When my mom and dad were still together as husband and wife, my mom took on part time jobs here and there outside of the house to bring in extra cash. My earliest recollection of this is from an age where I think most of us think that kids don’t remember things. I must have been 3 years old, 4 at the very latest. We were living in Fairfield, Ohio on a street named Creech Lane. Mom was working part time as a server at a place called The Kitten Lounge. I saw her in uniform only once or twice, but I very clearly recall the uniform included black stockings and I really have a memory of a fuzzy tail or maybe it was a long tail since it was a ‘kitten’ lounge. (Years of therapy have finally gotten rid of my nightmares).
The money must have been fairly decent because I still have a hard time seeing my dad going along with my mom showing off her legs at some place called the Kitten Lounge. My mom was very attractive as a young adult and my dad was not what I’d call a very trusting guy. I do remember a few hushed arguments when it was time for mom to go to work. If you knew how straight-laced my mom is, (and was), you would be getting your minds out of the gutter already. I have no doubt that mom knew how to be polite and friendly with taking orders for drinks, but I’m positive that is as far as it ever got. I don’t think mom worked there very long, perhaps long enough to bring in a little extra Christmas cash. Likely she got tired of dad’s accusations.
I have a very good memory where it comes to details about my childhood. My mom claims that before the age of two, I could point out every card in a deck of regular playing cards, even before I could speak in complete sentences, (I’m still trying to master that, by the way). These stories I’m writing I guess supply evidence of the details that are stored away about my childhood and growing up, but today I would prefer to be able to sit here conjure up fresh images of my children’s faces as I’m giving them their baths or tucking them into bed for the night. A lot of this is a blur and does not have the same acuity for me as my own childhood. I would choose to make a memory substitution if I could. I have always been very focused on trying to be a good father, so hopefully my kids’ memories of me when they were young are favorable.
With these first few paragraphs as an opening to this week’s story, today I am going to share a story from childhood; a story I’m not sure my mom was fully aware of at the time and one I’m not sure I ever really fully told to anyone because at the time, I was sworn to secrecy. Enough years have elapsed in order to make this public record (without the black highlighting of course).
The year was 1967 or 1968, maybe both. I was in either the 3rd or 4th grade. Turbulent times those few years in the 60’s were. I’m not quite sure how parents and teachers were able to perform normally and insulate us kids from all the horror that was going on, but for the most part, they did. I remember the Kennedy and MLK assassinations still quite well, but for the most part things like ‘how was I going to get a new bike’ occupied my thinking space quite a lot. A bicycle had paramount importance when I was a kid, (read me), so when one day mine turned up missing, the world collapsed. A kid just couldn’t hop on a bus and ride it to Millikin Woods – buses just aren’t very good at jumping over mud puddles or pulling wheelies (well ok, not unless my dream woman Sandra Bullock is behind the wheel).
Fortunately, my dad had a solution; I would work for one. You see, while mom was working as a waitress or a barmaid at a place called The Lamppost Inn on Main Street, Dad had important business to conduct in the evenings. Naturally then, someone had to keep an eye on the kids, someone he could count on, someone he could trust – someone like a 10 year old boy, someone like Me!
I’m pretty sure my dad worked for the CIA or the Secret Service because the arrangement we made was top secret. No one could know; not my brothers, certainly not my 3-year old sister (yuk) and let’s not tell your mother about this – it will be between just me and you Robbie. The arrangement was simple. On some evenings that your mom is out working, I will go out too. Maybe I’ll work on the car or something with some other guys, (wink, wink), or maybe I’ll have a Union Meeting for work, (wink, wink). When I do, you will be in charge of your brothers and sister and you will earn ten cents an hour. Maybe sometimes you will earn a whole quarter an hour depending on how well you do your job.
I got to boss around my brothers and they had to go to bed when I told them to? And I was going to get paid for it? Talk about a sweet deal! Keeping track of how much Dad owed me was the easy part. I pretty much walked and talked numbers as a kid. I could fairly easily recount when I babysat and for how long. At one time as an adult, I had over 300 telephone numbers memorized. Today I will forget to do a chore unless I write it down (hmm, perhaps my subconscious is telling me something).
When we got to the magic number, he would buy me a brand new bicycle. It wasn’t going to be just any bike either. Oh no, my childhood friend Timmy had a brand new Schwinn Pea Picker so I was going to hold out the extra $30 or so until I had enough for a Lemon Peeler. Hamilton had its own Schwinn dealership downtown on South 3rd St, a magical place called Petricoff’s. If I am remembering this correctly, the magic number was somewhere just over $100 (I have the number $103 in my memory).
This was long before we all became a Wal-Mart society. People could actually open sole proprietary shops and make a living. You see, there used to be a time when everything we owned in America was actually made by Americans. Seriously, I’m not making this up. “Made in Japan” was the symbol for something cheap and crappy. The Chinese weren’t even discovered yet. They discovered us though when Sam Walton died and this is the same time that we all decided we no longer wanted to work in factories so we shut them all down and made deals with the Chinese and Koreans who were more than willing to build new factories and make our clothes for us.
