Monday, March 2, 2015

THE RELUCTANT ATHLETE: Part Three

From the age of twelve, work became a big part of my life. I started out, like a lot of boys, with a paper route. My dad, Whitie, thought it would be a good idea.  He felt I needed to man up. The implication was that if I wasn’t going out for any sports, the least I could do was learn how to earn my own spending money, and not just be sitting around the house “with my nose in a book all the time.” It would build character for me to get out and see what earning money entailed, to see that it didn’t grow on trees, that there were no “free rides”.

The first paper route I had was for a morning newspaper, the Dayton Journal Herald. The city of Dayton was over an hour away from Wapakoneta, my home town. And the Journal Herald didn’t have an arrangement, like a number of other Ohio newspapers did, with the local Newsstand—actually not a “stand” at all, but a storefront business—so each morning the Dayton daily’s distributor delivered the local carriers’ bales of papers, hot off the press, to the Post Office across the street from the Newsstand. Although the Post Office counter was closed behind a heavy rolling metal curtain at night, the main hall of the building was open twenty-four/seven, to allow patrons to get to their PO boxes. So it was the perfect place us for paperboys to get together with our papers.

The job entailed getting up at five in the morning, pedaling my bike up to the Post Office, cutting open my bale of papers with a pair of wire-cutters I carried for just that purpose, rolling my papers to a proper throwing size, slipping a rubber band around each one, packing them into my delivery bag, and then making the rounds of my paper route, which started a few blocks north of downtown Wapakoneta and extended almost to my house in the west-side Oakwood Hills addition. I would arrive home in time to wash up, have breakfast and catch the school bus or ride my bike back to town for classes.

Reba Mae, my mother, was less convinced than Whitie that this was such a good idea. She was concerned about my health. The year before, I’d been seriously ill, having caught infectious hepatitis. I’d spent several weeks in bed, so sick I could barely look at food.

Illness was something Whitie and I had shared that year. He was experiencing one of multiple nervous breakdowns that he was to suffer, from the time I was five years old on.  That year, when I was eleven, his manic depression was rampant and he spent weeks on end holed-up at home, mostly in the room he and my mother shared, curtains drawn and sleeping throughout much of the day, while Reba Mae took over for him at our family restaurant, the Teddy Bear, running both his shift there and the house until he got better. So while my older sister and younger brother were off at school and Reba Mae was off at work, it was just Whitie and me there at home, in our new house on Kelley Drive.

For all the company we were to each other, however, my father and I might as well have been each on his own planet, instead of just down the hall from each other in our separate rooms. We were mutual aliens, he trying to purge himself of a crippling inner sadness that seemed to know no cure, and I, biding my time until my young liver turned from a volatile jelly-like state back into a properly functioning organ. One of us only knew the other existed by the creaking of the hall floorboards and the sound of the toilet flushing or the water running. Neither of us was eating much (with the state my liver was in, I mostly subsisted on weak tea and saltine crackers or dry toast) and neither offered to make anything or do anything for the other. In the harsh light of day, we were both painfully thin and pale, my own pallor a ghastly shade of yellow. But we were entities more separate than if we’d been living in a boarding house. If we saw each other at all, it wasn’t until Reba Mae and my sister and brother got home in the evening and my mother prepared supper. And even then our contact was limited since Whitie often refused to come out of his room to eat and, at my sickest, I took my frugal meals in bed.


I remember feeling guilty. I realized how depressing a climate Whitie and I were creating for the rest of the family and how worried my mother must be for both of us. For my part in this silent, blue environment, I was full of remorse.


Still, when I got to feeling a little better, so I could sit up for more than a few minutes at a time, I began to take a strange comfort in this illness, and because I did, I reluctantly began to understand, somewhat, how Whitie must feel holed-up there in his room. Hepatitis had become my shield from the world. The fact that I was so ill meant nobody expected anything from me. I was sick! There was nothing for me to do but stay in bed and get better. Once the early symptoms of the disease were past, however, I was free to do what I did best—read and write—all day long. In fact, it was part of the routine established between my mother and me “to keep me from getting bored.” In addition to bringing me my homework assignments from my fifth-grade teacher, who lived less than half a block from the Teddy Bear, every few days Reba Mae would bring me a new batch of books from the public library, and once I had finished my school work, I would almost obsessively gallop through that outside reading between naps. Then later, I would try my hand for a couple of hours a day at writing stories of my own.

After a couple of weeks of hanging out in my room doing what I loved most in the world, I began to feel safe and unassailable there. Even though I knew it wasn’t normal or healthy, I started developing a feeling that I never wanted to leave that room again. It became my world, my safe harbor, a miniature planet on which, despite my illness, I was in complete control. And through the books my mother brought me, I could live the most exciting adventures in my mind, traveling to exotic destinations without ever changing out of my pajamas. Whitie, I understood, must feel much the same way: safe, unaccountable, unassailable, immune to the demands of others, in complete control of something for a change, even if only of this hundred square-foot space.  

But remorse eventually got the better of me. It became impossible for me the read the sadness in Reba Mae’s face each day when she came back from work to find the house in the same morbid stillness it had been when she’d left and both Whitie and me still barricaded in our separate rooms. Somebody had to break this stay-at-home stand-off and, on the spur of the moment—one afternoon when I went by the kitchen door and saw my mother sitting alone at the dining table crying—I decided it would be me.

As soon as the yellowness had drained from my eyes, I emerged from my room one early-spring day, fully dressed and, donning jacket and cap, declared myself cured and told my mother I was going for a ride on my bike. She was too elated to tell me no, and instead smiled a little dubiously and said, “Well, all right, but don’t go far and don’t over-exert yourself. You’re just getting over something serious and you’re still very weak.”

