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The February 27, 2015 issue of Tailgate News is ready for your inspection. Gurdon received 5 inches of snow on Wednesday. The School Board is trying to reduce future criticism from an audit. Tailgate Traveler hopes to do two Haskell features. Gurdon Mayor Sherry Kelley says she is going after pit bulls housed in her town. The sermon is on doing what we can to be more Christlike. Mayor Kelley is trying to meet the right people to receive more grant funding. Gurdon is playing in Regional Basketball at Parkers Chapel. Enjoy the read. Comments? Email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for reading the Tailgate News Weekly Magazine. Sincerely, John H. Nelson II, editor
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I am now 56. I wrote the book at 55. This book below will be edited and presented, one chapter at a time. It currently has 15 chapters. I hope you find it entertaining and perhaps it will allow you to know the editor of Tailgate News a little better. Sincerely, John
The Path I Took
Chapter 6; Dillinger Days, is presented at the top of these book chapters, as more readers have asked to see it and this will make it real easy to find. Thank you for your interest, John Nelson, Tailgate News editor.
Chapter 6: My grandfather’s Dillinger story…
By JOHN NELSON
Tailgate News Editor
Since the last chapter ended with a friend in Florida comparing me to a known gangster of the 1930′s, I want to describe the reasons why I remembered the end of the day rescuing “Candy” with the Dillinger name being mentioned.
Like every boy, I had to be raised by someone. My grandfather, John Hans Nelson, 1892 to 1989, was a hard working farmer, a family man and a story teller in his own right. I recognize that everything he implied, and/or told me about John Dillinger, the Robin Hood criminal of the early 1930′s, as possibly being Grandpa’s own fiction novel.
I make no claim that any of the following material is gospel. I do, however, make the claim, that to my knowledge it is true. I have come to that conclusion after years of pondering what happened. So, in order for the curious reader to understand why I am who I am, he or she needs to know what I was told as a child.
FIRST MENTION OF JOHNNY D
I was about my own grandson Josh’s age, or maybe a year or two younger, when my grandfather first started telling me about the legendary John Dillinger AKA Jack Rabbit AKA Public Enemy #1. I was about 6 to 8 years old I suppose (my Josh is 7 as I write this) when I went back to Warfle’s woods, carrying a beebee gun. Grandpa and I were hunting rabbits in the snow. Warfles woods was about 20 acres of woodland just next to our 80-acre farm out on State Road 38, by Hagerstown, Indiana.
On the back 40 of the corn and soybean farm was a group of roadsters from the early 1930′s. Everyone of them had riveted holes all through their front doors and some of the windows also appeared to be busted out. I walked by those old cars in silence for awhile. The year was somewhere around 1969 so those cars had been there for sometime. But finally, curiosity got the best of me.
“Grandpa,” I asked, “Where did all of those holes come from in those cars?” His answer was, “A long time ago there was an ancient machine gun known as the Tommy Gun. The police put those holes in those cars when I had to leave town in a hurry. They were trying to stop me, and folks like me, with showers of machine gun fire.”
I asked my grandfather when all of this happened. He said it took place during the bank robbery days of a Moresville, Indiana man named John Dillinger. Or at least that is who the papers said did the bank robbing.
I did not know much about things like that back then so I did not ask any more questions. But every time I went back to the woods to hunt squirrels, I checked out those bullet holes in those old 1933 roadsters just a little closer…
EIGHTH GRADE HISTORY CLASS
Between 7 years old and 14, there is time for a lot of conversations between a boy and his Grandpa. I was in 4-H, heard stories about a bad year of farming when the cholera took everyone of my Grandfather’s hogs and about how Grandpa went back to pool sharking to make her a living that year and make enough money to buy starter hog crop. And of course, I heard about him studying up on how to treat the cholera so the disaster never happened again. Hogs was where the Indiana farm money was. They sent Daddy to medical school and me to journalism school. I love hogs. Can you blame me?
But something was not adding up. I mean there was not a safe full of 20 dollar bills to be made pool sharking for 18 months, or was there?
Grandpa never would answer that question with anything but a rather sinister smile. He would go on to say it was easy to get feed and seed delivered for him in the 1930′s because he had the money in the safe to pay for things…
I finally asked him what sort of currency was common in those banks that Dillinger robbed? He smiled and said they mostly kept money in 20′s back then.
