Welcome to My Autobiography
To sleep without dreams must be a lot like death
There Will Always be Giants
The summer of 1961 was a strange
one for me. One month after the giant died, Mommy’s youngest sister, Rabbit’s
mother, was shot to death behind a bar in
Despite this, my life actually became more fun. The fear factor dropped drastically. No more worry about surprise attacks. But, also, I got to stay up late on Friday nights and watch Steve Allen, who I thought was the funniest man alive. (Remember, I was only twelve.) I got to spend a lot of nights with Rabbit, who lived across the street with Mama. I spent a lot of time at the creek, which was about two hundred yards from Mommy and Papa’s front porch. And I got to play outside after dark with all the other kids on the block. The old giant was gone from my life. But there were new giants waiting on the road before me.
Free Inside Specially Marked Boxes
I went to the grocery store with mother on Saturdays and went straight to the cereal aisle to decide which free toy I wanted. I never even considered the kind of cereal that was in the box. All that mattered was the free toy inside. And of course, the cereal companies always put the best toys in the worse cereals. The good cereals almost never had toys. So, Papa usually wound up having to eat the bad cereal.
All the cereals had sugar in their names. Remember Sugar Pops, Sugar Smacks, Sugar Crisps, and Sugar Frosted Flakes? Instead of baseball cards in the boxes, the baseball cards would be on the boxes and you had to cut them out, but at least you knew which cards you were getting. You had to get there early to get Mickey Mantle, which I never did. My mother wouldn’t get up that early.
Cracker Jacks had much neater prizes back in the fifties and sixties. If you bought the big boxes, you could actually get a miniature camera that is probably worth a lot of money today. Of course, I never got one. My mother wouldn’t spend the money for the big box.
Deep in the Heart of the Gar
The pressure was off for a while. At least until I got caught doing something wrong and mother would apply a heavy dose of punishment to get me back in line. Sometimes it seemed she overreacted to things, but I can’t blame her. The pressure was on her now, too. She had two boys to raise, one about to become a teenager, and she had to get a job and buy a car, because we no longer had a company car to drive.
In November of 1961 mother got a part time job with a brand new company called Tupperware. It was a new concept to get somebody, usually a woman, to have a party and invite all her friends and associates. Then mother would come over and set up a display and just take orders. Well, it wasn’t that easy. Apparently, the stuff was expensive for what it was, plastic storage ware. Mother carried those two big suit cases full of Tupperware for about two months with very little success, so she quit. It didn’t seem like something that was going to catch on.
That fall I enrolled at Jr. High School in the Land of the Gar with all new kids, so I decided to go by the name James, except at home where it was hard to teach the old dogs new tricks. It could be downright embarrassing when friends from school came over. A family member would call me Melvin. “Who’s Melvin?” “Oh, that’s my crazy brother who we keep locked in a closet.” “Really?” Yea, really, dorfwad.”
My name had been changed so many
times I felt like a movie star. I was born Melvin Hamstrung, then I was
Melvin Gilbreath, and now I was James Gilbreath. In the celebrity world, that’s known as a
pseudonym. I had a pseudonym. That means I must be somebody. Like every teen-age kid in
I enrolled in band when I started
the 7th grade and mother rented a saxophone. I had never learned to read
music, so I spent band class sitting in the lunchroom by myself, supposedly,
practicing my scales. But most of the time I was studying a map of
Needless to say, I never got any good on the horn and eventually gave it up, but I did sell more band candy than anyone else in the band and won both candy drives that school year. While everyone else was at home practicing, I was out knocking doors. I spent the second semester of 7th grade band class sitting in the library. And that’s where I was the day John Glenn orbited the earth. They played the radio over the p.a. system that day. “A giant step for…” Oh, wait a minute. That wasn’t John Glenn. That was somebody else a few years later.
I don’t remember mother ever whipping me before the giant died, but I felt like she was making up for lost time. I’m sure she felt like she was forging iron through fire trying to keep me from going bad without a father. Perhaps she went a little overboard, but I was a teenager and I wasn’t taking too kindly to being whipped, especially by a woman. So when she pushed, I rebelled. And the more rebellious I got the more she pushed, and the more she pushed, the more rebellious I got. Read what they did to rebellious sons before Christ died for our sins. (Deut. 21:18-21) Thank you, Jesus.
She washed my mouth out with soap for saying, “ain’t” after she had told me not to say it again or she would wash my mouth out with soap. That incident became a knock-down-drag-out. One time she whipped me in the front yard in front of the neighborhood kids, and the resentment just grew. I would act tough and smart-off to her and she would get mad and humiliate me, so I would act tough and smart off, and she would… And this became the trend for our lives together. We each had a stack of bricks and we started building that wall between us. It was going to be a good strong wall, too. One that would take more years to tear down than it would to build up.
She would try to be a friend at times, but I wouldn’t let her. I was a teen-age jerk, which is a redundant term, since I can just say teen-ager and jerk is implied. I believe I inherited my stubborn, rebellious spirit from my mother, and now that I’m a parent I have realized that no matter how hard you try to raise your children right, they still turn out just like you.