But back in my day, Schwinn was the brand of bicycle to own. We didn’t even know the Italians rode bicycles back then – it was either a Schwinn or a Huffy (and we felt sorry for you if your dumb parents bought you a Huffy). 1968 might have been a bad year for political, civil and racial tensions, but it was a banner year for the bicycle and kids who rode them because this was the first year for the new Schwinn line of “Krates”! Apple Krate, Orange Krate, Pea Picker and Lemon Peeler – those were the premier bikes to have, you betcha!
It may look a little childish to you today, but we kids salivated whenever we saw one of the Krates. It was a Stingray with a banana seat, but that was about as far as it went in comparison. The Krates all had a smaller front wheel, an extra spring on the front of the head tube, a stick shift on the crossbar, and spring-loaded suspension on the back end of the seat. Additionally, it of course had its unique paint and stickers. Check out the photo.
Conveniently, each night that Mom had to go to work, a CIA or Secret Service meeting was scheduled, (I’m not sure which branch of the government it was – you think they’d share that with a 10 year old?). On a few occasions the meeting time would be right after my mom had to leave for her work. Most of the times though, he had to leave right after we put my sister Lori to bed. I would receive my orders for when to send my two brothers to bed and then I was given permission to stay up for another 30 or 60 minutes. Those were precious minutes too, time for Twilight Zone or Branded or some other great show like The Fugitive!
Dad’s meetings would always end before Mom’s job ended. That made it easier for me to keep a running tabulation of the count towards L-Day (Lemon Peeler Day). I remember it always being hard to get to sleep because I wanted to be awake to see what time it was. That way I could immediately mentally log just how much closer to my new bike I was. I never let my dad leave the house before first getting a confirmation of the rate that night. “Ten cents tonight, Dad?” “If you do a good job, tonight will be fifteen cents!” Oh I’ll do a good job; Steve and Mike will be in bed and the house won’t be a mess!
I’m not certain just how long I went without a bicycle, but I think it was just shy of a full year. Finally though, the day was quickly approaching and I remember firing a warning shot over the bough. “I am up to ninety dollars Dad, only ten more to go.” This is a moment that I have a visual memory of still. My dad had on a light Ralston Purina jacket and had one foot out the front door with his head still inside. He was young and full of vigor. He looked at me with surprise – “$90 dollars? So fast?” Yup, I kept a really good track. He knew I did too – I never messed up as a kid where it came to math.
Shortly after this, we hit the number and he asked me if I added in tax? Huh, what’s that? I still didn’t understand it after he explained, but I asked him how much for tax? He gave me some figure like ten bucks, but then something good happened. He must have been in a good mood or else perhaps the government was rewarding me for my silence because he said to me that he was going to pay the tax for my for doing such a good job.
He kept his word. One thing my dad always harped on with us as kids was lying and stealing. I must have heard that 50 times as a kid – “there’s nothing worse than a liar or a thief.” (As a side note, I got a good spanking once related to this speech – I just made a note to write that story someday). So there was no way now to get out of this. Dad just had to come through; he might have had to lie as part of his government job, but if he wanted us kids to remain on the straight and narrow, then he had to be the role model. I kept bugging him and finally on a Saturday, he took me down to Petricoff’s and we came home with a brand new Schwinn Lemon Peeler and my first bicycle lock.
Epilogue (now the fun part)
When I sat down to write this story, I had to think through where it would go. I hadn’t really given these circumstances a lot of thought until now. I do this with all of my little stories before I write them. With this one, I arrived at a few personal speculations relative to Dad’s activities and this time in my parents’ lives.
You see, this was fourth grade, the end of fourth. We moved out of the Goodman Avenue house immediately after fourth grade. My parents divorced not a whole lot longer after moving, less than 2 years if I have my timeline accurate. That bike was my prized possession and I remember taking it over with me to the new house (it was stolen not too long afterwards).
Perhaps as a result of my undercover espionage for my dad, I learned how to keep a secret. I know that over the years while I was working at Taco Bell, Deuscher’s and P&G, many people sought me out, either for advice or just someone they trusted to not repeat their words; someone who would let them vent. If a person asked me to not repeat their words, I didn’t. It’s the only way to keep a secret. You either tell no one or you tell only to a person who you know would never repeat.
Were my parents looking for a fresh start? Is this the real reason we moved or was it at least one of the rationales? My Mom never bad-mouthed my dad in front of us kids. Even after the divorce, she never spoke badly of him in front of me. She must have known that Dad worked as a spy, yet she never hinted that she knew of his clandestine meetings. Did Dad have a secret female spy partner that helped him with his spying? Was this going on while Mom and Dad were married? Was perhaps Mary Ann, (Dad’s wife, now deceased), a government agent as well and was she one of his spying partners while my parents were married?
I don’t need to know. Both my dad and his wife have long since been gone, both deceased. All his government activity, his secrets, are buried now with him. Everyone takes secrets with them to their graves, especially spies.