© Copyright 2008, 2011 by Joel R. Hall – All Rights Reserved
We moved from the little brown house not long after my third birthday into the house that truly defines my childhood: the house our family always afterward referred to as “The White House on Jersey”, or just “The White House” for short. Like the previous two houses of my short life, this also was a two bedroom, one bath. It was, however, significantly larger than the brown house had been and was situated in the perfect location for a married student. Our back yard ended at a very narrow strip of scrubby woods with a path leading though it which emerged directly onto the campus of Texas A&M University (whoop!). Just a short distance from our back door was the on-campus residence of the president of the university. At the time, James Earl Rudder, a beloved Aggie alumnus and heavily decorated hero of the World War II D-Day invasion of Normandy, was serving as the president of the university and so lived in that house. My brother and I used to play with his son Robert in the field surrounding the residence as well as at our house.
In fact, Robert was in the habit of coming over to our house for breakfast. For a long time my mother did not know who Robert was, so would simply serve him breakfast with no comment until finally curiosity got the better of her and she asked him where he lived. He pointed out of the back of our house toward campus which only confused my mother. It took her a few minutes before she realized that she was feeding breakfast to the son of the president of the university! Once she realized who he was, she felt a little nervous feeding him lest she should make him sick.
College Station itself was a near magical place for a child to grow up. The university had only about 10,000 students, the vast majority of whom were male ROTC cadets. A more respectful and friendly group of young men you would never meet. The town’s population was probably no more than 15 to 20 thousand, so it oozed that small town charm captured in “The Andy Griffeth Show”. Granted, Mayberry was considerably smaller, but the “everyone knows everyone” feel of the place was the same. Crime was practically nonexistent. I don’t ever remember locked doors or windows day or night.
So safe and serene was College Station in those days, that my brother and I slept on the screened in back porch during the warmer months and had total run of the neighborhood for several blocks in every direction as well as permission to roam around the drill field behind our house. It truly was a more innocent time. I have fond memories of chasing fireflies, or lightening bugs as we called them, on sultry evenings in late Spring and early Summer, and of playing seemingly endless games of kick the can or Red Rover. My brother and I climbed trees like spider monkeys and would sometimes spend the better part of a day in the branches. There were kids in practically every house on our street and an old fashioned combination drug store / soda fountain just two blocks down Jersey called Madeley’s Pharmacy.
My memories of this period of my life are many, full, and rich: the smell of the dusty evening air after the cadets finished their drills, the calls of the leaders as they would lead their squads off the field, the sounds of the cicadas in the trees as we drifted off to sleep laying on our roll away bed on the back porch, and watching the construction and then ignition of the famous Aggie bonfire built on the drill field behind our house. This was truly the happiest time of my life, and yet, in some ways, the saddest.
One of the reasons this period was so happy for me has to do with our next door neighbors: the Millers. The family consisted of the parents, Marshall and Betty, along with their two children Duke and Mary Lib.
Marshall Miller was one of the finest human beings I have ever had the privilege to know. There are no words sufficient to describe his significance in my life. I owe him more gratitude than I could ever express. He was my buddy, my hero, my second father. His kindness exceeded that of all other men that I have ever known. He always had time, patience, and a kind word for me. He taught me more than any other what it means to be a true man. I loved him with all of my young heart and still do today. Marshall had served in World War II where he saw action in the Pacific Arena. He was wounded in the left leg and had an infection in the femur that remained with him the rest of his life. This caused him to limp and gave him constant pain, but you would have never known it by his demeanor. He was always cheerful and optimistic. If ever anyone had an excuse for being cranky and unhappy, it was Marshall, but he never allowed his circumstances to bring him down. What a remarkable example of human courage and dignity. He died a few years ago and lies buried in College Station. The world is a colder place with his passing.
Betty Miller is another remarkable human being. If Marshall was my second father, then Betty was indeed my second mother. She was every bit as generous, kind, and cheerful as her husband and tolerated, even indulged, my childish audacity with more grace than most would think humanly possible. Both Betty and Marshall made me feel special and loved at a time in my life when my own parents were so overwhelmed by the challenges facing them that they often times had little, if any time, for me. Understand, I am not blaming my parents for this. They did the best they could under the circumstances, but if it had not been for the Millers, I most certainly would not have developed any confidence in myself whatsoever. Thank God Almighty for sending these angels of mercy into my life.
