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Singin' and Swingin' Through Life with Dino and Frank, Arnie and Jack
By Don Cherry, Neil T. Daniels
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2006 Don Cherry and Neil T. Daniels
All rights reserved.
Chipping through the First 18
Donald Ross Cherry first came into the world at ten o'clock on a cold Friday night, January 11, 1924. If you do your math, you'll probably lose count, but that was five years before the Great Depression arrived. It was a poor time in America ... the poorest. Thousands of investors began losing large sums of money as the stock market tumbled, which in turn led the country into depression. Millions lost their jobs as businesses closed and unemployment rose. Many lost their homes and some even lost their lives. Fortunately, my mother had a skill that was much needed during this time period and the years that led up to it.
Her name is Ross Alma Cherry — that's where my middle name was derived. Born in Mahia, my mother was probably the most sought after seamstress in all of West Texas. She could take a linen tablecloth and make a form-fitted shirt out of it in a matter of minutes, Mom was that good. In fact, Neiman Marcus courted her to work for them, but she refused in order to remain at home and watch over her children. She was a wonderful human being, a hard worker, and very religious, attending the Church of Christ. It's ironic that I don't have as much to say about my father, since I was given his name.
My father, also Don Cherry, was a rig builder for the oil industry, which was prominent in the Wichita Falls area of Texas. That's where I was born and where we lived. I really didn't know my father, since he left at the start of the Depression, never to return home. I discovered that he was born on October 13, 1883, in Montague, Texas, a year after his parents, Leonna Johnson and Noel Cherry, were married. He later met and married my mother, growing up with her family name of Bosley.
Of course, a lot of folks could care less about a family tree or reading about one's early years of growing up. I quite understand. I must warn you, though, shedding a little light on my formative years, and elaborating about my own dear mother, might compel you to become an instant psychologist. See if you can analyze the root of my hot-natured temperament or why, to this day, I kick myself for not picking one course in life to follow. Was it in my own power, or was it imbedded in me by my mother's careful guidance? If you think you can solve the clues and come up with the answers that I have been wrestling with all my life, I'd love to hear your theories. Of course, if that doesn't interest you in the least, you always have the option of skipping this chapter now and beginning with chapter three.
The thought that my own father didn't like me much was a great burden to carry as a child. I came to believe that my father didn't think I was really his. As I grew older, I learned that my father consumed alcohol — a bit more than his share, and at times a bit more than that. My guess is that hard times fell prey upon him, and my strong-willed mother was more than he could handle. Other families experienced similar circumstances, but I think needing a father was much more important because my mother was so dominating. She did everything in her power to be both Mom and Dad to me, but that also made her a very strict woman who exercised authority over much of what I did as a child. I sort of assumed his place in line for her to control.
Actually, I was really a good kid. Mother made sure of that. As a seamstress, she owned many yardsticks for measuring and disciplining. She used them quite frequently for both. Mom also knew that I was afraid of the dark, and if I wasn't careful, she would wait until dusk to send me to Mr. Davis' grocery store for a needed item. I don't know what the world's record was in those days for the 880, but I must have set a new one every time she made me go.
Ross Alma was only 5'5", but weighed 240 pounds. That also helped her take command over me. I remember we had a next-door neighbor who worked all night at the dairy, and needed to sleep during the days. We were told to be quiet when playing outside, so we wouldn't wake up Mr. Moore. Well, one day I had heard this brand-new song called "Pistol Packin' Mama" by Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters that tickled my fancy, and I had to try it out at the top of my lungs. Of course, I had to belt it from atop the chinaberry tree in our front yard.
Mom flew out of that house as fast as a Texas tornado and told me to come down from that tree that instant. Realizing that she had a three-sided yardstick in her hand, and what it was gonna to be used for, I declined her request.
Knowing her parting words would do me more harm than that yardstick, my mother walked back inside and muttered, "It will get dark!"
Never seeing paper money until I was five, I hunted empty milk bottles for the two cents each one could fetch. When my Aunt Vivian arrived one day and handed me two brand-new dollar bills, I thought the well had struck oil. I packed those crisp notes away and didn't spend them for nearly six years. That should give you a glimpse into how formidable times were.
To help supplement our income, we canned fruits and vegetables to sell, picked cotton, and took in washing. From the moment I can remember, I would help my mom hang up the clothes we had taken in to wash. The backyard had these long rows of clotheslines that stretched from end to end over the top of the vegetable garden we planted. There were three rows, then an aisle, and three more rows behind that. The poles themselves were made so one could raise and lower the lines. I would reach as high as I could to pin the wet items as straight as possible. The neater the shirts and dresses were hung, the easier it was for Ross Alma to press them after they dried. The butter beans, lettuce, and tomato plants would soak up whatever moisture dripped from above.
