Memories of a Lifetime

Monday, March 30, 2009

In which Gabriella, Susan and I do NOT end up in a ditch somewhere

My Aunt, my mother's sister, lived in a small town in upper New York State with her husband and 5 children.

My cousins are Gabriella, Susan, Daniel, Pam and Geoff. My Aunt is Virginia and my uncle is Dan. Every summer our vacation was to go to visit them and we loved it. We ended up so close - in some ways closer than siblings - and I know my sister Leah and I always cried when it was time to leave because we loved them and would miss them. My mom and dad were both different people when we were there. Daddy had a couple beers with Uncle Dan at night and let it go at that. Mom and Aunt Virginia (Pam, who is 4 years younger than I am, once asked me "Why do you always call her Aunt Virginia?" To which I replied, "Because she is my Aunt and that is her first name". Pam said, "Why don't you call her 'Auntie Ginger-Pie instead?' and so for the rest of that summer visit I did. And Auntie Ginger-Pie would dutifully chuckle each time) would play games, cook, reminisce, and take us shopping and other fun things. We would go on organized family outings, to lakes and parks and have cook-outs. Or, we would just go outside and play.

Our cousins had a lot more freedom than we did because hideous crime hadn't really come to their little corner of the world yet. When I was 12 a man had kidnapped, raped and killed a 12 year old girl who lived not too far from me. Later, a dead girl was found in a Volkswagen in a nearby supercenter parking lot, a pair of crimes immortalized in a book called 'The Girl on The Volkswagen Floor.'

Although not as famous as the Manson case or the MacDonald murders, the tragic and unsolved murder of a young schoolteacher sent shock waves through the town in which it is set. Having grown up in Kettering, Ohio, only a block from where the "girl" of the title is found, I can testify that Clark gives an accurate assessment of the white-bread community, its values and its prejudices. On this background, he paints a compelling mystery that centers not only on the murder itself, but also on Clark's relationship with a psychic who reveals to him insights about himself and the killing. Clark, a skeptic, is eventually persuaded that the psychic is more than a lucky guesser--but how?

Anyway, in the early 70's their town was still quiet with neighborhood grocery stores (something unheard of in the "white bread" suburbs where I grew up) and quiet streets. Some streets were nicer than others as far as upkeep goes, but all in all it was a nice little town.

The summer I was 15 Aunt Virginia had to have her gall bladder taken out. In those days that was major surgery with a 5-day hospital stay. Aunt V asked that Mom and I come up so Mom could take care of us kids and Uncle Dan, keeping house and cooking meals. Of course my mother said yes, because taking care of people was one of the things she liked best.

After supper Gabriella, Susan and I would leave the house and go for walks. We'd walk the streets of town, buy Popsicles and comic books at the newstand downtown, stop and visit their friends, but mostly we would just sing "I'm the Happiest Girl in the Whole USA" which was a GIANT hit that summer (matter of fact, it was the year that song came out which helped me pinpoint this post in time.) Of the 3 of us, Gabe was the only one who could carry a tune, so she sang the loudest to drown Susan and I out.

This was our favorite time of day. It wasn't so hot out, there was always a breeze and we felt perfectly safe within the boundaries of the walks we took. There are beautiful old Victorian houses on the main street of the town and we'd look at them and make up stories about who must have lived in the and why there had been so much money in their town in times past. (We finally found out from Uncle Dan that in some vague fashion it was due to the Railroad.) And we were free of the "little kids". We knew when we got home the little kids would be in bed and the 3 of us along with my mom could play Yahtzee or some other dumb game long into the night.

One night, I don't remember why, we were out particularly late. It might have been, ahem, because we were stalking a boy I thought was cute. Anyway, we didn't get home until long past dark, probably about 10:30, maybe even 11:00. My mother was FRANTIC. Uncle Dan, not so much, of course it took a lot for him to get frantic (still does, in fact). In the midst of her rant about how worried she was and didn't we understand how dangerous it could've been she said "You could've ended up in ditch somewhere!"

I had mostly tuned her out because this is the kind of behavior I got from her every day, so it was nothing new to me. But when she pulled out the "ditch" line, Gabriella actually started laughing! I was dumbfounded! One didn't laugh at my mother when she was in a rage.

Gabe, and bless her heart I will never, ever forget this, said, "This isn't Dayton, Aunt Joan. People don't end up in ditches here."

My mother stood there like a fish out of water with her mouth hanging open. She was completely disarmed! That was when I knew that Gabriella would be one of my favorite people in the whole wide world for the rest of my life!

Uncle Dan chimed in at some point and backed Gabe up. The upshot was that we had a curfew, I think it was 10:00. I guess if we were going to successfully stalk any boys, 3-4 hours would be enough time to get it done.

I loved my time with my cousins. All 5 of them. They don't know it, or maybe they do, but they saved my life.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

In which I bond with my big brother - about cars

I grew up in a post-war (WWII) suburb of Dayton OH called Kettering. Everyone knows the type, cookie cutter houses, uniform sized lots and good fences to keep us all behaving like good neighbors.

We attended Sunday school and Vacation Bible School at a small United Brethren Church that was nearby but across a busy street. (Nearby in the sense that kids of the early 60's didn't mind walking it, but these kids today.) If Mom didn't take us in the car, we had to walk and my older brother was in charge of the three of us.

