Judith Jo Sherman ( Jo for joie de vivre)
Unless you were abandoned and raised by wolves you can probably name the people who influenced you the most in your childhood. Those names and faces rise from whatever part of your brain good memories are kept. There are a lot of good memories from my childhood that include my sister Judy Jo.
After the trauma of the airplane crash that killed our father Judy often took on the role of surrogate mother and mentor to Ruth and me. Before we get to stories of blue paper mache giraffes and man eating neighborhood cats we need to back up, and review a few of the incidents in Judy Jo’s early youth that lead to her moniker “ The Wild Child.”
Early in the morning September 24th, 1936, mom woke with no labor pains, but with the realization that Judy had suddenly turned into position to be born. Our father quickly drove mom the four miles to the hospital. Skipping over the usual labor pains that precede most ordinary births the nurses realized this unborn child was in a hurry. The nurses weren’t able to finish the pre-op procedures. Mom wrote this:
“They put me on a cart and ran pushing the cart and me as fast as they could to the delivery room – I can still see my stomach swaying as we went around corners. Judy never did care to wait around and started to come out. Dr. Grabske had one arm in his white jacket and told Sister Hattie, Hold her back!”
Skipping ahead past the normal wrinkled and frankly unattractive newborn that prompts worried parents into asking “are you sure that’s our baby?” mom writes this:
“A beautiful baby girl, over ten pounds, a perfectly shaped head and body, dimples in her rosy feet and hands, very fair, no redness or wrinkles like most newborns.”
Judy was innocent enough in her first encounter with gravitational force when three year old Brother Dale wanted to take a good look at his new baby sister, and while peeking over the side of the bassinet, he unintentionally pulled it from the stand it was precariously perched on. Mom said Judy s nose was bruised and turned black.
The next incident was a little prelude to the challenges mom was to face while corralling Judy Jo. In 1937 our parents were still shoveling coal into a huge old style furnace in the middle of our basement. Octapal gray metal arms branched up from it and fed heat into the floor vents of the rooms upstairs. The dining room floor vent was the hottest, being directly above the furnace, and a favorite place to thaw out in the winter after playing outside. When Judy was eleven months old mom had to tend the furnace, so she wrapped Judy up as tightly as she could in her blanket and told her to stay quiet. Judy was an early walker and had already been running around helter skelter for several months. She was probably out of the blanket before mom was halfway down the stairs.
When mom came back upstairs Judy was standing on top of the red hot grate. Her feet were burned and blistered so bad that it left deep scars in the bottom of her feet. When mom would doctor her, Judy would look into mom’s sad eyes and try to make her feel better, a promising glimpse into the future caring person she would become. Not yet though, she had to live up to her “Wild Child” fame.
There were many calamitous consequences from her untamed nature that didn’t seem to curb her unruliness one whit. As an infant, in a Houdini maneuver, she extricated herself from the tray that locks a toddler into a high chair, and standing on the tray itself, launched her small body off it to short-lived freedom, resulting in a broken collar bone.
Always a quick step ahead of normal Judy Jo arrived at the “terrible two’s” a half year early. Our kitchen was actually not much more than a narrow hallway. The stove and refrigerator were on one side, and the cabinets and sink on the other. You could turn from the sink to the stove without taking a step. One day my mother, the dog lover, allowed our neighbor’s Saint Bernard into the house. He settled down and went to sleep between the sink and the stove and blocked foot traffic completely.
Judy could block traffic just as successfully. She loved opening the cabinet doors, pulling out the pans, and crawling in herself. Mom laughed the first few times, but one day she tied the cabinet doors together with string. “Wow, was Judy mad,” she writes in her journal.
Judy threw a “terrible two’s tantrum,” a 9 or 10 on the fits of temper scale. Mom tried ignoring her at first, without even a hint of success. Mom then escalated to “phase two” of behavior modification. She poured water on Judy’s head. Still unsuccessful in quelling the screaming and kicking with “water boarding,” she put Judy in a closet so the neighbors wouldn’t think she was beating her. We don’t know the length of the internment in the closet, but as soon as she saw daylight Judy went right back to the kitchen, screaming and kicking in front of the cabinet doors mom had tied shut with string.