He would talk of how Johnny Dillinger always started a robbery by shining his blue eyes at the people behind the counter of the bank, wheeling up a Tommy gun and saying, “My name is John Dillinger and I am here to rob your G.. Da.. bank!”
It was part of the Dillinger signature. The element of surprise was planned and on the gang’s side for 18 robberies, all over Indiana and Illinois, for a year and a half. Once, he said, Dillinger was caught. But they sent him to Joliet State Penitentiary on a robbery and assault only to become discouraged when the gang helped break him out.
Dillinger thought on his feet, so my grandfather said. His theory was if he told another soul about his plans the cat would be out of the bag. So he thought on his feet and he asked a trash truck driver if that truck were pretty easy to drive when the guards had let him and his cell mates out in the yard to exercise. Johnny D. hit that guard with his huge fist and got in that trash truck and drove. Bugsy Malone, Baby Faced Nelson and a few others in the gang were waiting outside to get Johnny to safety. He stormed the prison gates in that big trash truck and kept going!
The banks were being robbed again after that. It seemed the most successful bank robber in history liked the dance halls. He visited a blonde beauty in Chicago and some say he was sweet on her. The couple, others say, looked like a farm couple from over here next to Moreland, Indiana, some 100 miles from Mooresville where Dillinger was raised.
Then he would break, smile and go back to reading his newspaper. My first thought was my grandfather was John Dillinger… In later years, I would find out I was probably partially right. The biological John Dillinger was a brown-eyed, 5’6″ farm boy who was a good mechanic and good with his hands all together. Other than the height, and the fact that the 6’0′ Dillnger robbing the banks had blue eyes, the two farm-boy mechanics walked the same, talked the same and met each other in a desperate need for an ala bye person – probably in a Chicago bar where Grandpa was hustling pool about the time John Herbert Dillinger showed up for a drink after being released from prison.
John Herbert Dillinger, baseball player and married man from Mooresville, robbed that town’s grocery store, or at least tried to do so, and went to jail for eight years. When he got out, his wife was divorcing him and there was no work to be found under the Dillinger name. If only he could put that bad name to use.
He met a girl in Chicago named Birdie Lawrence, who said she loved the name Jimmy. Birdie was also a flapper, just like the bank robber’s main squeeze Marvel. A flapper was a girl who worked in a speak easy, illegal night club that served alcohol. Birdie smoked Chesterfield cigarettes and drank coke with real cocaine in it, just like Marvel did. Jimmy Lawrence, AKA John Herbert Dillinger, and Birdie wanted to be farmers. A trade out idea came to John Herbert and John Hans. John Herbert and Birdie would live on the Nelson farm in Hagerstown for a couple of years while John Hans gathered money to go back into farming his own land after that…
It was a time of wildness for their generation. But let us go back to Hagerstown, Indiana when I was 14. You see, I knew a little more about the Dillinger gang and how John Hans Nelson met and made a deal with John Herbert Dillinger with each passing year.
But I wanted to know if John Hans, who swore his name was Nelson, was somehow the man asking banks for the their G.D. money.
I came in from school and found my old man sitting in his favorite rocking chair, reading the newspaper. I immediately started a verbal jabb on him to see what information came out. In Florida, I explained to the Freedom Fighters this technique is best described as “drawing fire.”
I said to Grandpa, “Grandpa, I did a term paper on John Dillinger and looked all sorts of information up in the dictionary and Brutannica encyclopedia. But some of it did not agree with what you said happened.”
This made the old man drop his newspaper to the floor, sit with his elbows on his bony knees in those overalls, and say, “Like what?”
I said, “Well for one thing, it said Baby Faced Nelson shot a deputy during a robbery. You said the robberies came off with no real wounding gun play.”
Grandpa got mad. He stood up and started calling Baby Faced Nelson a low-IQ sorry SOB that could not follow a damn order no matter how hard he tried. He called Nelson trigger happy and uncontrollable. Grandpa had been a straight A student in school and you might be surprised how eloquently he could talk to you if he really wanted your attention.
Grandpa also spoke Indiana farmer’s ease, a crude form of cussing where those who participate are supposed to invent the most vulgar ways to talk known to man. He was good at this. So am I.
