Neighborhoods, Work, and Ginger Ale ©2015

Memories of an ancient city, by L. E. Taylor

THE OTHER DAY, a newspaper article came my way about an archaeological find in my (old) hometown of Detroit. It was a short item– you might say, perfunctory. There was a color photograph. My mind began to race. I had to drop everything and write what I know about this topic, and what struck me about the puny way it was covered.

But the memories came in a torrent; too much to handle. I could write a book.

Well, once I did. Elgan and Grace – A Twentieth Century Saga, was about the two branches of my personal “tree,” and the world I remember in vivid detail. But my musing this morning is not a pitch for a book. Something tells me it will take you and me further than that.

Let’s see.

The America we see in 2015 did not exist in, say 1900. Our country was a crazy-quilt of immigrant settlements, most of them founded in the previous century. These settlements were robust, but still fragile in their parochial attachments to Old Europe. The cliché of “melting pot” conjures images of the Irish and Italian enclaves in New York and along the East Coast where poor refugees trudged off the boats and plunked down right there, many to be victimized by remnants of the same tyrannies and corruptions they’d fled.

By 1900, the immigrant families had become Americans, and were migrating westward, away from the decadent Old to the fertile new centers of industry. Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago became smoky jewels in the golden crown of our industrial nation.

We know them as cities, as parts of that melting-pot cliché. They were, in fact, clusters of neighborhoods. Neighborhoods of working families. Shopkeepers, tradesmen, manual laborers, risk-takers, doctors, teachers… and the preachers and saloonkeepers who served the best and the worst of them.

It was all about one thing: work.

Work demanded energy, work focused a person’s mind and it validated one’s life. Work enriched not only the family bank account, but also the community spirit.

Pride of place became more than a provincial bias. It said, “The Ludwig children had to leave school to work so their widowed mama could keep her house”… It proclaimed, “The Taylor’s were dirt-poor coal miners who made their way north one-by-one to their future, and in one generation, succeeded to middle class respectability”… It boasted, “The Monaghans and Ryans and Kanes survived famine and abandonment to earn small (temporary) fortunes and even build modest summer homes on the Canadian side of the Lake.”

Every family was guided by a different faith: Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, and “none”. Every family believed in the future, especially for its next generations. Every family tended its own lawns and gardens, kept up its own home, rooted passionately for the Tigers, spent less than they earned, and most voted Republican.

In the 1850s great grandpa Fred Lottner had made his way to Detroit from Bohemia as a teen age orphan, got employed by a local brewer, and in the 1890s became Brew-master of Stroh’s brewery. When Prohibition came the working families all made do. For the drinkers, luscious, aromatic Canadian whiskey was just across the River and could be smuggled back on the ferryboat, often in mama’s knickers; and Labatt’s Ale and Molson Golden were wonderful substitutes for our own suddenly illegal brews.

Will Kane lived in Canada but ran a Detroit speakeasy. And Stroh’s converted to making ice cream, the best in Detroit. Which brings us back to the archeological find.

Back in Colonial times, and through the nineteenth century, pharmacies were run by independent practitioners, called village apothecaries. They were chemists licensed to dispense drugs and healing herbal elixirs. In 1862, a Detroit apothecary, James Vernor, was called to war. Among his store of medicinals was a unique ginger-based concoction that he sealed into a sturdy oak barrel just in case he got back to Michigan alive. Four years later, James opened the cask and discovered the secret brew had aged into an amazingly satisfying drink. He sold some and made some more. His fame grew and Vernor’s Ginger Ale soda fountains opened across the Great Lakes region.

The new libation was spicy and refreshing, and it was non-alcoholic. By the turn of the twentieth century every home ice box within a hundred miles of Detroit had a stash of Vernor’s Ginger Ale tucked away in the back, chilling near the remnant of last week’s block of ice.

FLASH FORWARD to 2015. The City of Detroit is in ruins. Buildings that have not crumbled on their own or been burnt down by riot and vandalism, are being demolished to make way for a new beginning. As a rotting old structure on McNichols Avenue collapses in a cloud of toxic dust, the side of its adjacent two-story neighbor building appears. The dust settles, and there, bathed in sunlight for the first time in nearly a century, stands a hand-painted mural in familiar colors. Boldly slashed across the yellow painted brick is the trademark green script:

Vernor’s

Ginger Ale
Mellowed 4 Years in Wood

Missing is the Prohibition Era slogan: “It’s what we drink around here.”

