Catherine Writes, from the Past ©2015

A childhood recollection, passed along by L. E. Taylor

WE ALL HAVE STORIES. There are many reasons for telling them, some selfish, some generous. The same goes for not telling, for not remembering.

In 2012, I created a series of workshops for mature people to help them discover their own versions of the writer’s craft. It would be an oasis where they could tap into the truth of their past and enjoy the pleasures of family storytelling.

But the joy has a price.

A couple of years ago, the first students arrived in Session One of Workshop three. As always, I gave the group a six-minute drill. They would write stream-of-consciousness, and then read aloud what they’d written. When it came Catherine’s turn, she balked, read haltingly, and wept. She had tried to write about what was most on her mind, the searing pain of her husband Bill’s retreat into dementia. Overwhelmed by raw anguish, Catherine had been able to scratch out just two simple sentences, then she slid the sheet of paper to me to read aloud. It was not a story. But it was true. Everyone was moved. Without knowing it, Catherine had given us a poem.

Last Thursday, after two years of courageous writing about her wonderful up and down life with Bill, Catherine arrived in class with a gift – an anecdote from childhood that she’d been unable to complete since those first sessions. It had bloomed from that two-line poem about Bill, into a true story from deep within her…

**********

In the Woods at Grandma’s House
Draft 3 – October 15, 2015
By Catherine

I am running and crying, so scared. If they catch me I will get beaten. I’m five years old and I’m getting tired. I have to reach those woods before they catch me. I play in the woods alone all the time and I know where to hide. It’s late and getting dark. I’ve never been here in the dark. I am in the woods now and they quit chasing me and they went home. I feel safe from those people that hate me so much. I know why they are so mad at me. I shouldn’t have pulled that chair from under Aunt Betty as she was sitting down for dinner. I guess because she is going to have a baby real soon; made the fall to the floor worse. I did it because I hate her. I don’t like living at my grandmother’s house. I wish my mother would let me live with her.

          If my daddy were here, he wouldn’t let my grandfather beat me with that leather razor strap. I wish my dad didn’t die when I was three years old. He is my secret dad now. I talk to him when I am scared and lonely. Sometimes I think he’s the only one that loves me. I don’t know why Aunt Betty had to lie about him. She said he was “a no good drunk”. That’s why I pulled the chair out from under her. I wanted to hurt her like she hurt me.

          I’m sitting here, leaning on a big hickory tree, I am still mad but I am scared because it is dark now. The sounds are different in these woods at night. I just saw the lamps go out and the house get dark. I will wait until they are asleep before I go home. Maybe I can sneak in and get in bed with my little brother and tomorrow they won’t remember the bad thing I did.

          Catherine, age 5

**********

THIS VIGNETTE IS TRUE. In the course of courageously writing many lively and charming stories, Catherine had kept this harsh memory of childhood abandonment and abuse as a visceral challenge that she had to master. It took seventy-five-year-old Catherine three drafts, using different techniques learned with practice, to write it well.

Last week, after seventy years, it was ready for you to read. She broke several of my rules – number one: Avoid starting every story with “I”.

I forgive her.

Onward.

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Once There Was a Library ©2015

Part Two: The way of the world, by L.E. Taylor

CHARLIE BURNIE HAD BEEN a green U. S. Army infantryman in the bloody push across Europe in 1944. A decade later, during the ’54 summer session at Western Michigan College, he became an unlikely comrade in manhood with young Danny McRae.

The two were neither roommates nor classmates, but for six weeks, both lived in the quaint, musty old Vandercook Hall for men, a dormitory just down the road from the venerable campus Library.

The rubric of bull sessions in dorms is older than dorms, but the luxury of an older man imparting wit and wisdom to an appreciative young whelp is a joy mutually held. The buildings of yesteryear had no air conditioning – in Michigan none was missed until a relatively few ardent, or misguided, scholars arrived during the sultry dogdays of June and July. Danny cranked his casement windows wide and left his hall door open, all day and into the night. The result was something resembling a breeze. It was good enough.

Every evening and some balmy afternoons, Danny, in skivvies sans T-shirt, propped himself at the headboard of his Spartan bed, and he read. Conrad, Maugham, Poe, Hemingway, Eliot, and dozens of others on the list were his company – and sometimes his soporific. One afternoon, a gangly fellow (an old guy, at least thirty) poked his balding head in and said hi.

The guy was not intrusive, nor was he unctuous. He was just another summer grunt of no particular demeanor who blundered in, ordinary looking, but well-spoken. “Any idea where to get a schedule of the buses to the other campus?”

Danny told him where to look. They drifted into lively conversation, and in an hour were new buddies.

When Danny arrived next morning at the dorm coffee shop Charlie was already there, directing the elderly counter lady. “No, not the tea, dear, the creamer… there… no, dear, yes, that’s it.”

Danny noticed the patronizing “dear,” not as a condescension, but as a gentlemanly kindness. He would have said “ma’am.”

After dusk, these two odd fellows took to walking the sidewalks and pathways of this mid-American college movie-set. They talked and joked and commiserated.

Charlie was married, a junior high school teacher in a rural district. As many others, he was in summer session at this “normal” (i.e., teacher-training) college to accumulate hours toward his master’s degree.

Charlie talked. “When I was in undergrad school in Ohio Rachel was the hottest woman I ever had before or since. She was a nympho.”

“What’s a nympho?”

“A female who’s crazy about having sex. And I mean crazy.”

Danny picked up a stone from the darkening pavement and threw it at a No Parking sign. It rattled off the sign and into the night.

“We’d go up into the biology lab at night, and…”

“Who?” Danny asked. “You said, ‘we,’ who’s we?”

“Rachel! The nymphomaniac. We’d get into the biology lab at night and do it.”

“Do what? Where?”

It. On the tables, on the floor, standing up at the window while it snowed outside. She was the greatest” A beat. “She was Jewish.” Charlie sighed. “The greatest.”

