Neosho and High School
When my family moved from Rogers
Arkansas to Neosho Missouri, Word War II was dramatically changing the small
town. When construction on Camp Crowder began in 1940, Neosho had a population
of about five thousand people. By l942 that population had quadrupled, and the
city struggled with all the problems brought on by such quick and heavy
increases--problems of housing, utilities, education, basic services, business
accommodations, and so on.
The large public square, and the blocks beyond, which accommodated normally
sixty businesses which served ninety percent of all the town needs from
groceries to drugs to clothing and banking, soon changed its face.
First, more than a dozen "military stores" replaced established businesses.
These stores fleeced the soldiers, selling items like cheap jewelry stamped with
U.S. Army Signal Corps Insignia, identification bracelets, silver dog tag
chains, and hundreds of souvenirs to send back home to the family, ugly pillows
with "Camp Crowder Missouri" written on them, coffee mugs, plates and bowls with
the Signal Corps Insignia on them, and so on.
Several bars opened on the square, serving beer only. Two tattoo parlors opened.
There were three movie theatres, The Orpheum, The Carmar, and The Photoshow.
Around the corner on Hickory Street was an army "prophylactic station," where
both horny, and recovering or repentant, soldiers could obtain condoms, and/or
have their penises sprayed with some disinfectant. There were laundries and
dry-cleaning establishments everywhere, game rooms, several public bath houses,
and at least ten new cafes and coffee shops opened either on the square or
within a couple of blocks.
The proliferation of offices, offering every conceivable service to the armed
forces personnel from legal advice and investment advice, to dating and mating
bureaus. Many places, quite simply, were there to relieve the soldier of his
paycheck on the same day he received it.
Especially popular were "used car lots." Soldiers came to Crowder for six months
usually, and they needed transportation. They could take the Kansas City
Southern Railroad to Joplin, but those passenger trains ran only four times a
day. They could take the bus, but usually busses were full and seats
unavailable. Or they could buy a cheap car, keep it for their stay in camp, and
then sell it back to the same dealer, sort of like renting the car. That is
where my father got involved.
Since the Citizens Loan Company was willing to make loans to servicemen, and
since many servicemen wanted cars, why not, Russel thought, establish your own
used car lot, sell the cars to servicemen, finance the sales at three percent
per month interest, and take back the automobile when the soldier is shipped out
of Camp Crowder, paying for it less than you sold it for, of course. And that is
what he did for four years.
Father and a car dealer, Russell Keeling, opened their own "Army Car Exchange,"
and they searched adjacent areas for used cars to purchase. Since the production
of new automobiles for civilian use had stopped when the war began, used cars
became precious commodities, and their prices increased dramatically as the war
went on. Russel and Russell bought cars from Oklahomans, Kansans, Arkansans,
and, of course, Missourians, and sold and re-sold them to Crowder soldiers and
Even though drivers were legally limited to five gallons of gasoline per week,
army personnel (and many civilians) had ways of getting more, and did. And when
the soldiers got orders to ship out, they would return their cars to the
Keeling-Windes "Army Car Exchange," where their car would be purchased from
them, their loan on it paid off, and any cash remaining after the payoff would
be returned to them. My father boasted that he had made over twenty thousand
dollars on this business during the war.
One can call such practices "war profiteering" or just good business, but Russel
was not alone among Neoshoans in taking advantage of situations to feather their
own nests. The demand for housing was enormous, and almost everyone in town who
could make available an extra room was encouraged to rent that room to "camp
followers," service wives, workers, and soldiers who did not have to live on
base all the time.
Native residents did just that, converting garages or lofts or basements to
resident rooms or apartments and charging outrageous rental prices. A furnished
room brought up to fifteen dollars a week ($l00 in l990s money). A furnished
apartment three times that amount. ($300 in l990s money).
A book published by Random-House in l944 called Camp Follower, written by an
army wife identified at "Barbara Claw," detailed the plight of wife of the
service man, struggling to be close to her husband during the war.
Mrs. "Claw" details her struggles in Neosho, Missouri, during l943, struggles to
find decent and affordable housing and a part time job, as well as her struggles
to find something useful to do while waiting for weekends and husband.
There was no time for loneliness or boredom in Neosho during the war years. From
our house on Spring Hill, I could almost always see, night and day, large
numbers of people in Big Spring Park below. On pleasant weekends there would be
literally hundreds if not thousands of soldiers and friends in the Park. Three
blocks to the east in the public square one could find that many more. The USO
housed another thousand or more on most evenings. A Community Building across
the street from the high school was converted into an "Army Canteen," and,
without nearly the offerings and luxuries of the USO, the Canteen attracted
hundreds of soldiers nightly.
Trying to be waited on at stores and restaurants was a time-consuming task. Just
trying to check out books from the Neosho Public Library took me as long as half
an hour. To get into the movie theatres during the war years, in Neosho or
Joplin, required long waits standing in line, even though the theatres opened at
noon and held final screenings at eleven at night. And they were always packed,
every seat taken.
There were so many people in those years, one hardly had time to pay attention
to the town, which was, in ef ct, a rather pleasant and pretty place, full of
hills and valleys and a creek which wound its way through the business and
To the east of downtown there was a Department of Interior Fish Hatchery (built
in l888) occupying forty or so beautiful acres of ponds, trees and grass. Near
the fish hatchery was another favorite place of mine on pleasant afternoons.
Hickory Creek flowed just two blocks east of the hatchery. It was a shallow
briskly flowing creek, perhaps three feet at its depth. It had beauty,
sweetness, dignity and solitude, as well as crystal clear water. From the banks
one could see the small fish and minnows which dominated the creek, as well as
the fascinating colors of the rocks at the bottom of the water. The banks to the
creek were gravel near the water, and then all grassy, and I would lie on that
grass and look up to the blue skies and white clouds and feel like I owned the
The shores of Hickory Creek were the location for several dozen poems and essays
I wrote in the years l942 to l947. During those days, having read Lewis Carroll
and e.e. cummings and Robert Frost and Amy Lowell and T.S. Eliot, another
Missourian, and Mark Twain, yet another native, I came to believe that I had the
potential to become a famous literary artist.
My first such poem was written the summer of l942, and I called it "Cloud
"It hasn't been so long ago/ When on a summer's day
I'd throw myself upon the grass/ And pass the time away.
By gazing up into the sky/ Into the endless blue.
To watch clouds float slowly by/ 'Til they passed from view.
I'd see a palace far above/ Its ramparts stretching wide.
Stairways winding everywhere/ And walls from side to side.
And towers rising far aloft/ Pink tinted, shot with blue.
Topped with billows white and soft/ Cobwebs touched with dew.
I watched it while it passed me by/ Drifted from my sight;
Then I'd search about the sky/ To find some new delight.
And so the hours flew swiftly by/ Until all light was gone.
I'd go to bed and rest in sleep/ Until another dawn."
I enjoy another poem I wrote at Hickory Creek, summer of '43:
"Beneath a shining, misty moon/ I glide thru glis'ning waters;
Toward a dawn coming soon/ My tiny vessel totters.