Mary Lib was a year older than Karen which qualified her as at least a minor deity in Karen’s eyes. As for me and Clayton, we were in love. Mary Lib could do no wrong in our eyes and qualified as the most beautiful vision with which heaven ever deigned bless this lowly realm. For her part, Mary Lib was a wonderful person. She was sweet and kind to us all.
Duke was older. I’m not exactly sure how much older than Mary Lib, but several years at least. He was nice enough to us but had little use for us. I never really knew him that well.
One door further down from the Millers was an elderly lady named Mrs. Johnson. She was also very nice. She had the sweetest disposition and would often offer us lemonade or cookies. I don’t know what became of her, but I can only assume she now resides with the Lord.
Other friends from that time were Lane and Penny Legget. My memories are not real clear on where they lived, but it seems to me they did not live on our street. Penny was my age which meant that I played with her whenever they would visit. The one memory that sticks out about her was a story my mother loved to tell. When Penny and I were both five, we both still sucked our thumbs, much to the chagrin of our parents. To “cure” Penny of this habit, her parents spent a bundle of money having a nasty wire frame installed in her mouth bristling with sharp little barbs meant to prick her thumb whenever she placed it in her mouth. Soon after having this metal monstrosity melded to the roof of her mouth, she came over to play with me and gamely showed off her new accessory. I was horrified. So much so that I quit sucking my thumb cold turkey on the spot. Penny, on the other hand, went blissfully on sucking her thumb for several more years. My mother always laughed at how the Lanes spent all that money only to cure me!
Several memories stand out clearly in my mind from this time.
One of the best memories I have of that time period was the little red scooter that my father owned for puttering around campus. Occasionally he would allow one of us to ride with him much to our delight. I didn’t get to ride on it very often, but when I did, I felt like the king of the world.
There was the time Clayton fell while climbing a tree in our back yard. He was quite high up in the tree when he made the mistake of grabbing a rotten limb which promptly broke off sending him crashing to the ground. He landed right in front of me flat on his back. This would have been bad enough, but there happened to be a fairly sizable chunk of concrete at that spot which caught him square in the back. How he did not shatter his spine I do not know. Luckily, he only had the breath knocked out of him along with some scrapes and bruises.
Another memory was of the time that I squatted down in the leaves to watch Clayton launch a “popsicle stick boat” in a drainage ditch that ran near our home. Unfortunately, I happened to squat down directly above a red ant bed hidden by the leaves. In a matter of seconds I was covered head to toe with red ants. Most people are no longer familiar with red ants in Texas these days because the fire ants have wiped them out, but in those days they were very common. Each ant was about a quarter of an inch long and could bite with an unbelievable force. The pain of even one bite was excruciating. The moment I realized I was covered in red ants, I panicked and ran for home screaming at the top of my lungs. By the time I reached our front door, my mother was already opening it to see what the screaming was about. When she saw me approaching, she couldn’t even tell for sure which of us it was as there were so many ants and because I was already covered in welts from their bites. She panicked almost as badly as I. She grabbed me by the hand, dragged me into the bathroom, threw me in the tub, and turned on the shower full blast. In the process, she was bitten several times herself. It took several minutes to get all of the little beasts off of me, especially since many of them were under my clothes. By the time she had all of my clothes off and had removed the last ant, I looked like one big welt. To this day I hate red ants with a purple passion.
Then there was the time my brother and I made the brilliant decision to use a yellow jacket’s nest for target practice. At that time, we each had our own little dart gun that shot plastic darts tipped with suction cups. For some truly idiotic reason we decided to see what would happen if we shot at a yellow jacket nest hanging from the eaves of our house. There must have been at least two dozen yellow jackets on the nest at the time. In order to shoot at it, we had to stand almost directly beneath it, only feet away. My brother fired first and hit the nest almost dead center. No reaction. Then it was my turn. I aimed and fired. Another direct hit, only this time, there was an extreme reaction. Every yellow jacket on the nest launched a ferocious attack on the two of us. Upon seeing the little demons buzzing angrily down upon us, we both panicked and tried to clamber through the back porch screen door for safety, only to find it locked! We were trapped with nowhere to hide, resulting in both of us being stung numerous times. That was a lesson I have never forgotten.
