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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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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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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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 Three: Escape from Paradise ©2015

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

SLEEP CAME ON THE HEELS of exhaustion well into the third night of our Jamaican idyll. I was up and alert at sunrise, however, with one purpose: To commandeer use of the hotel telephone. Big Mamoo Hairtoes saw smouldering resolve in my demeanor and vacated the stool at her Lilliputian desk without comment. I grabbed a paper napkin and wiped off the receiver. The stool would require a bigger towel; I opted to stand.

The impossible task of securing two same-day reservations on three different airlines, plus one taxi from Negril to Kingston airport played out in a blur, and with surprising success. The cabbie arrived on time, and loaded our luggage into a regular Ford. He was congenial and spoke with an Indo-British lilt. What time was our departure, please, he asked. Three-twenty. Oh, plenty of time, sir, he sang.

The cab was remarkably clean. By U.S. standards, it was immaculate. Delores wore a summery pink flowered dress and carried a sun hat. I was in khaki slacks and a white polo shirt; I removed my navy blazer, folded it neatly, and placed it on the rattan covered seat. The cabbie wore a billed yellow cap with open wickerwork all round the crown; it sported a white badge on the side, bearing his ID number.

Reenacting our cannabis-perfumed jungle trek of only three days ago, we were glum. Without saying so aloud, we were relieved to be out alive, but disappointed. The day was sunny and mild, as we’d expected for February. In a flash, I got an idea, and spoke to the driver.

“We’ve got a couple of hours before the flight. Can you recommend a nice seafood restaurant? Away from the airport and tourists, though. I want to have a conch salad and a drink.”

“Oh, yes, sir. Know just the place,” he yodeled. “On the bay.”

We left the paved road presently, and in low-gear climbed a narrow trail cut into the tropical forest. We emerged atop at an ocean overlook. Our man steered us into a circular drive shaded by a canopy of palm leaves, and stopped at a great weathered oak door held up on iron hinges and embraced by two flickering lanterns.

“Tell them ‘Michael the Cabbie’ told you. They treat you very-good.”

“Will you come back for us in time for the plane?”

“I wait right here.”

“You will?”

He nodded and grinned. “You go on.”

“I’ll pay for your time,” I said.

“You go on, sir,” he waved.

The place was dark in contrast with the bright Caribbean afternoon. A couple of people sat at the bar. I began to mention ‘Michael,’ but before I could finish, the maître de’ was leading us through a room of empty white clad tables. Ours awaited us, as though by divine whimsy, at a broad clear window overlooking the aquamarine bay.

The captain drew out milady’s chair, she sat, and he snapped open a napkin and handed it to her. I thanked him, snapped my own blazer lapels, and allowed him to present my chair. We ordered a couple of rum tonics and the fresh seafood salads du jour.

We peered agog at the sea. We looked at each other. “What the…,”we began simultaneously. We laughed, not bothering with the last word of the shared remark. Our drinks appeared.

Tension melted away and we began our first conversation in a very long time. Below, on the clear water not a hundred yards distant, a yacht was anchored – a yawl, two-masted, spar-varnished over a natural wood finish, sails furled tight in blue sleeves. The mainmast flew a West German tri-colour. Two figures aboard. Both appeared trim and athletic, both blond and tanned. The woman in a yellow bikini, lolled on the foredeck; the man in cut-off faded dungarees fussed in the stern with rope lines and mystery-junk. My imagination took over. Had they sailed all the way from Hamburg with stops in Spain and the Canaries? Might they be wealthy Eurotrash, hopscotching from the Med through Gibraltar and Westward-Ho to the southern climes for drugs and debauchery? Or did they just fly down from Cleveland to rent a boat and had packed a flag in their luggage for a joke?

It’s been thirty years since that sliver of mindless pleasure, enjoying a conch salad and a rare moment of amusement with a sassy blond nurse from my hometown. But I still wonder sometimes about the couple on that yawl; who they were, where they came from; how they travelled. And whatever happened to them?

The lunch was delicious and the glasses drained. Dolly read my mind: “Do you think Michael is still out front with our luggage?”

I replied, “Of course he is. He’s our angel. That’s his job.”

Our Angel Michael tossed aside his crossword puzzle and rushed around to hold the door for us. We made our flight, but takeoff was late so arrival in MIA placed me near my Delta gate to Dallas with just a half hour to spare. But Delores exited into the terminal a long sprint from her American flight to Detroit – due to depart in ten minutes. She hiked her bulging carry-on over one shoulder, clopped the straw sombrero over unruly blond wisps, accepted a hug from me, and disappeared into the milling crowd.

I was awash in regrets, sad to see her go without my help and protection, and stood there with a lump in my throat. ‘I’ll make it up to you, girl,’ I thought. ‘Someday. I hope.’

Onward.

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Jamaica Dreams.
Part Two: Fight or Flight ©2015

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

THE DINNER OF NIGHT TWO at our no-name Caribbean hideaway outside Negril was identical to the night before. The menu items were different but the over-spiced mystery food (chicken I think, maybe driftwood) tasted exactly the same as last night’s prawns. And the wine, again, was at room temperature. If you were dining in a sauna.

