In Search of Al Martin

Today, I was thinking of a guy named Al Martin, who was one of the few African American role models for me when I was a teenager in Mason City, Iowa. I thought of him a couple of years ago, googled his name and couldn’t find him. I mentioned him anyway in a blog post at that time, “Snow Moon Reflections.” A major topic was black male role models.

Today, for some reason I thought of him again. I googled his name once more and found an obituary for a man named Allen Henry Martin. This particular Martin was a black man who was 83 years old when he died just this last November of 2022. The obituary stated that he was a talented artist, just as I recall. Despite the many decades gone by, his photograph looked familiar to me.

He was a sculptor and photographer as well as a painter. He worked several different jobs. He had a great sense of humor. He worked as a land surveyor for several years, which I connect with because I did that for a while when I was young.

I’m not absolutely certain that Allen Henry Martin is the same Al Martin who I looked up to when I was at a tender age. But for now, I’m going to assume they were one and the same.

One time, Al Martin took me to an art show where he set up many of his pictures. It was a brisk autumn day. We drank a lot of coffee, partly to keep warm. I remember how uncomfortable I felt because of my full bladder. The wind was cold.

I don’t know why I remember this, but Al one time spoke of his children and he happened to mention what he did when they felt sick to the stomach. It sounds gross, but he made the story comical and said something like, “Many a time I caught vomit in my hands!” It was disgusting—but funny at the same time, the way he told that little story. You really had to be there to get it.

As I read this, I catch myself thinking I should have something more solemn and dignified to say about Al.

But this is not an obituary. These are just my memories of Al Martin which are fading the older I get, and I’m entitled to them. Al Martin was a great guy.

Memories and Condolences

I was thinking of my hometown, Mason City, for some reason today. Then I just happened to think of my childhood pastor, Reverend Glen Bandel. The last time I looked him up on the web was about a year ago and saw a news item dated in 2019. He was celebrating his 90th birthday.

I looked him up today. He died on June 3, 2022.

 My deepest condolences to the Bandel family. Reverend Glen Bandel was the definition of the caring family pastor in Mason City. He sat up in the chair with us nearly all night at our house when my mother was sick and my brother and I were little. He had a great sense of humor. The Bandels shared their home with us when times were hard.

They took us with them to visit a family up in Minnesota one winter. I don’t think my mother was with me and my little brother at the time. I think she was in the hospital and the Bandel family took us in.

The family in Minnesota lived and worked on a farm. They didn’t have indoor plumbing. I think Reverend Bandel had a particular reason to visit them. It might have been to try to persuade them to change the way they lived. They had several children.

I had to use the outhouse at night. I was too cold to move my bowels. My family was poor, but not as poor as this one.

I caught the father singing to his little baby daughter. I think the baby’s name was Dolly because he was singing “Hello Dolly” to her. I walked in on them while he was singing the lyric “It’s so nice to have you back where you belong.”

He was having a great time singing to her. But when he looked up and saw me watching him acting like a doting dad, he stopped and looked a little sheepish. I wished he hadn’t seen me.

Reverend Bandel was a hero in the eyes of the many people he served and in my eyes for sure.

I will remember him and the rest of his family for their kindness and generosity as long as I live.

Signs of Anecdotage

I remember when we were kids, we used to get gifts of fruitcake from well-meaning older ladies in our church. I think that’s where I first learned how to lie. If my little brother and I didn’t praise the weaponized loaf of glazed, syrupy candied fruit studded with rotten walnuts, we caught hell from Mom. Lying gets a bad name, I know. But if you don’t learn this essential social skill early in life, you end up with a sore backside from the paddle in the corner of the family room. Ironically, the paddle was a repurposed paddle ball toy we got for Christmas—which was always the time the old ladies from church would gift us with fruitcakes from outer space, obviously via wormhole vortex.

Speaking of friends, we occasionally had dinner with an older couple, RellaMae and Ray, who owned a gargantuan mongrel dog, part bull mastiff and part mastodon. His name was Moose. When he was tied to a post out in the back yard, he spent a lot of his time barking and snarling at anything living that passed by, especially the paperboy. On the other hand, he played like a puppy with me and my brother. At the dinner table, he would lay his head on my knee, mournfully staring at every forkful and leaving a pond of drool on my pants.

RellaMae was tickled to death with her old Chrysler which had a push-button transmission. I bet you thought that was a modern invention. I know next to nothing about cars, but Chrysler made some of these in the 1950s and 1960s. We went for a drive in it and I half-expected it to fly. It was pink, if I recall correctly. Ray was a cab driver with bad heart disease who chewed on but did not smoke cigars the size and consistency of Black Angus bull turds. The cab dispatcher where he worked had a singular talent. The phone was always busy but because she was the only dispatcher, she had to make her bathroom breaks very speedy. The legend was that she could be in and out in less than a minute.

The push-button Chrysler reminds me of a car my wife and I owned for a while sometime in the 1980s to 1990s which talked to you. I believe it was a New Yorker. It said things like “A door is ajar” which everyone made jokes about (When is a door not a door? When it’s ajar). Har! That chatty car got me across Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio when I was interviewing for residency. I got stranded along with a lot of other motorists at a rest stop on the way back from Ohio because of a snowstorm. That was brief, uneventful, and we were on our way after the plows went through in a couple of hours.