At wits end, mom turned to the Lord and prayed, and received an unusual answer you won’t find in the scriptures. An inspired idea came to her, and she cautiously looked out the back, and then looked out the front of the house. She went back to the kitchen and got down on her back on the floor beside the Judy who was still in full “fit” mode. She started screaming and kicking her feet to match Judy’s tantrum.. Pretty soon Judy stopped, sat up and looked at mom with big round eyes. Alarmed at her mother’s bizarre behavior, she then back pedaled out of the kitchen as fast as she could into the safety of the front room. Mom writes: “That was the end of tantrums for that little girl.”
Although mom had checked the front door, she failed to see the mailman approaching from the neighbor’s yard. In the summer we left the doors open for air flow, leaving only the screen doors to keep out the flying insects. The mailbox was on the front porch, and the mailman had an unobstructed view into the house through the screen. We don’t know what he thought when he saw a small wide- eyed toddler watching her own mother kicking and screaming on the kitchen floor. Mailmen probably witness a lot of abnormal behavior on their daily treks through a neighborhood. Perhaps he thought mom had joined the Holy Roller Hickman’s across the street, or more likely he had witnessed some of the daily activities of the “wild child” and thought “that poor mother!”
I may have some of these incidents chronologically out of order, but it’s all too apparent by now that Judy Jo had things to do and places to go. She didn’t appreciate being constricted or subjected to the normal norms of behavior, which brings us to the celebrated “streaking” event. At eighteen months old Judy was a runner with good hand eye coordination.
The screen door latches had been raised to keep her in the house. Mom gave Judy a bath, and after toweling her off the unadorned speedster took off, through the dining room, through the kitchen, grabbed the broom on her way, through the back hallway, then used the broom to unlatch the screen door without breaking stride. Mom was in hot pursuit, but no match for the runner. Wearing not a stitch, and still running, she went around the house, straight out into the busy street. The street we lived on was well paved and used by the city transit system. It wouldn’t be a really memorable story without a bus, and of course there was one barreling down on the “streaker” just as she entered the street. There were no doubt passengers thrown from their seats as the bus driver swerved and jumped the curb in front of Mr. Powers home across the street. Luckily no one was injured and little Judy Jo was intact and pumped up for her next adventure.
It didn’t take long for Judy to find her way back to the kitchen. The cabinet doors to the pots and pans were secured with string, but the doors beneath the kitchen sink were not. The only things there were water pipes and a large can of lard. This early tactile experience may have been the gateway to her later interest in art and paper mache.
Mom was on the living room couch, exhausted from keeping up with Judy all day. She was having a rough pregnancy with Sherry. To top it off the unpleasant smell of wieners and sauerkraut cooking in the kitchen was making her green around the gills. Dad was in the chair directly across from mom, totally oblivious to the experimental art work going on in the kitchen. With pride from the tufts of kewpie doll curls she had created on her head with the lard Judy crossed through the dining room to the couch and proudly tapped mom softly on the knee. When mom saw the cotton ball curls of Crisco on Judy’s head fluffed out like good meringue on a lemon pie, she moaned (another version says she screamed) “Go see what Judy’s done this time!” Dad put down his newspaper and reported back that the lard can was empty and its contents were smeared on top of everything Judy could reach, including the floor. Dad manned up, since mom was down for the count, and cleaned up the kitchen, possibly with the newspaper, since paper towels weren’t a thing yet.
There is one more curious little incident that I hesitated to include but it actually puts an exclamation point on whether Judy Jo truly deserves the handle of the “Wild Child.” While still in the “running around nude stage” Judy would pull all of her clothes out of her dresser drawer and pee on them. Seems like out of the ordinary behavior unless you actually were a feral child raised by wolves. Mom brings it up because she had to rewash all the clothes in the dreaded Maytag wringer washer, the only appliance I ever heard my mother swear at. Judy is perplexed on why she did this but thinks it’s because she was worn out from the day’s frenetic activities, and a reluctant inability to make a decision on what to w ear. Standing there on the pile of unwanted clothes, she just couldn’t make it to the bathroom in time. Maybe, but I don’t buy that explanation fully.