The incessant racket of reggae well down the beach lent perspective to an otherwise dull night in the tropics. Delores and I had retired to our doorless suite of one room, plus half-bath and half-closet. The ceiling fan thum-thrummed, stirring heavy air, still redolent of angry curry vapors. (We were over the kitchen.) She clicked on the light bulb and flipped open a magazine.

Urgent footfalls on the outdoor stairway startled us. “Douse the light,” I said. We heard a hard padding commotion just outside on our deck; panicky huffing and wheezing, then a pounding on the louvered screen door. Adrenaline spiked my instincts. Hushed, excited mumbling of two people, now. I pulled back the curtain. In the darkness I recognized the plump white faces of the young couple form the room next door.

“We were on the beach,” he said, “walking back from the party and a guy came up and grabbed her. We got away and he ran after us. Please let us in.”

“Was he armed?” I asked.

“A knife, I think.”

“Get in here,” I said. I searched around for a weapon, a club. Nothing. I spoke to the women: “You two get back there in the dark and be quiet.” I ushered them to an alcove next to the no-shower bathroom. I rummaged around and came up with a wire coat hanger.

“You,” I said to the fat kid, “What’s your name?”

“Gil.”

“How big is this guy?”

“About your size.”

Good. I stared at the floor. “Okay… Gil,” I said, “The most important thing we have to do is keep that sonofabitch out of here.” I was uncurling the coat hanger and wrapping it around one hand. “When he comes through that door, I’ll be behind him, over there.” I wrapped the loose end of the wire hanger around my other hand. “He’ll come in and he’ll see you. I’ll grab him around the neck with this and run him out the door and over the side.” Gil stared at me in the deep-shadowed room. “Uh, Gil…? You. Stand. Right. There. Got it? Gil.?

“Yeah. Okay.”

Footfalls thundered up from the outdoor stairway and urgent mumbling. More than one guy. Damn. “Let’s go, Gil,” I said and plunged through the beaded doorway.

No one. But lots of noise down below. I looked over the rail. A white clad black man in a baseball cap looked up and shouted to me, “This way. Come down, mon. It’s safe! Come down!”

The four of us rushed onto the deck and down the rude wooden stairs. The guy in the baseball cap hustled us across a dimly lit yard and we climbed into a pre-war caramel-coloured Hillman-Minx, maybe an Austen. The engine was running. The driver, another black man, said nothing. We exited the grounds and the comical clown car raced through an inky night. In a few minutes we arrived at a lighted village square, actually a circle with a fountain in the center. We slowed to a crawl. Windows down for air, we passed a throng of loitering sullen Africans. Their eyes burned hostile and red in the half light of the village center.

The police station was nothing more than a mobile home on legs, like a contractor’s hut. In the darkness, we climbed three or four steps, pulled open the steel door and entered a grim sanctuary lit green by overhead fluorescent tubes.

The narrow room was barren except for two items: an antique oaken standup desk with a massive domes-day book splayed open upon it, and a gleaming ebony giant of a man resplendent in a crisp, British colonial constable’s uniform. Indifferent to us, he stood at his post, carefully writing entries on the mouldy pages of the old log-book.

The starched white jacket sported gold buttons up the front to a closed high collar. The Sam Brown belt that crossed the man’s impressive chest was of black leather and its holster housed an oversized .45 mm automatic. His black Bermuda-length shorts had a broad red stripe on each side, and just below the knees, white stockings traveled down to a pair of thick-soled patent leather size-twenty brogans. The shiny black bill of an officer’s scarlet cap shaded this imposing creature’s eyes. He stood intent upon his task. I wondered how far back into the mists of history the book’s entries went… Blackbeard? Fourteen-ninety-two?

The man was apparently the entire Police Department of Negril, Jamaica. Okay by me. They could do worse.

The cola-nut cop spoke not a word, but continued his report or whatever he was inscribing. Abruptly, he whispered to the driver who had whisked us away from our paradise. I took the driver to be some sort of auxiliary security bloke.

Finally, the policeman’s attention turned to his American guests. We were addressed individually for our names, please, and asked to recount our description of the incident. The place was an oven. The ebony Mounty seemed cool, impervious to the heat. The rest of us glistened a sickly green in the factory light.

It all took about twenty minutes, give or take five hours, then we shuffled out.

Back at the oasis, we were met at the car by a second white-shirted black rent-a-cop. He spoke in whispers to our driver. I asked, “Did they catch the guy?” The second security guy melted into the night.

“He’s no problem anymore,” replied the driver.

“Did they arrest him?”

“No problem anymore.” He turned and walked to the dwarf car. As he got in, I noticed a pistol grip protruding from his back waistband. Delores and I glanced at each other. The fellow pulled the car door closed. He started the engine, backed a few feet toward us and stopped. His elbow rested on the open window and he flashed us a quick look. “No problem anymore.”
Onward.

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[To be continued...]

Next, Part Two: Fight or Flight.

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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