Although I was born in California and I live here today, I grew up in the medium sized town of Hamilton, Ohio. Like a lot of towns, Hamilton was originally founded as a fort. By the mid 19th century it had become a significant manufacturing town and it has a colorful history. It was even once affectionately known as Little Chicago. If you read the Wiki link here, you’ll even read that the entire town was off limits to military personnel due to the prevalence of gambling and prostitution. In my own lifetime, there were a few events that occurred there which most of us would have preferred did not. We that grew up in Hamilton sometimes affectionately refer to it as “Hamiltucky”.
This week’s story is a funny memory from way back when Kim and I had been married only a few years. The year was 1985 and Kim was pregnant with our second son, Corey. We lived in Hamiltucky at the time. Kim was an LPN and I was still working for the foundry, HP Deuscher. To begin this story, I want to share a spotty memory from my very early childhood.
I hope most of you readers have seen the Billy Bob Thornton movie called Sling Blade. There’s a very important scene where Karl revisits the place where he grew up. Karl had miserable, stereotypical back-woods parents who made him sleep out in the wood shed in a hole in the ground. Before you start thinking very badly of Karl’s parents, let me tell you that they did supply Karl with a blanket. Karl is what most of us would call “slow”. The scene is important because it illuminates the circumstances Karl had to endure as a child and it explains much about what his chances for success in society would be – pretty much zero. It is at this point in the movie where we all become hugely sympathetic for Karl.
Somewhere in my family threads there was, (or there is), a Karl in my life; his name was Ronnie. My Grandma had a sister-in-law named Viola and Ronnie was one of her children. I remember meeting Viola and her litter perhaps three times; twice at my Granddad’s house and once at their house. I remember their house being filthy – they were dirt poor. It had to be pretty dirty for a six year old to be afraid to leave their mom and dad’s side. I vividly remember the feeling of wanting to get out of there and back to Grandma and Granddad’s house (by the way, my Granddad hand built his 4 room house many would consider a shack, but it had museum cleanliness compared to Viola’s).
As a child, I would frequently tune in to the adult conversations. They likely didn’t pay attention to me, but I often paid attention to them. My parents would often play cards with friends of theirs and I used to love hiding behind my bedroom door so I could tune into the adult conversations. My brothers and sisters weren’t very good conversationalists, especially since they were all younger (and how many interesting conversations about Batman can a 6 year old entertain?). As an aside, these card games are the only memories of mine where I have a vision of my mom smoking cigarettes.
But anyway, my granddad I think hated Viola and thought she was a “whore” or just a filthy thief and liar. I don’t have access to the background behind these words, but he was very vocal about her. My ‘facts’ about Viola are what I guess you’d call speculations and piecemeal memories, all from overheard adult conversations.
Listening to Granddad rant about Viola was always entertaining. He also acted like he hated “those heathens”. Those heathens was a term of endearment for her children. Evidently Viola’s litter would raid Granddad’s refrigerator whenever they’d stop by the house. Granddad’s penchant for charity extended only so far because on one of our trips to Indiana, we walked in to find he had installed a big, giant hinge and lock on his refrigerator. I remember my mom and Grandma laughing pretty hard over this. I miss my Granddad, he was a true character.
That’s enough on Viola, let’s talk about what I remember about Ronnie. Ronnie was one of her children. I want to say that he was the oldest, but I’m not positive about that. Ronnie was born with what is called a hair lip. Hairlip is what they were called when I was young. Today we know it as cleft lip or cleft palate. Obviously they didn’t have insurance else he might have had a surgery. Instead, Ronnie was treated more as a pet dog rather than a child, likely with fleas and all. Ronnie had to eat out of a bowl on the floor, was kicked around a bit and generally mistreated. Most of this information is gained from my overhearing my parents and grandparents talking about them and how Viola treated Ronnie.
I’ll give my dad some credit here – I remember his being overly nice to Ronnie and Ronnie’s crying once when Dad was leaving the house. I want to say I recall some kind of verbal threat issued to Viola from Dad once relative to how she treated him, but I’m a little fuzzy on that. I guess it happened since I do have some vague memory of it.
So from Sling Blade to Viola to Ronnie and now to us; me and Kim. One day my Dad called me on the phone. I was still living at home, just before Kim and I got married so the year would have been 1978. He had been reading the obituaries and noticed the last name of Harville. The conversation went like this, almost verbatim:
Dad – hey Rob. Do you know who Ed Shelton is? The one that’s the county Sheriff?
Me – Sure, his son’s name was Ed also, we knew him as Eddie. We were friends in the fifth grade but got disconnected in sixth. He was one of the kids that got killed by a train a year ago, did you know that? So why do you ask?
Dad – I saw in the obituaries that his mother died and her last name was Harville, from Kentucky. That’s Mom’s maiden name. So I called Mom and asked if she knew a Susan Harville (I made up the first name) and she said – yes, she’s my cousin. So anyway, you are related to Ed Shelton.
Me – huh, small world. Well we don’t call it good old Hamiltucky for nothing. (Chuckling). We’re probably all related to each other somehow.
I don’t remember repeating this conversation with anyone for many years. It just wasn’t important to me at the time. Fast forward now to 1985. Kim and I were driving alone together from somewhere like Houston Woods or Oxford, Ohio. We were driving down Stahlheber Rd towards Kim’s parents’ or our house in Brookwood subdivision. We slowed for a set of railroad tracks and on the left side of the road, across the tracks, there was a house. In the front yard there was a sign. It said “VOTE for ED SHELTON for SHERIFF”.
Kim saw the sign and blurted out. “Ed Shelton – did you know I’m related to them?”
Long Pause – I didn’t say anything for at least a minute. All I could do was think. Did Mitchell, (our first son), have any birth defects? Quick, ten fingers and ten toes, right? Any set of repeating numbers on his scalp underneath the hair? No, he’s perfect. What about this next one? Should we have one of those special blood test thingies done…what are they called, aminoacidsynthesis or something like that? Finally I said – “uh, no I didn’t know that. How are you related?”
Kim – “I’m not sure. I just heard Mom saying it the other day. We’re also related to Rosemary Clooney, some second or third cousin thing.”
I didn’t say anything; I was silent.
I had never told her of my conversation with Dad years ago and I wasn’t going to today either. I was a little confused, to be honest, so I figured I’d let some time go by. About a year later during one of our neighborhood walks, we stopped at Kim’s parents’ house. Our first home was a cozy little ranch house located in the same subdivision as her parents. I don’t know how we got on the topic, but the sheriff’s name came up. I jumped right on it and asked Gerri – Kim said you guys were related. Gerri came right back with a look of surprise and said “no” and she looked at Kim and asked her where she got that? They had a little back and forth for a couple of minutes and when it was all said and done, voila! Kim & I were not related! No more worries about future children born with legs coming out of their heads. The world was right again.
As it turned out, Kim was right about the Clooneys, they are related by blood. So Kim is related to George, but she’s not related to me, too bad for her, she got the short end of the stick. For a year there though, we were kissin’ cousins.