Well, I thought the newspaper article was skimpy. So I went to the Vernor’s website. Not much better. Bloodless, superficial. Knowing too much history can be hell.

Oh, one more thing: In the Depression years and the War years, a popular mixed drink in the neighborhoods was called a “Boston cooler.” It was simple. A tall cold glass of Vernor’s with a scoop of vanilla ice cream – Stroh’s, of course. In the neighborhoods, it’s what they drank.

Onward.

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Resources.

  1. Taylor, L.E., Elgan and Grace – A Twentieth Century Saga, FreesenPress, Victoria B.C., Canada, 2012.
  2. Vernor’s Ginger Ale: http://www.drpeppersnapplegroup.com/brands/vernors/
  3. ginger-ale
  4. Robert Allen, Detroit Free Press

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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Once There Was a Library ©2015

Part One: A boy among men by L.E. Taylor

THE FIRST GLIMPSE Danny got of Western Michigan College was through the rolled down window of a yellow taxi he’d hired at the ancient stone railroad depot (ca.1864). The cabbie had immediately launched into a monologue about the loose ways and easy virtue of coeds. The lout knew all about it, he snortled – wild parties, washtubs of iced gin and rum and fruit juice, and…

Danny tuned out a creepy porn narrative, and concentrated on the quaint parks and churches of downtown Kalamazoo. The kid spoke only once, “How long before we get to the campus?”

In a few minutes, the cab turned off Oakland Avenue and, in second gear, began to climb a winding tree lined lane. At the top of the hill they passed between a brief succession of stately ivy clad halls. At the end of the short cul-de-sac the cabbie slowed and made a U-turn in front of a massive Greek-revival edifice. “That there’s the lye-barry,” he muttered.

The cab slowed to a halt before a bland two story structure designated Health Services Building. Danny paid the fellow and got out. He took a breath and strode up the walk, callow and empty-handed, to his fate.

Danny had been an indifferent high school student. His interests were narrowed to but a few. He was a natural draftsman and self-taught painter, so a major in art was appealing. A couple of years ago, at fifteen, the lad had discovered literature and history; then, apace, some aptitude for prose writing was kindled. Finally, he loved baseball: the meticulous crafting of skills the game demanded, the romance of its history, and the democracy of its solitary challenge on the field, a member of a team but alone.

Academic strengths suitable to each of the lad’s appetites were ascendant at this modest college tucked away in this modest town a long morning train ride from any big city. And Danny very nearly didn’t make it. Only a last minute call from his high school principal snagged him one chance – a longshot. Travel to the campus, now, in mid-August and endure a daylong college entrance exam. Whatever this place would proffer, it would certainly pose an antidote to a mind going fallow in the intellectual torpor of late adolescence.

His father had dropped him at the curb in front of Michigan Central Terminal twenty minutes before departure of the westbound ‘Chicago Limited’. He fidgeted and worried all the way past the whistle stops –

Ypsilanti… Ann Arbor… Battle Creek. The necktie was tight on this warm morning, and the polished shoes mocked him for the pretense they implied.

At a desk in the Health Services lobby, a dour matron searched her log and checked off Danny’s name. She said follow me.

A 24-page College Aptitude exam in one hand and a bouquet of sharpened yellow pencils in the other, Danny entered the bare testing room. A half-wall of hardwood paneling ended waist high and was continued in clear glass from ledge to ceiling. An ominous clock was the only accoutrement on the blank back wall. The woman closed the windowed door with a gentle, though decisive, click. (Had she locked it or was that his imagination?)

He would have three hours to finish. The woman said she would be back in two.

Danny sat at the oaken table on a hard slatted straight-back chair. He opened to Page One and dove in. He found himself calmly focused, energized, and viscerally engaged in the challenge of this self-audit. He was oddly at peace with the moment. Like stepping into a batter’s box to lead off a new game against a big, strong pitcher he’d never faced before. Danny didn’t know anything about testosterone, but he recognized that thrill he’d known on the playing field and in peril on the city streets and playgrounds. It concentrated his mind.

