NOTE: This is a "Coming of Age" story. It isn’t pretty nor is it pleasant for me to recall. But life consists of pleasure, pain, success, failure, ugliness and beauty. If my legacy consists of memories of significant events in my life and if it is to be complete and honest, it must include words that describe time in which I walked in dark canyons. This story is mostly about a time I spent in the depths of one of those terrible valleys. By the grace of God my being in that dark place is far in my past. I have heard wise people say "You had to be where you were, doing what you were doing, to be where you are now," and I know that God works in mysterious ways. If I did not hold on to those two beliefs the regret I would feel might well be overwhelming for there is much I could regret. The title of this story has a metaphorical meaning for me. It captures in a few words the essence of pivotal summer in my life. I trust you will see some sense to that metaphor as you read.
The Summer of Lefty
They sat clutching their fresh diplomas, the thirty-seven members of Caney High School’s Class of 1950, savoring the applause of parents, relatives and friends. As it tapered off the orchestra struck up some sprightly recessional music. We arose and moved quickly to the lobby where two teachers waited to take our caps and gowns. Now, newly graduated and "free," some of my classmates hurried off to parties. Others left to carry out whatever plans they’d made. With neither party nor plans in the works I waited for my parents, accepted Dad’s firm handshake and Mother’s maternal kiss and told them I’d be home "after while."
I walked alone to "Darling Jill," the 1937 Plymouth I bought the previous summer and had all but destroyed during the final months of my senior year. Nestled in the familiar smell of her old upholstery and slight smell of burning motor oil I drove aimlessly, with only the radio for company, for quite some time. Feelings of joy, fear, sadness, accomplishment and anticipation tore through me like the winds of a hurricane. I was lonely. My best friend had graduated the previous year leaving me with "acquaintances and classmates" but no friends, throughout my senior year. Worse yet, the first girl I ever felt I might truly love had rejected me to begin dating another boy. Finding no solace in the driving or dark thoughts I was left with nowhere to go and nothing to do except go home. When I arrived, the house was dark. Mother and Dad were asleep. I went to my room , sat up for a while, then "hit the sack." Commencement" was over.
I have a picture of a cherub-faced, reasonably handsome prepubescent boy looking resplendent in a band uniform. I had just begun 9th grade when I sat for that picture in the fall of 1946. As I matured over the following months my face became a battleground between normal skin and the red lumps and pimples that come with severe acne. It was a fright-face that I was sure made me absolutely repulsive to any girl who looked at me. My self-esteem plummeted. I dated a few girls during my first three years of high school but nothing "clicked." For the most part I feared rejection too much to even ask a girl for a date.
Then in the first week of my senior year something wonderful happened. A cute, brown-eyed, vivacious girl with dark brown eyes and silken brunette hair came into the band. Her name was Lois Kathleen Foster and she was a freshman. Our director seated the band in such a way that she sat in front of me and directly in the line of sight between the director’s podium and me. I was enthralled by her. Soon her attractiveness outweighed my negative self-concept. I risked asking her for a date. To my delight and amazement she accepted! We dated for a few weeks. I took her to the movies, school dances, a couple of parties, and spent several priceless Saturday afternoons driving around town with Lois sitting next to me in Darling Jill, listening to the radio and just enjoying young life together. A few weeks later, when I asked her to wear my class ring on a chain around her neck as a symbol that she was "my girl" she said "Yes." We were "going steady." The long drought was over. I "had a girl." Life was good. I was euphoric - for about three months. Then one wintry day while sitting in Darling Jill in front of her house (I’d driven her home from school as I often did.), with absolutely no early warning signs that I'd noticed, she removed my ring from her neck and gave it to me. "We can still be friends," she said. "Friends?" my heart said. Impossible! Patsy Cline a popular country singer of the time expressed perfectly how I felt about that possibility. In a song about the end of a relationship she sang these poignant words: "How can I be just your friend?
I had been totally captivated by this girl. Was it love? Definitely not on her part. But to the extent that it is possible for a 17 year-old boy to be in love with a 14 year-old girl, the answer for me was, and is, "Yes." From the perspective of the old man that I now am it is somewhat questionable. It doesn’t matter. At the time it was a crushing, hurtful loss.
But life stops for neither triumph nor tragedy. The band still rehearsed every day. Lois still sat in front of me. She was still as attractive as the first time I saw he,r and I passed within inches of her several times a day in the corridors of our small high school. But I had no part in her life nor she in mine. A cloud of desolation, misery, and loneliness hung over and followed me for a very long time.
