It was the summer we didn’t see Rock City and it was all because of Herman’s Hermits and ten dollars in change.
Dad called it his drinking money; mom called it her hair permanent money (though Dad never knew about it because Mom always managed to sneak whatever she had taken out back before he found out). It was kept in a Mason jar on the top of the icebox. My older sister Kate and I were warned to stay out of the jar if we knew what was good for us, but telling kids not to do something is an open invitation to do the opposite. Just like Dad telling us not to monkey around in the garage, knowing very well that was exactly what we would do.
Every time Dad came home from the second shift at the cement mill he dropped whatever loose change he had in his pocket into the jar after he stopped for a few drinks at the Dew Drop Inn or Sonny’s Tap—both on his way home from the mill. Sometimes, when we were in our rooms late at night, we heard the clink of coins in the jar before he staggered and stumbled into the living room, usually knocking over one of the end table lamps in the process.
Some mornings, as Mom got us ready for school, we would find him passed out on the couch still in his clothes and reeking of stale beer and cigarette smoke.
Every day when we passed the icebox, we’d glance to see how high the level of coins had risen overnight.
“How much do you think is in there?” I asked Kate one afternoon.
Kate tilted her head to one side and then the other as she tried to come up with her best guess. Last year, she won the “Guess the Number of Jellybeans” contest at the Ford Hopkins Drug Store. She guessed within 60 jellybeans. She won five dollars and got to keep the jar of jellybeans.
Kate was more adventurous than I was. “Do you want to count it?”
“What happens if Dad or Mom comes home?”
“They won’t be home for hours.”
“Why do you want to know how much money is inside?”
That’s when Kate told me that Herman’s Hermits were going to play at the local youth center. Located in the basement of Galletti’s supermarket, the youth center had become a rock and pop magnet for bands traveling through the Midwest. Thanks to a local promoter who had brought recording artists to the area such as Bill Haley and the Comets, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and Gene Vincent back in the 1950s, bands and musicians who might have played in Chicago and were headed to other gigs and concerts stopped off in Peru before heading west or south. Janis Joplin, Eric Burdon and the Animals, The Turtles, Sound Machine, and Herman’s Hermits had all played there. Some of these bands liked the venue so much, when they were in the area again, they played at the center again.
Herman’s Hermits was one such band. Kate might have liked the Beatles, but the sun rose and set with Herman’s Hermits and the band’s lead singer, Peter Noone. Kate’s room was plastered with posters of the band and Peter Noone. She missed them that last time they were in town and she cried herself to sleep for weeks after. There was no way she was going to miss them this time around.
“They’re playing at the youth center next week,” Kate said with a heavy sigh.
“Groovy,” I said, trying to sound older.
“No, it’s not groovy,” she said, pouting. “I don’t have enough money.”
How much could a ticket cost? Two or three bucks? Kate did babysitting for the Millers’ and Clarks’ on the weekends. Surely she had saved some of that money.
“What about your babysitting money?” I asked. “And your allowance from Mom?”
Mom gave each of us two dollars a week. Along with the money I got from cutting the grass, I had enough for a Revell model of the Gemini Spacecraft at Woolworth’s, the one that John Glenn had orbited the earth in; the rest I was going to use for our trip upcoming trip to Tennessee.
“I have to have something new to wear,” Kate said, frowning.
I furrowed my brow.
“There’s this pair of white go-go boots at Kinney’s Shoe Store,” she said. “They’re only twelve dollars and ninety-eight cents. All I have is eight dollars, but I have to use some of that for the ticket.”
I had four dollars that I could loan her, but she would still come up short.
“There’s no telling when they’ll be back here again. Maybe never,” Kate said with a gloomy tone.
Rumors that the band was splitting up scared Kate, who followed the latest news and gossip in the teen magazines she carried around with her.
“If I don’t see them I’ll just die.”
I spread some strawberry jam on a slice of Wonder Bread. “Why don’t you just ask Mom or Dad?”
“You know they’ll say no.”
I knew what she was thinking before she had the chance to open her mouth.
“Dad won’t know,” she said, eyeing the Mason jar again. “I’ll put the money back as soon as I get paid for babysitting.”
“I don’t know, Kate,” I said. “You know the way Dad gets when he’s angry.”
Dad was quick with his hand or his belt when it came to punishing us. In my case, it was guilty until proven guilty. Coming home after dark, laughing at the dinner table, playing loudly while he napped—were all grounds for punishment. But the worst one of all, was forgetting to put something back in its rightful place. Last week, I had forgotten to put away the lawnmower in its proper place in the garage. I had been in a hurry to meet my friends at Woolworths and just pushed it into the garage. It wasn’t in the way of anything. When I came home three hours later, Dad was waiting for me in the living room. He had already taken off his belt.
“What did I tell you about putting things back where you found them?”
I knew I was wrong, but that didn’t stop me from trying to wiggle my way out of what was most assuredly going to be a few licks from his belt.
“I was going to do it when I came home,” I said, picking up a copy of TV Guide from a coffee table in front of the sofa.
“I could have hit it with the car.”
“But you didn’t.”
The sentence hung in the air long enough for Dad’s face to twist into a scowl.
“Don’t get lippy with me, boy,” he said.
Drunk or sober, Dad had a temper. There was no escaping his wrath.
Kate bit down on her bottom lip and nodded. She could have lied there and said she wouldn’t, but I knew she would. Once Kate made her mind up about something, there was no stopping her. That was probably one of the reasons why Kate and our father couldn’t get along: they both were stubborn and set in their ways.
