I was brought up in a fairy tale kingdom on the banks of the majestic Ohio River. Historic and picturesque, Beaver, PA was a sleepy little town that resembled a set on the Hollywood back lot. You could almost imagine Jimmy Stewart stepping off a Victorian porch, extending his hand, hemming-and-hawing, and all the town people as bit players in some charming movie directed by Frank Capra. It was a magical place and time, and Beaver seemed to be the epitome of hometown America without a care in the world.
The gilded fifties in the beautiful Valley were idyllic and simple, but not all was copacetic. As little boys, my brothers and I climbed buckeye trees and came down covered in black soot from the mills, and sometimes snow would fall through polluted clouds resulting in “black snow.” Back then, no one seemed to care that the St. Joseph Lead plant across the Ohio was belching out toxic smoke that blew over our town, or that the river smelled like chemicals and was lined with dead fish. And to think that, unbeknownst to our parents, we actually swam in that cesspool! But this was our magical realm and we were having too much fun to care.
One day in 1953, when I was two years old, I wandered out of our yard and ended up several blocks away. Luckily a family friend saw me walking down her sidewalk — heading west — and promptly called my mother to come and get me. After that, they actually strapped a dog harness on me and tied me to a tree, but I guess that didn’t look quite right.
And then at Easter, someone came up with the bright idea of giving me some cute little baby chicks. I took them down to the basement, grabbed a ball peen hammer and promptly flattened them on the cement floor. I needed to be watched closely!
As a child, I spent my younger years in a fantasy world where I would close my eyes and dream my own reality. I had two imaginary friends: Georgie and Mine-Mine. Mother even set an extra place setting at the table, but for just one of them at a time.
I was a very contented little prince, full of hope and promise. But I had been born into a family that kept many dirty little secrets, some of which would be revealed much later.
Back in the fifties, kids were free to come and go as they pleased with no fear of the dangers that plague today’s youth. We had full reign of the town and the woods. Being overprotected was unheard of, and bike helmets, seat-belts, pollution laws, did not exist. We had many friends in our realm, but our closest neighborhood chums were a part of what we called our gang. (This was definitely more like the Little Rascals than the Crips or the Bloods.) But if some other boys tore down one of our forts, it meant war – at least a black eye for somebody.
We had a beautiful park across the street and a swimming pool in bicycling range. Lincoln Elementary was just a short walk, and we would march to school yelling “Lincoln, stinkin’, what have you been drinkin’? Whiskey, wine? Oh my, it’s turpentine!” Third Avenue ‒ Downtown Beaver ‒ was only a stone’s throw from our Dutch Colonial on 5th Street. Every afternoon a little train would rumble down the tracks in the middle of our street, all the while flattening our pennies on its way to the Westinghouse plant at the end of town.
My two younger brothers and I enjoyed swashbuckling adventures in the enchanted wooded hills above our home, and on the banks of the Ohio. Our curly, black mutt Jenny was our constant companion and if anyone so much as raised his voice to us Jenny would take a bite out of him. In fact, she bit all the jerks in the neighborhood at one time or another.
In the perpetual, overcast winters we rode our sleds down enormous hills, Jenny nipping at our boots; ice-skated on frozen lakes; and built snow forts. I’ll never forget the time I was out in the front yard and looked up to notice an older boy standing catty-corner at 5th and Beaver Street. He must have been a good thirty yards away when he cocked his arm back and hurled a snowball toward me. I just stood there watching that tightly packed ball of ice zeroing in on my face. It smashed into my forehead with such force that it knocked me to the ground. I sat there in the snow, bawling, watching that evil coward run down the sidewalk laughing his ass off.
That was an early lesson for me: Sometimes people are rats!
My brothers and I spent a lot of time at our grandparents’ homes (usually separately, they couldn’t handle us all at once). Mother’s parents were affectionately called Dearma and Dearpa; my Dad’s parents were simply called Grandpa and Grandma. Of course my prim and proper mother would call her in-laws Morrell and Mother Duncan. That always seemed a bit strange.