The breeze is damp with salt and cool/ With its gentle kiss
Removes all cares and leaves a pool/ Of sweet untroubled bliss
Who knows the vast expanse I roam/ All the years that fly
Yet day will ever bring me home/And put my journeys by.
In haste my little craft is beached/ But tho the trip of o'er
I find, when afternoon is reached/ I dream of nights in store."
There was much of Neosho that was l9th century. The old stately houses on
Jefferson and Washington Streets and out near the Fish Hatchery were Victorian
splendid. The park itself was laid out in the l840s and became the center of the
original community. The townspeople prided themselves in their trees and flower
and called the city "The flower city." The public square abounded in flower
boxes. And before the war and Camp Crowder, the city boasted that it was the
"most spic and span" city in Missouri. The war certainly changed that.
The town was conservative politically, socially, and religiously prior to Camp
Crowder, although certainly not southern right-wing. George Washington Carver
had gone to school in Neosho. The artist Thomas Hart Benton was raised there.
The town had black residents who lived mostly in "New Town," the location of the
Frisco Railroad Depot. But blacks and whites went to school together in junior
and senior high school during the war, unlike the rest of the towns in the State
of Missouri, which remained segregated until l954.
At the places of business in Neosho, including the movie houses, there was no
discrimination against blacks. And, unlike neighboring counties which voted
solidly Republican, Newton Countians often split their tickets. Isham Collier,
husband of my grandmother's sister, Aunt Laura Collier, was a Democrat, and he
was elected four times Sheriff of Newton County in the Nineteen-oughts and
teens. And his son, Pete, became sheriff in the nineteen forties.
From what I liked to believe was a base of moderation in social, cultural and
political life, the town was favorably and liberally effected and changed by
years of integration with thousands of soldiers and their families from all over
During the War, Neosho established a symphony orchestra, a little theatre, and
even a Bach Society and a chamber music group. I do not recall a single incident
of racial, religious, or ethnic discrimination during my five years in the
Neosho Public Schools, even though, of course, there may have been some.
The fundamentalists did not run the town, as they had run both Cassville and
Rogers. And the schools, it seemed to me at the time, were far less under the
influence of organized religion than those in other areas in southern Missouri
and northern Arkansas.
I recall that my senior year in high school, the town financed a pre-Easter week
series of sermons at the Community Auditorium by the then Chaplain of the United
States Senate, Peter Marshall. And classes were to be dismissed on three
afternoons that week so that students could hear the Reverend Marshall speak.
A hundred or more students signed a petition of protest, supported by several
hundred parents in the community, arguing that the dismissal of classes
constituted a violation of the separation clause of the U.S. Constitution. The
Board of Education quickly capitulated and the lectures by Rev. Marshall were
rescheduled to a time after the school day had ended.
The Reverend Marshall, by the way, was a superb speaker whose "sermons" were
more lectures than sermons. On one night of his visit I was invited, as
president of some high school organization, to the home of Doris Kinney,
secretary to the Superintendent of Schools, R.W. Anderson, to meet Rev. Marshall
and have buffet dinner with him.
I enjoyed that evening very much and recall the "sing along" held after dinner,
during which the Rev. Marshall played the piano while the group sang numerous
songs, including two he liked very much and played several times, "Marezy Doats,"
and "You Are My Sunshine."
When I resumed my schooling at Neosho Junior High School in August of l942, I
was quickly very much impressed with the quality of the school system. It was
certainly superior to the schools in Rogers. During the next five years I
considered myself highly fortunate to enjoy good teachers and a fascinating
group of fellow students. The city was proud of its educational system and
boasted it had never turned down a school bond or a serious request for
financing on the part of the schools.
The war brought children from all over the country to Neosho, and I found myself
in classes both with students born and raised in the local culture, but students
from many places, from many racial, ethnic, religious, national and cultural
In Neosho during those years I attended classes with kids from England,
Scotland, Argentina, France, the Phillippines, Mexico, Canada, and Hawaii and
Guam. I became friends with American kids from New York City, Boston, Cleveland,
Philadelphia, Chicago, Atlanta, Richmond, Houston, Miami, Charleston, Phoenix,
Seattle, Portland, and Los Angeles.
Most of the friendships were of short duration, a few weeks, a semester, or
sometimes a year, but not often. We shared our complaints, and our frustrations
and angers over what the War was doing to each of us and our families. We
listened to the news together over the radio. And when big events were underway,
like the invasion of North Africa, or Sicily, or Italy, or Normandy on D-Day,
our Principal, Carson Barlow, would interrupt classes and play on the intercom
system the latest radio news programs.
We all participated in War Bond drives at school and in the community, bringing
our change to school to purchase War Savings Stamps. We all helped collect
"scrap metal" on certain days of the month, taking it to the waiting freight
cars at either the Frisco Railroad Station or the Kansas City Southern Railroad
We performed for soldiers at the USO and at the Canteen. I sang in our junior
high and high school choral groups at least once every three or four weeks
during the war at the USO. Our conductors, Doyle McKinney and Loren Williams,
would mix popular "war songs" with more traditional tunes.
I still remember those so-called "war songs," and the thrills I got out of
singing them and seeing and hearing "the boys of the Signal Corps" join in with
us on the second courses: "There'll be Bluebirds Over the White Cliffs of
Dover," "Coming In On A Wing and a Prayer," "Praise the Lord and Pass the
Ammunition," "Don't Fence Me In," "I Don't Want to Walk Without You Baby," "Ma,
I Miss Your Apple Pie," "Bless Them All," "I'll Be Seeing You," "We'll Meet
Again," "You'll Never Know," "Marzey Doats," "When the Lights Go On Again All
Over The World," "Somebody Else is Taking My Place," "Don't Sit Under The Apple
Tree," and "It's Been a Long Long Time."
We would always close our performances with a spirited rendition of "God Bless
America," or "America The Beautiful." I still get goose-bumps remembering those
emotional highs, and the expressions on the faces of those thousands of soldiers
who, over those several years, sang with our groups and applauded and smiled
their appreciation and affection. If there were one behavior we were taught
during the War, that was to be exceptionally nice and accommodating to our
servicemen. And we were, I should know, too much so in some cases.
My favorite place in Neosho was the Big Spring Park. I loved to spend my
afternoons there. I would leave the house with my book and tablet, go down those
one-hundred steps to the spring, cross the street to the Inn, and continue until
I reached the big Safeway Store on the other side of the Inn. There I would buy
the afternoon refreshments, usually a coke or chocolate milk, a candy bar or
two, and some cookies, and then go across the street to the park where I would
sit or lie down on a bench, or sometimes on the grass, and just have a wonderful
time reading, eating, looking, listening, and, more often than not, striking up
conversations with soldiers, townspeople, or other visitors.
I must have talked with a thousand soldiers in the park during the War. The
daytime soldiers were, of course, different from the nighttime group. Those who
were there at night were, more often than not, interested in having sex, even
with a teen age boy. They were almost desperate to get off, and since there was
a most limited supply of women, boys were just as much in demand. Most of them
wanted a quick blowjob, or two, and then they'd be all right for awhile.
