Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Me ’n’ Old Skipper
I wrote this for the July 4, 1982 editions of The Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle. It was an installment in my nationally honored Calling Card columns. The newspaper gave me permission to reprint my work, and this column  does appear in the book When Newspapers Mattered: The News Brothers & their Shades of Glory, written by Tim  Ghianni (me) and my best pal, Rob Dollar.
I hope you like it. I loved the man I'm writing about here and we had many fine adventures.

Me ‘n’ old Skipper sat on a bench.
It was hot in Clarksville. Boy was it hot.
But it bothered me a lot more than it did Skipper. A guy who has spent his life wandering the high seas and the carnivals of the world is accustomed to discomfort.
The noxious breath of the late-afternoon traffic was trapped in the brick-lined gulley of 
Third Street.
Skipper reached his arthritis-gnarled hand to the pocket of his T-shirt and fished out a Salem.
“I’ll sit out here until late in the evening in the summertime,” he said. 
Then, as he lit his cigarette, Skipper glanced down Third Street toward downtown. “After six o’clock you can look all the way clear to town and never see a soul. When I first came to Clarksville, there were all kinds of things to see here. Man, it’s dead now. I’ve never seen such a town. Next week they’re going to start rolling the sidewalk up at 9 o’clock and I’ll have to run because I’ll be sitting on the bench.”
The bench is a deep blue wooden bus stop bench, a recent addition to the sidewalk in 
front of The Royal York Hotel.
Skipper is likely to spend much of the rest of his life on that bench. “This is as good a 
place as any.”
And he’s seen them all.
Skipper was born 70 years ago in a small West Virginia mining town.
His wandering began at age 11 when his dad moved the family to Hawaii.
 That was the first of the many sea voyages which eventually gave Skipper his nickname.
Skipper was christened Okey Stepp at birth. “I don’t know why in the hell they named me that,” he said. Now, he goes by several names, including Skipper and Red.
“I answer to anything, just so they don’t call me late to payday or late to eat,” he said, 
breaking into his high-pitched laugher.
Skipper, who describes himself as happy-go-lucky, looks and sounds so much like the
cartoon character Popeye that you almost expect him to sing “I’m strong to the finish 
’cause I eat my spinach.”
“I have been around the world three times,” he said. “I’ve been in every state in the 
union. I worked in carnivals for 25 or 30 years. I was in the merchant marine from 1938-
45. I’ve lived out of a suitcase damn near all of my life.
“I’ve worked everything from rides to concessions in the carnivals. I’ve been a barker. 
I’ve worked in oil fields, as a truck driver, as a name it.
“I liked carnival life the best...always on the move. The merchant marine was all right 
except for all of that water. I guess that’s part of the job. Five ships were shot out from 
beneath me during the war. And, I was shot in the stomach and leg when a Japanese plane shot at our ship.”
Both of his stick-like arms are covered with tattoos: a couple of flowers, one of the ships
he was on is memorialized in a tattoo he received in China and way up on his right 
shoulder is the face of a Hawaiian woman.
“That’s one of my wahinis,” he said, with a laugh. “That’s what they call women in 
Speaking of women, Skipper laughed when asked if he had a woman in every port in the old days. “I would have been a damn poor merchant marine if I didn’t...same thing with the carnival.”
Finally, at 54, he did something he had been “dodgin’ all my life”—he got married. Eight 
years later, his first wife died in Florida.
A buddy up here in Clarksville then asked him to come visit. “I figured I might as well. I 
didn’t have anybody.”
He met his wife, Mary, here eight years ago and that was enough to get him to stay. 
Health problems have cut into their time together. Mary lives in Summit Heights, Skipper in the Royal York.
“I go see her three times a week and she calls me three times a day. But she is not able to take care of me and I’m not able to take care of her. So, we decided it would be best if I lived here.”
That decision was made a bit over a year ago after Skipper was released from the 
Palmyra Intermediate Care Center, where his rheumatoid arthritis and faulty heart had 
kept him for the previous two years.
Living downtown, in a hotel full of self-reliant souls, has been good for Skipper.
“When I came here, I was using a walker. I got rid of the walker and used a cane. Then, I threw the cane out and I ain’t used nothin’ since. 
“A lot of it is the environment. I’m relaxed here. I don’t have to worry about nothing. My
Social Security is taking care of far.”
Skipper dug a bottle of heart pills out of his trousers pocket. “Damn pill is as big as a 
horse pill,” he said, as he washed it down with a healthy gulp of heavily-sugared coffee.
“When I can throw away these pills, I’ll be happy.”
Cold weather and arthritis don’t mix, so in the winter “I just stay in my warm room and 
read. I read historical books about how they settled the west and how they settled 
Kentucky and Tennessee. For Westerns, I like to read Louis L’Amour. But, other than 
that, I like historical books.”
Which is a big reason for Skipper’s vocabulary. “Too many people think I’ve got a better 
education than I have. Most of my education came through traveling.
“I’ve been through college: I’ve been through the back door and out the front!”
Skipper likes the States the best of any country in which he has traveled. But he would 
like to go back to Australia.
“That’s the place,” he said, a glimmer in his worldly eyes as he formed the contours of a 
woman’s body with his hands. Then, he laughed. “I can dream, can’t I?”
The rambling is over. ‘I guess I’ll end up here,” he said. “It’s as good as anyplace. It’s 
home after I have spent my life rambling over hell and creation.”