Saturday, May 7, 2011


My earliest memory is not a pleasant one. My father, mother and I were living with my mother’s parents. It was a large brick house in Canonsburg, PA. It had a spacious yard and a barn in back to store large equipment my grandfather sold in his hardware store. It also had a chicken coop which was my five year-old hideout. I do not now remember what I had done, but I had displeased my father, and fearing his anger I ran as fast as I could to escape him. After some distance he caught me and tucked me under his arm and stomped back into the house. He carried me up to my parents’ bedroom and taking a leather soled slipper began to spank me.

At this point, hearing my screams, my mother came into the room and told him to stop. “Don’t you ever do that again,” she said to him. It was then he uttered those fateful words, “He’s yours.”

It turned out, he meant it. My relationship with my father from then on was distant. I must say, here, that my parents never deprived me of anything I needed and supported all my chosen activities. But my father never joined me in any of those activities. When I was playing high-school football, knowing him to have been a fine athlete, I asked for any tips he might give me to improve my inexperienced game. His answer was that my coaches would help me

At another time I must have expressed interest in the trumpet. He bought me one and handed it to me. He was a musician and had played the trumpet, but offered no instruction. I had no idea what to do with the instrument and put it away, never to play.

Carl McVicker was the second son in a family of eight children, four boys and four girls. My grandfather McVicker, for whom I was named was an immigrant Scot who had become a superintendent in a Western Pennsylvania coal mine. He died when I was quite young. I only remember him sitting in a living room chair with a blanket on his knees. My grandmother (and I don’t remember her first name} was a German immigrant from a family named Fehl.

I know that at least five of the children graduated from college. Sandy, a World l veteran, became an engineer. John was an educational administrator. Edna, a musician, married a bank executive. Esther became a nurse and married an oil engineer. Minnie was a school teacher.

Ann, the youngest, married and lived with her husband who’s profession was unclear, lived, it seemed, in various trailer parks. I long ago lost track of them.

Henry, the black sheep, was a bit of a gigolo,and escaped Canonsburg leaving behind an illegitimate daughter whom the McVicker clan never accepted. Only my parents kept contact and offered help and sympathy to the distraught mother. I later discovered Henry, as an assistant golf pro at a Los Angeles country club, picking up the balls at the driving range. Being the handsome fellow he was, he married a wealthy real-estate agent who loved him dearly and took care of him. But he ultimately left her and married a younger woman by whom he had another daughter.

My father did not go to college. It has been my suspicion that he may have been dyslexic. He had many talents. After his six-year unemployment during the depression, he did many things, among them, selling Electrolux vacuum-cleaners. His last working years were spent as a machinist in Southern California aircraft parts factory. But for many years he was employed by the Pennsylvania Railroad as an electrician. He could do anything with his hands, another skill he never passed on to me.

But his main love was singing. He had taken singing lessons from a fine teacher in Pittsburgh and become the baritone member of the Red Arrow Quartet. The quartet was sponsored by the Pennsylvania Railroad as representatives of the railroad all over the country. Their gimmick was that they were singing railroad workers. They were some of the first to perform on the new communications medium, radio, singing on KDKA, one of the first stations in the USA. These were the most happy days of his life, I believe. But the Depression descended on the country, and the first thing the PRR did was not only discontinue the quartet, but fire them as railroad workers. His singing career then became secondary. He sang as a church soloist and doing what are now called gigs at weddings and funerals and such.

Ruth Washabaugh met Carl in the church choir. I know little of her childhood. She had two sisters, Margaret and Alice. They all went to Geneva College, a Covenanter school. Margaret married a chiropractor and Alice, a dentist. After college Ruth became an elementary school teacher, a profession she maintained all her adult life, finally retiring in her seventies. As in all times of economic downturn both parents must work, and her income carried us through the tough years of the Depression when Carl was unemployed.

Ruth and Carl were married and became a couple dedicated to each other in every way. She to his talent and he to her intellect and stability. I still remember Sunday afternoons in my grandmother’s living room. Aunt Minnie would be at the piano, and a few family members would sit appreciatively while my father would go through his repertoire, all the baritone classics including “The Road to Mandalay.” Ruth adored his musical talent and he bowed to her every wish and and decision. This included being a constant chauffeur. She was never confident driving a car.

Although Carl was honest with all, to the point of tactlessness at times, Ruth would defend him fiercely. As she was the most loyal daughter, she was also the totally loyal wife.

She had strong views on many things. Many of them were political. At one time during the Depression, she was employed in Washington PA, the county seat, as an evaluator to determine who was eligible for welfare (at that time called relief). It was not supposed to be a political appointment, but a Republican administration was voted into office, fired her, and gave her job to a person whom she thought unworthy. That act was never forgiven till her death at 93. We all remember her shaking her finger and commentating about some news report on the TV that displeased her. And this was before Fox News!

In their late years, Carl, though physically able, was more difficult to care for. We would take them weekly to their favorite deli, and he would insist on his hamburger with butter on the roll and coffee “with the meal!” Badgered waitresses were a bit frightened when he would grab their wrist to make sure they got the proper instructions. As he declined mentally, ritual was what he latched onto to remain stable. My mother had reached her limit when one afternoon he suffered a stroke and was taken to the hospital. He fought desperately not to be taken from his home.

In the hospital, he insisted that Ruth not come to visit him. And she didn’t. I would see him daily, and try to comfort him. He had tubes coming out of every body opening and was not happy. They talked on the phone, but never saw each other again. He died after a few days in the hospital.

Ruth lived with us a short time, but we could not give her the complete dedication and chauffeuring services Carl had. She decided to return to her home territory in Western Pennsylvania to a Covenanter retirement home. There were friends from college there, and my beloved cousin, Jeanne, supplied all her extra needs weekly.

I would visit when I could, and we would have discussions of past times. I was an only child, and I knew that, because of the difficult birth, the doctor had advised no more children. Because of that she had had an abortion, and a later miscarriage. She told me she had never enjoyed sex and felt she had missed something.

She also seemed unaware of my distant relationship with Carl. I have felt that their complete dedication to each other left little room for me. Although I was free to pursue my chosen activities, they didn’t take part. Ruth never came to a sports event that I was part of, although I was on varsity teams in both high school and college. And she was surprised when a teacher told her I was master of ceremonies at the annual high school band concert.

However, my favorite memories of my childhood were times when something would amuse both Ruth and me and we would fall into uncontrollable laughter. It was those moments of shared understanding that I cling to.