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by BJ Neblett
By the time I escaped the killer nuns at St. Pius X Grade School my drinking was starting to get out of control. Dad had even caught me one night returning home drunk from a session of singing doo wop with my older buddies. With an expression that told me he knew what I’d been up to, he sent me off to bed.
I knew there would be more to come.
It wasn’t so much that I’d been caught that upset me. But the look of disappointment in Dad’s eyes brought back memories of all the other times, the times I’d been high or drunk and manage to escape detection. It had been over four years since I started drinking, sniffing glue and smoking pot. Fooling myself into believing it was all under control, I teetered dangerously close to the abyss of addiction. I’ve yet to completely figure out if my parents ever knew of my activities. I prefer to believe that they were simply clueless, doing the best they knew how to raise a rebellious, stubborn and curious son.
As it turned out I was right, Dad was waiting for me the next morning at the breakfast table. The absence of my sister and mother told me this wasn’t good. But once again my particle and loving father surprised me. In no uncertain terms, tempered with homemade waffles and maple syrup, he advised me of the dangerous game I was playing. His words made sense and I think for the first time I began to see the damage I was doing. I had already blown my internship at WIBG radio, working with DJ legends Hy Lit and Joe Niagara. My pitching arm was stronger than ever but I’d been banned from every Little League organization in the area for my drinking and obnoxious behavior. Yet in my stubbornness, I refused to see the long term, bigger picture as my dad explained. Drinking was interfering with things I wanted to do, that’s all. My young mind said simply, “Be more careful and slow down a bit.” That was all. Even my father’s stern reminder of the pact he and I had made allowing me to attend public school made little impression.
I could handle it.
The summer between eighth and ninth grade still remains mostly a hazy memory. Most of what I recall comes second hand by way of friends and some long gone writings. But I do remember the date vividly.
June 2, 1965 was the last Wednesday of grade school. I was saying goodbye to St. Pius X, and killer nuns, and school bullies and, as it turned out, to my friends. I knew that I would be attending public school in the fall; that most all of my classmates would be going on to Cardinal O’Hara High; that things would change.
I didn’t know how quickly they would change.
My long time girlfriend Amy and I had already come to terms with the idea of different schools. After four wonderful, turbulent, exciting, confusing, and memorable years of growing and learning together, we agreed that our relationship had come full circle. We still cared greatly for one another. But it was time to move on, learn new things, and meet other people. We agreed we would remain friends – close, special friends – while we explored the world beyond St. Pius X Grade School, the Lawrence Park Shopping Center, and our click of friends.
Neither of us suspected it would be the last time we’d ever see each other.
I remember the look in her eyes, those gorgeous mysterious hazel orbs that had held so much excitement and intrigue for me, on that final Wednesday. Sister Joann made a touching if a bit contrived and overlong speech about moving on and becoming young adults. It was just a bit too pat and rehearsed for my taste. Amy agreed. The Sisters of the Sacred Heart were as eager to see us go as we were to leave.
From behind, a slender well manicured hand with the pinky nail bitten down found my shoulder. Amy’s soft touch lingered. It was a touch I’d grown to know and love over the last four years. A minute later the bell rang and it was over. Nine years of growing, and learning; of confusion, and being bullied; of friendships, and falling in love and discovering myself and the world around me, with the shrill tolling of a bell it all came to an end.
Memories came rushing back in a flood of bittersweet images. I thought of failing the fifth grade and the friends that had moved on ahead of me; of the first day of fifth grade part two and my father’s chiding words of encouragement, “New faces; new experiences; new friends to make.” I thought of the new friends I’d made. I remembered my first meeting with the beautiful and beguiling Amy Johns who confounded and captivated me so. And I thought about Chris, the best friend I’d lost to a careless game of chase.
My eyes began to mist.
Fighting back tears of confusion and wonder, I turned in my seat. Amy stood at my side looking down. Her hazel eyes were wet.
“Well…” she said softly before turning away.
“Yeah…” I managed.
