Hartford, Wisconsin is a small sleepy town about thirty five miles from Milwaukee...a moderately large city most famous for the brewing of beer. It is over five miles from the nearest freeway, so it remains, even today, well off the beaten path. In 1936, the year of birth of William Guy Chaplin, its population was 3537. Spread out around two intersecting streets, Main and Sumner, it nestles in wooded farmland. It was the main shopping center for the people who lived on and worked those farms as well as a weekend watering hole for them. Like most small towns in Wisconsin, recreation centered around the sixty or so bars, one for about every fifty residents. Most of these were owned by alcoholics, their main purpose being to provide the owners with booze at wholesale prices and to supply a handy meeting place for their cronies.
You could get a drink in almost any of those bars by the time you were thirteen or so. One time, when I was 16 I was having a beer in a rural bar when a kid walked in who couldn’t be older than 10. He had to climb up onto the bar stool. He ordered a shot of whiskey with a beer chaser, downed it with dispatch and left. I wondered of the bartender whether he wasn’t rather young to be drinking. “He’s just finished plowing the back forty. You’re old enough to work...your old enough to drink.” This was a common attitude in Wisconsin when I was a kid. It’s actually quite rational...except that it leads to alcoholism. I don’t know the figures, but I will bet Wisconsin has the highest rate of alcoholism in the country.
There were two small movie theaters in town, supplying the latest and greatest...if that word were really applicable to Hollywood fare of the thirties and forties...of current movies. The movies did arrive in Hartford quite a while after opening in the larger cities, but soon enough for the residents and the surrounding farmers, whose other main medium of entertainment was radio. On Saturday afternoons, the larger of the two would have a ten cent matinee catering to kids, with short Three Stooges films and a few cartoons.
There was a ballroom at the north end of town which featured polka fests on weekends. Its biggest attractions were Lawrence Welk and Liberace. Although they appeared infrequently, they always packed them in.
Getting bored yet reading this? I even get sleepy writing about it.
One day, while Gypsy and I were conversing…she mentioned the thrill she got the first time she used “foul” language.
I retorted with the following anecdote. When I was in grade school, a boy would ask a girl “What’s under there?” and if she asked in return, “Under where?” all the other boys would burst into raucous laughter. Don’t get it?
That was the extent of my dirty word education until much later.
Who’s Gypsy? Dear reader, all will be revealed in due time...
Along with a sizeable rural child population who came to town in busses each day, it supported three grade schools, prosaically called by the residents The North Side School, The South Side School and The Parochial School.
There were three drug stores in Hartford at the time, or rather, three stores that sold mostly sundries, tooth paste, mouth wash, patent medicines, etc., and a few prescription drugs...about one or two per day at most...because this was before the explosion of manufactured prescription drugs that followed WW II. Two of the stores also featured a soda fountain, and one, the one owned by William's father, Morris...nicknamed Casey...also served lunch items...cold sandwiches and Katherine's...William's mother's...delicious chili. Among other things, this provided William with an almost endless supply of ice cream. Whenever he complained of being hungry, his mother would say, like a mantra, "Eat some ice cream. It's good for you."
Yes, I did eat a lot of ice cream. It was great for putting on weight when I needed it for athletic contests, but not so good for the cholesterol that now clogs my veins and arteries.
William's very first memory was being awakened by loud noises on a hot summer night in 1938. His family, Mom, Dad, his brother Wayne, aged eleven, his sister Camille, aged ten, himself and his newborn baby sister Susan all lived with his father's father, Guy William Chaplin. All of them, including Grandpa Guy, lived in a very small house on Main Street, one block from Guy's combination saloon and pool hall. Those were hard times and the accommodations were very crowded, the lifestyle sparse. So William slept on the screened-in back porch in the summer, after little sister Susie took his place in the crib in their parent's bedroom.
He was often aroused at night by the sounds of summer thunderstorms. When he cried out in fright, his mother or big sister would come and comfort him. This night, the sounds were similar, but somehow different. It was not raining and the loud booms were shorter and sharper, but just as scary. So, William burst into tears and was soon joined by his sister Camille, cooing softly into his ear "Don't be scared, little Billy Guy. C'm'on, let me show you something."
Carrying "little Billy Guy" on her shoulders, she went around the front of the house and right into the middle of the street, facing north where Main street branched into two parts. The one veering to the left was called, quite naturally, Branch Street, the other was the extension of Main. There, in the sky, was a brilliant display of beautiful colored explosive blossoms, each followed by a loud bang a second or so later. It was the 4th of July and what had awakened young Billy were fireworks. As each one detonated, Camille would say soothingly, "There's a red one." or "There's a blue one." or whatever fit.
Excitement, excitement...oh, what a thrill...
