1964 brought The Beatles to the United States, with their first hit I Wanna Hold Your Hand, forever changing the way rock music would sound. The Warren Commission published its controversial report on the investigation into the assassination of President John Kennedy, while Jack Ruby was convicted of the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald. Kitty Genovese was murdered while at least 28 of her neighbors heard her cries, and failed to do anything about it. Three civil rights workers, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney were murdered in Mississippi, by local segregationist law enforcement officials. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was passed by Congress, giving President Lyndon B. Johnson broad war powers against the North Vietnamese — Johnson was later elected President over Barry Goldwater, receiving more than 60 percent of the vote. The Ford Mustang rolled off the production lines in Detroit.
And I had my first boyfriend.
Rusty Moran was a curly-haired, red-headed, freckled cutie who caught my eye in the fourth grade — and I caught his. Rusty lived on a street parallel to the apartment complex I lived in and, because there were no buses that transported parochial school students to and from the school, we walked. Rusty walked with me to the intersection of Liberty Street and Washington Boulevard, where we parted ways. Sometimes Steve walked with us but, more often than not, he was way ahead of us with his own friends.
The way home from St. Mary’s school was never in a straight line, nor on the well-beaten path. Parking lots, alleys, even the fairgrounds were as much a part of our route home as was the end destination.
One parking lot had (and still does to this day) a concrete-enclosed and very steep concrete ramp that led up into an old rickety building. Leftovers from previous industrial years, it was probably once some sort of loading dock. But to the kids from St. Mary’s that made it part of their daily trek home, it was the tightrope to be walked at the circus or the challenge to beat someone else running up that steep ramp and making it to that old rickety door first. For the more daring, it was the daredevil leap from the top of the ramp’s concrete sides onto the concrete below.
From there we wandered through the various sections of the large village parking lot looking for anything interesting on the ground or for pennies stuck in parking meters that hadn’t quite swallowed their coins. The village lot sat quietly behind the merchant shops along Liberty Street, the heart of the business section of Bath. The stink of old grease that hung over the old Chat-a-Whyle Restaurant assailed our nostrils as we raced by the establishment hurling insults into the air about what they might be serving that day, laughing at the same comments that came up almost daily.
Because the village lot spanned almost the entire length of the business district, every alley was an invitation to re-join the civilized world on the village streets but none was favored by us over the others. Often we bypassed the alleys altogether and exited the village lot on the other end of it, at the East William Street entrance. On rare occasions, a slight off-course turn to the right and another left would lead us to the Steuben County Fairgrounds.
At the Fairgrounds we would run to the spots where we knew the dime-toss game had stood during the county fair and we kicked around in the dirt anticipating the discovery of a king’s ransom in dimes that had hopefully been overlooked by carnies. The grandstand at the race track also harbored treasures of coins dropped from pockets, half-eaten candied apples, a child’s shoe, various wrappers, used event tickets and other cast-off materials from fair-goers.
I was in the fourth grade when Rusty Moran caught my eye. My teacher that year was Sister Mary Virginia who was a nice enough soul. Steve had, for the third year in a row, drawn Sister Mary Janet.
I had no interest in a lot of those after school activities any more. The little bit of time I had to spend with him as we strolled through the village parking lot was precious to me, even at that tender young age. Sometimes, while we walked through that village lot — our own personal world — Rusty would hold my hand. We mostly stuck to the same routes and didn’t stray for any of the usual distractions with the other kids.
It was this fact, that we didn’t stray from the beaten path, that should have made it easy to find that damned shoe!
That winter, I was thrilled to death to have a pair of “shoe-boots.” That’s what we called them. Shoe-boots. They were boots that you didn’t put on over your shoes, rather, you put them on in place of your shoes — and you carried your shoes. This was a really big deal to me because, up until that point, all of my friends and classmates had shoe-boots, and I was still wearing the kind you wore over your shoes. My classmates, however, had cute little bags in which to carry their shoes. Lacking a cute little tote bag, mine rode on top of my school books as I carried them home.
One night after we got home, I somehow realized that I was missing one shoe. Shoes were expensive. Mom made precious little money and didn’t have time to waste it on foolishness and wasteful things. She always made a point of making sure we knew that. We’d heard that enough times to know that this was bad. Very bad.
Somehow, after our mother arrived home from work, I found the courage to tell her that I had lost a shoe. Flinching with the anticipation of a beating or something worse, I heard my mother’s voice screaming at me about carelessness, “that’s what I get for trying to buy nice things for you,” and “waste of time and money.”