He arrived at page three of the booklet in only a few minutes (a single into left field). Hmm, he thought, this test isn’t so bad. He knew more than he knew.

Nearly half way through the booklet, Danny glanced up at the wall clock. Only fifty-five minutes had passed. He removed his jacket and loosened the knit tie. When the matron returned at the end of hour number two, Danny said he was almost done. She peered doubtfully over rimless spectacles and replied, “Check all your answers twice and come down to my desk.” The door was not locked.

* * *

THE COLLEGE HAD two campuses. This one, charmingly nestled at the top of a forested hill was the “Old Campus.” After The War many colleges doubled in size to handle returning veterans. The New Campus was a complex of male and female dormitories, multi-story classroom and administrative facilities, a tall glass-faced music building, and a serene non-sectarian chapel. The architecture was utilitarian, brick and glass boxes in the 1950’s style. There had been no time yet for new trees to rival those of the Old Campus.

While authorities scrutinized Danny’s test booklet in some Health Services sanctum, he set off to investigate both campuses. Walking was in his Scots Irish genes so the trudge downhill and across a great field to the New Campus one mile distant was a pleasure. On the lower level of the Administration Building, he discovered the College Book Store. Tee shirts, book binders, caps, all with the big gold “W”, shouted out to him: college! Oh Lord, no, he breathed; do I really want this? Am I up to it? For four years? Why?

In the course of the next ten months, his answers found him. The first answers were all yes. But, why? Because here was the fresh exciting new world he’d hungered for without knowing it.

Danny passed the entrance exam with a high score and arrived in September of 1953 with his tuition check for $190.00, a suitcase of sweaters and khaki pants, and his baseball glove and spikes.

The fall semester was packed with literature, composition, and history. Instruction by good teachers was inspired and inspiring. Christmas break was spent at home writing term papers, studying for mid-term exams, and reading from the extra-credit lists.

Back on campus for the second semester, Danny found a quiet winter’s refuge in that massive antique Library on the Old Campus. He discovered a couple of overstuffed maroon leather chairs placed before a fireless hearth in the building’s great hall. At least one chair was always unoccupied. He read… snoozed… read some more. And he thought.

Veterans of two wars were everywhere among the student body. Older than Danny by up to a decade, they projected a confident worldliness. They showed an appreciation for studies that came with having seen violent death and the coarse sinfulness of men – and having escaped the grasp of at least one of these. They smoked cigarettes and drank beer off campus. And they studied earnestly.

To pal around with guys who’d been dogfaces under fire was an unexpected gift. He’d known a few vets during summer work back home, but those louts were more like the cab driver from the train station last August. These fellows were more like Danny, eager to learn, and ready to frisk like colts, but they were men. They had an experienced perspective that showed. Danny enjoyed them and soaked it up.

Most veterans were enrolled in pre-professional studies – med, biz, education. Still in their twenties, they’d escaped with their lives, but at the cost of their youth. The older survivors had come home to jobs and pre-war careers left hanging. Some of these older freshmen were married. That showed, too.

One day Danny went downtown and bought a pipe and a pouch of tobacco. A couple of cold nights later, he strolled up to the Old Campus. In the shadows next to the Library, he packed the fat bole of his new toy, clamped down on the stem, and struck a match. Puff, puff, inhale. Cough, puff. A breath of frigid wind caught the sweet fruity smoke, played with it, and blew it back into Danny’s face. Delicious. Danny walked the Old Campus sidewalks in thought, puffing robustly and feeling manly. The dizziness crept in slowly and unexpected; in the shrubs on the majestic old library’s dark side, his dinner came up. Also unexpected.

Two semesters of Elementary Design, Art History, World History, Rhetoric, Composition, Comparative Arts, and ROTC drills jostled for a new home in his young brain. Danny approached the end of the school year changed. Though his worldview was still far from seasoned, his sensibilities had been seduced. He put away his mitt and spikes carefully. And his pipe. The idea of a long summer of idleness or grunt-work seemed unthinkable.

He looked over the academic requirements for the coming sophomore year and decided a six week stint in summer session would be a smart move. And maybe fun.

Little did he know.

Onward.