Bill's father's father, Guy William Chaplin, after whom he had been named with a simple name inversion, was more than a pool hall and bar owner. He also served the best hamburger Bill ever tasted, before or since. He once confided to Bill that the secret was grinding a little suet...steak fat...into the hamburger meat. Whenever he could, Bill would go there just to get a free burger.
His pool hall, housed in the cellar of one of the other drug stores, was a dark, dank and thoroughly exciting place for me. My parents did not like to talk about it, nor about Grampa Guy. I loved to sneak down and visit it and, as soon as I was old enough to drink...about 15...Grampa or his regular bartender would serve me a small glass of beer with my burger.
During those visits, his grandfather would always be seated at a large round table, a green eyeshade filtering the single overhead lamp, playing poker with the local gamblers. He didn't move much, restrained as much by his bulk...about five nine and well over 300 pounds, he was definitely fat...as by the nature of the game. He always won. Before Bill had been born, when his paternal grandmother was still alive, these winnings would accumulate during the year, creating a stake for bigger games elsewhere. When he felt he had accumulated enough, he would take off for Milwaukee, accompanied by an adoring retinue of local cronies. There he would win again, using his winnings both to support the debauchery of himself and his comrades, but also to finance the next stop, Chicago. Winning there as well, he would move on to Detroit, then Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and finally, New York City...the Big Time. There he would meet up with his friend, Damon Runyon. It is rumored that he was the inspiration for one of Runyon's characters, Milwaukee Fats, and later for the Jackie Gleason character, Minnesota Fats, in the movie The Hustler, since he was also an accomplished pool player. He wasn't as good as his only child Casey but respectable. Eventually, his luck and his money would play out and he would return to Hartford, Wisconsin to start over. Needless to say, his wife wasn't as enamored with this behavior as his acquaintances.
His next real memories were of his entire family, gathered around the radio in early December, 1941, to hear President Franklin Delano Roosevelt announce that the Japanese navy, in an act that would "live in infamy," had attacked the Pacific Fleet of the United States of America at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, then a territory of the U.S. Billy Guy knew that Hawaii was in some unimaginably remote location somewhere in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California, another legendary distant land.
Somehow, the war never really affected Hartford much. In contrast, a very small neighboring town, Hustisford...the birthplace of the wife-to-be of his older brother...experienced a more personal consequence. Up until that fateful day in 1941, their one-room school had been taught entirely in German, as the area around Hartford was heavily populated by German immigrants. Once Germany declared war on the U.S. shortly after the Japanese attack, that practice was quickly outlawed.
Still, in 1945, as the allies were about to conclude the war, the ballroom at the north end of town, the same place from which the fireworks were launched each Independence Day, was converted into a prisoner of war camp. It was a classic circular ballroom, surrounded by a thick grove of pine trees. The Germans who were housed there were very grateful. For one thing, had they escaped the beastly butchery of the Eastern Front against the relentless onslaught of the Soviet forces then pressing toward Berlin. For another, they had enough to eat.
They slept in one big group in the ballroom itself and were frequently allowed...in ones and twos...to roam freely about town, the only thing distinguishing them from other residents being a giant yellow "P" sewn to their green dungaree jackets in the back. In fact, the prisoner camp was surrounded by snow fence, not barbed wire, and the prisoners were often freed to carry out odd jobs for people around town, for which they received small amounts of money or some home-baked treat. What the hell, they were a thousand miles from an ocean in any direction, so where were they going to go?
So Billy Guy's childhood was serene. The closest he ever got to the war was by floating sheets of toilet tissue in the toilet bowl and pretending his stream of urine was a fierce air assault on Japanese or German warships. He had been told not to fear the Germans in town, since they were "good guys" as opposed to their evil Nazi leaders, so the P-bearing prisoners were merely an oddity. Other than that, the war was just another far off adventure featured in the newsreels that accompanied movies or reported by Edward R. Murrow on the radio.
One thing I did get to do during the war is read every comic book ever published. Many of these were blatant propaganda screeds about the “dirty” Japs and Nazis. The drug store sold these for ten cents apiece and...as long as I didn’t dirty them...I got to read them for free as soon as they arrived from the distributor...a truly wondrous “entitlement” of being the son of a drug store owner.
There were no non-Caucasian people at all in Hartford before or during the war. Ironically, the first people with non-white skins to settle there were members of a Japanese-American family that had been forcibly evacuated from California early in the war and been incarcerated in a concentration camp...euphemistically called a "resettlement center"...somewhere in the Midwest. Having been betrayed by their neighbors in California...many of their possessions had "disappeared" in the interim...they decided to settle in the Midwest after the war, where the people were much friendlier to people of their ethnicity, as much from ignorance as any sense of decency.
