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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Love in Longhand ©2015

Remembering the important things by L.E.Taylor

MICHAEL KAZINSKI HAD ONLY a half semester to go before high school commencement. But that old demon, procrastination, had him facing the final semester two credit hours short. Back in his sophomore year, he’d drifted into an “Incomplete” for one semester of English Grammar. Then he had to choose between a six week make-up class in summer school and playing American Legion sandlot ball. No contest.

Mike was attentive enough in English Lit and History, but abstract rules and numbers set his mind wandering. So, he’d made up only a couple of hours along the way, and now he was a Class of 1942 senior peering at stark, by-the-numbers, reality.

Mr. Walsh, the boy’s counsellor, a grizzled old-time catcher himself, was sympathetic. He searched for a way that Michael might pay his deficit with the least effort. He found it in an obscure Tuesday and Thursday drill designed for pre-business underclassmen: Penmanship.

Mike was ill at ease and self-conscious among this class of mostly girls. The subject was so simple, it embarrassed him. Supplies were rudimentary. An enameled wooden pen with a cork grip at the business end, a tiny matchbox of silver teardrop shaped nibs, and a thick pack of three-holed lined writing paper in a plain loose leaf binder completed the kit. A built-in inkwell was kept full at each desk courtesy of the Detroit Board of Education. (The nibs were to be dipped into ink only up to the tiny eyelet and must not be pressed so hard while writing as to splay the point, ruining it.)

This is nuts, Mike thought. I know how to write! But two hours a week was what it would take, and that is what he was going to give. The textbook was The Palmer Method. Its purpose seemed to assure that all students would end the term with exactly the same handwriting style, none distinct from any other. Not very American, if you asked Mike.

After the second day of class, Mike was hungry and thirsty and grumpy as he collected his gear at the end of the long, long hour. He stretched out his back muscles and growled the big sigh of a caged beast.

“You don’t seem to be enjoying yourself,” came a soft sympathetic voice from somewhere.

Mike looked around. The girl across the aisle hugged some books and a pale blue loose leaf binder to her soft gray-sweatered bosom. The hint of a smile came to her lips and a fetching sparkle to her eyes.

“No. I guess not,” Mike blurted in someone else’s high, husky voice. “I, I just…”

“You already know how to write, eh?” She smiled, though not unkindly. Her dark auburn hair was straight and long down her back. It framed a comely oval face. The eyes were crystal blue.

“Yeah.”

“So…?” the girl breathed. The classroom was nearly empty.

A pause. Mike gathered up his stuff and jammed it awkwardly into his own binder, and his pockets, and behind his ears. A beat (an instant – maybe an hour), something amazing happened. Amazing and new “So, uh, I… I, I’m Mike,” he grinned

“Karen,” she laughed. “See-ya, Mike.”

They drifted their own ways, until next Tuesday.

Over the next three weeks, Michael Kazinski’s penmanship improved remarkably. He could hardly wait for two-o’clock on Tuesdays and Thursdays. He focused on his capitalization and keeping his lower case vowels open. He always arranged two sheets of paper, perfectly aligned, onto his desk at the prescribed exact 45 degree angle. Holding the left-top edge with his left hand, he wrote his name and the date top-right, and carefully inscribed the day’s exercises with well-rounded form but no fancy flourishes, within the pale blue lines of each top sheet. The exercise accomplished, he would blot the page, slip it into his binder, and replace it with a fresh virgin page.

One day, he passed a note to Karen.

They began to meet at the Alger Theater on Friday evenings, have a chocolate soda at the corner drug store, and Mike would walk Karen home.

In June, they double-dated to the prom. Commencement went by in a blur, then Mike was on his way to the Marine Corps. For three months, Mike wrote every day, mailed the letters once a week.

Dear Kar,
I’ll be done with boot camp in August. Will be back in Detroit about the 17th. Then it’s out to the action. Can’t say where. Need to speak with you and your folks before I ship out. Sorry about the penmanship – I’m in a hurry to make the mail grab.
All my love,
M.

Karen’s mom and dad said yes, and Godspeed. The wedding was a family thing at the parish chapel. The honeymoon was two days in a clapboard cottage on the beach at Saugatuck.