The daytime soldiers were infinitely more interesting I came to believe, than
the night group. They were probably every bit as horny as their nighttime
counterparts, but they also wanted close companionship, for at least a short
time. They wanted to talk, and to be listened to. They wanted to relate, and to
bond with someone, if only for awhile.
They wanted to sit by those beautiful springs and tell me what they wanted in
life, what life in the army was really like, what they enjoyed and what they
missed, what they feared, and what they planned to do when the War was over.
Whatever partner I had serendipitously met that day, and I, would talk and then
wander over to the Safeway for some more cookies and coke, and then go back to
the Park for some more talk.
They almost always wanted to have sex, but their desires were sublimated because
there was no way to do it during the daytime, except to go to the public
restroom. Once in a while I would invite a guy I really liked up to the house,
especially if Bess were gone, which she often was, and we would do something
together that didn't take very long. And the guy was always so grateful and
pleased, and often worried that what had happened might upset me. Of course, the
fact that he was only eighteen, and I was only a few years younger, didn't seem
to make much difference. He wore a uniform, and I didn't.
At nighttime, there were any number of places to go for quick sex in that
spacious and dimly lighted park. One could go into one of the several caves, up
the steep hills, behind the many trees and bushes, to the unlighted corners, or,
often, could just sit on the benches and do it. Nobody in that small community
was about to criticize "a soldier boy" for getting off.
The weekend night scenes were enough to send any fundamentalist into madness.
That Park was a virtual brothel, especially after ten at night. One found
other-sex sex, same-sex sex, single sex sex. And not once during four years did
I ever see either civilian or military police "patrolling" the park, muchless
arresting anybody. There seemed to be an agreed upon value related behavior at
the time that the soldiers were putting their lives on the line and should be
allowed, therefore, whatever latitude was necessary to engage in whatever sex
they wanted to engage in, provided it did not entail the use of force. There was
only one enemy, we believed, and that enemy was Germany, not having sex with
Many of my friends in junior and senior high school spoke privately of having
had sex with one or several soldiers, and the older we got the greater the
frequency. For instance, friend Price Landis and I used to keep confidential
score on the experiences we enjoyed with soldiers. Our experiences doubled from
our eighth grade year to our ninth, and doubled again to our tenth, or sophomore
year. And by our junior year we were booked solidly.
All this I fully justified as my valuable contribution to the war effort, much
like the "accommodating girls" in Stage Door Canteen and other such movies.
Those of us who "gave our all" could be proud of our small, sometimes large,
contributions to the war effort, far more important, Price Landis and I agreed,
than buying war stamps and collecting scrap metal, newspapers, and old bars of
soap and fats, or like singing at the USO or the Canteen.
The poet, Anne Sexton, put it well in her signature poem, "Her Kind."
"I have gone out, a possessed witch,
Haunting the black air, braver at night;
Dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
Over the plain houses, light by light."
Words are a great trap, of course, but through them I recall from memory my
highly peripheral but enjoyable tiny role in keeping up the morale of our
servicemen during World War II. I was not a whore, just a cute little teenager
learning to enjoy sexually servicing others and being serviced in return, amazed
at both the number of partners such behavior attracted, not to mention their
incredible, if momentary, ecstasy and gratitude.
I did enjoy a lot of nonsexual experiences in Big Spring Park during my years
there as tour guide. One afternoon in the spring of l943 I was sitting near the
springs reading and munching my Snickers bar, and a bicyclist stopped and
started a conversation with me about the springs and the park and Neosho. He was
a funny looking older man, in his late fifties he said, with sparse hair that
stood straight up on his head, a very slender face, strong and muscular legs,
and the most compelling eyes imaginable, quite blue and quite irresistable.
Some eyes one tries to avoid while talking. These eyes I simply loved to talk
to. The older man and I spent much of that afternoon chatting away, relishing
He was from Australia, he said, and had lived in this country for a number of
years. He was then currently in Springfield, seventy miles away, helping with a
fledgling Springfield Symphony orchestra. And he loved both to walk and bicycle
long distances. During the two days prior to his arrival in Neosho, he had
walked and bicycled from Springfield to Neosho.
He loved the park and the city, and we talked about creek banks and creeks and
fish and bubbling water. And when he asked if I would show him "My Secret
Creek," the two of us got on his bicycle and he peddled across town to the Fish
Hatchery and beyond that to Hickory Creek. There I showed him my very private
and secret creek, which, on that lovely and memorable day was as pretty as it
The two of us sat on banks of the creek where I liked to sit and write my own
poetry and songs. He said he was a musician, and I told him about my mother and
even sang some songs she used to play on piano. He smiled and said he had
written some music himself. I thought of Pinky Tomlin, of course, and told him
about that great time. And I asked him if he could hum or whistle or sing some
of his songs, and so he did.
"What is your most famous song," I asked him. And he whistled and then hummed a
song I recognized from my playing the clarinet and saxophone in Loren Williams'
orchestra. The song was "Country Gardens," and I suddenly realized that I had
spent the afternoon on Hickory Creek with Percy Aldridge Grainger.
I got the shakes as Mr. Grainger I boarded his bicycle and headed back to the
park. I took him to the Safeway Store, where he bought us some cookies and
chocolate milk, and we went back to our bench at the park and had a final love
feast together, munching cookies and talking about Australia and composing music
and poetry. And I read him a poem I had just recently completed.
Before he peddled off into the late afternoon, for a destination even he didn't
know, he embraced me fondly and assured me that the afternoon had been one of
the nicest he had ever spent. I was so moved I cried.
A few days later I received a very sweet and thoughtful thank you note from
Percy Grainger. He spoke longingly and affectionately of the beautiful park and
the peaceful place on Hickory Creek, "which has so inspired you to write and
compose." He thanked me for "abandoning your writing for one afternoon to endure
an aging musician." And he suggested that I urge my mother to "start playing the
He ended his letter this way: "And now you know my "country garden," and I know
yours. We are both fortunate, aren't we. Affectionately, Percy Grainger"
When I told my family that night about my experiences, I got a "Vic and Sade"
hmmmm and ho-hum. But when the letter arrived, and I showed that moving message
from Percy Aldridge Grainger to my Mother Bess, she was both startled and
embarrassed and ashamed that she had thought I had made up the story of meeting
the great composer in the park.
Then she read the letter, and with tears in her eyes, she hugged me and said,
"I'm so proud of you. I don't know what made you so beautiful and so
irresistible to strangers." And then she tacked on a slightly miffed
after-thought, "You invite dozens of people to the house, so why didn't you
invite Percy Grainger?" My father's response, later that evening, was, "Yes, I
remember we used to play one of his songs in orchestra." And my sister Patti's
response was, "Who's he?"
I adored my teachers at Neosho High School. There were two groups of faculty,
the Old Guard and the Nouveaus.
Old Guard faculty had been teaching in the system for endless numbers of years.