It’s possible she was marking her territory. like a feral animal might, but I don’t buy that either. Mmmm? Maybe a little.
I think peeing on the clothes was an act of protest against the unnatural convention of having to wear clothes. Grudgingly over time, Judy buckled to society’s norms and was decently covered by the time she entered kindergarten.
Like Judy, my most vivid memory of elementary school was a trip to the woods in kindergarten.
I wonder how many of Mrs. Flowers students were nudged towards careers in science and education by her influence. She gathered the entire class near the jungle gym and paired each of us with a partner. We had no idea where we were going as she lead us down us down the short set of steps to Cedar, the street that flanked the school on the west side. We headed north up the street towards the woods that lead to the Missouri River. Mrs. Flowers kept a close watch over the rambunctious bunch of five year olds, repeatedly warning us not to let go of our partner’s hand. I had been hoping for a girl partner but got Gene Pittman, who hated the pairing as much as I did. We were still clueless as she led us off the road into the woods where she proceeded to tap some kind of spigot into the trunk of a tree and hung a silver bucket on it. I can see why this is one of the most vivid memories of the “Wild Child,” though by now she was only half wild.
The next trip to the woods was to collect the sap and take it back to the classroom. I still had no idea of the significance of the activity. The kindergarten class was a large room on the basement floor near the cafeteria, but Mrs. Flowers had set up her own little children’s kitchen in her classroom. We all milled around the stove and the slow- slow-slow process of converting the sap to syrup. Then the syrup was magically converted to maple candy, and while other teacher’s names have been forgotten, I will always remember hers. Finally all the coming and going to the woods came together and made some sense! The hike to the woods was fun and memorable in itself; taking sap from a tree was at first a puzzling procedure to me, but then there was finally the magical conversion of tree sap to maple fudge candy. I circled the little classroom kitchen and got in line for fudge a second time, but there was no fooling Mrs. Flowers.
Judy says in her class they made maple syrup from the tree sap and put it on pancakes. I promised not to dwell on my sister’s adult lives, but I can’t help but wonder how much Mrs. Flowers affected a five year old half feral child who later became a consummate science and nature loving teacher, who in retirement tapped trees at the Burr Oaks Nature Center and taught wild edibles classes.
We catch another glimpse of eight year old Judy in 1944, through letters written by mother to our father, who was training pilots in Kansas for the war.
“Judy had a little skinned place on her knee this morning and tried to pretend she couldn’t walk, but I finally got the poor little invalid off to school, much against her will!”
“Last two mornings Judy has been so mad at me because I made her put on galoshes that she said she was going to walk to school real slow and be late. Yesterday she started out walking as slow as she possibly could, but when she heard the school bell you should have seen her coat-tails fly!”
I can sympathize with Judy about those wretched oversized rubber galoshes that sat at top of the basement stairs as a perennial safety hazard. They were still there when I was in third grade, when I had a part in the school’s Christmas play. Bundled in a large coat, gloves, and stocking cap I looked like the kid in the “Christmas Story” that couldn’t get through a door. I was to enter offstage, run across the stage with a sled that had wheels, plant it midway, and glide offstage on the other side. I had done it three times in practice without incident, without the rubber galoshes. Mom insisted at the last moment that the galoshes looked better and more in the Christmas mode than my dirty tennis shoes.
The evening of the well attended play, in floppy galoshes three sizes too big, I came running on stage, stumbled, awkwardly planted myself facedown on the sled, and slid off the front of it, mid-stage. So Judy and I share the same loathing of those rubber galoshes.
The anger Judy had towards those detested galoshes may have lead to the next event. She was forced to wear those over-sized men’s galoshes to school, which had to be an embarrassment to a girl that had just recently been domesticated. Mom’s letter about Judy being so mad at her for making her wear those galoshes was written in 1944 so Judy would have been eight years old. There must have been rain that day, therefore the galoshes.