In the Second War postal service between the armed forces and the home front carried a high priority. It was called “V-Mail.” With millions of Americans sending and receiving on both ends worldwide, the sheer weight had to be reduced. Standard letters were to be written on flimsy pale blue self-envelopes, one side. The service personnel “outgoing” was all vetted and censored by the brass, then sealed and posted via APO.

Mike and Karen used a lot of V-Mail.

Well into 1944, Corporal Michael Kazinski trudged wearily to the shady side of a palm tree and flopped to the sand. In a hubbub all about him, the Seabees bulldozed iron-black earth while work details buried bodies. The stench of diesel fuel and smoldering death-rot got into the nostrils and the pores. Tanks churned the volcanic sand on their way right and left, to nowhere, while non-coms shouted angry orders to no one.

Mike removed his helmet and plunked it into the black sand between his feet, dome side up. He found his V-Mail folder in the knapsack and pulled out a clean sheet of GI stationery. He wiped sweaty grime off calloused fingertips onto his olive drab t-shirt, held the flimsy paper to the steel helmet at a 45 degree angle, and began to write.

My dearest Karen, The landing went as expected, no better but no worse. I’m sweating in the shade of a coconut palm, filthy and with 3 days beard. Suddenly I’m reminded of our last day together on the white sands of Lake Michigan. Writing to you now, my dear love, I am there again. How beautiful you are! In fact writing to you is my only escape from the unholy madness of war. I am delighted to know that little Anthony is healthy and in the safe keeping of your Mom & Dad, and of his amazing beautiful mother. Excuse the sloppy handwriting. I’m tired and in a hurry. Will write again soon – maybe tomorrow. All my love forever, with a big un-Palmer flourish…ha ha.

Your Mike

Mike never felt the sniper bullet. Anthony never knew his father, except, years later, by what he could read into his ghost-hero’s handsome, forever-young, penmanship.

Onward.

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The Whittler

Allegory: Dedicated to my student story writers, by L.E. Taylor

The forest floor welcomes its seedlings each spring. Most are consumed by animals or smothered in decay and added to the loam. A sprout will reach for the light above and, though rarely, if enough sunlight flickers through the great-grandfather’s greening canopy to its wee place, it will become a sapling. It will continue, season by season to strive for the sun. Fewer and fewer of the saplings live to full tree-ness. As great-great grandfathers go the way of the Great Plan, the rare chosen sapling still drinks at the earth’s breast, gains height and grows closer to the nourishing golden Source of Life. In time men arrive and select which of the trees would serve them. The sapling had grown to grand-fatherness when the men chose him. Before they could take him a great storm came, the season was spent, and they left.

Many years before, a young man had built a house high on a hillock at the edge of the forest. He’d built a plain little house for his bride. They farmed the land down near the stream and then built more rooms as their family grew. A barn and a corral, a shed, and a good, deep well made life nearly complete. One year, the not so young man built a railed porch across the front of the house. With the forest behind and the whole valley spread out beyond the stream as far as he could see, the place had become a good home. At day’s end, with work done, the family would gather on the porch for supper. Sometimes they would read aloud, the children would play. Sometimes they would retreat into themselves and watch the sun set across the river, beyond the valley.

The change did not come all at once. It never does. A baby died. The daughters grew discontent; one married young, the other wanted college and got her way. The eldest son was a strong worker and loved the farm, but modern times required proper education even for a farmer and one summer he left for the state college. Soon after, the youngest boy went off to war. When the man’s wife took ill, it was the first time in forty years, and it became the last. Each day the man walked his hillside in loneliness and grief. One morning, strolling a path through the woods, his way was blocked by a heavy branch, thick and fully leafed, split from its parent-bole in the night’s violent storm. It emitted a freshness of life. For no reason known to the grieving man, he headed for home, dragging the massive branch behind.

And so it was, he found himself at the side of his sturdy porch, with an over-size tree branch. And a jackknife.

The old man dreamed of his bittersweet past and he puzzled over the terror of his destiny, and aimlessly he began to winnow down the leafy father branch he’d drug home with such effort and so little reason. Next day, he walked around the great twisted limb and he began to whittle.