I can still picture that little house we lived in on 26th Street. It sat on the north side of the street and had a screened-in porch with two bedrooms. My mother's sewing machine and materials were set up on a four-foot round wooden table in the living room that sort of melted into the dining area. When ladies came to try on their dresses, I would have to go into the back bedroom and wait there until they were finished. Then, it never failed, Mom would insist that I come out and show them how I could sing. I'd sing one of her favorites, "The Irish Lullaby" or "The Whiffenpoof Song." I don't think she realized how shy I was and how it scared me each time. It was probably due to the fact that she was such the opposite. Her personality was so commanding and outgoing that I fell behind her presence. That feeling of being shy lasted a long time ... would you believe about 50 years?
Much has been said and written about the special bond between mothers and daughters and even fathers and daughters. But to sons, moms are like guarded secrets. Rarely does one recall hearing a son elaborate on his mother in excessive detail. I can't ever recall a time another male has ever told me anything about his own mother. Men just seem to have a harder time communicating and expressing their feelings verbally. Believe me, I'm not an exception to that rule. I've now taken the time and allowed myself the rewards in recounting my memories of my mother. Ross Alma was very full of life and often had a good laugh watching the predicaments I would get myself into.
Take for instance the time I wandered outside to play. I looked all over the place for my old tattered and repaired softball. With no success, I finally gave up my search. Then I began looking for something else to do, and I spotted the chicken coop. After accidentally releasing our hens, I did the only thing I could think of, and ran to the neighbor's house to grab the bird he had caged up, to replace ours. Little did I realize that this wasn't your ordinary chicken, but a trained fighting cock — the meanest creature on two legs I had ever met. That cock tore me apart, clawing me from head to toe before I could get him back home and push him into the cage with the others I had captured.
There was also the time I escaped from home at the age of four. Somehow I managed to get the front door open and slip out onto the street. Wearing only underpants at the time, I instinctively made my way down the road and walked five blocks to the school that my brother Paul was attending. How I found my way there at that young age is very bewildering to me. Making my way inside the building and to the door of his classroom, I stood and called to my brother, "P-A-UL!" He quickly escorted me back home, where my mother thought of a punishment while containing her laughter over the situation.
Years later, when I was old enough to attend the same school, I was assigned the same teacher, Mrs. Lewis, as Paul once had for history. On the first day of school, Mrs. Lewis told everyone to acknowledge their names when she called them. When she got to Don Cherry, I yelled, "Here!" Mrs. Lewis lowered her head to look over her glasses and snapped back, "I seem to remember that you've been here before!" She remembered.
In my mother's busy schedule of cleaning the house and making clothes to earn us a living, I guess I was a handful for her. I recall on a couple occasions (and long before it was considered "politically incorrect") she would tie one end of a rope to me, and the other end to the bed. It was her way of making sure that I wouldn't wander off or get hurt while she tended to the chores at hand. It's a funny analogy, but being tied to my bed like that might have been why I wandered from my bed during my early marriages. If I had one major downfall, that was it.
As for my childhood, I enjoyed it immensely, and my memories are good ones. I now understand why my mother had been so strict in raising me without a father. It was merely her way of bringing me up to have respect and gratitude for even the smallest things in life. She was such a delightful person and, in my opinion, a wonderful mother.
A turning point surely befell me on my eighth birthday. Mom had given me a complete set of golf clubs. She had gone to Zales and put a dollar down, agreeing to pay twenty-five cents a week for them. The set included a putter, driver, wedge, and 5 iron, and it came with the golf bag too! Little did she realize how far that $9 would take me in just a few more years down the road.
Although I was the youngest of three, I was actually raised much like an only child. My brother Paul was 13 years older than I, and he was out of the house when I was still little. Anna Lee, my sister, fell ill and passed away just as I reached my teens.
Anna Lee was such a beautiful girl and had a voice to match. She was so good, in fact, she became a teacher of voice and dramatics. Back then it was called "expression" — what a wonderful word that has lost its meaning over the decades of time.
As kids back then, we never fully realized how poor but lucky we were. Most of our neighbors were struggling along, too. On the eve of the Great Depression, in 1930, the population in Wichita Falls was 43,607. Most of the hundred or so industrial businesses around Wichita Falls either slowed down their production or closed up all together. It wasn't until I was 14 that a major oil discovery was made in the nearby town of Kamay that helped turn the economy around. Up 'til then, most people didn't have the money needed to see expensive doctors when they fell ill. So the U.S. government set up special low-cost training programs when families needed medical attention. They brought in interns, practicing what they learned on the live patients who needed care.