Effie Neil taught math; Lela Shannon taught English; Ada Hancock taught
"business studies" (typing, bookkeeping, shorthand); Priscilla Bradford taught
world history and government; Darlene Harpole was the librarian; Bessie Meador
All were single, or "old maids," the then current and unintentionally pejorative
label. Their average age was at least sixty, and Miss Harpole was closer to
seventy. They dressed like they had in the late l920s or early l930s. And all of
them lived within a block of each other on McHenry Street.
What with wartime restrictions on travel and gasoline, they all agreed to a car
pool to and from school, a distance of no more than a mile. Miss Harpole's car
was the one chosen, a l934 dark blue Chevrolet "touring sedan" that probably had
five thousand miles on it at the most. The fartherest away it had been driven,
she bragged, was to Joplin.
What a charming sight it was, at eight in the morning, to see the six of them
arrive at the parking lot adjacent to the junior and senior high schools,
dismount, help Miss Harpole place her car cover over the machine, and then enter
the building to ready themselves for their eight-thirty home rooms and classes.
Their eccentricities ended, however, once classes began.
Effie Neil was a brilliant math teacher, making me enjoy a subject I otherwise
detested. Lela Shannon knew literature like no other high school teacher I ever
met, and she made its study fascinating for every student, reading poems she
loved, and then leading group discussions on them.
Lela was the first person to encourage me to write, suggesting I write something
and let her look it over. As a first attempt, I staggered her with a forty page
short story about a boy who was kidnaped by four older men, if you can believe
that, and subjected to all sorts of "tortures and humiliations." Lela's written
comments were extensive. She patiently and kindly went through each of those
poorly typed forty pages. Her oral comment was, "Oh, my dear, it was such a
Miss Shannon used to alert the class that the period was about to end by
suggesting, "In five minutes now the Gong is going to sound." All of us assumed
that at one point in her career, "gongs," rather than bells, were used to end
classes, though nobody I ever talked to in Neosho had ever heard a "gong," in
school or out.
Priscilla Bradford's courses in world history were splendidly researched and
prepared. (She taught at Southwest Missouri State College during the summers.)
She encouraged me to "read history," which I did, mostly biography.
Bessie Meador's courses in American history and government were among the most
interesting history courses I ever took. She would reenact incidents in
Americana. She would, for instance, play the role of Andrew Jackson in a fantasy
duel with John C. Calhoun, loading her pistol, walking ten paces to the door,
turning around quickly and blasting away at the scoundrel.
Miss Meador's greatest role, perhaps, was that of Benjamin Franklin "tut-tuting"
at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in l787. Bessie's "tut-tuts"
were known throughout Neosho and Newton County. Bessie's examinations consisted
of one-hundred questions asked orally of the class over a fifty minute period.
Each question could be answered either true or false, or with a name, a year, a
place, an event.
Those examinations were predecessors of television game shows. After she had
"corrected" each examination, she would announce the results to the entire
class, writing on the blackboard the names of the "top ten" students and their
scores. Usually Price Landis, Tirzah Epperson, Carroll Mace, Betty Embrey and I
would compete for first, second and third places, a singular honor because the
top three got to have lunch with Miss Meador.
The Nouveau faculty consisted mostly of those instructors who had come to Neosho
as a result of the war. Madelaine Petain was my Latin teacher and French
teacher. She was French, born in the south of France, who had married an
American Army Captain, and moved to this country in the mid-l930s. She used her
maiden name. She was magnificent, if harsh and demanding. I took two semesters
of French and two years of Latin with her.
My favorite faculty members were Doyle McKinney who taught choral music and
courses in speech and theatre, and Loren Williams, who taught instrumental
music, band and orchestra. From Loren I took clarinet and saxophone lessons,
and, of course, played in both junior high and high school orchestras and bands
he conducted. He introduced me to some delightful and enduring orchestral music.
During my junior and senior years Loren asked me to play in a small dance band
he put together to play at weekend school parties. My clarinet playing left much
to be desired, but in swing and jazz combo music where I didn't have to worry
about "reading" music, I was pretty good. Loren used to suggest that I sounded
better when I played without the reed, especially when I played the saxophone.
Doyle McKinney and I were friends from the moment we met. I signed on as a tenor
for the high school chorus, and Doyle was the conductor, and a very good one at
that. The two of us became friends in l945, a friendship which lasted almost
Doyle was a handsome and engaging man of twenty-four when I met him, having just
finished his degree after two years off to work in USO entertainment units
during the war. He was single, and, as I quickly learned, he was gay.
Only once did the two of us engage in sex, and that was the night of my
graduation from high school. But during the two years of high school I knew him
and worked with him, we talked almost daily about being gay, about good looking
students at school, and about his frequent experiences with the Camp Crowder
soldiers, as well as mine.
Doyle's course in "speech" emphasized voice and diction. He dedicated himself to
eliminating my Ozark quasi-southern dialect, including a certain nasality or
twang, the dropping "ing" from verbs, and so forth. I hardly needed the efforts
he put into giving me a "standard dialect," but thanks in part to his efforts, I
sounded "midwestern American" by the time I left high school.
I also played at "debating" in high school, won the local American Legion
Oratorical Contest, and became class president and student body president,
editor of the high school paper, and high school reporter for the local daily
newspaper, The Neosho Daily Democrat, later (l95l) The Neosho Daily News.
I wrote a weekly column, published on Saturdays, covering news and events at the
high school. And I even wrote sports reports after basketball games for both
Wednesdays and Saturdays papers, describing the games in some detail. Since I
knew absolutely nothing about basketball, this was a singular achievement. In
truth, I quickly discovered that you don't have to know the game to report it.
Great and profound influences on my life during my years in junior and senior
high school were the Mace brothers, Carroll Edward and Dean Tolle Mace. They
were sons of Colonel Rector Mace and his wife Bea, natives of Neosho.
Rector Mace had been in the Missouri National Guard for years. In l94l his Field
Artillery Unit was activated, merged with the U.S. Army, and Rector became a
Colonel in the U.S. Army. He served throughout World War II, in the European
theatre of war, and he and his combat units were involved in the invasion of
Europe in l944 and the liberation of Europe in l945.
Rector Mace appeared to be the most unlikely military officer I could imagine.
Gentle, kind, concerned, caring, loving, sensitive, "Uncle Rector," as we called
him, was quite the opposite of one's expectations of the commanding officer type
who would fight wars and engage in violent combat.
Rector was adored by the men he led. Christmas, l946, he received hundreds of
cards and notes from his ex-army buddies. After the war was over and his
distinguished military career at an end, he returned to his former job, that of
a window clerk at the United States Post Office in Neosho.
"Aunt Bea" was a proud and lovely lady, bright and witty, overly neurotic and a
hypochondriac who disseminated both her neuroses and psychoses in abundant
quantities to her growing boys.
Carroll and Dean were extraordinarily intelligent, at least MENSA level if not
more. They were among the most interesting people in my life, and each had
enormous influence on my life. They had intelligence, knowledge, wit, an
adventurous spirit, abundant curiosity, and superb and charming verbal fluency.