But that does remind me of another time I got stranded in Wyoming on my way back home from college in Texas. I traveled by bus back in those days and me and my fellow passengers were stuck in a hole in the wall sandwich and gift shop at the bus depot. A couple of us sat at one of the tables and were entertained by what sounded like tall tales from a couple of local guys bragging about their criminal exploits. One of them finally pushed up his sleeve, exposing his arm which was covered with about a half dozen or so wristwatches—which he hinted were stolen and he was trying to sell.

You can tell when somebody is in his anecdotage. Anybody out there with a story?

The Retirement Home Search and The Well of Memories

We were out for an adventure today, shopping for a retirement home. That’s what it was, really, although we really didn’t make any hard decisions or commitments.

Nowadays there are considerations for whether to build from the ground up, buy and modify a spec home, buy an older home, go condo, even rent, move to a retirement village, and whatnot.

You have to think about mud rooms, pantries, walkout basements, whether to finish the basement or not, lot size, square footage of the house and the yard, two car or one car garage, Jack and Jill sinks, lawn sprinkler systems, Home Owner Associations (HOAs), fences, ceiling fans, gas fireplaces, whether or not you want to live next door to a high school baseball stadium and more even beyond that.

What you don’t have to think about is whether or not there’s indoor plumbing.

When my brother and I were little boys, our pastor and his family took us on a long drive up to the sticks somewhere in Minnesota in the dead of winter. Man, it was cold up there. The object of the visit was to visit a family who lived out on a farm and they didn’t have indoor plumbing.

There was an outhouse and a well. I remember the pastor’s little girl and his brother and me and my little brother stood by the well and talked about how pure the water was in the well. While we were talking, the pastor’s daughter picked up a rock and, before anyone could stop her, dropped it into the well—just to see how it would float down to a bottom nobody could see.

Her little brother was pretty annoyed. The member of the family we were visiting had just remarked how clear and pure the well water was. After the rock spiraled out of sight into the water, her brother spat out, “Well, it was but now it isn’t!” She just snickered.

Because we were staying the night at the farmhouse, we went to bed. There was a large pan for urinating but if you had to move your bowels, the only option was the outhouse.

I had to go. I waited as long as I could because it was really cold out there. Finally, I just couldn’t hold it any longer, and I had to pull on some clothes and trudge over the frozen ground to this shabby little shed that I could smell long before I got to the rickety door.

There was some paper in there but—it wasn’t real toilet paper. It might have been magazine pages. I was so cold it was impossible to relax enough to let go.

I had problems with constipation after that for a good long while, well after we returned home.

Things have changed a lot—mostly for the better in many ways but you still have to pay a high price in other ways.

Toilet paper is softer.

My Mother

Sometimes I think about my mother, Ruby, who died 15 years ago. She reared me and my brother Randy. Those were hard times. She had a sense of humor but the years wore on her, making life a burden. She was a lifelong resident of our hometown.

 In early life, she worked as a waitress. She often spoke with great pride of her ability to carry more hot dishes barehanded from kitchen to table than anyone else she knew.

She was an avid card player. If you couldn’t remember what tricks were played in a game of 500 — Ruby had you for lunch.

She lived in the heart of the downtown area on Federal Avenue for decades — and loved every minute of it.

She enjoyed the noise of traffic, the city waking up, the city eating lunch, and the city having a hard time going to sleep at night.

She lived high above the street, and didn’t mind the stairs at all, even late into her seventies.

Ruby loved going out for coffee. She was a great talker, and thoroughly enjoyed hearing a good joke. She knew that sharing troubles and laughter were both healing. In her own way, she reminded us to cherish our blessings wherever we found them. We will remember.

I am very lucky to have some snapshots of my family, and even luckier to find one of her smiling brightly. She suffered to put it simply. Religious faith helped. We went to church regularly for some time. My father never went to church as far as I know, but for some reason, at one time I remember there was some hint that he might attend Sunday service with us. A new pastor had taken over and I remember he said flatly that he would never allow some “Black buccaneer” in his church.

Over the years, I’ve thought about whether the pastor’s emphasis was on my father being black or just a buccaneer. He was both. Anyway, he never showed up and that’s just as well because he surely was not welcome.

At Christmas, we used to get gifts of fruitcake from members of the church. I think that was one of the first times I learned how to lie from my mother who didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings who was making a gift to us during the holidays. I hated that fruitcake so much; I can’t even begin to tell you. But I told anyone who gave that stuff to us that I loved it.

Television was about the only entertainment we had. We used to watch Ed Sullivan, Lost in Space, and all those other shows you can see on MeTV nowadays. We used to play Old Maid with a pretty creepy deck of cards.

Mom could climb a lot of stairs without any problems, well into her eighties. I climb a lot of stairs too as a C-L psychiatrist in the general hospital, and I’m well into my sixties. We’re alike in many ways.

One of the differences was that she could play cards better than I ever will. I’m just not so good at remembering what cards have been played. However, I try and my wife and I occasionally play a game called Schnapsen, in which remembering what’s been played is critical to winning. I lose more than my share of games.

Mom was a fast walker. We often walked from our house to Central Park downtown, which was quite a distance. We didn’t have a car, so walking was the only way to get around. I take after her because I’m a pretty good walker. Ask any trainee who rotates through the psychiatry consult service.

When she got very old, her health worsened and her nerves got the best of her more often than not. I remember she made me promise I’d never put her in a nursing home. I did promise—and I eventually had to break it.

Mom and I were very much alike. I treasure our differences.

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