They passed under a street lamp and Danny spied a nicely shaped rock. He wound up and cast it overhand deep into the night toward a STOP sign up the block. It reported, “Bang!”

“Will you stop doing that!” Charlie barked. Danny laughed, but accepted the rebuke. They walked along in silence. If Danny had been older he might have recognized Charlie’s crankiness for what it was. Charlie, the jaded veteran, world-weary before his time, was dreading middle age while Danny faced nothing but a young now that would never end. He lived in the moment.

“Did you ever get any medals in the War?” Danny asked.

Charlie shifted gears. “Yeah. One. It was nothing. It was a joke.”

“What happened?”

They walked. Charlie seemed distant. “It was stupid, like most of the boring crap in war.” Danny stayed quiet. “As the Germans retreated, they’d leave equipment and other shit to block the roadways. And they’d boobie-trap it.” Charlie’s voice had become a matter-of-fact monotone. “My platoon was advancing and we came to a big makeshift barrier… tree limbs and boards the krauts had dumped in the road. There were deep ditches on both sides, so we came to a halt. We just hunkered down. Nobody wanted to go out into the open and move it. They’d bury land mines, the Germans. We just sat there. Finally, I just got up and said oh the hell with this. I walked out on the road and dragged the blockade aside. That’s all.”

Danny was about to reply.

Charlie said, “I have to give an oral reading in my Speech class next week. No idea what to read. Any suggestions?”

“What kind of reading?” Danny asked.

“A dramatic reading.”

“Well the Bible’s out.” They laughed. Danny said, “How about the Richard the Second speech about England?”

“What’s that?

“Shakespeare. You know, ‘…this sceptered Isle, this blessed plot, this England!’ ”

Next day Danny and Charlie met at the Library’s front desk. The librarian asked how she might help. Charlie blurted out, “Where’s Willie-The-Shake?” Danny translated and they were led into the sacred darkness of The Stacks. The kind young woman handed a tome to Danny and with a wary glance at Charlie, said she’d be at the desk. They stood in the light of a leaded window and Danny read the passage aloud. Charlie stared at this kid, bemused, then he grinned, and pronounced it perfect.

One of Danny’s summer classes fulfilled a Phys-Ed requirement. He’d selected Life Saving. There were tougher places in July to plow through a three hour credit than the swimming pool. The class was indoors, rigorous, and had only eleven enrollees. They swam eight Olympic laps to begin each class, practiced thirty minutes of open water combat techniques, bare-handed (and bare-assed), and finally four lengths freestyle before exiting the pool.

The Natatorium was a five minute walk from the Library. Cool and relaxed from his Life Guard class, Danny arrived at his oasis once or twice a week, a book in hand. The Library was cooled by fans. Marble floors and walls served students in Kalamazoo as they did the Caesars and Plato. He flopped into his red leather chair in front of a big oscillating fan, and continued his education. One day, reading Pygmalion, Danny laughed out loud and people scowled. Although he did occasionally reference Mad Magazine, that day he was laughing at the outrageous stage directions of George Bernard Shaw.

August came. Danny took home his books and bits of knowledge not taught in the curriculum. His Red Cross Life-Saving patch (one of only two awarded) would go into a drawer. His mitt and spikes would be stored away, never to see action again until it was time to teach his own son the pain and pleasures of playing shortstop. The fall semester would quickly become 1955, and the race would be on.

* * *

A LIFETIME COULD BE a half century or it may be a moment immeasurable by an ordinary wall clock. Once you’ve lived it, and allow yourself to remember its narrative, its chapters are always “now.”

More than fifty years later Daniel, now a grandfather and a veteran of many skirmishes, still fit and sound, frequently visits a campus near his home in North Texas. He reads books in the shady quiet of the prairie heat and sometimes settles in at the Library to write and edit his own manuscripts.

One spring day, jogging through, he passes the Library. He stops. Walks back to the new sign. It reads, “Learning Center.” Vaguely uneasy, Daniel moves on. “I could have sworn that was once a Library.”

Onward.

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Ahoy, Lads! ©2015

All at sea in my mind, a boyhood reflection by L.E.Taylor

A COUPLE OF DAYS AGO, I had cause to reflect on lives lived and now over.

A week earlier, I’d received the Ancestry.com report on my personal DNA analysis. It concluded that my lineage goes back to the British Isles (I know), Scandinavia (Vikings and all that), Central Europe (sauerkraut, beer, Lutherans), and traces of Mediterranean mischief.

That last one got me thinking. Not very hard, of course, just musing. Then a spiritualist friend of mine teased me with a tidbit of news: She claimed I’d lived before, died young, had been a sixteenth century Italian, and a seventeenth century Irishman. A writer both times. Okay, relax; I’m no mystic, and only gullible to the extent that my creative work leans toward the romantic. But, as I said, it got the wheels turning. I am, after all, a writer.

I set about crafting a fictional tale using the far-fetched nudges I’d just received, both the scientific and the supernatural. My imagined story would begin with the near-drowning of a young Latin (?) sailor off the Coast of Ireland in the storm-tossed sinking of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

Got it? Okay, more on that another time. For now…

My boyhood during the Second World War was lived in my birth place of Detroit – and summer-times, with my great aunt in an old house on Lake St. Clair in Ontario, Canada.

Most Americans are unacquainted with the upper Midwest. They think of farm lands and smoky crowded cities, dark skies, snow and cold. But Michigan is a maritime state. The water is fresh, not salty, but it is deep and broad and wild in its storms of both winter and summer. Half of the state is water. Michigan’s two peninsulas are defined by massive fresh water inland seas. Michigan has over three thousand miles of coastline, more than any other state but Alaska.

In most states the 12 mile wide Lake St. Clair would be considered a “great” lake. In the chain of seas called The Great Lakes, it is just a wide place on the strait between Lake Erie and Lake Huron. Impressive, dangerous, deep enough to have an international shipping channel, but, alas, not a Great Lake.

It seems I’ve always been drawn to the big water.