There was never a dull moment spent with either of them.
Carroll and I were in the same grade, even though he was two years older. I had
skipped a grade, and he had missed a year due to illness and travel. Dean was
five years older than Carroll.
Carroll and I were close friends from the first classes we had together in the
fall of l942. He was a brilliant colleague, well-read, witty, and filled with
knowledge of literature, music and art, history and lots and lots of trivia.
Carroll played both piano and organ, and he was, even in high school, a good
It did not take the two of us very long at all to discover each of us was gay.
We were never physically attracted to one another, but intellectually and
emotionally we were in love with each other from almost the beginning of our
long relationship. We became the closest of friends, and had really nothing but
wonderful times in junior and senior high school both in and out of school.
Together we developed a critical, satirical sense of humor about ourselves and
the outside world. Together we sharpened our sensory processes, our cognitive
world, our immediate and intuitive recognition and appreciation of irony and
paradox, as well as our perceptual abilities.
We became a two person demolition team. There was no pomposity, no
pretentiousness, no hypocrisy, no counterfeit, no deception, no phoniness that
Carroll and I could not, and did not, expose and blast to smithereens through
labeling and making fun of it, and through absurd and gross exaggeration.
We would often send people fleeing and/or put them to tears as a result of our
sometimes cruel mocking and sardonic wit. Sensing pretentiousness or phoniness,
with one approving glance at each other, we would go into action. We would clamp
our teeth together, say "hmmmmmm," and begin the humiliation process. This was
our own, slightly cruel Algonquin Roundtable of two, and we never ceased to
enjoy it, whether at parties, football or basketball games, dances, school
assemblies, or even in class.
At school, we would plan ahead to ask Effie Neil or Lela Shannon or Bessie
Meador, a series of questions which, inevitably, would expose inconsistency or
inaccuracy of thought and expression. Once Bessie Meador fled the room in anger
and frustration, unable in a withering crossfire to differentiate, to our
satisfaction, between the "Know Nothings" and the "Anti-Masons." And we
frequently held the feet of Lela Shannon to the cross-fire over her
interpretations of works of literature, like Gulliver's Travels, "Lines Written
Above..., The Wizard of Oz, and other works.
With Lela the situation reached the point where she would carefully look at the
two of us out of the corner of her eyes while reaching a conclusion about a work
or a writer, faltering if she sensed critical rejection, smiling and moving fast
ahead if she caught nodding approvals.
The stories excited him greatly, but rarely enough "to go forth and do
likewise." After my adventures with Lon McCallister, for instance, he was
aroused for a week, even to the point of hinting to Jimmy Bishop, next door
neighbor stud, that the two of then might enjoy doing it together. But when Jim
said okay, Carroll quickly withdrew.
He kept a platonic relationship with Elizabeth Oder, whom he "dated" weekly.
Even in college, this behavior persisted. I can recall only half-a-dozen
incidents in which Carroll permitted himself the pleasure of same-sex sex. The
two of us had some adventures in nearby Granby, which I want to talk about
later, while in high school. And in college, where we were roommates, he had at
least four affairs, a longer one with Ted Heinze, who operated the student
union, and briefer affairs with fraternity members Paul Davis and Leonard Pronko,
and a fellow Spanish major whose name I forget.
In each case he punished himself severely for his transgressions. Carroll
eventually converted to Catholicism, as he wrote me, "so that I can go to
confession daily." Even years later, as a university professor in New Orleans,
he continued the ritual--sex and confession, sex and confession.
I virtually got a college degree from Dean Mace in one year. Dean was a pianist,
a composer, a lover of music, a student of English literature, philosophy,
history, and art. He loved to teach, and I was his "seminar." He held what he
called "soirees " for the two of us, and occasionally Carroll. There were
literary soirees and musical soirees, and art soirees.
Most important to me were Dean's adventures in good music. Up to l946, I had
very little knowledge of classical music. From Dean I learned of and listened to
the music of every serious composer from Bach to Stravinsky. Dean would talk
about the composer, play recordings of the music he wanted to share with me,
and, often, sit at the piano and play passages from compositions by the
composer, talking about the works as he played them.
Dean was, himself, a composer and loved to play from his own compositions, two
of which were performed by the St. Louis Symphony, Vladimir Golschman
conducting. I recall the first composition he played for me, "Sonantine
Transatlantique," by Alexander Tansman, and how thrilled I was both to hear it
and to have it played just for me.
Dean was obsessed with 20th Century composers, Stravinsky, Ravel, DeBussy,
Schoenberg, Copland, Poulenc and Milhaud, to name a few. And soon I was in love
with both Maurice Ravel and Claude DeBussy. Dean introduced me to Ravel's
complete Orchestral Works, including "Ma Mere l'Oye," "Daphnis and Chloe," "La
Valse," "Bolero," "Pavane pour une infante defunte," "Le Tombeau de Couperin."
I first heard Debussy's "Nocturnes," "Apres Midi du Faun," and "La Mer," when
Dean played them all on the piano, and then played for me recordings of the same
by Horowitz and Rubenstein. He was especially fond of a composition titled, "Le
plus que lent," and I will always associate that piece and the "Nocturnes," in
memory, with both Dean and my afternoons on Hickory Creek, especially the
I heard Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" and "Petrushka" so often I almost knew the
scores. And Dean taught me how to read scores and conduct, using both works,
plus Gershwin's "Rhapsody."
Through dear Dean, I became acquainted for the first time with many of the other
important composers and their composition: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahams,
Schubert, Rachmaninoff, Vivaldi and Mahler.
Dean introduced me to literature and writers I had never read. He talked about
Wilde, Proust, Gide, Eliot, Shaw, Wolf, Mann, Sartre, and the New Yorker writers
and cartoonists, Thurber, White, Steig, Arno, Price, Wolcott, Benchley, Parker,
and Addams. And after the "talks" Dean always read to me from their writings.
What bliss! My world was never the same!
Dean had been quite active sexually during his years in the Army, and he
remembered almost every gay friend and gay experience, including an experience
that almost cost him and several other gay soldiers their careers. At Fort Ord
an investigation had been conducted into the "homosexual conduct of certain
enlisted men," and Dean was one of those whose sexual conduct was extensively
A report prepared for a ranking officer detailed his "homosexual experiences,"
as well as those of fifteen other soldiers both on base and in nearby bars.
In a daring move, the sixteen conspired to steal all of the documents the week
before a hearing was to take place, even though they were under house arrest.
They were released, and eventually a new commanding officer decided not to order
a second investigation, and the matters were dropped.
The apparent head of the gay group was a person named Marcus who was called "The
Madame" by group members. "Marcus The Madame" was the group member who
"blackmailed" the files from an officer of the investigation unit and burned
them. Members of the gay group were forever grateful to "The Madame," as well
they should have been. And Dean was free, his life and career no longer
Dean was sexually active at Washington University after the war, and at Columbia
as well. In Neosho, in spite of his off-again-on-again illness, he longed for
male bonding and gay sex.
