Columbus, Ohio USA
Return to Homepage www.shortnorth.com
Grade School by Day, Barfly by Night
By Betty Garrett Deeds
July/August 2013 Issue
When I was a child living with my grandparents in New Boston, I didn’t realize that my grandfather was an alcoholic. I’m not sure he did either. This was strange, considering we both went to the same bar, The Mill Lake Inn, several evenings a week.
It was so-named because the Inn sat on the edge of a lake placed there by the steel mill. The rest of the mill’s view consisted of blast furnaces and smokestacks spewing their marks against the hellish red sky. No one looked too long in that direction, though. The intent was for patrons to get blasted themselves.
In retrospect, I’m sure Papaw knew he was drinking enough to make my Mamaw unhappy, but I never heard her complain. After all, my grandmother was a busy woman. During the weekdays, she took me with her to work nearly every morning at 6 a.m. when I wasn’t in school or on vacation. Mamaw hung wallpaper steadily in houses in New Boston and Portsmouth, the large town just west of us. A realtor who handled most of the property there kept her busy.
Every morning, I awoke to conflicting aromas: coffee brewing, bacon frying, and a large steel kettle of blue Argo starch being brewed with water into an enormous batch of wallpaper paste. It had a strange sweet fragrance that I associated with both her dexterous brushing of it on the wallpaper and with the picture of the man on the Argo box-cover dressed in long robes with the long white beard. I figured he must be God.
While she brushed her waist-length hair, braiding and folding it into a crown around her head, the radio would be tuned to the “Cadle’s Tabernacle.” Someone always sang Ere You Left Your Room This Morning, Did You Think To Pray?
I didn’t, but I knew it was time to have my bacon and eggs (no coffee) and get Mamaw’s brightly patterned homemade starched aprons from the bureau to take to work. Later, she placed a cotton belt of sorts with pockets to hold her brushes and tools.
Papaw lifted up the long folding boards which she would set up once we reached her work site to hold long stretches of wallpaper, along with the ladders she climbed to reach the ceilings of the empty rooms she transformed into paper gardens.
He would place the boards and ladders on top of our ‘36 Pontiac and tie them with ropes and drive us to our destination. When the weather was cold, we took along a portable metal kerosene heater which she moved from room to room to keep us comfortable and to aid the drying of her symmetrical strips.
Somehow, she always managed to find books (a rare commodity in New Boston) for me to read while I sat in the corner and waited. After her parents died, she had been forced to leave school in the second grade, and her older brother “sold her into bondage” to work in other people’s homes for her keep. She wanted me to read so that I would never have to do the same. She loved to listen. Reading and freedom were tied in her mind as necessary, and she made sure I realized that.
Papaw would pick us up in the afternoon. Once home, Mamaw would prepare tasty meals with staples of hill country diets – beans, greens, potatoes and flaky biscuits – but she also fixed dishes she must have learned when she cooked for a hotel as a young woman: pork chops with potato slices and sauerkraut baked under a rich cream stands out in my memory. The origin of many of her standards seemed Pennsylvania Dutch.
Afterwards, we sat on the porch, and, when I had been “double promoted” in the second grade because of my reading skills, she had me read The Portsmouth Times to her. After I covered the news of car wrecks and domestic violence, she always asked me to read the scriptures to her. Some of the words were difficult, but there was a musical rhythm involved in separating the syllables that I still appreciate.
Then she would go into the kitchen to clean the dishes and take her bath, and Papaw and I would sit on the porch alone for a while. He was always polite to other adults, calling them ma’am or sir. He was a proud man. Courteous but somewhat laconic otherwise. Only with me, as I remember, did he let down his guard. I would climb onto his lap, put my face into those wrinkles of his, and kiss the tobacco smell that clung to his skin.
“How much do you love me?” he would ask. Mamaw asked the same question, and my answer was the same to both of them. “I love you all the bushels and all the pecks in heaven.” I knew what bushels were because of the baskets I’d seen, but I had no idea how to measure a peck except that it must be enormous, for I loved them beyond measure, really.
When I climbed down, Papaw would reach into his shirt pocket and produce a package of Bugler’s Tobacco. There was a picture of a WWI soldier on the front playing a bugle. A little metal device with a rubber conveyer belt, required to put the shreds of tobacco into papers, was on the porch table. I begged Papaw to allow me to roll his cigarettes, and he would let me do that, with more patience than I could have realized. When the cylinders had been formed, I took my tongue and generously moistened the edges of the paper, which were thin and sagged a lot.