Later that day we talked and reminisced with her mom over chocolate ice cream. In her back yard play fort, Amy and I awkwardly clung together. There didn’t seem much for us to say. Amy returned the simple silver friendship ring I’d given her, and that was that.
The main difference between the summer of ’65 and past summer vacations was that I was alone. Amy and her family were once again summering in Atlantic City. My other friends, Tommy and Frankie and the rest, were busy with their own activities. I never saw any of them again. Instead I returned to my routine of sitting in the bleachers at the Little League games and then wandering up to the public grade school where I’d find my older friends.
But all this too was changing. The baseball games held little interest for me if I couldn’t play. And most of my hanging buddies had moved on, too. Even my beloved transistor radio was unable to cheer me. Long time rocker WIBG was quickly giving up the fight against the British Invasion. As doo wop and traditional rock ‘n’ roll slipped from popularity, Philadelphia began to vibrate to a different beat. After a couple of false starts, the Beatles along with other English acts had finally established a foothold in American rock ‘n’ roll. Their influence would change the fabric of popular music forever. Even stalwart greaser DJ Jerry Blavat saw the writing on the charts. He began spinning more Motown and less doo wop. I remember the evening I switched on WHAT and heard the Righteous Brothers’ You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’. It seemed to announce the end of the world as I knew it. Sure, it was a cool song. But in my perfect world mind set it belonged on WIBG, not being spun by the ultimate in coolness, the Geator With The Heater. In another year the torch would be passed and the takeover complete as upstart WFIL and their Boss Jocks ruled the Philly airwaves. Removing the nine volt battery from its plastic case for the last time, I parked my trusted old musical friend in the top drawer of my desk.
I was totally alone now.
With nothing better to do, I continued my old routine, usually with a pint of bourbon or gin secreted away within a casual Pepsi bottle. My parents were gone a lot, Mom deep into her acting, convincing Dad to join her and handle lighting and effects for local performances. And my sister Mary, now a licensed driver, was spending much of her free time on dates and with friends.
I stared at the lush green ball field blankly. I didn’t even know who was winning. I didn’t care. Taking a long pull from the ersatz Pepsi container, visions of Ronnie flooded my mind. It had been a long time since I’d seen her, too long, but she remained as fresh in my memory as yesterday’s sunset. We had met right here, on these bleachers, both of us pretending to watch the game, both of us looking for something more; neither of us knowing what that something might be.
She was different from Amy in almost every way. I think that was what intrigued me so much about her. Ronnie and I didn’t talk a lot, there was no need. We’d meet after dinner, sit in a corner of the bleachers and share a bottle of whiskey. Often we’d wander deep into the woods behind her house. There Ronnie allowed me to touch her; explore her young body while she laid motionless, smoking a cigarette or just staring at the trees. But we never spoke of the things we did. If the petting became too heavy or uncomfortable for her she’d simply turn away.
Despite the quiet distance between us, or perhaps because of it, I found I had strong feelings for Ronnie. I missed her when she moved away. I loved Amy as best my young years were capable of loving. But lying in my bed late at night, with the open window and roaring attic fan doing little to alleviate the burning fever in my young body, it was Ronnie I recalled.
A loud clash of thunder stirred me from my brooding. A sudden summer shower was blowing in from the south. Within minutes, bleachers and field alike lay deserted as parents hurried their kids to the safety of the family sedan.
“That’s a good way to get electrocuted”
I looked up, finding a pair of cold black sardonic eyes. “I know an easier way,” I replied.
A drop of rain found her slightly turned nose. She didn’t flinch, continuing to return my stare. I felt the rain on the back of my neck. “I’ll bet you do,” she answered with a disconnected dullness. It was the same kind of response you got from parents and teachers who were more interested in the things you didn’t say. “C’mon, I don’t feel like being struck by lightning right now.” Without looking back she turned and headed off.
I don’t know why but I just sat there, a child stubbornly defying his parent’s orders. The rain picked up. It was cold; felt good. Taking another hard pull form my bottle, I finally slipped from the aluminum bleachers and slowly walked home.