I have no direct proof that the galoshes lead to this little confessional that I found in one of my sister Judy’s later stories. It does seem in character for a partially domesticated little girl.” I can see this happening after school with the ground still partially wet and Judy still furious over the boots.
“I’m always in trouble for something. Mr. Francis must have seen me when I was throwing dirtballs at the cars going by and this guy had his back window down and my dirt ball ended up in his back seat. He stopped and I ran and hid behind our house. He went to our front door and told my mom and she made me clean out his car with a whiskbroom and dustpan. I should have run behind someone else’s house.”
In another letter in '44 mom writes:
“Judy has broken one of the windows up at Linhare’s house. I thought that little girls didn’t do things like that!”
I lose track of Judy for several years since I was busy re-purposing the chicken house into a fort, and Judy and Sherry had begun “sashaying down the street” as mom puts it. Most of the time they were “sashaying” over to the Terhune house that sat across the street from the ogre’s circle driveway we were not allowed to use. Mr. and Mrs. Terhune were shorter than average Catholics, and they had four diminutive daughters. At age six or seven my sister Sherry and one of the Terhune girls entered a talent show.
Phyliss Terhune and Judy ran away via public transportation at one point, and Dale was sent to retrieve them. I think it was about this time that Judy and a bunch of girls tried their hand at smoking over at Donna Laugherty’s house. In the fifties there were a lot of Lucky Strike ads that started with “More Doctors Smoke Lucky Strikes,” and then there was an ad with a teen age girl dressed for the prom with a dance card in her hand and a Lucky Strike cigarette held elegantly with two fingers outside the dance card. It was the cool thing for teenagers to smoke in the fifties. Judy, Jeanette Gerber, Donna, and two other (Terhune girls?) teenagers smoked an entire carton of cigarettes that evening. A carton contains ten packs. With 20 cigarettes in a pack that totals 200 cigarettes. They smoked the entire carton. Judy says she got so deathly ill she thought she was going to die. To this day she can’t stand the smell of tobacco smoke.
The prettiest Terhune girl ended up on the Jack Lalanne show helping Jack sell food blenders. I mention the Terhune girls because there seemed to be a lot of girl stuff going on over there at their house which included my older sisters, but that was a girl’s mystifying and confounding world. I was only interested in what western was showing Saturday at the Byam Theatre. I loved the Lone Ranger and Tonto movies that came with a Looney Tune Cartoon. I didn’t care much for the world news. Shown in black and white there was news about the end of the Korean War and bomb tests in the Marshall Islands, which seemed a world apart from important issues happening on South Huttig Street.
From the ages of 12 to 15, when the question came up in our neighborhood and beyond on who would you recommend for a baby sitter, Judy’s name was at the top of the list. Maybe mother had sealed her lips about Judy’s early behavior, or maybe it was because there was no antic or behavior a kid could come up with that Judy couldn’t anticipate or handle, having been there and done that. Judy developed a network of babysitting jobs that swelled to 22 families, and untold numbers of children. She earned twenty five cents an hour. I remember one of her jobs was in a house off of Winner Road past the High School that looked like a castle covered in aluminum foil.
For some inexplicable reason, at least to me, I suddenly and unexpectedly was a beneficiary from many of those hard earned quarters Judy was squirreling away from her babysitting. We had a small cherry tree on the north side of our house. I came around from the back of the house through the little gate that lead to the side yard and Judy was standing by that cherry tree holding a brand new English styled maroon racing bicycle.
It looked like the imported ones in the Raleigh ads in “The Boy’s Life” magazine, with small racing tires and hand brakes. It looked nothing like the heavy and fat tired Schwinn I had been riding. It wasn’t my birthday, not even close to Christmas, so I was perplexed. Judy had that impish smile at seeing my complete surprise. I can only presume she was paying forward, before it became a thing. If this wasn’t enough to cement my undying affection for my sister Judy, the best was yet to come.
In 1953 the cold war was heating up, Dwight Eisenhower and his side-kick Nixon were inaugurated President and Vice-President, and Jonas Salk was trying out the polio vaccine on his own family members. The things that concerned a ten year old like me were the rising price of the Saturday matinee, fear of contracting polio, and the premier event that happened in our inner-city neighborhood every year in October. The Fairmount Pet Parade.