After that, at least two or three nights a week, he would say, “Betty Lou, how would you like to go with me to the Mill Lake Inn?” He knew I would be overjoyed, and off we went.
The Mill Lake Inn was a long one-story building with an equally long linoleum-covered counter and high stools where the men sat while they drank their choice of the many rows of bottles lined up in front of the mirror.
There were metal advertising signs on the wall, and most of the men drank beer whose names were there. Papaw imbibed something dark in a small glass. The other men usually conversed with one another, but Papaw didn’t say much to anyone except me. I would sit on the floor under the metal racks that held potato chips and peanuts and comic books.
After we had been there long enough, I would tug on the cuffs of his trousers and ask if I could buy some peanuts to feed the bear. A bear? Honest and true: a big wooly bear was in the yard outside the bar, chained to a stake in the ground.
Don’t ask me why there was a bear outside the Mill Lake Inn. I had no idea, but I liked to go outside at least once during the evening and, standing back at a safe
distance, throw peanuts at him. He scarfed them down and made loud noises, but I don’t think he was dangerous. By the time I finished, Papaw was usually ready to make his way home. (The mill had the bear as a strange attraction or mascot, and Papaw had me as his companion/mascot.)
And so we would head home in the ‘36 Pontiac with the chrome Indian head on the hood. Its profile reminded me of Papaw. Grandma White, his mother, was part-Cherokee Indian, I’d been told, and his bone structure mirrored her high cheekbones and nose as surely as Chief Pontiac’s.
I did not learn until I was an adult, and both Papaw and Mamaw had been dead several years, that Papaw was a direct descendant of one Peregrine White, a baby born to Sarah and Edward White aboard the Mayflower on its voyage to Plymouth, Massachusetts. Papaw never mentioned it, and may not have known. He had an aristocratic bearing and manner, and he didn’t work much, although I’m not sure that was because of his background.
I had seen a picture of him when he was a handsome young man, sitting astride a motorcycle, serving as Police Chief of New Boston, Ohio. From time to time, he would drive trucks long distance and be gone several days. And he also groomed and trained horses occasionally. Most of the time, though, Papaw was unemployed.
When we returned home, he would usually say that he was hungry and ask me, “Would you go inside and make me a fried egg sandwich, Betty Lou?” And I did. (Mamaw was in her bed asleep by then.) But when I carried the plate with his sandwich back to the car, he was almost always sound asleep. And that’s where he would stay on those nights, in the car, sitting straight upright. His spine was perfectly aligned with the back of the seat.
On other occasions, he went into his bedroom. From time to time, he would ask me if I would mind making up the bed, and I was glad to do it. We did not have central heating yet, so Mamaw made plenty of quilts for us. There were at least four on Papaw’s bed. I peeled back the layers one by one, removing small bottles scattered over each blanket, smoothed out the wrinkles, and neatly replaced the bottles. He hadn’t asked me to remove them or throw them away. I thought he must be saving them.
The only disruptive thing I remember about our trips to the Mill Lake Inn was one night when we were riding home and I noticed that the car seemed to curve back and forth on the street. Papaw turned it to the left, and suddenly we were riding across the field in front of the steel mill.
By that time, I was yelling and crying, “Papaw, we’re not in the street anymore. Papaw, we’re in the mill field.” The car rocked back and forth in the hard chunks of mud before it collided headfirst into a power pole. I was all shaking and scared.
“You hit the pole, Papaw. We’re going to die!”
He didn’t say anything for a while, just sat there, staring at the pole. His only response to me was, “Ain’t that bear by the lake a smart thing? It’s a good thing you give him peanuts.” Then he slowly opened his door and walked around to my side, opened it carefully, and lifted me out.
“Betty Lou,” he said calmly, “I think we’ll walk home tonight.”
And so the years passed with no declaration that Papaw had a drinking problem, until 1950 when I was in the ninth grade. Mamaw took me onto her lap and explained that Dr. Bloom told her that Papaw was very sick and needed to get help or he would die.
He was going away to a hospital in Columbus awhile, she explained, as a big black ambulance pulled up. They carried a stretcher into the house, and by the time they carried Papaw out, pale and wan, tears were streaming down all our faces – even his.
It was two weeks before he returned home and walked in the front door again.
Coming next issue: Papaw, Mamaw and I join Alcoholics Anonymous
Betty Garrett Deeds is a former reporter for the Columbus Citizen-Journal and author of Columbus: America’s Crossroads. She can be reached at Bettydeeds1@aol.com. This article was first published in our June 2003 issue.
© 2013 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.
Return to Homepage www.shortnorth.com