One summer day in my eleventh year in Detroit, I pulled on my Buster Brown clod-hoppers and set out from my home; I would walk until I came to the “river.” What did I know? Not much. But the water beckoned. I was actually walking to the lake. I didn’t tell anyone and I didn’t even think to tie my shoe laces.

The trek was eight miles. One way. Presently, I saw the lake, looked at it for a minute or so, thought about my Auntie Kane over the horizon in Canada, and headed homeward. I was tired, thirsty and hungry. When I arrived back at 5770 Harvard Road my heels were bloody and I knew a little more about the geography of my universe.

That same year, with fall still weeks away, a couple of lads came around on a sunny day to recruit boys into the Sea Scouts of America. They were teenagers, what we called “big boys.” Handsome, blond, uniformed, and energetic. I was impressed and entranced with the idea of sailing the lakes, but I was small-fry, they were not good recruiters, and they moved on. I was left with my dream of sea adventure aground.

Preparing to write my fictional story this week, I researched the sinking of the Armada. Then I found myself reading all about sailing craft, rigging, architecture, nomenclature, history.

Today, patient reader, if I were as young as I was then, and as wonderfully smart as I am now, I would make learning to sail wind-driven boats a serious ambition. I’d start with dinghies, then I’d learn (and earn) my way up to a sloop or a ketch. If I hadn’t the wealth to own my own craft (unlikely, if I really wanted it), I would hire onto a crew and ply the seas as a blue water mariner.

Not yet into the actual writing of my fantasy, suddenly it dawned on me that such was exactly the route taken by my Uncle Bill. My mother’s kid sister, Helen had married Bill Barber, her high school beau. They married right before Pearl Harbor. His wartime adventure as skipper of a sailing craft in the South Seas is acknowledged briefly in my book, Elgan and Grace. – A Twentieth Century Saga (pp, 309-311).

Bill Barber and I were brothers of the soul. We sparred occasionally because we were nothing alike except in spirit. My father, himself a restless fugitive from the Kentucky coalmines, was far more like Uncle Bill than he, a self-made businessman (not a wandering seadog), would admit. Like all the characters in my book – or for that matter, anyone’s book – both were flawed. But Bill’s calling to be a mariner, specifically a sailor, whatever that would mean in sacrifice of bourgeois refinements, was true and impervious to reproach.

Now, in the autumn of my years, I view the course of life organically. Whether as sailor or surgeon, merchant or magistrate, poet or preacher. The calling to engage with life feeds a certain readiness of soul, I think, and may be more than a vagabond wanderlust. It’s the affinity for challenge – of intellect, sinew, spirit, and courage.

All vocations may not be equal on the scales of Providence. Self-indulgently, for the moment, I just write stuff that may amuse you.

Onward.

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Resources.

  1. Taylor. L.E., Elgan and Grace – A Twentieth Century Saga, FreisenPress, Vancouver B.C., Canada, 2012. www.ElganAndGrace.com.
  2. Hostellers Sailing Club (Australia) – www.btinternetr.com/~sail/cruising.htm
  3. www.Ancestry.com

Flunking Your Way to Success,
Part Two ©2015

Another true tale of error and winning, by L.E. Taylor

THE SOUTHEASTERN HIGH SCHOOL baseball field was not in the young ballplayer’s neighborhood. It was the usual 1950s Detroit sandlot – dirt infield, no fences, just a green-stubble outfield that went forever, cut through right-to-left by a street about 400 feet from home plate. He was more nervous than usual. The bleachers were crowded with loud, hostile fans of the Mudcats, the home team.

The young man was leadoff batter for the Rockets. He started the game with a walk from a tough-looking pitcher whose pitches were as wild as they were deadly fast. The boy stole second right away to settle his nerves, and there he remained while the next three Rocket batters all fanned to end the top of the inning. He jogged over to his nearby place at shortstop, took the warmup grounders from first baseman Dave Benner, and managed to toss each of the two practice throws back within reach of Dave’s big mitt without embarrassment.

He could field anything that was hit within a three-step sprint of his place on the field. But his young throwing arm was undisciplined. Fear pumped adrenaline into his muscles; the ball could end up anywhere.

The next four innings bore out his reputation for throwing errors, and the Mudcats were up 2-1 on two unearned runs. Now the kid stepped into the batter’s box for his third at bat with two out and the bases empty. Amidst taunting hoots and catcalls he blinked at the big hurler. He was rattled and unfocused. He took the first pitch, a dazzling strike that snapped like a pistol shot into the catcher’s mitt.

The hooligans behind home plate screamed with cruel delight – Romans in the Coliseum. He took a deep breath, and swung smartly at the next pitch; it shot back foul into the screen. Along with that second strike came two flashes of good luck: First, the kid realized he’d seen the pitch well and timed it perfectly, but had swung under the ball, missing by only a fraction of an inch; and second, the gaggle of Mudcat fans went nasty – and personal. “Dat’s yer hit, shorty… woo-hooo, siddown, you stink…” It got up his gorge. And focused his mind.

The boy stepped out of the box, scooped up a handful of clay dust and rubbed his hands together. He glanced over a shoulder into the eyes of his tormentors. He did not look at his father who sat on the Rockets’ bench keeping the official score book. He did not look into the bleachers for his mother or his brother or aunt and uncle who attended his games each Sunday.

He shifted attention and engaged the pitcher. The pitcher’s hands caressing the ball. The pitcher’s angry sideways stance. The pitcher’s eyes. Without looking away, the boy took his place in the box, tapped the plate, and drew an imaginary trajectory of the same pitch this Mudcats’ bum had been firing all afternoon. The pitcher wound up and the ball came like lightning.

The crack of the bat was that sweet, clean sound every old time baseball lover knows as the music of the game.