Dearma and Dearpa’s home outside nearby New Brighton was an honest-to-God wonderland for kids, replete with big shady yards, elegant fishponds, gardens, fruit trees, a large, beautiful two-and-a-half-story house and a four-car garage. They had a big red truck and a Buick Electra 225. The time I spent with the two of them was precious, and I have not loved anyone as much in my life. The memories of that place and those two dear souls reside in a very special corner of my heart. I worshiped them.
Dearpa came from good German and Scotch-Irish farmer stock. He was the court jester, and said funny things like: “How does your coperosity seem to segociate?” Short of stature, but one of the biggest ‒ and kindest ‒ men I’ve ever known, he owned a hardware store in town across from the old high school. It was a mysterious and wonderful place to hang out. When I was with him in the store he would introduce me to all his customers by name. He seemed to know everyone and was loved by all. I remember the scent of that magical place and now, when I occasionally find an old hardware store in some out of the way little town, I instinctively go in. One time, in an old store, I caught a whiff of a hauntingly familiar scent and instantly flashed back to Dearpa sitting at his huge roll-top desk. I broke down in tears. God I miss that man. He was a saint.
It is a well-known story in my family that a youthful Dearpa and his uncle had been sitting out front of the store enjoying a bright spring afternoon. Across the parkway was the New Brighton High School, and coming up the sidewalk was a young teacher herding her class back to school. Dearpa couldn’t keep his eyes off the pretty, wiggling woman. He looked over at his uncle and simply stated: “I’m going to marry that girl.” Of course that girl turned out to be my grandmother, the Queen.
Dearma was a bit chubby, a proud member of the “Metrical for Lunch Bunch,” but had enough energy to pull a coal-laden train over the Alleghenies. She never walked, but marched like she was going off to war. We would gather cherries out back and she would make me pies. She always asked me embarrassing questions like: “Dave, did you move your bowels today?” She pampered me and squeezed me tight until I couldn’t breath, spoiling me into wide-eyed ecstasy. She was a delight to be with, and funny as hell. She taught me things and made me think, and peppered me lightly with lessons from the Good Book. She had high hopes for the first born of her eight grandchildren.
The two of us played with their beloved boxer Chrissy, did errands together, and would watch her favorite soaps where Dearma always knew what they were going to say next. It was as if she was psychic. She could also read the minds of Marshall Dillon, Miss Kitty and Chester. Cool!
In the house next door to Dearma and Dearpa’s lived a sweet lady who we all called Grandma Betty. She was virtually my third grandmother. Before I was born, she had tragically lost her husband and her son, and had adopted me, and my brothers and cousins, as her own children. I would spend the night at her house, drink hot tea and eat cookies, and sit out on the front porch where I would try and identify all the vehicles zooming by out on Mercer Road. “There goes a Pontiac!” Grandma Betty was part of the family and attended all of our affairs.
Grandpa and Grandma Duncan had lived in three houses when I was growing up. (Their side of the family was a bit mysterious.) They finally moved from Patterson Heights to Beaver. It made us very happy that they were in walking distance and we visited quite often. The dynamics at the elder Duncans was much different than our other grandparents. Not that we didn’t love them with all our hearts, but they were a lot more low-key and a little stuffy, but sometimes quite hilarious. Not too mention that Grandma Duncan suffered from debilitating arthritis and walked with a cane. She never drove, but never complained.
Grandma Duncan had lovely “hazel” eyes and a wonderful laugh, and always made me feel very special. Her peanut butter cookies were such a sensuous delight that the state of Utah outlawed them in 1957. She always dressed to the nines and was quite the artist. Seems her mother, my great-grandmother Laura, had been an artist, and Grandma displayed a few of Laura’s beautiful paintings about the impeccably decorated house. My brothers and I were her whole world.
Grandpa was a high-powered businessman who wore blue suits and had Martini lunches. I remember sitting on his lap and smelling the gin on his breath (and liking it). He could be stern at times. He absolutely deplored whining, and if we ever moaned he would tease us in a little baby voice until we were laughing. Yep, he could make you feel silly for whining. Sort of reverse psychology I guess. With him, there was his way or the wrong way. We tried to do it his way the best we could.
