It was 1955, a mere 11 years before I would graduate from high school, and only 12 years away from the fatal day that brought little Ricky Everson to the end of his life and moved the Vernon family closer to disintegration. We were edging our way closer with each move.
Our move from Southern California to mid-state Indiana was made in an old, humpbacked clunker with a canvas bag of water strapped to the front grille (for the car, not for the people). We had been driving the highways and byways of mountains, desert, and Midwestern Plains for days. The Interstate System was just a gleam in some politician’s eye then. The modern Map Quest gives an estimated driving time of 30 hours and 26 minutes for the 2068.5 miles which is at least four days of fairly hard driving today. I imagine our trip--with no air conditioning, no McDonald’s playgrounds, an empty mayonnaise jar as a port-a-potty, and lungs filled with cigarette smoke--was interminable to the three little girls crammed into the back seat.
And worst of all, we were wondering what aliens had landed and taken the place of our parents, because as we first pulled out of Los Angeles, they in essence had “come out of the closet” as cigarette-smokers and acted as if they were having a party. For me at age seven, it was the first visible crack in my little world, knowing that my parents had dark secrets that I knew was not something I should talk about. My older sister, Becky, at age nine, was also dumbfounded. My younger sister, Melody, at age three, was too young to notice the black hole sucking in our universe.
If we girls were shocked over the smoking, Mama was shocked over the house that Daddy had rented for us in Indianapolis at 9550 North Meridian a few weeks earlier. He had “thumbed” his way cross-country to get us started in our new life, where he would get his Master’s degree at Butler University on full scholarship, so he could join the US Navy as a Chaplain.
In those days, the house was outside of the city. That site today is just inside the loop that encircles Indianapolis and features imposing and attractive estate homes. I’m sure that the attraction for Daddy was that the house was close to the university and that it was something a struggling student with a family of four dependents could afford.
Surrounded by corn fields and set a quarter of a mile back from the highway that traversed the beautiful rolling hills of the area, the two-story house looked like an estate home from afar. But, turning left off the highway onto the dirt driveway the first building we passed was a rickety old red barn that even to our young eyes had definitely seen better days. (It may have been something about the missing lumber in the walls and roof that gave it away.) The driveway took a turn to the left and eventually led to a parking shed/carport next to the house.
I’m sure Mama was speechless at the derelict condition and isolation of her new home. But, in my eyes, it was absolutely wonderful! It was a saltbox type house with two sets of stairs that led to two front doors. The door closest to the driveway opened up to a parlor with a doorway in its rear wall to a huge, yellow kitchen. The front room was dominated by a massive oil-burning stove on the left wall, with a flue that went at least halfway up the high walls. (It turned out to be the only source of heat for the entire house.) Behind it were three steps blocked by a closed door. The stairs led up to the two rooms on the second floor.
The front door farthest from the driveway opened into a formal room with lots of shelves, probably a library. Where there weren’t shelves, there was old wallpaper that sported small stripes and large cabbage roses. A door in the rear of that room led to a bedroom that my parents and Mel would use. It had a door in its side wall that led back to the kitchen. All four rooms on the first floor were of equal size.
The kitchen had a gas stove (probably propane), a refrigerator and a giant sink with a big funny-looking red thing at one end. I soon learned it was a hand pump (an early version of today’s faucets) that connected to a cistern well in the basement of the house. We girls loved the pump. All we had to do was push and lift its long handle and soon water would gush out of its spout. But if you wanted more than a gush, you had to collect it while you were pumping. And if you wanted “running” water, you had to recruit help (which came free from Melody but at a price from Becky). The hand-pumped water was a cool and refreshing discovery, and a treasured memory of our time there.
There was another hand pump down by the barn that we girls used to get a drink of water from when we were outside playing. We used it, that is, until one day I was pumping and Becky was holding her cupped hands under the spout to catch the water (my labor was free to her). It usually took two or three pumps before the water would actually come out and that day she held her hands under the spout impatiently. The water eventually gushed out, but a dead mouse plopped into her hands with it. We screamed, we gagged, we jumped up and down and we ran away. That ended that outdoor adventure forevermore.