He darted from the batter’s box. Sprinting past first base, a quick glance toward center field revealed the tiny dot that was the back of the rival outfielder; he was crossing the street where a fence would have been in any respectable American stadium. The boy gritted his teeth and sped. Rounding third now, still at his best scamper speed, breath labored, he circumnavigated his own dumbfounded manager whose fervor had taken the man well homeward, out of the coach’s box, though still away from the sacred base path. Just fifty feet ahead the boy saw the other team’s catcher and pitcher in disarray, both blocking the plate. Evidently a throw was on its way from the cutoff man. The kid thought the heck with this, no way am I gonna slide. He raced past them at full speed and collided with the backstop screen.

His dad had dropped the score pad and joined with the rest of the Rockets to embrace his young hero.

In a year, the young man went on to college and later to a self-employed career in business. He never reached his dream of playing professional baseball, of course. But he never forgot the hot July Sunday he learned to not let his weaknesses block him from performing to the best of his strengths. And to use his brain to drive his performance, unhindered by emotions.

Onward.

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Foot notes:

  • What happened then? Well, next inning, the Rockets again fell behind on a throwing error by their shortstop. But they retook the lead on a homerun by first baseman Dave Benner. The final out of the game was on a cleanly fielded ground ball to the Rockets shortstop who set himself calmly and to the relief of all, fired a strike into Dave’s trusty-dusty mitt. –LET
  • Next time, Part Three –The Lesson.

Jamaica Dreams.
Part One: Culture Shock ©2015

The way it was… remembrances by L. E. Taylor

WHEN I FLY, I GIVE MYSELF over to the existential envelope of the moment. Four hours across the continent to SFO or LAX – it’s all of a piece to me for the duration of a flight. The whole episode is an extended nano-fragment, like a dream, improbable, unnatural.

Illogically, I’m hurtling in near silence through the sky in a silver tube. So I take a hike to Planet Larry.

The flight from Miami to Jamaica one day, however, was more like the puddle-jump from Detroit to Chicago – barely worth the angst. A bus ride. Yet there was something niggling at me. All in my mind, of course. The sky was clear, the sea below a sensual aquamarine, like the Mediterranean, the Adriatic…our own Great Lakes.

This trip was supposed to be an exotic escape. Delores and I had been together now for a couple of years, each of us dealing with the distracting residue of earlier lives. This would be a departure into a bubble.

As soon as we were airborne, I was restive. Was it guilt for leaving my responsibilities en route to a self-indulgent retreat? Doubt about this unsettled relationship? Annoyance at the brainless rowdiness among our fellow passengers? What?

The customs bureaucracy in Jamaica provided no comfort. We were herded into an open processing pen. Hot and humid, noisy and crude, the dump seemed a cliché for third-world-banana-republic-spy flicks. All I needed was a rumpled linen suit and a crushed Panama hat.

They took our passports, stamped them and kept them.

We made our way through the wilting Caribbean heat to a “taxi” stand. Our destination was the far end of the island, a village called Negril. My Michigan travel agent, a liberal who mistook me for a vagabond writer-artist type, had selected this off-grid venue to suit what she assumed to be my bohemian tastes.

The beat-up old VW van was crammed with twenty-something guys and one girl, in addition to Delores and me. We wound our way up the narrow road to a lookout over the bay. Pretty. But I’ve seen bays and water before. We stopped. Outside the vehicle, the driver had a few private words with the college bums, and we continued on our way. Almost immediately, we were in a jungle. A few minutes on the road, and unaccountably, the driver brought us to a stop at a roadside dive. Most of the riders got out and went inside.

Hot breezes blew, birds cawed. Delores looked sideways at me. I was staring straight ahead. I only know this because she told me later.

The temperature was ninety-plus, the humidity about the same. Bugs buzzed. Our jitney-mates were having a Red Stripe in the jungle. I was having an out-of-body experience. My heartrate was down to about 58.

The rest of that drive was like my cross-continent flights. Dreamlike. I remember shacks and naked Negroes with babies, and an interminable ordeal of winding one-lane auto-pathways carved into a drab rainforest.

Then we were… there.

The grim little clearing on the sea may have had a name; if so, it has long since been expunged from my psyche. Santo Anus would be apt.

Our “suite,” actually one room on the second floor of a paint-peeling clapboard house accessed by way of stairs up its sides to an outdoor deck, was almost as nice as the British prisoners’ quarters in Bridge on the River Kwai. But with worse management.

The mountainous woman (I think) who ran the joint was straight out of central casting – mumu-clad, with a silky black moustache, and barefoot with coarse wires sprouting from both big toes.

Delores and I climbed the outdoor stairs to our nest. There was no key because there was no door. Only a louvered screen and within, a curtain of beads to keep out the scorpions and mosquitoes. (And snakes?) The view of the emerald waters was lovely.

I yanked on my Speedo, and we went to the beach. I dove in, swam around, and was unceremoniously stung by a jellyfish.

Madame Hairtoes said, no big deal; Here. Take this shot of rum and rub it in. See you at dinner. Seven o’clock.

I drank the rum, washed off the ocean salt at the property’s only working shower (beachside), and Delores and I went up to our cell to dress for dinner.

Dinner was in an outdoor lanai. A tropical rain came straight down. Delores was in a colorful sundress, blond hair nicely up; I wore a blazer and a silk tie. Everyone else wore the same filthy togs they’d arrived in from the airport. Humidity soaked into our clothing. The fare was prawns, rice, a green vegetable (seaweed, I think), and lukewarm white wine. Everything tasted exactly the same – peppery-hot and vaguely curry-ish.

The morning brought fried plantains, thick french toast, and harsh black coffee. Delores settled down on the beach with a book while I took off on a run through the soft tepid surf. Immediately, a native girl accosted me. “You want aloe massage?” she smiled. I demurred. “What is-a-you wife-name?” she pressed. Stupidly, I replied, “Dolly. Wh.. ?) She was gone before I could think, and I continued along the shoreline. I came to a village, probably Negril, and a sort of market on the beach.

Tie-dye tee shirts, Red Stripe beer, tourist junk. One puzzlement: I had no idea why they would be selling mushrooms on a beach.