Vacation Bible school always started the week after school was out so you had no time to get lazy. We had to be up there standing in line at what seemed like 6:30 in the morning, but was probably more like 9:00 or 10:00. Aside from the getting up early part, I didn't really mind Bible School…it was like glorified Sunday school. We did crafts (usually involving Popsicle sticks, Elmer's Glue and yarn.) We learned new songs that we sang on the last Sunday of that week to the grownups in the "Big Church". We learned new Bible stories and verses and played "lightning rounds" where the teacher would say the chapter number and verse number and someone had to yell out the verse. I always kicked ass at this part due to my photographic memory. I only had to call up the correct page of the Bible in my head and "read" it out loud. People hated me for that. At break we got cherry Kool-Aid and round cookies with holes in the middle that tasted like ambrosia (or manna from heaven if you will) but only when consumed with the Cherry Kool-Aid. When eaten alone, these cookies are like cardboard. I know. I've tried. I wonder if Jim Jones served these particular cookies with his Kool-Aid because he knew that then all of his people would be sure to drink up?

Anyway, it was kind of a long walk to the church. Probably the better part of a mile and all uphill one way. This was approximately 1962 or 1963, so most of the houses were occupied by people who knew us, either by sight or because we went to school with their kids. We were always going to be safe on this walk, but by the time we got to where we had to cross the busy road, we were tired. We always stopped to rest in front of the one house on our daily journey that never ceased to fascinate me. In my mind it was a haunted house, it had to be. Because it had burned. Not to the ground. Only enough to make it really, really spooky.

The house really didn't look like it belonged in our neighborhood, for one thing. Besides being burned, of course. It had a 3-car garage. No other houses in our neighborhood had 3 car garages, attached as this ones’ were.

We'd stand at the edge of the property staring at the house as we caught our breath. It was hard to see much due to overgrown shrubbery, but you could definitely see that it had burned and burned badly enough that no one could live in it. "I wonder what happened," I would always ask, and my big brother (7 years older than I and therefore by definition infinitely more knowledgeable) would say with 6th grade superiority, "It burned." "I know that," I would reply,with first grade disdain "I can see that but I wonder what happened. Did anyone die?"

My sister would stand with us and stare as well, but I always got the feeling it didn't captivate her like it did me. Maybe I'm wrong about that. In my limited worldview, houses didn't just sit as burnt out hulks. They were fixed up or they were torn down, there was no other option.

One day he pointed out to me that there were cars in the garage. Old cars. Like from the 40's. You could see them through the garage doors. They were big rusted hulks of what had formerly been Classic American Land Cruisers. License plates were still on the backs of them. They looked like this 1941 Dodge Luxury Liner Coupe:

Or this 1942 Hudson Commodore Custom Eight Sedan:

Or this 1946 Ford Fordor:

And they were burned, too! Still sitting there in the garages where they'd last been parked and resting there as burnt out husks.

This captivated me even more for some reason. Why wouldn't somebody even try to rescue the cars? Now, of course, I understand about wills and probate and the kinds of things that could have delayed this property being sold or demolished. But at the time it was like frozen there, a place out of my time but yielding no answers about its own time.

My brother would tell me stories about it that I would believe. Everyone inside had died. They tried to get to the cars and the garage doors were locked so there were bodies in the cars still. When he and his older friends (One of them was named "Fuzzy") came up here on summer evenings they could still hear the hiss of the flames. That sort of thing. By now my sister was almost to the intersection and waiting on us to get there so we could go across together. I always wanted to wait and hear more stories and be deliciously scared, but by the time we ran across the street and got into our lines at the Bible School I would have forgotten all about the ghosts. Except for the glances I would steal across the street as I waited in the line for my Bible verses and Kool-Aid.

In later years when I was in 6th or 7th grade, my friends and I would roam the neighborhood and the house still sat there, empty, charred, with the burned out cars in the garage. We would stand in front of it and I would repeat the stories my brother told me. One brave soul jumped the fence and ran up to the garage and peered in one of the dusty windows. He swore he saw a skull in one of the cars. With skeletal hands on either side of it like he had been trying to get out of the car.

About 7 or 8 years later when I was working at a convenience store farther down the road on the same busy street I finally got the end to the story of my favorite haunted house.

We had an old guy would come in every afternoon to drink a cup of coffee and chat. (I think he mostly came in to chat.) One day he said: "Saw they're finally fixing up that old house at Dorothy and Colonial." I had to get my bearings for a second and then realized he was talking about my burned out house. "Really?" I said. "When we were kids, that was our neighborhood haunted house." Oddly, this man didn't care! He just went on talking about how they were adding siding and roofing and landscaping to it. Had it gone on the market when all of the rebuilding was done I would have toured it just to see the inside and maybe get some more scoop on the cars in the garage and the reason it had stayed empty for so long. No for sale sign ever went up in the yard, so either it was a private sale or the family finally settled everything. I lean to the family theory because when I go by it now (about once a month because it's across the street from my doctor's office) there are always cars on the concrete apron in front of the 3 car garage. Not just newer cars, but an older one or two in some state of restoration. As if it's part of the house's legacy to have car people living in it.

Now that I know that my brother and I both independently and with no knowledge of the other one doing it, bought purple PT Cruisers when they first came out, I have to wonder - was it the influence of those haunted cars in the garages of the house at East Dorothy Lane and Colonial?

Sunday, March 22, 2009