Probably the most famous story from this time in my life is the story of my getting lost at the bonfire. As the story goes, my mother baked a chocolate layer cake on the day of bonfire. After removing the layers from the oven and setting them out to cool, she sternly warned us that anyone who touched the cake would not be allowed to attend the bonfire. Apparently, my very young mind could not grasp the concept of cause and effect since my chocoholism overruled the sense of caution produced by the warning resulting in me removing a rather large chunk of cake as soon as my mother left the kitchen. Of course, I was caught chocolate handed and immediately informed that I had just forfeited my right to attend the bonfire. This pronouncement of my punishment was simply too much for my very young brain to bear which caused me to immediately have a complete meltdown. I cried, begged, pleaded, screamed, went limp, etc… for hours. When it came time to leave for the bonfire, my father marched bravely off with Karen and Clayton leaving mom to listen to my piteous and unrelenting cries of remorse. I carried on so long and so wretchedly that she finally relented, deciding that “I had surely learned my lesson.” Never was any child so gloriously relieved and overjoyed as I was in that moment. I practically burst with joy. Mom got me ready to go, including my heavy coat and little rubber boots, since the weather was cold and it had been raining leaving the drill field one big mud pit. Once she had me ready, she told me to sit on the back step and wait for her while she got her coat and “freshened up.” I don’t know how long she was gone – she claims only for a brief moment – but apparently it proved too long for my three year old patience to deal with. When she returned to the back step to walk me out to the bonfire, I was nowhere to be found. Once again, panic set in. She dashed out the back gate onto the drill field to find me, calling my name as she went. No answer. No Joey. Of course, the drill field was packed with Aggies of all ages and in every stage of sobriety, gathered to watch the lighting of the bonfire, so finding me would have amounted to the proverbial needle in a haystack. Nonetheless, she darted about the muddy field calling my name over and over, asking everyone she encountered if they had seen a very little boy wandering around all by himself: all to no avail. She did finally manage to locate my dad, and together they searched the drill field, calling out in vain. Needless to say, they didn’t get to enjoy the marching in of the band with the yell leaders, the lighting of the bonfire, the singing, the yell practice, or the speeches from players, coaches, and officials as the bonfire burned. No, they spent all their time looking for little lost Joey. It wasn’t until the main festivities were over, all the speeches done, all the songs sung, that an announcement came over the PA system from the review stand: “We have a lost little boy up here. He’s got blond hair and says his name is Joey. If you are looking for him, please come to the review stand to pick him up.” A well intended Aggie had noticed me wandering alone and asked me where my parents were. When I told him I didn’t know, he picked me up and carried me up to the review stand where I was seated with the players and coaches just in time to watch the lighting of the bonfire, and sit in cozy comfort happily watching it burn while being fussed over by the players. Needless to say, my family was none too happy with me. I didn’t care though. It was one of the happiest nights of my life. Mr. Miller thought it was pretty darn funny as well.
And then there was the time, I think I may have been three, when we went trick or treating in the neighborhood around our house. My mom accompanied us in the car, dropping us at each house and then taking us to the next. At one point, we came upon a house that looked particularly spooky. It had a huge oak tree which seemed to fill the entire front yard, casting dark, eerie shadows on the walk as it led through the middle of the yard toward the front door. I didn’t want to get out of the car but mom assured me it would be alright, so I got out and timidly followed Karen and Clayton who went bounding up the walk in a race to see who would be the one to ring the bell. The combination of their haste and my terror fueled shuffle caused me to end up about half way up the sidewalk at about the time they bounded onto the front porch. That’s when I had the bejesus scared out of me. For fun, one of the teenage occupants of the house had created a “ghost” made from a sheet on a rope using a pulley system rigged in the branches of the tree. His cue to unleash this denizen of the after-world was when anyone broke the plane of the front porch. Consequently, when Karen and Clayton stepped onto the porch, the “ghost” was released to fall directly in front of me! As if the sudden appearance of this spectral apparition was not enough for my overactive three year old imagination, the teen operator simultaneously broke into a loud moaning to seal the deal. Every hair on my young body stood on end as I backpedaled and screamed at the top of my lungs. All I could think of was getting back to the car, but in my haste to turn and run, I tripped and fell down hard. I dropped my candy, scraped my knees, and didn’t care one bit. I popped up and dashed into the open car door screaming the whole time. Mom tried her hardest to calm me down as she simultaneously tried to stifle her laughter, but all to no avail. I was DONE with Halloween for that year. I refused to even look out of the car until we got home and even then, dad had to come out and carry me in the house. I’m sure that teenager got a great laugh out of me, but I can’t help but wonder what kind of mentality it takes to find joy in frightening a three year old?