“You’re right,” she said. “I don’t really need a new pair of boots. My old ones will be fine.”
While Kate was preoccupied with Peter Noone and a new pair of go-go boots, my sights were set on our upcoming trip to Tennessee. Dad said he was going to take us to Lookout Mountain and Rock City. I wasn’t too crazy seeing a city made out of rocks. I just wanted to buy some fireworks, which were legal there.
For months our father had talked about our summer vacation and where we would go. I wasn’t about to hold my breath. Dad hadn’t had much luck when it came to taking us on vacation. Last year, we were supposed to go to the Wisconsin Dells, but just north of Rockford, the alternator went out on the car. That set Dad back fifty dollars, and we had to spend the night in a motel. Dad’s mood hadn’t improved by morning, and we turned around and came back home. The year before that, we were supposed to go to the Ozarks, but our Aunt Mary who lived in Decatur passed away. Dad and Aunt Mary, who was our mother’s older sister, never got along with our father. She blamed all our family problems on Dad’s drinking, and more than once, I overheard her telling Mom she would be better off without our father.
That night I had a Little League game at Hegler Park. I mainly warmed the bench unless my team, Ferretti’s Grocery Store, was ahead by a zillion runs, and then the manager had me pinch hit. Dad had promised he’d come and watch me play, but he most likely forgot again. There had been rumors again that the cement mill was going to lay off some men which meant Dad was probably holding court again at the Dew Drop Inn. Fortunately, Dad didn’t miss anything. I warmed the bench again.
On the way home, I heard the yelling a block away. There was no mistaking my father’s gruff voice and a string of obscenities that all began with the dreaded “F” word. I could tell my friend, Scott, who had walked home with me after the game, was embarrassed for me with all the screaming and yelling coming from inside my house.
“See you tomorrow,” Scott said, hurrying off down the street in the direction of his home.
Kate was in the kitchen. There was a shoe box on the table. I saw one of the go-go boots on the floor. Mom was wringing her hands and try to calm down our father who had the other boot in his hand and was shaking it in front of Kate’s tear-streaked face.
“Where did you get the money?” my father screamed. His voice reminded me of Frank Sutton as Sergeant Carter yelling at Jim Nabors’ character Gomer Pyle in the hit sitcom of the same name.
“I-I-I only borrowed a little,” Kate sobbed.
I wasn’t about to let Kate take the fall. After all, I should have told our mother that Kate was probably going to do something stupid.
“It’s all my fault,” I said, looking at my father.
“What?” my father turned to me with a wild look in his eyes. His breath reeked of beer and whiskey.
“David, honey, please go to your room,” my mother said. “Your father’s had a rough day.”
“What do you mean, it’s all my fault?” my father asked.
I had never talked back to my father before; tonight that was about to change.
“I told her about the money,” I said. “It was all my idea.”
“David, please,” my mother said, intervening before it was too late.
It was too late. There was no turning back. Even Kate sensed what I was going to do and shook her head.
“You did, huh?” my father asked.
The worst thing that could happen to me was that I would either get a spanking or sent to bed earlier.
“Yeah, I did.”
It wasn’t much of a slap, and I should have known better for talking back to my father when he had a snoot full. His back hand caught me off balance, and the metal band of his wristwatch cut my upper lip when he pulled his hand back. There was more blood than pain, but as soon as Mom saw the blood, she freaked and grabbed a frying pan with Dad’s dinner in it and flung it at him. Too slow or shocked at the sight of the blood trickling down my face, he wasn’t able to get out of the way of the pan. It banged against the side of his head; the reheated leftovers that hadn’t flown out in the pan’s flight across the kitchen burned his face.
“You bitch!” he screamed in pain.
At this point, Dad had already forgotten about Kate and the money as he stormed across the kitchen toward my mother. Still the closest one to my father, I stepped in front of him.
“Get out the way,” he bellowed.
“Dean, please,” my mother pleaded, not wanting any more harm to come to me. She had also had enough, but hoped for a more peaceful resolution. “He’s just a kid.”
He wiped off the meat sauce from his face and stared at us with wild eyes. He took a few more steps and raised his hand to take another swing at me, but as he moved toward me, he slipped on the macaroni and meat sauce and lost his balance. He banged his head on the counter on the way down and fell sprawling onto the floor. I stared at my father—moaning and writhing on the floor—for a few seconds and then looked at my mother, who was already on the phone to the police. Kate, still stunned by what happened, scooped up her boots and hurried out of the kitchen with me close behind.
Kate still got to see Herman’s Hermits and even got to meet Peter Noone after the show. We never made it to Rock City and I never got my fireworks. As for my father, it wouldn’t be the last time the flashing red lights from one of LaSalle’s police cars strobed into our house, but it was the first time I had stood up to him.
Jeffrey Miller has spent nearly three decades in Asia as a university lecturer, writer, and journalist. Originally from LaSalle, Illinois, he relocated to South Korea in 1990, where he nurtured a love for spicy Korean food, Buddhist temples, and East Asian History.
He is the author of nine books, including War Remains: A Korean War Novel, Ice Cream Headache, The Panama Affair and The Roads We Must Travel, coming soon from Big Table Publishing.
He currently resides in Daejeon with his wife and four children. If he’s not working, writing, or reading, he’s usually chasing little kids around his home. Follow him on Twitter: @Papa_Sparks.