October 3, 2009
Copyright © 2010 Jim Sizemore
It’s a safe bet that few men my age can recall exactly where he was and what he was doing—and with whom—on a specific date sixty-two years ago. I’m one of the lucky ones, or at least I think I am. On June 25, 1948, I was ten years old and sitting on a bar stool in Milt’s Rendezvous, a low-end tavern not far from the shipyards in Curtis Bay. Curtis Bay was, and still is, a working-class neighborhood of tiny homes on the southern edge of the Baltimore waterfront. My father worked as a carpenter in the shipyards during World War II, and by this time the conflict had been over for three years. With the shipyards closed, daddy was out of work except for odd jobs here and there, but he still enjoyed visiting area bars. They were, he said, his “old drinking grounds.” It seemed that at each bar he took me the barmaids and many of the drinkers knew his name.
That day at Milt’s, I was sipping my usual orange “Nehi” soda and my father, on the stool next to me, was making wet circles on the bar top with the bottom of his beer bottle. “Arrow” was his favorite brand—no glass, he always drank it straight from the long neck. And he used his thumbnail to scratch the damp labels off the bottle as he sipped (a habit I picked up and still do on the rare occasions when I’m drinking a beer with a paste-on label). As he removed the labels he also seemed to remove himself, sort of go off someplace else in his mind. In those days I didn’t have the words to describe it that way, but I do remember being aware of his dreamy look as he deconstructed the labels. Meanwhile, my contribution to the overlapping art he created on the bar top was to smear the circles into an abstraction with my fingers. He didn’t seem to mind, at least not while he was on the early side of drunk and still in a good mood. My father could be a mean sot. Sober, he was often a fun-loving man who laughed and joked and did silly things, like singing country songs and accompanying himself with one of his tools. Often his “instrument” of choice was a hand saw, which he gripped handle-down between his knees and bowed with a stick strung with a wire nailed to it. As he stroked, he changed the angle of the saw-tooth blade which produced a wavering, eerie, high-lonesome sound.
My father said that our mission that day at Milt’s was to watch the world heavyweight title fight between the champ, Joe Louis, and his challenger, Jersey Joe Walcott. Walcott was a nobody, pretty much, at least in big-time boxing—until, that is, their first bout in 1947, when he had come very close to beating Louis. We watched the rematch on a small black and white television set mounted on a shelf over one end of the bar. In 1948, few poor people had TV’s in their homes (our family was securely in that category), but every bar in town had a set to lure the drinkers out of their living rooms. (Kids like me, and some adults, watched variety shows like “Texaco Star Theater” with Milton Berle at night, while standing on the sidewalk outside appliance stores. They kept their display window sets on all the time to entice customers. And it worked. By the mid-1950s most families, even some on welfare, had a TV in the house.)
Jersey Joe Walcott was a veteran fighter. His real name, which my father said sounded kind of “sissy,” was “Arnold Cream.” Walcott had learned to box starting when he was just 16, but daddy claimed Joe Louis was by far the better fighter. As it turned out, the rematch was another close one. In the final rounds, Louis was again behind Jersey Joe on points. Daddy was keeping score and said the champ needed to come up with a knockout punch to win. Everyone in the bar thought Louis was going to lose until very near the end of the match, when a single punch to Walcott’s jaw knocked him flat on the canvas for the count of ten. “Happy ending,” daddy said. When I finished my Nehi, and daddy took the last sip of his (fourth or fifth?) Arrow beer, he said “Jimmy, I’ve got to go see a man about a horse.” He had a lot of “saying’s” like that, things he’d drop into the conversation that made little or no sense to me at the time. What he said next I did understand. “You go on home and tell your momma I’m right behind you.”
Alone, I walked the narrow two-lane road from Milt’s Rendezvous to our house at 1011 Mast Court, in the nearby government-built housing project. All the streets in our development were named after parts of ships and boats, and the houses looked like army barracks. Dad claimed they were, in fact, converted barracks stuck up on a hill overlooking Baltimore City and the harbor, put there in a hurry to house the thousands of workers and their families that had moved into town for war work in the shipyards. (Beautiful view, actually, but ugly buildings.) There were no sidewalks on the road home. I walked on the black top facing traffic, like my father had taught me. He said that way, if you see a car coming, you have a good chance to get out of the way. Daddy was right, several times I had to scrunch up against hedges and bushes to let a fast car go by.
Daddy still wasn’t home when I went to bed that night. All evening my mother had looked at the clock and shook her head and tut-tutted, like she always did when Daddy was off somewhere. That was her regular life, but it always seemed to make her mad—or at least sad. When I checked the next morning daddy was splayed out on his back on their bed, fully dressed, sleeping off what my mother said was just another “toot.” At breakfast momma told me he had “come in at some ungodly hour” after the bars closed. She also said that on the way home he must have “skipped into the road and got his-self sideswiped.” Daddy wasn’t hurt, just a scratch here and there, and the upper plate of his false teeth was missing. Momma said she was going to trust me to retrace his steps and find it. She told me the best place to look was in clumps of bushes near the roadside.
All of this crazy business seemed perfectly normal at the time. It was all I knew. Another brief example to illustrate. When I was four or five, while we were still living in Virginia, my mother had taken my younger brother and me with her to a neighbor’s for a “house meeting”—bible thumping revival stuff, singing and testifying, that sort of thing. When we came home we noticed that the window next to the front door had been broken and there was blood on the jagged glass shards left in the frame. Daddy had lost or misplaced his key and smashed his fist through the window so he could reach inside and unlock the door. We found him peacefully asleep on the living room couch, fresh blood still oozing from several small cuts on his arm.
Eventually I found daddy’s upper plate in a hedge by the side of the road, not far from another of his favorite bars, one that happened to be roughly halfway between Milt’s Rendezvous and home. Two years after what I had come to think of as the “False Teeth Fiasco,” I returned home from school one day to discover that my mother had disappeared—she just ran off and left me, daddy and my younger brother. No note, nothing. Later I learned from a neighbor what had happened but, no matter the explanation, in those days I couldn’t understand how she could do such a thing. For a long time I couldn’t forgive her. By the time I was a grown man I had figured it out for myself. It wasn’t something I had done or said that drove her away. She had finally, after more than twenty years, simply got fed up with living her life with what she called a “flat-out drinking fool” for a husband.
Copyright © 2010 Jim Sizemore.