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G.W. and Me ©2014

Anachronistic reflections, in the still of the night by L.E.Taylor

Insomnia has many authors, but mine is often exacerbated by the very remedy I turn to. Lying inert with no inclination to drift off like a normal bloke, I turn for my soporific to reading. Something dry and arcane should work, like history or philosophy; or lyrical and soothing, as poetry.

A week ago, I retrieved from a shelf of fat tomes a wee little chapbook that I thought would do the trick: Rules of Civility and Behaviour in Company and Conversation. It’s a mere essay based upon a 16th century code of conduct which itself had been revised by an Englishman from an earlier screed by a French monk. Oddly, my version was written by a fifteen year old American rock star named George Washington. But, far from tumbling myself into slumber-land, that night began for me a three-night adventure back to colonial America and the earliest days of our Republic.

I’ll spare you excerpts, fascinating and comically anachronistic though they may be – simply trust that I was not lulled to sleep by these one-hundred-ten ground rules. In fact, I was shaken awake to the reality of how our society has coarsened. True, these “rules” were naïve and unattainable even in the 18th century. But today, they are more than just utopian, they are positively Martian!

Here’s the rub. In the course of every day, you and I participate in a cultural swinishness that has virtually degenerated from rudeness to sloth, to indiscriminate contempt and serial disrespect, downward to rank alienation, and now to bloody riots in the streets.

We? you ask. Yes, we. We not only observe the spectacle, we are enablers. Insidiously, we have become infected by anarchy and find ourselves daily involved in behavior undreamed-of by our morally motivated forebears. When we merely curse the barbarians, but do not take defiant action, by arms or by pen, nor in argument with fools, we join impotently in the death-dance of our civilization.

When mute tolerance of the liar and the thug becomes passive avoidance, it is naught but cowardice. (I seem to have lapsed to my inner-eighteenth century man. Egad!) To let hostile, ungodly toxins flow un-confronted in the schools, in the home, in the church, and in the streets only adds to the chaos. Jeer if you will… this demands soul-searching.

Those three nights of vicarious adventure referred to above were not spent only with Washington’s Rules of Civility. As I contrasted the gentle character of The Greatest American with squalid 21st century norms I was prompted to grab once more my well-worn copy of British historian Paul Johnson’s biography, George Washington – The Founding Father.

Dedicated to his American granddaughter, Johnson’s brilliant essay is only 123 pages long. Each time I read it, my conviction is buttressed, that our first president is our finest model of not only leadership, but also of manhood.

G.W. was educated at home in the rudiments of both classical thought and practical living. He attended no college and read no literature published after his young boyhood. But his was a pure soul of powerful scope. Like all genius, his raw talents were nothing less than bottled up energy, in this case, moral. His natural gifts, advanced largely by his own efforts, were mental, spiritual, practical, and physical.

By nineteen, young George was a master land surveyor of the trans-Appalachian wilderness, and a man with clear understanding of the potential of our continent. At six-feet-two, he was a formidable military leader, commissioned at twenty-two by his governor to confront the French diplomatically in his colony’s western lands. His expedition, punctuated by deadly force of arms, resulted in the retreat of France from the Ohio-Mississippi valley, and the sovereignty of England in what would become the United States.

Everyone knows that George Washington was his generation’s all-purpose paragon. A statesman, a general, a self-effacing patriot, and a spectacularly loving family man to his kin as well as to his soldiers, his countrymen, and even to his inherited slaves.

Harumpf.

I have no recourse, in my own humble circumstance, but to compare what I’ve accomplished, punily, in my biblically granted three-score-and-ten.

Conscience, thy name is George.

As I humbly close my copy of Paul Johnson’s book, I’m reminded of an old joke. A man is reprimanding his son for bad grades and personal sloth. Exasperated, he finally barks, “Do you know what Abraham Lincoln was doing when he was your age?”

The boy replies, deadpan, “No, father, but I know what he was doing when he was your age.”

So, gentle reader, let’s chill out. We can still dream can’t we? It ain’t over yet.

 

Onward.

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References

  1. Johnson, Paul, George Washington – The Founding Father, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2005.
  2. The Mount Vernon ladies Association, Geo. Washington’s Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation, Mount Vernon, VA, 1989.
  3. Taylor, L.E., Surveyor General, LET’S Blog, 20 February, 2014.

