screaming at each other all the time but it was never clear if it was out of anger or normal conversation. It was a drinker’s house and a smoker’s house. It was a laughing house.

I wish I could remember the name of the girl who lived there. It was something like Brenda or Sue or maybe it was a combination like Brenda Sue. And in her own way, she became my friend. And of course, I had to go inside. It was an adventure, another world: men in undershirts sat around the tiny black and white television, grandmas and daughters sat in the kitchen smoking cigarettes and drinking iced tea from Ball jars, toddlers walked around in dirty underwear and heavy diapers, while younger guys with slick greasy hair drank milk from cartons as they stood by the open refrigerator door or picked at a guitar on the stairs. There was always music playing, day and night, on the radio.

Brenda Sue was worldly to me. She wore make-up and she teased her hair and she wore curlers at night. She smoked cigarettes, used a lot of swear words, and listened to country music. She probably wasn’t more than three or four years older than I was, but she acted much more so. Brenda Sue soon became my source of information for all the dirty stuff and bad words I would ever need to know.

I don’t remember who ratted me out for hanging out at Brenda Sue’s. It might have been my brother or Gladys or maybe my mother just figured it out. I’ll never know.

The shack finally burned down. It was a miracle no one was hurt. Like putting a match to a very dry, dead pine tree, the house blazed and was gone in what seemed like minutes; then nothing was left but black timbers, a brick chimney, fluttering papers, and roaches. Every house on the block got a share of the shack’s roaches.

Later, as young adults, my brother and I would reminisce about the rednecks and white trash from our old neighborhood. We would tell stories of the fights and the brick throwing and the filthy graffiti. But there was another part of me that also remembered the people, the ordinary people, who had made a life in a ramshackle little house on 10th street.

Gladys and Kenny

If my house was the center of the universe, then this is how the other buildings circled around it: The church was on the corner, then along our back yard, was the green duplex. From our yard, I could see both back doors, on the right side lived Gladys with her husband, and on the left side, Kenny with his parents. In some ways, they were both my best friends.

Gladys was my own personal, dark headed version of Ethel Mertz. She always had a ready smile and she always made me laugh. She let me hang around in their back yard a lot. I can see her face perfectly in my mind, but her husband is a fuzz. Was he like Fred? I don’t remember. Their lawn furniture was those green metal outdoor chairs that kind of bounce a little when you sit in them. They had a small garden and it was always neat as a pin. Gladys was a safe place and she gave lots of hugs. They were the first to move away.

Capt Kangaroo & Mr. Green Jeans

Kenny lived next door. I don’t recall his parents at all, at least, not by image. But I know I spent a lot of time in their home. Until I went to the other school, we walked to School #10 together. His family had a TV and in the mornings we were allowed to watch Captain Kangarooo and Mr. Green Jeans until it was time to leave. The Captain was our Mr. Rogers.

We got ourselves in trouble quite a few times, mostly for going everywhere together (including one time we were caught in the bathroom – honest, it was totally innocent – we just had lots to talk about), or running the pipes at the construction place, or staying out until it was very dark. When it was hot and steamy, we would sit on his porch and play “I Spy.” We were indeed best friends.

So, it’s hard for me to replay that day I lost my friend because of a whim, a miscalculation, an accident. He didn’t die, but things were never the same. And soon afterwards, they moved away. Surely, that wasn’t my fault too?

Here’s what happened in a nutshell: We were talking across the fence, the picket fence the church had constructed on their easement from the alley. And Kenny decided to climb over into our yard. Easy peasy, we did it all the time. But for some reason, as he put his foot on the horizontal support, I thought it would be funny to make him fall backwards. But he didn’t fall backwards when I knocked out his foot. He fell straight down on the picket. They took him to the hospital.

I still look for Kenny Noe sometimes, online, on Facebook, places like that. Did he ever believe me that I was truly sorry? Did he forgive me? Did it even matter in the end? Did I ever forgive myself? It’s a scarey business to hurt someone you care about.

Rabbits, Ducks, Chickens & a Rooster

We didn’t live on a farm, remember? We lived within a mile of the Monument Circle of downtown Indianapolis. Nor did my mother grow up on a farm. There was absolutely no reason for her to believe that it made sense for us to have rabbits, ducks, chickens, and the nastiest, meanest, most belligerent rooster I have ever known or want to know.