Winters in College Station were not terribly cold by the standards of more northerly climes, but the early 1960s was a time before global warming had significantly impacted the world. Consequently, winter could be pretty nippy compared to now. In fact, the first frost almost always fell in mid-October and Thanksgiving was usually a pretty nippy affair indeed. Since the white house did not have central heat, space heaters were used to keep the climate bearable indoors in the colder months. These space heaters were not of the electric variety. They were of the natural gas variety and put out some prodigious heat. Since there were only two bedrooms in the white house, once I graduated from the crib in my parents room, I moved in to the other bedroom with Karen and Clayton. This wasn’t too bad since we were all quite small and fit into the two beds with little problem. What was a problem, almost a fatal one at that, was the presence in that room of one of these space heaters. Yep. We almost burned down the house! As I remember it, we had been sent into our room to take a nap one chilly Winter afternoon, but decided that sleeping was not a worthy pursuit. Instead, we decided to jump on the beds which included jumping from one bed to the other. Combine three little monkeys jumping from bed to bed with slick hardwood floors and what do you get? Of course, you get beds that have moved a significant distance from their original positions in the room. In this case, one of those beds ended up being shoved right up against the space heater. This actually would not have been so bad if we had either A) paid attention or B) stayed in the room to detect the first fumes of singed wool comforter, but as luck would have it, we did neither. Soon after jamming the bed up against the heater, we were release from our nap-time prison and promptly left the room. I don’t remember who it was that first scented the acrid odor of singed wool, but fortunately someone (probably mom) did indeed detect the problem before a full fledged conflagration erupted. The bed was quickly pushed away from the heater and the wool comforter yanked off of the bed to be doused in the tub. Whew. Disaster averted. But for many years after that mom kept that comforter as a reminder of how close we came to a true tragedy.
Many of my memories from this age, as well as for many years after, are centered around being tortured by Clayton and sometimes by Karen. Clayton, of course, didn’t want his little pest of a brother shadowing him everywhere, so he made it his job to discourage me from this activity by pounding on me, teasing me, telling me things to scare me, or sending me on “errands” only to be missing when I returned. My response to this behavior was to hero worship him like unto a very god. This trusting adoration on my part simply made his job as chief tormentor that much easier. For instance, he once led me around to the side of our house where a pepper plant was growing. Not some sweet, innocent little bell pepper mind you. Oh no. This pepper was very small and round, about the size of a blue berry, bright red, and harboring a store of chemical weaponry so potent as to be near lethal! Somehow, Clayton either knew or suspected the nature of this fiery little outcast cinder of Hell, because he made it his business to convince me that this beautiful little red fruit was indeed a berry of unparalleled gustatory delight: a glorious, wonderful, sweet little berry that would put a strawberry to shame. Of course, in my hero worship induced trance of trust, I eagerly plucked this paragon of sweetness and popped it in my mouth, ready to enter into berry heaven. Instead, my mouth erupted in pepper hell: a flesh eroding, apocalyptic, 100 gigaton mushroom cloud emitting fusion explosion of pain and agony. Of course, I immediately ran for the back door screaming at the top of my lungs, which was actually not an easy thing to do since the tissues of my mouth and throat were now rapidly swelling from the chemical burns induced by this demon fruit from Hell. The worst part was that the searing pain and agony lasted for what seemed an eternity despite my mother’s best efforts to end my suffering by poring soothing liquids down my throat, starting with water before moving on to milk. This attempted treatment only served to make the pain worse since, as I learned later in Chemistry, diluting certain chemical reagents can actually make them more potent. As horrible as this experience was, it did have a silver lining. So thoroughly did this brimstone “berry” burn my mouth that it destroyed most, if not all, of whatever the sensor cells are responsible for detecting capsaicin, the active ingredient in jalapenos which makes them taste “hot”. Consequently, to this day, I love jalapenos and only occasionally even detect any “heat”.
© Copyright 2008, 2011 by Joel R. Hall – All Rights Reserved