In Joplin in l946 and l947, my friend Lacey was still at the Connor Hotel, and
had established a lover relationship with an older man, fifty-five at the time,
named Dr. Milton Newman Bunker, who was an analyst of handwriting, a
graphologist who had written extensively on the subject, both books and
Milton Bunker, who had played an important role for the prosecution in the
famous Lindbergh kidnaping case in the mid l930s, had brought his Institute for
Graphoanalysis to Joplin right after the war, for reasons I never knew. The
Institute made its services available to law enforcement agencies, and gave
courses in graphology at their Joplin headquarters, by correspondence, and
through week long "seminars" Dr. Bunker taught in a number of major American
As a result of years of labor, Bunker was wealthy. He bought a beautiful home in
Joplin, and, after having met Lacey at the Connor Roof, invited him to preside
over the most expensive house in Joplin. Lacey was a magnificent host, or
hostess, and had grand parties, especially when Milton was out of town.
Lacey had not abandoned his gay serial sex life which he had so enjoyed and
profited from in Joplin during the War years. Even with the loss of sixty or
seventy thousand clients from Camp Crowder in l946, he managed to keep busy with
tricks and lovers, as well as with Dr. Bunker and his office staff of hunks.
I had spoken at length to Dean Mace about the exotic and irresistible Lacey and
his friends and clients, and had even reported in detail of my grand experience
with Lon MacCallister. I had also spoken to Lacey about Dean.
A month after Dean arrived in Neosho, we got an invitation to come to Joplin,
and party with Lacey and a few of his friends at the elegant Bunker home. Dr. B.
had gone to Los Angeles for the week.
Dean drove us to Joplin, and there he met the person he ever after referred to
as "The Madame." He and Lacey immediately fell in love with each other, and
Lacey provided the recovering Dean with all the sex he was to need for the next
"I feel like Mehitabel the Cat," Dean confessed after one of his frequent
soirees de sex with The Madame. "But he has far more curative powers than the
waters at Lourdes, not to mention the mountebank physicians who urged me to
How fascinating it was to observe the romance between the gorgeous and sexy high
school dropout who liked Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, and the graduate student
of Carl VanDoren who wrote and performed classical music and send his music to
Golschman for criticism. Le Coeur a ses raisons, and both Lacey and Dean,
oblivious of the educational and cultural gaps, continued to have their
satisfying affairs, sometimes several times a week.
Dean taught Lacey to sing the "off-color" songs of Mae West and Pearl Bailey,
e.g., "I don't want no genius for a husband," "I Like a Man What Takes His
Time," and "The Elevator Song." And Lacey taught Dean how to jitterbug, "a fair
exchange indeed," Dean concluded.
After evenings with Dean, I used to go home and write all I could remember of
what he said and what I heard in my notebook. I have a hundred pages of what I
called then "DM's"
Most of them are hopelessly vapid and out-of-date today, fifty years later. But
a very few aren't: "Carroll works twenty-four hours a day at being entirely
inscrutable." "Nous n'avons pas dire quand nous sommes avec l'autre." "Normalcy,
simply put, is the ability to adjust, nothing more, nothing less." "The true
intellectual must be honest about what he doesn't know." "Potentiality means
nothing; it's what you do that matters." "You can trust friends implicitly in
everything but sex and love." "Poor mother; she gets more joy out of being
unhappy than anyone I know." "The silliest thing in the world is having a
problem nobody else cares about." Anyone who wants the world to feel sorry for
him and his petty problem is a fool. Nobody will, and even he shouldn't."
"Epicureans can expect no sympathy from anybody." "I like small towns; I just
like big towns better." "There are at least two ways of doing things, and most
people inevitably choose the wrong one and then blame others for their choice."
"My mother's enjoying bad health again." And, "Russel, no matter what, my dear,
you should always wear blue."
Dean was a marvelous story teller. His maternal grandmother, May North, had lost
her husband when she was in her fifties. In Neosho older alone people were not
supposed to engage in romance, muchless sex. Grandmother May, true to the
family, had numerous boyfriends, frequently upsetting family and neighbors.
On one occasion a runaway truck crashed through the front of her house into her
bedroom, injuring her then boyfriend with whom she was sharing the bed. The
Neosho Daily Democrat carried the photo and the story. Grandma North loved it;
the family didn't.
Grandmother May North finally settled down with Fred Snow, a local handyman, and
had a long and happy romantic and sexual relationship with him, which she loved
to talk about to visitors.
Dean inevitably concluded his series of stories about his Grandmother May by
recalling what she had said to the family about her relationship with Fred Snow:
"I find great pleasure in experiencing six inches of Snow in the middle of May!"
The night before Dean left in August, l947, to résumé his studies in New York,
he read to me from a novel by Graham Greene, The Third Man. In a swift,
malevolently nonchalant speech, Harry Lime, the anti-hero, repels his
antagonist's appeal to "Goodness."
Dean read me the passage: "Remember what the fellow said. In Italy for three
hundred years, under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and
bloodshed. But they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the
Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love and five hundred years of
democracy and peace. And what did they produce? The cuckoo clock!"
What Dean didn't remember was that Switzerland also produced Jacob Burckhardt
who made the Renaissance. He established an orthodoxy and revolutionized the
writing of history with one book, The Civilization of the Renaissance In Italy.
But that's all right. Dean just couldn't be right all of the time, nor could
Harry Lime. As Dean used to say, "We must learn to forgive, mustn't we, but only
after we get even."
Dean and I continued our friendship for years. He finished his Ph.D. at Columbia
under Van Doren and took a position as assistant professor at Vassar. He
remained at Vassar the rest of his life, well over forty years. He achieved
distinction as a teacher and a writer.
In the l950s he married a young lady from the Philadelphia Main Line (336 Penn
Road, Lynnewood, Pennsylvania) named Mary Ann Fitzhugh, and, presumably, gave up
the gay life. He never again spoke to me of gay persons or gay experiences. "I
have to make a choice," he told me, "And the straight life promises the best
life for me. From now on, I have no past."
Dean and Mary Ann had one child, a boy named Thomas, who became an organ
repairer and restorer. Although we continued to see each other for twenty or
more years, including my early years in New York City, true to his vow, Dean
never spoke to me again of "gay persons and experiences." But I could draw only
one conclusion from the fact that Dean was a "frequent weekend visitor to
Manhattan." He had either a lover, or tricks, and had not, as he promised, led
"the straight life."
My personal hurt at the termination of the friendship with Dean was tempered by
remembrances of that splendid year with him and his significant contributions to
I have long believed that fate should reward every bright and eager young mind
and soul with a Dean Mace to spend a year with, so that he might be introduced
to the beautiful and good in life he might otherwise have missed, and be given
direction, purpose and motivation. I was so blessed, and I have always tried to
do for as many others as possible that which Dean did for me. A life enriched in
such a manner has to be infinitely more splendid than it would have otherwise
have been. And isn't that what it's all about?
