Bottom row: Sandra Kettelhut, Georgia Bradley, Frederick Flatow, Pierre Bennerup; second row: Unknown, Philip Ashton, Judith Nott, Arthur Von Au; third row: Bobby Robins, Dorothy Pearson, Paul Wiese; top row: Lewis Turco, Marie Delemarre, Dorcas Kimball.
PIERRE OF SUNNY BORDER
It was a Halloween party at Pierre's home in Kensington in the fall of 1950 that gave me the material for my first great literary success. I had gotten to know Pierre when he and his family lived on South Vine Street in Meriden, Connecticut. He attended Meriden High School during our sophomore year, 1949-50, but even then his father owned the Sunny Border Nursery a few miles down the Chamberlain Highway, which is where Pierre and his family moved before our junior year.
During the intervening summer, however, I got to know the nursery well, for I sometimes worked there with Pierre and Bent, a narrow immigrant Dane who was one of two or three full-time employees. I recall Bent as a simple, silent man whose unvarying lunch, on those steaming hot days in the barn and the fields, was a Hershey Bar sandwich.
Pierre's father was a Dane as well, but his mother was a full-blooded French woman. I liked them both. The father struck me as being the epitome of Danishness: slender, not talkative, but not unapproachable, either. He had blue eyes and light brown hair; he was intelligent and efficient. The mother, on the other hand, was sweet and excitable. She spoke in a rapid, heavily-accented English, and she seemed always in a flutter over something or other.
Lillian, Pierre's sister, was two or three years older than we and she was ravishingly beautiful, I thought. She turned me into a bashful and awkward preadolescent whenever she appeared, a feature of her presence that filled me with chagrin.
Pierre and I used to go out into the dark fields in the simmering evenings and play juvenile games like hide-and-seek. Another thing we liked to do was to sneak up on the cars of petting teen-agers parked along the dirt road that skirted the nursery. One dark night we slunk through the fringe of woods to within a few yards of such a car, close enough to eavesdrop on the conversation of the couple who occupied the front seat. The girl was saying, "What are you doing? Leave my buttons alone. Stop it!"
The boy replied, "Button, button, who's got the button?"
She kept protesting, but not very seriously, and he kept repeating his phrase until Pierre and I couldn't stand it anymore. My hand was resting on a large stone, so I lifted it, arose, heaved it and shouted, "Button, button, who's got the friggin' button?" The stone went crashing through the trees and so did Pierre and I, in the opposite direction, snirtling and giggling.
I was to turn sixteen on the second of May of 1950, and I had determined to buy a car, a 1940 Chevrolet, from one of my older co-workers at Kresge's Five and Ten Cent Store, where I had spent part of the school year as busboy at the fountain. I had been saving my money, and, in order to eke out these sums to reach the $350.00 I needed, I had decided to sell my tropical fish and equipment which stood on tables in the sunporch of the parsonage where I lived with my minister father and missionary mother.
I shared the room with my father, who had a private sanctum behind some bookcases there. I would sometimes spend an evening dreaming into the murky light seeping out of the thick glass of a tank full of angel fish or gouramis, the night outdoors lapping at the windows like dark water. To passers-by perhaps I looked like an aquarian myself. I could hear my father nearby working on the sermons he would deliver on Sunday in the pulpit of the white-clapboarded First Italian Baptist Church that stood next door. A green, glass-shaded lamp on one of the bookcases dropped its liquid glow onto his head and mine, though we couldn't see each other. The light seemed filtered through decaying vegetation. Later, when I left home, I would dream of that room.
In the dream I would be seated before the aquaria. It would be night. The fish would be swimming in their dark waters, and as I watched, they would swim up into the air of the room and maneuver about me. There was no boundary between surface and fathom. I would look into the largest aquarium, trace the leaves of the rust-colored sword plant to its root, and there I would see my father's skull half-buried in the gravel, the stalk of the plant growing out of his eyesocket. It wasn't a pleasant dream, nor was it a nightmare. The emotions I felt were those of nostalgia and ruefulness, of some sort of vague longing and regret. Still, I didn't enjoy the dream's recurrence, and at last I exorcised it unwittingly by writing a poem about it.
To prepare for my purchasing the car Pierre would sometimes let me practice driving the stick-shift truck that belonged to the nursery. I remember our sitting on the front seat the first time, Pierre beside me, and his telling me, "Now, shift into low, and let out the clutch at the same time that you press down on the accelerator." The resulting series of lurches and bumps tossed the truck along the dirt road and our bodies into the air of the cab and from side to side.
"Slow! Slow! Let it out slow!" Pierre yelled, gasping. At last we came to rest. Eventually, after many hazards were passed, I learned how to shift.
My birthday came; another friend, Curt, the baritone in our high school barbershop quartet, The Sportlanders, let me borrow his mother's car to take the road test in — I don't recall why the Chevy wasn't available that day. Curt's car was a '46 Ford with lots more oomph than mine had. The moment I slid in to take the examination was actually the first time I'd been behind the car's wheel, and its responses were so much greater than expected that I had to apologize to the driving inspector and explain why I was roaring backward into my parallel-parking slot and burning rubber when I took off. To my amazement, and to Curt's, I passed the test on first try. That same week I bought the Chevy, the only automobile my family had while I lived at home, and I was born into freedom even though the engine burned nearly as much oil as it did gas.
