As a boy of about seven, I lived in Amo, Indiana for a year or maybe two. I don’t recollect exactly how long because keeping track of time back then as a child seemed unimportant. Still, after living in the big city of Indianapolis, I often wondered, “How in the hell did we end up in a backwater, country place like Amo, Indiana?” In time I learned that my father, James Raymond Smada, who was a self-employed roofer with no formal education, was born in Hendricks County, just west of Indianapolis where Amo, Indiana was located. So, although the area was unfamiliar to my family, it was familiar to Dad. But this I know, I wouldn’t have given Amo, Indiana a second thought if it had not been for the place where I lived, Tom Finley, and my cousin Rickey.
THE PLACE WHERE I LIVED
The siding on the house where I lived in Amo consisted of unpainted, warped, wooden boards beaten down by harsh weather and sun. An occasional glimpse of white on some of the siding-boards made it clear that the house used to be painted white. The house was an elongated, one level structure with five rooms: The front bedroom, where Dad and Mom slept, followed by three smaller bedrooms, where my siblings and I slept, a no consequential bathroom, and a kitchen. My family didn’t have a regular living-room in the house with a couch, end-tables, lamps, and all that expensive stuff. Dad and Moms’ front bedroom at the end of the hallway served as our living room. After supper, when the dishes were cleaned and put away, my siblings and I congregated in Mom’s bedroom to watch television. Sometimes the picture came in clear but other times it didn’t come in at all. Among my siblings were my sister, Judy, who was one year older than me, and three brothers, Jack, Larry, and Gary. I was the second oldest in the family which meant I was older than all the boys. Our favorite shows to watch were “The Jackie Gleason Show”, “The Ed Sullivan Show”, and “The Rifleman” staring Chuck Connors. But come bedtime, when our shows were over, Dad and Mom abruptly rushed us out of their bedroom to our bedrooms. At the end of the row of bedrooms laid the bathroom, and then the kitchen. The kitchen had a backdoor that led to the backyard. It was the only door in the house that we ever used.
On one side of the house ran a black-topped road and on the other side a six-feet high railroad trestle where trains traveled day and night. The black-topped road rarely saw any traffic. Every now and then a car traveled up or down the road. The road ran all the way up to the small town of Amo about two miles away where we went to school. On the other side where the railroad trestle ran, we enjoyed about eight feet of yard between the house and the trestle. Next to the side of the house where our bedrooms lied, a makeshift, lean-to had been erected. The lean-to had a tin-roof that covered a hundred-gallon drum of fuel-oil. Fuel-oil heated our house during the winter months. In the night, when it rained, the tap-tap-tap, tap-tap-tap of rain drops hitting the tin-roof put me sound to sleep. And when the trains roared by in the night, even though the whole house shook, I slept soundly. Consequently, ever since childhood I have loved the sound of a train in the night. It always gave me cold chills when I heard a train’s whistle blow in the night.
Through the week, my siblings and I walked the two mile track up the black topped road to the small town of Amo and our school. On the black-topped road we passed a lot of other houses that looked like our house and people that looked poor like us. My siblings and I walked to school with a lot of other kids that lived in those houses. We traveled that road four times a day going to school, coming home for lunch, going back to school, and coming home at the end of the school day.
Occasionally I noticed a black family along the black-topped road but not too often. Black people, for whatever reasons, didn’t like living in Amo, I thought, because their numbers were low. A little black boy always came out of his house to walk to school with my siblings and me. I thought maybe it was because he felt safe walking to school with us. Whatever the reason, I didn’t mind. Mom taught my siblings and me not to judge people unfairly. At the school in Amo, too, I noticed that there were very few black students. It wasn’t like Indianapolis where our school included lots of black kids. Even though I was young, I still noticed that black people in the Amo community and at school were treated poorly. One day, I remembered, at the grocery store with Mom, I saw that the white store owner made a black family get out of line to wait on a white family first. I thought that was a very cruel thing to do. As the black family stepped aside, I asked Mom why they had to wait for others to go first, but Mom told me, “Be quiet.” Unlike today, back then racism was unconcealed. Back then in Amo drinking fountains and restrooms even had “whites only” on them.
On the other side of the black-topped road laid a huge cornfield. Corn stretched as far as the eye could see. I love corn on the cob cooked in its hull. When butter, salt, and pepper were added, it tasted so delicious. The corn on our table came from the large cornfield. The man who owned the cornfield gave my family permission to pick all the corn we needed for our family to eat because Dad fixed his roof. There were days when my family made a meal of nothing but corn on the cob, tomatoes, and Mom’s homemade corn bread, and I remembered being perfectly content with a meal like that.
