"When I Was Young"
Some background about my family and upbringing will be helpful, so let’s begin there:
My father was born in 1910, on a farm in Alaska, Indiana, and grew up with eventual basketball coaching legend John Wooden, but Dad knew him as “Johnny.” They went to Martinsville High and Purdue together, switching off each new school year between being yearbook editor and business manager. Dad studied to be an electrical engineer.
While John was busy playing basketball, Dad was involved with track and high hurdles. A cinder track was the bane of runners of yesteryear, and my father literally fell victim to those cruel clumps – why cinder was ever the choice for the pathway on a track in the first place I still do not understand.
My mother also was born on a farm, on the outskirts of Evansville, Indiana, near Elberfeld, the seventh of nine children. Athletic and highly competitive, she had gone to the opposite of Purdue in Indiana University, majoring in Physical Education. Quite the golfer in her day, Mom won several tournaments as an amateur. An excellent bridge player, too, she went up against Charles Goren and won! She was a teacher at Bosse High in Evansville before marrying my father. Although Mom had been christened as Geneva, well before I was born she had been given the nickname of Aunt Steve, which was how I came to be named.
My sister Nancy and I were both adopted in Richmond, Indiana. As I was born bow-legged, Mom worked on my legs daily to straighten them out. Upon learning that our parents got Nancy when she was nine days old, but they got me when I was six days old, I theorized, in the weird, wonderful, naïve way that only a child of three can come up with to sort out the convoluted universe, that they must have adopted me first, while in actuality she was four years older.
Being older and therefore larger, she was able to pin me down and tickle mercilessly enough until it hurt and got me mad. Then scratching, kicking, and biting could come into play – whatever it took to get her to stop. Some form of retaliation was conducted soon after, so the adage “Two wrongs don’t make a right” was used as an admonishment more than once in our home. The cease-fire did not truly occur until Nancy got interested in dating boys. She always had lots of friends, and her piano and sight-reading skills were good enough to play hymns for children’s classes in Sunday school. I don’t think she really had to practice much – it just came naturally to her, as did typing when she got to college.
My first brush with the famous came when I was just three years old. Our family had moved recently from Kankakee, Illinois, to Fall River, Massachusetts, due to my father’s relocation as a plant manager for the Crosley Corporation. On what must have been a Saturday, since Dad went, too, we boarded a train bound for New York City to meet a couple of cousins and ferry over to see the Statue of Liberty.
While on the train, my parents recognized some passengers and sent me to get their autographs with the thought that a child would be more successful in obtaining them. Mom and Dad pointed me in the direction of the intended with pencil and paper in hand, but I really had no idea who I was supposed to find, so I settled on a handsome couple and asked them for their signatures. They smilingly obliged … and were undoubtedly mystified!
Upon returning to my parents, they said that I hadn’t quite made it to the correct people and sent me back, this time to three lovely young ladies seated one row farther in the compartment from the handsome couple. Upon offering them the writing utensils, they scooped me up on their laps, taking turns fussing on me while the pencil and paper were passed around. They then set me down to scamper back to my parents, who explained that I had just obtained the autographs of the singers of “Sugartime” – The McGuire Sisters.
Within the year, the company and plant where Dad had worked closed down. He had always claimed that Mr. Crosley’s getting into the car manufacturing business was his downfall. After my parents’ search for a new home (that seemed to last an entire winter to my sister Nancy and me, being so young and with little sense of the passage of time), our family moved from the North to the South, settling atop Lookout Mountain on the Georgia side, when I was almost four. The community was called Fairyland – yes, Fairyland, but everyone pronounced it as though it were “Fairland,” without the “y.” The elementary school was just at the top of the street, and our house was located about four blocks from world-renowned Rock City, which had something to do with how the community got its name.
My mother resumed teaching when I entered the fifth grade. Yes, she was my fifth grade teacher. That being a little awkward, I raised my hand on her first day to ask if I was to call her “Mom” or “Mrs. Duncan.” The whole class froze, awaiting her answer. She deliberated but a moment before replying, “You call me ‘Mom’ at home and ‘Mrs. Duncan’ here.” That satisfied both the class and my dilemma.
Lookout Mountain was a lot like Mayberry from The Andy Griffith Show. A very idyllic setting, the entire boulder-strewn mountain was our playground. There were many kids of all ages, and we rode our bikes everywhere. After school, a number of us would head off to play what we called army-in-the-rocks and either football or baseball on the golf course.
We even had our own version of Barney Fife with an officer named Ferris Derryberry. During one summer night, a bunch of us – preteens, as is now described – “visited” with him when he was parked out in front of the local drug store. While a couple of kids shot the breeze with Ferris to keep him distracted, the rest of us decorated his cruiser with stickers gleaned from copies of Mad and Cracked magazines. We provided the finishing touches by winding rolls of pink and yellow toilet paper ‘round and ‘round his squad car.
Around that same time when I was nine, the couple who had introduced our parents to each other were visiting from Indiana. Mrs. Wright was perusing through The Chattanooga Times when she spied an ad or an article and shrieked excitedly. She had just read that Leonard Bernstein and The New York Philharmonic were going to be in town that night, and she insisted that we had to get tickets and go! Not knowing who Leonard was, it was a given that I’d have to go along whether I knew who he was or not.
