Saturday, November 05, 2005

The Story of a Friendship

(Originally run 4/30/04 on our old site)

I have received an intensely personal document from my friend, Ernie. It’s a detailing of his almost 30 year friendship with the late Larry Maness.

Pieces of this document have appeared on this site before, but this is the first time I’ve had the entire thing.

It is unique and, I think, worthy of both preservation and dissemination, because I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered a friendship of this intensity and duration and depth at any other time in my life.

Therefore, I’m exercising my editorial prerogative by sharing this with you, breaking it into several consecutive installments.

I hope it gives you the same warm fuzzies – and, truthfully, a touch of envy -- it gave me.


The Life and Times of Larry and Ernest

Ernie Simpson

He was my best friend and, from an early age, a special type of hero to me. Not from a traditional hero standpoint, but from the point of unconditional love between two men that developed from the first grade. That’s when I first met him. I have often said that, aside from family, your real friends can be counted on one hand. Forget all those who you consider close and wonderful: they aren’t, because for you they will never make that select group. Most all my heroes now are dead: Dad, Mr. Minx, Larry, my brother Jim, my son Scott … now only a few remain.

Larry took Frank Thompson and me to his house one day at recess, when we were in the first grade, over on the corner of Academy and North Horton. Lanny was small and Peck was off running the little diner called Peck’s Dog House near Spring Park. Their home was modest but nice, and his mom, Jettie, was always friendly to me. We got a good scolding from Mrs. Wilson, however: she wanted to have our hides for leaving the school grounds during recess; this was a real no-no.

We stayed friends all though grade school, and in the sixth, we joined the band. Bill Laas was the leader who motivated us to play and love music. Larry and Frank picked the clarinet; I took trumpet because of the encouragement of Bill Laas. I have to say this as a side note about Bill Laas, he was a talented recruiter. Years later, in seeking talent for our own band programs, we used some of the same techniques Bill Laas used to get kids in band. Some kids were good players, some not so good, but Bill Laas believed that every child deserved the chance to play an instrument. Many kids became band directors out of that generation of students, and it was because he instilled that ethic in us. Larry, Frank, Bill Kolb, Ronnie Holleman, Tom Pry and several others came from that influence.

Larry went out for football in Junior High, his dad, Peck, was a play-by-play sports announcer for the Searcy Lions.

Larry did well in football; he was fast and would have made a great end or running back. Unfortunately, a blind-side tackle hurt one of his knees in a junior high game, and Larry had to drop out of football. He had trouble with his knee the rest of his life. I would attribute this to part of the problem when he had the accident that killed him in November of 1973.

He told me once when we were young teachers he would not live to be thirty-five, and I don’t know where that came from. It was an unusual statement, I thought, and wondered about it. He was thirty-four when he died.


Band at the Beginning

On the Road with the Band

In the early 50’s, we were old enough, but barely proficient enough on our horns to be taken into the performing band at Searcy High. We had done some small performances and had done a few halftime shows, with not much precision marching. We were more about pageantry and showmanship, as the talents of Bill Laas led us into those type shows, and enthralled the halftime crowds.

A big trip for the band was coming up in the spring, the annual State Band Festival in Hot Springs. This was our first opportunity to travel with the band, and we were so looking forward to it.

The Waverly Hotel was where we stayed on one of our early trips, and we liked it, mainly because it had an elevator, and we loved running the thing up and down with great gusto. The hotel guests did not appreciate our pre-adolescent fun, and we were called down several times for tying up the elevator.

The first night there, and we could certainly not go to sleep, with the excitement of being there, and all the fun we were having. However, our performance was the next day, and as I recall, our performance included both marching and playing a concert. Mr. Laas wanted his troupe in top-notch shape, and intended our curfew to help us rest.

He had allowed us to select our roommates, and there were four: Thomas Rongey, Frank Thompson, Larry Maness and me. We had a great time all day, and the prospect of going to bed early was not in the least appealing.

The first lights out came at around 10:00, and we were dutiful, the lights did go out. The fun kept going, however. Laughter and noise, crashing into furniture, total bedlam, all in the name of having fun. The second warning came, with Mr. Laas knocking on the door, along with a couple of senior counselors or band parents. I don’t recall who was at the door. I think Marvin Sowell was the Sergeant at Arms, with help from the drum major, Larry Killough.

They left, and things were quiet for a moment. There was too much energy to keep down, though, and soon we were back at again.

At about 12:30 there was a loud banging on the door. One of the guys opened the door, and I dived under covers, with my face to the wall.

Mr. Laas came in and gave a stern lecture about our violating the curfew, and stated we would have to be punished. He walked over and took the big white leather Sam Browne military belt from my uniform and folded it, and told them each to bend over. Larry asked, “Do you want me to wake Ernest?” Mr. Laas said, “No, that’s O.K., let him sleep”.

He did a great job, for each either grunted or jumped and shouted ‘Ow!’ when the belt hit home. One lick each, and hard enough to make an impression.