“When Nelson shot that deputy, I fired him, I fired him quick see because innocent bloodshed was not what I wanted. I wanted to shift the economy a bit and give the working man a chance to hold up his head and be proud somebody was protesting governmental regulations. Too many rules strangled too many little men. But as to Baby Face, always remember he is no blood relative of ours. He was a killer and I had to get rid of him. We were there to get $100,000 a bank and get out. (the takes varied according to history but $100,000 was what the federal government insured at the time) That’s all.”
I looked at him and said, “You fired Baby Face Grandpa? I thought Dillinger did that (gotcha I thought to myself).” He looked at me, got real quiet and went back to reading his newspaper.
From time to time, we would talk of a robbery. He seemed to know the details of every move Dillinger had made. Then I was watching television late one night and caught a special on the gangster. It showed an old clip of him being arrested in Kendleville, Indiana, on his second and final incarceration.
The television reporter asked the robber, “Mr. Dillinger, I understand you give part of these 20′s to widow women in their back yards. Is that true?”
The robber turned to him, as he was unloading his pockets and pulled out a pocket-watch that looked strangely familiar. I had seen one just like it packed away in the drawers of the living room cabinet on many occasion.
“Yes, I like to help people who would work if they could. But our government won’t see fit to concentrate on that so somebody has to feed them. The government steals money from the people through high taxes. I take that money from the federally insured banks and give it back to the people who should have had it in the first place,” he said. “But tonight, all of that ends. These coppers got my pocket-watch, my money and the worst part is I had a date later tonight with my best girl. Well, at least I will have a bed to sleep in.”
Laughter followed. I swear the guy in that movie was the spitting image of a young John Hans Nelson. The rest of that story, according to my grandfather, and according to what history I have been able to uncover, was that “Mr. Dillinger” somehow got a hold of a prison knife (shank) and carved a bar of soap in the shape of a pistol. Then he waited for his supper in that city jail. A black man was in there with him, smiling and keeping real quiet.
Officer friendly brought the food and Dillinger asked him what was going on in that front office? He said he thought he heard someone coming in the front. The officer turned and Dillinger pushed the soap to his neck.
“Now give me those keys copper.” “Sure Johnny,” he said. “Just don’t get excited.” Dillinger and the black fellow left the jail without further ado, locking Officer friendly in his own jail. Rumor has it the man later said he was honored to have had John Dillinger escape from his jail. Again, from that day on, the blue-eyed bank robber, with the jovial laugh, never got caught again.
The black fellow that was in there with him went and got drunk in an Indianapolis bar and bragged about escaping. He was subsequently collared by the coppers and returned to his cage.
Allegedly, John Dillinger was killed in front of the Biograph Theater somewhere around July of 1934, in a hail of Tommy gun bullets fired by federal agents working for J. Edgar Hoover, then head of the FBI. Hoover’s top agent was there firing as well. His name was Melvin Purvis. But when the corpse was turned over, it was strangely short… about 5’6″ and the eyes on that corpse were brown. Fingerprints revealed it was John Herbert Dillinger all right. His father, and sister Audrey Hancock, claimed the body and took it back to Indiana for burial.
Ironically, Audrey Hancock was my biological mother’s maiden name as well.
Years later, Grandpa would tell this story and hint at a conversation where he talked to J. Edgar Hoover. He said his best friend in life was Lawrence Hoover, a fellow fisherman. He said the name Jimmy Lawrence was the alias John Herbert Dillinger used when he hoped to run away with his fiance Birdie Lawrence to raise their child on his share of the bank robbery booty. For you see, the biological Dillinger got a share of the money for loaning his “bad name” to an Indiana farmer with a “good name” so that good name could come back to society after the robberies were over.
But Jimmy Lawrence, AKA John Herbert Dillinger, had his face altered to avoid a connection with the very similar face of John Hans Nelson, AKA Johnny Dillinger… The face looked different but a lady in red ratted out John Herbert Dillinger to avoid being sent back to Hungary. Dillinger was going to go out on a date with Birdie. The lady in red, his land lady, wanted to go along, so the couple said sure.
When the lady dressed in red stood next to John Herbert Dillnger, the fireworks from the feds began. After the killing of John Herbert Dillinger, our Mr. Hoover got a very provocative telephone call from a bank robber.