That next Christmas of 1961 mother bought Joey and I a couple of horses. It didn’t turn out to be as great a gift as it sounds. Somebody saw her coming. My horse was so mean and high- spirited that only a full grown man with no fear could get on its back. And I think Joey’s horse was about fifty years old; give or take a decade. Before the next Christmas rolled around the horses were gone. I think mother gave them back to the man who had conned her into buying them.
A child is known by his actions (Prov.20:11a)
Kids have strange thinking. If there’s no one standing within fifty feet of them they think they’re alone. And they’re liable to do anything without being aware there is a crowd of people watching from the periphery, like the time Rabbit and I got caught breaking the windows out of an old house next door to the church. There were people living across the street and on the other side of the old house and the church was full of people, but we didn’t think anyone would notice us picking up rocks and throwing them through glass panes. “Really?” I’m serious.
On another Sunday, after church (We were going to church regularly since we were living with Mommy and Papa) I stole a baseball bat from the Sky Pilots’ building, which was an old house across the street from the church (Not the same one Rabbit and I broke the windows out of). I don’t know what the sermon was about, because I was sitting in church planning this caper.
Church had let out and a hundred
people were milling around outside the building, either talking or heading
for their cars. Not thinking any of these people could see me, I went into
the old house and pushed a three foot long baseball bat up the leg of my
slacks, then walked to the car looking like
I don’t remember how, but I got in the back seat of our car, removed the bat from my pants leg and rolled it under the car seat. Within minutes a man from the church arrived at the car with my mother. They asked if I had taken a bat and I said, “No.” The man had seen me, so he knew I was lying, but he didn’t push it. He just said, “Okay,” and left.
My thirteenth birthday was just a few days after that. And guess what I got for my birthday? That’s right, a brand new bat. I had kept the stolen bat hidden and hadn’t even used it, so now I had to get rid of it. The first chance I got, I took it to the creek and threw it in. I went back home feeling good. The guilt was gone and I had a brand new bat, which I could take out in front of everybody and not have to worry or lie. Life was good.
Wrong! Fifteen minutes later there was a knock on the front door and Muley, a neighborhood kid, was standing there with the stolen bat in his hand, telling my mother, “I saw James throw this in the creek and figured he would want it back.” Time froze.
Now, you have to understand Muley, who lived next door to Mama. He was thirteen and over six feet tall, and his daddy, who was only about five feet tall, would whip him in their front yard in front of everybody. To over compensate for his humiliation, he would make all the other kid’s lives miserable. And that’s what he gave me for my thirteenth birthday; misery.
I had to take the bat back to church and give it to the man I had lied to. The man forgave me and life went on, but I never forgot the compassion of that man. In fact, I saw him many times after that and he never treated me like the lying criminal I was. Instead, he treated me like he cared. And to this day I don’t believe it was something he could have faked.
The kids in the neighborhood were never friends together, all at the same time. There was always one group against the other. At our end of the street were Muley, Rabbit and I. We were always into some kind of mischief. We would even get into BB gun fights. Where were the adults? We could have put an eye out.
There were a lot of kids who came and went on the block, but there was a core group about the same age who stayed there for many years. At the other end of the street were Jimmy, Gary, and Gary.
We were always playing baseball or football against each other, one end of the street against the other. Our end of the street always lost. Jimmy, Gary, and Gary were athletic, and Muley, Rabbit, and I were…well, I’ll just say this, “I was the most athletic of the three of us. So, make your own conclusions.”
That’s right. I’m the same guy that didn’t like sports in elementary school. I didn’t know much about sports. I wasn’t good at sports. But I loved to pretend I was good. Good athletes were famous, right? Besides, nobody would play cowboys with me anymore.
Jimmy, from the other end of the block, was hair-lipped and a cleft palette left his face badly deformed. He was worse than most, because when he was a baby, after the doctor had sewn up his palette, the stitching apparently came loose and left a hole in the roof of his mouth making his speech almost impossible to understand. But after I was around him for several years I got to where I could understand him like a second language. By the time we got to high school I was his interpreter, and we became best friends.
Jimmy’s parents were the kind of parents all kids wished they had. His mother was pretty and his dad was quiet and minded his own business. His dad looked like all his hair had slipped off his head and onto his back and shoulders. His chest hair grew right up his neck and onto his face. When he shaved he just picked the place where he wanted his chest hair to start. He was the only person I knew to be that hairy and yet be bald.
During the time I was in Jr. high school there were three high school boys in the neighborhood. One was an end on the ’63-’64 state champion Owls football team. He and his parents lived next door to Mommy and Papa. The other two were in and out of jail, usually for fighting. They smoked and drank with their daddies. One of them went to jail for beating up his daddy, and his daddy was mean and tough.