When I got back to Delores, she said these dread-locked girls kept coming by. ‘Hello, Do-ley,’ they would say. ‘You want aloe massage?’ She said, “How did they know my name?” I told her. I asked, what did you say? Delores replied, “I told them no and to get the hell off our beach.”

Glistening with Coppertone and sweat, we reclined on beach towels and squinted at a blue-green sea under a cloudless sky. “Beautiful,” I said.

Delores glanced at me. “Almost as nice as…”

“Yep,” I mumbled, “… a day on Lake Michigan.” We watched the ragged parade of natives crisscross between us and the ocean-sea. “But more crowded.”

Still, the tropical paradise wasn’t through with us.
Onward.

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[To be continued...]

Next, Part Two: Fight or Flight.

The Liberator ©2015

History in my backyard, remembered by L.E. Taylor

BACK IN MY EARLY YEARS as a freelance advertising artist, I became acquainted with a motley assortment of lads who’d been, as the saying went, “overseas” during The War. One of those fellows was a Brit by the name of David Lawrence. “Dy-vid” I called him, after the way he himself pronounced his own given name. Somehow, in 1962, “Dive” had found himself adrift in the Detroit advertising mix.

He was a competent freelance copywriter assigned to the company I worked for in-house, and we hit it off. Probably because we were both outsiders and (I dare say), maybe a bit brighter than most of our peers.

After a few collaborations, I learned that Dave Lawrence was ten years older than I, and more tested. In fact, a lot more-so: When I was in high school, for example, Dave had been a young pilot flying supplies to starving civilians in the Berlin Airlift over the Russian post-war blockade. Day and night, non-stop, for nearly a year, volunteer Allied airmen flew all manner of heavy aircraft into and out-of the beleaguered city.

Dave told me he was merely a flight sergeant then, and not a “lef-tenant.” He’d had only a few hours of flight training in the Royal Air Force before his first combat mission. Of course, the war was over in 1945, but the Cold War was hot on its heels. These were perilous times for all of us. Before long, the Korean War would gobble up thousands more young Americans, and I was draft-deferred, learning to march and field strip an M-1 in an ROTC unit of a small Midwest college.

By the end of The War, however, Dave was flying big, lumbering Lancaster bombers in the RAF. When the Berlin crisis came in 1948, he found himself in the cockpit of another cumbersome truck, a USAF B-24 Liberator, a fearsome product of American inventiveness, born in the prairie just west of my hometown in Michigan.

The B-24 was more than a big airplane, it was an airship. Dave told me the Liberator was a barely aerodynamic brute that required athletic strength to wrestle it about the skies. He was not boasting – he was complaining. Dave’s terse cockney opinion bore modest witness to the valor of airmen, American and British, who went aloft in the face of ferocious enemies.

This episode was brought to mind recently when I received an old publicity film issued by the Ford Motor Company for World War II theater viewing. I recalled those wartime days when the nation’s first no-stoplight “freeway” was carved through the center of Old Detroit, and extended westward for another thirty miles to the magnificent war plant at Willow Run.

This single Michigan facility enclosed 3.5 million square feet, and the production line was over a mile long. But those are just specs. For a more revealing snapshot of mid-century history as it roared over our Heartland, click here:

http://www.youtube.com/embed/iKlt6rNciTo?rel=0

The Willow Run plant and air field are still visible from the former freeway, now Inter State Highway 94, Detroit to Chicago. And back.

Aircraft still dot the skies over farm land and neighborhoods in a steady monotony of takeoffs and landings. In the shimmering heat of August, in white blizzards blowing horizontal out of steel skies, men and women in the thousands still team up to work overlapping day-night shifts. After all, there’s a war to be won.

It’s all still there. But only in boyhood memories.
Onward.

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Strong Daughter ©2014

A true tale of revelation, rescue, and literature, by L.E. Taylor

Kay Melanie is a twenty-first century frontier woman. All one hundred-ten pounds of her. She says so.

Alone at the big pasture gate, Kay Melanie has just completed a day of cutting and baling hay on her forty acre homestead. She whips off her battered sombrero, and dries her brow with a faded bandana. An ornery thick mop of strawberry blond hair blows around in the hot East Texas wind as the boss lady calls her lumbering herd of four-legged critters to supper.

In another two hours the final course – home cooked by the boss herself – will be served to fifty-two rescued dogs, each with a new name, in the comfort of their own home on the range.

After that, Kay Melanie will retreat to her personal bunkhouse, kick off her clod-hoppers, and uncork a bottle of Merlot as she tosses together a vegan meal of green things.

Kathy Ferguson is not a native Texan, but as the saying goes, she got here as soon as she could. And an arduous trail it was.

One day about forty years ago, Kathy and her mother drove through a downpour on Packard Road in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The child cried out, “Mommy! Stop!” They’d passed a small dog, struggling at the roadside. It had just been struck by a car. The two ran back up the apron through a swirling spray, wrapped the animal in a beach towel, then hurried to their car and on to a nearby vet. The mutt would survive.

This was not a seminal moment. In fact it was only one in a series of episodes that led young Kay Melanie to her calling: A rescuer of God’s helpless creatures.

It would stand to reason that her eventual course of study might become veterinary medicine. But a diversion struck, as it did so many young women in those years. Anorexia nervosa. She dropped out of college.

Many months later, at sixty-eight pounds, and near death in a major medical center, Kathy opted out of treatment. On that grim February night, as her stunned father waited alone by the elevator, an irate psychiatrist confronted him with a stark prophesy, “Your daughter is going home to die.” He believed her.

But three nights later, in the small hours of the morning, Kay Melanie gets out of bed and feebly makes her way through her mother’s cold, darkened house, and into the kitchen. She places a boney hand on the refrigerator handle and is dazzled by the brilliance as she opens the door. And God whispers: “Choose life.”

Kathy obeys.