“This is John Hans Nelson Mr. Hoover,” my grandfather allegedly said. “Yes John, what can I do for you?”
“I am the one who robbed your GD 18 banks, not that unfortunate stooly you shot.”
Hoover’s end of the phone went silent. Then he spoke, “Your name is Nelson sir, not Dillinger. We have no arrest warrants for you. We suggest you go back to your farming lifestyle and enjoy your life. We have a depression on and rumor has it you have a little money saved. The public needed a dead John Dillinger. We gave them one. We solved the case and the public can now move on. Have a great life Mr. Nelson.”
It is said that Melvin Purvis, in his follow-up research kept thinking about the blue eyes verses the brown eyes and how short the victim in Chicago looked compared to the man who escaped Joliet Penitentiary. When he was satisfied what happened, and figured out what J. Edgar Hoover had already accepted as a deal, Purvis knew the wrong man had been shot. The discouraged Melvin Purvis then shot himself…
Grandpa always said a man who would kill himself just took life too seriously and must have had bad nerves…
THE BOAT CONFESSION
When I was 15, some more of the Dillinger story came out. Most of what I just wrote came my way in pieces years later. But here is an actual account of something “old blue eyes” had to say to his grandson.
We had been showing rabbits at the Wayne County Fair, so it must have been August. I suppose it was around 1975. I can not remember if I had started going with my high school sweetheart Joni yet, but if we have our dates right that “honey moon” band camp had just happened that summer. Maybe Grandpa thought of me as more of a man than before.
At any rate, he grew his mustache out and went to the fair. I looked at it in surprise. Sometimes, he said, I like to dress up like the old days. The fisherman afore mentioned, Lawrence Hoover, had just died. We had went by Mabel’s home. She was Lawrence’s wife. Looking back, knowing what I know now, I wonder if the man Lawrence Hoover was John Herbert Dillinger and Birdie Lawrence’s son? It would make sense.
Grandpa said if you wanted to hide, stay right under the nose of the law. They usually did not look there…
I had read, while researching my afore mentioned history paper, that John Herbert Dillinger always wore a mustache. Historical photos proved that out. So it would make sense that the body double would want to grow a mustache…
I did not mention any of this at the fair, but rather looked my Grandpa dead in the eye, and asked, “Tell me the truth, are you John Dillinger?”
The old man gave me that smile of his and said once a secret was shared with even one other human being it was all of a sudden public knowledge.
Later that day, he invited me to go fishing at the Scout Lake there in Hagerstown. I accepted. I always accepted. He was my hero and best friend. My girl Joni loved my grandparents too. She had to if she was going to be my girl…
So there we were, me and him, row boating around the lake in silence, casting rubber worms under tree branches in an attempt to snag a big bass. And we did too, every now and then. Then I would go back to worm fishing and work on filling up the bucket with blue gills and red ear.
I was not really thinking about my question about Dillinger, as I figured the old man just did not want to admit it or else it was a lie he would just as soon not explain. But all of a sudden, he started talking. And this is what he had to say.
“My name is Nelson. My best friend’s name was Lawrence Hoover. It was taken from the two names of Jimmy Lawrence (AKA John Herbert Dillinger) and J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI leader from back when I was young. These men did me a favor back then. I wanted to farm bad boy and I had lost my hogs to the cholera and what little money I had. I met somebody who helped me and then I came up with a plan to go back into farming without any trouble.”
I listened awhile longer as he paused. Then he said, “My name is Nelson, but I have always been good at playing poker, pool and checkers. But my loves, besides your grandmother, have always been farming and fishing. I did what I had to do to continue both.
“But when I came home, people thought I was a bank. I loaned them money for awhile but most could not pay it back. So I started giving away gasoline, food and other things people had to have to survive. I suppose that had to do for them. If I kept giving away money, I would have lost the farm again. And I had to keep farming.”
I took this information, pieced it together with some dates and historical accounts, and then came up with my theory. John Hans Nelson robbed those GD banks of their GD money. And he GD it to hell got away with it. That is my story, and I, John Hancock Nelson, am sticking to it.
When my grandfather died, it took our family attorney, Ralph Lafuse, six months to find all of his bank accounts the man had scattered here, there and yonder. He had a couple hundred thousand dollars and two farms paid for, after medical and final expenses. But he had another $428,000, so I was told, hid out around this country… Not bad for a small time Indiana corn and hog farmer.
