Jim reminisces about his youth and High School friends
Last week one of my best friends in high school died. He was John Velier. I am at the age where too many friends and family are dying. It helps me to reminisce.
We met in junior high as members of the South Side Junior High Band in Oil City, PA. He was a drummer and a very popular kid in school. He was short but cute and the girls liked him. I always thought of him as rich but looking back our families were both middle class –but his was upper and mine was lower. It’s funny but in small towns like Oil City everyone knows everyone else and small relative differences meant huge things to kids and parents alike. These things were overblown in the 1950s. John always had new clothes, his parents had two cars, had a cabin up the Allegheny River at Henry’s Bend, and lived in a better part of town. He always was up on social things and ran with the more privileged kids. But John was NOT a snob–in fact he was a good guy. In our high school yearbook of 1961 he was voted one of 3 guys and 3 girls as the most popular classmates.
He was a drummer and his parents and older sister owned and ran a local majorette drill team called the Indian Bonnettes. His dad, Maynard, was a big man in every way. He strutted around and was bombastic but was good old teddy bear. The family “enterprise” was the Indian Bonnettes, which was a twirling school where all the girls paid a nominal amount each week for “lessons” and marched and twirled together in the group. It was a big social thing for the girls in town. John’s sister Carolyn was the star twirler and led the marches. The group had a drum section of mostly boys, which was led by John–who was a good drummer. I joined the group as a bass drummer and cymbal player. Eventually I played a little tenor drums but never graduated to the snare. We played a lot of fireman’s parades around western Pennsylvania in the summers and took two big deal bus trips—one to New York City and one to Chicago. We competed in the National Championships for Majorette Drill Teams that coincided with the Drum and Bugle Corps competitions. Those were associated with the VFW and American Legion national conventions. It was really cool as a teenager from rural America going to those big cities and staying in hotels. There were 70 girls and 7 boys and I still am mad at myself for not hitting on those pretty girls—I was scared of them. We won those contests and were National Champions.
John and I were also in the high school band, which became my social outlet. I was a pretty good sousaphone player. My best friends were all boys from the band and we had a little club that hung out in Jack Williams garage—and smoked cigarettes together. We all had cots and spent a lot of time there. At about 15 four of us put together a little band we called The Four Jays. Johnny Velier was the drummer, Jack Williams was a piano player, Joe Thomson played bass and I played guitar (really my 1st instrument). We played pop tunes and jazzy tunes from the 50’s. Tunes like “Lil Darlin’” come to mind. We played a couple of school dances but were not very good. It was my 1st band and I still have memories. Our little club also included Rick Hampton, Eric Blumensaadt and Dan Brink. Dan was a trumpeter and a senior when we were sophomores. We were the best musicians in the high school band, best of friends and did all the boy stuff like hiking up the river, exploring caves and hanging from the railroad bridge. Dan went into the Navy when he graduated while the rest remained good friends. We were into cars as every boy was in the 50s. All the stereotypes of the time were around us. It was before drugs and hippies and the pill.
My father died during my sophomore year and I lived with my grandparents—now in a better part of town. This group of friends was very important to have. Dan’s parents. Bob and Ethel (Dutch)
Brink were especially good to me and I spent a lot of time at his house. Bob was assistant manager at the local A & P Store and he got me a job there as a stock boy. It really made me independent and I had money to buy a car and nice clothes. John and Jack also got jobs there. I was a member of the Meat Cutter’s Union at 16 and “on my way”. John and Jack and I also got summer jobs as lifeguards at the Oil City Swimming Pool. That was a big leap in society for me and I had a great tan and was thin (after a chubby early teen period).
I remember one caper very vividly. It was the last day of school of our junior year 1960 and us guys decided to chance something. Bermuda shorts had just become a big thing so we decided to go to school wearing them. The Principal, Mr. Townsend, saw us coming in the door and lowered the boom. He told us we had to go home and change into long pants and be back at school in time for our 1st class (in 45 minutes) or we would fail it for the year. Well we all lived across the river and up on the hills of the south side. We ran like hell. I got home, changed and borrowed my grandfather’s 49 Ford. I met the others at the bridge and drove them to the school. We got there just barely in time—and very pissed off at the principal. That night we schemed to get even with him. We went down to the A&P and got several big boxes of produce cuttings, lettuce heads etc. Late at night we went to his house and dumped them all over his front lawn. “That’ll show him!” we thought. A few days later we got called into his office with parents in tow. He saw the A&P stamp on the lettuce and put two and two together. John, Jack and I worked at the store and he had us dead to rights. We were scared as hell and he threatened us with the police. We had to do a lot of little civic things around the school as well as clean his lawn. It was a silly teenage thing to do. It seems so innocent when you thinks of teen pranks today which might be more violent.