The most wonderful thing he did for the whole family was to buy a little farm out in the country. This was a brilliant idea on his part. It was about eighty acres including a rustic, log farmhouse (with an outhouse) that was well over 150 years old. He and my Dad completely restored the house, adding a master bedroom, bathroom and kitchen, and screened in the front porch. Then they built a dam on one of the two creeks that formed a romantic pond where we could build rafts and become pirates in those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer. Grandpa leased the fields to neighboring farmers who planted wheat and corn. This was a true American paradise conjured up by Norman Rockwell, and Grandpa must have felt like George Washington on the Potomac. It was the most fantastic feat that anyone in the course of human history had ever pulled off. The man was a genius!
Both sides of the family gathered there for picnics, and overnighters complete with ghost stories on the screened-in porch. We would catch lightning bugs, enjoy dinners on the porch, hike, play baseball, build rafts, go on tractor and sled rides, and much more. I remember sitting by the venerable hearth smelling freshly baked peanut butter cookies and listening to classical music on the radio; all the while taking in the lovely view of the fields and foothills beyond. At night I’d fall asleep listening to the truck tires softly singing on the distant Pennsylvania Turnpike. It was magic!
The times I loved the most were those when the entire family was there: Grandpa and Grandma, Dearma and Dearpa, Grandma Betty, Mom and Dad, the aunts, uncles, great aunts and uncles, brothers and cousins. It was like an outing of the royal court and my Grandpa Duncan was the Grand Duke and royal patriarch. Of course, Dearma was the Queen and no one was foolish enough to challenge her throne, certainly not the Duke. Everyone had his place in the court; but the Duke’s acquisition of this land as a weekend retreat was a bold move indeed!
Our cousins were such sweet children. (Not a dope in the bunch.) Amy Sue was the only girl in the midst of filthy heathens, but she was royalty, and was treated accordingly. We showed her the utmost respect, and placed her on a pedestal. (That way we could look up her dress!) And her cousins made off with many stolen kisses from the little princess. Wendy and Robin lived in Beaver on the other side of town. (There were no bad sides.) Amy, Bucky and Gig lived in Pittsburgh, and it was always a special treat to visit them in the big city. For some unknown reason they all called me “Uncle Day-Day.” I suppose that my name Dave had been bastardized into a cutesy nickname by one of the younger cousins mispronouncing it, and it stuck.
My mother, God bless her, had her hands full. My brothers and I were mischief-makers of the dangerous sort, and had to be monitored at all times. (My mother blamed it all on the Three Stooges.) Had the technology been there back in the fifties, we would have been in electronic ankle bracelets.
Mom wasn’t cut out for the 3.2 children thing of the fifties. She was more of a liberated woman, in the sense that she needed a career ‒ and a life. I never for one moment thought that she considered raising three brats a “career.” This was something she was required to do ‒ like a tour of combat duty – and by God she was going to struggle through this ordeal the best she could and get it over with, and then move on, hopefully winning a medal for bravery.
My mother was the middle sister of three. She was the one that had the fairy tale childhood. I was probably never a prince, but I guarantee, she was a Princess of the First Order, and I’ll bet my royal crown on that! She was pampered and spoiled – more so than I ‒ and on top of that, she was drop dead gorgeous. She had all the boys, including my poor future father, wrapped around her royal pinkie.
She had lived a life of genteel pleasantry, barely noticing the Great Depression. And now she found herself on indefinite guard duty watching after the dregs of her womb. It must have been terribly frustrating and nerve racking, trying to raise three feral boys found deep in the woods in a hollow tree. I’m sure she thought about going down to the adoption agency and trading us in for some well behaved little girls with manners and curls. She would have loved daughters. Think of the little dollies, the tea parties, the perfumed satin and lace, the shopping sprees, cotillions and debutante balls. As it was she had given birth to a litter of wolf pups that were wrecking the house, scaring baby-sitters, wetting the beds, and farting in church. We turned my mother into a basket-case resulting in a lot of high-pitched screaming. And who could blame her for her daily histrionics?