Angrily she instructed me to go back out and re-trace my route home, looking for that shoe. Steve was ordered to go with me.
Just out of the house and just out of earshot, Steve and I quickly agreed that if we didn’t find my shoe, I was most likely going to die that night. I didn’t relish what was waiting for me at home if I came home without that shoe, but we had to try to find it.
Steve and I walked to school and back twice, through the village lot and every alley that branched off it looking for that shoe. It was nowhere to be found in the darkness and, as the dinner hour began to pass, I knew that I couldn’t go home without that shoe.
Steve and I agreed that we couldn’t go home — I’m not sure what Steve was afraid of, but he knew that nothing good was going to come of our return empty handed. He had a rather negative view of life those days since the teacher that was his nemesis in the third and fourth grades, Sister Janet, was his teacher that year in the fifth grade. Sister Janet scared Steve to death and he often suffered Sister Janet’s wrath in class. Mom theorized that it was Sister Janet’s dictatorial methods that were the root of Steve’s bedwetting problems.
Perhaps Steve thought that if he ran away with me, that would solve his Sister Janet problems. In any event, we decided we could not go home. Instead, we walked to Rusty’s house and, when his mother answered the door and said he was eating dinner, we decided to walk the route home one more time in search of the shoe. By the time we returned to that part of town, Rusty was sure to be done with dinner and able to come out and hang with us for a bit.
We walked back to St. Mary’s, but didn’t find the shoe. Since it was cold and we were tired and hungry, we went inside the church and sat quietly, waiting for time to pass. Neither of us spoke or moved. We just sat there, contemplating our fates and asking God to help us find that shoe and save us the beating that we were sure to get or, if we decided not to go home, to spare us from having to live in the balcony of that church, sneaking down at night to steal food from people’s homes or garbage cans. Back in those days, a 9-year-old’s thoughts were pretty simplistic.
We made our way back to Rusty’s house (still keeping an eye out for that GD shoe). Rusty was thrilled to have us come and visit and we went out to his back yard where his father had created a make-shift ice skating rink. Rusty’s sister provided me with a pair of skates while Rusty provided Steve with a pair and we skated.
After some time, some kids that lived in our apartment complex arrived via the back yard and, upon seeing us, one said “Pat and Steve, your mother has the police looking for you!” Almost as quickly as she had said this, she turned and left.
Terrified at being caught, we quickly unlaced our skates and, as we were changing back into our boots, the police car pulled up into the driveway. Mr. Dillon (a village police officer) climbed out from behind the steering wheel and, as he walked toward us, he asked us “Are you Pat and Steve Hitt?”
“Yes,” we replied.
We were tucked inside the police car and driven home.
After escorting us to the door where our mother was waiting, Mr. Dillon advised our mother “If it was me, I’d make sure they got a good spanking.” I remember thinking how much that was a given. Spankings seemed to be the answer to everything in our house, so why should this be any different? In those days, I didn’t know there was any difference between spankings and beatings. They were one and the same.
We suffered our beating and later, laying in bed, I realized that the beating was probably better than the life we thought we were going to have live, fending for ourselves like some sort of nocturnal creatures, foraging for food after the town had settled down for the night.
A few days later, a new pair of shoes were purchased and I was the proud owner of a fabric bag that my grandmother had made especially for my shoes.
Mr. Ludden was the superintendant of our apartment complex. I don’t recall ever having met him outside of our apartment but we often saw him in our apartment. He was sometimes there talking to our mother when we came home from school and he often visited us at night. Those nighttime visits were precipitated by my mother turning on the light over the back door. That gave Mr. Ludden the signal that there was nobody at our place except for us. I was unsure why that was important but didn’t think a lot of it.
Sometimes Mr. Ludden would still be there, sitting on the couch with our mother, when we were sent to bed.
Sometimes on a Saturday or Sunday Mr. Ludden would pick all of us up at St. Mary’s Church, across town, and take us for a ride or an ice cream.
Mr. Ludden was really nice to us.
One day, I was roller skating on the sidewalks around the apartment complex Mrs. Ludden outside her apartment. She said hello and I said hello and, before I knew it, I was standing there talking to her telling her how much fun we’d had the day before when Mr. Ludden took us for ice cream. “How fun that sounds!” Mrs. Ludden said.