It must have been that same summer of 1950 when Pierre and his family moved permanently out to Kensington from Meriden, but that didn't sever the ties he had with his friends. By no means. He was around almost as much after the move as he had been before it, for he owned a car as well. There were many, many days when I traveled to Kensington, alone or with a load of Fantaseers — our high school "science-fiction reading club," or Pierre came to Meriden. Pierre was one of the original Fantaseers which, with its women's auxiliary, the Reesatnafs, made up the famous Fantatnafs. It was the Fantatnafs who filled the Sunny Border Nurseries barn that Halloween.
Paul hung on the rafters and made noises like a monkey while he scratched under his arms. I tasted black coffee with sugar for the first time that night, drinking it with fresh doughnuts made by Pierre's mother, and became an addict. We sang songs and bobbed for apples, swilled cider, played games, ate candy, and raised Hob.
Halloween was on a Tuesday that year, so the next day was a school day. I spent it writhing in bed, however, for I had the most tremendous bellyache. "You ate too much candy last night," my mother said. "Let me give you an enema." It was her standard cure for stomach troubles.
"It's not an ordinary stomach ache," I said. "Please, take me to the doctor." It was an amazing thing for me to request, but for some reason she'd have no part of it. I'd merely overeaten.
On the other hand, I'd have no part of an enema. By mid-afternoon my father was beginning to think that perhaps I had something more than merely a gut gripe after all. At last he helped me out to a taxi. I was nearly doubled in half.
When the doctor saw me he prodded me a bit on the right side and I groaned in anguish. He looked at my father and said, "Acute appendicitis. He'll have to be operated on immediately." I can recollect the look of astonishment and anger — at my mother, probably — in Daddy's eyes. And so I was rushed off to the hospital.
When I came out of the anesthetic I was sicker than when I'd gone under it. I vomited green bile, and with every heave my new stitches strained and an agony of excruciating pain bloomed in my abdomen, but at long last things calmed down and I no longer wished to die.
In those days one had to remain in hospital for a week after an appendectomy, and one wasn't allowed to walk for two or three days, so I was given a wheelchair. At once I was a traffic menace to my floor. I sailed down the halls at a great rate, turning in and out of doors, around corners, visiting everyone, nearly knocking a doctor down on one occasion, but he stepped aside at the last moment as I rounded a bend and cried, "Whoa! Sorry." No one seemed to get angry with me. I asked all the young nurses to marry me.
My chastened mother came to visit every day with my rueful father. The Fantaseers and the Reesatnafs came to see me after school. Eventually I was allowed to go home. When I got back to class I discovered that Doc Michele, our junior-year English teacher, had given the class an assignment to write an essay on a personal experience. I had plenty of material, so I sat down at my father's old Underwood Standard typewriter in the sunporch behind the bookcases, and I hunted-and-pecked off a piece I titled "Appendix Excitis."
Life went on. I commissioned Pierre, an artist whose medium, in those days, was oils, to paint me a scene of horror, the details of which I specified, for I was nothing if not addicted to tales of terror and the supernatural as well as science fiction. I recall that one feature of the painting was a disgusting pool of slime out of which a clawed arm was reaching toward the corpse of a hanged man that dangled above the tarn. I hung it on the wall of my bedroom and was thoroughly delighted with it. My mother hated it and threatened all kinds of destruction, which I didn't take seriously. She wouldn't dare touch anything of mine.
At least, she wouldn't while I was at home, but time passed and I graduated from high school. Pierre did as well, from Kensington High, and he attended Princeton where he became an English major which surprised me, for I thought he had some talent as an artist. I am writing this in September of 1991, and yesterday I had a request from a publisher to send some family photographs to use as illustrations in a forthcoming collection of my poems. I found one picture, from the early 1960s, not that I wanted to send but to contemplate. It is of my dear old friend and mentor, the late Loring Williams. He is sitting on a couch in our apartment in Cleveland. My two-year-old daughter Melora is standing next to him on the couch. Her mouth is open — she is talking, he is listening. Above his head, hanging on the wall, I notice today, are two pictures. One is a stylized picture of "Blue Dogs" by the tenor in the Sportlanders, Tony, who went to Pratt institute and became an advertising executive. The other is a roofscape in sunlit white by Pierre. I haven't seen that picture in years, but I'm sure we still have it hidden away somewhere, and I still like it.
One day a decade or so earlier I had come back from the Navy on leave or liberty, and I noticed that Pierre's depiction of the hanging man was missing from its wonted space on my wall. I asked my mother what had happened to it, and she replied that she'd carried out her threat and thrown it away. At first I couldn't believe she'd done so, and I searched through the house, but I never found it. I know it was a stupid painting, but I would like to have it, and I never forgave my mother for the only act of censorship she ever carried out against her son's taste in art or literature.
Pierre worked for several years in New York and then when his father died he came back to Connecticut and took over the nursery. He is still there, so far as I know, but we've not seen each other or had contact with one another for a quarter-century. My wife Jean and I seldom get back to Meriden anymore, but one of those times many years ago I heard, perhaps from my brother Gene who followed my tracks into the hallowed halls of Meriden High which now no longer exists, that for years Doc Michele read "Appendix Excitis" to her English classes. It was, I understand, the only essay by a former student that she ever read to any of them. She never told me she was doing it, but I must say I couldn't have been more pleased when I heard what she'd been up to, for I respected her immensely. I wish I still owned a copy of that ancient paper, but I must not have made a carbon as I usually did. I'd really like to see what all the excitement was about. And I wish I still had Pierre’s genre painting.
From Fantaseers: A Book of Memories, by Lewis Turco, Scottsdale, AZ: StarCloudPress.com, 2005, 196 pp., ISBN 1-932842-15-2, paper. Available from Amazon. Copyright © and all rights reserved 2005 by Lewis Turco. May not be reproduced anywhere at any time without the written permission of the author.