But we were good little boys (when we were asleep).
Like a real princess, Mom had never really learned how to cook. I will only say that her culinary skills were lacking. Okay, I’ll say more. They sucked! She once actually poisoned herself tasting her own cooking and was hauled off to have her stomach pumped. Most of her food was overcooked. What once was a plump pork chop was cremated into something unrecognizable, something you’d put into an urn and mourn at a funeral parlor. She’d disappear into the kitchen, put on her protective mask, asbestos apron and gloves, and fire up her acetylene torch. Voila! Dinner is served. It was so bad that later in life, I actually thought Army food was delicious. She did make a good potato salad, but even a blind squirrel finds a nut now and then.
My Dad, affectionately called Spike since birth, was quite a guy. He was outgoing, handsome and smart. His mantra was: Do as I say, not as I do. An only child, he was raised to be self sufficient and hard working. (In junior high the American Legion honored him with the ‘All American Boy’ award.) Unlike his parents, he decided that he would attend church and Sunday school, and find out what it is to be a genuine Christian. Of course nothing was ever said about Grandpa and Grandma never going to church. I come from a long line of Presbyterians but they might have been Hindus as far as I knew.
Dad always had work, church duties, and several charity projects going on at once and probably got very little sleep. When he made time for his sons we could have real fun, but he seemed to be otherwise occupied most of the time. He was a disciplinarian and could be meaner than hell. The severity of punishment meted out depended on his mood. He had made a wooden paddle and kept it in the bottom drawer of his desk at the ready. One day my brother Ross stole it and snuck it down to the basement where he carefully sawed the handle almost all the way through. And then he put it back where he found it. Of course it wasn’t long before Ross got into trouble. Spike went for his trusty paddle while my little brother Bobby and I waited for the fun to begin. He bent Ross over his knee and got off one good whack. The dreaded board snapped in two. Dad and the rest of us busted out laughing. At that point, after forgetting the crime, the punishment was over.
I never doubted my parents’ love for me, but at times they said and did inexplicable things that I still can’t figure out. But what the hell… that’s life.
Spike fell in love with my mother when they were at New Brighton High School. They were an item. Dad served state side in the Army Air Corps toward the end of WWII and came home to work for his Dad. Grandpa owned a few gas stations and an appliance store and was on several boards, and I suppose Spike was almost expected to work for his father. Soon he was off to college at W&J (Washington and Jefferson) near Pittsburgh; and later Mom ended up at Case Western in Cleveland.
Of course, most of the really juicy stories I’ve heard over the years were spooned out in little sips; all the meaty tidbits were left simmering in the stew pot. Time lines were confused, facts were distorted, and whole parts were simply left out. Family secrets, you know.
Case in point: the story of Mom and Dad’s “break up…”
Family secrets. Confused time lines, distorted facts, details left out.
Case in point: the story of Mom and Dad’s “break up…” Over the years I have arranged enough pieces to give you a sufficient picture…
Mom, who was attending Case Western College in Cleveland, had fallen for another guy, and summarily broke up with Spike.
Spike didn’t take this too well and spent most of his time in bars, fuming, trying to figure out what the hell he was going to do… (besides punching out this bastard Lothario). I don’t know how many gallons of booze it took him to conclude that he had to go to Cleveland, but he sobered up enough to hop in his brand new Chevy and head off to rescue his romance. On the way, his car stalled on a railroad track. Yep, you guessed it. A train was coming. Spike got out and started pushing but it was no use. He jumped out of the way and watched in horror as his shiny new car was demolished.
I have no idea what transpired in Cleveland, but it couldn’t have been good for my Dad. He trudged back home in a fog of depression. Both his romance and his car had been smashed.
Dearma and Dearpa and my mother’s sisters Maneeta and Bev loved Spike, and began a campaign to bring my future mother to her senses. Evidently it worked, but somehow I think there are more pieces to this puzzle hiding under the couch.
After her graduation Mom and Dad were married, and nine months later I arrived in this world. I was named David Caldwell Duncan.