I remember when we graduated from high school John’s parents gave him a nice watch and he in turn gave me his old one. It was my first watch and I wore it all through college. I suffered from a lot of hidden feelings of inadequacy and jealousy in those years. John was the kid that had everything. I grew out of it.
I often think about all my best friends when I was a high school kid. I felt then that they were all better musicians than me but I was the only one to pursue music as a career. John was an especially good drummer. He had good time and could swing in the high school big band. Dan was the lead trumpet, Jack was the band singer played some piano and was the “band manager”, I played guitar and we all had a good time. Velier could have been a successful pro drummer if he had had the fire in the belly.
After high school our group went our separate ways. I went away to college to become a band director and John Velier went to Kent State and later did a master’s at Michigan State in Criminology. That led to a career in the FBI. I rarely saw him for many years but we stayed in touch by phone. He lived in Fredericksburg, VA for much of that time. In 1965 I joined The US Army Band in Washington and John and I met occasionally. One morning I was awoken at 6 AM by an Arlington, VA cop who accused me of hit and run driving in my own apartment parking lot. It was a trumped up thing and I immediately called my friend John, the FBI agent. He “took care of it” for me and I never heard another thing. It’s good to know a cop. He worked all over the country on FBI cases but spent the latter years as a professor at the FBI school in Quantico where he taught a variety of criminal courses. He told me all kinds of interesting spy stories and, while never specific, he hinted that he knew a lot of inside dirt on the FBI and the world of crime. I have often wondered if he meant the secrets of J. Edgar Hoover, assassinations and dirty tricks but he never revealed any details.
As kids John and I were of similar small town minds but we both gravitated into opposite political leanings. In fact in recent years we have verbally clashed a lot (always remaining friends) but he is about as far right as any one could be and our worldviews were polar opposites. Probably a lot of our views have been as a result of vastly different life experiences–his as a high level policeman who was privy to a lot of violent and criminal stuff and mine the world of arts and education. John was like family, so that always trumped our respect for each other. I remember a silly bet we had in H.S. over who had the highest I.Q. Well somehow we got into some secret files in the school and found out. They were both good over all–we were just one point apart. I won’t reveal which was higher or lower.
Many times I have returned to Oil City. My connection with the Brink family has been tight. Dutch is my substitute mother for sure. I have stayed connected with the town as the source of my life experiences. John’s family moved over to the Cleveland area and basically he was rarely connected with OC again. In 1984 Jamie and Yasmin and I went to the Tuba Conference in Maryland and took a driving trip through Tennessee and Virginia and stopped to see John, wife Ann and his two girls in Fredericksburg. Then somewhere in the late 80’s I organized a get together in Oil City with Jack, Dan, John and I. We spent a couple of days drinking and chewing the fat. Unfortunately a short time later our buddy Jack died suddenly of a heart attach at age 47.
John retired from the FBI and worked in security for the Las Vegas casinos and then ran the Nevada Tennis Association and finally had a tennis stringing business in Vegas where famous tennis pros would seek him out. One time he and Ann visited us in Los Angeles but we were rarely in touch. Even then he had a bad heart condition that plagued him for the rest of his life. He had to wear a pacemaker and had several close calls with death. His wife left him after a long marriage, which really had a heavy toll on him—I sensed that it hit him hard financially and it was hard to be alone. It was sad to see him so depressed but it must have been difficult to live knowing that you could die at any moment. We met a couple of times in Vegas with our fellow classmate Eric who had retired in the area. My last contact with John was on a long phone call about 3 months ago. We talked about everything. We tried to stay away from politics as it was oil and water between us but we kept our friendship for all these years. I will miss him.