2018-01-10 / Community View

Jimmy Gibbons told a whopper

Contributing Writer

Jim Gibbons is on the right, tugging his shorts. The other boy in the picture is his brother Mike. My sister Jill and I are in the middle. We were standing in our grandparents’ front yard. Oregon Road was gravel and grass grew in the middle of the road in front of the house. Jim Gibbons is on the right, tugging his shorts. The other boy in the picture is his brother Mike. My sister Jill and I are in the middle. We were standing in our grandparents’ front yard. Oregon Road was gravel and grass grew in the middle of the road in front of the house. LAPEER — A warm summer day at the west corner of State Street. Jimmy Gibbons was seated in his pedal car, backing up on the sidewalk. I stood beside him, wishing I could get in the car and drive.

We were four years old. He told me a police officer had walked up to him a few days earlier and demanded to see his driver’s license. Jim said he didn’t need one because the car didn’t have a motor. Then he asked the officer, “What are pennies made of?”

The policeman scratched his head and said, “I don’t know.” Jim looked up at him, curled his lip in scorn and said, “Dirty copper.” The officer was outraged and started chasing Jim around the block but couldn’t catch him because he was driving his car so fast.

Jim Gibbons was a paratrooper in Vietnam. Jim Gibbons was a paratrooper in Vietnam. Even at that tender age I knew my favorite cousin was telling a whopper but I was too polite to say anything. Actually, I thought it was clever. To this day I wonder if he heard the insult in a James Cagney movie or made it up.

If his car was still around it might be worth a few hundred bucks or more. Vintage toys from the early 1950s bring big money on eBay. So would his chenille bedspread with Hopalong Cassidy on it, swinging a lasso.

Jim and I were at our Grandma Gibbons’ house one morning when he decided to spout naughty words. He wasn’t shy about it, either. He stood right there in the kitchen cussing up a storm while Grandma stood at the ironing board. I was shocked.

Grandma was, too. She marched over to the sink, picked up a bar of Lava soap and held it under the faucet to get it good and wet. Then she yanked Jim by the left arm, and I don’t remember what she said but it was something like, “Oh, you want your mouth washed out, do you?” and she did just that, smearing the bar of wet soap across his tongue a few times.

He started crying and she sent him to the spare bedroom for a nap.

As you can see, Jimmy Gibbons had spunk. He was a smart kid, always looking to pull something over on grown-ups. He was born in August, 1949, the oldest of four children. His parents were Lyle and Dorothy. Mike was a year younger than Jim. Then came Margaret and Jayne.

I remember an ancient black car in our grandparents’ driveway. Someone had driven it there and parked it near the garage. The men stood around commenting about the car, then wandered away. Jim and Mike couldn’t have been more than two and three years old. I saw them climb into the car and watched Jim fiddle with the steering wheel. Then he turned the key, the engine started and the car lurched forward.

It went south past the barn down a small hill with Jim and Mike standing in the front seat and a gang of men running after them. I don’t remember if they caught up with the car or if it came to a stop on its own in the field.

Uncle Lyle and Grandpa Gibbons were in our grandparents’ living room watching a Western on television. Jim and Mike were playing in Uncle Bob’s room. The men heard a loud gunshot and thought it was part of the show. They smelled gunpowder. The boys had taken one of Uncle Bob’s rifles out of his gun cabinet and shot it into the mattress.

I’ve heard the story many times but was never told who pulled the trigger. It had to be Jim. If the barrel had been aimed higher the shell might have exploded through the wall and struck his father, who was sitting in a chair on the other side.

One summer day I was playing in the barn with my cousins, little brothers and a couple of neighbor kids. Jim suddenly got mean and started pummeling Mike. Then he swung at someone else. I ran into the house, where Grandma and Aunt Dorothy were seated at the table, deep in conversation.

“Jim’s beating up everybody in the barn!” I yelled. In my mind’s eye I saw Aunt Dorothy jumping up, rushing outside and getting after him. Instead she mocked me. “Jim’s beating up everybody in the barn,” she minced. I turned to Grandma and she glared at me. So I slunk out the door, my head hung in shame.

Grandma had always told us to stay away from an elevated section of the barn because of a large hole in the boards. She feared we would fall through to the basement. I remember the day Jim strategically scattered straw across the boards to cover the gap and then he told Mike to run across there.

Mike was easy. He did what he was told. He ran across the boards and fell through the hole. Luckily enough straw had fallen at other times to cushion the impact. Mike was wearing a snowsuit and that helped, too. He was fine.

Jim and I were in the same grade at Bishop Kelley Memorial School and the same classroom. We made our First Communion together. Sister Andrew, a heavyset Dominican nun, was our second grade instructor. After summer vacation we were surprised to learn the rooms had been changed around, and we were back in the same place. And now Sister Andrew was assigned to third grade.

I can still hear my cousin Jim complaining. “Same old teacher. Same old room.”

The Gibbons kids were still fairly small when Uncle Lyle landed a job with IBM and moved his family to Flint. We didn’t see them much after that. And then, almost never when they moved to Poughkeepsie, New York.

They came back to Lapeer to visit when Jim and I were in the sixth or seventh grade. He and I walked through Frank Maasch’s alfalfa field and down an old wagon lane. All the while Jim was using three and four-syllable words, talking about career plans and goals. I didn’t know him anymore. I felt leagues behind.

My folks bought an Apache trailer the summer after I left ninth grade. We traveled south through Ohio to stay with Scott and Vonda Carpenter, my dad’s friends, at their farm for a few days. Then we packed up, traveled east across Pennsylvania, wended our way through the Adirondacks, and ended up in Poughkeepsie. The trailer was parked in our cousins’ back yard.

Jim was sort of like his old self again. He took a shine to my youngest brother, John, and did his best to corrupt him. He taught him how to shuffle cards, play poker and told him what to look for in a woman. John was five years old.

Jim and I were exchanged letters every now and then in our high school years. He wrote about a guy called Gallagher, whom he seemed to idolize. Gallagher, if I remember right, was a daredevil who could sneak out of the house and get in all kinds of trouble without getting caught. Looking back, I wonder if there really was a Gallagher, or if Jim was writing about his persona.

After graduating from high school in 1967 Jim volunteered for military service. He was trained to serve as a paratrooper and sent to Vietnam. Aunt Dorothy called my parents one day to report Jim had been critically injured and might not survive. I think it happened as he parachuted to the ground.

But Jim had spunk. He made it and was consigned to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Eventually he got his own house, drove a Jeep, traveled to South America and smoked funny cigarettes. Our cousin David Brown went to visit him in Poughkeepsie. Dave fell in the Hudson River and lost his glasses.

Jim took on the role of patriarch after both of his parents died. The others knew they could turn to him for small loans and emotional support. As his sister Margaret said, “He was the glue that held our family together.”

Jim and his youngest sister Jayne returned to Lapeer when my mother died in 1988. Days later, many of us went to lunch at Sero’s restaurant on South Main. Toward the end of our meals Aunt Doris Brown announced she was picking up the tab. Jim said no, he was paying it. The debate turned into a heated argument and one of them, I can’t remember who, angrily threw money on the floor.

Some years later, Jim died of prostate cancer. The last thing he told his brother and sisters was to take care of themselves.

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