Each summer, Mexican-Americans...Texicans...came to Hartford to help harvest sugar beets and green peas. They supported the Libby, Mc Neil & Libby canning factory in town. This plant also provided year round jobs for a number of permanent residents of Hartford. Then there was temporary employment during harvest season, mostly for teenagers, often their very first jobs. The wages were low...90 cents and hour...and the hours brutal, often 16 to 20 per day, with no extra pay for overtime.
The Texicans lived in what could only be described as a compound, an abandoned hemp factory which was divided into cubicles with blankets hung on ropes separating each family from the others. Privacy was nonexistent, the air hot and sticky inside during most of the harvest season. Few of them spoke much English, but some eventually learned both the language and other skills and settled in Hartford as permanent residents.
Billy's parents were nominal members of a church, the First Methodist, although he couldn't really remember them attending any service but one, the one when he himself preached the Easter Sunday sermon, during a teenage flirtation with organized religion. He was later to learn that his mother, whose father was the son of Irish immigrants, had been baptized Roman Catholic. The third of seven children, her three older siblings were practicing Catholics, her three younger protestants. Her mother, having converted to Catholicism when she married, had faithfully practiced it for a while, but abandoned it after Katherine was born. The reasons were vague and unspoken in polite company, but it seems her husband, William McLaughlin, was a typical Irish drunk who didn't always do the right thing for his family. He died in his fifties, of cancer, so Billy never got to know him.
It was rumored that his father, with the suspiciously Jewish sounding name of Morris, had Semitic ancestors somewhere in his family tree, but no one could or would ever verify this. Being Jewish in Wisconsin was not cool. Only his maternal grandmother bothered to regularly attend church. She became influential in getting Billy and his siblings to attend fairly often and at least attempt to be a good Christians.
I am a real mutt. My father's mother was of German ancestry, my mother’s mother Norwegian. My mother’s father was Irish...Black Irish. Only my father’s father Guy was more than second generation immigrant. His ancestors had arrived in 1788 in the person of Moses Chaplin...with sons Isaac and Abraham...no shit!...and during the nineteenth century a Turkish woman married into the family. As you will discover, my descendants are even more mixed.
Billy joined the Cub Scouts when he was very young, became a Boy Scout as soon as he was old enough for that senior group. They took many excursions into the woods surrounding town, camping and learning the skills taught to every good Scout. He worked his way all the way up to the rank of Life Scout, which resulted in his being rewarded, in 1949, by being sent to the very first postwar national Boy Scout Jamboree in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, the location where George Washington and his troops had wintered during the Revolutionary War. Fifty thousand Boy Scouts from all over the U.S. set up tents and camped there for a week. Bill's troop had constructed teepees from tarpaper and poles...a kind of simulated Indian dwelling. The Scouts actually did honor the ways of those who preceded the Europeans to this continent, albeit it in a somewhat counterfeit and stereotypical manner.
Only two things distinguished that gathering. Almost a third of all Scouts who attended contracted poison ivy inflammation, including most of Bill's cohorts. He himself had inherited an immunity to it from his father, so he was spared. Or at least, he still had that immunity when he was thirteen. His dad used to brag about it and rub the toxic weed on his arms and legs to show his utter lack of fear. Then, one day, this immune system idiosyncrasy went south and his whole body broke out in blisters and sores. Lesson: don't fuck with Mother nature. Billy had heard that story often enough not to test fate himself with such foolish bravado, but he didn't get infected on this trip.
The other exceptional event was a massive nighttime candlelight ceremony at which Harry S. Truman, the President at the time, gave a distinctly non-memorable speech. But, fifty thousand youth holding lit candles was really quite a breathtaking sight which is burned into his memory to this day.
There was also an added attraction to the trip for Bill. It was a two week sojourn through historic sites in the eastern U.S.. He got to visit Philadelphia and see where the Founding Fathers wrote the constitution and the Declaration of Independence. He saw the Liberty Bell. He visited the battlegrounds of Concord and Lexington in Massachusetts. He saw authentically preserved colonial mansions. He got to tour Washington, D.C. and have his mind filled with patriotic visions from wars past and present. He even got some time in New York City, then and now the capital of the world.
I stayed with the scouts until I had accumulated enough merit badges to make eagle scout, but the scoutmaster would not promote me to that exalted station on the grounds that I was too young. I would hear this song again and again during my youth about various things. This was probably the first of many, many disillusioning moments that soured me on being a “good scout.”
When Billy was about five, just before WW II, his family moved from Granddad's to a tree-shaded two story house on a little trafficked road...Grand Avenue...about two blocks from The South Side grade school, four blocks from the high school. There were four bedrooms, one for Mom and Dad, one for the boys, one for the girls and one for Grandma Mac, Ella McLaughlin, Katherine's mother, who spent her elderly days living with one or another of her seven children.