She works three part-time jobs, engineers a loan, earns a grant, and enrolls in the Residential College at The University of Michigan. Introspective by nature, now intellectually hungry, her choice of major is not medicine, but… literature. It is a fateful decision of the heart that will make her over-qualified for every job, role, task, business enterprise, partnership, or farm chore she will ever have. Over-qualified and under-paid.

Two years later, Kay Melanie has her degree, her health, her freedom, and a future as bright as that refrigerator light in the small hours of a magical February night. Beautiful and fit and now transplanted in Dallas, Texas, she turns a page.

Soon another page is turned. And, as if by some contrarian Plan, a succession of others. God’s logic is not our logic.

Ten years, and one failed marriage later, Kay Melanie is a capable, dedicated country woman who can fix anything, plant and mow a field, husband and diagnose animals ranging from barn cats to Chihuahuas, from pit bulls to sheepdogs, from cow ponies to longhorns. She can shoot a side arm, a rifle, and a shotgun; but she wouldn’t shoot anything with four legs. So if you have fewer, and trespass, be warned.

In 2012, she was chatting with her father on the phone and the subject of his long suffering literary project came up. He groused that he was at the end of a third draft of his “big book,” but was frustrated finding an editor. Without a pause, she said, “Let me do it!”

He replied, “Well, since the book is about your own ancestors, you might have trouble being objective.”

Kay Melanie said, “I can do it.” And she did. She turned out to be the best editor her scrupulous father could have dreamt of.

He, of course, is the fellow writing what you are reading.

I’ve read about some famous editors, and I know how dicey the interaction can be. But the Boss Lady was considerate, wise, non-invasive, and respectful of the boundaries between author and editor. She also made Elgan and Grace much better than it would have been.

So, what prompted me to share with the world at large this true tale of a Yankee hard scrabble “farm wife”– and why at this moment?

A couple of days ago, I’d found myself home-bound and badly out of commission for weeks with a post-op infection. Fatigue and dizziness dragged on. Mental fog made me feel old, right on the cusp of reclaiming some youthful zip in the excitement of a re-lit lit-life. Averse to forced inactivity, I was frustrated and bored. And depressed.

I rustled through a mess of journal notes and idea files. I organized my sock drawer and folded piles of clean laundry. My gaze fell upon a dusty stack of books on the floor. Tossing aside one after another, I discovered a slim volume bristling with old Post-Its. The remarkable book is Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters, by pediatrician and mother of four, Meg Meeker, M.D.

It reminded me of the brave and unusual person you’ve just been reading about. The book had been a gift from Kathy to her Dad. It was time that you knew about her.

If you have children or grandchildren; girls or boys – very young or insufferably into their self-destructive know-it-all teens – get this book and read it. I sat down with it once more, these years later, made notes, added new markers, and found myself blessed. Again.

Onward.

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References

  1. Meeker, Meg M.D., Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters – 10 Secrets Every Father Should Know, Ballantine Books, New York, 2006.
  2. Taylor. L.E., Elgan and Grace – A Twentieth Century Saga, Friesen Press, Vancouver B.C, Canada, 2012.
  3. LET’sBlog, http://blog.letaylortheauthor.com, The Youthening Brain, April 2014 (archives).

RIP Bud, 1925 – 2014 ©2014 L.E. Taylor

Final page of an American history lesson by L.E. Taylor

Bud Masinick passed away in his sleep last week. Bud is the hero of his own tale of Middle-American valor, Bud and Schoolie. There is more to his story.

In 1944, two B-25 bombers were shot down off the coast of Formosa. The USS Ice Fish was sent to hunt for survivors. After twenty-six hours, the submarine surfaced about thirty yards from two life rafts lashed together, six aviators, thirsty and wounded hanging on. A rope was tied to the sub. As the boat’s “diver”, Bud was to swim out, tether the rubber dinghies to the sub, and guide them in as his shipmates pulled. As Bud grabbed the rope and tied it around his waist, the exec said, “Bud, you know, if you get out there and aircraft show up, we’ll have to dive.” Bud said, “Then we better hurry up,” and dove into the drink.

No planes appeared and the fliers were pulled aboard the Ice Fish. Bud reports that one man died of his wounds. Next day, the boat surfaced for a burial service at sea. It was Bud’s first and he took it personally. Hands covering his face, he wept. Bud grabbed his rosary and made his way to his bunk, jumped in, and covered his head. In the morning, he refused to get up. A flier came by to console the 19-year-old. Shipmates urged him to move around, get some chow.

“No. Go away.”

Into Bud’s second day in bed face to the bulkhead, an NCO put a beefy paw on the lad’s shoulder. “Bud, you gotta eat. C’mon. Let’s go.”

“No. Go away. I’m okay.”

The chief returned about twenty minutes later. “Bud. Cookie has made a big bowl of strawberry shortcake.”

The covers flew off, Bud hit the deck, rubbed his face. “Okay. Let’s go.”

One day not long ago, Bud and I sat on a bench beside a lake. Two formerly young men filling in some of the blanks for each other. I learned about the post war years, Bud’s mustering, his cross-country sentimental journey by train with an unexpected stopover in Chicago. The unglamorous life of a D-League farm hand. And finally his return to reality.

Of all the stories he confided, one came sharply to life. In his own words, the best I can remember them:

“I have no regrets about not following a career somewhere in baseball. If I had, I would have spent years in mediocre surroundings making a mediocre living. I wouldn’t have married Barbara, I wouldn’t have four educated and productive sons and daughters. No comparison. No regrets.”

He went on about how much he loved Barbara and how blessed he was.

Barbara is the twin sister of Sandra, the mother of my children – and incidentally the person who called me one day this summer, suggesting that I write a story about Bud Masinick.

So now the last page has been written. Bud has arrived at his final destination. We can’t know how it all works, but in earthly terms, he’s already been reunited with Barbara, his submariner buddies, maybe even Mickey Cochrane, Johnny Mize, Hank Greenberg…

And of course, Schoolboy Rowe.

“Hey Bud! Wanna play some pepper?

“Schoolie! I can’t. Didn’t bring my mitt.”