When we first moved into the house there was no bathroom, no toilet, no hot water heater, no tub, no shower. Through a window in the kitchen door that first day, Daddy pointed out a small shed way, way in the back yard. That was our introduction to the outhouse, the privy, the Sears catalog room. Closer in to the house, to the left of the back door, was a big, windowed storage shed that would provide some of our best play times because it was chock full of pioneer cast-offs: big iron pots and pans and all sorts of cooking and housekeeping items. We three girls played house with what now would be considered very valuable antiques.
Either the homeowners or my parents eventually “modernized” the farm house by adding an electric water pump, a kitchen faucet, and a water heater, which meant we no longer had to pump water and heat it up on the stove for dishes and our “sponge baths.” They also walled off a little bedroom space in their room for Mel and another area for a shower and the downstairs chemical toilet.
A chemical toilet is basically a big bucket with a seat and a lid to which some liquid chemicals are added to keep the stench to a minimum; today's port-a-potty without walls. There was also one upstairs in my bedroom (yipee!) They were only for use in nighttime and bad weather, which we seemed to have a lot of. Daddy would empty both of them into the privy almost every morning for the two years we lived there. If he happened to be out of town, no one volunteered to take over his job.
The stairs in the parlor were a memorable feature of the house for me because they led to Becky’s and my bedrooms. When we opened the door that blocked the stairway after the first three steps, we could climb up about 4 more stairs before they took a 90 degree turn to the left, only offering foot space very close to the wall. There were no handrails, so you had to brace the wall to keep your balance. After the sharp turn, there were 5 or 6 more steps, the final one being the floor of my bedroom. There was no banister or barrier blocking the hole in the floor. (It was a good thing we didn’t sleepwalk.) The chemical toilet was enthroned at the head of the stairs.
The doorway to Becky’s room was to the left, in the far side wall. Her room had a side window that faced a corn field that was edged by a hedgerow of gooseberry bushes, straggly, spiny bushes indigenous to Asia and Europe. (Who planted them at the edge of a cornfield in Indiana?). Under the bushes, rhubarb plants leant a pretty touch of color with their toxic green leaves and bright red stalks that would eventually introduce us girls to the mouth-puckering experience of a piece of tart-- really tart--pie. Abutting the backyard end of the hedgerow, a windbreak of tall pear trees marched out to protect the path to the outhouse. If there had been a window to the front yard, she could have seen the barn in the distance, and giant lilac bushes and the spreading arms of an old apple tree close to the house (that we used as for our “horse rides").
Inside Becky’s room, there was a great old Victrola we could crank up and play the really, really thick records that were stored in the lower cabinet of the player. It was probably about 3 ½ feet tall and had an appealing musty smell that spoke of the years it had served its users. It also had resident mud daubers that would build their muddy tunnels in its large domed top or next to the turntable.
The right side window in my room faced the car shed and the highway, so the view was minimal. It really didn’t matter what the view was anyway, because as our first winter approached, my parents covered the windows with plastic as a storm window protection. (They used the same great protection on a car window one winter when it refused to go up.) Those bedrooms needed all the protection from the elements they could get, since the only source of heat was a wisp or two that managed to make its way up the stairs from the giant stove in the parlor. I guess I lucked out because I’m pretty sure no heat wafted its way from my room into Becky’s. (On the other hand, I had the chemical toilet. There’s always a trade-off.)
But the best feature of my room was a dressing table with a tri-fold mirror we used to stand in front of and lip-sync to the old-time gospel songs that were a staple in our house. Becky would be on one side, Mel would be on the other, and I would—naturally—be in the center, where I could step forward and dramatically kneel down for my solo parts.