Here’s how it all started.

My mother thought it was cute that the downtown stores would sell baby animals at Easter time. That’s right: tiny bunnies, ducklings, and chicks. So each year, my brother and I would be gifted one or more of these little critters. And they were wonderful: so sweet and cuddly. But they do grow up. The bunnies were first: the only reason I remember them is an album of black and white pictures with my father feeding them carrots by hand, a white one and a black one.

We actually had several rounds of chickens; some even laid eggs and my mom was thrilled to eat them. But the excitement of getting eggs was completely overwhelmed by the rooster who ruled the yard, the chickens, and ultimately, me. I don’t know how we ended up with a rooster. It must have been some kind of mistake in the chicks for Easter farm. Whatever it was, I hated that rooster. Whenever I had to go in the yard, he would chase me or if I didn’t see him and thought the coast was clear, he would jump out from behind the garage and scare me. He would peck at my legs and stare at me with his beady eye, left and then right. Eventually, the chickens died, but he lived on. One time I tried to run him down with my tricycle, but to no avail. I wish I could remember his exact passing, but it’s a dark spot in my memory. Did I repress my part in some dastardly deed? It’s possible. Certainly, he deserved it.

On the other hand, the year of the ducklings was another story. We all loved the ducks, even when they grew up. It was during this time (my mother had been a widow for awhile by then), that my mom did several upgrades to the house. In addition to switching our heat to gas (from wood), she also decided we didn’t need a bathtub and had a shower installed in its place. The bathtub was bequeathed to the ducks. That’s right. She had a friend dig a bathtub sized hole in our back yard so the ducks could have a pond. You can’t make this stuff up.

A couple of miles away from us the Central Canal weaved through the city. Along its shores were many domestic white ducks along with the migrating mallards (and a few mixed concoctions as well). We tried to convince my mother to take the ducks to the canal like everyone else did, but she would not let them go. Finally, there was only one left and she would not die. We named her Petunia. All right, I doubt there was a “we” in the naming of that duck. I did it.

Petunia didn’t seem to mind that she was the only duck on the block. She had her bathtub pond, she enjoyed being carried around by little kids, she quacked during church services next door, and she would eat just about anything out of my hand. I do remember her end, however, since I was the one who discovered her: drowned in the tub. All true.

The Church Next Door

I know there were other places before we moved into the old two story house at 1009 Park Avenue in Indianapolis. We have pictures of a basement apartment where my parents were janitors and one or two pictures of a rented house on College Avenue. But the only house that holds any memories for me at all, is the one at 10th and Park.

Actually, our house was the second building on Park because a solid brick church with three wide steps up to the front door and side basement steps down to the “deaf” dominated the corner lot. This church, from the front to both sides and around the back, held tremendous opportunities for play and mischief. Most churches back then were not air conditioned and this one was no different. And so, each summer, their stained glass windows would be opened to the fresh air along with the noisy children who frolicked next door, particularly on Sunday evenings.

There was a cherry tree between our house and the church sanctuary windows. And although this tree offered lovely shade for those within, it also provided us with an array of small missiles, from ripe to over-ripe sour cherries to handfuls of cherry pits. There was also a metal fence that played beautiful music when a stick was scraped across its sides.

Speaking of music, this particular congregation was one of the Church of Christ denominations that repudiated instrumental music in a worship setting. At that time, it seemed like the weirdest thing ever and we would help them along with our own toy instruments, home made drums, and operatic voices.

We were brats. But that church got back at us in the end.

I was nearly in high school and I hated living downtown, a constant source of embarrassment when I asked for rides home and mothers systematically locked the car doors when they reached my neighborhood. The church, however, wanted to grow and they managed to buy out the entire half block in order to build a large new building and parking lot. That is, except for our house. My mother would not sell.

They kept up the pressure for several years (I’m sure they were praying intently for God to soften my mother’s heart, which is a truly audacious leap of faith); and only after my brother and I joined ranks with the church in hopes of moving North where our friends lived, my mother caved in with one proviso: the church would promise to not cut down the cherry tree or the Maple tree that graced our front yard (a tree that provided the most luscious display of colors every fall).

They agreed; we bought a small bungalow some 5 miles away (actually they bought it and we made an “even exchange”) and we moved to our first wall to wall carpeting, washing machine, fenced in yard, grass, and oil heat (the Park Avenue house was heated with wood until the last three years before we moved).