He also paid $20,000 cash for my Daddy’s medical education and who knows how much for my journalism degree. I do know he gave me $144,000 in pieces from my college graduation in 1982 until his death on Jan. 22, 1989.
In Chapter 7, I want to shift gears and discuss my love for music and how my grandparents were quite an influence in that realm as well.
Chapter 1: The Path I Took
By JOHN NELSON
Tailgate News Editor
Everyone has a story. You have one. I have one. Mine started with my first real memory, chasing Cathy Conn in Morgantown, West Virginia.
I believe I was just a little more than 2 years old, the same age as my grand daughter Rayne is at the present. I will be 55 in two days so this memory is many moons back. My name is John.
My dad is Dr. John W. Nelson. I lived in an apartment with him and his parents, John Hans and Marvel May Nelson. They let me play around the complex and associate with another doctor’s children; Rex Conn’s kids, Connie and Cathy. Cathy was my age.
For years, nobody believed I could remember this story I am about to tell you. But here it is, just as I remember, 53 years later. I played in the hall with Cathy and her older sister until nearly time to go get some supper. But I was not ready to stop talking with Cathy. It was cold out and there was snow on the ground. I went outside to meet little curley blonde-headed Cathy at her window.
I don’t recall what was so important for us to talk about, but if my grandfather had not called me into supper I might still be out there in the snow. The old man gave his grandson too much time. I got frost bite in my left ankle.
Grandpa Nelson always was probably too lenient with me. When the weather gets a certain type of cold and wet, my left ankle nearly buckles in pain to this day. It has to be really cold though for the frost bite to come back. I rarely experience it from my Arkansas home.
About 10 years ago, I felt it in Minneapolis. That is a very cold place. So cold that I pleaded with my daughter Kelley to send my body back south if I should die in the land of the lakes… and ice.
I could chronologically go through my life, but I won’t. Still, before I leave my West Virginia days, I do have one more strong memory. This one involves a couple of my fingers getting caught in an iron door. Again, I was supposedly too young to remember this.
I had been playing with kids from around the apartment and not paying attention to the closing doors. It did not occur to me that the iron, end of the floor, door would be too heavy to open for my little hands. I carelessly laid my hand across the door frame and got to talking to another kid. I think it was Connie Conn. I remember her running in front of me, in her pajamas.
But my smiles from our play disappeared quite promptly when that door closed. I screamed bloody murder! Most likely it scared the other kids off. I remember the terror in Connie’s eyes. And then this large person opened the door. Actually she was just a grown up, but when you are two all grown ups are large. It turned out the lady was a registered nurse and friend of my father’s. She took me to Daddy at the hospital.
Dad’s reaction was very concerned but very professional. He X-rayed my fingers and found out they were just badly bruised, but not broken. That is fortunate, as I would need those fingers to type many stories for years to come.
THE MEMPHIS TREE
After West Virginia, my father took a job at the University of Tennessee Medical Center for a Dr. Lemmie Utterback. At least I think that was the guy’s first name.
I got to know Dr. Utterback a little bit because of his boat. He took my Dad and me out on the water and it was the first time I had ever been in a motor boat. But the biggest small child memory I have of Memphis was when a car nearly came though our apartment picture window.
I was about six months away from entering kindergarten and it was Christmas time.
I was stringing popcorn with my grandfather to go on our tree. My grandparents had moved in with my Dad to help raise me after my mother left because she got sick.
In about three years, I would get a step mother, who to my knowledge is still married to my Dad, Dr. John W. Nelson, today He is 86 this year, if God has graced him with a long life. Although we have lost touch, I have tried to find him. So far no Daddy and no obit.
Back then, I continued living with my grandparents, John and Marvel Nelson, of Hagerstown, Indiana, and Dr. John W. Nelson, of wherever he happned to be doctoring at the time. It is no wonder I later became a person who loves to travel. Indeed, in the final analysis, the apple does not fall far from the tree.
But back to my significant memory. We almost got ran over in our living room. A car, on Christmas Eve night, on Southern Avenue just across from Memphis State Campus, hit a tree with about a 6-inch circumference. That little tree saved our lives. If not for God putting that there, my grandparents, my Dad and me would have been toast right then and there.