Hour upon hour, at first uncertainly, then with sinew, he pared away. As a Renaissance sculptor divining some mystic masterpiece within a  block of dead granite, he carved images. Alone and in the company of only his honed knife blade and the oaken tree limb, he whittled. Days gentled into nights, and again into days. Weeks became a seamless, restful eternity as the dead branch became what God had made it for.

And the old man became young again.

Onward.

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Bully Boys – Part III Street Smarts

Remembrance and Reflections: By L.E.Taylor

1945.

He was the youngest in his neighborhood of street boys and therefore the most vulnerable. Since infancy he had known physical suffering through chronic illness and it showed. Living in dread of more pain himself, he was not inclined to inflict pain onto others. It didn’t take the lads long: They knew he wouldn’t fight.

One day at the age of ten he was accosted by the usual pack of know-nothings. Their taunting was mean but not brutal, just a baseball cap that they grabbed from his head and tossed back and forth simply because they could.

He’d taken their abuse for years in many forms, but on that sunny spring afternoon a new impulse stirred his blood.

The nastiest boy, Stewart, sneered and toyed with my cap. As I came for it, he sailed it to Abbott. I ignored Abbott and took Stewart by the neck and rode him to the ground with a thump that jarred us both. Abbott began pummeling my back with the buckle end of his rolled up patrol-boy belt. The others laughed and yelled for a real fight. I got up off Stewart and came at Abbott, the much bigger menace. He grinned in feral delight at the prospect of drawing innocent blood.

“That’ll be all.” My father stood poised, at a distance. He’d seen enough. His voice was rich and controlled, his meaning clear. The boys backed away, resumed their way home. Abbott ran. Elgan wasn’t interfering with a fight, he merely recognized the Old Adam in human nature and sternly, he did the job of a civilized man.

Young boys are Barbarians. Stupid and venal, and without two strong parental hands to teach virtue, they tend to be cruel.

I’ve had many fights since that afternoon in 1945, some in the street, some in the classroom and on the playground, and many in the course of doing business. Gradually, I came to know what they are about.

The bully may or may not be mean, may or may not hate his prey. But the bully is always eager to assert dominance over the weak. The bully is a coward. He understands and fears one thing.

I say, give it to him.

Onward.

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Next time:  Bully Boys, Part IV – How Long Has This Been Going On?

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References:

Taylor, L. E.; Elgan and Grace – A Twentieth Century Saga; Friesen Press; 2012.

 

 

 

 

Bully Boys – Part II: Mad Men

Remembrance and Reflections: By L.E.Taylor

1968.

It was my first client project on the West Coast. My young freelance business had been confined to the Midwest but nonetheless it required travel. On a delayed flight change at LAX, I’d met a congenial marketing exec named Gary, who worked for an architectural products company in Anaheim. He lamented his ad agency complaints to me, and within an hour of war stories, Gary had invited me to meet with his boss, Mr. J., the firm’s owner and CEO.

So I came out a week later, showed a dubious Mr. J. and his energetic young management team my portfolio and we talked business. I returned home to Michigan, drafted a proposal, including strategy, tactics, a fee, a detailed cost breakout, and a schedule. Gary called promptly to say it was a “go.”

Now, not-so fresh off the one hour shuttle from LAX, I was back in Orange County to begin scouting photo locations for a couple of days. Sapped by Jet lag, I still had enough in the tank for a courtesy office call on Gary and the client team. When the “boys” insisted we all to go out to dinner, I agreed. They invited Mr. J.

Dinner was delayed by adult beverages. I drank tonic water. My body thought it was midnight and I was fading. The restaurant was noisy, the patter between the young execs was animated and jovial.

Mr. J. remained chilly and remote. Out of nowhere, he said, “Let’s hear from our brilliant adman.” Slouched back on his spine, he muttered, “Waddam-I getting for my money?”

The boss had blind-sided his minions and conversation died. He and I locked stares. “It’s in the proposal,” I replied.

“Well, I’m paying, and I want to hear from you what you’re gonna be doing for it.” Gary, the marketing director, murmured something reasonable that didn’t work. Mr. J. drilled me from beneath lowered brows. “I’m the client, dammit. I want to hear what I’m getting for my money.”

