Excerpt: An Only Child

Part III Of 'While Innocents Slept'

Eldred decided on the show model in a development called Caltor Manor. The Wilson family's home was the first one on Caltor Lane, a string of houses much like their own that stretched down the hilly street for nearly a mile. Eldred and Ethel's residence was a white brick split-level placed diagonally on a quarter-acre lot. The home came complete with a carport and features known as "builder's extras."

The architect for the project trimmed the front of the Wilson's house with columns of black wrought iron, giving it a faux New Orleans feeling. Ethel, Eldred, and Garrett moved into the house in May of 1967. It was remembered as an awkward time for their son, who spent the last month of the fifth grade in an unfamiliar elementary school.

For demonstration purposes, the sales force for Caltor Manor had equipped Eldred's house with a pair of kitchens. The second one remained even after they moved in. The extra refrigerator and stove in the basement would have been costly to rip out, and the Wilsons decided to keep their little bonus. As Garrett became older, the self-contained basement became his domain. Unlike most boys, he had a virtual apartment within the family home before he was a teenager.

It was expected that the Earleys would follow the Wilsons into Maryland. They did, but moved to New Carrollton, about fifteen miles away. Their new address was closer to Carl's job. John, now in a different school district, was separated from his friend during the school week. Garrett never formed close friendships with other boys, by high school gaining a reputation as a bit of a loner, according to the neighbors who remembered the family.

As an only child, Garrett was closer to his parents than most children. Fortunately, he failed to inherit their worst habits. Though short in stature, Eldred was considered good looking by his Caltor Lane neighbors until drink began distorting his features. By the end of the 1960s he had become a barrel-chested, three-pack-per-day smoker and a confirmed doublemeasure scotch and water drinker, good for several shots each evening. The drinking increased as he aged. Carrying a whisky nightcap to bed became a tradition. By anstandard, he was an alcoholic and a frequent drunk. Ethel was a smoker until she quit in her forties. And while she joined her husband for cocktails at five, Ethel never became bound to liquor as her husband did.

"He held court every afternoon with a happy hour when he came home from Capitol Hill," John Farley recalled. "Eldred had his bar just behind the dining room table and he'd walk back and forth to the kitchen to get the water for his drinks. He began with beer and usually switched to the scotch by nine."

John remembered a truck pulling up to the Wilson's house twice each week. A man with a cart on wheels would deliver boxes of beer. "It was a real cheap brand called Hal's. He was usually good for two or three cases."

Eldred kept a television set in the dining room and a small radio to listen to the baseball games on during the summer. He installed a small sofa next to the table, and the room became his kingdom.

As he grew older, Garrett would join his parents in these evening drinking sessions. But he never took up smoking, rarely drank spirits, and only occasionally sipped a beer. Garrett Wilson said liquor gave him headaches and made him wake up the next day feeling sick. Nor did he ever experiment with drugs. His one vice was food-all the wrong kind. Garrett would put down glass after glass of rich whole milk while eating unlimited double slices of baloney, the brand impregnated with cheese chunks. By the time he was ten he had begun to resemble the Pillsbury Doughboy.

On Sundays, Garrett was a regular at the First Baptist Church of Friendly. He was considered a gifted baritone, able to lead the choir with his voice. Garrett's mother was usually in church by her son's side. The two didn't seem to miss Eldred. A nominal Episcopalian, Eldred wasn't much of a churchgoer. Still, he took part in Ethel's nightly Bible lessons at the dining room table, albeit with a beer and a cigarette in his hand. Eldred was more than willing to bow his head or say grace before each meal, another ritual Ethel insisted on. Despite his lack of attendance in houses of worship, Eldred could quote Scripture better than any traveling evangelist.

At ten, Garrett was able to replace the Sunday morning church pianist if needed. He had begun to play the instrument just a year before.

"When I was nine I was walking by a local piano chain, Jordan Kitt's, with my mother," Garrett recalled. "I went into their showroom, sat down at the piano, and played `The Marine Hymn.' My mother was totally surprised. She didn't know I could play at all."

Garrett was precocious. He had taught himself the tune while staying at an aunt's house the previous week. Ethel thought she had a young Mozart on her hands and immediately hired a music tutor to give him lessons. But after a couple of sessions, Garrett quit.

"My teacher, Mrs. Gallowaywanted me to play one type of music, and I wanted to play another. Except for a few lessons on the organ when I was fourteen, those were the only ones I ever had," Garrett said.

Most people would say Garrett was spoiled. His indulgent parents refused to command a classic musical discipline for him and never found a mentor who might have made his talent bloom to the fullest. They had problems of their own. Ethel's health was growing more precarious. Eldred's lifelong dependency on nicotine and booze was beginning to take its toll. He was often short of breath, experiencing the first signs of what would be diagnosed as emphysema.

Part IV: A Talented Musician






Courtesy of St. Martin's Press
  • David Kohn

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