I never forgot that God, at least in my life, has been a God of mercy. In 55 years, that has never changed. And of course, being God, it is highly unlikely He ever will. We heard a huge boom that night and went out to investigate. My father said something about a drunk out of control. Being a little kid, I really could not say for sure what the cause of the accident must have been.
But a drunk out of control sounds like a pretty reasonable explanation. Back then, it always seemed like as long as my folks were around, life was safe. No matter what might be happening in the world, I was safe with them.
In this book, rather than just move from incident to incident, I will try and pick out points of mercy shown to me by God to let you understand that God has been good to me -even though I drink fairly deeply of the cup of love and of life – charging through like I was in control when actually I was scared to death a lot of the time. Now don’t tell anyone.
The Path I Took…
Chapter 2: The Band days…
When I entered the fifth grade, it was proposed to me that I join band in Hagerstown. I loved music, and my Daddy had been in band, so why not?
I began by taking up the clarinet. Before it was over, I would get pretty good on the coronet as well, plus get good enough on the guitar to write my own songs. But back in fifth grade, I just smiled and asked for a clarinet.
My Daddy got me one from somewhere in Oklahoma. It was a wooden woodwind, which was an old clarinet. But it played pretty good and the best part was making music with my friends. To this day, I wish that is what I did for a living; make music with my friends.
And yes, I realize that is a line from “On the Road Again” by Willie Nelson, but believe me, it fits. I went to work with that Clarinet to be first chair in the clarinet woodwind section. I made first chair out of about a dozen or so players. However, I shared it with a girl named Peggy Lindley. We would challenge each other from time to time. Sometimes I was first, sometimes second. It all depended on who won the challenge.
I have a column in Tailgate News Magazine called Memorable Moments. This book is probably going to be a series of such moments; times I remember that somehow stick out at 55 years old. The stuff we are talking about now represent some pretty good times when I was between the ages of about 11 and 18. They all took place in Hagerstown, Indiana, my childhood hometown.
My first band director was Mr. Haskett. I don’t recall his first name. It might have been Joe, like my second and final band director was called. Joe Backmeyer came into my life when I was about in the seventh grade. I loved his class and how he made me and my fellow musicians feel a part of each other’s lives.
I probably learned more friendship skills back then than at any other part of my upbringing. I used to have a lot of close friends. I don’t let all that many folks that close to me anymore. I know I should, and I am working on it. I suppose I have been playing life a little over cautious these past eight year but that is another rabbit to chase entirely.
Let’s go back to band class. I remember those challenge trials with Peggy. She was a slender, very tall blonde girl, a grade or two ahead of me in school. I have always been short; 5’6″ is stretching me. But hey, Napoleon was short right?
I remember Ross Bennett playing trumpet, John Sanders playing trumpet and Dean Charles playing trombone. Bob Farris played the tuba. I saw Bob at our 35th class reunion but did not get to talk to him. I hope to do that at our 40th. That should be coming up in a couple of years, say 2017…
So let’s try and get a handle on the year I first started band. I graduated Hagerstown Jr. Sr. High School in 1977 and so my first experience with band must have been around 1970. I don’t really recall too much about fifth and sixth grade band, or if I did all that much with Mr. Haskell except figure out I enjoyed what I was doing.
But in seventh grade, when it was announced that Joe Backmeyer would take over, things started to change. There was this girl who played clarinet also. Her name was Joni and she went to my First United Methodist Church with me. We sang in choir together there and played in band together. She had curley reddish brown hair and freckles. I watched with interest as she grew up…
But somewhere in junior high school, Mr. Backmeyer decided to let some of us young folks, with what he called talent, move up to play with the high school kids now and then. I was one of those that got to play with the bigger kids. That was great boost to my ego.
I was not only in band, but in 4-H, Methodist choir and vice president of the Hagerstown Historical Society. This met I got to help another classmate, Jim Hudson, clean out cemeteries from time to time. We mowed them, set up broken head stones the best we could and recorded names and dates of the dearly departed. That data would probably be of use in today’s world of the Internet in something Ancestry.com. But back then, it was taken down and I have no idea what happened to it after that. Jim Hudson was the Optomitrist’s son. I thought Dr. Hudson was cool and his profession was the first one I attempted before switching majors in college to Social Work and then to psychology and journalism. I stuck with the latter and eventually got a bachelor’s with a major in journalism and minor in psychology.