The tickets were for seats on the main floor of the Memorial Auditorium in downtown Chattanooga, and we must have been about twenty-five rows back. There was the general buzz of an audience, and then there was quite a commotion as a man sprang onto the stage, took a bow amid a thunderous applause, turned ‘round, and started waving his arms at a bunch of people who were making big sounds with their musical instruments. When they finished a piece, he faced the boisterous audience and took many a bow, then twirled right back around to begin a new number.
This seemed to go on and on, until finally the program must have ended, because the crowd roared as they sprang to their feet, and Mrs. Wright was not alone when she began shouting, “Bravo! Bravo!” and “Encore! Encore!” Those words were unfamiliar to me, but if I’d heard them before, it certainly was not in that context. Sure enough and soon enough, after Mr. Bernstein and the orchestra had taken numerous bows, they started playing again. As it turned out, there were two encores – “Fetes” by Debussy and “Infernal Dance” from Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, of which the latter would become a “déjà vu” moment when I recognized that piece many years later.
The Fairyland Festival took place every fall on the grounds behind the elementary school that was named – what else? – Fairyland, and scheduled to make an appearance was the “World’s Strongest Man” at the time – Paul Anderson, who hailed from across the northern rim of Georgia in Toccoa. Naturally, we kids were very excited about it. In the spacious playgrounds area behind the school, a special tent had been set up for him to perform his feats of strength, and a good many people crowded inside for the show.
As he stepped into the tent, we saw this hulk of a man, an Atlas – huge arms and shoulders, bulging biceps, each thigh wider than any of us, a mop of dark hair, and an impossibly thick neck. I don’t know how much he might have weighed, but wow, he was big … massive! First he spoke of his career, and then he got around to lifting weights and objects of various shapes and sizes, not just the normal dumbbell variety. Finally for his last “trick,” he announced that he was going to clamber under a sizeable table and wanted as many children as possible to cram themselves on top, so he could lift us all on his back. We hustled and piled on as quickly as we could, and when no more could be fit, his voice boomed out from under the table, “Ready?” Eagerly, we shouted back, “Yes!” and up we rose.
There may have been twenty-five or thirty of us stacked on top, many with their legs dangling over the edge of the table. There was no way of knowing how much we could have collectively weighed, but judging by the squeals of delight and the applause, it must have been quite an impressive amount that he had hoisted. For us kids, it was as close to meeting a Samson or a Hercules as we were ever likely to get.
One summer I was the star pitcher on a little league baseball team that had a perfect season – 16 wins, no losses. The team was named Harold’s, after a local barber shop on the Mountain. To begin the next season the following year, I had been chosen, as a result of my record and achievements, to ride with a real live baseball star in a parade that was to be held in downtown Chattanooga. Broad Street was lined with crowds of people, and there was a white Cadillac convertible, with flickering red-white-and-blue pennants attached, waiting at the starting point.
Proudly wearing my uniform for the occasion, I had no idea who the individual was going to be until about five minutes before the parade was to begin. As we shook hands, the gentleman to whom I was introduced towered over all 4’10” of me. He was deeply tanned, with large hands and a big, broad smile. The two of us were positioned on top of the back seat, while a young lady sporting a tiara and a sash sat in the front with the driver, and we were to wave to all the parade-goers while passing by.
For those familiar with the comic strip Peanuts, this was no Joe Schlabotnick at a Charlie Brown testimonial dinner that the Little League bigwigs had landed. The Major Leaguer sitting next to me was the great fire-ball-throwing Cleveland Indians pitcher Bob Feller.
In the early 1960s, our across-the-street neighbors – the Fritts family – moved from the Mountain to Hixson, a northeasterly suburb of Chattanooga, and their new home was located next to the Valleybrook Golf Course. Towards the end of one summer, they informed us that Arnold Palmer would be paying the course a visit in an exhibition match with several club professionals and asked if we would like to come. Since my mother had been such an accomplished golfer when she was younger and my father loved the sport, too, the answer was a big “Yes!”
On the appointed day, my family took what was, before the construction and completion of I-24 and I-75, a lengthy drive from the Mountain to the Fritts’ new home, and our families walked from there over to the club house. Unsurprisingly, there was quite a turnout to witness Arnie’s appearance, and the golfing great did not disappoint.
After his introduction, the crowd cheered loudly, and he spoke briefly before giving a demonstration of shaping shots with different clubs and then how to hit a “hook” or a “slice” with the driver. Nearing the conclusion, he asked if anyone would like to see anything in particular, and someone piped up with, “Whiff it, Arnie!” There was a good outburst of laughter at the request, and he gave the crowd that wonderful, warm smile – but did not oblige. Soon after, the match began, and as he and the club pros strode from tee to tee and hole to hole, all of us kids were hopping and jumping around, tagging along like puppy dogs with the man who was referred to as “the King of Golf.”
So now you, the reader, can see that I was no stranger to being in the presence of the famous at an early age and would have no shyness later on when standing next to Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen on the stage of The Fabulous Fox Theater in Atlanta. Let’s move on to the next important factors – how, where, and why did I gain an interest in tuning pianos?