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By Ed Stout
In the summer before my 10th grade year, I became friends with Jerry. He often referred to himself in the third person as “The Jer.” As a result, we called him that as well. Jerry always, even after the Beatles hit, wore his hair in a crew cut. He wore black framed glasses. If you’ve seen a photo of Buddy Holly or an early Woody Allen movie, you know the kind he wore. Jerry was about six feet tall and extremely wiry.
In his novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey in discussing his main character, Randall P. McMurphy, wrote that no one wants to fight a crazy man. I’m not saying that “Jer” was crazy (as you read on-you can be the judge of that), but no one ever wanted to fight him. Known school yard bullies wouldn’t dare fight the Jer. That would have been far too risky.
Jer was smart, but not in the school sense (he was a “shop” major) and extremely quick witted. A group of us spent a lot of time hanging out at the Charles Loos School yard there on Wampler Avenue in Dayton. We were generally up to no good. We’d spend hours trying to figure out ways to acquire some beer or our most precious refreshment, Lawrence Screwdriver. At that time in Ohio, there were two kinds of beer: 3.2% and 6% alcohol. One could buy 3.2% at 18, but you had to be 21 to buy the 6% or the coveted Screwdriver.
Every once in a while, the word would spread that a local convenience store (they weren’t called that then) would be selling alcohol to anyone. So we’d pool our money and off we’d go. Even in those cases, Jerry, because he looked older, was the one we’d give the money to and he’d go in and buy the contraband. If the store was not in our neighborhood, that was a problem. None of us who hung around the school yard had a car. Most of us were too young to drive. Our friend, “Burglar Bob” did have a car, a blue ’55 Chevy, and he would usually take us. The rogue store usually wasn’t an option for very long. Word would get out and Dayton’s finest would put an end to the indiscriminate selling of alcohol. In that case, we’d have to find someone who was over 18 and willing to buy beer for a bunch of ne’er do wells, or someone with a fake ID.
In spite of these obstacles, we’d have firewater more often than one would think. Jerry was usually in charge of storing the beer and he’d usually put it in the creek that flowed through the woods behind Loos School. (Blatz, as I recall, was the preferred brew-but sometimes we’d be stuck with a Cincinnati beer like Burger.)There was an unwritten rule that one never drank during the day time. That would have been a sin, like killing a mockingbird. So the beer was in the creek at 70 degrees, rather than the outside temperature of 90 degrees. Suffice it is to say that we consumed some warm beer, sitting in the dark on the swings there at the Loos School yard.
Those swings were huge, probably twelve feet high. They were chain-link and had a U-shaped canvas seat. Late that summer, the Jer became fixated on those swings. One day he said, “I’m going to go over the top.” That is to say, he was going to swing so high that he would sail over the top bar of the swings. We all said he was crazy. But Jerry went about the business of achieving his goal. For a month or more, he was on those swings. He would swing so high it was scary. He’d say, “I’m going to do it.” When he got to the apex of his swing, he would push forward and one day he defied the laws of physics and went over the top. Except in doing so, it was not what he had envisioned. Instead of sailing in a circular fashion to the other side, he came crashing straight down. Chains were flying everywhere, as he landed on the ground. His black-rimmed glasses flew across the blacktop, his shirt and pants were torn and both knees were bloody. Jerry wanted to cry. Instead, he said, “I told you I could go over these mother …. .”
From the 8th until the beginning of the 10th grade, I had a paper route. It was a morning route and I delivered the Dayton Journal-Herald to 80 some customers. During the same summer we’re talking about, The Jer would sometimes be with me. That would usually happen when we’d stayed out all night. You know, one of those deals where he told his parents he was staying at my house and vice versa. You can bet that we were clearly up to no good when we stayed out all night. Sometimes there were young ladies involved, but I won’t go into that.