“Bud, y’all have no i-dear: We have the most wonderful ball gear you ever dreamed of.”

Onward.

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Bud and Schoolie ©2014 L.E. Taylor

American history lesson, recounted by L.E. Taylor

When you’re crouched down behind home plate, a baseball game looks different than ordinary spectators ever see. Through the steel bars of a mask it’s framed, more focused. The ball gets to the action zone faster than a civilian can imagine.

A late August sun pounds the dusty Jayne Field diamond under a brassy sky. This ballgame has been tied twice over eight hot innings. Now with two outs, the team at bat has a man on second. The pitch comes like a lightning strike and the hitter drives a sharp grounder into right; the charging fielder gathers it up and throws in one motion. The relay and the runner arrive at the plate in a dust cloud of pink clay and chalk. It’s a dead tie.

“Yer-OUT!” the umpire barks.

1944. South Pacific War Zone

The muzzle end of a sawed off shot gun prodded the Jap officer along the deck of the USS Icefish. The yeoman, 2nd Class had plunged into dark waters to pull the guy from his sinking junk. It was the Jap’s lucky day.

They proceeded along the slippery deck, down into the American submarine, the yeoman sailor guiding his prisoner from behind. It had been a violent night of surface fighting. The war was in its last dangerous months and the Japanese were trying to evacuate (sneak) their important personnel back to Nippon, but the Navy was onto it and one prize of this particular patrol off the New Guinea coast carefully descended the ladder, dripping wet and sullen.

In the captain’s cabin, the interrogation began. Nineteen year-old Yeoman Masinick handed the shot gun to a mate and stood at rest next to his Exec, eyes on the Jap. Captain Petersone opened the Japanese-English manual and awkwardly began the questioning. Masinick, also the sub’s scribe (log-keeper), tried to follow along, using his own text. Finally, the prisoner looked at the captain, then quizzically at the young sailor. “What’s wrong with you, don’t you speak Engrish?”

It was twelve years later before anyone laughed.

Julius Masinick was the son of Ukrainian immigrants. On 08 December 1941, graduation from Detroit Eastern High School was just six months away. That morning, one day after the Pearl Harbor attack, his counsellor assembled senior boys in the gym. He said, “I know you want to enlist. Don’t be stupid; get your diploma; you’re gonna be drafted anyway.” Julius listened. In June, he found himself with a high school diploma from the best public school system in America, and by summer’s end, he was getting used to his new home in the United States Navy.

Julius was restless. He was six feet tall, fit, and no dummy. This was a chance that only comes once in a lifetime. So he volunteered for submarine duty. His personality and his physique got him the nickname “Bruiser”. In no time, it got shortened to Bud.

Navy boot camp would consist of eighteen weeks at Great Lakes Naval Training Center near Chicago. Bud had been a good kid-ballplayer in the tough American Legion League on Detroit’s East Side. At Great Lakes he was just another sailor learning the ropes. It happened, though, that the navy’s premier baseball team, the Bluejackets, was also stationed there. The All-Star services league was formed as a morale boost for U.S. troops. Bob Feller, Johnny Mize, Dom DiMaggio, Barney McCosky, Virgil Trucks were a few of the sixty or so pros at Great Lakes who’d put their careers on hold for the Duration.

The Bluejackets team was led by Hall of Fame Tiger manager Mickey Cochrane. For some reason, maybe Bud’s Detroit roots, Cochrane took a liking to the kid. So did the great Tiger pitcher, “Schoolboy” Rowe, star of three pennant seasons and a World Series Championship. By the end of Bud’s boot camp, the green sailor and the veteran pitcher, Schoolie, had spent countless hours talking baseball.

Then the kid was gone, shipped out to sub school in Connecticut.

After New London, Bud found himself in Pearl Harbor for assignment at sea. Passing a practice diamond on his way to the sub pen, Bud recognized a pitcher wearing the distinctive Bluejackets jersey. “Schoolie!” Bud called out.

“Julie!” The big Texan jogged over to the low fence.

“They call me ‘Bud’ now Schoolie.”

At age fifteen, Lynwood Rowe had pitched phenomenally in an adult league, and in 1932 he won nineteen games in the Texas League. The Tigers signed him in ’33. He won twenty-four games for the ’34 American league champs. Now in his thirties, Schoolboy Rowe looked at the submariner insignia on Bud’s collar. “Well, you done it. Why’d you go and do a dumb thang like that, boy? You could get killed.”

Bud laughed. “You only get one chance, Schoolie.” The veteran smacked the ball into his lumpy glove, nodded, and extended his hand. “You got that right, Bud.”

By V-J Day in 1945, Bud had been on five 60-day patrols with the Icefish, in three battles, and had endured the heart-pounding terror of depth charges more than once. “It was like being sealed in an oil drum,” he recalled, “while ten guys beat on the outside of it with baseball bats.”

Postwar found Bud playing first base in the Carolina Leagues, and he went to one spring training with Toledo. But he had a different world view now. It was time to settle down and he got hired by a Detroit chemical company.

“Well, that’s baseball,” old pal Schoolboy Rowe opined. “At least ya made it out alive.”

Bud married and needed extra income. He’d earned a little by “reffin’ ” youth basketball at Franklin Settlement, one of the city’s big housing projects. One day, a friend said the DABF needed umps; lots of ballgames every week, good pay. Bud was thirty-five.

2005. Jayne Field, Detroit East Side

“Yer-OUT!”

The dust hasn’t settled and the kid leaps to his feet, screaming. “Bull sh…”

“That’s enough of that.” Bud Masinick removes his steel mask. “You slid around the plate. You gotta touch it.” The player explodes, his face is inches from the ump’s.

Bud looks directly into the blazing eyes of the eighteen year old. “Son, you didn’t hear me. Play’s over. Go sit down.” The tantrum continues, spittle and curses fly. “Son, you’d better go back to the dugout and sit down.” Bud leans in closer to the kid and whispers, “Or you’re gonna have to explain to your friends why you got knocked on your ass by an eighty year old man.”