As it turned out, her warning about “not going far” wouldn’t have been necessary. Within a very few blocks, I had run out of steam and had to laboriously walk my bicycle back home, panting and feeling awful the whole way. When I stumbled in the back door, she looked at me and said, the smile draining from her eyes, “Are you all right? Gosh, your lips are blue!” And with that she rushed me back to bed. So it was that I learned a new word: relapse. And I never could hear the term after that without picturing myself half-walking my bike and half using it as a crutch so as not to collapse, and wondering how I’d ever make it back home.

But perhaps my premature outing served a purpose, because that evening Whitie got up, and that same week he started back to work, and began going to the psychiatrist again. For my part, I spent another few weeks in bed, guilt-ridden the whole while by the fact that I couldn’t have felt more at home there.

So it was little wonder that, the following year, when I was just starting to gain back some of the weight lost and to regain something like an appetite, Reba Mae was less than anxious to see me hopping out of bed at 5 a.m. to ride my bike around in the dark delivering newspapers before school. But Whitie was on a manic high right then, being so assertive that he was hard to recognize. And when he was like that, weakness wasn’t something he easily tolerated. Working would be good for me—get me out of the house, give me a taste of reality.  

At first, I wondered how I would ever remember all of the houses I had to go to each morning. And the first few days, Reba Mae and I did the route together in the car until I learned the streets. She made it fun, almost like a game, and I quickly learned that each house had defining traits to help me remember it: an aluminum initial on a grill over the screen door; a nameplate hanging beneath the yard-light; shingles, stucco or tongue-and-groove siding; a lawn dwarf, a birdhouse, or a metallic-glass ball on a pedestal; a friendly dog; an unfriendly dog; a distinctive weather vane; a certain kind of wind chime on the porch, or any of a number of other distinctive features. In no time at all, I had learned the route and was ready to do it alone —even if, on the foulest of mornings Reba Mae was still apt to say, “Let me take you today. It’s just too awful out for you to do your route on your bicycle!”

Though I wasn’t particularly crazy about having to get up so early, especially as autumn progressed and the mornings turned frigid, and although staying awake in class got to be an issue, Whitie was right about one thing: Making your own money was a game-changer. Suddenly, I not only had new options and increased independence, but also a logical explanation for not doing the things I didn’t want to do, like going out for team sports. Those things were child’s play. In rural Midwestern society, work was serious business that superseded everything else. And a lot of things might be forgiven of a boy who worked compared with one who didn’t.

In the meantime, at school I had joined the band. I was studying percussion and loved it. Being a drummer took a great deal of brain-muscle coordination—precisely what Whitie had always claimed I didn’t possess. But as it turned out, I was quite good at this new coordination-intensive skill. I apparently had a talent for it. Who knew!
That, of course, quickly led to my wanting to also join some kind of pop band outside of school. For that, I needed a set of drums. A friend of my sister’s, who was three years older than I, was selling his old set to buy a new one. He wanted ninety dollars for it. I asked Whitie for the money.
“If I thought you’d stick to it,” my father said, “I probably wouldn’t mind. But how do I know you will? I mean, you’re not very good at sticking to things, are you?”

I didn’t say anything.

“Are you?” he repeated. “You know, baseball, basketball, and so forth...”

Still I didn’t respond.

“I just don’t want to put a bunch of money I don’t have into something like this and have the drums just sit around later.”

“They won’t,” I said. “I’m good at this and I really like it.”

“Well, yeah, Danny, but what if tomorrow you quit liking it?” he said. “Then what? I mean, you are kind of a quitter. I mean, be honest. You need to be more responsible. Maybe you should save up and buy the drums yourself. That way you’d appreciate them more.”

With that, he considered the subject closed.

I sulked. Eventually Reba Mae intervened. He wasn’t being fair. Hadn’t they paid for my sister’s trumpet when she joined the band? That was different, Whitie felt, because she stuck to things. She wasn’t a quitter. They eventually reached a compromise: he’d let my mother lend me the money to buy the drum set. But I’d be required to make weekly payments until the loan was paid back.

I grudgingly accepted the loan, determined to prove I was more than good for it. Very shortly, I found a bigger, better afternoon paper route with The Lima News, headquartered in the industrial city of Lima, Ohio, fifteen miles away. Its routes were run out of the back room of The Newsstand, operated by Russ McLean. Mr. McLean was good about letting me browse the racks in his shop before and after I delivered my papers each afternoon, after school. It was there that I started reading Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, as if I were in a lending library. I read “stolen” snatches of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone magazine and Classics Illustrated, as well as of Time, Life, Look, Newsweek, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and other popular adult-audience publications as well. All of which fed my other passion: writing.

As I became aware of how liberating it was not to depend on my father for money, I sought more of both cash and independence. Keeping busy was, I found out, almost as safe a haven as holing up in my room. Who could expect more of an adolescent who kept busy every waking hour either in school or working for his own keep, instead of looking for trouble?

Before long, in addition to the bigger and better paper route, I had also started picking up extra work among my newspaper customers, mowing their lawns, raking their leaves, shoveling their snow, and doing any other odd job they might trust me with, as well as volunteering for kitchen work in our family’s restaurant whenever I had spare time on Saturdays or in the summer.  This allowed me to pay off my drum set in short order.

If Whitie was notoriously stubborn, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree and once the drum set was mine, free and clear, instead of finding the good in the lesson my father had sought to teach me, I tacitly and obstinately vowed to myself never to ask him for anything again and that vow was to form part of the emotional barrier he and I erected between us for a number of years afterward.

The most emblematic symbol of that division would continue to be team sports, which he loved and which I no longer simply avoided, but adamantly opposed. We asked and expected nothing of each other and chose to be strangers from that point on through my high school days.

To be continued




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