By Mel Tharp © 1986
Issue: February, 1986
Four months in the city and already I was a jailbird. How could such a thing happen to an innocent law-abiding, young man from the hinterlands of western Kentucky. It happened this way.
I had just graduated from high school that spring. World War Two had just ended and the world seemed full of hope. I had a college scholarship awaiting me that coming fall, and I felt that I was justified in wanting to have some of the fun and frivolity of the city before settling down to a semester of scholastic grind.
My father tried to sway me from my decision to migrate to the bright lights. He offered to get me a job at the plant where he drove a truck. But shoveling rock for the Hartford Limestone Company was not my idea of a way to spend a summer vacation. In a final effort to deter me, he related to me the fable of the city and the country mouse.
It was almost inspirational how Dad in his simple, stumbling manner, related how that know-it-all country jake mouse set down to all that fancy grub with the city slicker mouse but narrowly escaped with his hide when a whole passel of city dogs broke in on the feast and terminated the shindig. He even summed up his rousing message with this moral; "Better beans and taters in peace than pie and cake in all that ruction."
Like Herod Agrippa listening to Paul, almost he convinced me. But not quite. With my Sunday best packed securely in a cardboard box and my high school diploma in hand, I boarded the bus for Evansville, Indiana.
The days seemed extra-long those first few weeks in town. My money supply dwindled fast, and it didn't take long for me to realize that diploma from Beech Grove High School wasn't a key that automatically opened all doors.
A man I met in a cafe on my first day in town gave me a job in his service station. But after I was there about two weeks, his wife ran off with the milk man and he closed the station and left town. With my lack of city sophistication, it wasn't easy to find another job.
I found a job at a drug store lunch counter. But the job was only temporary. I was filling in for the regular dish washer who was off sick. When the regular employee returned I was dismissed. Then I got a job in a gift shop where they made plaster figures. The proprietress assigned me the job of making a cow. The cow came out looking like a camel. The lady got mad and cursed me and then cried and then cursed me some more. She said that we were in Indiana, not Arabia. She explained that there were no camels in Indiana. I sympathized with her. I told her that I could understand her distress. We didn't have any camels in Kentucky either. She was not consoled. She fired me.
Then I landed a job as a painter's helper but somehow the boss and me didn't suit each other. When the amount of paint on my coveralls became disproportionate to the number of coats on the houses, I once more joined the ranks of the unemployed.
Finally, I met a man who worked for a janitorial service, and he got me a job as his assistant. It was a terrible job. The ammonia and strong industrial cleaners burned my nostrils and destroyed my clothing. The pine oil we used came up in my head and through my nose and out my ears. The very food I ate was spiced with pine oil. With reeking clothes, I never had a problem finding room at a lunch counter. I made a science out of clearing out public places.
But no matter how the week went the Sundays were good because that meant a day of festivity at Riverside Park. Sundays at Riverside Park were kind of like the modern-day flea market. There were vendors selling food and other merchandise form hardware to farm produce. There were also games and entertainment.
From six o'clock on, every Sunday, the park was packed with people from all over southern Indiana and from across the Ohio River in Kentucky. Whole families, their grandparents, picnic baskets, chairs and blankets, ate, bought and sold, sang and danced, or just lolled in the shade.
It was on one of these particularly Sundays when my troubles began. It was a bright blue day with a high sky and white lamb clouds. The kind of day that's made for adventure.
I had just bought a new suit at a cut-rate Robert Hall Store. (The price go down, down, down.) The suit was a pinch-back, high cut lapel style that looked like something left over from the Warren G. Harding administration. It came with a purple striped tie And a handkerchief to match, and a real Yankee Doodle straw hat. I felt happy and full of prance. My happiness was nothing, however, to that of the salesman who sold me the suit. He seemed absolutely beatified when I left wearing the suit.
Five or six other fellows and me were browsing around the park. We went from stall to stall, having a sandwich here, a soda pop, or just looking over the items for sale.
While we were taking a short cut down a quite path to get to the other side of the park we came to a beautiful hydrangea bush just foaming over with snow white bushes. A group of girls were standing there admiring the blossoms.
It was a spontaneous act. Suddenly, one of the boys, a young show-off by the name of Cuttridge started breaking off blossoms. "You want flowers," he asked. "I'll get you some flowers." With this, he started harvesting the hydrangeas like they were on his private estate. With this the other boys got into the spirit of the thing and started jerking and tearing at the flowers like wolves ripping away at a carcass.
I stood and watched the spectacle. I knew what they were doing was wrong. "Don't spoil the bushes," I tried to reason with them. Then I noticed the girls were gone. "Who are you getting for?" I asked. "The girls are gone." But there was no stopping them. They were trying to outdo one another in seeing who could snap off the biggest branch.