In 1953 and 1954 I would get my taste of fame and revel in seeing my name in print in the local rags. Very little of it, I realize now that I’m older and wiser, was due to my own efforts. The two Pet Parade triumphs were orchestrated almost entirely by my sister Judy.
In 53 I was ten years old, and one of the 350 inner-city kids who would compete for trophies and ribbons in the Pet Parade. There were ribbons given out in different categories: Smallest dog, largest dog, dog with the longest tail, shortest tail, longest ears, on and on with similar categories for cats.
There were other categories for kids who brought turtles, snakes, and ferrets. There were ribbons for the best decorated bikes and the best combination Halloween pet and owner costumes. My younger sister Ruthie won second place in this category dressed as a Genie carrying a small cage. I think Judy made the costume, and the cage might have held Judy’s parakeet.
Then there was a foot high trophy for the best overall float. The following Tuesday a long article in the “Inner-City Sentinel leads with:
Daniel Sherman Sweepstakes Winner with Caged Tiger. Danny’s float consisted of a cage mounted on a wagon which contained a ferocious man-eating tiger. Atop the cage was the limp effigy of a man whose unfortunate association with the beast resulted in his decapitation. The roaring carnivore within the cage, however, was naught but a timid kitten.”
Timmy Bly on right who as an adult joined the "Hell's Angels."
Let’s break this down. Judy did most of the work converting the large cardboard refrigerator box to a barred cage, made the life sized stuffed effigy that laid atop it, made my circus ringmaster’s outfit, including a top hat, bow tie, and a coat with tails. She somehow also found a kitten in our dog loving neighborhood. The float was not sitting on a wagon as the reporter reported, but on a cart I had made from scrap lumber earlier that summer. So the cart at least was mine, and I got to parade in front of the float for an hour as the parade went right down the length of the Fairmount Business District lined with 500 or more spectators. Timmy, Kenny, and David, members of the “Chicken House Gang” pulled the float and I walked in front of it cracking a rope whip that Judy made. Life was good, especially when I was handed a foot tall trophy cup inscribed with “Best Overall Float.”
Did I announce at the ceremony “I’d like to give a little shout out to my sister Judy who did most of the work?” No, I was ten years old and reveling in the publicity, and a new elevated status in the pecking order of the “Chicken House Gang.” The icing on the cake was witnessing the takedown of our “Gang’s” arch enemy, John Cernech, the rich doctor’s kid who lived up the street in the white house with the white fence that kept his purebred pets, swing set, and toys away from the mongrel mixed breed dogs, and riff raff like ourselves. John Cernech, even with his brand new store decorated bike got only a third place ribbon, and his younger brother Bill didn’t even place. My sister was improving my life in every category.
The “Pet Parade” in 1954 turned out almost as good. Judy, with her off the wall imagination, was again the power behind the scenes. She came up with an idea that placed Ruthie and I at the exalted pinnacle of Pet Parade dominance. The crowd was down a little because it was chilly, but the participants showed up in the hundreds because every kid got free dimes and five pounds of dog food, plus a free pass to the Saturday matinee at the Byam Theatre, showing two Zane Gray movies
and four cartoons.Eight year old Luann Leach literally stole the first place trophy with a tricycle that had been extended on both ends with an elaborate framework to resemble a battleship. It was covered with crepe paper in patriotic colors. First of all, her float had already won prizes in a Fourth of July Parade months before somewhere else, and should have been disqualified. This was a Halloween themed Fairmount Pet Parade, and it was obvious with the intricate framework that no third grader made the float, but who was I to lodge a complaint?
If I had been interviewed by a reporter or grilled by Hal Roberts, the master of ceremonies, about how I had come up with such a unique idea as a blue giraffe the jig would have been up. Judy had spent hours, and then more hours, wetting and applying home made glue to strips of paper to assemble a 7 foot tall paper mache giraffe. Then Judy painted it blue, added white spots, big eyes with extra long black eyelashes, and with two cardboard yarn cones added two of those bulbous giraffe knobs on top of its head.