My first job in life was at the Hugh Gardner Theatres in Neosho, as usher,
popcorn-maker, and ticket-taker at the three movie houses he owned.
There was the large Orpheum Theatre, just a few doors off the square, which
featured first-run "A" features. There was the Carmar Theatre (named after his
daughters Carolyn and Marilyn), which showed "B" and worse films. And there was
the Photosho, which showed all reruns. The Orpheum seated five-hundred and had a
spacious balcony; The CarMar seated half that number; the Photosho less than two
The manager of the three theatres was Harley Fryer, from Kansas City, a son in
law who had managed in the Fox Theatre chain for several years, and Mr. Fryer
was an efficiency nut. Everything ran on time, or else.
He hired me when I was just fourteen, because he knew my father and because he
was desperate for help. He dressed me in an oversized uniform, probably meant
for a six footer who weighed one-hundred eighty pounds, rather than a kid who
weighed a hundred and thirty. The uniform was a blue one with gold braids, and I
looked cute and sexy in it.
I received the hour long training lesson from Mr. Fryer on how to use the
flashlight to escort people to their seats; where to seat them; how to turn on
and off the air-conditioner and furnace; what to do in emergencies; how to
receive tickets at the ticket-taker box and how to tear them in half with one
hand and say "thank you; enjoy the movie;" and, most importantly, how to make
popcorn and sell cokes and candy bars, without eating away all the profits,
especially on slow afternoons.
For my work I received the total of thirty-five cents an hour, and since I
worked twenty hours each week, that meant each Saturday Mr. Fryer personally
delivered me a little envelope with seven dollars in cash sealed inside, no
deductions for anything.
Shortly after I began working at the movie theatres, Carroll Mace also began
working there, thus doubling the fun for both of us. We had hundreds of people
to impersonate and make fun of, including manager Fryer and the Orpheum ticket
seller, Mildred. Often at the end of our work days, Carroll and I would sit in
the lounge at the Orpheum, compare stories, and giggle for an hour.
Both Carroll and I worked at all three theatres during the week, and when Harley
Fryer distributed our pay on Saturdays, he also gave us our work schedule for
the next week beginning on Sunday. Carroll and I used that schedule to draw
judgments about the judgments Harley Fryer had drawn about our work. Whoever got
the most hours the following week at the Orpheum was the one Harley thought most
of that week.
Each movie house was open from one in the afternoon until eleven or twelve at
night, showing each feature five times each day.
During the school year I worked Friday evenings, Saturdays and Sundays from noon
to five, and usually one evening during the week, six to eleven. During the
summers, I worked more hours during the week, often at matinees.
At the theatres, I ushered, took tickets, swept out the lobby and aisles, and,
during the afternoons, made and sold popcorn. I also spent an inordinate amount
of time talking to people, watching movies, and eating. I surely saw every movie
Hollywood produced from l944 to the autumn of l947 when I began college and
terminated my employment. (I did continue working for Mr. Fryer both the summers
of l948 and l949 while on vacation from school.)
Since the Orpheum showed four features each week, and the CarMar showed three,
that meant, I calculated, I saw at least a thousand movies during my high school
years, incredible as it may seem, and many of them I saw more than once.
I could quote the dialogue from Weekend At the Walford, Mrs. Parkington, Old
Acquaintances, Johnny O'Clock, Murder My Sweet, Life With Father, The Thin Man
Goes Home, The Razor's Edge, Laura, Leave Her To Heaven, Love Letters, Duel In
The Sun, Body and Soul, Gentleman's Agreement, Meet Me In St. Louis, The Third
Man, The Harvey Girls, The Fugitive, The Ox-Bow Incident, Hello Frisco Hello,
Golden Earrings, Follow The Boys, Gaslight, The Gang's All Here, The
Fountainhead, Keeper of the Flame, The Late George Apley, The Egg and I, Going
My Way, The Bells of St. Mary's, Mr. Skeffington, The Corn is Green, Easter
Parade, Double Indemnity, All My Sons, Sitting Pretty, Three Coins in the
Fountain, George Washington Slept Here, State Fair, Mr. Blandings Builds His
Dream House, Fort Apache, and ever so many more.
My popcorn was sensational. I triple-dosed the amount of oil required and put on
lots of butter. Audiences lined up for seconds. Audiences lined up just to go to
the movies. During the war years almost every showing was sold out, and I always
felt very sorry for the soldiers who had waited in line for so long only to be
denied a seat. I would, when I could, let them in to stand up on the balcony or
sit up there in the aisles.
I used to let my friend, Tommy Cook, from Rogers, into the projection booth at
the Orpheum when he couldn't get a seat elsewhere. He was apt to run across the
projectionist, Ed, screwing some girl he had picked up somewhere, but Tommy
didn't seem to mind, just so long as he could see the movie he wanted to see.
Occasionally, a horny Ed without a woman would suck Tommy's dick, "a small price
to pay to see a movie," Tommy reported. Actually, there was frequent sex at all
three theatres, especially at the late night shows, and during the non-summer
months when patrons could use their coats to cover their sexual deeds. Harley
Fryer wanted us to inform him when such "indecent acts" took place, but neither
I nor any of the other ushers ever did.
Carroll and I kept count of the number of sexual incidents we observed in those
dark theatres over a month's period in l945, and the count was well over
one-hundred. Mrs. A.C. McGinty, wife of the owner of Neosho's leading department
store, and keeper of the community conscience, spoke to Mr. Fryer several times
about "naughty behavior at the theatres." But nothing ever came of it, and she
returned to staging the May Day festival at Big Spring Park, during which
children "wound" dozens of "Maypoles," sponsoring the early June Strawberry
Festival, and notifying the local newspaper of the arrival of the first robin of
spring. Spring was not possible until Mrs. McGinty had authorized and sanctioned
In addition to Carroll Mace, my other friend who worked at the theatres with us
during those years was George James. George and I would work the same hours at
different theatres, and then we would buy us a huge milk shake and a hamburger
from one of the food joints around the square, and go either to the Park, or to
the Creek, and enjoy a well deserved after work late night treat.
George and I became quite fond of each other and frequently used these occasions
to engage in a few minutes of exciting sex, nothing srious, usually mutual
handjobs and/or blowjobs.
I had a little friend named Paul Tennis, who was just gorgeous, who hung around
the Orpheum when I worked late at night talking to me. Both George and I liked
him very much. On occasion we would invite Paul to go with us to the Park, and
one night George gave him his very first handjob orgasm. Paul's reaction: "Wow!"
After that Paul was a frequent companion of ours and into everything George and
I were into.
When George invited his close friend, Gary Morris, son of the head of the Pet
Milk Company, also to join us for our after theatre parties, we changed our
location to a garage apartment at George's home on Hickory Street, which his
parents leased to transient night workers at Crowder. It was always available
late at night. And the four of us for a few months enjoyed hamburgers and sex
My one other memory of working at the Orpheum has to do with Harley Fryer
himself. When Harley came to Neosho to take over Hugh Gardner's movie houses he
brought with him a woman named Mildred Pierce (honestly!). Mildred was
bookkeeper by daytime and ticket seller at the Orpheum by night. She was also,
it turned out, Harley's girlfriend and sexmate of many years, in spite of
Harley's marriage and handsome twin sons.
