The other day I was at a friend’s house and as I watched his kid playin’ video games on a beautiful warm spring day, I thought how it seemed to be a form of mental masturbation. I couldn’t help but think back to my childhood and thank God that technology hadn’t progressed as far. We had to make do without such recreational conveniences and actually go outside and play with others. Sometimes we even got banged up and dirty.
I was born in 1951 which makes me a child of the 50’s......the “Eisenhower Years”. The neighborhood I grew up in was something straight out of 50’s television. Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best and the Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet could have all been filmed on my block. It was a kid’s paradise full of tree huts, snow forts and empty lots just waiting to be used as football fields and ball diamonds.
We lived on a hill, and in the winter members of the local volunteer fire dept. would close off the road and let the kids sled ride all day even until long after dark. At the top of the hill would be a burning barrel and steaming jugs of hot chocolate waiting for ya after some kid’s dad would tow you and your sled back up with the help of tire chains [remember them?] and a rope dragging from the rear bumper of his car.
In good weather Mr. Martlet might open up his cotton candy trailor for us, if it wasn’t set up at a local carnival or fair, and Mrs. Donnehue always had popsicles in her big old chest freezer. She’d give ’em to any kid who didn’t have the 6 cents to cover her cost. My two favorites were blueberry and banana.
It seemed that everyday had a ballgame goin’ on somewhere and every evening after dinner a bunch of us would gather to play hide and seek ‘til way after dark. Our parents didn’t mind ’cause we were safe and they knew it. About the worst thing that could happen to a kid would be if he or she climbed a tree and broke their arm falling out of it.
Vic’s little grocery store was only a few blocks away and a highlight of our day would be riding our bicycles there to buy a 5 cent candy bar and a 10 cent bottle of Orange Crush with the money we got from collecting used, returnable glass pop bottles from the roadside.
The neighborhood was full of characters; like Larry Payton, the earthworm eating kid who could yell just like Tarzan and got all the parents pissed off ’cause he insisted on wakin’ everyone up with that elephant stampeding scream on Saturday mornings. Jimmy Garner would sit in his upstairs bedroom window and take pot shots with his BB gun at any kid walkin’ up or down the street, and Mary Beth Breneman would serenade anyone who could stand to listen as she practiced the electic organ. I bet she never did learn to play the damned thing.
The most interesting and memorable character by far though wasn’t a kid. He was cloaked in mystery and seemed to have been living in the neighborhood long before the oldest kid among us was even born. Hell, to us it seemed that he was there before the houses and even the trees, although in looking back he was much younger than he appeared. He had a strange Polish sounding name, but we kids only knew him as Turn Around Andy.
Andy was one of those people who slipped through the cracks in the system. Before the age of computers and abundant social programs there were lots of these poor folks. As long as they didn’t break a law they were just left alone, and Andy never bothered anyone.
We called him Turn Around Andy ’cause as he walked through the neighborhood he pulled a wagon around behind him, would stop at every piece of trash or wastepaper, put it in the wagon and turn around three times. Lord knows before the anti-litter campaign began he fulfilled a social need ’cause people wouldn’t think twice about throwing stuff out their car windows. That’s how we got the pop bottles: Andy used to pull ‘em out of ditches and leave ‘em standing on the side of the road for us.
He used to wear an old wool trenchcoat, a pair of fingerless gloves and a wool hat even in summer! I think he only shaved once a month and probably only took a bath when he itched too bad. Nowadays he’d surely be in an institution, but back then unless someone complained people like that were just mostly ignored. Even our parents didn’t bother him except to send one of us kids out to him with cookies and such when he passed.
Word was that he got hurt real bad in the war [WWII] and was a genuine hero, so nobody dared say anything bad about him or our parents would have a fit! Whenever my mom seen him walkin’ down the road she’d just shake her head and mutter, “Poor man.” and let out a sad sigh.
He lived in an huge old shack whose yard had long since turned to woods. Any season but winter ya couldn’t even see it thru the brush and trees. At night you might see the flickering light of a candle ’cause Andy apprently didn’t even have electricity. A woodstove kept him warm on cold nights.
One day mom and the next door neighbor lady was talkin’ about Andy and they mentioned that he hadn’t been seen for a week or more. They both looked at me and my mom asked, “Have you seen him Bum?”
“Why don’t you take some fresh baked bisquits over and check on him for us?”
‘Oh great!’ I thought. But it wasn’t Andy that bothered me. I even tried to hold a conversation with him a few times, though he never spoke. But every kid in the neighborhood knew that his house was haunted. It was spooky lookin’ even in the daytime!
Mom put the bisquits in a bag and off I went to Andy’s on my bike. As I approached the place I kept sayin’ to myself,“Ain’t no such thing as ghosts. Ain’t no such thing as ghosts.” over and over just like the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz.
The driveway to the place was so overgrown ya couldn’t even tell where it was, so I left my bike on the roadside and worked my way through the trees. Even though it was a bright summer day I felt dread as I knocked on the front door. Not getting a reply I rapped one more time before leaving only to have the door coast open.
I shouted for him as I entered before stopping in my tracks in the doorway. The place was spotless! Fine but old furnishings decorated a living room that could have been designed by Better Homes and Gardens!! Everywhere I looked was the shine of oiled wood. The couch and chairs were ancient but like new. An oriental rug covered a gleaming hardwood floor and the unmistakable smell of oil soap hit my nose.
On a carved mahogany sideboard stood a collection of framed photographs. I stepped closer to them to see a young handsome and beaming Andy standing with his arm around an attractive girl. A graduation picture of him and probably his parents in a high school setting. A very young Andy kneeling with a dog in front of a huge victorian mansion.
I turned to leave and something horrible caught my eye. Andy’s body lay face up and staring in the open kitchen doorway to the rear of the house.
I threw the bisquits down and ran to my bike! Gasping for breath I pedaled home as fast as I’ve ever ridden in my life! When my parents finally got me calmed down enough I told them what happened and they called the police. Days later I found out that he had some kind of attack and died. I don’t remember any foul smell so it must have been recent.
I also found out that as a young corporal in the Army he suffered immense injuries in the Battle of the Bulge and was awarded two Purple Hearts and the Congressional Medal Of Honor, our country‘s highest award for self-sacrificing courage and valor.
After the war when he was finally released from the hospital dazed and confused, he found that his fiance couldn’t marry the withdrawn shell of a man that he had become, so he moved from his Pennsylvania home to Ohio where nobody knew him and nobody asked questions.
Living on monthly veterans disability checks he disappeared from friends and a wealthy family only to gradually turn into a shuffling old man who couldn’t have been over thirty five, pulling a wagon behind him full of trash as he cleaned up after a society that tried to forget about him and his kind.
Some of the stories I write are exaggerated almost to the point of being fiction, but this one isn’t. I think of Andy often and to this day it all stays in my mind like a pathetic dream I just can’t forget.
Whenever I can I thank our servicemen and women for the sacrifices they’re willing to make. Any one of them could end up a silent tragedy like poor Andy, and it’s with great respect and gratitude that I dedicate this to them. May they all come home to us safe and whole.
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