In the early spring of 1963 I had just turned fourteen. I was a student at
East Park Junior High School in Danville, Illinois. In many indigenous
cultures fourteen is an age of metamorphosis that would require a ritual
ceremony to heighten my transformation from adolescence to manhood.
But like every other fourteen year old boy in Central Illinois, I was left to fend for myself. My feet had grown faster than the rest of my body, I had
testosterone levels that took over parts of my body I could no longer ignore, I had no interest in girls, I had just been fitted with a brand new pair of black horn rimmed glasses and I got good grades. I was the classic nerd!
But nerds were not as stupid as those who taunted them believed they were.
We were very resourceful when it came to creating a life outside the circles
or cliques we were ostracized from. I joined every student organization that
would have me. I figured perhaps quantity could be a substitute for what I
mistakenly believed was quality. I was a hall monitor, a student librarian,
vice president of the drama club and I sang in the A cappella choir. But
every evening after school when the jocks were off to football practice, while other students were sharing their stories of love and infatuation, I sat in the outer office of the school principal, Mr. Yeazel, talking at length with his secretary Roma Heaton.
Of course looking back now, I could be tempted to draw a lot of conclusions
about what was really taking place in those naive days of unspoken truths
and denial. It’s what I affectionately refer to as the days of “did she know
that I knew that she knew, or did she really not know?” It’s in the same vein as, “was he a confirmed bachelor because he loved hopping from one
woman’s bed to another, or was he simply a closeted Queen?” This brings
me to confront my own personal question. Did Roma know I was a budding
adolescent homosexual, or did she simply think I was a nerd? I was certain
she wasn’t tolerating me out of some kind of pity. Our conversations and
laughter were genuine, as well as our interest and knowledge of each other’s
lives. I would bet she was just a very nice woman who was totally above
judgment; someone who took everyone into her life on an equal level. Age
was obviously not a concern. In a way I felt I was an adult, participating in an adult world, surrounded by silly adolescent teens. Perhaps I was the one operating from judgment!
One evening in the early spring of 1963, as Roma interrupted our
conversation to answer the phone, I noticed she kept looking back at me as
if the conversation were about me. She wrote a few notes on a pad of paper,
placed the receiver back on the carriage, then handed the note to me. It was
a name and an address. Ruth Villars, 11 Tennessee Avenue. Mrs. Villars had
called the school to inquire about getting a young boy to help her each
evening with a few chores and to do light grocery shopping. I was the
obvious choice since I lived on Tennessee Avenue in the next block. I was
no stranger to helping elderly widows. I had a very successful grass mowing
business. They all loved my gentle polite nature, my German/American
obsessive compulsive attention to detail and my dependability. And again,
in hindsight, I have to laugh at the naive innocence of that time where the
concept of homosexuality was just not allowed to even enter the mind to be
questioned. In their minds I was just a sweet little boy who would one day
be swept off my feet when the right girl came along. I assume they were just
happy she hadn’t arrived in my life yet. But I already understood from the
relationship with my own grandmother, that in his wisdom, God had
created Gay boys to take care of elderly widows.
Of course the truth was, in many ways I had the same thoughts as most
other fourteen year old boys. First of all, the thought of giving up my
leisurely evenings in Roma’s office to actually do physical work was not on
the top of my agenda. Then there was the issue of responsibility. Was I
really up to the challenge of having a real live person depend on me? It was
a very different proposition than simply mowing grass. But Roma was very
persuasive, so I reluctantly said yes!
As I approached Mrs. Villars’ house the first time, I imagined the feeling in my stomach was similar to what people feel when they go to interview for a real job. I wondered how much of my time she would require. How often
would I be forced to go back to repeat the tedious tasks she demanded? As I
stood on the porch, contemplating the consequences of actually knocking
on the door, I could smell the faint odor of antiquity. It reminded me of an
attic with treasures hidden in trunks and dusty boxes. Perhaps I was Pip
and Miss Havisham was about to open the door. Perhaps this was my
Dickens moment where my bildungsroman would begin!
I knocked three or four times on the door. then stepped back to wait. After a few moments the door creaked ever so slightly as it swung inward to reveal a tiny frail looking woman who had to tip her head backwards to make eye contact with me. Suddenly the nerd was banished and a tall strong virile young man slipped into my concept of who I was. It didn’t take long before I understood that Mrs. Villars saw me the way Roma saw me, as an equal, not as a little boy. She handed me a small blue piece of paper where she had scribbled three items for me to pick up at the grocery store. 1 doz lrg eggs, 1 slice ham, 4 bananas small. It was simply a cover for what she really wanted from me. She wanted companionship, someone to talk to. She had stories to tell and I became her audience. What I was unaware of at the time was that my ritual from adolescence to manhood had begun.