So I was a busy kid back in 1970. I also took care of between 100 and 300 rabbits, from which I picked a prize winning buck, doe and meatpen to display at the Wayne County Fair every fall.
One of my first memorable band moments was in a church. I had competed in this music memorization contest with my clarinet and Mr. Backmeyer played along with my song on the piano. The contest was at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where I would eventually get that bachelor of science afore mentioned. I got a superior rating and felt so accomplished.
But the moment that stands out in my memory came about a month later when I was supposed to reconstruct my musical piece in front of Dr. John W. and Nancy Nelson, my Daddy and step mother. There was only one problem. I did not take seriously relearning the piece…
I got up on the stage and started out pretty good. I noticed my Daddy smiling and Nancy smiling. I so wanted to impress them. You see, I only got to see them every three months, when they came to visit me from Oklahoma City. Other than that, my grandparents (his folks) raised me on the farm. Even back then I was a lover of life and the pleasures there of. Before I fully understood the path of following Jesus Christ, I understood pleasure and exploration. This little moment we are on is an example.
I had spent the time I should have been practicing for that concert talking to my Daddy, which I idealized back then and frankly still do. His dropping out of my life is the single most painful thing that ever happened to me. That pretty much happened when I was 20 years old and newly back from Florida.
I know I was hard to take as a young, “bullet proof” young rebel. But still yet, I wanted to see my Daddy every chance I could. He did come to my college graduation in 1982 and his own father’s funeral in 1989. That is the last time we were together. I have never understood why and I probably never will. My latest research, here in 2014 is swaying me to believe that my neurologist father has passed from this world. If he is still alive, and he happens to read this, I sure would like some contact. Just for the heck of it, my telephone number is 1-870-353-8201. As always, I am throwing the bottle out into the ocean.
But let’s return to those innocent times. That church concert was a hoot. I started looking at my Daddy and step-mother and completely forget the song! I mean I had no idea what in the dickens I was playing. But I am a natural song writer. Having written more than 150 poetic tunes for guitar, I suppose I can say that. And it was no different at the age of 14 or so. I played that group a tune they seemed to be into. My band director cut his eyes to me and then started following my jazz piece with his piano keys. We both played along a while until it seemed like an appropriate place to stop…
The crowd went wild. I received all sorts of applause. I got the heck off that stage as fast as possible, after taking the customary bow with Mr. Backmeyer and after seeing that my Daddy and Nancy seemed fine with the tune.
Back stage, Mr. Backmeyer could not help but laugh. I laughed right along with them. We even went out and took another bow, or at least I am remembering such. All I know for sure is we pulled it off. It was the John Nelson version of Mark Twain’s “Royal Nunsuch,” straight out of Huckleberry Finn! And it worked. Mr. B asked me if I could play the same tune again. I laughed and shook his hand. I said something to the effect of, “Not until donkeys fly!”
It was one of the first times I remember that I realized I work better under pressure. That is why, in my opinion, my 16-page Southern Arkansas Magazine, is turning out to be much more entertaining to create for you than my 12 pager I created in 2013 was. It fills my schedule and challenges my talents. That is the best thing for John, and hopefully for you the reader.
I remember going home and telling my grandparents what happened. Sweet Jesus, I said, I simply went blank and then decided, what the heck, time to improvise. They too had a great laugh about it. I don’t remember whether I told Daddy and Nancy or not. If I did, I am sure I was somewhat embarrassed, but at any rate, we do what we must. At least that is the way I was raised.
The next big band memory was my first band camp. It was also my first time away from home, other than that occasional visit to Daddy’s house in Oklahoma, or before that Milwaukee, Wisc. And of course North Webster Church camp. That is worth a mention in another chapter. But now, for my favorite band memory, “It happened at Band Camp.”
To fully understand the wonderful relationship I had with this 65-member band, you just have to have a little background to how bad I wanted to go to that first band camp. I was 15 and had just been snipe hunting with Joni Woodward. That is the little curley headed gal I mentioned earlier, also a clarinet player. Now at band camp, I was playing the coronet. I switched ombisures and instruments for marching band to be heard more. Even as a writer of the written word today, I love it when we have a huge number on the site visits. It makes me think maybe someone is enjoying what I have to say.