The stairway was a great place to make a grand entrance into the parlor, if one happened to be wrapped in a bed sheet while lip-syncing to the gospel song, “The King of All Kings.” We took turns being Jesus the King. We would keep the door closed as the music played and we sang, until the final flourishing notes toward the end of the song. Then whoever was king would fling the door open and descend the last three steps into the parlor with high drama and divine beauty.
One time when I was Jesus, I flung the door open only to discover my two disciples going at it in a fight. Becky had little Melody pinned to the floor and was threatening her with some dire consequence. As Jesus, I quickly intervened to save the day. As a little girl with a growing “savior” complex, my sense of virtue in “saving” Mel felt really good. Secretly, I relished the thought that of the three of us, I really was the best Jesus.
Fourteen years later, I would have a déjà vu experience of that, when I came into our living room and saw my father 6’ 4” father pinning my 5’ 5” mother to the floor and hitting her. After almost dying from a blood clot after a surgical procedure, Mama had only gotten out of the hospital that day. The savior scooped in again, getting him off of her and taking the blows for her. I even went so far as to call the sheriff for help.
The deputies said since there was visible evidence of the struggle (my mouth was bloody), I could press charges against Daddy, but Mama convinced me not to. (What would people in the church say? Daddy could lose his commission.) If it were today, I would press, press, press charges. I wonder now if Becky had seen something similar in our childhood that modeled that behavior for her that day at the foot of the stairs. She does remember walking into the front room one day and seeing Daddy drinking a beer. She was probably more shocked at that than the cigarettes the night we left Los Angeles, but she didn’t tell me about it until recently. In a family of secret-keepers, it gets easy to keep secrets from everyone, even your “best friend” sister.
The whole house was our playscape then, except for the outside steps that led to that far front library room. That’s because they were so rotten I fell through them the first time they were used on the day of our arrival. I just scratched up my legs some and it didn’t phase me much (not after the trauma of the broken leg and measles combo!), but Mama was awfully upset. Later I realized it was the state of the stairs and the house itself, and not my injuries that caused her such concern.
The first night we moved there was my first experience of violent weather. Southern California had not prepared me for a Midwest thunder storm. I happened to be in my parents' bedroom, crouching over the predecessor bucket for our chemical toilets, when suddenly huge streaks of light danced across the night sky. Several seconds later the world broke in two with a resounding crack that echoed and echoed and echoed. Had I not already been using the bucket, I probably would have wet my pants.
It was a whole new world to that young girl. A new world in a very old place. The house was 127 years old when we moved into it in 1955. By my calculations, that means it was built in 1828, although it would have been a very pretentious house (“estate home” indeed) when it was built. Most farms at that time had rough-hewn log homes, sheds, and barns. In the 1830’s farmers began raising crops and animals for markets in Cincinnati or Louisville and began to prosper.
I did not know the particulars at the time, but I was aware of what I now understand to be the sense of history that was steeped into the walls of the house and the land and the trees that surrounded what was to become my favorite childhood home.
The first occupants of the house probably planted those trees. They would have used handmade tools for their farming until the 1830’s when mass-produced tools began to be available; John Deere introduced the steel plow in 1837. The men and boys would have castrated a bull to work the fields and only kept cattle for personal consumption. Corn was the main crop and hogs were the main livestock kept then.
Perhaps it was their sweat and toil that seeped into the soil and inspired me to start a vegetable garden in the summer of 1956. I planted corn, hoed and weeded it, carried water out to it, and picked it when it was ready to eat. My fair skin was burned to a crisp, but the joy and satisfaction I derived from grubbing around in the ancient soil was a life-time gift. And, of course, there was the bonus of some fabulous corn-on-the cob, salted and dripping with butter.