Mom took both Anna Lee and myself to the hospital when it was discovered they would remove our tonsils for free. It was basically a simple operation, and I came out just fine, but Anna Lee had complications. Displaying all the immediate signs of tuberculosis — fever, sickness, coughing, shortness of breath, etc. — she remained in the recovery room with pain for two days. After more tests, they eventually discovered what really occurred. Apparently Anna Lee had inhaled a small piece of her infected tonsil, which invaded her vital lungs. The interns treated her as they would their tuberculosis patients. Two days later, after her fever subsided, my sister was released to go home, while the practicing interns apologized for the outcome.
Mom made a special room for her in the house, where Anna Lee rested comfortably. To help her lungs heal, we kept the windows open for ventilation throughout the warm summer months. Nearly a whole year passed in my sister's life as she vigorously fought on. Anna Lee watched what she ate and fetched plenty of bed rest. Even throughout her horrible ordeal, Anna Lee unexpectedly found a gleam of happiness with a handsome-looking young man by the name of Melvin Stengel. They came to marry, and Melvin moved in with us to help take care of and look after my sister.
Late one warm summer evening in July, as misfortune would have it, a draft inadvertently blew through the open window in Anna Lee's room, sending a chill throughout her body. Loud coughing and choking woke everyone up. Knowing the gravity of the sounds, Mother scooped Anna Lee up and rushed her to the hospital. A few hours later, angels took my sister to rest. Shortly after, we lost her new husband, who had moved on and out after relinquishing his precious bride to the nemesis of life.
I'll never forget those blurred images burned into my consciousness at her funeral. In all my bereavement, I looked up in shock to find my father standing in the crowd on that final day. I hadn't seen him in so long, I was numb in disbelief. Then, before I knew it, he was gone. Vanished. As quick as he appeared, he disappeared. It was the very last time I saw him. Ever. Half the family I had known was expelled from my life at that point. You can't imagine the emotions rolling around in my 13-year-old head that day.
My brother Paul was a handsome lad. Although 13 years older than I, we played golf together a lot growing up. Paul was very good at the game, and I usually acted as his caddie. One day Paul had bet three others a dime for every hole he could make, and promised to share 10 percent of his winnings with me if I caddied for him. I guess I was about nine or ten at the time, and probably wanted the money to buy more of my favorite treasured vice, "Delaware Punch," so I agreed with his proposition.
We started early, and by the time we arrived at the last hole and pressed our bets, my brother had amassed about $13. Then, on his last endeavor, Paul blew it with a wedge shot, sending the ball up and into the water. Total quiet took over the once chattering voices. I walked to the exact spot where the ball had landed, and placed the golf bag right on top of the water as Paul and the others watched it sink. That's the first time I realized that I had this temper caged up inside.
As a boy growing up in the northwest area of Texas, softball fields and golf courses were everywhere you looked. They were the two biggest sports, and I loved playing both. I was quick on my feet and could whiz around those bases like the Road Runner in those Saturday matinee cartoons.
Eventually I came to realize that in the game of softball, I had to share the responsibility with all the other members of the team, whereas in golf, there's no one around but yourself. Everything is in your control. It also fit into the structure that I was accustomed to. You would have to go from point A to point B, and do your best to get there in fewer moves than your opponent. If you could manage to do it in fewer moves than the average set for the course, you would score under par.
I guess I felt most comfortable conforming in structured settings — as you know by now, Mom's influence on me was pure discipline and structure. She constantly praised everything I did, but again, didn't allow me to stray too far outside of her command. Heck, I never went out on a date until I was 20 years old, and as shocking as this may sound, in more than 80 years, I have never drunk or smoked. Ever.
Reflecting back, I realize now that Ross Alma had the proper destination figured out in life. I absolutely knew she was right, too, but I often felt that she took a boarded-up boxcar on a straightaway train track to get there. I wanted to get to the same place by driving a convertible with the top down!
Quite often I struggled to show my mother, and mostly myself, that I could be successful without having to be so confined — sometimes to the point that the kettle inside me would boil. When steam needed to escape, and away from those I might hurt, I exploded. Unfortunately, it got worse, as you'll find out later.
Every Wednesday and Sunday, Mother and I would board the bus and take it into town. We would exit through a mixture of gas and heat from both the bus and many vehicles on the street, to attend the Church of Christ at 10and Austin. Many times after an evening service we would go to see a movie at the local theater. The church we attended was large, seating seven or eight hundred. It displayed a great deal of charm when you entered its doors, and it usually took us a few minutes to find a seat. Everyone would stop Ross Alma to talk to her. My mother was well loved and respected, as I could gauge by the number of pats on the top of my head.
Excerpted from Cherry's Jubilee by Don Cherry, Neil T. Daniels. Copyright © 2006 Don Cherry and Neil T. Daniels. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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