This was not an entire giraffe, just a 7 foot tall neck and head that I balanced on top of my head with the aid of a broomstick handle. For the body Judy coordinated a blue and white spotted fabric over Ruthie and me so only our legs were exposed. She put two very small eye holes in the front of the fabric so I could guide the giraffe down the parade route. Ruthie really got the bad end of the deal because she was the rear end of the giraffe and had to hold her head down so she didn’t poke her head up and make us look like some mix of a blue giraffe and a one humped spotted camel. In addition to the difficult task of trying to follow my lead and match my step rhythm, she had to reach behind herself with one hand to constantly wag a rope tail.
I had no peripheral vision at all. We were constantly bumping into things and out of step, with Ruthie headed one way and me another. The police had shut off one complete lane of U.S. 24 Highway, and although I couldn’t see, I presume we passed by the same buildings we had the year before, a little non-descript restaurant, a service station with two open bays, a Firestone Store, the feed store where we bought chickens, Charlie’s Market, actually owned by two brothers, neither of them named Charlie, a hardware store where I bought nails for kool-aid stands and carts, Roy Mennis’s Inner City Appliance, where mom bought the Maytag with the wringer washer she swore at, then the Standard State Bank where we never had a savings account, then a couple of stores I never had interest in because they had to do with women’s hair and clothes. Because there were so many entries the parade organizer lined all the entrants four across. I imagine the trikes and bikes in our row were constantly trying to avoid the blue giraffe that was weaving and meandering blindly down the parade route. The crowd lining the streets probably thought it was part of our act.
At the awards ceremony, the giraffe somehow made it up onto a flatbed truck bed where the trophies and ribbons were being awarded, and Judy said both of Ruthie’s hands came out from each side of the fabric that was covering us to receive the trophy. Adding to our ascendancy in the neighborhood pecking order Ruthie and I won first place ribbons in the “Most Unique Pet” division. John Cernech, our arch enemy rich neighbor, with his high dollar dog and new clothes, merely won a ribbon in the “Best Dressed Owner and Pet” category. Davy Bly, one of the poorest kids on our block, and long time member of our “Chicken House Gang,” won a first place ribbon for the dog with the longest nose.
A few years ago I visited my sister Judy at her booth at the Rock and Mineral Show in Kansas City, Missouri. For many years she has set up an educational booth to share her rocks and mineral collection with the public, especially the youth. I was prompted to write this after the visit. Like our mother, she recognizes God’s presence in all of nature.
This is your gathering of stones
Wrapped carefully in paper and cotton cloth
These are not familiar field stones to form walls
Or perimeter stones to mark boundaries between neighbors
There is not one grindstone - useful as they are
These are astonishing stones gathered
From fractured fields and broken valleys
Rose quartz, hornblende, agate, schist and shale
Each year in mid-march you carefully un-wrap these stones
To be shared as a communal gift –an offering if you will
To those who wish to stop at your spring garden of stone
Where you’ve carefully labeled and separated
Meteoric stones fallen from broken stars
From those spewed through volcanic fissures
From tins and cartons come your surprising stones
Feldspar, blue schist, gneiss, green veins of malachite
The purple altars built crystal by crystal into amethyst
There are oddities formed from lightning strikes
And magnetic stones and curious floating stones
Stopping students and scouts in mid-stride
I unfairly asked you to pick your favorite
And you turned in a slow constrained circle
In the middle of your museum considering
But it was not long before you led me to a closed tower
And carefully reached in to gather in your hand
A mystifying illusion called Labradorlite
When you held it to the light it was translucent
Shimmering an aurora of indigo and streaks of gold
Depending on how you positioned it
This stone is more than a product of heat and pressure
More than a mere complex crystalline structure
Shaped slowly by the physics of ions and diffusion
It is a mystery-and I know its ghostly transparence
Fires your imagination- and its flashes of color
Bring you joy and a sense of oneness with the earth
Fold that one carefully in a soft cloth when you bundle it
As if it’s a small bird with a beating heart