Bud walks away, pulls out a bandana. “That’s baseball, Schoolie,” he says softly to no one. He wipes the sweat from the inside of his mask. “Yep. That’s baseball.”

Those Who Will Not Speak

A stream of consciousness by L. E. Taylor

We’d only been in the new house for a month or so. The neighborhood was being built from scratch along a new treeless street called Harvard Road. It was paved with some kind of coarse unfriendly composition. You could clearly see the rough particles of crushed stone that made up the surface. It was solid and looked smooth, but to the tender knees and elbows of a four-year-old whose perception was informed much closer to the ground than an adult’s, it was unfriendly.

I’d just taken a spill off my red tricycle making a quick turn at our driveway. The knee was scraped and bloodied. I was sitting on the greensward between the new concrete sidewalk and the gently beveled concrete curb. It was low-sloped, and not easy to sit on unlike the higher squared curbing on the older streets. (One street over, Grayton Avenue, had trees and was paved with the black, tarry stuff that got steam-rolled and then congealed into a smooth seamless roadway. It looked like rubber, and softer. Well, it wasn’t really, but that’s what I thought until years later when I tried for a diving catch in a tag football scrum.)

Everything about this lonely new place on Harvard Road was strange, and it depressed me as I watched the bright liquid of my life roll down my white shin.

“Hi,” the new boy said.

I looked up to see an older kid, at least six by the leanness of him. Short pants, short sleeved cotton pullover. Blond wavy hair, freckles and a smile. I wiped away a tear. “Hi.”

“I’m Rudy. We just moved in.” He pointed a thumb over his shoulder. “I live in the house next to the house on the corner.” He up-righted my trike and sat on the seat, feet on the sidewalk. “You wanna be friends?”

“Yeah.” I got up by myself and stood next to the occupied tricycle.

“Wutchername?” Rudy said.

“Larry,” I said. “I have to go in. Let’s play later.” He dismounted as I reached for the handle bar. “Okay,” he grinned and skipped down the sidewalk toward the second house from the corner as I limped up my driveway toward some motherly cosseting.

And? – you ask.

Well, it just came to me now, seven decades later, as I was looking up the difference between macadam and asphalt. (Some brains work that way, try to be patient with me.) Over the next twelve years, Rudy would become my mutually acknowledged ‘best friend.’ We were buddies. We read the same comic books; as we aged, we studied the men’s adventure mags, and we shared cowboy storybooks. We’d go to the Friday night movies together. We built and sailed toy gliders, played hardball catch, and did a lot of laughing. He would usually be one of the street boys who played baseball and touch football out front and on the overgrown vacant lots and various crude playing fields of the 1940s East Side. In the winter, there were fewer cars about, so when Harvard iced over, we played galoshes hockey. Rudy went on to high school two years ahead of me, made a letter in track, and matriculated to Michigan State where I visited him once or twice before he quit and joined the Army; he wrote me from boot camp and the battlefield. When he returned from combat in Korea, he took a job with an IT company in west Michigan.

That’s the last I ever heard of Rudy.

But there is an oddity to reflect upon in this boyhood casebook. About ninety percent of our fellowship was just the two of us. When others were around, Rudy retreated. Not from the society of others, but from me. He refused to accompany me to the places of my expanding world. He never saw me play shortstop in organized baseball; he refused every invitation to be my guest at any of the social clubs my parents had joined in the halcyon years of plenty.

My boyhood (World War II) summers were spent in the idyllic lakefront countryside of Ontario, Canada, 10 miles distant from the American shipping channel where it cuts through Lake St. Clair. Every summer’s day I could swim in the shallows of this mini-‘Great Lake’, flop down on the isolated sand beach in front of my Auntie Kane’s old clapboard house. At any time of any day, I could glance toward the northwest and see in the distance, magnificent giant ore boats plow up and down the Michigan coastline. The boats laboring left-to-right from Detroit and the Lower Lakes were usually “bow-high”- empty. They would disappear over the horizon to the right, as new lake boats loaded with iron ore and grain from the U.P. and the Great Plains appeared low-in-the-water, fo’c’s’les elevated magically above the horizon, until they emerged from the heat waves at the earth’s curvature, and cut the water low-bowed right-to-left and were gone in a half hour, lumbering behind Peche Island on their way to the Ford Rouge Plant, Toledo, and the mills and markets of Ohio and Pennsylvania.

During WWII, I watched a world go by as I tanned brown as a berry, and dreamed on a beach in another country.

But I was always alone. There were yammering little squirts around, but no pals. Rudy came over to Canada just one time, it was a year or two after the war. As soon as my parents dropped him off, he claimed to be sick, went to his bedroom, and had to be collected the very next day and fetched back to Detroit, the second house from the end on Harvard Road.

There were times in the neighborhood when older boys would bully me. Rudy would never interfere. Never took my side. Once or twice, he even joined in the taunting. I was puzzled. Still am.

What is wrong with people who cannot be kind when it counts? What happens to stunt the souls of ordinary children of God, boys and girls who grow to be men and women unable to offer an atta-boy, or at least tolerance, to another who may be hungering for reassurance?

The question is valid, but also moot. Might I not ask it of myself – where has my own impulse to reach out in brave witness been withheld? Maybe not today or last week, but once upon a timid time.

Reading back over this odd meandering, it dawns on me that I hadn’t been looking up macadam and asphalt at all. I was looking up a phrase that had popped into my head as I read this morning about a destructive anger that smolders between my countrymen. An anger I share passionately from one side of the conflict. The phrase that niggled my conscience turns out to be from Jeremiah 5:21.

None so blind as those who have eyes, but will not see.
And ears but will not hear.

And what of those, I pondered, who have valid words to share but will neither utter nor write them, whether in argument or in love, even though the act may nourish or inform or revive life in another? Or in a nation?

Before the pavement rises to greet your face, friend, speak! And brave the consequences.

Onward.

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