I think the original settlers would have known that joy and satisfaction. The women of the family would also have known the hard work of making the cloth and clothes that they all wore. They would have spun wool sheared from their sheep and made linen from flax planted specifically for that purpose. Linen was the most common material used and it required a great deal of work: rotting the plants in water, breaking them apart, scraping them with a knife, aligning the fibers on boards peppered with nails, and then spinning the fibers into cloth. There were no synthetic dyes until the late 1850’s, so the women would have colored their “homespun” using dyes made of plants, roots, nut hulls, fruit skins and pits, mosses, fungi, insects and even shellfish if they could get them.
Women would make each family member one “everyday” outfit and one “Sunday best” for each season, which explains why there were no closets in our Indianapolis house. Laundry was not a high priority for them, because it took too much water and time. Until Elias Howe invented the sewing machine in 1846, the women and girls made their clothes and then remodeled their dresses for years, sometimes up to 6 times, before cutting them up for children’s outfits. Even in the coldest of winters, the women wore no underdrawers, although it might have helped that they wore (count ‘em) three petticoats under their long dresses both winter and summer.
In 1955 the winter cold still crept up under our clothes, even for young females who had underdrawers to wear. That's because we girls were not allowed to wear long pants to school. We could wear leggings, but had to take them off when we got inside the school building. When the weather was nice it was a big problem to play on the playground in our dresses and still keep our “modesty.” (The incredibly repressive “no-pants” rule didn’t change until sometime after I graduated from high school in 1966.) We did have tights and knee socks, but it was still torturously cold in the winter, especially to someone raised in the sunny climes of Los Angeles.
But the cold was not my first problem when I entered the third grade that fall. I quickly discovered that everyone but me had learned how to write cursive in the spring of second grade. So my teacher gave me a practice book and tutored me in her spare time. I went from feeling like something was wrong with me because I couldn’t write, to feeling proud because I learned to write quickly and legibly.
Soon after we moved there, Mama got a job as a lab technician at Ft. Benjamin Harrison, an army base named after the US President who had been an Indianapolis native. Daddy attended Butler, but made his living as a juvenile parole officer, which meant he sometimes was gone from home, transporting the parolees from prison back to their homes. He carried a gun, and when he was at home it was on an upper shelf in the kitchen.
He also was the preacher for the Salsbury Church of Christ in the southern part of the state (which also featured “outhouse” bathrooms). We drove there early every Sunday morning, then would spend the day after morning services at different church members’ homes, so Daddy could preach for the evening services. It was there that I became introduced to Southern Cooking at its finest, as the women tried to out-do each other in hosting us. It was a feast every Sunday! And every Sunday afternoon we were invited to fish, ride horses, or just go romping in the beautiful countryside.
During the weekdays, Mama would take Melody to a woman who kept children in her home, but Becky and I were on our own after school and in the summers. Every day was an adventure for us two little girls. However, as an adult, my heart quakes in fear for those two young ones, out in the middle of nowhere, unsupervised and unprotected. Daddy had a gun for protection, but we just had each other. It would set the theme of our family life together for the next twelve years.
NEXT: Vernon Stock
Will you pray with me?
God of All Time and Space,
We praise you that there is no past, present, or future for you, only the eternal Now. We are grateful that there is no here or there for you, only the eternal Here of Life as a single event.
We bless you that your ways as Creator are not our ways as your creatures. We give thanks that we are created to experience our lives with a sense of then and now, of near and far. How we bless you for the magnificent gifts of time and space! How grateful we are for the boundaries and limitations that remind us that we are dependent upon you for all things in all time and in all places.
We rejoice in the goodness of the earth that you fill it with goodness and wonder. And we pray for those in the past, in the present, and in the future who cry out to you in need, fear, distress, hardship, and sorrow. Hear the prayers of all people, in all timess and places, those expressed and those whose need is too deep for words.
We pray especially for the children of this world who are at the mercy of their parents, extended families, communities and nations. Send people of good will and hope to infants, babies, toddlers, children, youth, and young adults in dire circumstances, that they may be agents of your saving grace. And lead us all into a deeper sense of your abiding Presence, that we may turn to you in joy and praise throughout our days on earth and into the life to come. Amen.