Monday, November 07, 2005

The Life and Times of Larry and Ernest - 3

(Run originally 5/2/04 on our old site)

Ernie Simpson


On to A-State

In high school, Larry wanted to be good at whatever he tried, and kept his focus on that thing. He wanted to be a good clarinet player, and was. He had great discipline and worked hard on the horn. I believe he was as good at tenor saxophone as he was clarinet. His equipment was a LeBlanc clarinet and a Selmer saxophone. He used an O’Brien crystal mouthpiece for his clarinet, which I later adopted as standard equipment for my clarinet players at Manila, Nettleton and Jonesboro High. I liked the bright tone quality it produced, and what for me was a true clarinet sound.

We both had made All-State our senior year, and went on to Arkansas State after hearing the band play on spring tour at Searcy in the spring of 1957. We had another Searcyian in that band; Larry James was a clarinet player and went to A-State a year ahead of us. This was not significant for us, but the band was a better group than any we had heard at the college level, and we wanted to be a part of it.

We talked about it, and decided we’d see about joining up. One nice Saturday morning in May 1957, about a week after graduation, we took our horns, and got a ride with my dad to take us out to the junction of Highway 67 at the RoseAnn motel, where he dropped us off. We stuck out our thumbs and hitchhiked to Jonesboro. Larry had turned eighteen in March, and I would be eighteen in June. We caught a ride with a farmer, and were there before noon, found the Fine Arts building on Caraway Road, and went in. The Fine Arts center was a converted dairy barn, and had been made into rehearsal halls and offices and practice rooms. (Today, there is a flower garden and a post office on that site).

We walked into the band room, and there were two or three college students there, just hanging out. We said we were from Searcy and wanted to try out for the band. I was quietly surprised that this created a flurry of activity with those who were there, and I wondered why it would. One of the students went to find Mr. Minx, who gave us a friendly greeting. We had never met before.

He asked me if I had brought something to play, and I produced a solo, Hidebriton, a technical piece with lots of fancy triple tonguing. He sent up to a practice room and asked one of the college piano students to come play the accompaniment for me. I was amazed that she could sight read the accompaniment like she had rehearsed it for hours. Jean Croom, my friend at home, helped me to a first division at solo contest by working hard on the piano accompaniment. Mr. Minx also sent for a woodwind instructor to hear Larry play. I never found out what his audition material was. Harold Worman came back downstairs with Larry, and spoke to Mr. Minx to one side, in a very hushed and excited voice.

I played my solo and Mr. Minx asked me a few questions, and we chatted about high school, and our director, Al English. Mr. Minx offered the both of us a scholarship, and I thought it was great. I think the scholorship paid $100 a semester. Not a lot, but at least recognition.

We were excited about going to Jonesboro to be in the band. I did not have a clue as to what we were facing, I was simply going to college and was going to play my horn.


Finding a Way to Make It

That summer, after trying out for the A-State band, both of us had to figure a way to get enough money to go to school. I went to DeKalb, IL, to work at Del Monte. I had caught a ride with some guys from Harding, and figured it was a good hard steady summer job. How little I knew how difficult it was going to be. Dan Randle was there with me from Searcy as well. One dollar, ten cents an hour, and overtime was time and a half past ten hours a day. One week I worked 110 hours. I could hardly remember my name. Sleep deprivation does that to you, I now understand.

At the end of June, some of the guys went back to Searcy, and a couple of us stayed to work in the corn, which would be ready for processing at the latter part of June.

At the end of the pea harvest, a guy representing a pipeline company came looking for a welder’s helper on a pipeline going through from Rochelle, south of DeKalb ending at St. Charles. There was only one opening. Gary Gray from Searcy was there at the time I was, and we tossed a coin, and I won. Of course I didn’t know anything about welding, but I soon learned. I finished out the summer on a pipeline as a welder’s helper.

Back home, Larry was having it no better. He had a job at the Shoe Factory, and became friends with my dad, who also worked there. My dad later spoke of Larry, and had admiration for Larry for his work ethic. I believe Dad only knew Larry as my friend, a fun loving guy, and his will to work hard gained a great deal of respect from my dad. They both agreed that one lady working there had less than a sparkling personality, and dad called her an ‘old heifer’. Larry believed that title was appropriate, and continued that description for many years of women he thought were less than wonderful.

It was a tough job, and Larry was trying to make enough for college. We both were, and I was a long way away from home.

Larry was seeing Sue, that’s Ramona Sue Haney. Larry was crazy about her, and talked about her endlessly when I came back at the end of the summer, how beautiful she was, how graceful and nice. I understood. Of course, they had been childhood sweethearts since they were nine, but now it was different. He was smitten, without any doubt. Sue was pretty, slim and trim, and had a dark complexion and dark hair and eyes. Sue had a quiet personality that had a calming affect on him, and I think he could never just exactly figure her out, and that was a part of the mystery she held over him.

He and I left Searcy in late August, and came to Arkansas State. We had all we owned in the trunk of Peck’s Buick, and were ready for the world. We crossed the railroad tracks on Caraway Road towards the college, and wondered what the world held for us.