This was not the first devastating loss I'd experienced within the last few years. I had four much older brothers, one of whom I was quite close to. He was a quintessential "big brother" to me. He was Killed in Action on April 1, 1944 while serving aboard a B-24 bomber flying the skies over Germany and Occupied Europe. It was a terrible blow that affected me much more than the adults in my life realized. I entered high school two years later still carrying that grief although it was by then subliminal.
The only way I had distinguished myself throughout high school was –on the positive side – in music, drama and journalism. But I had neither interest nor talent in any sort of sports, and I had neither the encouragement nor self-motivation to apply myself to studying. On the negative side . . . well perhaps those memories are better left locked in the vaults of my mind. They include immoderate use of alcohol, a couple of instances of moderate vandalism, considerable reckless driving, and two summers spent working on a pipeline construction crew with men who modeled a kind of life no parent would want their child learning: Learning things no teen-ager should know.
And that is where I was when "The Summer of Lefty" began.
Within a few weeks after graduation I was in Richmond VA working again as a pipeline construction laborer. I needed money to pay my first year college expenses, "pipelining" was the surest way to get it, and it stilled seemed an adventurous thing to do. In the late `40’s/early `50’s pipeline construction was booming, but it was grueling work. To be a "pipeliner" entailed working at hard labor, ten hours a day, seven days a week." I was soon immersed in a schedule that, during the day, left me no time to think or feel. But the evenings and night hours, when I was alone, were a different story.
I had rented a bedroom in a nicely appointed and large old house owned by an old spinster or widow, shortly after arriving. I shared the upstairs with a couple of other men whom, due to my working hours I never met. It was near a few working-class restaurants, and unfortunately, a neighborhood tavern. In my first summer of working as a pipeliner –that was two summers previously - I had been introduced to beer and by this time I was well acquainted with its mind numbing effects.
I developed an after-work routine of quickly washing the dirt off, eating at a nearby restaurant and then spending the rest of the evening in the neighborhood tavern renewing my acquaintance with "Milwaukee’s Finest."
And this is where "Lefty" enters the picture.
Lefty Frizzell was a popular country singer in 1950 who had recently released a record that became a hit among country fans. There was, of course, a jukebox in the tavern and it blared continually during the evening hours. The tavern dwellers seemed to like the music of Lefty Frizzell – a lot. One of his really popular songs was "Always Late"; a doleful country song in which he sang depressing words because he loved someone who didn’t love him. That song was played several times each evening and it provided an emotional tapestry into which I wove my feelings. Night after night I sat at the bar numbing my loneliness with beer and Lefty's songs - all of which were doleful and self-pitying. Lefty, his music and my trying to drown my loneliness in a bottle of beer led to the most humiliating experience I have ever had. It branded the Summer of 1950 in my mind forever as
"The Summer of Lefty."
I didn’t know it then but I was in the early stages of a disease that wreaked havoc in my life. A disease called alcoholism. I was 17 years old at the time. I have no idea how much beer I consumed that night but I was one of the last patrons out the door. I walked unsteadily back toward my room, leaned heavily on the stairway banister as I made my way up the stairs, finally got the room key into its slot and made it into my room. I fumbled out of my clothes fell back into my bed and closed my eyes. Immediately the room became a music-less merry-go-round. As it continued to spin my stomach began to revolt. I fought the queasiness a little too long. By the time I recognized what was going to happen I knew I would never make it to the bathroom down the hallway. I had to choose between polluting my bed, making a putrid mess on the floor, or placing my head in the windowsill of the open window next to the head of my bed. Whichever I chose I knew my stomach was going to rebel in a most disgusting way. There was no way to stop it. I chose the windowsill. After it was over I flopped back into bed and didn’t wake up until moments before I had to get up and go to work.
Next day I worked through the humidity of the Virginia summer sweating out the toxins that remained in my body and dreading returning to my room. I needn’t have been concerned about returning to my room. When I opened the front door of the old house my two suitcases were sitting at the foot of the stairs. A terse note was attached that made it very clear that the landlady considered me a scurrilous person who was not welcome to spend another night in her home. I could not have felt more low-class and degenerate than I did at that moment.
I made a phone call and found a place to stay with one of the men with whom I worked. We shared a room in a boarding house where I soon found that he began each morning by taking a few swallows from the whiskey bottle he kept on the nightstand next to his bed. This fascinated more than disgusted me. My "education" which had begun two summers earlier when I first began working as a pipeliner was rolling right along.
