ay had always been a nice, well-behaved boy. When we was in grade school together he was always the lead choirboy, while I was always in detention. I don’t remember Ray having the voice of an angel or nothing, but he had a big head of blonde hair and a big set of blue eyes, and in his choir robe he looked like a china doll.
Towheaded, they called it.
The sisters would always stand him up in front of the class and coo all over him, and he’d act shy and bashful while all the time he was lapping it up.
I had to quit school in eight grade to help Ma and dad, but Ray went all the way through St. Nicolas, then Bishop Rosecrans. Then came the war and I went off to the Pacific, and he went off to the infantry, where he probably heard a few too many shells and became all panicky with a ringing in his ears.
Shellshocked, they call it.
He hung around Europe for a while, but then his dad died in an accident in a fire out at the Philo electric plant, and Ray had to move back down home to help his Mom. At first he was a big man around town with all his European stories. He even ran with your Grandma a bit before she wore me down and I married her. But after a while he spent most of his time in Stillman’s tavern because getting loaded helped with the ringing in his ears.
I had come out of the service as a master electrician, and we was still friends, so I’d try to help Ray get odd jobs here and there, but none of them stuck for too long. Then sometime around ’48 his sister came down with something bad, and the doc told them they’d have to take her down to Columbus for an operation. So the whole family started saving, but they was always a bunch of deadbeats without a cent to rub between them, so it seemed like poor sis was out of luck.
Then one day, I’m out wiring jack Ditmar’s new department store downtown, and Ray comes to find me, with a rolled up copy of the Newark Advocate in his hand. He shows me this article about some fella in Italy who broke the world record for being buried alive. He had make it 38 days buried in a fancy coffin rigged up with a long pipe used as a vent so he could breathe. When they dug him up, the record people gave him a bunch of money and a trip to America, where he stayed and opened up a spaghetti restaurant in Toledo.
So here’s Ray, with his rolled up newspaper and the smell of Jaybee’s Brandy on his breath, and he tells me that he’s got some shovels outside in his car. He’d gone over to the Funeral home and talked Bill Egan into lending him one of them coffins they keep around for ex-cons and the kind of folks that end up win what they call a pauper’s grave. Then he’s gone down to what used be be Stillman Tavern, down in the eight ward, and he’s talked Abe Stillman into letting him dig up a corner of the parking lot. But Ray, always having to be center of attention, he had decided to go one better than the Italian guy. Not only was he going to stay in the ground for fifty days and break the record, but he cooked up this whole idea that if people threw a nickel down the pipe at him, they could talk to him about whatever they wanted for five minutes.
It took a while to talk me into helping with this scheme, but Ray was so excited about maybe breaking the record, and he insisted that the money would go for his sister’s operation, so after a while I found some guys and we dug Ray a grave ten feet under the front yard of the bar. We braced it with timbers so he had room to stand, and a bucket for his necessaries, then we rigged him up with a wide length of pipe running to the top of the ground. Your Grandma even painted us a pretty sign. “Talk to Ray, you’ll make his day.”
At first, nobody seemed all that confident that Ray could make it so long, and in the first few days, he probably only made a buck or so. Me and the other guys at the bar took turns sitting in a chair by the hole, making sure that people actually dropped the nickel in before they started yapping away about God, or the war, or love. Some people would bring him bible tracts and others would bring him girlie magazines, and we’d lower them down to him, along with baloney sandwiches and bottles of his favorite Jaybee’s Fine French Brandy. Occasionally you could hear a grunt or some muffled words, but Ray was silent most of the time. Silent and loaded.
After about ten days a reporter from the Times-Recorder came out to the hole. Bill Flynn and I had spent the morning bailing out buckets of water, since the Stillman Tavern was near the junction of the Muskingum and Licking Rivers, and if it rained, Ray’s coffin (where he slept) would start sloshing around. He was pretty calm through the whole thing though. Like I said, the brandy helped a lot with that. The reporter shouted his questions down the hole, and it was pretty hard to hear Ray’s answers, so we helped the guy along a bit, telling him about Ray’s bravery in the war, and his sick sister. Before long, the story made it all the way to Columbus, and there were buses of people stopping at Stillman’s coming over to the hole for a nickel and a chat. We had to cut everyone’s time to two minutes, he was so in demand.
Finally it got to the fiftieth day. The crowds had died down because the hole was starting to smell a little, and we called down to Ray, to let him know that it was time to start digging him up. Well, Ray didn’t wanna be dug up. He shouted up the hole in clear plain English that he was having a wonderful time down there, and wouldn’t it be great if he could make it a few more days. At this point, your Grandma and some other wives got involved, and they each came out to shout down the hole that this business was taking us out of our homes, and that they were fed up. After a couple days of this screeching, Ray relented, and we started digging, and after about an hour we hauled Ray, his coffin, and two buckets of nickels up top. He was all grey and brown and crusted with Zanesville clay and smelled like a rendering plant, so we handed him a bar of soap and made him hose down in the river for a while. When he got all the crud off, we saw that the hair on his head and his chin had turned bright white, but otherwise he seemed like his normal self. Ray didn’t even seem that disappointed when nobody showed up with a check or even a certificate for his beating the world record. He just too his two buckets of nickels into the tavern and started buying rounds of drinks.
Ray ran out of nickels pretty quick. Especially after Abe Stillman hinted around that he should get a cut for putting up with Ray taking up a prime parking spot for so long. Ray gave him half a bucket, which was probably too generous. We drank for almost twenty-four hours straight and sang just about every song we knew. Ray’s voice was hoarse by the time your Grandma and my Ma came to get me, and he serenaded them with a few choruses of Goodness Irene as they dragged me off to bed. Your Grandma and her friend Eunice Nickels went over to St. Nicholas, and talked Father Deets into taking up a collection for Ray’s sis. She went down to have her operation, but they fowled something up and took out a long part of her intestine and she didn’t make it much longer than a few years after that.
Everybody was proud of Ray. He made it into the papers for a day or two, but he never seemed quite the same after he came out of that hole. The good news was, the Italian guy up in Toledo sent Ray a letter inviting him to visit, and he took the bus up there for a free spaghetti and meatball dinner. Turned out that the Italian fella had a sister he had brought over, and she hit it off with Ray. They got married and ended up opening a spaghetti restaurant in Gallipolis. I never made it down to see them, but your Grandma went a few times and said it was pretty good. He passed about twenty years ago now, and the restaurant closed not long after. Apparently his kids were running with the mob, and the restaurant got shut down for laundering money.
About ten years later, your Grandma and I ran into Sister Mary Roberta from St. Nicholas down at Zettinger’s drugstore and we got to talking about Ray’s trip down the hole. We laughed about the nickels a bit, and then she got very serious.
“When that sweet boy’s towhead turned white, I knew that he had been visited by the Holy Spirit.”
Well, your Grandma was very taken with what the Sister said, and went home and prayed a decade of rosary dedicated to Ray. I knew better. She called it the Holy Spirit. I call it a combination of World War Two and Jaybee’s fine French Brandy.