The backdoor of our kitchen led to a 50-yard-long backyard, which was the area where we played. Our backyard ran into the neighbor’s back yard of identical size before getting to their house of identical structure as ours. However, the neighbors didn’t have a garden. No fences of any kind surrounded or separated our yards. Our twenty-five-yard wide, grassy-green yards ran up to the edge of the black-topped road. Many days mother could be heard yelling from the kitchens backdoor while she cooked, “Where is my saltshaker?” It was always found in the tomato patch where my siblings or I had left it after eating tomatoes and cucumbers but mostly tomatoes. Running parallel to the garden was mother’s clotheslines where she hung hand-washed clothes. Her knuckles were often red from scrubbing clothes in a large, metal-tub with washboard. At the front of the house, which looked more like the back, laid another garden—a turnip garden—followed by a large field of weeds and then a large open field on the far side of the railroad track in front of the neighbor’s house on the black-topped road sat an old, rusty bridge. Before getting to the bridge, the cornfield abruptly ended on the topside of a downward slope that continued to level off as it approached the creek that flowed underneath the bridge. We called the area under the bridge down where the cheek flowed “the bottom.” The cheek measured roughly twenty-five feet wide, I believed. At any given time, the water was only about eight to ten inches deep except when it rained- it was a little deeper. I waded across it even on rainy days. Even when all else was silent in the bottom, the sound of running water remained constant as the creek searched for a place of rest. I remembered that the creek’s water was always ice cold even in the summertime. The water was so clear that I could see hundreds of different sized, round-shaped stones on the bottom. The running water had worn all the rough edges off them. The stones had rings of blue, orange, green, red, and various other colors running through them. I often wondered about the process that allowed those colors to enter the stones. It had to have been a miraculous process, I reasoned. The bottom area was wooded on both sides of the creek. In contrast to the creek, the wooded area, once entered, seemed quiet and at peace. On the weekends while Dad worked, I hunted squirrels and rabbits down in the bottom with my four-ten-gauge shotgun. We were poor and couldn’t afford meat, so it was always a godsend when I brought home wild game for our kitchen table. Of course, I only hunted animals that were in season.
On several days’ squirrels or rabbits, depending on what was in season, graced our kitchen table that otherwise would have been barren of meat. Of course, we always had corn on the cob, tomatoes, and Mom’s homemade corn bread with our supper meal. But when I hunted, I generally got two to three animals. I cleaned them and Mom soaked them in salt water. Salt water, she explained, drew out excessive blood from the meat.
After soaking, Mom cut my bounty into pieces: front legs, back legs, backs, and heads. Then she floured the pieces and fried them in hot grease in her iron, black skillet. She placed the cooked pieces on her large, white platter to be displayed on the kitchen table. Mom was an excellent cook, and she kept every edible piece of meat: heart, kidneys, liver, and the heads. Many people would probably cringe at the thought of eating a squirrel’s head, but those people, I surmise, had never really gone hungry. The squirrel’s head had a lot of meat on it: the tongue was all meat, the cheeks had a hunk of meat on each side, and the skull when cracked open contained the brain, which tasted good. I always felt content when I could provide meat for my family’s table.
About one-hundred yards from the kitchen’s backdoor sat our neighbor’s house—the Finley’s. The Finley family consisted of Mr. and Mrs. Finley and their son, Tom, who was three years older than me. Tom Finley constantly bullied my siblings and me not only at home but also as we traveled to and from school. He was always a “royal pain in the ass.” I remembered that every time Tom Finley hit one of my siblings or me, Dad and Mr. Finley rushed out of their houses and had harsh words with one another. Dad told Mr. Finley, “Your son is much older than them, and he has no right putting his hands on them.” At times, the argument got so heated that I thought Dad and Mr. Finley were going to come to blows. But it never happened. No matter what arguments Dad made in our defense about why Tom Finley shouldn’t be hitting us, Mr. Finley, in some way, shape, or form justified everything his son did. In kind of a nonchalant way, he would say things like, “Boys will be boys” and “You know how kids are—they are just playing.” But it wasn’t playing to my siblings and me who were the recipients of Tom Finley’s punches. Nevertheless, it seemed like everything was fine with Mr. Finley as long as his son came out victorious over his less than capable quarry. Mr. Finley appeared to ignore whatever plea Dad made.
