It could be the Owensville Watermelon Festival pictures on Facebook or simply the picture of the bandstand in the Library Park in the center of town, or maybe simply a random thought, but "town characters" came to mind this morning. Owensville had, in my day, both locally famous and infamous town characters. Ab Beck, Moes Higgenbottom, a character in the making at the time, and others. Jerry Pegram, a superb town historian in the tradition of a village story teller, can recall most of them and he can make me laugh for hours listening to his stories about them. When I think of town characters, though, I think of George Kesterson, the town drunk.
As far as I know, George was harmless and probably had a good heart. When I knew him, he must have been in his mid-sixties, but there is no doubt in my mind that he had a rough life so he could have been younger than that but simply looked older. It was in 1961 and I was sixteen years old when I experienced my "encounter" with George and began paying much closer attention to him, although I knew he was around before that. More than once when I stopped by Smith's Hardware on my way home from school, he would be there talking to Dad and Harvey Smith. He would talk and talk, while Dad and Harvey simply said, "Well," repeatedly. I'm not sure what Harvey meant by "well," but I knew what Dad meant by it when George talked. Dad's "well" meant many things, depending on who he was talking to and the subject of the conversation. If the person was a special friend, and Dad had many friends, and the subject was tragic or sad, Dad's "well" probably meant sympathy or empathy and he simply had nothing to add to the conversation. If the subject was heart warming, it meant companionship and fellowship, but again, he felt no reason to add anything new. But, for George's chatter that he'd heard all before, over and over again, Dad meant, "I wish a customer would come in or a delivery would arrive so I would have an excuse to excuse myself," so he wouldn't have to listen to George talk. But, both Harvey, I believe, and certainly Dad was too polite to rudely say, "go away, George." So, they listened to him. If Dad was anything, he was always polite.
I kept my encounter with George secret, known to only a few family members and repeated every other family reunion in recent years for a good laugh. It all started with my first Screw Driver, the drink of vodka and orange juice. On that night four of us, who I will not name (to protect the innocent) except for Mike, who may or may not be innocent, went looking for booze. We found it at one of our homes, nearly a full bottle of vodka. I'm not sure what was intended by the one who lived there, but Mike poured the drinks, and it was my experience to that point that if you let Mike use, pour, drink or eat somebody else's stuff, then you just as well count it as gone, used up and finished. I recall that once when Mike and I stopped at Elvin and Joan Kerns', my brother-in-law and sister's, farm and Mike's car was running on empty, Mike ask if he could "borrow" some gas from the farm gas tank. I was thinking that he could take enough for only a quarter tank or so until he could make it to his Dad's own gas station to fill his tank, but Mike kept on pumping, even when I ask him to stop. He had a full tank when we left and I had a severe guilty conscious for taking Elvin's much needed gasoline. And, of course, it wasn't "borrowed." But, that didn't bother Mike. As much as I liked Mike, and still do, I have to say that if you gave Mike an inch, he took a mile. It was the same with the vodka and he filled my glass with easily a 50-50 vodka and orange juice mix, emptying at least one-quarter of the bottle in my glass. So, perhaps my friend who lived there cringed at the thought of his dad finding the empty bottle of vodka or no bottle at all. And, it tasted terrible! It was my first taste of vodka. My God what a taste! How could anyone drink this stuff? It reminded me of lighter fluid. I learned later, but never tried it, that a true Screw Driver was nearly all orange juice in a much shorter glass and a single shot, about two ounces, of vodka. But, that wasn't what I had!
But, I drank it. And, by the time I drank the whole thing, I was about as wasted as I've ever been in my entire life. I could not stand up and I don't remember having the ability to even crawl. I was REALLY DRUNK. One more drop of vodka would have killed me by alcohol poisoning, I'm sure. I don't remember a lot about the rest of the night. I can only deduce what happened by where I woke up. I assumed that my three friends made it to their homes that night. I owned a car at the time, a 1954 Ford, but perhaps I couldn't find it or perhaps I somehow knew, by some miracle, that I was in no condition to drive it, or maybe I had completely forgotten that I had it. Whatever the reason, I did not drive home around my usual time, between ten to midnight. Instead, I fell asleep, or perhaps passed out, beside the bandstand steps, under a bush.