All of a sudden, Cuttridge, who held the biggest branch of blossoms climbed down and said to me," I have to tie my shoes. Hold my blooms for a minute, I'll be back." So I held the blooms. At that moment, a policeman put his hand on my shoulder.
'Well, well," he said. "A bunch of yahoos defacing public property." He asked our names and started writing them on a piece of paper. Once he had our names, he marched us over to the street corner where a police car was waiting. A few minutes later we were at the police station.
At the station, the desk sergeant booked us and advised us that we could make bail if we wished to do so. Otherwise, we would spend the night in jail and we were to appear for trial the following morning.
Cuttridge assured us that everything would be all right. He would make a phone call and his father would be down shortly to bail us out. Meanwhile, we were taken to a portion of the jail called the "bullpen."
I couldn't understand why they called it a bullpen, although there was a certain correlation between cattle and some of the ambling hulks of humanity that was wandering around the enclosure.
Some of the inmates were cursing and fuming at their plight. Others were obviously suffering from their extended bouts with demon rum. Over in one corner, several men were sprawled on the floor listening to a blind man singing "Freight Train Blues." The singer accompanied himself on a battered, badly-tuned guitar. The entertainer also had trouble enunciating his words properly due to the massive cud of tobacco he held in his jaw.
The man finished his song and there was a general smattering of applause. But in every crowd there is a critic. One sullen man, with a heavy, three-day growth of beard stepped forward and growled, "I used to know a feller that could sing that train song a lot better than that. Them ain't even the right words." The musician retaliated by letting go a mouthful of tobacco juice which landed square between the toes of the critic. I thought that was fair marksmanship for a blind man.
After a while Mr. Cuttridge arrived on the scene. One look at the man and you could understand where the younger Cuttridge got his personality. After looking at him, and listening to him talk, you kind of got the impression that maybe the good Lord had made the world all wrong and then brought Mr. Cuttridge along to straighten things out.
"All right now," the senior Cuttridge said, "I'm gonna bail you out of the pokey. If you don't show up for court, the bail is forfeit, but you're still gonna pay me back or I'll take it out of your hides. I got connections to fix anything for you."
Now the shock is wearing off and I'm getting mad. "Look," I told Cuttridge, "I didn't pick the flowers, and I'm not gonna say I did. I'm not taking money from which I'll have to pay back to pay a fine for something I didn't do. So that ends that."
Mr. Cuttridge looked both hurt and shocked. He must have thought of me as being down-right un-American. I wasn't playing according to the rules. He looked at me like he thought I was something that had just crawled out of the graffiti-scrawled, spittle-marked wall. Then, he and my former compatriots turned their backs and walked out on me. No more offerings of help from the fixer. I am ostracized from their society.
So the next morning I went to court. I was nervous. What was it they told me to call the judge? Your Honorable? "Not guilty, your Honesty," I spoke up proudly.
The courtroom went wild. People laughed like hyenas. The judge pounded with the hammer. His face as red as a turkey's wattles. What had I done? I was sure I was going to Sing Sing for life, perhaps longer.
But the judge reprimanded the audience and threatened to clear the courtroom. "Young man," he said sternly, "you may address the court Sir."
"Did I understand you to plead not guilty?"
"Yes Sir, not guilty."
"This officer says you and your friends were violating an ordinance, destroying shrubs. Breaking the limbs."
"Yes Sir. Some was picking, I wasn't."
"Have you any proof of this."
"No Sir. The friends who were with me didn't come today. They paid their bail. They said that it was easier than wasting time coming to your court."
"Why didn't you do that?"
"Because if I'm guilty I admit it, but if I ain't guilty, I ain't and no man is going to make me say I am. It's just as wrong to lie to you and say I'm guilty when I ain't as to say I'm innocent when I've done wrong."
"Well, yes, that's correct. How long have you lived here?"
"About four months."
"Have you ever been in court before?"
"Were you ever in trouble at home? Did you ever get in any fights?"
"Yes, Sir. I punched Ed Bolton in the jaw because he kicked my dog."
"Well, that's understandable. Is that the only fight you ever had?"
The judge turned to the policeman. "Did you actually see this man breaking the shrubs?"
"No," admitted the officer, "but he was with the others and he was holding a bunch of flowers."
"I believe he's a truthful man Officer," the judge said. "I believe you were probably mistaken this time. Case dismissed!"
Then the judge leaned over and said to me, "I would like to shake your hand young man. I believe you are an honest person. That is a rare commodity these days. I would also like to give you some advice. If it is within your power to do so, I would suggest that you go back to your home at the earliest opportunity. You are truly a sheep among wolves.
I took the judge's advice. Before the sun set that day, the country mouse was on his way home.