Although a long time ago, I still remembered the beautiful white bird and the bastardly deed of Tom Finley. One day while we played on the old, rusty bridge, a large, white bird landed below in the bottom area. It seemed to come out of nowhere. From the bridge, my siblings and I relished the opportunity to see such a beautiful bird. We had never seen anything like it before. Suddenly and to our dismay, Tom Finley ran into his house, came out with a rifle, and shot that beautiful, white bird dead. His actions that day were the ugliest I had ever witnessed. What he did was such an affront to nature. After he shot the bird, he ran down to the bottom where the bird laid and picked it up by the neck to celebrate his kill. It was a huge bird and to my siblings and me a sickening sight to behold. When he tired of celebrating his senseless kill, he left the bird where it had fallen. The bird laid motionless, and my siblings and I remained on the bridge. We were scared to go near it. I was traumatized about how quickly the life of such a beautiful creature could be snuffed out. We left the bridge and ran home and told Dad and Mom what had happened. Now I’m not sure how the game-warden got involved, but he did. As it turned out, the bird was a white crane-a species of bird protected by law. I cannot remember everything that happened, but I remembered that the game warden retrieved the bird and put it in a big bag, and that he took Tom Finley’s rifle. Afterwards the game warden was seen coming and going at the Finley’s house. The word was that the Finley’s had to pay a big fine for killing that bird.
Time in Amo went on and not much changed. One day while walking home at the end of the school day, I saw a disturbance of some sort up ahead on the black-topped road. Kids gathered all around yelling and screaming. It was a fight! As I got closer to where I could see, it was Tom Finley beating up on my brother Jack. Jack was a year younger than me. As the oldest boy in my family, I was duty bound to protect my brother, and so I interceded even though I knew Tom Finley could and would kick my ass. But it was my brother, so I stepped in front of Tom Finley, and I told him,
“Leave him alone!” Tom Finley looked at me and said, “And what are you going to do about it if I don’t?” and his fist came up and hit me in the face. Despite the ass whooping, I was getting from Tom Finley, my interceding worked because it gave Jack time to get a way. Tom Finley continued to beat on me. He bloodied my nose, and I probably would have received extensive damage had Mom not showed up. When she began yelling, Tom Finley and everyone else scattered. Once freed from Tom Finley’s ass-whooping, Jack ran home and got Mom. I was thankful Mom had arrived when she did. She walked me home holding a towel on my nose to stop the bleeding and ordered me to hold my head back, which was supposed to help stop the bleeding. As I awkwardly walked home with my head held back, I couldn’t see where I was walking but Mom held my arm to guide me. Tom Finley didn’t know it, and neither did I, but that fight that day sealed his fate.
MY COUSIN RICKEY
Not long after Tom Finley bloodied my nose and Mom escorted me home, Dad told Mom that he wanted to bring our cousin, Rickey, home for a visit. Rickey was the youngest of eight cousins we had in Indianapolis, and even though he was older than my siblings and me, he always played with us. When we lived in Indianapolis, Dad and Mom kind of took Rickey in as part of our family. He spent a lot of time at our house and sometimes he even went to work with Dad. Rickey was like a big brother to my siblings and me. Although hidden motives between Dad and Rickey would later be revealed, my siblings and I at the time were totally unaware of such dealings.
Cousin Rickey was always fighting. He got into trouble at school, many times, and once he even went to Juvenile Detention for fighting. The family gave up on trying to correct his behavior. They surmised that fighting was in his DNA because he was good at it. He always won the fights he fought; I was told. But my siblings and I didn’t care about all that fight stuff because he was our cousin and we loved him. Then we up and moved to Amo and we hadn’t seen Rickey for a long time. So, when Mom mentioned that Dad might bring him home sometime soon to visit, we were delighted to hear that news.
Then one day Dad arrived home with Rickey in tow, and my siblings and I jumped on him and wrestled him to the ground. We loved that he came to Amo to visit and play with us. As children, our focus was “play.” We played hide-and-seek, ran races up and down the black-topped road, jumped rope, played hop-scotch, and other games. And once play started, everyone, including Tom Finley—probably out of boredom, showed up to play. On that day, I remembered that Tom Finley had not changed his bullying behavior towards us even though Rickey was present. Of course, he didn’t know Rickey, so he still tried to dominate everything. I remembered thinking at one point that he had better be careful around Rickey because Rickey would nail his ass. At first Rickey seemed to tolerate Tom Finley’s pushy ways, but then on the second day, out of nowhere, Ricky walloped Tom Finley good. It happened quickly. My siblings and I looked on dumb founded. None of us knew at that time what it was about, but Tom Finley’s mouth and nose bled. But then I heard Ricky say, “That’s what you get for picking on my little cousins.” Tom Finley ran home holding his mouth and nose and bleeding as Rickey yelled, “And I’ll be back and kick your ass if you mess with them again.” It was then that I began to understand why Rickey really came to Amo and the cunningness of Dad. Mr. Finley didn’t come out of his house on that day to argue with Dad.
And so, Dad took Rickey home the next day, and my siblings and I felt saddened because he left. After Rickey whipped Tom Finley’s ass, Tom Finley’s bullying days ended. In fact, for as long as we lived in Amo, Tom Finley never ever came back to play.
Such was life sixty-eight years ago in Amo, Indiana.