The grade school had a rather boring playground. It had only six swings and a slide when Willy started kindergarten although they later added a merry-go-round to spice it up a bit. Another play area...Billy's favorite...was an old abandoned sandstone quarry about a block to the east of their home. It was really quite small, but it was a natural playground. Willy used to play Cowboys and Indians there by himself or with a couple of neighbor kids, "galloping" on their pretend-horses up and down the small hills and along the edge of the crater...which was only about fifteen feet deep and perhaps a hundred feet across. Only a few chunks of sandstone had been excavated from it to be used as grave markers, but to his little boy mind, it was the Grand Canyon and the abandoned uncut stones were an ancient mysterious religious area, like Stonehenge in England.
In short, Billy's early life resembled that of the television family, the Cleavers, and he was the Beaver. He even had Beaveresque nickname, Billy Guy Chaplin, Scalliwag Shrimp...a nickname he came to detest by the age of six.
Actually, TV only appeared in his life about 1949, when Milwaukee began to broadcast an NBC station...WTMJ...and his father, always a fan of the latest and greatest gadget, erected a tall antenna to enhance a very feeble signal. This gave them a grainy black and white picture. On occasion, when the weather conditions were favorable, they could get an even feebler signal from Chicago, a distant 115 miles away.
By that time, his brother and sister had left home, Wayne to become a pharmacist in Daddy's footsteps, Camille to attempt the same, but lasting only a single semester. Those were not good times for female college students, and although she had the talent, the pressure of being the only women in a class of over a hundred...the taunts and innuendoes thrown her way...forced her to return to Hartford and pursue a more conventional life style for women in that era...that is, marrying and having children.
Their next house, a split level suburban type dwelling, had much more room for everyone and the luxury of a basement recreation room containing a small bar, some couches and eventually, a pool table salvaged from Granddad's pool hall. Bill...Billy was changed to the more dignified "Bill" as William matured...didn't learn about it until he was much older, but his dad had been a world class billiards player. He even made Ripley's Believe It or Not as the youngest "house man"...the person who takes on all comers in a pool hall...when he was only ten. He went on to play Willie Mosconi...the greatest pool player who ever lived...in the national championship in the early twenties. He lost, but his skills were still quite awesome. One time, when Bill came home on leave from the Army, he found his dad in the recreation room, finishing up the re-covering of a pool table. It was a beautiful antique, with carved wooded legs filled with concrete and a real slate surface under the felt cover.
Fancying himself a good pool player himself...Bill had been successful gambling on the tables in his Grandpa's old pool hall, making a few bucks now and then from lesser players...and had continued this success in the Army on payday....he challenged his father to a game of straight pool, up to 150. Arrogantly, he called the break shot, instead of playing safe. "Front ball in the side pocket." And made it. He then proceeded to run 12 balls, good even for him.
Casey...Bill's dad was only "Morris" in his youth...although he hadn't lifted a cue in over twenty years, beat him 150 to 18. Casey's longest run was 87 balls and he took only three turns to reach the game limit.
Bill won only one time from Casey. When he was released from the Army, where he had learned a new game called nine-ball-bank, he taught it to his father then proceeded to beat him three times straight. Later, after he was back in college and returned to his parent's for a visit, he asked his mom. "Where's Dad?"
"Down in the basement, practicing pool. That's where he has been every day since you were last here."
Bill never again won another pool match with his father...ever. This level of father-son competition was not an aberration either. When Billy was 6, Casey taught him to play chess. They played at least one game almost every day, but Bill didn't win a single time until he was 10. Later, when Bill's skills had been polished at college, Casey could no longer beat him at all. After their last match, having lost three straight, he overturned the board, scattering the pieces, got up in disgust and never challenged Bill again. Casey thought competition was food for the soul, but he wasn't fond of losing.
Concerning school, Billy's father rewarded each of the children with a shiny fifty cent piece whenever their report cards showed all A's. There wasn't a single six week period during his grade school life in which Billy failed to earn that reward, following in the footsteps of his older siblings, who were also excellent in school.
He actually hated school, finding it excruciatingly boring, but found the local municipal library fascinating. He got his first library card when he was five and was quickly introduced to the wonders of fantasy via the Wizard of Oz series of books recommended to him by the friendly librarian, who became a close friend over the years. He read them all, devouring them as fast as he could turn the pages. After that, though, he quickly discovered the non-fiction section and began a life-long adventure in learning everything he could about science, history, and religion. By the time he left grade school he had read every non-fiction book in the library, including what he was later to learn was a college level text on astronomy. That one was very difficult, but it so captivated him that over the years he gradually all but memorized every page.
Which brings us to his most prevalent recurring thought, which started very early in his life.
"How do I get out of here? How do I escape this burg?"
Like grandfather, like grandson.
Perhaps I am not emphasizing just how much I hated small town life. As I've grown older and lived in many other environments...including much smaller communities than Hartford...I've grown more tolerant. But, at the time, I felt that leaving Hartford would be like a prison break...