I would finish my route about 5:30. The route ended on North Main Street near a Sinclair service station (remember those?). At this station, there was a Coke machine with a lever on it. You put your dime in the machine, pushed the lever down, let up on it and a 6-3/4 ounce green bottle of Coke came out. Somehow Jerry discovered that he could let the lever handle down, not all the way, wait seven clicks and let up, a Coke would come out. Then he could do it again and again. Jerry could do this in perpetuity. I tried it but never could make it work. The Jer, on the other hand, was like a master safecracker, with his ear down to the lever, listening for those crucial seven clicks. Because we always got there before the station opened, we were free to fill up the blue and orange Journal-Herald saddle bags to the brim, and off we’d go on my Schwinn with the little cokes clinking all the way. We headed down to the creek to store our cargo. Like all good things, however, that bonanza came to a quick halt. One morning, I finished my route and there was a brand new Coke machine at the Sinclair station. This one had buttons. There was no way Jerry could crack it. Still, my bet is that if there are any of those lever machines left, Jerry could put his ear to the lever and come away with a bunch of free cokes.
As mentioned, the Sinclair station was located on North Main Street. About half a block south, there was a very special place: The Burger Chef. Even though it had been at that location for 3 years or so, it was still special. It was the first fast food place we had ever seen. That seems odd to say in this day and age, with a fast food place on every corner. But back then, it was indeed unique. You just went up to the counter, put your 40cents down and presto! You got a burger, French fries and a Coke. It was like magic.
The Burger Chef was in the immediate vicinity of the Loos School yard. As a result, we spent a good bit of time there. We loved those fries and viewed them as community property. By that I mean if one person ponied up the 15 cents for a pack of fries, then everyone could have a fry or two or three. Jerry, when he laid out the 15cents, didn’t like the communal fries notion and vowed to put an end to it. The Jer had a partial dental plate because he had lost one of his upper canine teeth. It occurred to him that no one would want any of his fries if they had had contact with the partial plate. So when he ordered fries, he would get a larger “to go” bag along with them. He then immediately dumped the fries from the small bag into the larger bag. He’d take out his partial plate and put it in the bag as well. Then he’d shake it all up and say, “Want some fries, boys?” Of course, no one did. I can still see him with a missing tooth grin, holding that bag up to his ear and shaking the bag’s improbable contents.
Somehow during the last couple of years of high school, I lost contact with Jerry. I did take up with him briefly in the summer after I graduated. Jerry had acquired a red Whizzer motorbike. It was not a motorcycle, because it didn’t have gears. Still, it was very fast and Jerry rode it with reckless abandon. One day I was riding on the back of another boy’s Honda. Jerry was in front of us riding up North Main Street past the Burger Chef and the Sinclair station. At the corner of Nottingham and North Main (where the Parkmoor Drive-In was located), a car pulled out in front of Jerry. The red Whizzer hit the car and stopped cold. Jerry kept going straight up in the air. It was like the swings all over again. When he got to the apex of his flight, he turned a flip. When he came down, he landed on his butt. We were sure he was dead and ran up to confirm our suspicions. We were wrong. Not only was he not dead, he was sitting up straight with that grin on his face and said, “God damn!” I think he did spend the night in the hospital for a broken tail bone but my memory is he made a speedy and complete recovery.
The Jer was a determined person. When he put his mind to something, he’d usually eventually get it done. On at least one occasion, however, he failed to accomplish his goal. The story goes back to that summer prior to my 10th grade year. One morning, he came to the school yard where we were all gathered and said, “I’m going to blow up the bells.” We all wondered what he was talking about. He went on to explain that he was talking about Dayton’s treasured Carillon Bells at Carillon Park near NCR. On several occasions, he said “One day you’ll be watching TV and hear that the bells are gone. That’ll be me.”
Jer related his goal of blowing up the bells many times during that summer and thereafter. I was last back in Dayton in 2005. We stayed in a hotel near Carillon Park. I was pleased to see that the grand bells were still standing. I suppose the maturation process eventually catches up with us all, even the Jer.
F. Scott Fitzgerald began The Great Gatsby by saying
In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing someone,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you had.’
I’ve had the distinct advantage of knowing the Jer.