Those two were what my mother called, thugs. One of them had a sister, who was my age, and I wasn’t allowed near her house, which wasn’t a problem, since I avoided her brother like someone avoids stepping barefoot on broken glass. I was always worried these two guys might still be in high school when I got there. But, fortunately, they were either sent to prison, killed, dropped out, or (and I doubt this) graduated. The important thing was they weren’t in high school when I got there.
Mommy and Papa’s neighborhood was one street that made a loop (kind of like a noose) with only one way in and out; a signal light that stayed red for about five minutes and green for about five seconds. And this was before you could turn right on red after you stopped. So everybody who came into this neighborhood didn’t leave quickly.
Oh, by the way, the neighborhood had a haunted house and it stared at you with empty eye sockets while you waited for the light to change. The house was on the opposite side of the loop from Mommy and Papa’s. It was on a huge lot and was only the remnants of a huge, old house. A fire had wiped out most of it years earlier. There was part of two rooms, a fireplace, and the bricks of a well near the house.
The most frequently told story that went around was about a family with ten kids living there when the house caught fire. One of the kids died in the fire, while another fell down the well and drowned. To add credibility to the story, there was a small family cemetery about fifty yards behind the house. There were many a Friday and Saturday night spent walking in front of that house daring one another to run to the cemetery or go in the ruins or look into the well.
There was a piece of old rope tied to a limb high in a large tree on the land and that, too, had a story. Either one of the kids got hung while playing or a hired hand was hung after some inexplicable crime against the family. Perhaps he had pushed the kid down the well.
There was also a huge rock house just down from Mommy and Papa’s. This building was even scarier, because it was still occupied by an old couple that no one ever saw. There were a lot of strange stories about them too, although, I’m sure none of them were true, either. But, of course, we kids believed them all, because we wanted to.
The rock house was two and a half stories tall, but all you could see from the street was the top windows, because the bottom floor was below ground level and the yard was overgrown with trees and shrubs and vines. There were steps at the front sidewalk that went down into the dense foliage and disappeared. It was always dark down in that yard.
Those two old people, who nobody ever saw, owned and operated the Rock Courts behind their house. These were little, one-room shanties made of the same type of rocks as the big house. The Rock Courts were separated from the rest of the neighborhood by a broken down fence. There was a path through a gap in that fence, which all of us kids used to cut across the Rock Courts on our way to school.
The Rock Courts were the worse case of squalor I had witnessed to that date and perhaps even since then. The place actually stank. It looked like where they filmed commercials for Save the Third-World Children with flies in their eyes. I never actually saw any kids with flies in their eyes, but it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility. There was trash everywhere. There were dirty diapers and dog poop lying in the dirt where beat up old cars were parked. Most of the cars never moved. I never could figure out if the stink came from the outside or from the open windows with the filthy curtains flapping in the hot, dusty breeze.
The Writing on the Wall
The Land of the Gar was a unique little town in the sixties. If you listened closely at 6:00 p.m. every night, you could hear mothers screaming at their children to come to dinner. And, of course, all the children were outside in their sock feet. You see The Land of the Gar was between the country and the city during the sixties. So the kids didn’t know whether to go barefooted or wear shoes. We were so close to being white trash, we thought we were.
It had that small town feel of
kids vandalizing city property, yet still had the big city lights of
All the drunks had to go to
Across the street from Mommy and Papa, next door to Mama (the opposite side from Muley) lived two of the worst cases of alcoholism I ever saw in my life. One day the lady passed out in her armchair with a lit cigarette in her hand. If Mama hadn’t decided to go visit her, the woman would have burned to death, or died of smoke inhalation, or both. (Yes. That’s supposed to be funny.) The Chair was smoldering when Mama arrived.
The husband was always being arrested for DWI and even went to prison two or three times during the years I knew him. He totaled several cars and I don’t know how. He drove so slow people walking on the sidewalk passed him. When he drove down our street he looked like he was out walking his car. He had to speed up to go through school zones. When we saw him coming, we knew we had time to finish our street baseball game before his car reached us. Anyway, I think you get what I’m trying to say. The man drove slowly.
Fifteen Measly Minutes
I was still dreaming about some form of stardom. I always believed I would make it. I just didn’t know what I would make it as. And I wanted more than Andy Worhol’s fifteen minutes of fame. I wanted a whole hour.
It was during this time I began to create my own fame. I was the epitome of the saying, “He was a legend in his own mind.” I started cutting pictures out of the sports section of the local paper and made my own newspaper with my name in the captions under the pictures of football players making great plays. I was the hero. I was famous. I was a legend in my own mind.
I remember lip-syncing to records while using a tennis racket for a guitar. The front porch was my stage and the two sisters from next door were my audience. I really believed I was fooling them. And looking back, maybe I was.
I wrote my first poem in the
summer of 1962 about the
I was somebody, just nobody knew it. Funny, I never thought about becoming a famous artist or writer, even though I was painting and writing poetry all through high school. I guess it was because girls don’t chase after artists and writers. I wanted to be the star of my own band. I wanted girls screaming and crying just because they saw me. I wanted to be the Beatles. All I had to do was cut out my picture and paste it over Paul’s head…Naaa!