Mildred had an apartment on the third floor of the Orpheum building, but she and
Harley used to go to a spot backstage behind the screen for a quickie when
Harley got horney.
At some time during the evening, Harley would appear in the lobby and signal
Mildred of his need. A few minutes later, Mildred would ask me, or Carroll, to
sell tickets for a few minutes. She would then disappear down the aisle to the
back of the theatre. There she would meet Harley, and Mildred and Harley would
"just do it" for ten or fifteen minutes.
One summer evening at the Orpheum, while Mildred and Harley were getting ready
to "do it," or had just finished "doing it," an air conditioning hose flew loose
and sprayed, nay drenched, the silver screen during the nine o'clock showing of
Lassie Come Home. The stream of water was so powerful that the sprayed screen in
part collapsed, revealing behind the screen an utterly drenched Harley Fryer,
either beginning or finishing, and a wet and mortified Mildred, one knee on the
floor, the other in mid-air.
Harley recovered to announce to the fortunately small audience, "We almost got
drownded." "Yep," Mildred echoed, "almost got drownded." Exit left! It was quite
a night at the old Orpheum. A few customers even applauded. Fortunately, Mrs.
McGinty was home.
My other job in Neosho was that of driving Aunt Bess Robeson on her daily tasks,
especially on summer mornings. Aunt Bess had a huge l94l Cadillac, and, after I
learned to drive at age fourteen, she paid me to drive her around town to visit
her five buildings on the public square, (where her carpenters were always
engaged in repair and paint jobs), to go to the First National Bank of which she
was part owner, and to accompany her to the NewTown area of Neosho, largely
black, near the Frisco Railroad Depot, to collect rents from the tenants in six
of her houses there. For these tasks she paid me a dollar each travel morning,
and allowed me access to her fabulous library of old 78 rpm records which she
had begun in the mid-l920s.
Of course, I enjoyed greatly driving her Cadillac, even if I were not yet the
best driver she could have employed. I dearly loved Aunt Bess. She was slightly
hard of hearing and shouted at others, just as others had to shout back at her
to be heard. In spite of her business orientation, she was a good soul, and gave
generously of her time and money to friends and non-friends.
To those who worked for her, she was loud and bossy and domineering, but she was
a damned good business person who accumulated a fortune.
Aunt Bess was an absolute jewel to me. And I was, likewise, very good to her. I
would run errands for her night and day. She especially liked for me to pick up
phonograph records for her at the Ernie Williamson Music Company, which was
located next to the Orpheum Theatre. Mrs. Edmondson, the store manager and
another soul I adored, would save copies of records she thought Aunt Bess might
like, and I would look through the copies, play them in part, and then phone
Aunt Bess and describe what Mrs. Edmondson had for her that week. Aunt Bess
would quickly say "yes" or "no" and I would give Mrs. Edmondson the blank check
Aunt Bess had signed, and return home with the records.
Often Aunt Bess and I would sit for an hour and listen to them while we drank
lemonade, her favorite drink, or iced tea. At night she loved a glass of gin on
the rocks with a twist in it, and I learned how to make those for her, too, just
to her absolute satisfaction.
When the time came for me to go to college, Aunt Bess asked me how much money I
had saved and how much money I needed for my first year's expenses. I came back
the next day with the totals, all written down for her to see. A day later she
handed me her check for the difference, saying, "Now don't say I never did
anything for you, and don't tell a soul about this, or I'll never do it again."
During my years at college she always slipped me money when she thought I needed
it. And I was her driver and errand runner when I was home from college,
including the summers of l948, l949 and l950.
When she passed away in l956, I returned from Northwestern University where I
was doing graduate work to attend services for her and to abide by one of her
final requests, that I should "say something nice" about her. I said a lot of "somethings
nice" about dear Aunt Bess Robeson, who willed me all of her fabulous 78 rpm
recordings and a few hundred dollars, too.
Once the war had ended in the summer
of l945, the soldiers from Camp Crowder began to be discharged, and by the
spring of l946, Crowder had only a handfull of soldiers while much of its land
was being sold back at exceedingly cheap prices to local farmers.
All of us were so thankful and happy
as we engaged in our wild celebrations on that August day in l945 when the
Japanese surrendered, we didn't think of the changes that would soon take place
in our personal lives and in the life of the Neosho and Joplin communities, the
inevitable consequences of losing seventy thousand people from a small community
and returning to a prewar life and culture.
Strange how strongly I felt the
loss, and how strongly my mother and father also felt it. For years we had built
our lives around Camp Crowder and the presence of all those soldiers and their
wives and families. The park, the public square, the USO and Canteen,
Joplin--all had been at the center of my life and existence, an existence that
depended on soldiers to fuel its continual merry-go-round of social life,
pleasures and growth and change.
Change was the key to the war years,
and I grew up regarding change as the norm, not the exception. The status of the
war changed daily; friends arrived and left; soldiers became friends and then
disappeared to be replaced by more soldiers who departed. We had a different
automobile every week; we had different guests every weekend; the personnel in
my father's business changed constantly; my romantic and sexual life changed
constantly. Even the days and nights changed when we went on Daylight Savings
Time for the duration of the war.
But change is such a stimulant and
so addictive, that once it slows or ceases altogether, there occurs a conscious
and subconscious response that, in my case, caused both anxiety and depression
during my junior year in high school, l945--l946.
I went to my park, only to find
myself alone. As the USO shut down, my mother was home for the first time in
years most of the time. Father came home at night rather than going to meetings
of the War Price and Ration Board, or meeting with Russell Keeling to talk about
selling cars to servicemen.
Many wartime friends at school,
students and teachers, left to return to their homes throughout the country. The
three theatres in town became two, and then just one. The "military stores" left
the town square, as did the other stores and restaurants and offices and
services that had made their living from soldiers. "There's a War On," was no
longer an excuse or rationalization for people to do or not do what they wanted
to do or didn't want to do anyway.
Suddenly Price Landis and Betty
Embrey and Clinton Harrison and George James and Carroll Mace and Paul Tennis
and Gary Morris and I were all alone, abandoned by the outside world. No more
concerts at the USO; no more dates at Big Springs Park; no more cruising the
hotels at Joplin; no standing in line to check out books at the library.
I fought all that junior year in
high school to force myself to accept the fact that the glorious past would
never return, and that I had to build something new to replace it. I remember
seeing a movie called Tomorrow Is Forever, during my period of mourning and
recovery, in which Orson Welles plays the role of a man listed as dead in the
war, only to return with a new face to discover his wife had fallen in love with
someone else and remarried.
Somewhere in the film, Orson
delivered a speech which to me at the time seemed quite powerfully persuasive in
which he concluded, "The past, with all of its good, and bad, is gone. It can
never be recaptured or relived. We must, therefore, live for tomorrow. For
tomorrow is forever."