I awoke the next morning as the light of the day barely peeked over the horizon, perhaps around 4:30 to 5 A.M., wondering where I was and why I wasn't in bed or at least sleeping in my car. Still groggy, I scooted out from under the bush and looked around, and there, on the other side of the steps, I saw two legs sticking out; old, scared and weather beaten steel-toed work boots with the laces untied, wrinkled socks down around his ankles and his trouser legs pushed up showing two very white skinny legs. I got up to see who it was. George Kesterson had also stayed the night in the Library Park, sleeping nearly next to me.
As a side note, I read this story to Chris, my wife, up to this point. She laughed and said she was surprised that "the police" didn't find me and help me home. I had to laugh about that. She, of course, doesn't know or understand Owensville, and specifically its Town Marshal, Ab Beck, another town character, both famous and infamous depending on who you ask. As far as I know, Ab Beck sat down in his car each evening and he didn't get his fat butt out of that seat the entire night until he returned to his home. If he wanted to talk to any of us loitering in front of the Pool Hall or on the Drug Store corner, he pulled his car up next to us and he would likely say, "what are you boys doing out this late?" And, pulling his car close to us could mean pulling his car into the wrong lane or even partly on the sidewalk. He never got out of his car and, from that position, he could never have seen the grandstand steps or anyone sleeping next to them. And, it seemed to me, Ab was never as concerned with George Kesterson anyway, as drunk as George sometimes seemed to be, as he was with us loitering on the street. Ab told me to get in his car a number of times; "I'll take you home," he said. But I always told him, "I'll walk." It was only three blocks to home and I never trusted Ab even though I had no reason to think bad of him.
It is to this point in this story that I have retold to family as a humorous story. But that's not the whole story. I've never told what happened next to anyone, even though nothing seriously happened other than in my very active imagination at the time, perhaps influenced by too much vodka. So, here is the rest of the story. George looked dead, so I poked one of his boots with my toe, but he didn't move. I poked his boot again with a little more force, but he still didn't move. I shouted, "George! Are you all right?" At that point he moved slowly, and grunted and rolled onto his back, and then, as suddenly and abrupt and as fast as you can snap your fingers, he sat up in my face as I leaned over him to see if he was alright. I can still see his dirty baseball cap, his stubble gray and white beard, his sunken eyes, coal black and staring straight at me and his sunken cheeks and the spittle around his mouth, and he shouted, "get out'a here, boy, or I'll smash your face!" I jerked back so quick and shocked that I'm surprised that I didn't hurt my neck and I ran like hell to my car, fumbled the key in the ignition and agonizingly slow, it seemed, started the car and drove as fast as I could to Elvin and Joan's where I was living at the time. I didn't feel safe until I got there. I had to stop along the way because I was so sick from the vodka, but I kept a watch on the road in case George was following me. He wasn't, of course.
Once home, I locked the back door that we never locked, changed into my work clothes and lay down on top of the covers for an hour or so of sleep before work. Elvin woke me up for the day's work an hour or so later, and I spent most of the day discing a forty acre field just up the road from the house. I had to stop nearly every other turn at the end of the field to vomit, the vodka had made me so sick. I was miserable. I got over my fear of George relatively quickly, although he still comes to mind whenever I see a similar scene in a horror movie or think about town characters. But, back then, whenever I saw George in the Pool Hall, Smith's Hardware or Garrett's Mill and Elevator, the places I remember seeing him most, or walking around town, I watched him like a hawk for any threatening move. As for vodka and Screw Drivers, I grimace at the thought of either drink. And, of course, much thanks to my three buddies for the memory. You can admit to your part in the story at your own will, or not, except for Mike. Sorry, Mike. I took the gasoline back.