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  Texas : Feature : Columns : Bill Cherry's Galveston Memories :

Champ Did His Experiment at the State Theater and
in the Name of The Enforcer

by Bill Cherry
There was a period where the use of the name Nelson was often meant to bring respect and fear. At least there was one Nelson - Charles was his name - whom everyone seemed to know was harmless. He sold cosmetics at Central Drugstore downtown. Most others, though, had the reputation among us teenagers for being The Enforcers.

So the trick was to convince everyone that at least one boy named Nelson was your friend; that you were very close. If they believed you, you didn't have to worry about being bullied.

It was their dress and demeanor that did more to bring the Nelsons respect than their actions. In case you didn't know any of them, they were like Fonzie on "Happy Days," but far cooler.

Trying to be a big shot in the eighth grade, I told a kid named Aubry that one of the Nelsons and I were close. Aubry was packing the tobacco in his pack of Luckys by tapping it over and over on his school desk. Miss Ellen Wayne Ormond was making out like she didn't notice. She was busy teaching sentence diagraming.

"If you two are so close, what's his real first name?" Aubry asked, catching me off guard.

The only name that went with Nelson that I could think of on the spur of the moment was Gene. Gene Nelson was kind of a sissy tap dancer and singer I had seen in the movie "Oklahoma." "Gene," I said. Aubry bought it. The Enforcer would have died if he had known I said his real name was Gene. Worse, what would he have done to me?

There was also another alleged Enforcer called Sleepy. He was quiet spoken, expressionless and kept his eyelids at half-staff. The rumor started that if someone were to do something that displeased Sleepy, they'd know it immediately because he'd raise his eyelids to full-staff and go into an uncontrollable rage. Someone said that had happened once, and Sleepy'd beat up every one of the Texas City Red Coats gang. I heard he had caught one them winking at his girlfriend.

In reality, that was a bum rap for Sleepy. He was a nice guy and probably the most talented mechanic that ever lived on the island. But on the other hand, Sleepy's bound to have known about the fabled reputation he'd garnered, and I don't think he ever did anything to set the record straight. If I had been he, I assure you I wouldn't have either. It was an enviable position.

It was about then that a science nerd called Champ guessed that a cherry bomb firecracker would blow up underwater. The wick was waterproof as was the hard red case that held the gun powder. And those things were really powerful. He began to talk about his theory with anyone who would listen, and what would happen if he were to light a cherry bomb, then flush it down a toilet.

So Champ must have decided that his test run would be at the State Theater during the 1957 Christmas holidays. Everyone was there that Friday to see Pat Boone and Shirley Jones in "April Love." And the fireworks stands were open on the sand at the end of the 61st Street ramp because New Year's Eve was just a few days ahead. The perfect setup.

Some of us were scrooched down in our seats smooching. The pimply faced ushers were being their usual obnoxious selves, shining their flashlights at our knees and telling us to get them off of the seat in front of us. You probably know that you can't smooch good sitting up straight in a theater seat. I feel sure that our parents gave them those flashlights and tipped them a GW to do that.

Those who weren't there to smooch were running up and down to the concession stand, and otherwise being disruptive.

All of a sudden a sound deeper than any sub-woofer has ever even begun to produce began a roaring crescendo throughout the insides of the walls and ceilings of the theater. It must have lasted ten seconds. Everything shook. It was as if the Almighty himself was letting us know he was siding with the ushers and their flashlights.

Then some kid announced that water was cascading from the balcony down the staircase. That's when we knew that Champ had gotten up his nerve.

The lights went on as Johnny Browning, the manager, ran to the stage and said, "We're not going to finish this show until someone tells me who blew up the men's room."

From the audience and over the raucous laughter came, "I think Sleepy's here, Mr. Browning. Want me to go find him for you?"

Without answering, but now with fear in his eyes, Browning quickly left the stage, the house lights went off, and old Pat and Shirley continued their inane movie. The smooching resumed, the obnoxious ushers pointed their flashlight beams at people's legs, and the hecklers came closer and closer to outright challenging Pat's sexual preference.

From then on, when Champ the Nerd would blow up the men's room at the State Theater, someone in the audience would always cry out, "Sleepy's at it again!" The audience would erupt in a cheer, but Johnny Browning would do nothing more than send the ushers upstairs with the mops.

Now to set the record straight. Sleepy never once sent a cherry bomb down into the bowels of the State Theater's sewer system. It was just that his name carried so much more power than that of sneaky, sunken-chest Champ. And after all, inferring that Sleepy did it gave the event the enormous respect we thought it deserved.
Bill Cherry's Galveston Memories
September 27 , 2007 column
Copyright William S. Cherry
All rights reserved

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Bill Cherry, a Dallas Realtor and free lance writer was a longtime columnist for "The Galveston County Daily News." His book, Bill Cherry's Galveston Memories, has sold thousands, and is still available at Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com and other bookstores.
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