But anyway, I was in first section trumpet, never first chair like on the clairinet. My trumpet playing buddies all had five or six years more experience than me and besides, I just did this when I marched.
Back to Joni. I promised my wife Michelle that I would not write anything dirty in our Christian based magazine, so I will not go into the full relationship. But I can tell you Joni and I were in puppy love and I could have done a lot worse than to love, honor and obey that gal. She was fantastic. We never married though. It was the era of, “If it feels good, do it,” so when I went to college on my own I started dating other women and eventually moved on to Elaine DeHart, my second serious girlfriend.
Again, back to the age of innocence. I was excited. I had kissed Joni snipe hunting and that was a thrill to me back then. She kissed back with a lot of enthusiasm and we went to the show pretty regular. We also spent a lot of time at each other’s houses. But band camp took our relationship to the next level, where it stayed for five great years. In short, our childhood relationship became accepted by our family members to the point where the term John and Joni was used a lot, instead of thinking of us as two people.
But just before band camp, about three years before my graduation so it had to be in 1974, I started dating this gal that was two years older than me. And we had big plans together for when we got away from home…
I was so excited about it I dropped a huge dresser drawer on my right big toe! I mean it was seriously messed up and horrible looking. I lost that toenail and it grew back funky. It is something I just looked at as I was writing this. Yes, it is a childhood folly that stuck with me this far in life an will probably always look funky and double-layered.
My folks suggested I go to the doctor and that I definitely needed to cancel my band camp plans. I did neither one. I had a date with Joni for some serious smooching and I was not going to let her down! We band folk left the next day for some 16-hour-day marching. This was actually my second band camp we are talking about. I knew the routine and still wanted to go – because of my heart-throb for Joni Michelle Woodward.
My first band camp, where I met a gal named Kelley Thompson, was a lot of fun too. But nothing compared to band camp number two. So we will go on with the Joni band camp story of 1974. It was everything my folks said it would be work wise, and I was a rank leader. That made it even more challenging.
I had a straight ranked file and I had a comical way of lining them up. I remember saying some word phrase akin to “Butts up!” and all of the five folks in rank formed a perfectly straight line for marching . Mr. B caught me doing that one time and remarked that my unique approach to life had not changed since that church audition a few years before. I smiled at him. Our rank actually won an award, despite the fact that I felt like my foot was going to fall off.
I think Brent Meadows actually got put down in the air duct the year before. He was good natured about it though. A group poured water on him and let him loose. It was so hot in Indianapolis that year and also the second time that water was definitely a good thing.
But all rabbits aside, Joni and I had a plan. She was going to sneak down to the boys floor and we were going to listen to eight track tapes after room inspection. My room mate, Grover Brower, a drummer, was part of the plan. Most of the band knew about this rendezvous, but nobody ratted us out.
We came up with some cock and bull story the next morning about how Joni had just wanted to borrow a couple of tapes and had only been in my room a few minutes. It was still a violation of rules. We waited for the axe to fall and Mr. B to send us home… He was no dummy. He knew she had not been in my room for just a few minutes. But what happens at band camp stays at band camp… just like in Vegas right?
He scolded us and told us there would be no more violations of the rules on his watch and then sent us back to our ranks and files. We did not chance any more get togethers that week, but the flood gates had been opened. After that week, for five years, it was never John. It was never Joni. It was always John and Joni.
We were kids and we from decent families. But we were in lust/love and that, as they say, was that. Yes, it was a band thing. And we stayed in band. She was there until her graduation in 1975 and me until mine in 1977. We never dated around. It was always John and Joni. I tried to date a couple of times, but somehow my innocence was in tact. She was my one and only those five years, and that was the way it stayed.
As for the band, they were my closet friends in high school. I can honestly say I had a love for each and every one of them. We played concert after concert, and marched in those hot uniforms every summer. We also played with frozen horns on the post office steps every Christmas as the Christmas carols bellowed out and the seasons passed.
We were in pep band too. I remember these giant sweet tarts, sort of salvo tablet sour treats, that I loved to eat as I watched my classmates play football and basketball. To me, it was only yesterday.
In Chapter 3, we will go into family memories during high school, both good and bad on the farm, and how life progresses for the John and Joni dating scenario. Every day was exciting back then. I was a young man in love and full of dreams to conquer the world.