Ruth’s house was filled to the brim with antiques. I believe she had every
original appliance and piece of furniture she had ever owned. And every
single item had a story behind it. She told me that she and her husband
liked to be the first to try new inventions. On one of my first visits she took me down into her basement to show me what she said was one of the very
first electric automatic washing machines. It was a curious thing with a
wooden exterior, a metal interior I believe was copper, and an ugly exposed
electric motor attached to the side. My first impression was to believe she
was exaggerating, because she introduced practically everything as the very
first of its kind. But as I sat evening after evening looking through her photo albums and listening intently to her fascinating stories, I came to
understand that if there was any exaggeration, it was very minimal. She
simply had too much physical evidence to back up her stories.
We soon fell into a comfortable routine. I quickly came to cherish our time
together, always looking forward to the next visit. To set the mood for each
visit, Ruth would play the 45 rpm version of her favorite song, Puff The
Magic Dragon, on her outdated record player. Intuitively, I understood
what she was doing. She was Puff and her late husband was Jackie Paper.
When the song finished she would push the tears aside and pull out another
photo album, then narrate her adventures on their ship with its billowed
sail. I was the honored guest who had been invited into Puff’s cave!
Ruth’s favorite story was the tale of her trip across America in a school bus that had been converted to a mobile home. Of course her version was
framed to fit her belief that everything she and her husband did was
groundbreaking. After seeing the evidence and sharing many evenings on
the sofa thumbing through photo albums, I would be the last person to
dispute that hypothesis.
Ruth and her husband traveled the American highways in their housebus
before construction of the Interstate Highway system was even begun. So
their trip was nothing like travel today, where one can pass through entire
states without absorbing any local color. They had to pass through the main
streets of every town and city. According to Ruth, everywhere they went
people crowded around the bus, curious to see what was inside. After
removing most of the seats from the bus, they had constructed a small food
preparation area with a table and two comfortable seats. They had rigged
up a portable toilet system and a bed big enough for the two of them to
The first time Ruth told this story, she walked over to an antique cabinet in her living room and returned with a very simple mason jar filled with water. A label attached to the side of the jar bore the name of a place in the desert Southwest. Below the name was a date and time of day. This was Ruth’s favorite story and before long it also became mine. Whenever she told it, she displayed as much emotion as she did when Peter, Paul and Mary were singing Puff the Magic Dragon in the background, except this time the emotion was joy! This time the story was about Ruth Villars’ Magic Rain Water. It was her good luck charm!
The story went something like this. Ruth and her husband arrived in a very
small town where it hadn’t rained in twenty years. While they were there,
dark clouds filled the sky and it began to rain so hard you could barely see
your hand in front of your face. The people of the town came out in the rain, dancing and twirling around with joy, their hands held out with their palms facing upward to catch the rain. Everyone was looking up toward the sky, their mouths open and their tongues extended as if drinking this rain would perhaps bring them good luck and health. Ruth placed a large bowl beside the bus to catch the rainwater. When the rain finally stopped, a double rainbow filled the desert sky!
If your mind has questions or doubt about Ruth’s story, don’t even go there! This story was the beginning of my ritual from adolescence to manhood. Yes, it can even happen in Central Illinois! I know for a fact that the Ruth Villars’ bottle of rainwater was magic! It was infused with all the colors of the rainbow! It was a magic potion filled with love, courage, memories and hope. I was the only other person in the world who understood why Puff The Magic Dragon made her cry. And I was the only other person in the world who believed in the magic jar of rainwater. Sometimes I sat on the couch beside her, holding the jar close to me, as she narrated another page of photos in her album. I never told her that I envied her. I just sat beside her quietly mapping out my own future. She had infected me with wanderlust. Or perhaps she had simply awakened what was already there.
I continued to visit Ruth as the end of the school year approached. I was
excited when I came to tell her that my family had planned a trip to St.
Louis to visit Bush Gardens and to check out the beginning of the
construction of the St. Louis Arch. Of course it would be nothing like her
travels in the housebus, but at least it was a beginning.
I returned from my trip, postcards and photos in hand. I knocked on Ruth’s
front door for quite a while with no answer. Then a neighbor came out to
tell me she had an accident and had been taken to a nursing home in
Indiana. When I heard the details of her accident, it was a huge lesson in
how taking responsibility for someone else can bring a lot of pain. She had
fallen down the basement steps and laid there for a long time before
someone found her. I was not mature enough to understand it wasn’t my
fault for not being there!
A few weeks later I was walking down Tennessee Avenue when I noticed a
lot of commotion in front of Ruth’s house. They were auctioning off all her
belongings. I was absolutely panicked! I rushed through the crowds of
people, searching all the tables and boxes for the magic jar of water. Then I saw it in a box with dozens of other mason jars. It was empty and someone had made a feeble attempt at removing the label. I couldn’t even read the time or town where the event had taken place.
I kept Ruth’s obituary and the thank you note from her family. I put them
away in a safe place with all of the other things that were important to me,
along with that very first grocery list from the first time we met. And I
vowed that one day in the future I would write a story about Ruth Villars’
Magic Rain Water. And that in itself would be proof that even the person
who poured the water out of that jar couldn’t make its magic go away!
OpenSalon EDITORʼS PICK JULY 28, 2010