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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LETsBlog

Dear Lori

Open letter to my young publicist, by L.E. Taylor

It’s been more than a year since you first urged me to write a weekly article to post on the Internet. After the horror of realizing you were being serious I asked, “Write about what?”

You replied, “Anything that comes into your mind, anything you care about!” You’d noticed that our long bi-weekly telephone gabs always started out with a businesslike checklist of dry topics, but soon drifted into long adventures through a rabbit warren of remembrances, war stories, opinions, and irreverent wise cracks. You said whatever the main topic, whatever tidbit you might toss off, it usually reminded me of a story. You said you’ve been wanting to get me onto the lecture circuit, and that you also want me to start doing voice-overs. In fact, it was way overdue that I stop hiding out and get out there… Larry!

Much of my verbosity on the phone was sparked, of course, by our chemistry. You are a great listener and I am a ham. (But seriously, folks…) You also had another rare quality that brought out the best in me: whenever you could get a word in, it was always apt, intelligent, from your own experience, and professionally valuable.

All fine traits of a useful literary collaborator.

So today, I’m sitting here writing, as always, about something that I care about. In fact, I am shadowed by this burden of care more heavily each day; it’s my Sisyphean boulder. I could not avoid fretting away over your ordeal, Lori, if I wanted to.

Bad enough, the cancer.

Bad enough, its location.

Bad enough that your already suffering husband needs you, that your three home-schooled children are suddenly deprived of their mentor-Mom. Bad enough that the oral surgeries were destructive.

And the radiation. And now the chemo.

All of that is worse than bad enough; it is your Cross. I cannot help you carry it. I can only ask a merciful God to intervene. To ease your mortal pain. To engage with you and your family through the Holy Spirit in restorative ways that are beyond our understanding. To bless us all as we try to encourage you. Albeit, helplessly.

For the time being, Lori, I am reconciled – we can no longer talk. That is, you can’t. Which diminishes me.

So I’m accelerating my efforts as a teacher of adults who are serious about strengthening their writing skills. LT’s First Rule: Write only about what you care about.

The mentoring of those fellow-travelers focuses me greatly as a scribbler of these weekly “blog” pieces. I am often reminded that you suggested I was already weaving stories, only not in written words.

And now I am off the bench, pinch-hitting as my own publicist. Schlepping my product to reviewers and librarians and media talkers. Soon, I’ll be figuring out how to crack the code that will get me past unsympathetic gatekeepers, and into the sanctums of film producers. And I will, too.

Waiting for you to get back into the game, I will advance the score. I will listen to the voices in my head and do my best to follow through on the nascent plans that were coming clear to us. I will be ready when you return.

Who knows – we may actually see each other in person someday.

Onward.

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LETsBlog

Let’s See, Where Was I and Who Cares?

Somewhere, just beyond the horizon of this webpage is a boilerplate biography sketched out by a very good publicist (Lori Twichell) —but only after much arm-wrestling with me. She’d insisted, so I passed along some factoids. She dug deeper and came up with much more than makes me comfortable.

You see, I’m a “private person,” temperamentally averse to anything that even approaches today’s social media narcissism.  The fragments of my life are my business. Not that I have anything (much) to hide, but then again, I have nothing much to brag about either. So, when Lori (my ally in the mission we call Elgan and Grace) insisted I reveal the true identity of L.E.Taylor, I retreated—a toothless Dracula before the Cross.

But there I was anyway, at the keyboard, about to expose the underachiever behind the curtain. I stared at the blank screen. And eerily, through the mists of time, and technologies unknown in his world, a familiar literary predecessor emerged. The gentleman squints blindly through thick black-rimmed spectacles. And grins. For the biographical panorama I’d like to project is not my own; it is embarrassingly… mittyesque. (Footnote 1)

Still, without embroidering the truth, let’s have another look… Continue reading

Does the world really need another blog?

Shooting from the hip, I’d say no.

But, darn it, I’ve developed this habit: I have a niggling curiosity about things. Intellectual, historical, cultural, spiritual. Baseball. I also love to laugh; from subtle irony to broad comedy, the smart-alecks find a willing audience in an irreverent corner of my brain. It follows that my daily gluttonous intake of reading, exploring, reflecting, somehow finds its way into email take-offs-and-landings with a polyglot universe of, well,  others. Continue reading