The humiliation I had felt began to fade with my continued exposure to the men with whom I worked. As had been true the previous two summers the common laborers I spent 10 hours a day, 7 days a week were drifters, ne’er-do-wells, and misfits in society. But being young and highly impressionable I I perceived them as the rough, rugged "I can take care of myself" man that I thought I should be. They would be above being emotionally hurt. The fact is – they were the dregs of society.
The summer of Lefty was my finishing school. I received instruction in "shooting craps," hearing and telling vulgar jokes, drinking beer and had circumstances been different, even visiting a brothel with one of the men with whom I worked. By the grace of God that didn't work out.
I could have had another "Commencement" when this summer came to an end. It was a "coming of age" time for me. I was no longer a high school kid but I was not yet a man, I was caught somewhere between the two conditions. I wasn’t sure what a man was but I was pretty sure I wasn’t one yet. I didn’t know where I fit in. As I remarked to a fellow therapist several years later, "I don’t know if I want to wear a tux and attend lavish soiree’s or put on cowboy boots and jeans and hang out in the local tavern." It is a dilemma that remains within me today.
But as with all things, "The Summer of Lefty" ended and I was faced with a decision I hadn't expected. My brother wanted me to become a full-time pipeline construction worker, promising that I would be on a fast track to being promoted to a "boss," and "making more money in a month than I’d make in a year as a teacher." But as fascinating as it had been to a teen-aged boy, I decided it wasn’t the life for me. I went back home, packed my bags and went off to college and ultimately became a band director.
Before reaching that milestone however; in another summer - years later, when I was a young soldier in The Fifth Army Band, I literally "across a crowded room" saw "THE GIRL." She had dark brown eyes, beautiful brunette hair and a deliciously feminine way about her. She was also a musician. Six months after I met her I heard her answer "Yes" to a much more serious proposal that ultimately joined us together for life. We raised five children together while weathering storms as fierce as those the doomed fishing trawler fought in the movie "The Perfect Storm." Our marriage survived, but was severely wounded.
But the effects of things I did and felt before I met her reverberated down through the years. From the casual friendship I formed with beer during that long-ago summer when I was only fifteen years old, I went on to develop a deep, committed relationship with Messrs. Bud Weiser, Jim Beam, and Jack Daniels and their companions. I continued to keep company with them until I was in my early 40’s. They led me into some very bad, dark places before ultimately showing me their true colors.
Finally, again in a summer, the summer of 1978, by the grace of God working in a truly mysterious way, I met a man who led me to a place where the sun shone brightly: My first A.A. meeting. From that night forward I eradicated "Bud," "Jim," "Jack" and all their companions from my life.
All this begs the question "Why, when I was only fifteen years old was I was allowed to travel 300 miles to go work as a man with men and do the same thing the following two summers?" I was radically exposed to things far beyond my years. I can’t answer that question for sure, but I believe my parents allowed it for a couple of reasons. First, I saw the effect of losing a son in war on my parents, and it was devastating. During my high school years they were going through all the stages of mourning. Secondly, I think they thought my oldest brother, who was my "boss" on the pipeline, would "watch over" me. (He did not.) Finally I believe when WWII ended, my parents and most other people had been under the stupefyingly horrible stress of a worldwide war for over four years. They spent years worrying about their sons and husbands, seeing thousands of them be killed and maimed. The post-war release of that stress was palpable. People just did not want to worry about anything for a while. And those were the years when I "came of age."
Why have I disclosed that I was a "practicing" alcoholic? I assure you I’m not boasting. I shared this because you may know someone you suspect is in an unhealthy relationship with "Bud," "Jim," and "Jack." But you think, "No, can’t be. He isn’t lying in the gutter. He hasn’t received any DUI’s. He’s a respectable person. He never seems to be intoxicated." Please understand that during all those years when I kept company with those three villains and their friends, I taught or served as a school administrator. I was a college professor for several years. I was never publicly intoxicated or arrested for DUI. I appeared to be a respectable person. I earned both Master’s and Ph.D. degrees. I earned a Private Pilots License and flew small aircraft for several years. I did all those things while being, by any responsible measure or opinion, a practicing alcoholic. That is NOT boasting. It is a way of telling you that your doctor, your lawyer, your pastor, priest, your son, your daughter, or. . . God forbid. . . you yourself may be a practicing alcoholic. Most alcoholics do not look or act like derelicts. Many times they are high achievers. If you know such a person, pray that they will come to know that no matter how deep the canyon and dark the night these words from the well-known hymn, "Amazing Grace," can also apply to them as they did to me.
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me