Now, as I Google my old address, I am reminded again and again how those folks never did intend to keep those trees or the promise they made. To this day, the parking lot is a waste land that surrounds a functional church building at 10th & Park. When my mother saw the flattened land for the first time, she wept, and never returned there again. Somehow, this loss is a sorrow for me and a stumbling block to my memories.

Smarty Pants

Photo by Thad Allender

It was always about “smart” when I was growing up. Of course, my brother, five years older than me, was the one who set the bar pretty high.

Back in those days (do I have to say the year?), the Indianapolis school system handled bright students differently than they do now. Instead of creating enrichment classes or small sets of honor students in the same school, kids took an IQ test and were interviewed at the end of third grade to determine if they could handle “special classes” in a school usually outside their district.

The kids who qualified for these schools were driven to them by their parents (like a private school) or, in the case of families like mine whose parents worked or didn’t own a car (my mother didn’t learn to drive until I was in high school), we took a public bus everywhere.

Usually, it was the teachers in the smaller elementary schools who recommended students for these programs. In my brother’s case, he passed with flying colors and was transferred from our small, low-income School #10 to School #1 in the wealthier northeast corner of the city. He went from one success to another, whether it was science or math or music. Needless to say, it was my mother’s intention that I would follow in my brother’s shoes.

However, there were a few complications. First of all, since my birthday was in October, I was a “mid-termer.” This practice has been discontinued as well in which children who have not reached five must wait and begin kindergarten in January. No problem until my second grade teacher figured I was bright enough to skip part of second grade and bumped me up to third. And then my third grade teacher thought I was bright enough to skip part of third which meant I had to take my IQ test and competitive interview when I had just turned eight.

I didn’t pass. In fact, the interviewer said outright that I wasn’t ready. My mother was furious. She insisted I be enrolled in the program. I will never forget that conversation which ended with the man saying, “Fine. But, you must understand, your daughter will be at the bottom of the class.” Great.

On the contrary, it’s not great being at the bottom of a class of geniuses whose IQ’s probably ranged from 174-225. Did it kill me? No. Did it make me work hard? Yes. Did I fit in? No. Did I envy smart people? You betcha. In fact, smart is still one of the sexiest things a guy can bring to the table.

Let’s Pretend

When I was very little, “let’s pretend” was the best phrase and the worst phrase to say or hear. I loved pretending and could live in those created worlds for long hours.

There weren’t a lot of kids my age on our block, but I worked with what I had. When I played with them, we usually created soap operas: domestic life, school life, doctor’s office. We would have long planning sessions about the set up: where we were, who was who, what should we wear, what props did we need, and what was going on. This was the best part of “let’s pretend.” Anything was possible in the planning. But once we started, I forbade the use of saying, “let’s pretend.”

My little friends never understood it. Everything would be fine; we’d be doing a breakfast scene for instance, and suddenly my friend would say, “let’s pretend we have a dog and he wants to come in.” I’d snap, “just do it, you don’t have to say what you’re going to do.” And on and on it would go. Every few seconds, the others would add to the game by saying, “let’s pretend.” It infuriated me and stopped being fun; I’d call it quits for the day.

When I played my brother’s version of “let’s pretend,” they all revolved around Davy Crockett, Rifleman, and Lone Ranger (to name a few). I was pretty much relegated to the character who died, was captured, or jailed: the Indian, the bank robber, the black hat. That got old too.

In the end, I think I enjoyed my private play the best. Did I mention that I was a child control-freak?

I didn’t have a lot of toys but I made full use of what we did have. When I played alone, I was no longer interested in domestic scenes at all. There were no baby dolls. I had a couple of adult type dolls (before the days of Barbie), and I would dress them up in costumes and create sweeping tales of fantasy, war, and tragedy: sometimes as the damsel in distress, sometimes the heroine.

Perhaps my oddest form of pretend play was with marbles. Whereas most children use marbles to play shooting games, which I did on occasion with my less important orbs, I had one set of special marbles who each had names, and with them, I would create intricate worlds and stories. Usually, I laid out these scenes of complex paths, villages, and countries on my parents’ double bed. These stories were about challenge, survival, and conquest. To this day, I’m not sure how I was able to imbue marbles with so many feelings and personalities, but I did. Casts of thousands.