The rain persisted, ebbing and flowing in sprinkles and showers throughout the night. As I figured, no one was home to shoot me despairing looks and tell me to get out of those wet clothes before I caught cold. I stared blankly at a rerun of The Man From UNCLE, and then went off to bed.
Sunday after dinner I headed out the door. Mom asked where I was going. I had no idea. “To the ball field,” I called back. I knew Little League games weren’t played on Saturdays or Sundays. I doubted if my parents knew.
“Have a nice time,” was mom’s reply as the screen door hissed shut.
I sat in the deserted home team dugout nursing three fingers of rum. It was all I had left, and with my neighbor Mike doing thirty days for drag racing down West Chester Pike while drunk I didn’t know where or when I’d be getting my next fix. Tipping back the bottle once again released more ghosts along with the tart liquid. Unwelcome phantoms are the hidden prized at the bottom of every bottle of liquor. It was right here, in the home team dugout I’d lost my virginity. It had been about a year and a half ago but seemed an eternity. She was a gift for my thirteenth birthday from my older doo wop singing buddies, her and a bottle of Seagram’s Seven.
Try as I may I couldn’t recall her name. Involuntary selective memory is the bother and bonus for regular drinkers. But her face came into sharp focus as the last drops of rum burned their way down my throat. The girl was nothing more than a fish, a groupie. Except for her face and the warm sensation between her legs I remembered nothing of the encounter. But that cold December night we both got what we wanted. She was accepted as a member of the gang that hung out at the public school making a nuisance of themselves, singing and drinking.
And I became a man.
I laughed out loud at the thought, coughing up thick green and brown phlegm in the process.
“Didn’t your mother ever tell you you’d get sick sitting out in the rain?”
I spit the slimy wad to the far side of the floor, holding up the paper sack wrapped empty bottle. “Not sick…”
A flash of white teeth approached as she made her way across the narrow dugout. “So, what ya got for me?”
I tossed the bag after my luger. It shattered in the corner as she flopped down next to me. “I got nothing, I’m tapped out. All I got is my memories.” I turned and found a familiar pair of cold black eyes. “And memories suck. At least mine do.”
“I’ll drink to that.” Slipping a denim purse from her shoulder, my visitor produced a bottle of Thunderbird wine. “You don’t think I carry this thing because I’m a girl do ya?”
We both laughed as she cracked open the fresh pint. “That shit sucks worse than my memories.”
“You said it.” Taking a long pull, she passed the bottle over. “But, whatcha gonna do?”
I accepted the offering.
“To memories,” it tasted awful, and I had to swallow hard to get it down. I never cared much for the taste of wine or beer. But at fourteen you couldn’t be picky.
We sat in silence for a long time. I didn’t know what to say and she didn’t seem interested. The sky was slowly clearing and a waning crescent moon spilled its light into the dugout. She was someone I’d probably ignore on the street. Pretty in a plain sort of way, piercing black eyes and tight figure were her best features. Our two brief conversations so far bespoke of a cynical, sarcastic attitude.
I liked her immediately.
“What did you mean about knowing a better way?” she asked, breaking the silence.
“The other day, in the bleachers, you said you knew a better way to get electrocuted.”
“Oh…that…” More ghosts; little did I realize at the time how large a part in my life to come those ghosts would play. Perhaps if I’d kept a tighter rein on the endless bottles of liquor they would have stayed put. I thought about what she’d asked. I didn’t have to think long. The day was burned indelibly on the insides of my eyelids. It shadowed my days and haunted my nights. “May 18, 1962.” I turned and our eyes met. “I was in the fifth grade. I watched my best friend get fried by a high tension electrical wire.”
She didn’t blink or even stiffen the way most people reacted when I spoke of Chris’ death. For just a moment her eyes softened and her detached demeanor slipped – for just a moment, “I’m sorry. Now that must have sucked!”
