Wandering through the Elmwood Art Fest, my wife, Mary Ann, and I literally bumped into her cousin Raymond and his wife Linda. Not having seen each other in some time, there was a lot of catching up to do. So standing there with the crowds ebbing and flowing around us, family was the focus of conversation.
Kids, grandkids and our precious, new great-grandson were discussed before the conversation moved onto parents and grandparents and how much they, and some of the stories they told, are missed.
Raymond remembered a story that Mary Ann’s father, Vito, liked to tell, about how the latter saved the former’s life when he was an infant. Vito’s delivery of a vaporizer in the middle of the night alleviated a potentially fatal bout with pneumonia for Raymond. “You wouldn’t even be here it is wasn’t for me,” was Vito’s usual jocular admonition.
That vaporizer recollection led to another involving Mary Ann and, surreptitiously, me, before we even knew one another. When she was 9, she received severe burns to her leg from the scalding water in an accidentally spilled vaporizer. She was suffering from the flu and the vaporizer was to help speed her recovery; her idol Gene Autry was coming to town.
During the 1950s, Autry was America’s favorite singing cowboy and a Hollywood icon. He starred in innumerable Westerns, had his own radio and TV shows and wrote and recorded such memorable songs as, “Back in the Saddle Again,” “Here Comes Santa Claus” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Mary Ann was a huge fan.
Ironically, a monthlong confinement to Columbus Hospital for treatment of her burns would preclude any chance that she would get to see her idol and his horse, Champion, in person.
Already having tickets for the show at the Aud and knowing how heartbroken Mary Ann was, her grandmother swung into action. Her letter to local broadcaster Ralph Hubbell and his intercession were successful in persuading Autry to squeeze in a visit to one of his most ardent fans.
Adorable, curly haired Mary Ann couldn’t believe her eyes when Autry appeared at her bedside, guitar in hand, and proceeded to serenade her. Scrapbook newspaper articles, photos and autographs record this auspicious event. Priceless!
Meanwhile, a skinny, freckle-faced redhead waited expectantly with hundreds of other preteens in the darkened interior of the Senate Theater. We had been promised, weeks earlier, that Autry would be making a brief personal appearance during the showing of his latest movie.
Little hearts were beating eagerly for the sign of our hero, but when the house lights went up, out onto the stage ambled Autry’s goofy sidekick, Smiley Burnette. “Sorry, kids. Ah’m afeared Gene cain’t be here …” He never got to finish because the boos and popcorn started flying. Poor Smiley wasn’t smiling as the theater owners stepped in and threatened us with physical violence and police intervention if we didn’t “shut up and sit down!”
So while adorable little Mary Ann was basking in the glow of the undivided attention of her Hollywood hero, I was cursing him out as only a 10-year-old can, and anticipating an imminent beating. And besides that, I was out 24 cents – 14 cents admission and 10 cents for the popcorn.
Mary Ann’s wounds have long since healed. I thought mine had, too.