Excerpt: A Talented Musician

While Innocents Slept, Part IV

Garrett certainly had enough talent to make others take notice. He could listen to any melody on the radio and usually duplicate the tune within an hour. He played Chopin without difficulty, but instead chose to learn the pop melodies of the day - bland soft rock offerings by the likes of John Denver or Neil Diamond. Garrett's interpretations were more than passable, yet after reaching this middle plateau, he seemed to be satisfied. He made no effort to take his considerable skills to higher levels.

At times Eldred could be a disciplinarian. Until he was eleven Garrett was beaten with his dad's belt whenever he got out of line. His father's other method of punishment was to creep into the bathroom when his son was showering and whack him on the back with the flat of the hand. The pain was magnified by the contact with the wet skin.

"He would have the belt out as soon as he walked through the door from work. It was usually because I had argued with my mother. The beatings never lasted long. He was always in a hurry to open up the liquor cabinet and have his first drink," Garrett said.

By high school, Garrett was grossly overweight. He had grown to his final height, five foot ten, and his weight was above 250 pounds. In his early teens, he had tried to toughen up by working a summer construction job, but the baby fat that filled his cheeks would never leave. He tried out for, and made, Friendly High School's varsity wrestling squad, but he was just average. His mediocre record inspired him to begin lifting free weights in an attempt to become more successful at the sport.

The rotund teen was more successful in his high school choir. As a senior he was an "All County" selection. And though he had few male buddies save for his steady friend, John Farley, he more than made up for it with the girls. Garrett Wilson's greatest success was as a teen Romeo, given to smooth compliments and extravagant romantic gestures. His gifts would wow scores of impressionable young women.

"He could talk the fleas off a dog," remembered John Farley.

A typical Garrett romance was Jane Edmunds, a girl who lived next door, the daughter of the minister o the Baptist Church he and his mother attended. In her sophomore yearbook he would write,

You're a crazy girl (sometimes). But you can be as sweet as sugar. I love the
privaledge [sic] of living next to you for several years???? Ha! Ha! Well Sis,
Good luck in the future with the boys.

Love, Garrett.


The next year, at the age of seventeen, he proposed.

"He asked me to marry him in the eleventh grade," the preacher's daughter recalled. "He once sent me several dozen roses, and when he popped the question he had a diamond ring with him. We hadn't gone out that much, but I have to say, he certainly was a ladies' man. I suppose that was surprising, considering what he had to work with."

He didn't have a fancy car. Though Garrett bought a clunker at age sixteen, he continued to catch the school bus to and from Friendly High, sometimes walking the one-mile distance by taking a shortcut through the woods. His dates were simple. They usually consisted of inviting a girl to his family's home and into the basement, where he would serenade her with music, sometimes singing along to a hit tune of the day. Eldred Wilson's 1970 Chevy Monte Carlo was available, but it wasn't Garrett's first line of romantic offense when it came to comely young girls and affairs of the heart.

He was a talker, as smooth as silk. His personality was enough to get Virginia Fort, a blonde in the drama club described as "the prettiest girl at Friendly High," to go to the senior prom with him. Though it was a coup and cause for envy, he remembered it as a platonic night out. The two were buddies only. Eldred had just purchased a new 1974 Chevy Impala, and let Garrett borrow it for the event, held at Washington's Mayflower Hotel.

The other high point of his high school years came when his Spanish class made an Easter week journey to Mexico City. Garrett was a fifteen-year-old sophomore when the trip was announced, and both parents balked at letting him loose in what Eldred called a "Third World country."

"On Christmas day they put a camera and some pesos in my stocking. At the bottom, near the toe, was a card that read ONE TRIP TO MEXICO CITY, with a copy of the two-hundred-fifty-dollar check they had written as a down payment for the plane fare," Garrett said.

The Mexican adventure was not without mishaps. Garrett went out alone and promptly became lost, his Spanish not quite good enough to assure his quick return. He was also seduced by an older senior girl who then conned him into lending her his last seventy dollars. When he came home, he told his parents about the money. Eldred became so incensed he went to the girl's house and made her father pay the money back. Later, Eldred gave Garrett some fatherly advice about women that his son took to heart.

"There are lots of them. And sometimes, if they don't want you, they don&146;t want you."

The Wilson family made two out-of-town journeys each year. The first was a regular Thanksgiving pilgrimage to Burkeville. Araminta, who lived into her nineties, would preside over the holiday feast. Garrett's uncle Willard would always drive over from Lynchburg, and some of Ethel's sisters would make an appearance. The holiday get-togethers were as close as the Wilsons ever came to sibling reunions.

The other holiday was a weeklong summer vacation trip to Piney Point, on Route 5 in southern Maryland. The three Wilsons would rent a waterfront cottage near the mouth of the Potomac River, just before it joined the Chesapeake

"The Potomac is five miles wide at that point and we'd go fishing. But I would have to catch him early, before he got drunk," Eldred's son explained.

His father was a formal, pretentious man. He wore a different suit each day and wouldn't take it off until his bedtime. At one time he owned nearly fifty such costumes, filling several closets. Dinners were a ritual. Eldred expected three-course meals, and the one in the evening was expected to be the likes of a pot roast, or a whole stuffed chicken. Ethel spoiled him as she did her son, giving him just what he wanted.


Part V: A Drifter



Courtesy of St. Martin's Press
  • David Kohn

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