“Hey, c’mon, RJ,” somebody said, “why…?”

Why? Because I sign the damn checks that’s why and I want to hear from my ad guy.”

Here we go; the gauntlet. I was tired. And bored. “Your ad guy,” I said quietly. “ RJ, there’s a misunderstanding here. I’m not anybody’s… anything.” His glower froze. “And I don’t’ care who signs the checks… so long as they don’t bounce.”

The redoubtable Mr. J growled, “I think it’s time for our ad agency to buy a round of drinks.”

Cold sober and utterly focused on the man who wanted to be my alpha, I stood up. “Mr. J,” I said, replacing my chair at the table, “I left home twelve hours ago, and I traveled 2,000 miles to help your company go to market.” I tossed a wrinkled Fifty onto the table. “Not to kiss your ass. Drink up.”

Later I learned from Gary that the betting among the guys was even, whether I’d show up the next morning. I was surprised at that; it never occurred to me not to show up. We had a deal.

Bullying was not new to me that night two thousand miles from home. Nor, although vulgar and sometimes dangerous, was it a mystery.

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Next week, Bully Boys – Part III: Street Smarts

Bully Boys – Part I: Terror

Remembrance and Reflections: By L.E.Taylor

1943.

The damp yellow clay of the pit smelled of rancid grass cuttings and mutilated earthworms and what the boy would later think of as Death. He was wrestled into the grave – what else could you call it? – by the four “big boys” from another neighborhood. He pled to be freed, but they laughed. As he cried they closed off the sky with a sheet of particle board and scrap planks from a construction site. The last small opening to life was blocked with a chunk of concrete suspended by a length of close-line just above his head.

“Larr-reee,” came the call from somewhere far off.

The boys scrambled and disappeared. My mother came bustling through the high weeds and the swampy standing water of the big vacant lot. She wore a patterned cotton house dress as even young women did in those days, and sensible shoes. Before she arrived at the pit, I’d freed myself, and was running toward her. She scolded me for not staying near home or telling her where I was going. The vacant lot was only a block from home, but a mother’s instinct and racial memory informed Grace of a vast universe of peril.

I was eight. I never told her about being buried alive. The spanking was painless and made us both feel a lot better. For different reasons.

Onward.

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Next time, Bully Boys – Part II: Mad Men

First Trip to the Museum, 1943.

There were no parking spots in the small unpaved lot behind the museum, so Daddy parked the Plymouth on a neighborhood street nearby. The eight year-old gripped the big gloved hand while the man’s other hand held on his fedora against the February wind. The little boy’s eyes stung as his dad led the way through a gust of flurries and they rounded the front of the great building. They mounted the cascade of steps and entered the Detroit Institute of Arts.

The boy’s heart leapt.

Just inside, the Sunday crowd was quietly festive, still milling about in their bulky mackinaws and long winter coats. Daddy removed his topcoat and hat and collected the boy’s wraps for deposit in the cloakroom to the right of the entrance.

The crowd thinned out for a second and the sight of a great marble entry hall, elaborately domed, and lined by suits of gleaming armor as far as he could see struck an image that the child would carry with him for a lifetime. This would be only the appetizer of a visual banquet about to be served. Continue reading

Let’s Go Fly

Vignette: Recalling a friend out of the blue.

The year had begun in a quandary of distraction and foreboding. Life seemed to be hopelessly mucked up. The business, the marriage, the morbid view into a brown fog called the future. Dad’s pain that started in December, had nagged him into immobility before January was out.

I’d abandoned my client work into the hands of my business partner as the damp cold of that Michigan winter pressed in on everyone and I made caring for Elgan the center of my life.

Now it was October. The Ann Arbor Indian summer was a golden contrast to the dank hopelessness that corroded my soul. I was stupefied, mute, going through motions, avoiding thoughts of the inevitable. Elgan had made the torturous last lap of his cancer ordeal to the hospital where he now slept in the care of others.

I was spent, emotionally and functionally.

The phone rang. It was a client and longtime good friend, LJ, calling from his office at Oakland County airport. He knew I’d been away from normalcy all year ministering to my dad.

He said, “Let’s go fly.” Continue reading