Freshmen of 1957

Larry and I got to Arkansas State for our freshman year, in the fall of 1957 and, even before registration, had selected Danner Hall for our residence. Danner was located on North Caraway, across from the Baptist Student Union. We talked about being roommates, and of course that was fine with the both of us. The room was on the third floor, and had community showers down the hall. Our room was small, but we didn’t have many material goods, so it didn’t matter. I never could get used to hearing the train late at night as it passed along Matthews headed towards the edge of Jonesboro, however. It was a lonely sound, and I managed to escape it for several years until coming back to Jonesboro to teach at Nettleton in 1971.

Things settled down soon and we were getting used to the freshman life at A-State. Our lives at that time were centered on the band and its activity, and the new environment of college. As far as women, Larry kept his allegiance to Sue, but my girlfriend, Elois, had gone off to the sorry U of A; I didn’t know if I’d see her again or not. I dated several girls until I met Diane. I think Diane and Larry just tolerated each other, but Sue and Diane were friends and, after our first teaching jobs started, made it easy to visit in each other’s home.

Larry and I had very little conflict, and got along well as roommates during our freshman year. Our greatest and strongest conflict, however, came over nothing at all, an adolescent thing that marked the last of our teen-age years, and almost brought our friendship to an end.

We were in our dorm room one evening with one or two other guys from down the hall, having a great discussion of things important, and all the facts we knew and how we were going to solve the dilemmas of college life. Before long the conversation turned to cars, and we began a discussion of sports cars. One thing led to another, and we entered into the subject of the virtues of Corvette versus Thunderbird. Of course I was a Corvette fan, had been since the seventh grade.

I stated that the Corvette, although fiberglass, was as close to a true sports car that is made in the U.S., and had been since it’s inception in 1953. The Thunderbird was well behind in technology, not having been introduced until 1955. Larry disagreed, saying the Thunderbird of the ’56-57 variety had stronger lines and a more powerful engine.

I countered that although the British and Italians were leaders, the Corvette was a true sports car and would soon dominate the market in the US for two seated, top down true sports cars. This discussion became heated, and the two other guys looked at each other, got up and left the room. Our argument did not slow down.

It was only a moment later that Larry called me a crazy SOB, and that did it. I said, get up off that bed and I’ll show you who’s a crazy SOB. That did not deter him, however, and he proceeded to get off the bed and came straight for me. I had seen him fight, and I was smart enough not to let him reach me, because I knew what would happen if he did. His shoulder hit me right in the solar plexus, slamming me back against the wall, knocking the breath out of me.

When he stepped back, I swung wildly. My fist hit him just above the bridge of the nose at his forehead. He staggered back, and I waited for what I knew was coming. Instead, he said, “Dammit man, I’d fight you, but I can’t see you!” I thought O my gosh, what has happened? This immediately ended the fight.

I went over to him and helped him back on the bed. He told me he was seeing two of everything, and we learned later the blow had caused some temporary double vision, but then it was enough to frighten me, and him, too. I would not have wanted to continue, anyway. It would have been a tough fight, he was just that scrappy.

That changed the complexion of everything, and stopped the anger immediately. I got a cold cloth and had him lie back on the bed, and put the cloth on his forehead and eyes. By the next morning, his vision was fine, but both eyes were black. I had a bruise just right at my rib cage for days. I felt badly about the whole thing, and vowed I would never be this angry with him again. He assured me he was still ready to fight, he just couldn’t see me. I apologized for becoming angry, and he said, that’s o.k., forget it.

Things went along fine, but in a few weeks, we talked about going to another room, and he decided to move. It was not because of the fight, but because he and I both needed to go in our own separate direction for a while. I stayed in room 314; Markham Howe from Marianna was my roommate, and Larry moved to the mezzanine level just above the basement.

Only one other incident I recall that could have caused problems but I vowed it would not. I did value his friendship highly, and he would have had to do something really bad not to have it overlooked by me.

Larry had a 28-gauge shotgun, single barrel; I think he told me his grandfather had it bored out from a .22 rifle. It had a hexagonal barrel, and he kept it hidden in his room in the lower level of the dorm. He was proud of that shotgun, and although firearms were not permitted in the dorm, he brought it from home, for whatever reason.

One night, he had the shotgun showing it to a couple of his friends. I had just been there, and looked at it, and allowed that was a rare shotgun because of the gauge. It typically was either 410 or 20, then 16 or 12, but rarely 28 gauge.

I had been given the job of dorm representative, which had taken a little off my rent, and in turn, it was my job to report any vandalism or acts against the building itself that the college would not approve.

After I left the room, I heard a loud boom. I ran back to Larry’s room, and he sat with his friends, white as a sheet, holding the smoking shotgun. There was a large hole in the ceiling above them. I asked, “What the heck happened?” Larry said, “I don’t know, it just went off.”

I left, closed the door and ran up the stairs. Mrs. Rife, the dorm mother came out of her apartment, and was running across the lobby towards me, wide eyed with fright.

“What was that,” she exclaimed. I replied, “Mom Rife, I don’t think it was anything, I think someone must have set off a firecracker in the basement. I’ll go check it out.” I left in the direction away from Larry’s room toward the basement, and she went back in her apartment, apparently satisfied that I had things under control.

We only mentioned the incident once more; Larry told me a few days later the custodian wondered what the heck created that big four-inch scar in the solid concrete ceiling. Larry said he didn’t know, he thought it was there when he came. We had a big laugh over this.

To be continued


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