Later that night, my mother angrily asked me if I told Mrs. Ludden about our ice cream trip the previous day. I admitted that I had, unsure why it had been a bad thing to do. “SHE WASN’T SUPPOSED TO KNOW!” my mother screamed at me. I remember thinking that I didn’t know that and I couldn’t understand what I had done wrong by telling Mrs. Ludden what a nice man her husband was.
Not long after that incident, we moved from the apartment complex to a trailer court where my mother had purchased a trailer. No longer having to share a room with Steve was a real treat for me and I reveled in the luxury of having my own room.
Not long after we moved into the trailer, Mr. Ludden began living with us. I don’t remember liking or not liking the idea, he was just there. At that time in my life, I had been so sheltered, it didn’t occur to me to understand the ramifications of the secret nightly visits, the pickups at St. Mary’s, or even Mr. Ludden living with us. They were just uneventful things that occurred here and there in our lives, or so I thought. For the next couple of years, life was pretty uneventful.
In the early Spring of 1965 we came home from school one day to find our mother alone and crying.
While we suffered frequently at the hands of our mother, we still loved her very much and the sight of her tears shook us deeply. We asked what was wrong and she wrapped her arms around both of us (something she rarely did) and told us that she needed us to be good for her because Mr. Ludden had left and gone back to his wife. His wife had taken ill and, according to my mother, he had to go back and be with her because it was the right thing to do.
We were stunned. Not so much by Mr. Ludden’s departure, but by our mother’s tears and anguish over it.
For the next couple of weeks, Steve and I made extraordinary efforts to not get into trouble, to not say something wrong, and to not get in our mother’s way. Something inside of both of us told us that it would be dangerous to do so at that point in time.
After a couple of weeks, Mr. Ludden returned and never left again. It wasn’t long after his return that we learned Mom was having a baby sometime in late September or early October. We were very young, naive, and didn’t know enough to know that if the math had been done, a lot of questions would have been answered.
Steve and I were still pretty much left to our own designs during the day while Mom worked. When school wasn’t in session, we explored our surroundings, always finding something that piqued our interest and kept us occupied. We still occasionally got into trouble.
The people who had the trailer next to ours had a daughter who was in high school. I remember sitting in the yard with her one day, just chattering away about nothing in particular. She asked me “Who takes care of you during the day?” “Nobody,” I told her.
Later that night, my mother confronted me, asking me if I had told the neighbors that nobody babysat us during the day. Confused about her anger, I admitted to having said that. “You tell her that you lied and that you go to a babysitter!” my mother screamed at me. Confused, I tried to understand what was happening, and why my mother insisted that I lie to the neighbors and tell them that it had been me who lied. I decided that the best course of action was to avoid the neighbors completely. I wouldn’t have to humiliate myself and lie by telling them I had lied. As it turned out, the next-door neighbor was an auxiliary policeman and, knowing something about the law, had called my mother and warned her that it was illegal to leave two children home alone as we were.
At the end of my fourth grade year, as always, Father O’Malley came to our classroom to hand out our report cards. He was always quick to find something positive to say about our report cards, even if they weren’t anything to write home to Mom about.
My report card read “Promoted to 5th grade,” and I walked home with my chest puffed out the whole way. Promoted. It had such great significance back in those days.
I was halfway home before I realized that I hadn’t seen my brother anywhere along the route, in any of the usual places. I wasn’t terribly concerned about it because it wasn’t unusual enough for me to worry.
As I opened the screen door to our apartment, ready to insert the key into the lock, the door was opened by my brother. A sound behind me made me look over my shoulder and I saw my mother getting out of the car in which she rode to work every day. My brother bolted past me, waving his report card in his hand as he ran-jumped down the stairs toward our mother, proudly proclaiming “I failed fifth grade! I failed!”
Understandably surprised at my brother’s glee regarding his failure, Mom said “That’s nothing to be proud of.”
“UH HUH!” Steve replied excitedly. “Sister Janet’s going to the sixth grade!”
And so, that autumn, Steve and I began the fifth grade together, under the supervision of Mrs. Sherry Case. The kids had a grand time with her name but, for as funny as her name was, she was all business in the classroom, for the most part.
However, Mrs. Case wasn’t Catholic! Mr. Case was Catholic and apparently Mrs. Case was working on it but, until she was baptized Catholic, she was hustled out of our classroom when it came time for our religion class.
Steve’s bedwetting problem slowly resolved itself that year — his demons had been exorcised by the accumulation of six or seven failing grades the previous academic year.
Right about that time Mr. Ludden moved back into our home and we learned that Mom was pregnant. We had no way of knowing that our lives were about to change forever.