Spike never liked the name David, but I never knew why until much later. It seems that the collegiate usurper who had swept my mother off her feet was named David. Of course Mom has repeatedly denied that I was named after this guy. She says she just liked the name.
Well, I always thought that I was named after my great-grandfather David Caldwell. Makes sense, wouldn’t you think? Hell no! We found out later that Dearma’s father had had an affair with the maid’s daughter and swept her off to California, along with Dearma’s two older brothers Clyde and Ernie. He had left his wife and nine-year-old daughter alone without any visible means of support, broken-hearted and destitute.
Then I discovered, to my chagrin, that David the Terrible (with the help of his friend the judge) had actually committed my great-grandmother to a miserable sanitarium. Can you imagine what my sweet Dearma must have gone through? Her doting father, and her two older brothers ‒ whom she had idolized ‒ had suddenly disappeared. And worst of all, her dear sweet mommy had been forcibly taken from her and stashed away in a God forsaken nut house. Dearma never talked about this to me, or anyone else for that matter. She was an extremely strong, proud woman. I remember watching her in awe as she put the fear of God in some rude clerk or an incompetent repairman. It wasn’t a pretty sight.
After years of piecing this particular tale together I came to the conclusion that my mother was insane for naming me David. Only recently I found out from my Aunt Bev that Dearma and others had tried to talk her out of that evil name to no avail. And now I’m stuck with it for eternity.
All in all I had a very sweet childhood. But there were some little indicators of things to come. I had had some depression and mood swings starting in the third grade. And I was prone to playing nasty and sometimes dangerous pranks on friends and strangers alike. One time I stashed a secret treasure map in a can and buried it out in the backyard. Somehow I got Bobby to dig a hole out there, and sure enough, he found it. My best friend Timmy, his little brother Jimmy, and we three brothers (Moe, Larry, and Curly) marched off to the water lot to find the treasure. The map finally led us to a huge clump of bushes in the woods. There was a cave-like opening on the side. I stood back while my brothers and pals crawled into the bushes. How were they to know that there was a giant hornets’ nest where the treasure was supposed to have been? I scrammed out of there fast. In a few seconds a swarm of angry hornets were stinging the horrified chumps as they ran screaming all the way home. I just sat back and laughed. New lesson learned: Sometimes people are rats – including me!
Even with my “quirks,” I was very content living in our little town. Though I was having a hard time at school and felt uncomfortable (feeling different than my schoolmates) this was my home. Something about church and religion bothered me like it had Grandpa, yet I felt that these were my people and this was my world. Our cozy house was filled with music. Swing, Dixieland, Musicals and Classical music resonated. We were a noisy clan nestled in our warm Fifties cocoon.
And then one evening at the dinner table Dad announced that we were moving to Dallas, Texas. I couldn’t have been more shocked and terrified if he had poked me in the eye with his classy ballpoint pen. After a few tearful questions I got up and dashed outside. I ran all the way to the top of the woods and collapsed into a bed of ferns. I sat up there and watched the sun go down over the Beaver Valley. In the distance flowed the beautiful Ohio River with its barges and bridges, surrounded by glorious verdant hills. Down below was my precious little town. I was twelve years old and it was all I had ever known. I thought about my grandparents. They had been my oxygen and I needed them to breathe. How could I live without them?
In a few days I seemed to recover. My troubled thoughts turned to curiosity about Dallas. Wow, a big, far away city. Now I could see the adventure in this crazy scheme of Spike’s. This thing might work after all.
Months passed and then it was time to leave. The moving van had already gone. We had said goodbye to almost everyone, but I have forgotten most of the details. I do remember driving out to Mercer Road to say our farewells to Dearma and Dearpa. After many hugs and kisses we piled into the Chevy Impala convertible. As we slowly drove away, I focused on Dearpa. He had taken off his glasses and tears were streaming down his face. I remember the sudden lump in my throat as my excitement about the trip vanished into thin air. I had never seen a grown man cry. I knew at that very instant that nothing would ever be the same.
My childhood was officially over.