When he had finished, there was another lecture, but this time it was heard very well. I was too frightened to move, and did not want to be included in this execution.

Mr. Laas left, and turned out the lights as he left. There were a few whispers from my friends once they realized everyone was gone, but it was soon quiet at last.

I asked them what happened the next morning, and they told me. They did not want to discuss it, and I let the matter drop.

I think Mr. Laas knew he would have had four swats very easily, and I’m pretty sure he wondered how anyone could sleep in that raucous din. It was never mentioned again, but I noticed the leather in the old belt had two large stress breaks in the finish where it had done its work. I used that belt two or three years, and inspected the breaks every time I put it on. The belt took punishment too, on the behinds of three friends, which could have easily included me.

Later in life, as a band director in Arkansas for many years, I took my students to Hot Springs, too. It was very reminiscent of those early days that were so very precious in memory. As a teacher, I now walked those same streets with band kids but, this time, I was the teacher, and they were the students. Funny thing, with many of they stunts they pulled, many were thwarted ahead of time. They couldn’t understand how I could predict what they might try. My friends and I had in most cases, tried anything they tried twenty years before. What fun.


Junior High Need for Speed

When we were in Junior high, Larry’s dad, Peck, offered to take Larry and a couple of his friends to a movie in Little Rock. He had a new ’54 Buick Century straight eight, and of course we were impressed to ride in the car. We went to the Capitol Theatre in Little Rock; I wish I could remember the movie. It was Larry, Frank and I.

Coming back later that night, we were on old highway 67 heading north towards Beebe, and Peck said, “Have any of you been 100 miles per hour?” I doubt that any of us even had any comprehension of what 100 mph really was, and of course none of us had been that fast.

Peck was pleased to demonstrate how this Buick would run. The road was straight and level, and there was no traffic. The speedometer crept past 80, then 90 and I couldn’t take my eyes off it.

I couldn’t believe how fast things were going by the windows but I was glued to the speedometer. When it hit 100, Peck said, “There it is, boys,“ and let off the gas. The car slowed to a regular 60 miles per hour.

For us, it was unforgettable.


Mischievous Larry

Dan Randle tells the story very well of Halloween night when we were in high school, around our junior year. Frank Thompson’s dad had bought an old panel truck and had it for a junk hauler. Morris Brookhart and Larry had partially filled a 55-gallon drum with water, and put a chunk of wood in the water to keep it from sloshing. Attached to the barrel was a fruit sprayer, which could be pumped up for additional pressure.

We were riding the old panel job around the court square, and spraying people on the sidewalk and curb with the sprayer. Frank was driving, and in the truck were Morris Brookhart, Frank Thompson, Larry Maness, Dan Randle and I.

Some of the people on the curb did not appreciate being squirted with the water, and started pelting the old truck with water balloons and other debris as we passed by. A guy named Frankie Barnett threw a balloon, and the mass of water in the balloon cracked the windshield of the truck when it hit.

Without a moment’s hesitation, Larry bailed out of the back of the truck and the chase was on. Through the people and across the court square lawn, Larry was after Frankie with the crowd watching. But Frankie was too big, too slow, and Larry was too fast. He caught Frankie with a great classic tackle, and the fight was on. Larry was quicker and better, and Frankie got the worst of the deal.

We should not have been surprised that Larry would have done this, but it was still a wild ride for us. After that little soirée’, we got back in the panel truck and continued having fun. However, that was the end of the fruit sprayer for the evening.

Larry’s first car was a ’49 Willies Jeepster. It was green, and had square fenders and reminded me of a ’54 MG-TF roadster.

As it happened, Larry’s first wreck came one Saturday night, as he was traveling north on old ’67, now Davis Drive, where it goes out of town past the fairgrounds. Peck had started letting him take the Buick, and Larry had a need to go fast. At North Bypass Road, Larry turned left, back to the west. The old Searcy Dairy on that corner had a stone wall about three feet high. The Buick Larry was driving was going at a high rate of speed and did not make the turn. Larry impaled the underneath side of the Buick on the wall.

I don’t recall how he got home that night, seems as though I vaguely remember his walking home. But I do recall the Buick was still on the wall on Sunday morning. I went by there later to survey the damage, and the wall was damaged. The Buick was damaged more. There was a great deal of conflict between Larry and Peck over this incident.

Things settled down a little when Peck encouraged us to form a quartet. He had been in a male quartet when he was a young man, and was quite a singer. There were four of us who showed interest in putting together the quartet, and Peck was all for helping us with it. He was indeed knowledgeable about quartet singing, and gave some great pointers.

Larry, Dan Randle, Norman Richards and I were the quartet, and we liked to do old time stuff. We started with Aura Lee and, soon after, Elvis came out with Love Me Tender. We had an opportunity to be in a talent contest at Harding when we were about juniors, and Camelia Chambliss was the lead singer. We did a do-wop piece, In the Still of the Night. Won Third place or something. We let Camelia keep the trophy.

To be continued


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