I laughed. I couldn’t help myself. I laughed out loud. She laughed, too. I could picture my old pal Chris looking down, laughing and grinning from ear to sugar bowl ear right along with us. It was exactly the way he’d want to be remembered, with laughter.
Trudy turned out to be a combination of both Amy and Ronnie; a mysterious amalgamation of the good and bad of both my former girlfriends. Like Amy she was fun and interesting; unlike Amy she was shy and withdrawn around most people. Like Ronnie she drank and smoked, and we engaged regularly in sexual activities; unlike Ronnie she participated freely and eagerly. We became friends, or as much of friends as she would permit. I discovered Trudy didn’t trust many people, kids or adults. Nor did she allow anyone into the private thoughts and feelings and fears she kept tightly sequestered behind those impenetrable black eyes. I was afforded cleft note glimpses of her inner mind set and rhetorical reasoning. Some of it reflected my own; some of it frightened me.
Her drinking was a result of a dysfunctional alcoholic home life. Trudy’s dad began feeding his daughter liquor when she was six. After she passed out he’d sexually abuse her. When she grew old enough to understand what was going on she started drinking on her own. One night when she was twelve she broke a bottle of cheap rye over her father’s head while he slept. In a day an age when abuse was spoken of in whispers and most people preferred to look the other way, Trudy was sent to live with foster parents. The situation only abetted her anti-socialism.
But we were a pair, Trudy and I, soul mates, kindred spirits cast from the same flawed mold. Without explanations or questions we understood each other. Later, perhaps too late, I came to realize it was more than just an errant storm that had brought us together; and more than mere alcohol that kept us together that summer. With Amy’s departure, I had nailed my emotions to my bedroom wall and placed my heart in the desk drawer. It was obvious Trudy had long ago done the same.
As with Ronnie, the Little League games formed the framework for deceiving nosy parents. We’d meet and watch the game from the bleachers while sipping bourbon or rum or gin from a Pepsi can that fooled no one. Later we’d hang around the vacant dugouts or slip into a small, tightly concealed clearing in the woods. One evening I introduced her to what remained of our thinning doo wop group. The guys were cool and seemed willing to accept her as part of the gang. As it turned out Trudy had quite a pleasant and natural singing voice. Problem was she disliked doo wop and adored the Beatles. After that I began spending less time hanging out and singing. New, younger faces soon began to replace the old bunch, and by fall doo wop days at Loomis School, like doo wop itself, were a thing of the past. I missed those times of adolescent camaraderie. I still do. Those nights of simple songs and innocent dreams hold some of my fondest memories.
Among the many things Trudy and I didn’t talk about, our feelings for one another ranked right at the top. It wasn’t necessary; we shared a quiet understanding that transcended anything I’d experienced with Amy or Ronnie. We weren’t in love; co-dependent would be a better term. She never cracked the door to her feelings more than her safety chain allowed. I kept mine locked up in the drawer with my transistor. We wore our pain and loneliness like stealth armor, visible to anyone who cared to notice; most didn’t bother. Sex mirrored our drinking; both defined our relationship: selfish, detached, indulgent and satisfying.
It probably should have been a memorable summer – crossing the threshold between adolescent and teenager, moving on – it wasn’t. I did my best to hide from the changes going on around me and to ignore the ones that lay ahead. With Trudy I succeeded. The rest of the summer is a blur. I remember Trudy moving away the first week of August, sent off to live with yet another foster family. It was probably the only time I ever saw her show any signs of emotion. “This sucks,” she said flatly, “I’ll miss you.”
A week or so later I sobered up long enough to realize junior high was just around the corner. I’d better get my act together. I cut down on my drinking, mainly because I’d begun to hate drinking alone. By now there was no one left to hang and sing with, and I’d lost all touch with my old St. Pius gang. The week before Labor Day was spent shopping with my mother. She let me pick out most of my own clothes. That turned out to be a mistake on both our parts.
September 9, 1965 was the first Thursday of junior high. It was the start of ninth grade; the beginning of the new Billy. I felt nervous, scared and alone. Maybe that was because I looked like a clown.